Past, present and accepted wisdom


A chara, – “Not all of The Irish Times’s parenting advice from previous centuries remains applicable today”, as Louise Ní­ Chríodáin writes in Health & Family (“From the Archives: Circumcision, less tea and other ways to handle naughty children”, March 26th).

“No man or woman can change human nature, so it is utterly ridiculous to say that children will be better citizens and more docile without corporal punishment” was the advice offered by The Irish Times in the article quoted from 1955.

Outrageous heresy today, but then the accepted wisdom from those who “knew”.

When the orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories were established, their first priority was not the welfare of children, though this was important to some, but the protection of respectable society from the depredations of certain classes of children, as Barry Coldrey noted in The Extreme End of a Spectrum of Violence: Physical Abuse, Hegemony and Resistance in British Residential Care (2006).

To say that it was “best practice” then is not to approve of what was done, but to try to understand what the world was like then, and as recently as 1955 in The Irish Times.

Similar thinking was also behind how women and children were treated in homes for unmarried mothers. An extreme example of this is seen in the first half of the last century in legislation for mandatory sterilisation of those considered to be “feeble-minded” and unfit to be parents, especially when eugenic ideology was active. The majority of US states, and several European countries, had such laws; Winston Churchill did not succeed in implementing it in the UK.

It will be difficult to understand the findings of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes unless we know that that was the world of which Ireland was part.

We may well ask why they did not recognise what was wrong with it. We may be thankful that we see differently.

But we may also be curious to wonder what people 60 years from now will be astounded that we today do not recognise as utterly unacceptable. – Is mise,



Dublin 16.