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Seán Moncrieff: Within living memory, children in Ireland were regarded as a burden

Their feelings were irrelevant, and any expression of them was viewed as dysfunction or defiance

I don’t want to sow division, but I suspect that people around the country are quietly discussing which of the two big Irish movies of 2022 they prefer. My two cents: The Banshees of Inisherin was great. But An Cailín Ciúin was astonishing. I’m not crying. You’re crying.

One of the many reasons it chimed with me was the production design. The film is set in 1981, though it could have been in any year of the previous decade. The details are exquisitely perfect: the over-painted kitchen presses, the Bex Bissell carpet cleaner, the brown and white striped mugs. Bunny Carr on the television. I could almost smell it.

I brought this up with the three old friends because, like me, they grew up in that era. We were out for what – back then – would have been called a walk, but nowadays is the more adventure-sounding hike: up the path at Glendalough, saying good morning to other hikers out in their hiking gear. Some were dressed like they were heading to a yoga class; others like they were about to tackle the north face of the Eiger.

An Cailín Ciúin is about a young girl being farmed out to relatives for the summer, which in those days was not unusual. It would be a pragmatic decision, based on how many mouths there were to feed. Often, these arrangements became permanent: children would grow up with aunts and uncles or grandparents, severed from their siblings and parents. Back then, little regard would be given to what effect this would have upon the child, how they might not feel fully part of either family.


It prompted a memory in one of my friends about a family he knew where the mother had died. The local priest swept in and had the children put into care. An elderly aunt eventually heard about this and managed to rescue the youngest child, but only by defying the priest. She had to travel to the nearest town and, despite having no experience in these matters, and no money to pay for it, found a solicitor to help her win custody. The other children remained in the system.

Children were not regarded as fully human. They were often a burden and, occasionally, an asset

Such stories seem desperately cruel; and they are. Only a few decades ago – within living memory – children were not regarded as fully human. They were often a burden and, occasionally, an asset. Their feelings were irrelevant, and any expression of them was viewed as dysfunction or defiance.

But that’s to look at it from this end of history. In those days, the term mental health didn’t exist. Even the word love was rarely used: because life was regarded largely in terms of survival. Putting enough food on the table. Staying warm. Paying the bills. Until relatively recently, most Irish people lived in varying degrees of poverty: though that word wasn’t used either. It was just life.

And it still exists in this country: except now we know, from decades of academic research, from history and from common sense, the extraordinarily brutalising effect poverty can have upon people. And upon wider society. Ask anyone who works in these areas. Want to reduce the strain on the health service? Get rid of poverty. Want to tackle crime rates? Get rid of poverty. Want to help the stability of our democracy? Get rid of poverty.

We ambled back down the path, took selfies by the lake and had a coffee. There’s a church there that dates from the 12th century, and which now serves as a curiosity for tourists and hikers. But back when it operated, Irish people would make their way there in wind and rain and snow without the aid of the carefully laid paths that are there now; at a time when life was brutal. The reminders of our history are all around us. Yet the one thing we seem to learn from history, is that we learn nothing from history.