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Historian, witness, survivor

Precisely 51 years on from the day Peter Tyrell set himself on fire at Hampstead Heath park in London, dozens of people gathered there to memorialise and remember the early institutional abuse campaigner and author, powerfully declaring his death an act of defiance; the ultimate sacrifice.

Founded on Fear, Tyrrell’s harrowing memoir released publicly for the first time in 2006, recounted a childhood of extreme physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of the Christian Brothers at St Joseph’s Industrial School at Letterfrack, Co Galway.

Last week, on the tenth anniversary of the earth-shattering Ryan Report (which revealed the extent of the systemic abuse incurred by Catholic-run institutions on children in schools and institutions) that used his writings as testimony, this small crowd met to not only revisit his life, but to reassess his impact on modern investigations.

Ryan Report (Photo: James Horan/Photocall Ireland)

A candlelit vigil proceeded reverentially from Hampstead Heath to Highgate Civil Hall for a sombre memorial, where gut-wrenching first-hand stories written by Tyrell were retold, where his life was in equal parts remembered and celebrated, where those fighting injustices today shared their journeys, where painful memories resurfaced in an attempt to understand how, today, such travesties remain unexplained and unaccounted for.

The memorial service made clear how successive waves of Irish immigrants which landed on English shores were exposed to, if not victims of, child abuse or abandonment.


Bernard Canavan, a self-described illegitimate child, moved from Longford to London in the 1960s. “Like so many in this room tonight, I have had to reinvent myself,” he told the memorial, amid a hushed chorus of people in agreeance and heads nodding. He added: “I wasn’t a child of love; I was a child of sin.”

Canavan, one of thousands like him across the UK, was taken into St. Patrick’s Institution in Dublin when he was just three years old. “Everybody realised that I wasn’t the product of this couple that were bringing me up. They would ask my mother: Where did you get him out of?” he said, narrowing much of Ireland’s historic problems down to how women were treated.

A memorial table for Peter Tyrrell at Highgate Civil Hall last week

Nuala Flynn, a trained therapist who organised the event independently, told the dozens or so of attendees of the impossibility of taking everything in — since decades of stories relating to Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalene Laundries and institutional child abuse were still unravelling.

“The way you help to remember is by taking a piece,” she said, adding that Tyrrell’s is as much a London story as it is an Irish story.

Peter Tyrrell was born in 1916, something which struck many of those remembering him as deeply symbolic. Ireland was supposed to entering an era of rebirth, of regeneration. But instead of finding its own footing, the Irish state relinquished colonial domination from Britain to the Catholic Church.

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Born into deep poverty in rural Galway, Tyrell was one of 10 children in a small, yet typical, household of the time.

He was stripped from his parents, along with some siblings, by the authorities when was just 8 because of family destitution; institutionalised, like many the country over, against his will.


Traumatised after years of violent beatings at Letterfrack, he left Ireland for London at the age of 19, later joining the British army. A tailor by trade, he found a new life for himself after years of stasis in Ireland. He was, however, rejected in London due to rising anti-Irish sentiment and, most strikingly, by members of his own community due to his fierce outspokenness on the Church.

Heavily involved with the Irish centre in London at the time, Tyrrell would regularly question Irish immigrants’ idealisation of their homeland. “If Ireland is so great, then why did you leave?” Nuala Flynn said, quoting some of his speeches.

The former Letterfrack Industrial School in Connemara in County Galway, in which serious cases of child abuse took place ( Pic: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall in 2000)

Widely considered as the first person to break the silence on industrial-level abuse at schools at the hands of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Tyrrell, after being referred to Irish senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington by the Irish centre, began recording his life story, sending chapters on to Sheehy-Skeffington, who had encouraged him to recount his time in Letterfrack.

Sheehy-Skeffington, who campaigned to end corporal punishment in schools, was something rare at the time: a high-standing figure in Irish society who didn’t cast Tyrrell as deluded, attention-seeking or as a liar seeking infamy.

Hampstead Heath

Tragically, after years of deafening silence, duplicity and cover-ups, he set fire to himself on Hampstead Heath aged 51. His charred body was identified a full year later, with torn fragments of a postcard addressed to Dr Sheehy SK, Trinity College Dublin.

“We’re here today to recognise in a public place that Peter died and lived with integrity for truth, love and justice,” Nuala Flynn remarked at the memorial’s opening section, speaking in front of a handcrafted poster displaying a timeline of Peter’s life interwoven with Irish history.

What was most disturbing about Tyrrell’s writing, Flynn told the memorial, was that he had chosen to omit the most heinous examples of abuses and cruelty.

A small contingent representing the Tuam Home Survivors Network travelled to the memorial to relay their stories. Peter Mulryan, chairman of the survivors’ group, spoke frankly about his struggle to obtain family records.

He was denied access to his mother in the 1960s, who was being kept in a Magdalene Laundry, but today he remains dedicated to locating his still-untraceable younger sister.

Peter Mulryan and Catherine Corless after speaking to the Media outside Leinster House (Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie)

“I have a sister who is missing and I just hope she was sold off to America and is not lying in that septic tank,” he said, his voice cracking, referring to the Tuam site that over 800 children’s remains were found over two years ago.


Conrad Bryan, trustee of Irish in Britain, another survivor of a Mother and Baby Home, told the memorial that the current government is pushing through a bill which will “prevent people from accessing their birth records and family history”.

“The period of time we’re talking about is almost dystopian. These places were like plantations; plantations where you have mothers as slaves,” he said. “Each child — black, white, disabled — had a price tag. Children were sold; they were sold to America and farmed out — boarded out — across Ireland.”

The solicitor Kevin Higgins, who has represented Tuam survivors including Peter Mulryan in High Court cases, questioned the inaction from Irish authorities when it comes to the Tuam burial site.

“If you uncovered the remains of a child in your back garden, how long do you think it would take the police and the coroner to come around?” he asked.

During the memorial, Nuala Flynn read short excerpts from Tyrrell’s soul-crushing memoir, breaking up the heady text with lighthearted passages, putting into context the words he wrote.

“I think it’s necessary that these histories are included so [that] the packaging of Ireland as a brand of beauty of friendliness is rendered in a much more truthful manner,” she said.

Founded on Fear book

She was prefacing a story Tyrell recounted where his school visited the immaculate-seeming Kylemore Abbey. He meets a pretty girl there his age, and they sit on the grass and conversate about school life.

“I’m horrified to learn that this beautiful girl is beaten,” Tyrell writes, “in the same manner as the boys in our school.” He is devastated when she tells him that that the beatings came from a priest who visited his school, a priest he knew.

Having been viciously abused by Christian Brothers his entire time in Letterfrack, (children were lined up five times a day for beatings), his one lasting hope — the clergy, the incorruptible face of the Church — evaporated. This encounter and years of sustained abuse, his writings showed, destroyed all trust he had in religion.

Extraordinary contribution

Eoin O’Sullivan, a professor of social policy at Trinity College who has written books about the Mother and Baby Homes, left a message for the service in absentia. Peter Tyrell’s works and nascent campaigning, he said, were a catalyst in the eventual ending of confinement of children. He made “an extraordinary contribution,” he added.

By Colin Gannon

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