Tom Wall: Documents prove ‘slavery’ at Glin school

Records cast a light on the society that supported the system

Norma Prendiville


Norma Prendiville

Tom Wall: Documents prove ‘slavery’ at Glin school

Tom Wall, pictured with the documents he saved and retrieved Picture: Marie Keating

THE papers at the centre of controversy between abuse survivor Tom Wall and the Congregation of Christian Brothers are, at first sight, an unprepossessing lot. 

For the most part, they are dusty, dry, single sheets, bolstered by several ledgers and sections of ledger.

But Tom Wall, the man who saved them from a bonfire, is adamant they are a vital part of the story of what happened to the thousands of boys who passed through Limerick’s industrial school system.

“There is a wealth of information there,” he insists. They cast light on the system at work in Glin and they are revealing of the society which spawned and upheld that system. 

But now, he has gone beyond the demand that the 800 or so documents be preserved and made accessible to researchers and historians in the University of Limerick. And he has called for the re-opening of the commission of investigation into industrial schools which reported in 2009, in light of the new information found in the documents. 

“The information given to Justice Sean Ryan was given by the Bishop of Limerick, the Department of Education and the Christian Brothers,” he said.

The documents he now has in his custody, show, without a shadow of doubt, he added, that  the practice of “licensing out” children was widespread. And he believes this information was not available to Justice Ryan.

“A lot of these boys were used as slaves, going out and working for people where their salaries were paid to the school.” 

Neither does the Ryan report have information on letters to and from boys which were kept back and not delivered, Mr Wall claimed. 

Among the documents is an admissions and discharge ledger. The first entry into this book is dated September 1, 1875 and that boy, John, is given the number one.

By the time St Joseph’s Industrial School, located first in Limerick city and then in Glin, closed in the 1960s, that identifying number was in the thousands.

Tom Wall’s number was 2656.

The ledger is a litany of misery.  Here is an eight-year-old boy from the Kilmallock area, sent to the industrial school for eight years on the complaint of a local curate because he was “found wandering and having a parent or guardian who does not exercise proper guardianship”.

Another child, dating from 1898, was found begging. “Father dead, found begging”, reads another entry in the admission and discharge book.

“No settled place of abode” reads another. “Father gone to Limerick,” reads yet another.

Here too we find a lad from Newcastle West “found destitute” whose mother was unable to support him. He was, the records state, illegitimate but his mother was ordered to pay half a crown a week towards his upkeep in Glin in the 1940s.

With each entry, the child’s height, eye and hair colour, complexion,  are entered into the book along with education status.

The entry for one boy, whose parents were dead and who was found begging in Limerick reads as follows:  3’10”, slender, dark complexion, dark hair, blue eyes, reads and writes a little. He was, the book tells us, “discharged to friends”.

Another record book tells of illness: scarlet fever, bronchitis, ulcer of the leg, pneumonia, an outbreak of measles.

It tells too of boys sent to hospital for a fractured femur, a burn on the leg, a hurt arm. Were these the normal accidents of young boys or something more sinister? Who knows? 

And there is also a ledger of goods bought, where dripping features a lot. An order for 40 pounds of dripping appears regularly every fortnight for 1932, with two tins of sweets and two boxes of broken biscuits brought in on December 16. Twenty years later, the ledger notes 36 lbs of margarine and 42 stone of sugar, often with the names of the suppliers added.

And then there are the papers which Fianna Fail TD Niall Collins claimed in the Dáil, demonstrated that boys from the industrial school were “effectively sold into slavery”.

These are indenture papers, contracts under which boys were sent out  to work “for board, washing, lodging and repair of clothes”.

In the first year, £3 was to be paid, in monthly or three-monthly instalments, to the manager of St Joseph’s Industrial School. £5 was to be paid in the second year and £8 in the third. Under the terms of the contract, a boy was prohibited from playing cards, from marrying, from carrying on any commercial transaction or “shall not play at cards”.

These are now the documents that Tom Wall believes should lead to a re-opening of the Commission of Enquiry.