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"Your borstal is a disgrace": A grim century of St Pat's

St Patrick’s Institution started in Co Tipperary – and was once condemned by Fr Edward Flanagan of ‘Boys’ Town’ fame.

Irish author Brendan Behan wrote about his experiences in an English borstal - St Patrick's was also originally based on this penal model.
Irish author Brendan Behan wrote about his experiences in an English borstal - St Patrick's was also originally based on this penal model.
Image: Borstal Boy film via IMDB

THE CLOSURE OF St Patrick’s Institution in Dublin this week marks the end of 109 years of borstal treatment in Ireland.

Yes, you read that correctly. While the language of penology changes over the decades, St Patrick’s was indeed a borstal and that is how it began life in south Tipperary in 1906.

Perceptions of St Patrick’s have evolved over the years and the institution and its inmates have quite often been the victims of a distorted public image. Most Irish people, however, will have forgotten how it all began.

We must go back to late-19th century Britain to explore the origins of the concept that led to St Patrick’s. One of the central recommendations of an 1895 British parliamentary investigation into the prison system was the establishment of a penal reformatory to punish and reform the high volume of habitual young male offenders.

In 1901, following several years of consultation, an experimental institution was established when a handful of male criminals between the ages of 16 and 21 years were held in a separate wing of a local prison in a village in Kent. The name of that village was Borstal and that experiment marked the beginning of one of the most enlightened – for its time – yet ultimately controversial, penal initiatives of the twentieth century.

UK Crime - Incarceration - Borstals Young inmates in an early borstal at Feltham, London, as the penal institution went widespread across the UK and over to Tipperary. Source: PA Archive

Having been deemed an early success in Kent, the ‘borstal’ system, as it was now known, was extended to Ireland where it was opened in May 1906 as a separate wing of the existing local prison in Clonmel, Co Tipperary.

For four years the inmates were detained in separation from the adult prisoners and in 1910 the latter were transferred elsewhere and the complex was fully converted into Ireland’s first and, for 50 years, only borstal institution.

The system was not intended for first offenders but for those who were already on the path to habitual criminality. With a strong emphasis on education, training, physical drill and moral guidance, borstal was not for the faint of heart or body.

From England to Clonmel

Between 1906 and 1921, a quarter of all inmates originated from Dublin and another quarter from Belfast. An institution was established in Belfast in 1926. Most of those in Clonmel were detained for offences including larceny, house-breaking, animal theft, assault and a low number for sexual crimes.

Clonmel borstal enjoyed mixed fortunes as the decades progressed, its greatest challenges coming from a continued lack of proper infrastructural investment from government. In 1922 as the civil war took hold in Ireland the institution was commandeered for military purposes and the boys were moved farther south in Tipperary to Clogheen workhouse.

They were subsequently burned out by anti-treaty forces and the institution was forced to move to Kilkenny workhouse until 1924 when it returned to Clonmel. During the 1920s and 1930s Clonmel borstal suffered from a degree of stagnation and did not progress at the same pace as the British institutions.

Neglect

In late 1940 the complex at Clonmel was once again taken over for military purposes at the height of the Emergency. The institution was moved to a separate wing of Cork prison for six years where borstal in Ireland continued to experience the same level of neglect.

In Cork the boys were subjected to education, trades training and a form of gymnastics known as Sokol drill which began in Czechoslovakia in the 1860s.

While St Patrick’s Institution came in for much criticism in the later 20th century the first high-profile condemnation came somewhat unexpectedly in 1946. Father Edward Flanagan was the legendary Roscommon-born founder of the Boys’ Town home for destitute boys in Omaha, Nebraska.

On a visit to Ireland during the summer of that year he declared:

From what I have seen since coming to this country, your institutions are not all noble, particularly your borstal, which are a disgrace.

PA-8694734 Fr Edward J Flanagan, right, pictured here with the US Forces commander in Austria General Keyes in 1948. Source: AP/Press Association Images

By this time Flanagan was already a renowned expert in his field and was portrayed by Spencer Tracy in the MGM motion picture, Boys Town. Despite a solid reputation in America and around the world, his comments on the Irish prison and juvenile penal system earned him the wrath of many in officialdom in this country.

Government, opposition and church closed ranks against him, although one high-profile correspondent to the Irish Times, Maud Gonne MacBride, praised his courage for speaking out, describing it as “painful to read”.

Monsignor Flanagan died in May 1948 in Berlin. Such was the esteem in which he was held, US President Harry Truman placed a wreath on his grave at Boys’ Town two weeks after his death.

Upon its return to Clonmel the newly-named ‘St Patrick’s Borstal Institution, Clonmel’ underwent something of a cosmetic overhaul, possibly in response to Flanagan’s criticisms. However, decades of neglect and a lack of proper training facilities meant that the judiciary effectively lost faith in the system.

By the mid-1950s the numbers had declined to such an extent, with fewer than ever inmates coming from Dublin, it was decided to close the facility in Clonmel. On 1 December 1956, over a half century after its foundation, the Irish borstal institution vacated the town for the final time.

St Patrick's Institution abuse alter St Patrick's Institution in its Dublin location. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

It re-opened as St Patrick’s Borstal Institution, North Circular Road, Dublin, where inmates remained until the beginning of Holy Week 2015.

The word ‘borstal’ was dropped from the Irish penal system under the Criminal Justice Act introduced by Minister for Justice Oscar Traynor in 1960.

Conor Reidy is a lecturer at the Department of History in University of Limerick. His most recent book is Criminal Irish Drunkards – an examination of the Inebriate Reformatory system in Ireland in the early 20th century – and it can be purchased here at the History Press.

His history of Irish borstals, Ireland’s ‘Moral Hospital’: The Irish Borstal System 1906-1956 is available from the Irish Academic Press here.

Intimidation and forced stripping: St Patrick’s Institution FINALLY closes>

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Conor Reidy

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