History of Children and Childhood, 1500-1700

By Mary O’Dowd

Childbirth and Infant Care

Touching child-bearing, women within two hours after they are delivered many times leave their beds to go fop and drink with women coming to visit them; and in our experience a soldier’s wife delivered in the camp did the same day, and within a few hours after her delivery, march six miles on foot with the army to the next camping place. Some say that commonly the women have little or no pain in child-bearing, and attribute the same to a bone broken when they are tender children; but whatever the cause be, no doubt they have such easy deliverance, and commonly such strange ability of body presently after it, as I never heard any woman in the world to have the like; …

Thus, the Elizabeth writer, Fynes Moryson described Irish women’s experience of childbirth.  Moryson was echoing a common theme in discussions on childbirth in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: that Irish women did not experience childbirth in the same way as English women.  Such comments, however, tell us more about the cultural prejudice of the writers than the experiences of Irish mothers.  Moryson and others assumed that the physical ‘hardiness’ of Irish women meant that they experienced little or no pain while giving birth.  Unlike English women, therefore, Irish women did not require a long lying-in period to recover from childbirth.  It is, however, worth considering that Moryson was in Ireland at a time of war in the years 1600-1603. The woman who gave birth may have had little choice but to follow the soldiers to the next resting place.

We have very little information about childbirth and infant care in Gaelic Ireland.  John Speed’s image of a ‘civil Irish woman’ provides a visual glimpse of how infants were care for by their mothers.  The illustration depicts a woman holding an infant in her arms.  The infant is kept warm by the fur edged woolen cloak that the mother wears around her shoulders. 

The infant in the Speed image is swaddled i.e. wrapped tightly in criss-crossed linen strips. Swaddling of young children was common in many parts of Europe.  It was used to protect the child’s limbs from the damaging effects of rickets.  The gravestone in St Mary’s Church in New Ross, Co. Wexford (dated approximately to the fourteenth century) with a stone sculpture a swaddled infant lying between his or her parents is a rare Irish example.  The Norman origins of New Ross may indicate that the practice was brought to Ireland from England or Wales.  In the eighteenth century, ‘swaddler’ was used as a derogatory word for a Methodist preacher.

As more English people came to Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, swaddling of infants became more common.  The memorial sculpture for Sir Arthur Chichester and his wife, Lettice includes an image of their only child, Arthur lying on a coffin. The infant who died when he was just over a month old is clearly swaddled.

In wealthy families and among the political elite, the fostering of infants and young children to families perceived as political allies or supporters was common.  Elizabethan visitors to Ireland commented on the close bonds which developed between children and their foster parents. The children often lived with the foster family until they were teenagers.  Other children stayed with their foster mothers while they were being wet nursed and then returned to other biological parents.

Wooden Statute of Madonna and Child,
Museum of Treasures, Waterford

The church in the medieval period used statues and paintings of the Madonna breastfeeding the baby Jesus as a model for mothers to imitate. Hundreds of such images survive in European museums, art galleries and churches.  In Ireland, they are less common, partly due to the dissolution of the monasteries and the destruction of ecclesiastical statues in the sixteenth century.  The wooden statue of the breastfeeding Madonna and child in the Museum of Treasures in Limerick is a good example of an image that was probably more common in pre-Reformation Irish churches.

Despite the disapproval of clerical and medical men, the hiring of poor women to wet nurse the infants of wealthier mothers remained common in Ireland until the nineteenth century.

In 1670, James Wolveridge, an English doctor who lived in Cork, published his manual for midwives entitled Speculum Matricis Hybernicum, or the Irish Midwives Handmaid …. Wolveridge included a chapter on how to select the most suitable wet nurse. Like many of his contemporaries, Wolveridge believed that a midwife could pass on good and bad characteristics to an infant through her milk:

The best Nurse … is, she that is mild, chaste, sober, courteous, cheerful, lively, neat, cleanly, and handy; because bad conditions, as well as good, are suck’d in with the milk, and so radicated, that it is a hard matter to pull out the bad conditions, and leave the good behind, but that there will be a remainder of the bad conditions, perhaps so long as they live ….

Wolveridge also suggested that a wetnurse who had given birth to a boy was the best choice for a wetnurse.  Her milk would make a girl child ‘more spritely’ while that of a mother of a girl would make the boy child more ‘effeminate’.

As in other early modern European countries, the most dangerous time for an infant was the first years of life. The very limited research that we have on infant mortality in this period suggests that the mortality rate of one- to two-year-old children in Ireland was not higher, and may have been lower, than in seventeenth century England. Having survived their early years, all children, before the use of penicillin, remained vulnerable to a range of diseases including small pox, cholera, dysentery, diarrehea and rickets.  

Mothers administered herbal medicines to their children or relied on the advice of a local midwife, usually an older woman in the community who had an expertise in different types of herbal cures.   Women in wealthy families collected volumes of medical recipes that they received from friends and relatives as well as printed literature. Such books were valued as heirlooms and passed from one generation to the next. The women in the O’Brien family of Co. Clare, for example, compiled recipe books which are now deposited in the National Library of Ireland.

The English administration adapted the fostering system of Gaelic society to remove young sons of Irish chiefs from their indigenous families and rear them in English households either in the Anglicised Pale around Dublin or in England. Hugh O’Neill, the 2nd Earl of Ulster (c.1550-1616) was taken from his native Tyrone in the 1560s when he was about six years of age.  He lived as a ‘little boy’ in the household of Sir Henry Sidney in Dublin and was then fostered by the Hovenden family in the Pale. O’Neill remained close to his foster brothers for the rest of his life. 

Another young boy, Barnabe McGillapatrick (1536-1581), whose father was the chief of a small lordship in the midlands was also brought to the Pale when he was about five years old.  A few years later he was sent to London where he grew up in the royal court along with the royal prince, Edward.  Barnabe served as Edward’s ‘whipping boy’ which meant that he was punished instead of Edward if the future king committed a punishable offence.  Barnabe did not return to Ireland until he eighteen years old.

The transporting of young boys from their Gaelic families to an Anglicised or English household formed part of the reform agenda of the Tudor government in Ireland.  It was intended to ensure that the next generation of Irish lords would follow an English way of life in speech, dress and culture.  It was not a very successful reform programme. When the boys were returned in their late teens to their native lordships, they were either rejected by their extended family or, like, Hugh O’Neill, used their English education to lead a rebellion against the Tudor army in Ireland. 

Childhood and Education

Sixteenth-century Ireland was a very militarised society. Boys in Gaelic families were initiated into the lord’s army at a relatively young age of eleven or twelve.  They served as horseboys before they graduated to serve in the army of the lord when they were about sixteen years of age.  Women and children also accompanied the military entourages of Irish lords and mercenary soldiers.  In his sixteenth century print of Irish people, Lucas da Heere, included a young boy playing the bag pipes.

A small minority of boys, mainly from Anglo-Irish or Old English families received a formal education.  The most famous school in sixteenth century Ireland was that of Peter White in Kilkenny where many of the sons of elite Old English families were educated.  The writer, Richard Stanihurst was a pupil at the school and later in life, he remembered the school and its master with affection. White’s teaching method was, according to Stanihurst, student-focused:

Out of this school have sprouted such proper imps through the painful diligence and the laboursome industry of a famous lettered man, Mr Peter White, … The gentleman’s method in training up youth was rare and singular, framing the education according to the scholar’s vein.  If he found him free, he would bridle him, like a wise Isocrates, from his books; if he perceived him to be dull, he would spur him forward; if he understood that he were the worse for beating, he would win him with rewards; finally by interlacing study with vacation, sorrow with mirth, pain with pleasure, sourness with sweetness, roughness with mildness, he had so good success in schooling his pupils, … that in the realm of Ireland, was no Grammar School so good, in England, I am well assured, none better.

The Tudor government had less interest in girls from Gaelic society and we have very limited information about the rearing of young women.  There is some indirect evidence that some girls in the families of Gaelic lords were to read Irish and, possibly, Latin texts. We can document, for example, literate women who acted a patrons of poets and ecclesiastical institutions.  Máire Ní Mháille, a Donegal noblewoman, commissioned a ‘Book of Piety’, a collection of religious texts: saints’ lives, moral tales and legends. The saints’ lives included those of St Margaret, the patron saint of women in childbirth and St Catherine, the patron saint of female students.

Wealthy families in Anglo-Irish society employed private tutors to teach their daughters.  When the English writer Henry Harrrington visited Galway in the late sixteenth century, he was surprised to encounter young women who had read his translation of Ariosto‘s Orlando Furioso.  The girls living in the west of Ireland had clearly been taught to read English.  Other girls attended the small schools that were attached to convents funded by Old English families. They too learnt to read and write in English.  The nuns in Grace Dieu convent in Co. Dublin, for example, claimed that the girls in their care were brought up ‘in virtue, learning and in the English tongue’.  Such schools disappeared with the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, the daughters of English settlers were usually taught to read and write.  Protestantism was a literate religion and girls as well as boys were expected to read the Bible and other religious texts on a daily basis.  Alice Wandesford was six years old in 1633 when she travelled with her mother and two younger brothers to Ireland to join her father, Christopher Wandesford who had been appointed Master of the Rolls in the Dublin adiministration.  Alice was born in Yorkshire to a Protestant family. By the time she arrived in Ireland, she could read the Psalms and while she lived in the Dublin Castle complex, she had a tutor who taught her along with the two daughters of Lord Deputy, Sir Thomas Wentworth.  Alice, later recalled, that the girls

learnt those qualities  … which my father ordered, namelie, – the French language, to write and speake the same; singing; dancing; plaieing on the lute and theorboe’.  She also learnt ‘such other accomplishments of working silks, gummework, sweetmeats, and other sutable housewifery, which was fit for her qualitie and my father’s childe. 

Like many girls of her class, Alice was being prepared to make a suitable wife for a man of the same social background.The best example of a well-educated family is the Boyle family.  Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork had fifteen children (eight sons and seven daughters) with his second wife, Elizabeth Fenton.  Religion formed a central part of the children’s education.  Extracts from Scripture and sermons were read by and to them.  The Boyles also, however, read plays, novels and poetry.  Richard Boyle gave his children presents of books, not all of which were focussed on religion.  Perhaps, not surprising, two of the Boyle sisters, Katherine and Mary achieved considerable fame and status as adults for their learning and writing while their brother, Robert became a well-known scientist. 

Memorial of Sir Richard Boyle and some of his children, St.Mary’s Collegiate Church Youghal

By the seventeenth century, also, wealthy parents of Catholic boys opted out of the Irish educational system by taking their sons to the continent for an education, a tradition which continued into the eighteenth century. A small number of Irish girls were brought to convent schools in France and the Netherlands run by English-born nuns.