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