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Paddy Doyle: An extract from The God Squad, by the late author

In an extract from his moving, searing memoir, Paddy Doyle writes about his early days at St Michael’s Industrial School after his parents both died.

Paddy Doyle

Disability activist and author Paddy Doyle passed away earlier this week at the age of 69. His best-selling book, The God Squad, was inspired by his time in St Michael’s Industrial School in Cappoquin in Waterford and provided an account of institutional abuse.

In this extract, he writes about some of his early days at St Michael’s. He was taken there as a child and left there, never to see his custodians again. In the first chapter, which this extract is taken from, he gives a sense of what the industrial school was like and how the nuns treated him and the other children. He spent 11 years in the school.

The God Squad, Chapter One

I lay flat on my back on the narrow cast iron bed in the dormitory of St Michael’s Industrial School in Cappoquin. The thin horse-hair mattress was barely adequate to separate my thin body from its taut criss-cross wire springs. My eyes were fixed on the ceiling, the paint flaking just above the bed. From a room below the sound of children singing seeped through the floorboards.

In the distance a train hooted, heralding its imminent arrival at the station just beyond the high granite walls of the school. I turned towards the tall sashed window a few feet from my bed. Through watery eyes I noticed the sun was shining, though the, dormitory was cold and dark. The train hooted again, louder as it drew nearer the station, panting and hissing through the stillness of the day. It had been three weeks since my uncle had driven me here in the black Morris Minor owned by his employer. In his pocket he carried the order of detention from the District Court in Wexford sentencing me to seven years in custody. The charge against me was of being found having a guardian who did not exercise proper guardianship. I was then four years and three months old.

I remember being terrified of the nuns from the moment I entered the Industrial School and clinging to my uncle, pleading with him to take me home. A tall, thin evil-looking nun had come towards me and forced my hand away from his before gripping my jumper at the neck to ensure that I could not grab hold of him again.

I’d screamed and kicked in an attempt to free myself, but the more I struggled, the tighter her hold became. She told my uncle that I would settle down just as soon as he left. I can remember trying to get free of her and follow my uncle. But the nun held me firmly by the ear lobe and warned me to stop, otherwise I would receive a ‘good flaking’.

Three weeks had taught me the meaning of that phrase. I rose cautiously from my bed, rubbed my eyes and cheeks with my knuckles and went towards the window. I stood back, frightened that I might be seen from the yard below. I moved as close to it as I felt it was safe to do.

The granite wall glistened in the sunlight like a million jewels. I pressed my face against the window and watched the approaching train…

I backed away from the window though I still looked out as the other children ran about the yard screaming their excitement. Some of them tried to climb the wall to get a better view but their efforts were brought to an abrupt halt by the swish of a cane from one of the nuns patrolling the yard like a black shadow. One boy who was midway up the wall fell to the ground writhing in pain having felt the full force of Mother Paul’s cane across his calf muscles. He lay curled up, on the ground screaming and gripping his leg tightly. The other boys stood still, frozen in terror.

I watched. I knew the pain of the bamboo and the horror of being beaten until it was no longer possible to stand it. As blow after blow landed, I trembled, fully convinced that I would receive similar punishment when Mother Paul came to the dormitory. I went back to bed and pulled the covers over my head in an attempt to escape the piercing, painful screams. Finally the screaming stopped. I lay waiting for the footsteps. 

‘Well, Master Doyle… are you finished now or would you prefer to spend more time here on your own?’

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Started by the sound of Mother Paul’s voice, I turned down the bedcovers. Her tall black-clad figure stood beside my bed, her wrinkled hand carrying the cane that she kept partially hidden up the long loose sleeve of her habit. She stared down at me, her icy-blue eyes seemingly magnified through the thick lenses of her rimless spectacles.

Her wicked-looking face was gripped tightly in the habit of the Sisters of Mercy. The black habit was pulled tight at the waist by a leather belt.

‘Get up out of that bed then this instant,’ she roared. 

The God Squad is published by Corgi.

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