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Diarmaid Ferriter: From An Cailín Ciúin to Camhs, our sorry history of child neglect

Failure to take proper care of children has been a longstanding and grave failure of the Irish State and despite much apparent progress, the failure remains

The Oscar nomination for An Cailín Ciúin in the international feature film category is a milestone in Irish cinema history as it is the first film in the Irish language to achieve this. Its director, Colm Bairéad, has often highlighted its emotional power and impact on audiences. There has also been much reference to the unstated sense of menace running through it and that is as it should be, given that it is an adaptation of Claire Keegan’s 2010 novella, Foster. Set in 1981, Keegan’s book it is a reminder of one of the dark themes running through our history – the treatment of the vulnerable child – and the book offers no happy ending, neat resolution or closure.

Keegan’s interviews around the time of its publication reflected on the art of the short story and her description of it as a “discipline of omission… we talk a great deal, of course, but we actually say very little to each other.” Even those who do their utmost to help the girl at the centre of the story have to manage their own pain through their kindness. Her aunt, who takes her in for the summer, giving her respite from her cruel father, insists “there are no secrets in this house… where there’s a secret there is shame and shame is something we can do without”.

But she and her husband carry secrets too; what is not in doubt is the depth of their desire to protect and nurture the child, and her initial reaction to this love is to resist it “so I won’t have to feel this… I keep waiting for something to happen, for the ease I feel to end.” This is ultimately about a quest for trust and belonging.

The fame of An Cailín Ciúin is thus built on enduring themes of cruelty and kindness. When the book was published, Keegan pointed out that “families can be awful places, just as they can be glorious and loving”. The same could be said of Ireland when it comes to the status and treatment of children.


While we can salute this powerful film, its creators and cast, we still, unfortunately, are in too much murky water when it comes to child welfare. In 1981, the year Keegan’s novel is set, then-taoiseach Garret FitzGerald declared his mission on RTÉ to “lead a crusade – a republican crusade – to make this a genuine republic”; he was primarily focused on sectarianism and constitutional issues given the backdrop of the Troubles, but what failed to materialise fully over the decades was a republican crusade that would succeed in overcoming a historic ambiguity about children’s rights.

The 1937 Constitution described the “natural and imprescriptible rights of the child”, but this was vague; children were not afforded differentiated citizenship with a clear outlining of the State’s obligations to them. 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.

Numerous initiatives since the 1990s would suggest an abundance of progress. Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992. There was also a National Children’s Strategy in 2000 (“children’s lives will be better understood; their lives will benefit from evaluation, research and information on their needs, rights and the effectives of services”), a National Children’s Advisory Council, a Children’s Rights Alliance, and The Ombudsman for Children Act. In 2012, a referendum enshrined “the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children” in the Constitution.

Neglect of fundamentals

Recent days, however, have underlined the scale of the neglect of fundamentals including the shortcomings in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, with warnings that these deficiencies “will continue and even worsen” up to 2030. In tandem, over 62,000 Ukrainian refugees have entered Ireland, with the Central Statistics Office estimating in November that children accounted for 34 per cent of the arrivals and over 12,000 of them are enrolled in schools.

Per capita, Ireland is near the top of the EU table in relation to this and it has involved an admirably generous State and community response. The State is also struggling to accommodate asylum seekers and last summer it was estimated that 2,800 children were living in direct provision here.

The Mental Health Commission has identified serious risks to the “safety and well being of children” in a State that has repeatedly seen the relentless exposure of the consequences of these risks historically. At the UN child rights committee this week, Irish officials were quizzed about “alarming delays” in assessing children with disabilities and mental health issues. In a wealthy republic, these issues should not be insurmountable; nor should the ongoing challenges be understated, but in confronting them, a child-centred approach informed by an awareness of the consequences of historic shortcomings should be paramount.