An Industrial School Survivor Demands Answers on Why He Was Incarcerated at Age 11

On Wednesday 23 February, Seamus Kelly, an industrial school survivor, was outside the Probation Service headquarters just off Smithfield Square for the third time in about as many months.

His two earlier visits to the large stone building had been to protest outside. Today, though, he would get in.

Kelly, dressed in blue jeans and a black jacket and clasping a copy of his book in his hand, is 10 minutes early for his meeting with the director of the Probation Service.

It’s a meeting he has been pushing for since 2004, he says. “I need answers and I’m not going to stop this protest until I get them.”

Back in 2004 Kelly met with an assistant principal in the Probation Service to seek answers about the anomalies he had spotted in the official documents he had collected to try to piece together his story and understand the traumas of the early years of his life.

Mostly, he wants the Probation Service to look over any internal evidence they have that would suggest that those who handled him as a kid had changed his date of birth on purpose, he says.

Making him older on paper meant he had been put in industrial schools for which he was too young, says Kelly. He is disturbed too by a false allegation on his file, which he says must have come from his probation officer.

Kelly wasn’t satisfied with the response he got from the Probation Service in that meeting 16 years ago, he says, and has spent the years since pushing for more. “I’ve been ignored at every step.”

He doesn’t know what to expect from the meeting, he says. “If I feel they are lying or covering up I’ll just walk out. This is the only chance they are going to get.”


On 28 January, Kelly was outside the Probation Service headquarters in Smithfield holding a handwritten sign on a large wooden board.

“Probation officers from Cork trafficked children to industrial schools by changing dates of birth”, the sign says.

Three young men walk past. One of them turns to look, glancing back as he walks away. Two smartly dressed young women walk past and nod hello.

People are friendly, he says, although not everybody gets right away why he is there. Earlier, a couple sent their child back to give him €3, Kelly says laughing.

Kelly looks forward to protests, he says. It makes him feel like he is doing something. “I want them to sit down with me and say, ‘Seamus we messed up. They should come out and publicly apologise.”

This year, Kelly turns 60. But he can’t get away from his childhood.

When he was nine or 10, he started to skip school, Kelly says. He couldn’t endure the violence there. Unable to read, he got the worst beatings, he says.

“Every day the teachers drew blood out of me because I had dyslexia,” he says, shifting from one foot to another and shivering in the cold wind. “I was hopped off of chairs and hopped off of tables.”

He would instead go into town and steal sweets, he says. “Nobody ever asked me why I wasn’t going to school.”

He started to rob more, he says, ending up in a coma when he fell from the roof of the English Market as he hustled to steal chickens to feed his own and other families.

Seamus Kelly going into the Probation Service office in Smithfield. Photo by Laoise Neylon.

“Child of a Thousand Crimes” shouted a headline in the Evening Press in October 1976, written around the time Kelly turned 14.

Kelly says he deserved to be punished for crimes he committed. But others, adults in positions of power, committed much worse crimes and were never held to account, he says.

He was compensated through the redress board for his experience inside the industrial schools.

What he still wants, though, is the state’s acknowledgement of its broader involvement, he says – of the role of the Gardaí, the Probation Service, and psychiatrists in the incarceration of children.

“It was all part of the same system,” he says.

Haunting Kelly is his belief that a probation officer deliberately changed his date of birth to get him admitted to institutions for which he was too young, and made false allegations about him.

Official documents that he got over several years in the early 2000s through requests under the Freedom of Information Act, showed at least four different dates of birth for him.

Outside the Probation Services offices at Kelly’s one-man protest, it is windy and cold and starting to drizzle.

Kelly says he will head back to Heuston Station and catch the next train to Cork, listening to music all the way back.

“I can’t wait to get home to my wife,” he says.


Kelly was born on 27 October 1962, according to his certificate of baptism.

But he says that in 1974 his probation officer changed his date of birth on paperwork to May 1960. The probation officer had been with him for 18 months, he says and should have known his age.

Kelly was only 10 or 11 when he first got into trouble with Gardaí, and he says that most industrial schools at the time were not accepting children under 12.

While reformatory schools didn’t accept children younger than 12 in the early 1970s, industrial schools had their own rules in place around who they accepted, says Eoin O’Sullivan, professor of Social Policy in Trinity College Dublin.

Kelly says his age was an issue for authorities. “They knew I was too young and they knew I had stomach problems.” He had an issue with soiling himself, which may also have been a deterrent to schools accepting him.

In any case, two probation officers used the same incorrect date of birth, he says.

In January 1974, a probation officer wrote to St Joseph’s Industrial School in Ferry House, Clonmel recommending Kelly go there.

He was 13 and his date of birth was May 1960, he wrote, in a letter that also mentions Kelly’s adeptness at sports despite his small stature. Kelly was 11 at the time.

When he was 10, he was assessed by the Finglas Children’s Centre as having an intellectual disability because the person assessing him thought he was 12 years and eight months old, according to one media report.

In June 1974, Kelly was sentenced to three years in an institution in Lusk, and the conviction order from the court records another date of birth, 3 May 1961.

Kelly was released after three months because they realised he was too young to be there, he says. He was 11.

Later, a Department of Education document lists his date of birth as 2 October 1962.

While there are a number of different dates of birth, Kelly thinks the change was deliberate. A judge told the probation officer he had to find somewhere for him and very soon after that the date of birth was changed, he says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice says that the Probation Service has not received complaints from any other survivors of the institutions about their date of birth being changed.

Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn, a survivor of the industrial schools who works with other survivors too, says that he has seen lots of false information in documents, including incorrect dates of birth.

“The information was inaccurate because these people didn’t matter,” he says. “They were rubbish children that didn’t really matter.”

Flynn says that religious orders changed dates of birth to make a person younger as well as older.

“To keep a hold of them and to keep the numbers up,” he says, so they would still be paid for somebody rather than release them.

The Irish state has never attempted to rectify the widespread inaccuracies, says Flynn. “Neither the state nor the church has ever made any effort to get their records straight.”

Later newspaper reports talk of other difficulties in finding an institution that would take Kelly.

Help This Youngster, Two Priests Plead in Court”, a headline in the Cork Examiner in March 1976. A 13-year-old had stacked up multiple charges over two years for robbing shops in Cork city centre, it says.

That’s about him, Kelly says. His redress board report says he was well known to the public through the media.

In the Cork Examiner article , a judge says they have searched for two years for an institution that would take him.

“At one stage, the institutions were saying he was a medical case and the medical institutions were saying that he was a delinquent with whom they could not deal,” the judge is quoted as saying.


Among the newspaper reports, referral letters, medical and court records that Kelly has collected as he tries to piece together the role of state agencies in his early years, is a report from a psychiatrist.

Its contents have made Kelly think that his probation officer passed on untrue information to the psychiatrist, which were typed up in a report that was seen by a judge, but not until 2003 by him or his family.

The district court in Cork city sent children to a clinic in Lota in Glanmire to be psychiatrically assessed, says Kelly, and his probation officer took him there for his examination.

The psychiatrist wrote a report in January 1975, when Kelly was 12. “He is now the leader of a Bonny and Clyde type gang and included in its members are a girl aged 10 and a boy aged 8,” it says.

“There is fairly good evidence that he has been sexually assaulting the 10-year-old girl who cooperates,” the psychiatrist wrote.

Kelly only found out about that allegation when he started gathering documents to try to piece together what happened to him as a child.

The report says that it “is strictly confidential” and no responsibility can be taken if it is shown to the patient or their family.

Kelly was shocked by the allegation, he says. He contacted the Gardaí, who confirmed that he has no record of sexual offences.

In 2003, a different consultant psychiatrist wrote a report, saying she didn’t believe that this assault happened. “The two year age gap between the children would call into question the idea that this was a sexual assault,” she wrote.

“Mr Kelly has not behaved, since receiving the copy of this letter, in a manner that suggests that he has ever committed sexual assault,” the report says.

Kelly took a case to the high court to get the allegation removed from his medical history, as it was without foundation. But he feels the process was very unfair, he says, as he was never afforded an opportunity at the time to defend himself.

The only person who could have told the psychiatrist that was his probation officer, says Kelly.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t respond to a question about whether it was common practice at the time for serious allegations to be held on file about people without them knowing about it.

“Recognising the privacy rights of individuals, the Probation Service cannot publicly disclose personal information in relation to individual cases or where legal proceedings have been initiated,” says the spokesperson.

“We can confirm that any complaints of this nature are given the highest priority and efforts are made to ensure that engagement with complainants are managed in a sensitive and appropriate manner,” they said.

“Record keeping was pretty hopeless back then,” says O’Sullivan, the Trinity professor who has studied the industrial schools. But he is surprised that in 1974 there wasn’t a birth certificate on file for Kelly, he says.

O’Sullivan says it can be very distressing for people who have been in institutions to get their files. Sometimes the information is hurtful and other times wrong.

He points to the work of an Australian academic Jacqueline Z. Wilson, a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Federation University Australia, who had been placed in state care as a child.

When Wilson got her file, she was shocked to discover that the subjective views of staff were presented as facts and that the documents were riddled with obvious factual inaccuracies.

This matters because it disrupts the person’s sense of identity, Wilson and her colleague Frank Golding, who had also been in care, wrote in a 2016 academic paper.

Kelly would like to speak to anyone who was in St Laurence’s at the same time as him to help piece together what happened, he says.


At age 13, Kelly was sentenced to a year in St Laurence’s Industrial School in Finglas, also called the Finglas Children’s Centre.

He was kept in St Laurence’s after his discharge date when the Minister for Education extended his term.

Kelly says his mother was told that if she signed him over she would get permission to visit. She signed but still couldn’t see him, he says.

Kelly says that he was sexually abused by a Christian Brother in St Laurence’s. He was badly beaten there too, he says, believing he was picked on because of the false sexual assault allegation on his file.

Kelly says he still remembers the day staff from the industrial school drove him from Finglas to Cork, telling him he was going home.

“I was so excited to see my mam,” he says. But as they drove into Cork city, they started to go the wrong way, says Kelly.

Kelly asked to be let out, he says, but they drove to a Garda station and picked up one of his friends.

Driving back through the city centre, he spotted his mother walking across St Patrick’s Bridge with bags of shopping, Kelly says. “I screamed out, ‘Mam!’ and I tried to get out of the car.”

His mother dropped her bags, he says. “Her face went white because she heard my voice,” he says.

But the nuns beat him and wouldn’t let him out of the car, says Kelly. “They never took me home,” he says, and looking back he thinks he was there to encourage his friend to get into the car. “That was the day they broke my spirit.”

Kelly has received compensation for his experience in the industrial school. But he is taking a separate civil case against the Probation Service.

At the redress hearing in 2004, the judge said that they could only deal with what happened inside the industrial school.

“Supposing an applicant came to us and there was strong evidence that the State messed him up entirely ever before he went into residential care and then continued to mess him up when he was in residential care, right,” says Judge O’Leary.

“The redress we would be giving would be in respect of the period when he was in residential care,” he said.


Kelly smiles.

“For someone like me, who started off when I couldn’t read and write, it’s an achievement to have got him to meet me,” he says.

They seem like nice people, he says, recounting the meeting with the Probation Service staff.

They apologised to him, he says, but are still saying that changing his date of birth was an accident. Kelly still doesn’t believe that, he says.

He is sticking with his civil case, he says.

Although it isn’t money he wants, says Kelly. “I don’t want their blood money,” he says, just to clear his name.

Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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