On Raging Giants

Yesterday I found myself mentally trying to compartmentalise the violence chronicled in the Ryan report, by figuring that my own treatment at primary school, which was punctuated with punishment with rulers and leather straps by lay teachers, usually in my case for not doing set homework, bore no comparison to the extreme violence perpetrated on the child prisoners of the industrial schools, who were raped and used as slave labour.

But then I realised that reacting that way is perverse: even though you think you are coming to terms of the full weight of what was visited on those children, you are in actual fact denying it. Which is to say, when I imply that the violence I experienced was nothing serious, and that a blow administered every now and again did not leave much of a mark, I am also implying that the sum total of the violence catalogued in the Ryan report was not as bad as they say it was, because I am denying the potentially devastating effects of any single act of violence on the part of an adult against a child.

It was not until I read some books by Alice Miller that I started to think with any depth about the gravity of corporal punishment on children. Here is an extract from one of her books:

Like many other people I thought: “Me? I was never beaten. The few slaps I got were nothing special. And my mother took so much trouble with me.”

But we must not forget that the consequences of early, invisible injuries are so severe precisely because they derive from the trivialization of childhood suffering and the denial of its importance. Adults can easily imagine that they would be horrified and humiliated if they were suddenly attacked by a raging giant many times bigger than themselves. Yet we assume that small children will not react in the same way, although we have all kinds of evidence to indicate how sensitively and competently children respond to their environment. Parents believe that slaps and spanking do not hurt. Such treatment is designed to impress certain values on their children. And the children end up believing that themselves. Some even learn to laugh the whole thing off and to deride the pain they felt at the humiliations inflicted on them. As adults they adhere to this derision, they are proud of their own cynicism, sometimes even making literature out of it, as in the case of James Joyce, Frank McCourt, and many others.

It seems to me there is no way of coming to terms with what was visited on the children in industrial schools without tackling the broader use of corporal punishment in society. A society that prohibited corporal punishment is highly unlikely to produce the horror of industrial schools. But if you look at how the relation between corporal punishment at large and the sadistic brutality in industrial schools is getting covered, the former is cited as a mitigating factor when bringing judgement to bear on the latter.

Kevin Myers provides a good example:

Yet my over-riding emotion was not one of injustice at what was happening to me, but a determination that I should not cry out. At the conclusion of each beating, my assailant shook my hand and congratulated me on my stoicism.

I later examined myself in the mirror. Across my buttocks were four livid, black, red and purple welts. These were swollen and oozed blood. My underpants and pyjamas looked like used-bandages.

I could not sit comfortably for a week, and for that time, my underwear and sheets were regularly bloodied. By today’s standards, this was a criminal assault. By the standards of the time, it was perfectly normal and the ability to take one’s punishment without complaint was a test of manhood.

I don’t compare what happened to me with what happened to so many children in so many schools, especially those who were sexually abused. I am merely saying that virtually everyone believed in the use of violence against children. Had not my parents — kind, loving people — sent me to that school, knowing that corporal punishment was part of the regimen?

And then:

The past is another country.

The greater truth of that mysterious land perishes soon after the train leaves the station, and thenceforth, it is largely a question of travellers’ tales — of griffons, dragons, mermaids and unicorns. Not just about child abuse, but about everything.

Leaving aside the appalling implied parallel between the stories of a victim of abuse in an industrial school and figures of fantasy, there is a weird historicism at play here: an implication that it is fruitless to focus too much on the extreme violence of the industrial schools because they were merely an instance of the culture of the time, snatches of which we can only glimpse through its mystical otherness. (Curiously, there are echoes here of the ‘moral relativist’ caricature, often developed by advocates of high-altitude bombing and military occupation, of the scatterbrained Western liberal-left feminist who says we should leave Afghanistan alone because ‘their culture’ should be respected.)

However, Myers is right to note that virtually everyone believed in the use of violence against children. What he does not say is that this belief in the use of violence is instilled by the use of violence. There is nothing mysterious about this. A child beaten by parents or by people acting in loco parentis will come to see the violence visited on them as justified, precisely because of the fact that as children they trust and depend on their parents or their teachers. Even in the event that the child does not see a particular act of violence as justified, they are likely to see it as something they themselves have produced through their own behaviour, and therefore deserved in some way. A longer term effect of this can be enthusiastic, unquestioning approval of extreme violence when carried out by an entity -say, a religious order, a police force or an army- with which the former child identifies. Or, respect for those in higher authority and contempt for those below.

The first time I was hit by a teacher was when I was 8, because I hadn’t done a piece of maths homework, which, if I recall correctly, involved writing out times tables which I already knew by heart anyway. Most of the time I didn’t bother with homework. I was aware I was going to get hit for not doing it, but since I usually got it done surreptitiously in class before the teacher got round to checking books, it was a risk I was willing to bear in exchange for another ten minutes of playing football, watching TV, whatever. On this day in particular, the routine was changed, and I was caught.

The implement was two wooden rulers, which made a loud crack when brought down across the fingers of the child. Only (only!) children above age of 7 were hit, but rumours of the properties of the rulers, and the leather strap, had circulated among younger children: it was rumoured that some teachers used rulers cracked up the middle so your skin would get sliced open, others used a leather strap with 50p coins sewn into them.

The rest of the class had to see, so I was brought to the blackboard. In a minor miracle, the other 33 boys in the class had done their homework that day. There were no prefacing or concluding remarks to the administering of the punishment, just a few moments’ wait in the expectant gaze of the other boys as the teacher rummaged for his two rulers. When the blow came, it was as a relief, since the crack of the ruler marked the end of the ritual. I remember thinking that the pain was no big deal and that I’d sustained far worse from falling in the playground. Also, since I’d been reading Boy by Roald Dahl, I figured I knew what real punishment -of the type meted out in English boarding schools- was like. And, curiously, the fact of being hit made me feel I had established a bond with the boys in the class who were regularly hit for their disruptiveness.

Looking back I can see the contours of the event more clearly. First, the punishment is not just a matter of disciplining the individual child, but of disciplining the whole class: this is what happens to you if you do not do what you are told. Second, the violence is not confined to the act of striking the child. In fact, the act of striking the child is sustained by the implicit threat of greater violence. That is, if I had the capacity to resist in some active form, by, say, running away, or refusing to get up from my desk, my resistance would be met with even greater violence. Third -and of course, this never occurred to me at the time- the violent act is a means of maintaining authority at the precise moment that the legitimacy of that authority is effectively undermined. I had not done my homework, but I didn’t need to, at least for the stated purpose of learning how to multiply. I already knew my times tables, and the teacher knew it too: my homework was a mind-numbing, pointless exercise. The act of violence in this context, then, effaces the fact that there is no legitimacy in making people carry out pointless tasks.

How did this and other similar events affect me? First, I think it fostered a passive-aggressive attitude to authority. Rather than disciplining me in the sense of learning to follow commands blindly, the threat of physical punishment taught me to sharpen my skills of finding ways of not doing what I’m told without actually saying No through direct confrontation (since direct confrontation connotes the threat of violence). Such skills are not especially marketable, and there is a glut of supply in these parts. Second, and more curiously, even though I probably knew deep down that he ought not to have hit me, it didn’t diminish my conscious respect for him. It didn’t mean I thought the teacher could not be trusted: on the contrary, the fact that he had hit me only when I expected him to meant I saw him as entirely trustworthy. So when he wrote on my report at the end of that year that I ‘could be lazy at times’, I trusted he was correct. In short, I trusted him because he hit me.

Writing this, I feel an impulse to relativise my own experience, to say that it was not much by comparison with what other boys in my class got, that it was even less by comparison with what my parents’ generation got, and that it pales into near total insignificance when considered in terms of what the children in the industrial schools got. But then I think about what I would do if I got a call telling me that a teacher was about to hit my own son in front of the class for not doing as he was told. I would do anything in my power to stop it from happening, because I would consider it an outrage.

Corporal punishment in schools was abolished in the Republic of Ireland in 1982, and in Northern Ireland in 1987. Its abolition has had an undeniable civilising effect, though some neanderthals call for its reintroduction. But the effects of its use linger, and too many ‘raging giants’ are still at large, still permitted to act under the guise of ‘reasonable chastisement’:

3.2 Corporal punishment

45. While corporal punishment in Ireland is prohibited for children in detention and schools as well as all places where a child is in public care, and violence against children is prohibited under the Children Act 2001, parents can still use chastisement under common law. Following a collective complaint brought by the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT), the European Committee on Social Rights ruled in 2005 that Ireland’s common law “reasonable chastisement” defence is in violation of Article 17 of the Revised European Social Charter. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2006 reiterated its previous recommendation to ban all forms of corporal punishment, including within the family. NGOs representing children have expressed their disappointment that although the Irish Government has made a commitment to introduce legislation in line with “developing social standards”, no draft legislation, nor any timeline for its introduction, has been proposed.

46. The Commissioner has called on all States party to the European Convention on Human Rights to explicitly prohibit corporal punishment, including in the family. The issue is currently under review in Ireland. In late 2007, the specially appointed Child Rapporteur delivered his expert opinion to the Oireachtas. He warned that Ireland might be liable to a legal action under Article 3 of the European Convention banning torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and recommended legislative change invoking the principle of proportionality.

47. The Commissioner wishes to refer to the ongoing Council of Europe information activities in this field. He recalls that although legal reform is needed, sustained public education and awareness-raising, including the promotion of positive parenting, is also necessary to end legal and social acceptance of violence against children. He welcomes the ongoing review in Ireland and urges the Irish authorities to bring Irish law in line with international standards.

There is no point in reeling in horror at the monstrosities of the industrial schools unless it is matched with a willingness to confront those ‘raging giants’.

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4 Responses to “On Raging Giants”


  1. 1 lolarusa May 27, 2009 at 4:26 am

    I think the impulse to downplay the seriousness of the violence inflicted on us as children is a kind of bravado that is healthy, in a way. It’s a refusal to be humiliated, a way of saying, you may have beat me but you didn’t break me.

  2. 2 coc June 3, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Powerful stuff.

    I would however caution against thinking that changing a law alone can immdeiately change social attitudes. Most parents nowadays would not admit to assaulting their children, but most parents nowadays were assaulted by their own parents back in the day. I think it will take as many generations to iron all corporal punishment from Irish society as it took to embed the practice. That is a lot of generations.

    Changing the law is no more than an aspirational statement of intent. The real work is to educate society as to the evils of violence against children. That takes time and effort whereas a children’s rights referendum might only take a couple fo months to organise. Then we can all go back to pretending nobody is beating or raping children all around us.

    Sadly we have shown ourselves, as a society, to be easily seduced by quick-fix feelgood solutions that put things on the long finger. Look at the failure to legislate for the X-Case as an example.

  3. 3 Hugh Green June 3, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Yeah, I agree. To be sure, I quoted the Commissioner’s report more as an instance of how Ireland is backward by comparison with other countries, rather pointing toward constitutional change as the solution, even though I do think that a children’s rights referendum is necessary, and that legal prohibition would attenuate instances of violence against children. At the very least it might introduce some sort of social stigma that doesn’t exist presently. But yes, you’re talking about generations for it to be eradicated.

    Another thing I left out is the question of class. I was talking to someone at the weekend who is involved in family law in the North. She was saying that of those children whose cases come before the courts, many of those subjected to the most extreme violence and neglect are children whose parents are long-term unemployed, languishing on social welfare, basically with no means of envisioning or attaining a more worthwhile existence, and who see nothing abnormal about how they treat their children (it’s not an excuse, but we can probably assume that they were treated similarly as children).

    So there’s probably an additional danger in introducing additional formal rights for children and leaving it at that: that it might be seen as postponing, even denying the need for a concerted effort to deal with the conditions that produce the most extreme violence against children (even though, of course, abuse is not the preserve of any social class).

    • 4 theraggedwagon July 30, 2017 at 5:03 pm

      WOW! Talk about stigmatising the unemployed & the poor! And based on the Ryan Report … obviously not a reading of the Report as the abuses carried out in the institutions (physical & sexual) were carried out by members of the Religious Orders who were mostly comprised of people somewhat higher up the social scale (in Ireland) that the abused victims parents.


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