'We were slaves'; Mayfield man recalls hardship of industrial schools 

'We were slaves'; Mayfield man recalls hardship of industrial schools 
John Feighery 

FOR many, Letterfrack has become synonymous with the dark days of Ireland's history, when hundreds of children were sent there to an industrial school.

For John Feighery, the industrial school was the only school he knew when he was taken from the care of his parents at five-and-a-half-years-old.

John, who now lives in Mayfield, spent the next 11 years between there and another Galway industrial school, in Salthill, many miles away from his early childhood home of Tullamore.

John FeigheryPic; Larry Cummins
John FeigheryPic; Larry Cummins

Now, the 73-year-old wants a pardon for himself and other survivors, State funding for their funerals, medical cards, and for the records of the Ryan Commission and the various institutional abuse redress boards not to be sealed for 75 years, as proposed in the Retention of Records Bill.

John says: "These are priorities. The records are about our lives, not theirs (politicians). That is our story."

He has written to Pope Francis to highlight the concerns he has about how survivors have been treated.

He has several documents relating to his time in detention, including a map of the locations of 60 industrial schools and reformatories in Ireland. They included nine across Cork.

He was sent to Letterfrack on foot of a court order.

His files show the reason for his incarceration in the industrial school in May 1952 was "having a guardian who does not exercise proper guardianship".

Another document elaborates: "Father employed as builder's labourer ... is of good character. Mother in very delicate health. Family in poor circumstances. Parents are not in a position to contribute anything towards maintenance of this child, and no such order was made in court."

At the point of his detention, he had been living with his parents Peter and Kathleen.

He says: "The only crime we committed is that our parents were poor."

Of the institutions, he says: "They destroyed our mothers and fathers and all those little families. We went into those industrial schools as tiny children."

To this day, he does not know if the correct spelling of his name is Feighery or Feery. This is because several official documents from his childhood have different spellings for the surname.

The document detailing his detention also records that he could not read or write, which he points out was because he was sent to the industrial school system before he could attend formal school.

John FeigheryPic; Larry Cummins
John FeigheryPic; Larry Cummins

After spending over two years in Letterfrack, he was sent to St Joseph's industrial school in Salthill, where he remained until his discharge in 1962.

During his time in the system, he was confirmed in Salthill Church in 1961, in a ceremony not attended by his parents.

John does not recall his parents ever being allowed to visit him during the 11 years he was in the system. 

Neither does he recall meeting any of his siblings – despite his three brothers also being in Letterfrack while he was there. 

They were older than him and he was too young when they were sent to Letterfrack so he did not recognise them. 

No opportunity was given to him to meet and build a relationship with them while in Letterfrack. His three sisters were also sent to institutions and he never met one of them.

When he initially left, he worked for two different farmers, in positions organised by the Brothers in the industrial school in Salthill. 

On both occasions, he left the positions and returned to the only home he knew – the industrial school.

He says: "I worked with a farmer after leaving the school, for nine months. I was still under the supervision of the industrial school because I will still under the age of 18. I left him after nine months and I went back to the school because I had no other place to go."

John stayed in the industrial school for a number of weeks before a different job was secured for him with another local farmer. He hated that position and left it.

In his heart, he wanted to find out more about who he was and meet his family.

To this day, he and his remaining siblings do not have a close relationship and he says being taken away from his family when he was just five ripped them apart.

He had some knowledge that although he was born in Tullamore, his family had connections to Westmeath. 

After being released, he recalls: "I went to Westmeath and went to a police station and I told them my name and I told them I had relatives in Tyrrellspass. I didn't know who they were though. My mother's sister was actually living there but I had never met her."

A garda who was on duty when he called into the station was very helpful, he recalls.

A letter he has in his possession, written by gardaí in Westmeath to the Inspector for Industrial Schools, states: "Since this boy was committed he lost all contact with his parents and he has asked if I could locate them and the remainder of his family. 

"The only address that was on his application for committal was Mullingar and all efforts have failed to locate them here. Perhaps you could give me the parents' address of this child from the original file in your office."

He eventually managed to trace his parents, who had by then moved to Cashel in Tipperary.

John FeigheryPic; Larry Cummins
John FeigheryPic; Larry Cummins

He met them but the natural familial bonds were difficult to forge because of the enforced separation. 

However, he does have happy memories of times spent with them in the years after his discharge.

John remains angry at how his family was forced apart and he believes compensation paid to him and other survivors was nothing more than "blood money".

He and the several other survivors gave unpaid labour while in the institutions. "We were slaves," he said.

He has a letter sent from the office of the then Minister for Justice Alan Shatter in 2013, enclosing a certificate which reads: "I, Alan Shatter, in my capacity as Minister for Justice and Equality, do hereby certify that the State did not and does not regard Mr John Feery (AKA John Feighery), ..... as a criminal and that no criminal conviction is recorded against him by virtue of his detention in Letterfrack Industrial School, Co Galway."

The certificate continues: "No person and, in particular, no agency of the State should regard Mr John Feery, as in any way tainted by criminality because of his detention in Letterfrack Industrial School".

However, John believes the certificate does not go far enough as it does not grant him a pardon.

He says his whole life has been affected by the 11 years he spent in industrial schools and is happy that he has a happy family life now, with the support of his wife and children.

He spent many years working on oil rigs off Kinsale, as well as with a road construction company in Cork.

But he remains haunted by the life he should have had if he had not been taken into industrial school system.

There are several survivors who have ended up with mental health difficulties as a result of being detained in institutions.

He elaborates: "Who answers for the children who had no voice and who now live in mental institutions?"

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