Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Founded on Fear: The Sad Story of Peter Tyrrell

I would never have read this book had the author not shared the same surname as me. It is a harrowing tale.

Peter Tyrrel was born on a small farm in Ireland in 1916 to a feckless father who would do anything for his neighbours but nothing for his family - "God is good" was his stock answer when funds got low.

Along with a number of his brothers Peter was taken from the family and sent to the Letterfrack Industrial School when he was only eight years old.

In the book he describes the endless beatings by the Christian Brothers, and evokes the horror of an institutionalised childhood which marked him and many others for life. As far as I can gather he did not once see his parents during the eight years he remained at Letterfrack.

On leaving he worked for a time as a tailor, but like many young Irish before and since he left for London, and in 1935 joined the British army. He served in Malta, Palestine and India, and in the latter stages of the war was fighting on the continent when he was captured by the Germans and spent time in a prison of war camp, where he felt he was treated better than at Letterfrack.

After the war he moved around a number of English cities looking for work. Keen to expose the horrors of the industrial school system and to seek justice for those whose lives like his had been ruined by it, he came into contact with Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington, who was fighting an almost single handed campaign against the widespread use of corporal punishment in Irish schools. He sent Senator Skeffington a number of envelopes containing his story. These documents were fairly recently discovered among Senator Skeffington's papers in the Irish archives, and in 2006 were published.

Peter burned himself to death on Hampstead Heath on 26th April 1967. It took a year before his body was identified. But for the fragments of a postcard bearing the words "Skeffington" and "Dublin" it is probable that his body would never have been identified.

A dreadful story, and unfortunately not an unusual one. Whilst reading this, and without taking anything away from the systemic horrors that have been exposed in Ireland, I could not help reflecting on other horrific examples of offically sanctioned child abuse and ruined lives that have come to light in recent years in countries that have a more liberal reputation than Ireland: the shameful treatment of the Norwegian children who had been fathered by German soldiers during the second world war; the forced emigration of thousands of orphaned British children to Australia, Canada and elsewehere.


  1. My dad was in Salthill from about 1945 onwards and all I know is that he was beaten and mentally abused. He had a drink problem from when I can remember and a foul temper but also had a nice side. Just try to imagine what that is like for a child (me)

  2. Hi Clare,
    It is sad to think of the ongoing consequences of so much child abuse that keeps coming to light.
    best wishes