“A Brother became enraged with the inability of a slow learner to give the right answers: “He hit that lad and got his head and smashed it . . . on the bench. The ink wells went up, he was covered in ink, snots, blood, everything.”

One of the many appalling incidents Fintan O’Toole relates in this far-reaching analysis of the findings of the Irish Republic’s Child Abuse Commission, a ten year investigation which covers a fifty year period from the year 1940 onwards. In a country which knew neither war nor a totalitarian regime, O’Toole wonders how its institutions could have visited totalitarian conditions upon its charges.

Knowledge of this abuse was widespread in both the Church and state, but was sustained by “the immense stature of the church, which became a cloak of impunity.” Brother and nuns had “a religious-based hatred of the body, expressed in the ways (they) found to hurt the bodies of their charges.”

Violence was also fuelled by the insecurity of Ireland’s nascent middle class towards the poor, “a hatred of everything that did not conform to the model of a respectable Christian family” in a country which, like all formerly colonised societies, bore the marks of "a strong sense of inferiority” with a clergy that lived “within the authoritarian institution that is the Church.”