‘The God Squad’ by Paddy Doyle

It must be a matter of wonder to the nuns and other people who figure as actors in the story of The God Squad that a boy who was orphaned at the age of four, was brought up in an Irish Industrial School and suffered a progressive and serious disability, nonetheless managed to write such a best-selling classic.

While the plot is very simple – Paddy Doyle’s life as a child in the ‘care’ of a variety of ‘caring’ services – the graphic directness of the writing makes the book as gripping a read as any thriller. Assuming you have not yet read the book, you will not know the outcome, other than that Paddy Doyle survived his experiences and was able to write it. Unlike Poirot’s cases, there is no neat denouement – just a young person growing up into adulthood with a really mixed bag of childhood memories.

Paddy Doyle was born in 1951 and both his parents died in 1955, his father having committed suicide, an image etched deep in Paddy’s brain as a small child. His uncle could not care for him, and so off he went, not yet old enough for school, to live with a lot of other children, parentless or abandoned by their parents in an Industrial School.

Industrial Schools were set up in the nineteenth century. In England they were changed into Approved Schools in 1933 and into Community Homes with Education in 1969, but in Ireland there was no new child care legislation between the Children Act 1908 when Ireland was under Westminster rule and 2001 when the Republic brought in a sweeping new Children Act. So in Paddy’s day they still had Industrial Schools, many of them run by Catholic Orders.

The picture he paints of the apparently casual cruelty of many of the nuns is grim, but it rings true. It sets questions going too. Did the nuns know that they were being cruel? Did they want to be like that? Or did circumstances put them under pressure? Controlling a large number of stroppy children can be difficult, and Paddy Doyle leaves plenty of clues that he must have been quite a handful at times. How would the nuns have described the events in his book?  Was it the corruption of power over little children that changed them? Was it the effect of repressing so many human urges and the need to appear good? Did they truly believe that a harsh regime would bring the children up on the straight and narrow? Or did the work attract the wrong sort of people?

The story rings true also because Paddy acknowledges the kindness and love shown by quite a number of the people who cared for him, from consultants to unqualified nurses. And some of the cast in the story play walk-on neutral parts. They are not all simply villains or saints.

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. Even allowing for conditions at that time, some of Paddy’s observations are surprising. The children in the Industrial School only used spoons, and he did not know how to use other cutlery. There was no toilet paper either. I cannot speak of Ireland at that time, but in England people were still sticking squares of newspaper on a nail in their outside toilet then, and hard toilet paper was still in use in the 1970s in institutions.

One of the most painful things for Paddy was the lack of information he experienced and the lies which concealed the truth about his predicament or about the decisions which had been made about him. These days there would be the expectation that children should be informed and consulted, but then children were to be largely seen but not heard. They were not involved in decisions and many professionals did not know how to talk to children. Explaining to Paddy about his father’s death would have been beyond the ability of the Industrial School staff.

Paddy Doyle has some lovely cameos, for example of the matron who sweeps in, terrifies staff and patients, makes decisions which must be obeyed, and sweeps out. Society was hierarchical then, but it was the next generation’s decision to get rid of such dragons which led to all the dirty hospital wards from which we are now beginning to recover.

The God Squad was first published in 1988 and it deservedly won the Christy Brown award for Literature. Paddy Doyle has developed quite a career since its publication as a writer, media personality and campaigner. I do not recall its impact at the time, and if any reader could fill out the story I would be interested to hear what effect it had in Ireland. It was many years after publication before the Ryan inquiry was set up, but maybe Paddy Doyle’s story helped to soften up the ground.

The message we need to take away is that of the pain, fear and loneliness which children may experience, even when they appear to be quiet, conforming and amenable. We need to be alert to their real feelings, prepared to listen and confident that their needs can be met with skill and love.

Doyle, Paddy The God Squad


ISBN : 0-552-13582-8

3 thoughts on “‘The God Squad’ by Paddy Doyle”

  1. Surprised and delighted to read David Lane’s review of Paddy Doyle’s book. It certainly did create a stir in Ireland when first published and was one of those books ahead of its time for reasons that are all too obvious now.
    Paddy is still to the forefront as an independent voice here in Ireland and has managed to steer his own course through recent years. Interesting that David should mention the Christy Brown award. Those who have seen the film “My Left Foot” may recall Christy (Daniel Day Lewis) scoring a goal against a sceptical friend in a street football game. Well, I can recall a number of occasions at child care conferences in the late 80s /early 90s when Paddy Doyle took on all comers as a goalkeeper in games that pitted teams of at least 20 (some the worse for wear after no sleep the previous night)from different parts of Ireland against each other on the Saturday night of a weekend conference.This was before PC & Health & Safety were even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. His spirit, determination and humour were just as evident on those occasions as in his book. Like “The God Squad” Patrick Tyrrell’s book “Founded on Fear” is another that gives credit where due to those in residential care who treated children with humanity. We are indebted to both for that balance, sadly, if understandably lacking in most media comment after the Ryan Report. Noel Howard

  2. The sad and true fact is though that children in Ireland in 2010 are still dying and disappearing and suffering because of the taboo of the “disposable children”- the children of the poor, whom society wants to ignore. 2010 and HSE in Ireland still try to hide their abuse of children in their “care” with only one TD bothering to ask questions. The HSE uses the same tactics as the Catholic church institution.

    Imagine 1995 and a child reports abuse and the remedy provided by child protective social workers was Electric Shock Therapy to burn out the memories of the abuse and place the child with his abuser.The child was to be placed in child’s prison age 9- not for committing a crime, but because he was a victim of a crime. His adult criminal abuser was free to enjoy his life and move onto his next victim.

    So, the mentality Paddy describes still exists in Ireland re children – born in sin and must suffer- as the church dictated how good suffering was their souls. I doubt Paddy would agree that the suffering he endured did any good for his soul.

    This book ought to be compulsory reading for those working with children in state “care”.

  3. I never heard of Paddy Doyle while I lived in Ireland. Like Father Ted, the powers that be make sure that this type of truth is kept well suppressed. It is only abroad that I came to know Paddy and his work.Even in 1988 the church was well in control of the people and parents of the former generation would order their children never to speak evil of the men and women of “God”

    The men and women of God were free to do as they pleased with the blessing of most parents- who also grew up in total fear of the agents of the church. The Sin business was big ££££. The guilt trippng and the fear kept the sheeple in their place- slaves to the men of god.

    Having written all this, i still know children in UK “care” who have suffered rape, torture, selling for sex etc in the full knowledge of Local Authorities and Family courts and no one blinks an eye.

    Many paid to “care for children” see them as dirt on their shoes due to eugenics programming.


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