By Sarah-Anne Buckley
One of the most well-worn phrases in recent years has been the 1916 Proclamation’s reference to “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”. The line was intended to refer to all citizens not just children, but it highlights the symbolic significance of childhood and the role children and younger people would play in the Irish Republic. And the focus on children was notnew – from the Irish Fireside Club in the late nineteenth century, to the Patriotic Children’s Treat in 1900, and onwards to St Enda’s the school set up by Pádraig Pearse, children and younger people were viewed as key to the future of nationalism, republicanism, and the revolution.
During the 1913 Lockout, the Kiddies Scheme and Schoolboy Strikes gained national and international attention and affected the outcome of events in Dublin. On 2 September, the collapse of numbers 66 and 67 Church Street led to the deaths of Elizabeth Salmon (4) and her brother Eugene (17) and drew much needed attention to Dublin’s horrific tenements. The newspaper reporting of the event was one of the first times the ages of children were printed and the innocence of children and the need to protect them would regularly be recorded in the press from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards.
In 1916, as Joe Duffy’s Children of the Rising explored, 40 children died during Easter week, with Christina Caffrey being the youngest at 22 months. They were from all social classes, Catholic and Protestant. Public health, substandard housing, infant mortality, and children’s wellbeing, all intersected debates on social class, citizenship, gender, and nationalism and the question was often asked, who was the Irish Republic for if not for its youth?
A Youthful Revolution
The formation in 1909 by Bulmer Hobson and Constance Markievicz of Na Fianna Éireann or the Irish National Boy Scouts was a response to the setting up of the Boy Scout movement in Britain. Initially, membership was open to all boys and some girls between 8 and 18 years, but was later limited to boys aged 12-18 years. After this, girls could join the Clann na Gael Girl Scouts or the Betsy Gray Sluagh. As Marnie Hay argues, the idea of moulding the minds and bodies of younger people was not new to Ireland and was emphasised in print, training, socialising, cultural activities or education. Many of the individuals associated with Na Fianna would go on to serve as leaders, combatants, scouts and messengers during 1916 and later the War of Independence.
And youth were a key part of all aspects of the revolution – both as victims and participants. Take Mary Bowles from Cork, who was caught by a British army raiding party at her family farm in Clogheen with a Lewis machine gun and two loaded revolvers under her dress. Reported to be 16 in the Crown files but 13 in the press, Mary appeared from her statement to be very well-trained in firearms.
Many flying column members were unmarried younger men, and in his statement to the BMH, IRA Intelligence Agent Eamon Broy refers to Michael Collins as ‘the youth’. The ‘Squad’ themselves were mostly made up of those under the age of 25 years. And while expectations of childhood and youth were different at the time, the British Army used young teenagers that today we would consider to be child soldiers in different parts of the world. And while much attention has recently been placed on the murder of Kevin Barry ‘a youth of 18’, in the ambush in which Barry was captured, one of the British soldiers killed in the ambush in which Barry was captured was only 16.
But the killing of teenagers was still transgressive, and among the most controversial victims of the Cork City IRA was a 15-year-old teenager named Edward Parsons during the Truce period in March 1922 as was recently recorded by Andy Bielenberg and Padraig Óg Ó Ruairc. Or the killing of 16-year-old Pat Deasy who was an IRA Volunteer killed in the Kilmichael ambush. Or how in May 1921, an IRA bomb attack on a British Army party in Youghal hit their marching band, killing seven including three teenage bandboys – Frederick William Hestermen (14), George William Simmons (15) and Frederick Evans (17).
But probably one of the most horrific events of the War of Independence was the killing of Eileen Quinn, a 24 year-old mother who was seven months pregnant and standing beside her three young children when she was gunned down by the Black and Tans outside her home.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, as Gavin Foster has explored, youth featured in pro-Treaty discourse, as a way of depicting republicans as immature and irrational. Yet all sides and organisations attracted and politicised in some cases the involvement of children and younger people. Whether morally their involvement was ever acceptable is a question for another day.