Ancestry UK

St Joseph's Industrial School, Letterfrack, Co. Galway, Republic of Ireland

In 1849, a wealthy Quaker couple moved to Letterfrack from England and bought a large tract of land on which they erected a large residence and a school for local children. In 1884 the property was bought by the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr John McEvilly. Shortly afterwards, the Archbishop wrote to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Earl Spencer, suggesting that the property was admirably suited for use as a boys' industrial school. Despite initial reluctance because of the site's remote location and likely low demand for places from the area, Earl Spencer eventually agreed to the proposal. The Irish Christian Brothers were approached to run the new School and adaptation of the buildings began.

On 1 April 1886, St Joseph's Industrial School for Roman Catholic Boys, as it became known, was certified to begin operation although it was over a year later, on October 1887, that it opened its doors, with accommodation for 75 boys (increased to 150 places on 1 April 1889). The resident manager was Brother P.C. Flood.

The main building was L-shaped. On the ground floor were classrooms, the boys' dining room, their kitchen, scullery, laundry and bathroom. There were two large dormitories on the first floor, each holding around 80 beds. The Brothers lived in a separate monastery, the original manor house, at the south-east of the School. The School site in the early 1900s is shown on the map below.

St Joseph's Industrial School site, Letterfrack, early 1900s.

St Joseph's Industrial School, Letterfrack, from the west.

An inspection in 1911 recorded that there were 142 committed inmates, plus two out on licence. The manager was the Rev. Brother JF Scannell, assisted by 7 Christian Brothers, 2 assistant teachers, blacksmith, carpenter, shoemaker, tailor, baker, painter, bandmaster, laundress and nurse. The boys' classroom performance was generally rated as good although their answers were, on the whole, dull and lifeless. With regard to industrial training, 48 boys received lessons in manual instruction, and sixteen of the farm boys had lessons in a simpler kind of woodwork. Drawing was also taught. There were 29 boys learning tailoring, 22 shoemaking, 5 carpentry, 4 baking, 4 blacksmith's work, 1 painting, 25 farming and 3 gardening. The junior boys had daily drill, taught by the bandmaster. The seniors had weekly drill with dumb-bells, poles and Indian clubs.

Prior to 1954, Letterfrack's inmates comprised three categories of boys: those committed by the courts because they were homeless, without proper guardianship, destitute, truants, or guilty of criminal offences; those placed by the Local Authorities under the 1949 Public Assistance Act 1949; and boys voluntarily admitted by their parents or guardians. In 1954, the Brothers, who then ran six Industrial Schools, decided to close one of their establishments. This was due to a decline in the numbers of boys being placed in the Schools and a resulting drop in their income. The School they chose for closure was Carriglea Park at Monkstown, near Dublin. In addition, despite opposition from the Department of Education, the Brothers decided to concentrate the 'juvenile delinquents' from all their other schools (Salthill, Artane, Tralee and Glin) at Letterfrack. Most, though not all, of the boys in other categories were then distributed amongst the Schools at Salthill, Artane and Kilkenny. On 30 September 1954, only 87 boys remained at Letterfrack. These policy changes resulted in a drop in the School's income and a negative impact on the care the inmates received, particularly the minority who were there for reasons of destitution or truancy.

The School closed in 1974. Some of the buildings survive, now incorporated into the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.

Letterfrack was one of the institutions to be investigated by Ireland's Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, launched in 1999. After reviewing extensive evidence and the testimonies of former inmates, the Commission concluded that:

  • There was a clime of fear at Letterfrack, with the use of corporal punishment being severe, excessive and pervasive. Cases of abuse were not properly dealt with.
  • For about two-thirds of the period between 1936 and 1974, there had been at least one Brother at Letterfrack who had sexually abused boys; for almost one third of that period, there were at least two such Brothers there. Again, cases of abuse were not properly dealt with.
  • The boys suffered from emotional disturbance (for example, as evidenced by bed-wetting and soiling) and neglect. They were placed in a hostile environment, in a remote location, isolated from their families.


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