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Dublin: 9°C Wednesday 20 October 2021

Abuse at a deaf school: 'I screamed at night, but no one could hear me'

A documentary revealing the experiences of boys at St Joseph’s school – both positive and negative – is to be aired tonight.

Image: RTE

MANY CHILDREN HAVE positive stories from St Joseph’s School For Deaf Boys in Cabra, Dublin, from its 150-year history.

It was the chance for many to learn Irish Sign Language, allowing them to communicate and express themselves comfortably.

Others learned trades and were able to leave school and earn a living.

The school became known worldwide for its high standards of education – but it also has a murky history starting from the middle of last century.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I first arrived,” Larry Coogan recalls from his largely positive time at school between 1953 and 1958. He went on to become a master tailor.

He appears in a new RTÉ documentary, These Walls Could Talk by Garry Keane, which explores the history of the school, which was demolished in 2011. It is narrated by his daughter, performance artist Amanda Coogan.


“I wasn’t born deaf, and when I lost my hearing as a child it made me very lonely,” Larry said, “I was from down the country, and I could only communicate with my mother, my father, and my sister.”

“But suddenly I had all these people to communicate with at St Joseph’s. That was an incredibly feeling.”

For John Duggan, he was able to receive the training to work in a trade he loved.

“The Christian Brothers had a great influence on me, because of how they praised my work in class.”

“It was because of them that I picked carpentry as my career.”

If I hadn’t done woodwork, I probably would have been stacking shelves, or working on a production line in a factory. We would have been dependent on people.
We would have been like dogs, led about the place, being told what to do all the time, and that’s nothing something I would have wanted.

St Joseph’s changed dramatically in the 1950s, when oralism because widespread due to advances in electronics

This is where deaf students learn how to communicate using lipreading and mimicking mouth movements. Despite objections from Christian Brothers, the practice was introduced in Cabra.


When it gained more momentum in the 1970s, children began to be split depending on their hearing ability, even during sports.

Eddie Redmond, who attended the school during the time and who you might know as a news-signer for RTÉ, said it “encouraged” pupils to look down on each other based on their ability.

It was really sad, kinda like apartheid. We weren’t allowed mix, we weren’t allowed have tea together.

St Joseph’s has a more murky past than this; An entire chapter of the Ryan report was dedicated to the school.

The Commission of Inquiry found that physical and emotional abuse made the school a “a very frightening place”, and “said sexual activity was ignored or tolerated for some considerable time” until the Health Board eventually intervened.

The alleged abuse was carried out by a number of Christian Brothers but also lay people at the school between the 1950s and early 1990s. In later years, senior boys were also accused of abusing younger pupils.

Paul Keating, who has achieved success for Ireland at an international level for swimming, believes he could have gone much further if it wasn’t for the abuse he experienced.

He was abused by a lay member of staff, who would follow him into the dressing rooms when he went to practice his swimming.

“He used to come to my bed at around one or two in the morning. He would always have a torch and shine it on me when I was asleep. I was always thinking, what he’s going to do to me this week?”

St Joseph's EXT


“I would scream at nights, but everyone was deaf, so no one could hear me.”

Paul later revealed the abuse to older boys, who were later suspended for beating up the person. They told staff why it happened. Paul never saw the person again.

Noel Ball said he loved the school for the deaf, but his experience is overshadowed by the “horrible” abuse which started within a year of him starting at St Joseph’s.

The first time it happened, a Christian Brother took him up to a bedroom to read him a letter from his mother. There, he molested him.

St Joseph’s to me was like Auschwitz, it was like a prison camp. It was not a house a house of God, they were evil people.

“It was an awful experience, it ruined my life.”

Amanda Coogan makes it clear that this abuse must never be forgotten, but that the impact of the school on Ireland’s deaf community, educating thousands and providing opportunities that simply wouldn’t have been possible in Ireland at the time, must also be remembered.

These Walls Could Talk airs tonight on RTÉ One at 10.15pm. An Irish Sign Language version of the documentary will be available at the same time on the RTÉ Player at this link.

Originally published 6.03am

Read: As many as 17,000 people in Ireland could have this disability… but no one knows for sure >

About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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