Sitting in an old-fashioned armchair in the North Inner City Folklore Project, Terry Fagan recalls the time he helped spring his brother from an industrial school.
Incarcerated at the age of eight, Christy Fagan was sentenced to seven years for stealing a rosary. He escaped from Letterfrack loads of times – but he never made it far because local farmers got bounties for returning escapees, says Terry Fagan.
The Christian Brothers “used to hit his ankles with the hurley stick when he was working out in the fields, to try to make him lame”, says Terry Fagan.
A friend of the family, Jemmy Gunnery, used to rescue children from the industrial schools. He’d had long promised Terry’s mother that he would free Christy too. But Letterfrack, in Galway, was too secure.
When Christy was transferred to an industrial school in Tipperary, Gunnery saw his chance. Together with Terry and his mother, he attended a sports day there, and they blended into the crowd.
Terry spotted Christy in a race and called out to make a run for Gunnery’s car. “Well he took off like an Olympic runner,” says Terry, reminiscing in his armchair.
When they got Christy back to Dublin, he refused to flee to England because he didn’t want to leave his mother. So he dressed up as a girl for the next two years to avoid detection by Gardaí, who regularly raided the flats.
His brother’s rescue is just one of hundreds of stories that Terry Fagan has collected from the north inner-city since he started recording them in 1970. “We have the authentic voices of the people of Dublin,” he says.
But now Fagan has to pack up the North Inner City Folklore Project museum on Railway Street, where he keeps his artefacts, mementos and recordings.
The landlord is selling up, and he has to be out in a couple of months. He’s not sure where he’s going to take the collection next. “It will be a big loss to the country if it goes,” he says.
A Folklore Museum
Some of the stories in the collection are “horrific stuff”, says Fagan.
As well as abuse in industrial schools, there are stories of prostitution, moneylending and landlords exploiting young girls for sex.
“This history that we hold it is full of untold stories of Dublin,” he says.
They are certainly stories of poverty, exploitation and violence, but also of a tight-knit community with an unbreakable spirit of solidarity and resistance, where “women always helped women”, he says.
There are heroes too, like Gunnery and a network of women who provided safe houses for the children he freed.
For years Fagan searched for a home for his collection, which at times he stored in a disused flat. Finally, last year, he found the premises on Railway Street.
He stripped it back to look and feel like a real tenement home. At last, a real museum.
When you walk through the door the temperature drops. A hungry-looking mannequin lies on the floor on a makeshift mattress, with a sack for blanket.
The walls are dirty there is a fireplace with crosses and holy pictures.
Fagan points to a photo taken inside the tenements, where up to 100 people could live in a single building. Why are the window frames missing? he asks. “They burned them to keep warm,” he answers.
It wasn’t all bad though. “The thing about tenement life is, one family mightn’t have food one day, but they helped each other,” he says.
The women would club together what they had and make a big pot of stew between them cooked on an open fire.
As well as the stories of local people, Fagan has gathered artefacts from the 1800s up to the 1970s.
There are dolls in prams, candle holders mounted on walls, sacred hearts, and a very wide variety of other religious pictures and crosses, books, basins, bowls, furniture, a rocking horse.
And now boxes.
Fagan is searching for a permanent building for the museum – and, in the meantime, for storage.
He’s hoping to secure corporate sponsorship, and would consider charging a small fee to tourists (but not to locals), in order to make the project sustainable, he says.
A Book in 2020
Fagan has written a book about the industrial schools, which he says is set to be published next year. It focuses on the hero Gunnery, he says.
“Why was Jemmy Gunnery doing it? Why was he risking his job, his family?” says Fagan.
He had been in the industrial schools himself as a child. He’d been given a long sentence for stealing food from a bread van.
When Gunnery got out his mother begged him not to come back to Corporation Buildings because she feared he would end up in Mountjoy Prison. She convinced him to go to Liverpool instead.
He married in England and eventually moved back to Dublin, where “he set up the network for rescuing children”, says Fagan. It is not known how many children he freed.
Fagan himself, like many of his friends and neighbours, had also been locked up in institutions as a child. “When we came out of these places we were all damaged, none of us ever talked about it,” he says.
He recalls in 1968 sitting drinking with friends when one of the prison guards who sexually abused some of them as children came in.
They got a bit of revenge that day, he says. But it didn’t kill the pain.
Some of the boys Fagan grew up with were so badly brutalised they never made it, he says. “One, in particular, killed himself – he cut his throat. Others turned to drinking,” he says.
When Christy was first locked up in Artane Industrial School, Terry visited with his mother, he says.
An incident occurred where a Christian Brother hit his mother, he says. Terry vowed he would get revenge.
Many years later, he was outside Croke Park on All-Ireland day selling hats and headbands, he says.
“I’m shouting, ‘Hats for the match! Hats for the match!’” he says. “And there coming through the crowd I saw the Christian Brother that hit my mother. I couldn’t believe it.”
“I found a bit of a pole and chased him through the crowd and when he turned around I fuckin whacked him,” he says.
He was then chased along the canal by people angry that he’d hit a priest. He made his escape into Summerhill. “I knew the streets like the back of my hand,” he says.
The book is set to be published in 2020. “It is written,” he says.