His mother died when he was four years old and not long afterwards his father hanged himself. He has a young sister who is also taken into care elsewhere and they meet rarely until they are older. His only other relatives are a single uncle and an elderly aunt, who feel unable to look after him, and so he is put into an ‘industrial school’ run by nuns. (Industrial Schools were set up in the UK, of which Ireland was then a part, in the Victorian period, and they persisted in Ireland after independence even though they were abolished in the UK in 1933). The regime there was harsh (as was often the case then, and not only in Ireland) and the head of the school, Mother Paul, does not believe in sparing the rod. While at the school he develops what is later diagnosed as a progressive neurological condition. He is transferred to a local hospital, then to one further away when his condition continues to baffle his doctors, and later still to another where he undergoes several operations. Only towards the end does he find himself on a ward with other children until he is eventually placed in a school where he can resume his education and make friends.
Apart from his time in the Industrial School he is not overtly badly treated, except perhaps by omission, and he remembers some of the doctors and nurses (both nuns and lay staff) with affection. His misery now has more to do with the series of operations he has to undergo, his loneliness compounded by the absence of other children. The story is sad enough as it stands, but I was surprised by this blurb in later editions of the book.
Paddy Doyle's prize-winning bestseller, The God Squad, is both a moving and terrifying testament of the institutionalised Ireland of less than fifty years ago, as seen through the bewildered eyes of a child. During his detention, Paddy was viciously assaulted and sexually abused by his religious custodians, and within three years his experiences began to result in physical manifestations of trauma. He was taken one night to hospital and left there, never to see his custodians again. So began his long round of hospitals, mainly in the company of old and dying men, while doctors tried to diagnose his condition. This period of his life, during which he was a constant witness to death, culminated in brain surgery at the age of ten - by which time he had become permanently disabled.
I saw no mention of sexual abuse, nor any suggestion that his condition was the result of his time at the Industrial School, in fact the eventual diagnosis of a progressive neurological condition belies the assertion. The inference that he was somehow dumped at the hospital is also a little wide of the mark. He was referred to the hospital in the same way that any child would have been, then or now. Nor does the blurb give any hint of the many kind doctors and nurses (both lay and religious) he encountered, or the efforts they made to give him some happy moments. The nearest to a fearsome person we see is the matron who will not let him keep on the ward the budgerigar the nurses bought him for his birthday. Instead it is taken to the ward sister’s office and he is allowed to go and see it there. If this was cruelty then we are even crueller now. I have worked on a ward (and as a volunteer I still do) and there is no way a budgerigar would be allowed on a surgical ward, even in the ward sister’s office.
The Therapeutic Care Journal, in an article dated 1st August 2010, also makes an interesting point about the Industrial School. 'In reading this book one has to remember the social context at that time. Ireland was a poor country, and few people were well off. If the children had been at home instead of in the Industrial School, they would still have had plain food and got a walloping for their misdeeds.'
So why the over-egging of the pudding in some of the promotional blurb? It seems that by the time later editions came out sexual abuse and cruel nuns had become all the rage, so a best seller had to be promoted in this way for the titillation of a new target market. You would certainly never guess that one of the two people he came to love the most during his hospital period was a young nun. There is another ‘terrifying testament’ here, and that about the liberties publishers can sometimes take when promoting a book.
And yet he was often lonely, afraid and craved the company of children of his own age. I suspect that part of the problem was Ireland’s size and relative poverty at the time. With a population little more than one twentieth the size of the UK’s, the Irish Republic of the 1950s and early 60s would have been hard pressed to provide the kind of treatment required in a hospital specifically for children. They simply did not run to anything like Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. This is something he later campaigned to redress.
One of the things that disturbed Paddy most, perhaps in retrospect, was the lack of information given to him about his parents, and his uncle only provides it after Paddy is well into adulthood. A couple of reviews I have read blame it on the nuns (naturally), as though there was some kind of conspiracy. Yet even when he is at the Industrial School Paddy is allowed to go on holiday to his aunt's (a visit that is cut short after an incident involving his bowels and a shifting chamber pot) and his uncle remains in intermittent contact and sometimes takes him out. Maybe they thought he was too young to be told that his father had hanged himself, and would the doctors and nurses in the hospitals to which he was sent have known much about his background, much less the details of how his parents died? Nowadays they would make it their business to know, but in the days before computer records they may not have had easy access to much information beyond his medical notes.
The story does have a happy ending. Paddy had (and still has) a fulfilled life and has a wife and children, though the last part of the book relating his marriage and the acquisition of their first home seems a little brief and rushed. Maybe his agent or publishers did not see any point in wasting too much time on the more cheerful aspects of his life, given that they seemed to have made the decision to aim it at the misery market.
There are a few niggles. Would a four, five or six-year old really remember fairly long and detailed conversations? I suppose we have to allow some poetic licence and trust that the gist is accurate if not the detail. Following on from that is another question. Most writers tailor their work to a potential audience, or at least to a publisher. Is a disabled writer above that sort of jiggery-pokery or is he as capable of the same tricks as the rest of us? I think we know the answer, but perhaps only a mischievous person would pose the question.