In their distinctive Thunderbirds-style light-blue uniforms with red trim the Artane Boys Band are icons of Irish music. For decades, the band marched around the pitch at Croke Park, Dublin, and played across Ireland, Britain and the US.
But behind this image of boyhood wholesomeness lay a darker truth.
Until the 1970s thousands of the young men in the band were being abused, beaten and exploited at the industrial school that gave the ensemble its name.
One of those who was physically beaten on a regular basis by members of the Christian Brothers order that ran Artane was Patrick Walsh, now a businessman who lives in north London.
“The band was an extraordinary facade back then at that time,” Walsh, who played the clarinet in the band during the 1960s, told the Guardian. “It was used by the church and state to convey a bogus image of wholesomeness that did not exist in these institutions. In Artane, the brothers were men of violence. On a daily basis, I witnessed some savage behaviour meted out to me and other boys.”
Walsh added: “The boys in the band didn’t receive a farthing, the Christian Brothers pocketed the money. We did the work, they took the money. There is a word for it: unpaid labour, or slavery.
“They also had a 500-acre farm at Artane, growing potatoes and vegetables, and we, the kids, worked in the fields without pay.”
For 10 years Walsh has campaigned alongside the group Irish Survivors of Child Abuse to expose a system that allowed thousands of vulnerable children to be exploited and sexually abused while in the care of both church and state.
He has welcomed today’s publication of the report by Justice Sean Ryan. But he is not convinced that, even now, the full truth will come out.
From the mid-1920s until the early 1970s thousands of Irish children officially in the care of the state were subjected to a double regime of sexual abuse and wageless slavery. Ireland’s notorious industrial schools and orphanages – all run by Catholic orders – were home to boys and girls who had been officially declared criminals by the courts.
Some children were even sent to these institutions simply because their parents had split up: one-parent families, usually held together by abandoned wives, were regarded with suspicion in post-independence conservative Catholic Ireland.
In the last 12 years, up to 9,000 former members of Ireland’s childcare system have claimed tens of millions of euros in compensation for being either exploited, abused or both in these institutions.
The five-volume report, published by the Irish government today, seeks to address decades of clerical child abuse and state neglect. It confirms allegations from former pupils that they were used as unpaid virtual slaves, who made money for religious orders in mini factories, farms, shops and laundry services.
The Ryan commission (originally the Laffoy commission) was established nine years ago and has investigated allegations of abuse in orphanages, industrial schools and church-run hospitals across the republic. The Artane industrial school, in north Dublin, was among the institutions under scrutiny.
But Walsh said it was frustrating that the terms of the Ryan commission meant that no abusers would be brought before the Irish courts.
He said: “The victims of abuse will most likely be even more traumatised than ever to learn that, following this lengthy inquiry, there will be no criminal prosecutions brought against their abusers or against those in the hierarchy of the church … complicit in the brutal crimes against innocent children.
“It is unlikely that officials from any government department will ever be held accountable having presided over an illegal, cruel and wicked system that led to untold suffering for tens of thousands of innocent Irish children and their families since the foundation of the state.”
Walsh was “sentenced” to six years in Artane after appearing in an Irish court. His “crime” was that his father had abandoned him along with his brothers and sisters, and the Irish authorities deemed his mother not fit to look after the children.
Between 1963 and 1969, he was incarcerated alongside young juvenile offenders in the industrial school.
He said he was disappointed that the courts system that processed thousands of children and labelled them criminals simply because of situations such as marital breakdowns would not be put under the spotlight.
Both the Ryan commission and the earlier Laffoy commission refused to scrutinise the role of the Irish courts in sending children to places such as Artane or the Goldenbridge industrial school in Dublin’s Inchicore district.
Like the individual cases of paedophile priests in the early 1990s, the revelations of widespread child abuse in state-owned but church-run institutions dealt blow after blow to the Catholic church’s authority in the republic.
Yet when the final bill for compensating the thousands of victims of that abuse is counted, the cost was shouldered, in the main, by the Irish taxpayer rather than the Catholic church.
In June 2002, under a special deal worked out between the Catholic hierarchy and the government, then led by Bertie Ahern, the church paid only €128m (£112m) in compensation. In Australia at the moment the Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse to Children has just released its Report listing no less than 179 recommendations among them a redress scheme. The State Governments and the Federal Government cannot reach an agreement on what that scheme should be. It’s reprehensible.