Researching the History of Children and Childhood in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Ireland

By Mary O’Dowd

Writing the history of children and childhood in Ireland before the eighteenth century is a challenging task.  Historical records which refer to children are scarce and those that do survive tell us more about adults’ perception of childhood than the lived experience of children.  Irish children’s voices are hard to find before the 1700s.  

All the historian can do is to squeeze as much information as possible from the sources that are available.  We know, for example, that Gaelic society was a militarised society in which a man’s (and, consequently, a boy’s) physical strength and courage were highly valued.  Boys were trained in military skills from about the age of ten or eleven until their late teens when they were deemed physically strong enough to join the army of the local lord.  

The image of the horse boy alongside the Irish chieftain in John Derricke’s woodcuts of 1586 can help us to imagine the life of the young boy soldiers in the army camps of Gaelic lords.  

 English administrators in sixteenth century Ireland criticised the ‘gaming’ and ‘whoring’ of the horseboys although it is worth noting this was also a criticism levied at young apprentices learning their trade in sixteenth century towns. English soldiers stationed in small garrisons in the midlands and south of Ireland were less critical of Irish horseboys and many found it expedient to recruit them into their service, training the youth in modern military techniques.   Ironically, these skills were often used against the Tudor army in Ireland when the boys subsequently joined the retinues of Irish chieftains,

Paradoxically, despite the scarcity of sources about children in sixteenth century Ireland, the sons of Irish lords were an important part of the Tudor monarchy’s plans to ‘reform’ Irish society.  It is only by looking for children in the available sources that we can appreciate that the anglicisation of Irish society was to be achieved through its children and, more particularly, through Irish boys.  A key part of this policy was the removal of the young sons of selected Irish chieftains from their families so that they could be raised in an English environment.  

Among the most well-known boys who were taken from their native localities was Hugh O’Neill, later the second Earl of Tyrone.  When he was a ‘little boy’ in the 1540s or early 1550s, O’Neill was taken from his native Tyrone and brought to Dublin where he lived in the household of Sir Henry Sidney in Dublin and later moved to the home of the Old English family of Hovenden in County Dublin.  O’Neill did not return to Tyrone until he was about twenty years of age.

Another young Irish boy, Barnabe Fitzgerald, the son of the Baron of Ossory, was sent to London where he spent his childhood in the Tudor court.  There, he befriended Henry VIII’s young son, the future Edward VI, and was taught alongside him.  Within a few years of his arrival in London, Barnabe could ‘speak English fluently … and learned Latin and several other languages including French’.  Being a close companion of the young prince may have provided Barnabe with certain privileges in the royal court but it also had its disadvantages.  Barnabe was assigned the role of Edward’s ‘whipping boy’, receiving the punishment intended for the misbehaviour of the prince!  

While being transported from the Gaelic world of rural Ireland to the splendour of the royal court or even, to the domestic comforts of an Old English home in the Pale may have been traumatic for these children, the return to the places of their birth after many years’ absence was probably more daunting.  Barnabe Fitzpatrick came back to Ireland in the early 1550s when he was about 19.  His lack of connections and access to a political network in his native locality made it difficult for him to assert his authority.  Fitzpatrick’s anglicised youth and friendship with the royal family proved a disadvantage rather than an asset in the Gaelic world of his extended family.  While Hugh O’Neill was more successful in asserting his leadership amongst chieftains in Ulster, he too struggled to straddle the anglicised world of his childhood and the Gaelic militarised world of Tyrone.  The sobriquet of ‘Gallda’ ie foreign or English given to Hugh O’Rourke, the son of the O’Rourke, who was taken from his native home in Leitrim when he was an infant, emphasised his failure to be recognised as his father’s heir when he returned in 1562. The attempt to reform Gaelic society through the sons of Irish lords was, therefore, an abysmal failure that often had miserable consequences for the young people involved

Another, crueller tactic of English officials in sixteenth century Ireland that we can also trace in official sources was the practice of taking boys into custody as pledges for the good behaviour of their fathers.  Agreements between the crown and Irish lords often included a commitment to deliver a son to the custody of the English administration.  Although the practice of detaining young boys as a guarantee of the good behaviour of their fathers might be denounced   as a brutal instrument   of a colonial government, it was a custom that would have been familiar to Gaelic lords.  The system of hostage taking used by Tudor administrators in Ireland was, in fact, adopted from Gaelic society where it was customary to hand over hostages as a sign of submission to a superior lord and to guarantee the maintenance of peace on the part of the hostage giver.  Breaking of the peace or rejecting the authority of the superior lord could result in the execution of the hostages.

Although English officials normally took only one young man into custody, it was not uncommon in Irish warfare and conflict for more than one hostage to be seized. In I534, during the rebellion of Thomas Fitzgerald (otherwise known as Silken Thomas), ‘divers children of the Dublinians’ were seized by Thomas. The children were subsequently bartered in exchange for prisoners kept in the prison in Dublin.

The rounding up of groups of young men as hostages was also a tactic used in the rebellion in Munster (1569-83) by both sides in the conflict. In July 1569, shortly after the rebellion began, the citizens of Kilkenny reported that they had handed over four of their children as hostages to Sir Edmund Butler and James Fitzmaurice in exchange for the lifting of a siege on the town. Four years later, when the earl of Desmond escaped from house arrest in Dublin and travelled to Munster, the mayor of Limerick, ‘doubting the gentlemen dwelling near about the city, caused as many of their children as were kept in the city at school to be had in safe custody’.

The children taken as hostages or pledges were usually boys and we know about these events because they are reported, if only fleetingly, in official government correspondence.  The English administration in Ireland had less interest in girls and, hence, we know very little about the experiences of girls in sixteenth century.  We can deduce that some girls in aristocratic Gaelic families were privately educated as wives of chieftains were frequently patrons of bardic poets and scribes of religious literature.  In addition, scattered references tell us that  convents with small communities of nuns also provided schooling for girls in Old English or Anglo-Irish families.  

Catholic religious services were conducted in Latin and the Church did not require lay people to understand the language.  By contrast, Protestantism was a literate faith and members were encouraged to read the scriptures and other religious texts.   Girls, as well as boys, in the new English and Scottish families that settled in Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were, therefore, taught to read, if not to write.

A rare collection of letters between members of the family of Sir Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork gives us an insight into the education of Protestant boys and girls in the early seventeenth century.  Richard Boyle and his wife, Katherine Fenton, ensured that all their children were taught to read and write by private tutors.  The girls and boys read religious texts but they also received presents of the most fashionable secular literature from their father. The quality of the education that the children received was clear in their later lives.  Robert Boyle became one of the most successful scientists of the seventeenth century while his sisters, Katherine and Mary were well-known in their lifetimes for their intellectual ability and private writings including letters, a diary, a memoir and religious meditations.

Richard Boyle was a strong patriarchal figure in his children’s lives. Some historians argue that Protestantism gave greater emphasis to the role of the father in the family as it was his responsibility to lead the household in family prayer.  Wealthy men like Boyle also commissioned memorial monuments that celebrated the importance of the family at prayer.  The Boyle memorial in Youghal was one of four that Boyle commissioned following the death of his wife, Katherine. It depicts the leaning figure of the first earl of Cork with his children kneeling in a row below him.

If we approach the existing historical sources with the aim of looking for references to

children, we can uncover some interesting themes and information about their experiences.  The focus of the sources is, however, overwhelmingly on the offspring of the elite.   There is little attention paid to the welfare of the poor or abandoned child that was to dominate state policy in later centuries.

This was in sharp contrast to the situation in Tudor England, where government interest in children was almost exclusively concerned with the poor or unwanted child. Poor law legislation provided for the welfare of poor children and the removal of the child from the family home if the parents were deemed to be unsuitable. The enactment of similar laws in Ireland was rejected by the the Irish House of Commons where the M.P.s were unwilling to approve an increase in taxes on their property. In 1634 the Irish parliament agreed to legislation providing for the establishment of a house of correction or poor houses in every county, but the addition of delaying clauses for the implementation of the act meant that few institutions were actually built.

Consequently, it was not until the eighteenth century that financial provision for poor orphaned or abandoned children was deemed necessary by the Irish parliament. And it is also from the eighteenth century that historical sources that focus on children become more common.

Further Reading

Museum of Childhood Ireland website (

Mary O’Dowd, ‘Early modern Ireland and the history of the child’ in Maria Luddy and James M. Smith (eds), Children, childhood and Irish society, 1500 to the present (Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2014), pp 29-45.