Song for a Raggy Boy follows The Magdalen Sisters as the second Irish feature in recent times about the suffering of children in reform ‘schools’ run by the Catholic Church. Set in 1939 and based on events in Cork writer Patrick Galvin’s autobiography, it’s often harrowing and violent. The school is little more than a brutally run prison, its teacher-priests concerned not with education, but control. Terrorized, dehumanized children – referred to by prison numbers rather than their names – suffer mental, physical and sexual abuse: beatings, lashings and rapes.
Unwittingly into this comes a lay preacher, Mr Franklin (Aidan Quinn), who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He’s a man who believes his job is to teach and who tries to give the boys a love of learning and literature – and succeeds! Treated as human beings, with the potential to love, learn and contribute, the boys are transformed. John Travers, is memorable as Liam, an intelligent, spirited but cynical boy abandoned by his widower father.
Iain Glenn stays in the mind too, as a chilling disciplinarian, Brother John. When Franklin intervenes to stop him beating two brothers who crossed a playground line to speak to each other on Christmas Day, he makes an implacable enemy.
Raggy Boy is superbly acted and well made, but is a strange beast – part monstrous and convincing realism, part sketchy and unconvincing caricature. Although Franklin is not all good, Brother John is all bad, and their opposition becomes pure Hollywood, as is the film’s ending. It’s a shame – and diminishes what comes before.Malcolm Lewis