Déardaoin, Meán Fómhair 09, 2010

Precarious Childhood in Post-Independence Ireland - Book Review


What follows is a review by Jack White of Moira J. Maguire's book 'Precarious Childhood in Post-Independence Ireland'.

Academic hard-back books tend to cost their weight in gold, and this study, at €62, will have a lot of us waiting for the paper-back edition, but don’t let that put you off. For a state so wracked by media and public concerns about the welfare of its children, the 26 counties has nonetheless failed comprehensively to learn from the lessons of its past in regard to social services for its most vulnerable citizens.

This would seem to be the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from Moira J. Maguire’s new, admirably constructed study, Precarious Childhood in Post-Independence Ireland.
Maguire’s accessible and straightforward book shows how terribly neglected this area has been. She first couches her discussion in terms of the Irish Free State's period of formation. She argues that, if the progressive Democratic Programme of the First Dáil set out specific rights and responsibilities regarding children, there was very little follow-through. The state’s “first duty” was “to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children”, but Maguire conveys how all the egalitarian and lofty lip-service about how this was to be done was gradually filched away.

Bunreacht na hÉireann, for example, “enshrined […] the state’s right to strip ‘unfit’ parents of their parental rights”, and while this might sound like proper order to the uninitiated, when one considers how many children were near enough kidnapped from their parents at the stroke of a pen, the sinister undertones become clear. Under this supposedly caring regime, children like (the now survivor’s rights activist) Christine Buckley were arrested and charged as toddlers for alleged “crimes” such as “wandering”, then sent to barbarous institutions for the remainder of their childhoods.

Many children were sent away to work in industrial schools, often on the basis of flimsy or reckless reasoning. Moreover, Maguire also systematically disproves the kind of misleading hearsay, of the dúirt-bean-liom-go-ndúirt-bean-léi variety, which has allowed so many myths to arise around why the children were sent away in the first place. How many times have we heard the word “orphanage” used as a euphemism for a child-prison (that had very few orphans), or how often was it assumed that the children came from desperate single mothers — that the Catholic church, inferentially, was doing these kids a big favour by taking them in?

“Legitimate children were as likely as their illegitimate counterparts to be sent to industrial schools,” Maguire shows, “primarily on the grounds of parental poverty, neglect, death or desertion”. She also shows that the children were, overwhelmingly, not “criminals”. Her conclusions are damning: “Throughout the first two-thirds of the twentieth century law makers presented a façade of caring and compassion while their social policies repeatedly ignored the needs and best interests of the neediest Irish children.”

The church was not doing anybody any favours. Contrary, again, to popular belief, it was in fact relatively well paid by the state to keep these children. And Maguire argues, compellingly, that if the same money had been given to their parents in the first place, a lot more families could have been kept together. The church in fact made a good deal of revenue from the slave-labour of Irish children, and recent concerns voiced by abuse survivor Paddy Doyle add a further sinister edge.

Some institutions were apparently using their unwitting inhabitants as guinea pigs to test new drugs for big pharmaceutical companies, unbeknownst to their families. “I cannot say with any degree of certainty that I was subjected to experimentation by vaccine,” Doyle writes; “what I can say is that the nuns in whose care I was placed by the District Court in Wexford were willing participants in assisting the doctor who visited St Michael's to administer injections, just as they were willing to tell me and the other boys: ‘Stop crying like a baby just because you got a little needle.’ The recent publicity concerning vaccine trials carried out on children in industrial schools is a cause of major concern to all of us who were given injections or ‘nice medicine to swallow.’” Obviously this could have been a nice little earner for the institutions involves. Another inquiry on the horizon, I hear you say?

Maguire’s book shines a light on a world that has “been ignored or marginalised in the historical record”. It shows that “Irish social policy had the effect of destroying family life when it did not conform to middle-class norms and expectations, or when it threatened the nationalist idea of a simple, content, if poor, morally pure Irish society”. That society is still reeling from the revelations of the past twenty years or so about how vulnerable children suffered all manner of abuse, but what Maguire reveals most plainly is that a lot more remains to be done.

The Irish state has yet to come to terms with its dire record of social care and political duplicity, and more recent dispatches from mental health institutions pose questions about how much we have really learned. What real rights do children (the ones without solicitors or wealthy parents) have today? This is a timely and engaging study, and a must-read for anyone involved with or concerned for the care of children by the state.

Jack White

'Precarious Childhood in Post-Independence Ireland' by Moira J. Maguire, is published by Manchester University Press.

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