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'The brother whipped him until his back was bleeding, then gave him an orange to keep quiet'

Joe McAveety was born in a mother and baby home and grew up in industrial schools which were rife with physical and sexual abuse.

Joe, aged 11
Joe, aged 11
Image: Joe McAveety

TENS OF THOUSANDS of children passed through Ireland’s industrial schools in the 20th century.

Several investigations and reports later, we know that many of them were physically, sexually and psychologically abused.

The latest Commission of Investigation focused on mother and baby homes and county homes. Its final report was published on 12 January, leading to a State apology by Taoiseach Micheál Martin the next day.  

The familiar promises have now been made: redress, counselling and a vow to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Once formal adoption came into effect in 1953, it became the “most significant exit pathway for children” in mother and baby homes.

Both pre and post-1953, many children who were born in the institutions were adopted, sometimes illegally, or fostered.

The children who were not adopted or ‘boarded out’ were generally sent to industrial schools.

Joe McAveety was one of them.

He was born in the mother and baby home in Castlepollard in Co Westmeath in 1951. He believes he spent the first two years of his life there with his mother.

Katie McAveety was 25 when she became pregnant. She wasn’t a child but she wasn’t married either, so she ended up in the institution.

“From what I gather, I spent two years in the mother and baby home with my mother. I know my mother went through a hard time while she was there,” Joe tells TheJournal.ie.

He was sent to St Patrick’s Industrial School in Kilkenny when he was two years old, before being transferred to St Joseph’s Industrial School in Salthill in Co Galway when he was 10, remaining there until he was 16.

“My time in Kilkenny was not good, the nuns were very cruel to us boys,” Joe recalls.

“I remembered getting slapped in the head with a bunch of keys, that kind of thing. I’ll always remember when I was four years of age or five years, I was in a cot and I got a slap in the face from one of the nuns.

“Maybe I was crying or something. There was no kindness whatsoever, it was just very bleak.”

His time in St Joseph’s was worse – “a jail if ever there was one”.

“It was the most brutal time of my life, I don’t have a good word to say for the Christian Brothers. I’m lucky I survived that place.”

Joe is no stranger to commissions of investigation, or State apologies. He was physically and sexually abused in St Joseph’s and received redress after the Ryan Report into child abuse came out in 2009.

Joe believes his mother, like so many others, was forced to go into an institution and give her child away because she wasn’t married.

“The Church is very powerful in Ireland and, of course, there were the neighbors,” he says of the shame placed on women who became pregnant outside of marriage.

While he was in St Patrick’s he met his mother on one occasion, she visited him when he was seven years old.

“I remember that day very well and what she gave me. She gave me a notepad and a pen and she gave me an old half crown, some money.

“When the visit was over the nuns took everything away from me, I was never to see them again or I was never to see my mother again.”

Joe says he doesn’t remember much from the conversation itself. He was shy and unsure of what to say.  

“I remember being very quiet and I wasn’t saying much, there wasn’t much said really. She asked me how I was and was I happy, that kind of stuff.

“I think she said ‘I’ll come again’, something like that.”

Joe never saw her again, despite “searching and searching”. He would later learn that she wrote him a letter when he was about 13 but the brothers in St Joseph’s never gave it to him.

He only discovered the letter existed after the Ryan Report was published. The pair never reconciled before her death in 1983.

Joe read the announcement of her death in a local newspaper.

unnamed Source: Joe McAveety

He would later reconnect with some relatives, piecing certain dots together, but much about his parents remains unknown to him.

Two of his aunts, Katie’s sisters, told him she spent much of her time in London working in hotels, and had been in ill health before her death in a Monaghan hospital.

Salthill via Artane

Joe was transferred to St Joseph’s Industrial School when he was 10 years old. Prior to going to Galway, he spent about two weeks in Artane Industrial School in Dublin.

“I’ll tell you what, I was glad to get out of there, there were 800 kids the time I was there.

“The one thing I do remember about Artane, we were in the washroom one evening and the brother in charge said, ‘Okay, the last person out of this washroom is going to get a hiding.’ As you know and I know, there has to be one last person.

“I came second last, I tripped. And sure enough the next person got on awful hiding. And that’s the one thing that stands out in my memory.”

The other boy “got a hiding” in front of everyone. “I just thought it was so cruel, it was unbelievable.”

Joe says he met other boys from Kilkenny in Artane who “were giving me the lowdown on what brothers to watch, that kind of stuff”.

“It was very daunting for a young kid to go there, I was frightened. Anyway, I was glad to get out of there. A brother came to collect me and another guy and we went on a train to Salthill.”

Joe says he was excited to leave Artane, but didn’t know what awaited him.

‘The brother whipped him until his back was bleeding’

“Salthill was a very brutal place for a young kid to be brought up in. I have a lot of memories of what happened, but there is one particular memory that will never leave me – I’ve dreamt about it many, many times,” Joe says.

“There was a crowd of us in the washroom on a Saturday evening. This guy was beside me and he was kind of a nervous chap.

“He was very nervous of the brothers. We were facing a mirror and the brother who was in charge said to this guy, ‘Whatever you do, don’t look back, look straight ahead.’

“And, of course, your man looked back at the brother. The brother got his strap out and tore into him. We had pretty much nothing on, just our baby trunks on.

So he beat him on the back with his leather and I remember the blood pouring out of his back. I couldn’t believe what I had seen, I said this is just unbelievable.

“You could see the marks from the leather strap on his back, I was stunned. And then [the brother] gave him an orange and he told him not to tell anybody and not to go to the nurse. He never went to the nurse and he suffered.”

The boys were about 14 when this happened.

Image Joe making his Confirmation, aged 12 Source: Joe McAveety

There were “many beatings” in Salthill, but boys often heard the notorious St Joseph’s Industrial School in Letterfrack was even worse and the brothers threatened to send the boys there if they didn’t do what they were told.

“There were a lot of beatings, I got a tremendous amount of beatings in [Salthill],” Joe recalls.

“I saw a lot of kids being beat up really badly. Anybody that lashed out or ran away, they were sent straight away to Letterfrack. That guy that got the beating with the leather strap, he was one of the guys that was sent to Letterfrack, because he ran away after that and they caught him.”

‘They attacked me with a hurley stick and a leather strap’

When boys reached the age of 13, most of them learned a trade. The “teachers’ pets” were sent to technical schools to further their education, Joe recalls, while the boys the brothers didn’t like were sent to work on farms.

Joe ended up training with a tailor in Salthill.

On one occasion when he was in the tailor’s shop, he was sick. “I wasn’t feeling well, I was ill. So the tailor, Eddie Maloney, says to me, ‘Joe, maybe you just go off to bed’, not thinking anything about it, I went off to bed.”

Later that day one of the brothers asked Joe who gave him permission to go to bed when he was meant to be working. He says he didn’t want to get Eddie in trouble so he said “nobody”.

The following morning, two other boys told him that two of the brothers wanted to see him in a certain classroom.  

“So I went down, I knew what was ahead of me. I was in trouble because I got no permission to go to bed.

I went to the classroom and as soon as I went in the door, they attacked me with sticks, a hurley stick and a leather. I got an almighty hiding. I was trying to put my arms up against my face, everything, they just beat the hell out of me.

After his ‘indiscretion’, Joe was threatened with being shipped off to Letterfrack. He knew the only way to avoid this fate was to apologise to the head brother.

“I went back to the brother and I apologised. He said, ‘Okay, one last chance but that’s it, any more trouble from you, you’re out of here, you’re going to Letterfrack.’

“So I kept my head down for the next two years and that was it.”

Sexual abuse

Joe was among the many boys sexually abused in Salthill. He recalls how one brother would call children up to the front of the classroom and openly put his hand down their trousers.

“He would call us up to his desk. I used to see him putting his hand under kids trousers. And I thought, ‘Oh this is weird.’

“He called guys up to his office and he’d do the same thing. He called me up many times and he did the same thing.”

Joe says this started when he was 11 or 12 and continued for years.

He and other boys “didn’t know anything about sex or anything like that” but “we knew it was wrong”.

The brother would be full of “nice talk” when he touched the boys. When children were abused in front of their peers, Joe says “nobody would remark on it because if you did, I’m sure he’d beat you up”.

This particular brother was often “in charge” of the bathroom on a Saturday – the night the boys would shower.

“He was in charge and he would always look guys up and down. It was strange, weird, we tried to avoid that kind of thing.”

Image (1) Joe is a keen musician Source: Joe McAveety

Joe says some of the brothers would also settle scores with certain boys on a Saturday night.

“Of course, all the boys would be naked. It was an awful time, it was a time when the brothers would beat you up.

“If you did something wrong during the week and they didn’t get you then, they would get you on a Saturday night in the shower when you were naked.

“I’ve seen many, many, many boys get beaten up when they were running around naked. Unbelievable. And there was nothing you could do, nothing.”

Some boys ran away and – similar to women who escaped the mother and baby homes – many were brought back to the school by the gardaí.

“When the boys ran away the police, the guards in Galway, brought them” back. They didn’t care what happened to you after that, they didn’t follow up on how this guy was doing.”

London and the US

Joe worked in Galway for a few years before moving to England in his early 20s.

“I wanted to get further in my tailoring and the only way to do it was go to England and then, because I knew it was the best thing I could do, to go to a night school.”

Joe studied tailoring in London for four years. He had an old address for his mother and tried to find her while he was there but wasn’t successful.

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He later came back to Ireland for a few years before moving to the US in 1986 for work opportunities.

Screenshot 2021-01-30 at 08.51.28 Joe and his wife Joanne Source: Joe McAveety

Shortly after he arrived, a friend told him he was going to Nantucket – an island about 50km south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts – for a painting job and asked Joe to join him. He fell in love with Nantucket and, 35 years later, still lives there with his family.

“I’m back doing the tailoring believe it or not, I’m now 70 and it beats climbing ladders.

“I love it, I’ve got a flair for it, I know I’m good at it,” Joe says of his work.

Joe and his wife, Joanne, got married in home county Derry in 1996. Shortly after the wedding they “made a point of going to see my mother’s grave”.

He found out where the grave was – close to Swanlinbar in Co Cavan – and in a case of “pure luck”, when on the way to the grave, met a woman on the road who knew his aunt.

“We said we were looking for an aunt of mine, Mary Ann was her name. I knew there was one sister. So she said, ‘Well, I happen to be a great friend of hers and I’ll bring you to where she is, you’ll never find out where she is, she lives on the mountain.

“So she brought me up there and then I met my aunt who later told me that I had another aunt and I went to see her too.”

His aunts gave him some information about his mother but didn’t want to talk about it in too much detail.

“I figured that she had no chance, no choice (but to give me away). At the time, the religious orders and the guards brought women (to the institutions).  

“It was a strange time but those were the times we lived in in Ireland.”

His aunts have since died but Joe is still in touch with other relatives who, prior to the late 1990s “never knew I existed”.

Long-promised tracing and information legislation is expected to come before the Oireachtas this year. Joe wasn’t adopted but he believes everyone has a right to their birth cert and related information.

“That’s very important that they should get that, they’re entitled to it. They need to know their identity, they need their birth certificates, it’s very important they have that.”

Joe and Joanne have two daughters – Amy Rose (17) and 22-year-old Katie, who is named after Joe’s mother. He didn’t get to meet his mother after the age of seven, but he doesn’t want her to be forgotten.

Screenshot 2021-01-30 at 08.49.56 Joe pictured with his wife Joanne and their two daughters Amy Rose and Katie Source: Joe McAveety

For years, Joe says he lied about where he came from.

“I never told anybody where I was from. People would ask me where I was from and I’d make up stories. If people heard you were illegitimate, they’d say ‘Keep away from him.’

“Nobody knew I was born to a single mother, but now I’m more open about these things.”

So open, in fact, that he’s writing a book about his life. It’s time stories like his are heard, he tells us.

Despite everything that has happened to him, he considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Over the years, Joe kept in touch with childhood friends by speaking on the phone. They would often tell him about men from the schools he passed through who had succumbed to alcoholism or taken their own life.

“There were times you’d feel down though life but I try to look on the bright side most times. I have my wife and my daughters, and I’ve met some loyal friends along the way.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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