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Extracts from

Borstal in Ireland: Custodial provision for the young adult offender 1906-1974

by Nial Osborough

(Institute of Public Administration, Dublin, 1975: ISBN 0 902173 66 9)

Chapter III: Borstal in Northern Ireland 1921-1974

.....The authorities at the Northern borstals have had available to them a variety of disciplinary punishments. In the early years, the governor at Malone had the power to order (i) close confinement in an ordinary cell, (ii) reduction in diet, and (iii) loss of stage or privilege. After 1930 he was also empowered to cane but could do this only on the authority of the visiting committee.

cover of bookThe power to cane was introduced by Act of Parliament, the Criminal Law and Prevention of Crime (Amendment) Act (N.I.) 1930, following a recommendation from the visiting committee.[72] The measure split the parliamentarians into two camps. The proponents of the change presumably agreed with the anonymous compiler of the Home Office Services Report for 1930 who wrote that knowledge of the existence of the power would act "as a deterrent to unruly behaviour and have a salutary effect."

[72] H.C. Debates (N.I.), Vol. 12, col. 293, 20 March 1930: Sir Dawson Bates.

Sir Dawson Bates, the Minister for Home Affairs, went further and pointed out that the power to cane existed in Britain and there was no reason why Northern Ireland practice should be different.[73]

[73] H.C. Debates (N.I.), Vol. 12, col. 292.

Roger Hood is authority for concluding that here Sir Dawson was either mistaken or misleading, for he shows that the infliction of corporal punishment in English borstals was stopped in 1921, following public concern over conditions at the Portland borstal.[74]

[74] Hood, Borstal Re-Assessed, p. 33.

(The power has never been exercised in the South [i.e. the Irish Republic -- C.F.]).[75] Sir Dawson expressed the view that the new power would not be much used; his own son, after all, had told him, following a visit to the institution at Malone, that he had no fear of going to school if it was as good as Malone.[76]

[75] Below, chapter 8.
[76] H.C. Debates (N.I.), Vol. 12, cols. 292-94.

The precise reason for the visiting committee's recommendation is hard to establish but it may be linked with an incident to which Sir Dawson himself drew attention when a boy on his way to church had thrown a stone through a plate-glass window, for no apparent reason.

Unionist MPs gave wholehearted support to the proposal. Two or three licks of the cane or a punch on the nose, one of them said, was a more apt punishment than a starvation diet or transfer to prison.[77] Another declared that he would not send his son to a school which did not inflict corporal punishment.[78]

[77] Col. 299: Mr Grant.
[78] Col. 304: Captain Chichester-Clark.

Other MPs were less enthusiastic. The Labour MP Mr Beattie declared his opposition. He had seen men lashed to a wagon wheel and flogged for trivial offences in South Africa. His party was progressive, and corporal punishment was reactionary. It was ridiculous, he added, that the visiting committee, which was responsible to no one, should report that the borstal was perfect and yet that the cane was required for boys who broke windows.[79]

[79] Cols. 299-301.

Cahir Healy also objected.[80] Provision of corporal punishment in the borstal would destroy the progressive vision; it was a backward step. After recalling that a little over a hundred years before, a Fermanagh man had been hanged for stealing a goat belonging to the Bishop of Clogher, he quoted from a speech of Isabel's in Measure for Measure:[81]

... the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

[80] Cols. 295-96.
[81] Act 3, scene 1, lines 80-82.

Despite these objections, the bill had no difficulty in securing a second reading and passed into law.

blob Read newspaper report of the parliamentary debate

Rules made under the Act regulated the conduct of any canings. These could only be administered by an approved cane; strokes were not to exceed twelve and could only be administered on the hand or posterior (in the latter event, no clothing was to be removed). A caning could only be ordered by the visiting committee. It had to be carried out at the one time, as soon as possible, and in strict privacy. The medical officer had to certify that the recipient was fit, the governor or his deputy had to be present and a record had to be kept.[82]

[82] Corporal Punishment in Borstal Institutions Regulations (N.I.) 1930.

The Treatment of Offenders Act (N.I.) 1968 has abolished the judicial sentence of corporal punishment [83] but this leaves unaffected the right of the borstal authorities to avail of the cane.

[83] S. 22.

The matter of borstal discipline receives considerable attention in the 1954 Prison Rules. Rule 174 treats of offences against discipline: idleness, carelessness and negligence; abuse of privilege; non-conformity to parole conditions; irreverent behaviour during divine service or prayers; disrespect towards officers and visitors; repeated and groundless complaints; false and malicious allegations against an officer; indecency in language, act or gesture.[84] ......

[84] Prison Rules (N.I.) 1954, rule 30(2).

Rule 175 is concerned with more serious forms of misconduct: an offence against the Prison Act (N.I.) 1953 (escape, smuggling goods in, and so on); mutiny or incitement to mutiny; assault on an officer; gross personal violence to officers or other prisoners; a serious or repeated offence against discipline in respect of which the powers conferred by Rule 174 are thought inadequate. If a boy is accused of any of these, the governor is required to carry out an investigation. If the offence is proven, he may then report to the Ministry of Home Affairs (now the Northern Ireland Office); such a report is mandatory in the case of Prison Act offences. The executive, in the exercise of its disciplinary powers, can punish offenders in much the same way as the governor may under Rule 174. It can order

(i) administration of a caution;
(ii) removal from activities other than work;
(iii) extra work .....
(iv) forfeiture of right to additional letters and visits;
(v) stoppage of gratuity or earnings ......
(vi) reduction in grade ..........
(vii) confinement in a room ..........


Rule 175 also enables the executive (now the Northern Ireland Office) to delegate its powers to the visiting committee -- which it invariably does -- and provides that the committee, in addition to, or in lieu of, punishments (i) to (vi), may order the administration of a caning. If the committee does so, the safeguards first introduced in 1930 apply.[87] This power to order a caning is still commonly availed of: there were twenty-nine in 1971.

[87] Prison Act (N.I.) 1953, s. 14(1)(e), (2)(c).


Chapter VIII: The Institutions and Society


Relations between critic and administrator [in the Irish Republic -- C.F.] have not always been unruffled. When the borstal was based at Cork, a visitor censured the r�gime;[35] similar criticisms continued to be made, and in 1948, by which time the borstal had returned to Clonmel, the visiting committee published the pamphlet, The Borstal Institution at Clonmel, which was designed to set the record straight. In an introduction to this publication,[36] the committee discussed two newspaper articles, one appearing in the United States, the other in Dublin:

The American publication purported to describe the flogging of a boy in 'an Irish prison for boys sixteen to twenty-one', presumably the Borstal. The description was supposed to be supplied by an American visitor (not named), who claimed to have been present at the flogging -- a claim which, in itself, makes the story incredible to any person of experience. The article was illustrated by a 'picture' of the actual flogging and by the reproduction, verbatim, of the words, supposed to have been used by the persons present. The boy's offence (it was stated) was that he threw a potato at another boy.
The Dublin publication referred to the Borstal as being located in Cork Prison and described the inmates as 'young boys'.
The facts are:--
(a) Corporal punishment has never been used in the Borstal. Incidentally, we understand from the Department of Justice that no such punishment has been inflicted in any prison, by way of discipline, for over twenty years, and that such punishment is expressly forbidden by the present Rules.[37]
(b) The use of Cork Prison for Borstal purposes was merely a temporary measure necessitated by the military occupation of the Clonmel premises during the Emergency, and the Institution had gone back to Clonmel for quite a long time before the article in question appeared.
(c) The description of the Borstal inmates as 'young boys' is very misleading. The average age, at the present moment, is 19.

[35] Prisons Report 1946, p. 20.
[36] Clonmel Notes, p. 3.
[37] Prison Rules 1947, rule 72.


Chapter IX: Life within the Institutions


The range of sanctions available to the authorities at the institution says much about the character of the place itself. On the question of sanctions, there has been a marked difference between Northern Ireland and the South. In the South, dietary punishment is still employed; in the North, this has ended, but, on the other hand, stoppage of earnings remains commonplace, whereas this is rare in the Republic. In the North corporal punishment continues to be available. Special legislation was enacted to enable it to be imposed[19] and the authorities have not refused to use it. In the South, on the other hand, corporal punishment is not available, and it may be remembered that in 1948 the visiting committee vigorously denied that it ever had been. The likeliest explanation for this difference is that the entire r�gime in the North has been consciously modelled on that within a public boarding school, for the general attitude to the use of corporal punishment has probably been similar in the two communities.

[19] It is no dead letter: there were 29 canings in 1971.


Chapter XI: Administration in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic


It has already been observed that in one area of borstal administration Northern Ireland has chosen to differ, not only from the Republic, but also, atypically, from England: its system provides for the infliction of corporal punishment. The obvious explanation for this discrepancy -- a different attitude North and South to corporal punishment -- has already been rejected, as being not in accordance with the facts. Another explanation is that in the North corporal punishment has been tolerated because it is viewed as a 'school' punishment and the Northern borstal is seen more as a school than a prison.

The argument is not wholly convincing. In the first place, when the legislation on corporal punishment in borstal was under consideration, Nationalist and other non-Unionist MPs did not hesitate to condemn beating as degrading, even though by then the r�gime in the North was recognisably based on that of a school. Moreover, the mere fact that the borstal r�gime is so modelled is no guarantee that corporal punishment will be available: in English borstals, after the early nineteen twenties, it was not practised.

The argument implies that the r�gimes in the South -- first, of borstal and then of St Patrick's -- have been based on that of prison, rather than that of a school. The assumption is not warranted. Before 1922, the Prisons Board certainly said that the r�gime at Clonmel was modelled on that of the public school, and after Independence the claim was to be repeated: in the Clonmel News of 1948, for instance, the impression that the institution was being compared with school is unmistakable. ............

The true explanation for the existence of corporal punishment in the Northern borstal system may lie in the character of the school on which the parliamentary majority in the nineteen thirties sought to model that system: it was Eton or Harrow, not, as it might now be put, some secondary modern.[29] And as a one-time headmaster of Harrow, E.C. Welden, later Bishop of Calcutta, noticed, there is the "curious paradox" that the upper classes submitted to chastisement which the lower resented and resisted: "It is far easier to flog a peer's son than a pauper's."[30]

[29] Yet smoking was permitted from 1940; smoking was only allowed in the Southern borstal in 1948.
[30] Quoted in Cyril Pearl, Victorian Patchwork (London: Heineman, 1972), p. 23.


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Copyright rests with original copyright holder; extracts quoted here as "fair use". This presentation © C. Farrell 2002