‘I was not a human being’: A history of Irish childhood

No Child 2020: Dark stains remain on the Irish conscience over the treatment of children

No Child 2020 is a new initiative by The Irish Times, providing a sustained focus on child welfare and children's issues over the coming year. Inspired by the Democratic Programme issued by the first Dáil a century ago, we explore the problems facing children in Ireland today and offer solutions that would make this a better country to be a child.

During a speech in Dublin on September 10th, 1966, minister for education Donogh O’Malley boldly announced he was introducing free secondary school education, with effect from September 1967.

“Every year,” he said, “some 17,000 of our children, finishing the primary school course do not receive any further education. This means that almost one in three of our future citizens are cut off at this stage from the opportunities of learning a skill and denied the benefits of cultural benefits that go with further education. This is a dark stain on the national conscience.”

O’Malley died suddenly two years later, and taoiseach Jack Lynch paid tribute to him: “He not only saw horizons that few of us dared to contemplate, but he reached out beyond them, impatient for the good that he would find there; for the good that he wanted to bestow on his fellow man. For present and future generations of Irish children he broadened the horizons of knowledge and enhanced their prospects in life.”

The great question is why so few contemplated horizons to enhance the prospects for children in Ireland over the course of the last 100 years.

O’Malley was born in 1921 in the midst of the revolutionary period, an era when Irish republicans made much of their commitment to equality and new beginnings. The Democratic Programme outlined at the meeting of the first Dáil stated: “It shall be the first duty of the government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing or shelter.”

Cork writer Seán Ó Faoláin was later to write that this Democratic Programme “was listened to and discussed for precisely 20 minutes and 50 seconds, and then buried forever. In any case, its terms were of a purely pious and general nature that committed nobody to anything in particular. The policy of Sinn Féin had always been since its foundation that simple formula: freedom first; other things after.”

That mentality had profound consequences for the welfare and status of Irish children who were often failed abysmally.

‘Not a human being’

During the early 20th century, childhood illness resulted in remarkable Irish mortality rates; in 1911 more than 2,000 infants under the age of two died from diarrhoeal illnesses, and the same year, a fifth of the 72,475 deaths in Ireland were children under five; for every 1,000 babies born in 1916, 81 were dead before their first birthday.

For many others childhood was brought to an abrupt end by the reality of the labour market. Patrick McGill's Children of the Dead End, published in 1914, deals with a bleak childhood in Edwardian Donegal. Like so many others, McGill was brought to a hiring fair at the age of 12. His depiction of the fairs and his subsequent treatment is encapsulated in the observation about his employer: "To him I was not a human being, a boy with an appetite and a soul. I was merely a ware purchased in the marketplace, something of less value than a plough and of no more account than a barrow."

The money he earned as a result of this slave market was sent home. McGill’s reflections on this cruel economy were equally revealing about parental attitudes to children in families struggling for basic subsistence: “I was born and bred merely to support my parents, and great care had been taken to drive this fact into my mind from infancy. I was merely brought into the world to support those who were responsible for my existence.”

While the Children’s Act of 1908 was regarded as a fundamental step in child protection, emphasising the social rights of children, it was in practice more parent-centred (in the sense of bringing them to account for neglect) than child-centred.

Crucially, it also dictated that the courts “should be agencies for the rescue as well as the punishment of children”. In dealing with issues of child welfare, Ireland relied on this Act for almost the entire 20th century.

Industrial schools

Ultimately, the institutional option was preferred as a way of dealing with vulnerable, neglected children or those deemed to have transgressed. From 1869 to 1969, 105,000 Irish children were committed to industrial schools.

Right from the beginning their welfare record was shameful: between 1869 and 1913, 48,664 children were admitted to industrial schools, and 2,623 died while in them. An inspector noted in 1900 that conditions in many of these institutions were “better imagined than described”.

There was nothing uniquely Irish about the system of institutionalisation, but at a time when Britain saw the defects in this system and sought reform (abolishing industrial schools in 1933), the Irish authorities clung relentlessly to the system.

As Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan pointed out in Suffer the Little Children (1999): "The newly independent Ireland took the opposite course, opting for the interlocking system of industrial, reformatory and Magdalene [laundries]. Instead of addressing poverty, neglect and class division it funded religious orders to effectively incarcerate these children. This use of child care by the religious orders to methodically entrench and perpetuate a rigid class system in Ireland remains one of the most hidden aspects of these structures."

Daily attendance rates at school were under 70 per cent in the early 1920s, and the School Attendance Act of 1926 required all children to attend school from the ages of six to 14. Political lobbying about the need for children in rural areas to work on farms so as not to thwart cheap labour was reflected in the report of an interdepartmental government committee in 1935, which concluded that the withdrawal of juvenile labour from agriculture would be “a serious hardship to parents”.

It was not until 1972 that the compulsory school leaving age was raised to 15.

It was also necessary in the new state for births to be registered as legitimate or illegitimate, until the law was changed in 1987. Between 1923 and 1984, 125,701 Irish citizens were recorded as illegitimate. As well as the stigmas this label generated, infant mortality rates for these children were up to six times the rate of their legitimate counterparts as was apparent, for example, from inspections of mother-and-baby homes.

The family

The 1937 Constitution’s description of the “natural and imprescriptible rights of the child” was vague: children were not given differentiated citizenship with a corresponding clear outlining of the State’s obligations to them.

The Constitution also acknowledged “the primary and natural educator of the child is the family” and guaranteed to respect “the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children”.

Where parents failed in their duties “the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means, shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents”. But in practice, when the State did act in loco parentis it often opted for institutionalisation.

Certainly, there was awareness by the 1940s that the State’s reach needed to be broadened to improve child welfare. Children’s allowances were introduced in 1944 for the third and subsequent children aged under 16, to be paid to the father and not without strong objections from some Catholic writers about State interference and the socialisation of children.

The furore over the proposed mother-and-child scheme in 1951 to improve maternal and infant health was also a reminder of church and medical opposition to any semblance of a welfare state or national health service, the Catholic bishops declaring: “The right to provide for the health of the children belongs to parents, not to the State. The State has the right to intervene only in a subsidiary capacity to supplement, not to supplant.”

Scaremongering about State interference in health care abounded, as did a variety of blocking mechanisms and insufficient political will.


The 1952 Adoption Act provided for the adoption of both illegitimate children and children both of whose parents were dead; it was a requirement that adopting parents “were of the same religion of the child and his parents, or if the child is illegitimate, his mother”.

It also banned the payment of money for adoption, a recognition that previously “informal” adoptions had involved the exchange of money, but this continued. In the region of 2,000 Irish babies were sent to the United States for adoption between 1948 and 1961.

Improved healthcare, housing and nutrition led to a dramatic decrease in infant mortality and deaths of children from infectious diseases, especially tuberculosis. In 1949, one child in 16 did not live to see his or her fifth birthday, whereas in 1998 the ratio was one in 136.

A new dynamism was also apparent in the 1960s in relation to expanding access to education, but Traveller children remained far behind. The report of the Commission on Itinerancy in 1963 emphasised the need for assimilation and coaxing Travellers into becoming settled. The commission found that more than 1,600 Traveller children between the ages of six and 14 received no education.

A new education curriculum for primary schools in 1971 acknowledged that previously “education was ‘curriculum centred’ rather than ‘child-centred’” but now, childhood was being recognised as a distinct period of human development.

In tandem, a number of child advocacy groups were established in the 1970s, and the introduction of an unmarried mothers allowance in 1973 was partly about reducing the stigma associated with illegitimacy. But it was not until the Status of Children Act in 1987 that there was an effort to put the children of unmarried parents on the same footing as those of married parents in relation to guardianship, maintenance and property rights.

Child sex abuse

Corporal punishment in schools was outlawed in 1982, and the following year the first reference to child sex abuse in Department of Health guidelines appeared.

The revelations of the last three decades have underlined the scale of that abuse, and what the Murphy report described in 2009 as “obsessive concern with secrecy and the avoidance of scandal” and “little or no concern for the welfare of the abused child”.

The same year, the Ryan report on the treatment of children in institutions since the foundation of the State heard evidence from more than 1,700 men and women, with more than half reporting sexual abuse. The Ryan report details abuse in relation to 216 institutions, an extraordinary number for a country of Ireland’s size.

The Child Care Act of 1991 sought to promote the welfare of children not receiving adequate care and protection and gave the minister for health administrative responsibility for childcare.

Ireland ratified the United Nations convention on the rights of the child in 1992 but high-profile cases continued to highlight appalling failures; in 1993 a Kilkenny man was jailed for rape, incest and assault of his daughter over a 15-year period. The girl had had extensive contact with officialdom, and in the subsequent Kilkenny Incest Investigation Report, a crucial finding was: “We feel that the very high emphasis on the rights of the family in the Constitution may consciously or unconsciously be interpreted as giving a higher value to the rights of parents than to the rights of children . . . We believe the Constitution should contain a specific and overt declaration of the rights of born children.”

This did not happen until 2012 when a referendum enshrined “the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children” in the Constitution.

In the intervening years there was a National Children’s Strategy (“Children’s lives will be better understood; their lives will benefit from evaluation, research and information on their needs, rights and the effectiveness of services”), a National Children’s Advisory Council, a Children’s Rights Alliance, and the Ombudsman for Children Act, while charitable organisations, including Barnardo’s, which established roots in Ireland in 1962, continued to advocate for children’s rights and established support services nationwide.

What remained striking, however, was the extent to which parents had to resort to legal action to vindicate the rights of their children; the difficulty being that the Department of Education was obliged only to ensure that “children receive minimum education, moral, intellectual and social”.

Dark stains

It is estimated that in 2000, more than 5,000 asylum-seeking children arrived in Ireland, and the Irish electorate in 2004 voted to remove automatic entitlement to birthright citizenship, in place since the foundation of the State. The government argued that the children of migrant parents did not have “sufficient connections” to Ireland to be entitled to citizenship in this way.

There were vast improvements in children’s lives over the decades and more focused strategies in relation to mental health and inequality, but homelessness and children growing up in direct provision centres have marred the State’s record on child welfare in recent years.

Child poverty doubled from 2008-2016, while in 2018 the Central Statistics Office found that almost one in five children still lived below the poverty line and the number of homeless children exceeded 4,000.

These realities are yet more dark stains on the Irish conscience in relation to childhood that will inevitably prompt critical questioning of the “first duty” of the Republic a century after the Democratic Programme.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern irish history in UCD and an Irish Times columnist