Book Review : “Founded on Fear” by Peter Tyrell

By Noel Howard

Date Posted: Saturday, 11 December 2010


Noel Howard began his career as a teacher before becoming a childcare worker in the Irish juvenile justice system in Dublin in 1973 and latterly with the HSE (Health Service Executive). He retired as Deputy Director of St. Joseph’s School, Ferryhouse, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary in 2008. Currently, he is the co-ordinator of the IASCW (Irish Association of Social Care Workers) and edits the association’s publications.


Founded on Fear by Peter Tyrrell (Diarmuid Whelan ed.): Transworld Ireland (2008) : a review


Peter Tyrrell was born into an impoverished family in the west of Ireland in 1916. The year of his birth is significant in Ireland because it was the year the Irish proclamation declared that a new, independent Ireland would see all its children cherished equally. He was to become a victim and product of the Irish industrial school system which has been so widely commented on in and subsequent to the Ryan Report published in 2009.

In the 1920s Peter and his siblings found their way to one of the most notorious schools, Letterfrack in Galway, for the same reason as so many other innocents of the time. Extreme poverty was the cause and he paints a graphic picture of what it was like to be in a large family with both parents doing what they saw as their best. Peter’s eventual view of his father is critical as he recalled how his parents’ marriage was a match made at a local fair resulting in his mother being taken from her idyllic rural small farm to a barren, inhospitable  place where the family had to walk a mile to get water.

At one point in the book he describes how one of the more notorious brothers in Letterfrack referred to Peter’s home as a filthy pigsty and detailed his family’s dreadful circumstances to the other boys. As a member of a rigidly controlled religious order of which he was a member, this particular brother, who bullied the staff as well as the boys, seems to have been rather unique in the Ireland of the time. He dressed very well and, strangest of all, had a girl friend. This appears to have been well known in the school and the area and Peter notes that the brother was always in good form for a few days when he returned from seeing her and the beatings he inflicted on the boys would stop for a few days. This liaison was a matter of scandal until the Bishop of Galway intervened and put a stop to things.

Peter’s recall of detail and names has not been contradicted by the religious order, the Christian Brothers, who ran Letterfrack. All the usual levels of abuse were evident there. Yet, this poignant, revealing memoir is not a bitter, resentful picture of victimhood so understandably evident in  much of the work emanating in recent years by others who went through the Irish reformatory and industrial school system.

Peter Tyrrell was a fairminded man who wrestles in numerous places in his book to gain some level of understanding of why those charged with the care of children could on the one hand be so abusive and yet on occasion kind, hardworking and thoughtful. His account is remarkably objective and decent as he does not allow the goodness and humanity of some to be forgotten. He distinguishes between the abusers and those who treated the boys fairly and humanely. Some more recent commentators might well take such an attitude to heart.

As he grew into an adulthood characterised by depression and suicidal tendencies he was able to point to his own faults and negative attitude in dealing with people as reflecting some of the elements internalised  from his years in care. This is particularly revealing when he speaks of his relationships with women.

Very many who were in industrial schools left Ireland as soon as they left the institutions. Ostensibly and realistically this was to find employment. In reading this book however, one suspects deeper reasons to escape from the country and the system that, in the name of care and God, had brutalised and abused those unfortunate enough to find their way, through no fault of their own, into places like Letterfrack.

He has some interesting things to say about how discrimination toward those who had  been through the care system was practised by employers and trades unions. He was advised by a friend never to refer to his time in Letterfrack  and to use the coded term SHIP instead when referring to where he had spent his childhood.

He joined the British army in 1937.  Life there meant a replication of some of what he had been used to in care. While stationed in India he muses on the fear of failure which had so many consequences for him as a child in care. “It’s remarkable how I can’t get over this fear of making a mistake. In the old days it was fear of being beaten, but now it’s the fear of being made to look foolish or being laughed at. I often wish I was being beaten again. It would be much more bearable than being laughed at. (p.255) During the war he was interned behind enemy lines in Germany and says it was “a Heaven on earth” compared to his life in Letterfrack.

Toward the end of his life he tried, unsuccessfully as we now know, to alert the authorities of church and state in Ireland and the UK to the horrors he had experienced and the fact that very little had changed in the system in Ireland in the 1950s and 60s. A member of the Irish senate, Owen Sheehy Skeffington,  took Peter’s crusade seriously but encountered roadblocks in his efforts to have Peter’s detailed letters to him published. Peter Tyrrell never fully escaped from his demons and tragically, set himself alight on Hampstead Heath in 1967. Skeffington died two years later and the letters that became the book  lay undiscovered for nearly forty years.

Today, the school Peter and his siblings were sent to in Connemara, Co. Galway no longer exists as a care institution.  It now forms part of one of Ireland’s national parks and is worth a visit for any reader who wishes to see a setting of rugged beauty in one  of Ireland’s most scenic areas. The visitor might well visit the boys’ cemetery or view the impressive, poignant sculpture on the left hand side of the chapel near the altar with its sobering words “If Only.”  Or it might be worth climbing to the top of nearby Diamond Hill and looking down on what remains as a testament to the abuse of power and the power of abuse not just by those who worked in Letterfrack and all the other Letterfracks but by those in church, state and the wider community who saw but kept silent.

Founded on Fear is an unforgettable and harrowing account told with dignity and restraint and lacking in rhetoric, acrimony or sensationalism. Its eventual publication, prior to the Ryan Report, graphically encapsulates at first hand much of what the eventual five volumes of that eport tells us. Thankfully and at last, the voice Peter never had is here in this book  to be read and pondered.

A last word on Peter. Inexplicably, he is given a pseudonym, Noah Kitterick in the Ryan Report. There were legal challenges which led to pseudonyms being used in the report but not all names are pseudonyms. Why Peter Tyrrell is not given his rightful name is very hard to fathom since his name in connection with this book was already in the public domain. The Ryan recommendations point to what now must be done to ensure that the wrongs of the past never happen again. Implied is a system where abuse is reported and exposed.  Sadly, Peter Tyrrell who in this arresting, heartbreaking story did his bit to expose abuse over forty years ago when very few others did, merely merits a pseudonym in one of the most groundbreaking and devastating reports ever to emerge in Ireland.  The Ryan Report got much right but strangely, in relation to Peter Tyrrell, got it wrong. Why the pseudonym?