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Homes for the Blind and Deaf

Francis “Fanny” Taylor, an English convert to Catholicism and a regular visitor to Dublin in the 1860s, had some slight criticisms of Dublin institutions which cared for blind children and those who were deaf mutes, but on balance found much to praise.

On the opposite side of Dublin to Portobello, near the beautiful cemetery of Glasnevin, is the Blind Asylum for boys and men. The door was opened to us by a Brother in the Carmelite dress, but both dress and Brother were so dirty we thought he had come to the door by mistake. He showed us into a small parlour, where we found a poor little blind boy, whom his father had brought, waiting in hopes of admission.
Presently in came the superior, but alas! there was little improvement in his appearance from that of the porter. He was, however, most pleasant and good natured in his manner, and quite willing we should see the institution. We went first into the shop where the articles made by the blind are arranged. Few are sold on the premises, for the asylum is quite out of Dublin, and I should imagine has few visitors. They are bought, however, by shops, and thus employment is afforded to the boys. There was a great array of brushes, mats, and baskets of all kinds, and they looked very well made. Two workmen are employed in the institution to teach the blind and superintend their work. We were then shown into a large, desolate-looking sort of barn, absolutely bare of furniture, except that at the extreme end was a piano. A gentleman was seated at it, and a few of the blind boys were standing round him taking a music lesson. We went to the basket department where we found other blind boys making coarse baskets and hampers, and this our guide told us was all that was to be seen.
The whole place was very dirty and disorderly, the blind inmates were dirty and untidy, and had an uncared-for look, as if in the hands of those who did not understand their management. We noticed with pain the contrast between the blind boys and girls; the latter so thoroughly trained to exert their faculties and do all they can to help themselves. They walk about with an air of freedom and confidence, feeling sure they will be guarded from all danger. The blind boys, even those who had been ten years in the house, stumbled here and there, literally groping their way, and showing very plainly that their capabilities had never been drawn out, or their education as blind persons attended to. And of course it is not every-one or every religious order that is suited to this important work. The teachers must themselves not only learn but possess qualities suited to the task. No doubt the Carmelite brothers have the kindest and best intentions towards their afflicted charges, and we heard from good authority that the moral training of the institution is excellent, but they do not give a visitor the impression of being suited for the difficult and arduous task entrusted to them. We came away wondering that in the diocese of Dublin such an asylum was suffered to exist without reform.
Not very far from Glasnevin, on the Cabra Road, is an institution which forms a striking contrast to the one we have just mentioned. It is the Home for Deaf and Dumb Boys under the charge of the Christian Brothers. The building is a large and handsome one, standing on rising ground, with a large open space surrounding it. Fortunately we arrived there just before school broke up, and found the large schoolrooms filled with silent and attentive scholars. The Brother accompanying us questioned the different classes as we passed along. The question was written on the black board with chalk, and the boys answered on their slates with remarkable celerity. It was curious to see how they watched their teacher’s face, and how one word or a sign was sufficient for them; the rest was read from the countenance of the Brother. From the schoolrooms we passed into the workshops, where different trades are taught the boys, each superintended by a skilled workman. We visited the tailor’s department, and then the shoemaker’s, and in these a certain number of boys learn to make their own clothes and shoes. From thence we passed to the bakery, where some of the boys help to make the bread of the establishment; and, lastly, we visited the printing office, where the foreman showed us specimens of very fair printing indeed done by the deaf-mutes. There is always plenty of employment for them in this line, as the Christian Brothers, who are a numerous body in Ireland, publish their own school books and have many of them printed here. By the time we had seen the shops the boys had finished school, and rushed out into the playground where they ran about and occasionally made an uncouth noise. They never, however, said the Brother, play with the joyousness of other boys. They are cheerful and happy, but have a gravity beyond their years. The Brother showed us the large garden, well-planted with flowers and vegetables. Here a few at a time can always be trusted; they seem to have no turn for running over the beds or doing any mischief. Few have any taste for gardening, but they have a great belief in the efficacy of fresh air, and when they complain of some slight illness like to be allowed a walk in the garden. There they will be seen pacing up and down the gravel paths like grave old men, and after a little while they return to school “quite well”. The trades which the boys are taught are made quite a secondary object as compared with the school work. They were, in fact, added on after the asylum had been for some time in the hands of the Brothers. For these religious were not content with looking after and teaching the boys, they studied them, and they found it would be an excellent thing to create some employment which should fill up spare hours and interest them, besides giving them assistance towards earning their bread when they leave. Playtime is not to them the entire relaxation it is to other boys, and the most common temptation to deaf-mutes would be to plot and conspire among themselves if left too much to their unoccupied thoughts. For the freemasonry of a deaf-mute is unlimited. The most vigilant teacher, well trained in the language of the deaf and dumb, can never be a match for boys who can carry on their conversations in silence and with the utmost celerity. The trades were introduced, and a most excellent effect has resulted from them. The boys are occupied, interested, happy, and contented, and try to prepare themselves for earning their own bread. “But school work is by far the most important for them,” insisted and repeated the Brother; “to be able to communicate with their fellow-creatures is the main point for them.” Reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, and in some cases a little drawing, are generally the whole of their attainments; and a course of ten years is usually required before this can be fully acquired. It s difficult for those not acquainted with deaf-mutes to understand the immense labour required to teach boys for whom sound has no meaning.

After passing through the dormitories, which are large, lofty and airy, we entered a small room called the study, where the elder and more advanced boys come to read in the evenings. I was surprised on taking up the books to see in what simple language they were written; and then we discovered that when the deaf-mute has learnt to read, the world of literature is by no means open to him. A new word to him conveys no meaning. He can read “banner”, for instance, as well as we can; but till someone shows him by signs what it is he is none the wiser, and therefore his progress through the world of words is necessarily slow. I asked if the boys were inclined to be religious, and was answered in the affirmative. They soon acquire a settled conviction that there is not much chance of happiness for them in this world; that most of its enjoyments are shut out from them, and that they had better try and secure the promises of the world to come. They are always eager to approach the sacraments; have a very lively faith in the unseen world, and often talk of heaven as the place where they shall for the first time “speak and sing”. Their fault is generally violent temper, which vents itself oftener in spite and revenge, not being able to express itself in outspoken fury. The care of deaf-mutes is a far more arduous and depressing one than that of the blind; and we felt a deep admiration when we saw these excellent Brothers, many of them young, clever and superior men, devoting themselves to this laborious undertaking for the sole motive of the love of God.
The blind are after all beings like ourselves, helpless by a certain deprivation, and cut off from many of the pleasures of life, but with their other senses sharpened to an extraordinary degree, often proficients in certain arts, and able to enter into and understand all that passes around them—affectionate relations, true and faithful friends. The deaf-mutes are a race apart, a people within a people, cut off from their fellow-creatures by a mysterious and impassable barrier. It is extraordinary to recollect how many centuries were suffered to pass away before any attempt was made to alleviate the condition of a deaf-mute. They were “separated from both God and man by a law more immutable than that which divided the leper from his nation”. Far too little known is the noble man who though he “worked no miracle, yet taught the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak”. M Sicard, inventor of the language for the deaf and dumb, was born in 1742 and died in 1822. M Carton, from whom we quote the above words, remarks on the “infinite toil and trouble” with which the deaf-mute must be taught. He says, “it is the labour of a life, one-half at least of which must be spent in learning how to give what the other half is devoted to imparting”. The grave necessity for a deaf and dumb asylum may easily be perceived when we learn that the census of 1863 gives 5,653 as the number of deaf-mutes in Ireland. The Cabra Asylum receives two classes of inmates: first, the children of the poor; and, secondly, the children of those who can afford to pay a small pension for their support. Little difference is, however, made between the two classes; the second have a separate dormitory, a few extra comforts, and do not work at the trades; in all other respects they are on the same footing as their poor companions. Their common misfortune has levelled almost every distinction of rank. For the support of the poor boys, the Brothers are quite dependent on alms; and as this is the only Catholic institution in the three kingdoms, it ought to be better supported than it is, and either enlarged or similar ones set on foot at other places.
There was perfect cleanliness and order in all parts of the establishment, and a large allowance of fresh air. We took leave of the kind and courteous Brother and left the “Home for Deaf-mutes”, heartily wishing that the blind boys could enjoy the privilege of being under the care of the excellent and intelligent Christian Brothers. Their superior capability for the work over a single house of Carmelite Friars is obvious. Many hundreds of them are banded together under one superior-general, who can, of course, choose the subjects most suited for each particular work; added to this, every Brother is specially trained for the work of educating the poor, and taught to study their characters and to raise their tone. If their attention were once drawn to the care of the blind, no doubt we should soon have an asylum for boys equally good as that for girls.
Upon the Glasnevin Road stands another large and handsome building under the charge of these same Brothers. It is an orphanage for boys, principally supported by the Association of the Brothers of St Vincent de Paul. It seemed to us to be in excellent order and well managed, and, no doubt, is of great use in providing a refuge for homeless and orphan boys.
About half a mile farther out of Dublin than the Home for the Deaf and Dumb Boys, we find a similar institution for girls, under the care of the Sisters of St Dominic; they have also a school for young ladies. The building is not nearly so good a one as that for the boys, but at the same time it is well adapted for its purpose. The course of instruction for the deaf-mute girls is the same as for the boys. Needlework, of course, is added in this school. After having been a few moments in a deaf-mute school, the silence becomes oppressive. What a hum and murmur and stir of life would be heard among the children of any other school! but here these young creatures stand silently in their places, while their speaking eyes follow us about with an eager questioning glance, as if we could bring them news from the world from which they are for ever shut out. The communication of the deaf-mutes with each other and their teachers is a mixture of talking on the fingers and making signs. Their prayers are entirely in the latter. We asked the Sister in charge to let the children say a prayer before us, and accordingly they said, or rather acted, the Paternoster and Ave Maria. We were much struck by the extreme reverence of their manner and the depth of meaning in their gestures. “The Lord is with thee,” every head was bowed low upon the breast, a mute confession that the Highest had come down to the lowly, the Creator to the creature. The information the Sister (a fair, bright-looking girl of nineteen) gave us about the children tallied with that of the Christian Brothers ; the same faults, difficulties, and virtues characterise each sex. The Sister told us that when she first was put in charge over the children she could not imagine why the priest who came to hear the children’s confessions always sent for and consumed a quantity of lucifer matches. At last she asked the children why he wanted them. “Why, Sister, he wants to burn our sins,” was the instant reply; and then she found that all the children who could write preferred making their confessions in writing instead of using their peculiar language. A young deaf-and-dumb postulant was teaching in the school. The Sisters trust she will persevere, and that others among the deaf-mutes may have a similar vocation.
In my walks in the Glasnevin direction I often turned into the cemetery and wandered about its numerous alleys. A more beautiful cemetery I do not think could be found, thickly planted with trees and shrubs, the paths and graves most beautifully kept; many of the monuments are graceful and in good taste, and there are few of the hideous erections which disfigure the London cemeteries. Within the cemetery rises a “round tower”, but not “of other days”, for it is a modern erection and a memorial to Daniel O'Connell. Near it is the grave of “the Liberator”, a vault with an iron gate, to which you descend by steps, and through which the coffin is plainly to be seen. Offerings of flowers éternelles, and laurel wreaths, freshly gathered, were lying around. And no wonder. Surely there are faithful souls enough to keep tokens ever fresh and green before the grave of him whose great heart beat only for Ireland, without thought of self; who has lain down to rest worn out by the long conflict for his loved country, but victorious, even in his death, and leaving behind him an immortal name.

From: Irish Homes and Irish Hearts, Francis Taylor, 1867. Reprinted by UCD press 2013