'Paddy's honesty helped transform Ireland. His memoir 'The God Squad' spoke for thousands whose voices had been ignored'

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Paddy Doyle – the writer and disability rights campaigner who died last week – was not the first survivor of abuse in a religious institution to try and tell his story. Peter Tyrrell in 1960s London also tried, but when nobody would publish his testimony, Tyrrell set himself alight on Hampstead Heath, despairing of ever being heard.

Ireland didn’t want to know what happened in institutions. The novelist Brian O’Nolan’s descent into alcoholism was accelerated by how, as a civil servant, he witnessed an alleged government cover up into a fire in a Cavan orphanage. Poor Clare nuns reportedly refused to let firemen rescue the girls inside – 35 burnt to death – because they were dressed in night attire.

Younger readers may find it hard to believe how insidious the silence was around industrial schools and orphanages because so much has been published since Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan’s 1999 forensic exposé of Irish institutions, Suffer the Little Children.

In 1988, that silence was first broken by the courageous Paddy Doyle in an extraordinary memoir, The God Squad – a chronicle of what he knew about his life and an exploration into facts kept hidden from him.

Aged four, Paddy was brought before a Wexford District Court in 1955 for being “in possession of a guardian who did not exercise proper control”. Gardaí served An Order of Detention to an Industrial School. An uncle – his sole living relative – handed him into the care of nuns in Michael’s Industrial School in Cappoquin.

Here, he was viciously beaten for mentioning remembering a man hanging from a tree. But he was also beaten for any reason, starved, sexually abused and caned viciously when he began to drag one leg. When his limp worsened, the nuns abandoned him in a hospital and made no further contact – despite being his legal guardians.

He moved between hospitals – a child in adult wards – while his mobility worsened and doctors conducted several dangerous brain operations, with the consent form always unsigned. He once woke mid-operation when the anaesthetic failed.

Paddy was suffering from dystonia – a rare neurological condition, making his body undergo violent involuntary muscle contractions and spasms. The God Squad is a harrowing account of a child lost in the system, with nobody to speak for him. It posed ethical questions about who made decisions about him and if such decisions left him wheelchair-bound.

The book exposed cruelty but contained moments of great kindness from caring nurses – and camaraderie and mischief when mixing with other children in Cappagh Hospital in Finglas. Here, he forged a lifelong friendship who another Wexford patient, the late Philip Casey, who became a superb poet. Here he also met his great love, Eileen, a nurse whom he married, despite disapproval from senior hospital staff.

But Paddy was fiercely independent and determined to lead a normal life. Despite his body being constantly convulsed by spasms, you quickly forgot notions of him being disabled because he was strikingly handsome, as physically strong as his condition allowed and possessed a wicked humour and dynamism.

He had three sons when he tracked down his uncle to try and prise open some secrets about his origins. He discovered that his mother had died of cancer and weeks later, his father – a farm labourer – hung himself, with Paddy and his sister spending hours with his body before it was discovered. Other aspects of his past proved elusive but The God Squad was his attempt to open hidden doors.

In 1988, I ran Raven Arts Press, a publishers I started as a factory worker in Finglas. It published early books by new names like Patrick McCabe, Colm Tóibín, Sara Berkeley, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Paul Durcan, but during its precarious existence our sole asset was a leaking Superser gas heater, carted between makeshift offices.

I also published Philip Casey who urged me to read a manuscript of The God Squad by his childhood friend, which bigger publishers had shied away from. Here was a voice demanding to be believed. Paddy’s honesty helped to transform Ireland. His memoir broke so many silences that not only had other publishers rejected it, but I had problems finding a printer willing to print it.

I was getting married and had just purchased a house. I remember telling my late wife how we could lose the house in legal costs if the powerful institutions, against whom the book made allegations, took an injunction. But such was Paddy’s affect on her (and everyone) that she immediately said “publish and be damned”. Paddy could have been embittered by his past, but during my visits to his family’s home I always left enriched by the sense of love there and by his humanity and laughter.

We feared the book would be ignored but then Gay Byrne interviewed Paddy on The Late Late Show. When hundreds turned up for a book signing, we suddenly knew that a silence was broken and people wanted to know the truth. It sold so well that we could not keep up with demand.

My wife and I cut short our honeymoon after two days to sit in our living room with Paddy, Eileen and their young sons, wrapping dust jackets by hand on copies to be delivered on my bike to the clamouring bookshops.

It later became a bestseller for Transworld in the UK. Paddy never wrote another book, but while his health allowed he remained a vocal campaigner for abuse survivors and people with disabilities. Hundreds of books get published with hype and change nothing. Published on a wing and a prayer, The God Squad incrementally changed Ireland.

Paddy described the book as “about a society’s abdication of responsibility to a child. That fact that I was that child… is largely irrelevant. The probability is that there were, and still are, thousands of ‘mes’.”

In truth, he did speak for thousands of others whose voices were ignored. But Paddy was truly unique and we all are poorer without his fierce independent spirit.

Source: Irish News