ARTANE: THE REAL TRUTH – This school was a concentration camp for little children where the Brothers destroyed us and nobody gave a damn.
ARTANE: THE REAL TRUTH – This school was a concentration camp for little children where the Brothers destroyed us and nobody gave a damn.
WHEN the Artane Boys’ Band performs before the All-Ireland football final on Sunday it will strike fear into the heart of Michael O’Brien.
The band is a constant reminder of the horrific physical and sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of the industrial school’s Christian Brothers.
And he’s joining other victims asking the band to play a hymn in their honour.
It would be a symbolic gesture for the men whose lives were torn apart by the sickening regime.
But it can never repair the damage that’s been done.
The Pope, the order of Christian Brothers and the government have apologised to the Artane boys.
But for many of the boys who became broken men that isn’t enough.
Now victims are breaking their silence because they want Ireland to know what went on behind closed doors.
Michael is one of hundreds of young boys systematically abused – both sexually and violently – by some of those charged with his care.
Already 270 men have made allegations against 160 Brothers in the biggest child sex abuse investigation Ireland has ever known.
Only now, 30 years after the school was razed to the ground, has Michael O’Brien found the strength to speak out.
JILLY BEATTIE tells his story.
FROM his first day at Artane Industrial School to the moment he left, Michael O’Brien lived in terror every minute of his life.
His tormentor-in-chief was Joseph O’Connor, a Christian Brother so evil Michael can barely speak his name today.
He said: “O’Connor was the most evil, depraved b****** that ever walked this land. I pray to God that he’s rotting in Hell now.
“When he was dying a few years ago, I went to his hospital bedside and watched him for three days and two nights until he died.
“I wanted to see him exhale his last breath. I wanted to know he couldn’t do what he’d done to me again.
“I wanted to see him die. I wanted to see him dead.
“And when his body was removed to the mortuary, I managed to get in and took the sheet off his face. I had to make sure it was him.
“It gave me no relief that he was dead because I couldn’t make him pay for what he did, but I needed to know he was gone.”
At 47, Michael still wakes screaming in the night, sheets saturated in sweat and his own urine.
That is what Artane did to him. That is how deep the harrowing memories of his time under Joe O’Connor’s brutal regime have left their terrible mark on him.
Michael was only five when he was put into the church’s care.
His mother, Bernadette, was labelled unfit after a house fire which killed his baby sister, Marian.
He never saw his mother again.
At first, Michael was looked after with his brother and another sister at the Golden Bridge holding centre in Dublin. Then nuns took care of them at St Kieran’s in Rathdrum.
It wasn’t perfect but he felt safe. At just nine years old, his life changed forever.
He was taken away from his sister and brother and packed off to Artane in the north side of Dublin.
He recalls: “I was one of four of boys who went on the train. We were excited by the journey but we’d no idea where we were going. We were lambs to the slaughter.”
It was at Connolly Station he came face to face with O’Connor for the first time – a man in his early fifties, dressed all in black.
Even though he was an innocent child, Michael knew instantly the Brother was evil.
He said: “There was no smile, no welcome, not even ‘hello’.
“He told us his name and the horror I felt when he spoke to us that first time is still with me.
“I knew the moment I saw him that he was bad – strong, fierce and bad.
“He asked if any of us could sing because he was in charge of the Artane Boys’ Band – he was marking his prey.
The children were young, vulnerable and nobody cared what happened to them. They were orphans, runaways or just schoolboys who had played truant.
Their few possessions were taken away and they were given a number instead of a name.
THEY were the lost boys who had no-one to turn to for help and the Brothers were free to treat them as they liked.
Michael explained: “There wasn’t a week that went past I didn’t suffer some sort of abuse. O’Connor was a monster.
“Artane means many things to me – being beaten, bloody, b******d and bruised.
“It was a concentration camp for children and no-one gave a damn. “The Brothers took our names and gave us numbers. Then they systematically destroyed us.
“It was the closest thing you could get to a concentration camp, except the number wasn’t stamped on our bodies, it was stamped into our brains.
“I wiped that memory a long time ago. I can’t, and don’t want to remember what my number was. But most former Artane boys can. Some of them can’t forget it no matter how they try.
“We were taken to a dormitory where there must have been about 150 beds, row after row.
“A Brother had a separate room inside the dormitory and we were watched over by monitors too, older boys who also later abused us.
“At night the Brother in charge would pace around the dormitory. “You could hear the skirts of his cassocks making a swishing sound as he walked.
“He would pick a boy out, literally drag him from his bed, rape and beat him in his room. Sometimes he would even rape him in the dorm for everyone to hear.
“No-one would open their eyes, no-one would make a sound. We all pretended to sleep through the noise and screams but we all heard what was going on.
“My only consolation was when someone else was getting raped, it wasn’t me.
“Everybody I’ve spoken to since felt the same.
“My heart would bang like mad as the Brother approached my bed. I held my breath. I’d be sure he would hear my heart beating and take me out for making so much noise.
“Like all the boys, I was desperate to be left alone. Then I would feel intense relief and guilt as another boy was dragged screaming from his bed.
IT happened every night for the five years that I was there. It happened every night without fail and there were plenty of times I was the boy who was dragged off.
“We were victims from the moment we walked through those doors. We were beaten, we were battered and we were b******d.
“All the Brothers carried a leather strap which they pummelled us with.
“Some of them inserted bits of metal into the tip and sewed it up to make it harder. One of the Brothers was called The Sheriff because he carried a strap in each pocket and would produce them like two pistols before he thrashed us.
“They used any excuse to beat us. Our shoes and clothes were inspected for wear and tear. We had to hold a boot upside down in each hand and a Brother would go along the line with chalk and circle any wear that needed repair.
“In my first few months I joined a line of about 15 boys who had been singled out because their boots needed work done to them.
“We were paraded into the boot room one at a time – that was where I had my first sexual experience.
“The Brother sat down on a bench and talked quietly to me about the need to take care of my belongings.
“I thought all the talk about them being b******s might be wrong because this fella seemed OK.
“I started talking to him but then he stroked my privates through my trousers. He talked all the while, gently and quietly about the need for consideration, talking about caring for other people. He told me I could come to him at any time with any problem.
“Then he told me told me to go and not to mention what had happened.
“I was the first into the boot room that day. There was a row of boys behind me who probably got the same treatment or worse.
“I walked away confused and upset. I couldn’t understand what had happened, what he meant or what he’d done. I felt ashamed and I didn’t really know why.
“Looking back, I realise the abuse was premeditated and systematic. The Brothers tested the boys for a reaction and picked on the ones who had no parents or family outside the school to turn to. The more vulnerable the boy, the more vicious the abuse.
“The next time the Brother who had touched me in the boot room spoke to me, he told me to go to his room. Then he made me take off my clothes and he tried to arouse me. I was 10 years old.
“I was confused and shocked. I started to cry and he leathered me and told me to stop crying, then he told me to go.
“It was a test to see if I would squeal to anyone about what had happened. He had told me not to talk to anyone about it and I was so terrified and ashamed that I didn’t. I didn’t talk to anyone about it for 30 years.
“Then I was forced to help a Brother commit an act in front of another boy. I was forced to have oral sex and he told me afterwards to rinse my mouth and teeth in cold water.
“Then he grabbed me and screamed at me to pray for forgiveness for tempting him like that. He held me in his arms, he rocked me and hit me and he prayed for forgiveness. “I was just one of 800 boys in there and it was happening all the time. The terror of being called or told to report to a Brother was indescribable. I’ve lived my entire life there with a knot in my stomach.
“One of the brothers hurt me so badly that he ruptured me inside. I was 11 years old.
“The day before he had taken me into his room, made me strip naked and had tied me to his bed with belts. He gagged me and left me there, naked, crying and choking. I was terrified. “I thought I was going to die. I was sure he would come back and kill me. I prayed for help. I prayed to get away. He came back about an hour later, but it felt like he’d been gone for days.
“He untied me, kicked me and told me to get dressed and say nothing to anyone.
“I thought it was a miracle I’d survived. I was happy. But the next day it happened again – only this time it was worse.
“He took me to his room and made me undress, all the while beating me, kicking me, hitting me off the walls and the furniture. “I was screaming but no-one came, no-one helped me.
“That time he bound and gagged me, then tied me face down on his bed and assaulted me.
“It was brutal. The pain was indescribable but I couldn’t scream because I was gagged. “Then suddenly there was blood everywhere. He panicked and tried to clean me up, but shouted and screamed at me for bleeding and making a scene. “He took me down to the infirmary which was run by another Brother who cleaned me up and put me to bed.
“I stayed there for four days until the bleeding stopped. But I was given no medical care. I wasn’t seen by a doctor because he would have wanted to know how the injury happened.
“I have no way to describe the terror I felt during that time and in the hours, days and months afterwards. I find it almost impossible to explain what happened to anyone today.
“The same brother attacked me again shortly afterwards but he’d done so much damage the first time that I bled very quickly again. He was furious and battered me, screaming that I was a worthless little b******, screaming that I’d made him do this.”
After abusing them, the Brothers told the boys it was their own fault and they should pray for forgiveness.
Michael explained: “He yelled that I’d tempted him, that I was an evil little piece of s*** and that I should pray for forgiveness for making him do what he did. He told me it was my fault. I believed him. I prayed for us in the middle of tears and snotters and blood. And was taken down to the infirmary again.
“We were told that we had to ask God for forgiveness for ‘badness’ – the word they used to excuse the rapes – that they blamed us for. We had no one to turn to and we were made to feel guilty for being bad boys and tempting the Brothers.
“These brothers were our guardians, they replaced the parents we had lost or been taken away from. They were meant to look after us, care for us and prepare us for life.
“We needed to be loved and nurtured – instead we were abused and tortured. We were just little boys, we were the human equivalent of blotting paper going into that place – blank sheets with no impressions. And then all that c**p, terror and abuse was imprinted onto us. It left us destroyed bundles of nerves and pain.
“We told no one about what happened. Boys who made confessions to the priest were beaten. We were too frightened to talk about it. We believed we’d be terrorised and we were frightened God would punish us if we were caught talking about it.
“After that I became invisible. I hid inside myself and stopped talking. I thought if I was invisible I wouldn’t get hurt. I was terrified and hiding was my only protection.
“But the abuse continued. I stayed silent, I became compliant. I stopped crying because I worked out that the Brothers would hit you until you stopped crying. I still don’t cry today. I broke down once in counselling a few months ago but that has been it.”
As with many of the boys, Michael started wetting the bed as a result of his trauma – and that meant more punishment and psychological abuse.
He explained: “The stress had to come out somewhere and I started to wet the bed again. I joined the group of boys known as The Slashers, the boys who soiled their sheets.
“We were made to strip our beds every morning and carry the sheets through the school, past hundreds of boys and the Brothers to the laundry rooms.
“We were laughed and shouted at, ridiculed and hit. We were ashamed and frightened. We were separated. We were just a bunch of nobodies who p***** the bed.
“I remember desperately trying to stay awake so I would make it to the loo before I peed the bed. But of course I fell asleep and the shame and terror I felt in the morning when I realised I was lying in wet sheets was awful.
“The abuse – physical, sexual and psychological – was part of every day life at Artane.
“The shock element of it wore off after a few years. As I got older I coped differently with it differently.
“It got to a stage where I would be thankful if I got called in by a Brother who I knew would just want sex.
“The ones who were violent as well as paedophiles were a bigger problem. But Joe Boy always tracked me down. That bastard beat me until I bled, he assaulted me, he rammed my head in a drawer and abused me while he slammed it.
“If a few days went past without anything happening it was brilliant, but I would get anxious because every day that I didn’t get hurt brought me closer to the day that I would.
“It was a way of life for those b*******. One of them even kept a tin of Vaseline in his pouch. In my last couple of years at Artane, the Brothers would give me and the older boys cigarettes as a sort of reward.
“They turned us into prostitutes. I became an expert in pleasing my abusers, we all did. The quicker you got it over with, the sooner they’d let you go.”
Michael said by the time he left Artane years of torment had turned him into an emotional zombie – unable of showing or receiving real affection.
He said: “By the time I was 13 I’d just closed down. It was like flicking a switch to turn off the emotion and at the time I thought it made the sex less of an ordeal.
“But my life has been a festering sore since the day I walked through the doors of Artane, suppurating, weeping and poisoned.
“I left that place with pounds 1 in my pocket and a word of advice from a Brother not to mention anything that had gone on behind the doors.
“I couldn’t read or write. I couldn’t even tell the time. I didn’t understand how men and women had relationships. It seemed ridiculous to me, it was the sort of thing giggled about at school.
“I knew sex was painful, dirty and secret. I knew sex with other men was called ‘badness’ but I didn’t know any other way. I knew that life was about getting hit and being hurt.
“That was the education the Brothers at Artane Industrial School gave me. And I was no different to the thousands of boys who came through the place.”
“Even now I still find myself making excuses for the Brothers who abused me, all of them except Joe Boy, Brother Joe O’Connor. “Because of him I tried to commit suicide twice. I have several failed relationships behind me and years of counselling ahead of me.”
And Michael has never married or had any children of his own.
Today he lives in a smart Dublin Quays apartment where there is little hint of his tortured past until he starts to talk about his school days.
He said: “I kept what happened to me bottled up for 30 years. Like every other Artane boy, I felt terrible shame and blamed myself for what happened.”
But Brother O’Connor’s death triggered so many memories and so much pain in Michael’s life that he tried to kill himself.
Only in the last 16 months has he finally started to talk about the appalling abuse he suffered. Only now is his regret that his two suicide attempts failed beginning to fade.
He said: “Only in the last few months, since I’ve been able to talk about this, has the knot started to loosen.
“I, and possibly thousands of other former Artane boys, will never be free from this. But we have to learn how to live with what was done to us.”
He explained: “The first time I was hugged by someone in a genuine show of affection, I was 36. I didn’t know there was such a thing and today I still find it difficult to have physical contact with anyone. Giving someone a hug takes effort. It feels strange.
“That’s what those b******* did to me. They turned me into a social and emotional mess with no idea of how to sustain a loving relationship.”
Now as Secretary of the Alliance for Healing of Institutional Abuse, Michael is determined to show his abusers to the world.
He wants to make them pay for the terror he experienced during his stay between 1962 and 1967 and thousands of other boys suffered at Artane from the 1940s until the building was razed to the ground in 1969.
He said: “They can never give us back what they took from us – but we need justice. We need more than an apology for the things we suffered. I want to live now. I want a life and I can’t have it unless I get some peace of mind.”
Michael O’Brien can be contacted at the Alliance for Healing of Institutional Abuse on 01-825-2353.