Colette Sheridan: Being from wrong side of tracks shouldn't be a life sentence...

But for an accident of birth, you or I could have ended up in an institution, subjected to every kind of abuse including slave labour, so says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: Being from wrong side of tracks shouldn't be a life sentence...

A CHILDHOOD LOST: Mannix was one of 15 children brought up in poverty in two rooms in inner city Dublin. Picture: Stock

‘A DANGEROUS — Keep Out’ sign on a dilapidated door leading to Daingean Reformatory School in Offaly is ignored by Mannix Flynn, the Dublin writer and independent councillor.

For the purposes of his powerful documentary, Land Without God, screened at Triskel Christchurch last week, Mannix, 62, revisits the hell holes he was sent to, including St Joseph’s Industrial School in Letterfrack at the age of ten — for stealing a dinky. There, he was subjected to sexual and physical abuse.

For various minor misdemeanours, he was to spend time in other institutions and, when he was 15, he was sent to Mountjoy Prison for five years.

The documentary should be seen by everybody. But for an accident of birth, you or I could have ended up in an institution, subjected to every kind of abuse including slave labour.

At Letterfrack, Mannix recalls being forced to carry sacks of rocks up and down hills. There were no games or toys for the young boys. Instead, Mannix’s virginity “was ripped apart.” On and on it went. “Harsh cruel brutality was our daily bread.”

Mannix’s documentary is about the effects on him and his family of clerical and state abuse. He made the film so there would be a document about what happened to him and some of his siblings and to explain to later generations why there is dysfunction in their families. The repercussions include alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, self-harm, broken marriages. Mannix attempted suicide.

One of 15 children brought up in two rooms owned by the corporation in inner city Dublin, Mannix had to persuade family members to take part in the documentary, to leave a record, to let people know what the experience of being incarcerated in so-called reformatory institutions was like. One of his sisters says she fears people will judge the family. In reality, the viewer is left judging the clergy and the authorities.

Mannix’s mother was orphaned at 13 and had to rear her siblings. She worked selling vegetables as a child. Mannix’s father cleaned the streets for the council. Yet, despite the difficult circumstances of his family, Mannix says in the documentary that it never dawned on him that he was poor. Others told him he was. That became his identity and that of his family.

“We were the kids from the flats,” he said, recalling being hand-cuffed at the children’s court at the age of six.

Looking back, Mannix said the way he and others were treated “was not random. It was designed to annihilate us. Nobody believed us back then and they still don’t.”

He is highly critical of the Ryan Report into child abuse, saying the State and the Catholic Church indemnified themselves. In a Q&A session with journalist, Michael Clifford, after the screening, Mannix said the State needs to step aside and be investigated. Justice, he said, was never served.

Society, he added, is going to continue to be “seriously injured” until the real truth is told. But he believes that “we’re heading towards a safer place.”

There is a need to revisit evidence. The documentary is Mannix’s contribution to make the change.

He said he carries hurt and bad memories but he has to get on with his life. He doesn’t suffer on a daily basis. Mannix is “healed” thanks to five years in counselling. He had the courage to confront his demons.

Asked why he appears to have handled the damage done to him better than some of his family, Mannix said he is no different from them. He knew something wasn’t right.

He became an artist and he said, he also became “a crazed alcoholic.” What saved him was his sense of God, spirit and faith. But when he became truly conscious of what happened to him, he became difficult. He decided to surrender himself to therapy. “I handed myself over to others.”

Mannix is critical of institutionalised religion. While the church in Ireland is dying, people have “great faith.” He described himself as a miracle.

In the documentary, Mannix sounds calm and often speaks poetically. He is not the ranting and raving man that he sometimes was in the past. And it’s perfectly understandable why he used to come across as hugely angry.

Members of Mannix’s wider family have been in trouble with the law. And until the full story of the Flynn family is told, there will be problems. The scars are all too visible. Some of the family won’t or can’t talk about what happened. But Mannix believes “we’re here for a reason.”

“Was it a crime to be born poor?” asks a member of Mannix’s family in the documentary.

Another says “justice is only a word in a dictionary.”

Land Without God’ is aptly titled and deserves a wide audience. It is truly enlightening.

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