On Thursday last week, Irish TV station RTE screened a powerful and poignant documentary about the experiences of those educated at St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra, Dublin.
Until few years ago, the Christian Brothers-run institution was well-known as the oldest and biggest Catholic deaf school in the country that built a strong reputation for providing quality education to thousands of deaf boys for over 150 years.
This largely positive perception changed when a special independent inquiry set up by the Irish government to investigate cases of alleged physical and sexual abuse that took place in Irish schools run by the Catholic Church, devoted a whole chapter of its final report (known as the Ryan Report) to St Joseph’s.
The report, which was published in May 2009, revealed documented cases of physical abuse by Christian Brothers and lay staff dating back to 1955, and that corporal punishment continued to take place at the school up until the mid-1990s despite a ban being in place since 1982.
It also outlined allegations of sexual abuse against boys by religious and lay staff over the same period, which were not reported to the Irish police until the 1990s, along with allegations of abuse perpetrated by other boys at the school.
But this prime-time documentary, entitled “These Walls Can Talk” and narrated by Amanda Coogan, a well-known performance artist and the first-born hearing child of two deaf parents, attempted to give both the positive and negative sides of the school’s story.
Indeed, several ex-pupils – including Amanda’s father Laurence – spoke warmly about it and of the fond memories they had of the place and how it created opportunities for him and many others to excel in skilled trades like tailoring and carpentry. It was also shown how the school played its part in the development of Irish Sign Language throughout the 20th century,
The second part of the film focused on the physical and sexual abuse, with several ex-pupils telling of the devastating effect this had on their lives.
But besides the abuse, it also highlighted how the school had escaped the growing worldwide trend in deaf education to use oralism until the 1950s, when the heads of the Catholic Church put the school under pressure to discourage the use sign language in favour of spoken English and lip-reading.
This policy, according to one ex-pupil, included segregating children into three different ‘ability’ groups: partially deaf, profoundly deaf, and deaf and dumb. He commented that this had the effect for the first time of causing divisions among the pupils by encouraging those who could speak and listen to ‘look down on’ and even bully those who couldn’t, and that the mutual respect and equality that had existed among the boys until then seemed to disappear.
The documentary also looked back at the decision in 2011 to demolish most of the St Joseph’s school building to make way for the development of the new ‘Deaf Village Ireland’ campus facility. Many members of the Deaf community were horrified at the prospect and opposed it strongly. The demolition still went ahead, but some of those who were abused said they felt this helped them to ‘move on’.
The reaction to last night’s documentary from viewers via social media has been very positive, with many praising its high quality, although some felt it concentrated a little too much on the sad history of abuse, particularly towards the end.
The documentary was produced by Mind The Gap films, which formerly produced the long-running RTE deaf magazine programme ‘Hands On’, (which unfortunately was scrapped last year).
Unfortunately, this programme cannot be seen outside Ireland at the moment, but for those in the country, the link is: http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/these-walls-can-talk-30003600/10477065/
John Cradden is a freelance journalist based in Co Kildare, Ireland, and writes for a variety of Irish publications, including the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Sunday Times (Ireland), Sunday Business Post, as well as stuff for various other publications and websites, including a bit of sub-editing. Currently working on a (most-likely) self-published book about getting a cochlear implant and other musings on deafness. As someone brought up in hearing family and mainstream schools, used to be indecisive about his deaf identity, but now he’s not so sure. Personal website:http://www.johncradden.ie Twitter @johncradden
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