Finding a friend for Emmet

I carried Emmet in my head for years before I began writing ‘Emmet and Me’

The character of Emmet had formed very clearly in my mind after I’d read the extremely moving memoir ‘Founded on Fear’ by Peter Tyrrell, which tells of a harrowing childhood in an Irish industrial school.

I knew I wanted to write about Emmet, but I was also certain I wouldn’t write the story from his point of view. There are memoirs that recount life in Ireland’s institutions, and these convey survivors’ first-hand experiences so movingly and with heart-breaking honesty. I would never assume I knew even a fraction of what it would be like to actually endure such trauma.

So I decided that if I wrote about Emmet, it would be through someone else’s eyes. He’d need a friend who didn’t live in his orphanage, someone he could confide in. But how would he meet a character from outside his tightly controlled institution? It was a dilemma I couldn’t solve, so I imagined Emmet would simply stay in my head forever.

On a March evening in 2017, I was in Dublin and watching the Late Late Show. Ryan Turbridy’s guest was Catherine Corless, a local historian from County Galway who had discovered an extremely disturbing history at Tuam Mother and Baby Home. Initially, she’d been interested in looking into the Home’s records because she clearly remembered older children from there attending her primary school. Years later, when she took a course in researching local history, she thought of those children again, and decided to research the Home.

What Catherine Corless uncovered shocked not only Ireland but, as the story hit global media, it shocked the world as well

She discovered almost eight hundred death certificates of babies and young children. All of these children had died at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. And what was more, many of them had been ‘buried’ in the disused septic tank in the grounds.

In the audience of the Late Late Show that night, were people who’d had family at the Tuam Home – siblings that had disappeared and whose remains had possibly been placed in the septic tank. At the end of the show, Catherine Corless received a spontaneous standing ovation for her tireless, investigative work.

It was an incredibly moving moment

That night, I couldn’t get thoughts of Tuam Home out of my head, and the terrible pain and suffering that had been caused to the women and children there. I also remembered what Catherine had said about the children from the Home – how they’d attended her primary school in the town. I realised that perhaps there was a way to write about Emmet after all, that he could make a friend at school, a friend outside his orphanage.

Watching Catherine Corless on TV that evening is etched on my memory. I’m sure I’m not wrong in suggesting that it’s etched on the memory of very many other viewers too. She came up against resistance from the Church and some members of her community when she tried to reveal the truth, but she persisted. She is a brave and determined woman. There’s much more about her inspiring work, and about Tuam Mother and Baby Home generally, in the Radio 4 podcast by Becky Milligan, The Home Babies. I thoroughly recommend it.

Thank you for reading!

Sara x

Publishing May 20th

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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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