Before the Destruction: A Dublin School for Deaf Boys and Its Demise (photos)
by Tristan Hutchinson, guest contributor
Up the main steps of the building and into the hallway, four floors of corridors that lead to numerous rooms. Inside the rooms sit beds with sheets on, jars of hair and face products, old TV sets. Classrooms of books, teaching aids and chairs. When the building falls into dust, with it go the memories.
After the Famine, the Catholic Church, together with the Christian Brothers, established St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra, on Dublin’s north side, in 1857. The deaf population of Ireland was of particular concern to the Church as they had received no religious teaching, and emphasis was placed on religious instruction through sign language.
St. Joseph’s played a significant role in the formation of the Irish deaf community. Here, boys were also taught trades such as tailoring and shoemaking, and the school produced many skilled craftsmen. Tuition through sign language continued until 1957 when the controversial oralism method was introduced, prompting a separation of boys based on communication ability.
After a series of media revelations in the 1990’s about child abuse in Irish institutions, the government set up the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA), and, after a lengthy investigation, produced the Ryan Report. This report outlined hundreds of systematic and “endemic” cases of abuse of children in institutions, including St. Joseph’s, and found a culture of abuse that for many years government inspectors failed to stop. St. Joseph’s was the only school featured in the Ryan Report where parents had sent their children voluntarily.
In 2006, the Christian Brothers acknowledged that boys in their care had suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of “individuals,” remarking that sexual abuse was seen as a “moral failing on the part of the Brother in question.” Boys reported instances of rape and molestation by staff. Others were engaged in sex talk and were shown adult movies in their rooms. The Commission also revealed that this level of systematic abuse led to a disturbing trend of peer abuse.
The Ryan Report states that children were not believed when instances of abuse were reported, and were more often than not ignored. At best, offenders were removed from the school and sent to another, where abuse continued. Recent studies show that deaf children are more at risk of physical, mental, and sexual abuse, with some studies stating a risk two to three times higher as these children may not be able to communicate their experiences, or understand what has happened.
The CICA report contained allegations of abuse stemming from 1914 to when the commission started, and the intention of the CICA was to publicly name the abusers, but was blocked in doing so by a right-to-privacy lawsuit taken out by the Christian Brothers. As well as this, an indemnity deal between a number of religious orders involved and the government allowed the Orders to avoid paying the full cost, and an eventual settlement of over €400 million was agreed, with the Irish taxpayers picking up the rest of the compensation. The report also opened up and criticized evidence of State and Church collusion during the period of abuse.
In 2006, the Christian Brothers relinquished control of Irish schools, bringing to an end over 200 years of management that formed the backbone of Irish education. This year sees St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys demolished, making way for a new national deaf centre.
For some, the school represented an opportunity to develop and excel in a safe environment. Trades were taught and the school produced many skilled craftsmen. For others, it was a place of shame and brutality. When the oralism method was introduced, those who were profoundly deaf were segregated from others, kept apart in classes and in living quarters. It bred a system of fear into the lives of children who were seen as particularly vulnerable.
I started the project with the intention of documenting what remained of St. Joseph’s before its demolition.
Some spaces were stripped bare.
Dorm rooms empty.
And sinks taped off.
Other rooms contained years of relics, objects, files, and reminders of the past.
On the walls scrawled graffiti; chalkboards still had writing.
There were beds with sheets still on. Bottles of hair products and tonics.
The building echoed my footsteps, yet the past was tangible and loud in the silence.
I wanted to document all this before the building disappeared into the dust.
Tristan Hutchinson is a photographer based in Dublin, Ireland. He’s currently working on a project in the home of his mother’s birth, Cobh, a small harbor town in the south of Ireland, which has one of the highest incidences of cancer in the country. You can see more of his work on his website or follow him on Tumblr.
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