What about the Charter Schools, Houses of Industry and Foundling Hospitals?

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2020), Letters, Volume 28

Sir,—I read the article by Sheila Ahern in your last edition (HI 28.3, May/June 2020, Platform). She seems to be very concerned with the Retention of Records Bill presented to the Dáil in April 2019. Her opinion is that the information in these records is of great significance in understanding this ‘dark period in our history’. Her article is very concerned, as were the various commissions set up since 1999, in ‘blaming’ the Catholic Church for all dark periods in our history. 

I suggest that she purchase a copy of the Cambridge History of Ireland. In volume III is a chapter entitled ‘Women, men and the family 1730 to 1880’, which analyses the removal from families of children to Charter Schools, Houses of Industry and the Foundling Hospital. She could also purchase volume three of J.A. Froude’s The English In Ireland, published in 1895, which corroborates Sir John Blacquiere’s version. It goes further, outlining the legal case taken by Dublin Corporation and Henry Grattan, who spoke warmly in vindication of the existing management of the Foundling Hospital, but to no avail when the case went to court; Blaquiere knew his facts and won on the day.

Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick (Inspector General of Prisons) visited the Charleville Charter School. He described the ragged children and damp schoolrooms; the windows of every room were broken, the beds filthy, and there was not a single sheet in the house for children and their education was shamefully neglected. The absence of soap in some Charter Schools resulted in children’s clothes being washed in urine. The Charter Schools’ reputation continued to decline from the turn of the nineteenth century until they petered out around mid-century.

From 1703 the newly established House of Industry was charged with receiving foundling children between the ages of 5 and 16 in order to educate them in the Protestant faith and then to apprentice them to Protestant masters. Following complaints, John Wesley visited a school in Ballinrobe and found conditions atrocious. Inspections carried out towards the end of the century revealed massive abuse of the system, with children being used mainly as farm labourers or weavers and subject to squalid conditions. They were closed in 1838.

By 1730 there were so many illegitimate children being born in the workhouses that the government opened a Foundling Hospital, the precursor of our Catholic mother and baby homes. If our government feels that the mother and baby homes are a stain on our history, there is no word to describe the Foundling Hospitals, in which 88% of the babies that entered died. Sir John Blaquiere brought this scandal before parliament in 1790, reporting that the ‘governors’ of this institution never attended meetings but merely delegated responsibility to their ‘treasurer’ (who was bedridden for six years). Blaquiere pointed out that of the 2,180 infants admitted in 1790, 2,087 (96%) were dead or unaccounted for. In the previous ten years 19,368 babies were admitted, of whom 17,000 were dead or missing (88%). As the government inspectors reported, the Foundling Hospital was characterised by corrupt administration, poor diet, disease, infestation and cruelty until the government ordered its closure in 1820, leaving a void till 1829, when the Catholic orders opened new charitable homes. Blaquiere reported that the annual running costs of the Foundling Hospital were £16,000 pounds per annum and, on the basis of those saved, each baby cost £110: 

‘The wretched little ones were sent up [to the Foundling Hospital] from Workhouses from all parts of Ireland; ten or twelve of them thrown together into a knish [the Anglicised version of ciste, the Irish for basket] forwarded in a low backed car, and were so bruised and crushed that at the journey’s end half of them were taken out dead and flung on the dung heap.’ (Minutes of the Irish Parliament, 12 March 1790)

On the question of the Catholic Church’s empathy with the poor, I can do no better than quote Countess Ida von Hahn, who visited Ireland in 1846/47 and described the Catholic Church as a church of compassion:

‘The Irish people love their priests and their faith like the sunrays that penetrate the deep misery of its existence. Ireland without the Catholic Church would be a deserted wasteland, for the compassion that its people need is to be found only in the Catholic Church and its Priests.’ (Poor Green Erin: German travellers in Ireland from 1788 to 1860)

—Yours etc.,

Co. Galway


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