A Very Sad Life

Peter Tyrrell led a very sad life

In 1924, as an eight-year-old, he was taken from his destitute parents and sent to live at St Joseph’s Industrial School. It was in a remote part of Ireland, a village called Letterfrack, a name that, for many Irish people, would become synonymous with fear and cruelty.

Tyrrell’s experiences at the school are recorded in ‘Founded on Fear’. I came across a review of the newly published book in an Irish newspaper in 2006, on a ferry from Rosslare to Fishguard, as I travelled home to Wales after a stay in Dublin. What first caught my attention was a paragraph in the review that told how Tyrrell’s burnt body was discovered on Hampstead Heath in 1967. I was puzzled. How had Peter Tyrrell published a memoir 40 years after his own death?

The story of how ‘Founded on Fear’ came about is as tragic as Tyrrell’s childhood…

And his childhood was very tragic. His first impression of the industrial school in Letterfrack was witnessing a child being viciously beaten by a teacher in the yard. Tyrrell wasn’t beaten himself that day – the Christian Brothers who ran the school prided themselves on not beating children on their first day – but afterwards, there was no protection from the cruelty. At age ten, Tyrrell’s arm was broken when a teacher thrashed him with a stick. Industrial school for him and his fellow inmates was a constant round of beatings, hunger and abuse.

For all his adult life, Tyrrell feared sleep – his dreams were terrifying. One recurring dream was of being chosen for refectory duty. Boys would silently and meticulously scrub the floor on their hands and knees after mealtimes, while a teacher flogged them repeatedly with a piece of rubber cut from a tyre. But this wasn’t simply a nightmare, something conjured up by Tyrrell’s imagination – it was his lived childhood experience.

St Joseph’s Industrial School is now GMIT Letterfrack – a National Centre for Excellence in Furniture Design & Technology

He left the school in 1932 at 16, but he couldn’t escape the horror of abuse that he’d endured and witnessed there. He fled Ireland and joined the British Army but found it difficult to connect with others. He fell in love with a woman when he was stationed in India, but he sabotaged the blossoming relationship.

Sadly, he realised, the bullied had become the bully

Returning alone to London, he decided he must raise awareness of not only the terrible abuses that had happened to him during his time at industrial school, but of those he believed were still going on decades later. He began contacting anyone he felt could make a change – politicians and powerful people in the Catholic Church – but sadly, no one listened to him. No one, except Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington.

Skeffington was determined to reform the Irish school system and he encouraged Tyrrell to write down his memories of Letterfrack. Tyrrell and the senator began to correspond regularly, and over five months Skeffington received a stack of detailed letters. Peter Tyrrell confided that he hoped one day they would be published and everyone would know the truth.

Tragically, he didn’t see that day

In April 1967, under the weight of mental health problems and believing he could do nothing to stop the suffering of children in the industrial school system, Peter Tyrrell took himself to a quiet corner of Hampstead Heath and ended his life by setting fire to himself. When his body was found, there was no way to identify it. Only a corner of a postcard was retrieved, badly charred, but with part of a name and address still visible – Dr Sheehy-Sk Trinity College, Dublin.

Eventually, the London police tracked down the senator and finally put a name to the burned body. Sheehy-Skeffington died himself two years later of a heart attack, and his correspondence with Tyrrell was archived. Forty years on, lecturer Diarmuid Whelan discovered it in the National Library of Ireland. He read about Tyrrell’s desire for the letters to be published, and in 2006, Whelan collated ‘Founded on Fear’. Very sadly, he died himself four years later of cancer, at the age of 37.

‘Founded on Fear’ is now regarded as an important record of life in a boys’ industrial school

Reading the review of ‘Founded on Fear’ on that ferry to Wales, I formed a vivid impression of a young boy, damaged by years of abuse and cruelty. A trapped, terrified child who never escaped that terror, even as an adult. The picture lodged at the back of my mind, until a few years later when I came across the memoir again, this time in Chapters Bookstore in Dublin. It was tucked away on a shelf in the second hand section, and I knew I had to buy it.

Back home, as I read Peter Tyrrell’s harrowing experiences, my imagination began creating Emmet, the ten-year-old that would become the title character of my novel, ‘Emmet and Me’. I decided he would be a child growing up in an industrial school in the late ’50s and ’60s, the sort of child Tyrrell worried about. If I was going to write the story of Emmet, then I’d need to research what happened to children at that time in industrial schools. I would need to check Tyrrell’s very sad theory that terrible things were still going on in the 1960s.

That research will be the subject of another blogpost.

This one is about thanking Peter Tyrrell, Senator Sheehy-Skeffington and Diarmuid Whelan

Thank you, too, for reading,

Sara x

PS. On Sunday, 25th April, I’ll be talking about ‘Broken Families and Forbidden Friendships’ with Seonaid Francis of ThunderPoint Publishing at the online Llandeilo LitFest. It would be lovely to see you there! View tickets

Published 20th May Honno Press

Available to read and review on NetGalley now!

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