Childhood and Youth in Ireland, 1800 to the Present

By Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley

‘What is a child or to be a child’ asked Thomas Beacon in 1550, and the question is one that still fascinates historians of childhood and youth. Add to that the question as to how we can ever know how it ‘felt’ to be a child, and you have lots to occupy future students and historians!

Childhood in Ireland underwent significant changes from 1800 onwards – not least rising survival rates, the introduction of compulsory schooling, an increase in legislation directed at child welfare and the alleviation of poverty, and the increasing involvement of the State in the lives of children and families. Another important feature of this time was the development of an institutional infrastructure that would encroach on the lives of poor children and families in particular – and an increase in the autonomy children and younger people had from their parents.

As is the case with childhood today, social class, age, gender, geography, religion, ethnicity, race, sexuality, disability and where you were in the family all affected your childhood experience and expectations. The concept of an adolescence – a stage in the life cycle that signalled a greater freedom from parental control with some protection remaining, became more commonplace from the early twentieth century, with the term itself being coined by Stanley Hall in 1904. Were there adolescents before this? Sure, but it wasn’t a universal experience and wouldn’t be an experience for many until later in the twentieth century. By the 1950s, ‘teens’ and ‘youths’ became the focus of the media, legislators, and other ‘authorities’, with the concept of a transnational youth and youth culture becoming more visible, despite the censorship and cultural milieu many younger people were living in.
So when did historians become concerned with how children lived, played and worked as a unique group?

The origins of historical research into childhood (and youth) are usually traced to the publication of Philippe Ariès’s 1960 study, translated into English as Centuries of childhood. Here, Ariès argued that while there have always been children, the concept of ‘childhood’ – the recognition, celebration and, frequently, idealisation of an intermediate stage of life between infancy and adulthood – only developed in the seventeenth century and then primarily among the wealthier middle classes. Later scholars have dismissed Ariès’s portrayal of the Middle Ages as a period in which parents had a largely unemotional relationship with their children. However, there has been a consensus that by the middle of the eighteenth century, certainly in elite families, the child was increasingly being recognised as an individual with needs which differed from those of adults. This piece will look particularly at changes to childhood focusing on the family, schooling, play, youth culture and the role of the State in the lives of children and younger people from 1800 to the present.

Family life and work

Most children in the period from 1850-1950 grew up on small family farms or lived above small-scale family businesses with close ties to the agricultural community. Irish demographic anomalies, such as late marriage, large families, and endemic emigration, as well as the close relationship between land, shop and family, gave these childhoods some distinctive characteristics, frequently shared by children in the urban working classes. The age gap between parents, particularly fathers, and children was often such that being orphaned in childhood was not uncommon, and the concept and experience of ‘the orphan’ would come to dominate certain debates on institutional provision particularly. Often there was also a sizeable age gap between older and younger siblings, with the latter scarcely knowing brothers or sisters who had left home or emigrated while they were still in infancy. In short, where you came in the family and who (if anyone) was born before you mattered. Older and younger children within the same family could experience radically different childhoods as the fortunes of the family altered – for example, the earnings of older children might be used to facilitate the education of younger ones, or the knowledge that an older brother would inherit the land meant that younger siblings planned and were guided accordingly.

Within the family economy, particularly on the farm, life and work were often segregated by gender and age. Young children often worked closely with their mother, though in both rural and urban families’ older siblings, particularly sisters, were often actively involved in the care of younger children.

At the age of six or seven boys began to associate to a greater extent with their father and older brothers, running errands and undertaking simple jobs. After the age of about ten or eleven they could expect to be brought home from school when some crucial tasks such as hay-making required their labour. In 1878, the Factory and Workshops Act imposed restrictions on the employment of children in smaller workshops and by 1920 the employment of under-fifteens in factories and workshops was effectively eliminated.

While factories were of concern, children working on the streets were visible enough to also gain increasing attention. By the beginning of the twentieth century, in Ireland as in Britain, concerns about child labour were largely focused on street trading, the extent of which had been revealed by a series of reports, including that of the Street Trading Children Committee (Ireland) in 1902. Most children engaged in street trading did so in addition to attending school and there were few objections to their working in principle. Rather, the Employment of Children Act (1903) was prompted by moral anxieties about these very visible street children. It permitted, but did not compel, local authorities to regulate working hours and the age at which it became legal for children to be employed and to prohibit children from certain occupations.

Yet while work was a key feature of the end of childhood in many ways, the introduction of compulsory schooling certainly had the greatest impact on extending childhood.

School and Play

Before the establishment of the national school system in 1831, education was not a common experience for most children. However, in 1821 some 44 per cent of boys and 26 per cent of girls aged six to thirteen were attending a school or in education. For those below the ‘middle-upper classes’, hedge schools’ were the one option for education, in addition to small schools and travelling teachers. Found in most parishes, the hedge school was usually conducted by a single teacher who charged a modest fee for each child to be taught reading and writing (in English) and arithmetic. From 1831 under the national school system, education became more standardised, although the frequency and duration of attendance usually depended on family circumstances and as not previously, when children’s labour was needed on the farm or at home. It was not until 1892 that school attendance began to be compelled, and then primarily in urban areas.

Memoirs and other sources point to the fact that school was often a stage for the enactment of class, where there existed a hierarchy for those from different social backgrounds; and certainly was not a universal experience. Irish independence brought little change other than the extension of compulsory attendance in 1926, but the one critical change, the teaching through Irish would have profound impacts on the running of schools and the education and learning of many students. From the 1960s, campaigning by parents, previously excluded from involvement in educational discourse, together with educational reforms and developments in teacher training, began to revolutionise the primary school system and gradually, to introduce more child-centred educational values. For the vast majority of Irish children until the 1960s, leaving primary school, usually at fourteen, meant the end of formal education. In Northern Ireland, where the control of education was highly contentious, the Education (Northern Ireland) Act (1947) made education for all children compulsory to age fifteen with an exam, taken at age eleven, known as the ‘eleven plus’, determining whether the child would proceed to a technical, secondary modern or grammar school. The introduction of free secondary education in 1967 in the Republic and free third-third education from 2003 made dramatic changes to the age at which young people attended school and broadened the class backgrounds of many professions in Ireland. While arguably third-level education is no longer ‘free’ given the rise in fees, the culture of educating young people remains strong in the Irish context.

Patterns of play among Irish children also require further study, though memoirs suggest that, here as elsewhere, whether urban or rural, middle or working class, children derived the most entertainment from playfully imitating the work of adults. Dolls – bought or home-made – were nursed, the machinery of agriculture, transport and construction lovingly recreated, and juvenile priests dispensed ‘communion’ to their siblings. Cinema was hugely important to both children and young , financed – for those without pocket-money – by running errands or doing chores for pennies or by collecting the refundable glass bottles which were accepted as the price of admission by some cinema owners. The Schools’ Collection in the Irish Folklore Collection mentions numerous games, many still played today such as boardgames, tip-the-can, various street games as well as handball and other sports. While changes in technology have had a large impact in how we play, children still mimic adults – and play is certainly still a part of everyday life.

Health, welfare, institutionalisation and the State

Though childhood mortality figures are difficult to estimate for Ireland before the advent of regular censuses, it has been suggested that between a quarter and a third died before their fifteenth birthday in the early eighteenth century. This statistic improved incrementally over the course of the next two hundred years, with the exception of the Great Famine during which the death rate of the under-nines, and particularly the under-fives, was disproportionate to their total numbers. Epidemic diseases were of primary concern to parents, and while some may have resigned themselves to the fact that these deaths were ‘the will of God’, recent research in the history of emotions in particular has explored the grief parents felt and expressed on the death of a child.

While the foundation of the Dublin Workhouse and Foundling Institution has been covered in a previous blog by Professor Mary O’Dowd, the opening of a variety of institutions focused on children, families and the alleviation of poverty was and is a feature of the modern period. The workhouses established under the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act (1838) were not initially intended for the reception of orphaned or abandoned children but became the main source of provision for them both before, and particularly during, the Great Famine. In the first quarter of 1844, the total number of children in workhouses was 22,585, representing about half the total workhouse population. By 1850 this had grown to an estimated number of 120,000. In the fifty years after the famine, the number of children in workhouses declined to less than 14 per cent in 1900. The Irish poor law system was designed to be workhouse-based under conditions which discouraged paupers from seeking relief, including the separation of families and the removal of children over two years of age from their parents. Officially, only orphaned or deserted children were permitted to enter the workhouse unaccompanied, though parents frequently ‘abandoned’ their children, hoping to reclaim them later.

Legislation to establish reformatories for young offenders aged between twelve and sixteen was passed in 1858 and a decade later for the establishment of industrial schools. Drawing on British models – which in turn reflected continental European developments – both types of institutions were built and managed through voluntary (which in Ireland usually meant religious) effort, with the state certifying and inspecting the institutions and, together with local authorities, providing capitation grants for inmates. They were also denominational, segregated by gender, and provided moral and literary education and occupational training. Under the Industrial Schools (Ireland) Act (1868), children under fourteen could be committed to an industrial school if found begging, were without a home or proper guardianship, destitute, or were ‘frequent[ing] the company of reputed thieves’. Children under twelve convicted of a misdemeanour could also be sentenced to detention in an industrial school. The great majority of children were committed for begging and from the outset industrial schools were more closely associated with poor, destitute or abandoned, rather than ‘criminal’ children, gradually replacing the workhouse in this capacity.

Despite the abolition of the poor law system in the Irish Free State, the establishment of the Commission on the Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor in 1925, and the recognition by the state of ‘the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law’, many scholars have argued that the first decades of Irish independence were typified by an erosion of the rights of parents as carers and educators. In legislation relating to compulsory education, institutional provision, welfare and illegitimacy, parents and children in poverty were the focus of measures that regularly led to the removal of children from the home.

In the Republic of Ireland, the 1990s also witnessed a significant reform of child welfare with the passage of the Child Care Act (1991), the major provisions of which were implemented in 1995. The first substantial piece of legislation in this area since 1908, this Act was primarily concerned with the treatment of children in the care of the state but it also established principles similar to those embodied in the British legislation. However, debates about child welfare during this decade were deeply coloured by revelations about contemporary and historical child abuse, including child sexual abuse, associated in particular with religious-run institutions and calling into question the state’s traditional reliance on an ill-regulated voluntary sector. The broadcast, in 1999, of the documentary series States of Fear, produced by Mary Raftery, which detailed the abuse of children principally in reformatory and industrial schools, prompted both an apology on behalf of the state by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern ‘to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue’ and the establishment of a Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse which reported in 2009. Meanwhile, 2004 witnessed the publication of ‘Children first’, a policy document intended to provide national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and paying special attention to the reporting of abuse and the identification and protection of children at risk of abuse. These developments drew national attention to the emergence of the rights-based approach to child welfare which had been driven by the United Nations since 1992. In 2012, following a referendum, the Irish constitution was amended to affirm ‘the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children’ and ‘in exceptional cases’ to provide for the care by the state or the adoption of children whose parents had failed in their duty of care to their children to the extent that the child’s safety and welfare had been jeopardised.

Blog based on a chapter by Sarah-Anne Buckley and Susannah Riordah, ‘Childhood in Ireland: 1730-2012’, in Mary Daly and Eugenio Biagini (eds.), Cambridge Social History of Ireland (2016).