Friday, December 3, 2021

The Marlborough House Saga

I've never really written at length about the Marlborough House saga here, although I've mentioned it in passing. It was perhaps the most dramatic episode in my father's dramatic life. And it remains relevant, because until the day he died he was concerned with having the truth established on the official record. This challenge remains to me and the rest of his family.

I think I'll leave it to my father to explain the story in his own words. This is a letter he wrote to the Minister for Education in 2017.

Dear Minister

I have the distinction of being the only person who worked within the child detention system to have publicly exposed the Dickensian conditions in which children were held in custody, on behalf of the State. And for that I paid a very heavy penalty.

In 1971, I worked as an attendant in Marlborough House, a remand home for boys between the ages of seven and sixteen. (Seven was the age of criminal responsibility in the Republic.)

At Christmas of 1971, the staff of the House had cleared the pleace of all detainees in order that they might hold a Christmas party in the Home. They achieved this every Christmas with the cooperation of the Gardai. I made an excuse not to attend the party; they, my co-workers, were not the sort of party-goers with whom I would wish to celebrate Christmas.

On St. Stephen's Day of that year a Garda called to my flat in Ballymun with a request that I call down to Marlborough House and meet with the Matron of the House.

When I called on that elderly lady I was met with a woman who was in a near-panic. She told me that the Gardai in Limerick had sent a boy of twelve or thirteen to the House, thus disrupting the revelry. She said that members of the staff had taken the boy from his bed in the early hours of the morning, tied him to a pot-bellied stove (not to burn him, simply to make him sweat) then brough him outside to the rough ground, and had given him 'the clatters' at the back of the garden. She knew that they were threatening to repeat the performance that very night and worried that they would do the boy serious damage.

She asked me would I assist her in getting the boy out of the House that night. I readily agreed.

That night I reported for duty and found only the Matron and the boy in residence. Later that night the Head Attendant arrived, blindingly drunk, and after threatening the lad, returned to his upstairs flat.

Later that night I left the House and walked a short distance up the street, the matron released the boy from the front door of her flat and I met him, and took him to my flat in Ballymun, while my wife Patricia and my sister M------- took him in charge.

Next morning I told the lad that Patricia and M------- would bring him to Heuston Station and Muareen would put him on the Limerick train. I advised him to go to the Garda station once he arrived in Limerick, and show the Gardai there the damage that had been done to his face (a detail I forgot until my sister reminded me that his eye was badly damaged) and let the Gardai take it from there. The young lad did just that, though not in Limerick, he left the train at an earlier station and went into the Garda Station in that town.

The morning after the 'escape', two officials from the Department of Education arrived at Marlborough House to interview the staff. When my turn came to be questioned I pre-empted their queries by at once admitting my part in the matter. The interview ended there.

Word came later that day that the boy was once again in police custody. The other attendants, who had gathered for a Council of War, were positively salivating at the prisoner being returned to Marlborough House and the threats that filled the air were bloodcurdling. Not, surprisingly, because the boy had escaped, but because in doing so he had taken the Chief Superintendent's keys.

When I had met the lad the previous night he had at once handed me those keys, explaining that he had gone up to the drunken man's room and taken the keys from his bedside table in order that he might create the impression that he had escaped through his own efforts and thus avoid having the blame attached to the Matron and myself.

The courage and the honour of a young boy who had never had much of a chance in life. I felt humbled.

Listening to the threats I know at once that the only way I could protect the boy was to go public. And I know that the best chance I had of doing so was to go to the two ladies who were responsible for the Women's Page in The Irish Press: Mary Kenny and Rosita Sweetman. I was right.

After a night spent in argument with the newspaper's lawyers, the story appeared in the next morning/s edition of the paper.

That night I received a call (by Garda messenger? Probably) telling me to report to Marlborough House at once.

On arriving at the House, I was ushered into the dormitory and the door was locked behind me. The Chief Superintendent, three sheets in the wind, was standing at a writing bureau. He at once offered me two thousand pounds if I would retract my story, following which he would retire from the Civil Service and sue The Irish Press. I refused.

He opened the desk and produced a small revolver, placing it on the desk. He did not threaten me with the gun, but it sat there on the desk as, or so it seemed to me, a symbol of where the power lay.

Believe it or not, but I was held in that room for well over an hour, during which time he became ever more maudlin and kept on repeating the same phrase: "You can change the inscription on a monument, but you can't change the monument". Its meaning eluded me then, it eludes me still.

For the next few weeks I became something of a minor cause celebre. Newspaper articles, letters to the editor, questions in Dáil Éireann. When Dr. John O'Connell carried on a debate with the Minister for Education Padraig Faulkner, as to his justification for my sacking. All of which was crowned by the hour-long interview with Bill O'Herlihy on the flagship RTE Seven Days programme.

A Peadar Kelly support group was formed, consisting of journalists, legal people, trade unionists, and religious, which began picketing Marlborough House. After a few days of which the Superintendent, in a fit of choleric rage, sacked me on the spot. My sacking, which up to that point had been provisional, was now reality.

(I may be in error on the chronology of these events, but they all occurred within the space of a hectic few weeks.)

I was invited by letter to a meeting with officials at the Department's Headquarters. When I arrived I was ushered into the gate lodge, the door locked behind me, and I was confronted by two very large detectives.

Without very much preamble, I was given the ultimatum: "Recant publicly or you will face a jail term of four years for having broken the Official Secrets Act."

I told them that I had in my possession a copy of a letter from the Superintendent of Marlborough House to the Minister of Education in which he requested permission to build an interrogation room at the rear of the House. A room that would be sound-proofed and fenced in with barbed wire. This for the questioning of boys between the ages of seven and sixteen who were on remand.

The interview ended abruptly with the threat that I would never again work in a job where government could prevent my employment.

That threat held good as late as 1985 when a local committee invited me to manage a 'Teamwork' scheme for young boys and girls aged eighteen plus. The Department Official in charge of the Teamwork scheme, Mr. ***** ********, sought an informal meeting with the local committee in Ballymun Shopping Centre (outdoors!). There he told them that he had been instructed by his superiors that Peadar Kelly was not to be given the job, but he intended ignoring that instruction and hiring me. Which he did. That year-long scheme was a success.

For many years I wrote to successive Ministers for Justice and Education, requesting that my sacking be investigated, without any joy. Then when I broadened my appeal to other public representatives, Jim Higgins MEP persuaded Batt O'Keeffe, then Minister for Education, to open up a departmental inquiry. The letter I enclose is the result of the inquiry.

Padraig Faulkner, Education Minister at the time

Padraig Faulkner, Minister for Education at the time

I felt that I had achieved as much as I could when I received that letter until, a mere few weeks later, the Dunne Inquiry [actually, the Ryan Report] was published. It contained the outrageous suggestion that the boy had been helped to escape from Marlborough House by "two drunken attendants". That lie is now on the public record.

I would ask you to read the account of the Marlborough House incident in the Dunne Report to confirm what I say.

I am now making a claim for unfair dismissal. I trust that you will make a decision in accordance with the facts. And in making that decision I would ask you to consider my claim in light of the facts (they were never disputed by anyone) and by looking through the file on Marlborough House which you have at your command. In addition I add the following.

An in-house inquiry of my case at the time of the incident found that there was no complaint about my work before that fateful night.

I was sacked on the spot without notice of any kind and an army motorcycle rider arrived at my flat with my P45 and backpay before I even arrived home after my sacking.

If there were even the least vestige of justification for my sacking then it would be necessary to explain away the following.

Why did a group of professional people (all of whom have had their reputations enhanced sinec 1972) form a support group to protest at my sacking?

Why did a leading politician, namely, Dr. John O'Connell, persist in protesting against my sacking in the chambers of Dáil Éireann?

Dr. John O'Connell

Why did RTE devote two programmes of the prestigious Seven Days current affairs in my sacking?

Why is it that the two women who used the Women's Page in The Irish Press to expose the dreadful conditions inside Marlborough House all those years ago, both of whom are still earning a living with the pen-- all still supportive of my claim? Why indeed?

I appreciate that you are a relative newcomer to the Irish political scene and thus are unlikely to be familiar with the events of which I write and so I am relying on you to appoint a member of your staff to examine, from the records, the truth of my account.

It has been a long and frustrating journey from the events of 1972 to the present. A bewilderingly long search for justice. If this letter meets with no success then I am not sure how I proceed from here.

One thing I know is that at the age of 77, and with four medical conditions, I am not likely to be a recipient of the Presidential centennial bonus. [He died two years later.]

I leave my claim in your hands.

Yours respectfully

Peadar Kelly


  1. That's fascinating.
    Wonder what became of the boy(s)

  2. We all have a streak of cruelty in us, terrible to read. Your dad had some spine in his back Mal. Sinéad.

  3. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
    That applies in every instance Mr O'Ceallaigh when someone with the odds stacked against them comes looking for your help.
    James Healy

  4. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.
    It applies to you too.
    James Healy