Irish Childhood Under the Lens

Earlier this year, the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth (JCHY) published a special issue on children and childhood in Ireland. The articles originated at a conference entitled “Twenty Years A-Growing: An International Conference on the History of Irish Childhood from the Medieval to the Modern Age,” which was held at St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin, in June 2014.

More than fifty scholars from a variety of disciplines participated in the conference. They explored over a thousand years of Irish childhoods through cultural, literary, educational, social, institutional, and transnational lenses. There was also an Irish language strand within the conference, which engaged with themes such as language shift and cultural dislocation among Irish children.

Guest editors Sarah-Anne Buckley, Marnie Hay, and Ríona Nic Congáil used the work from the vibrant community of scholars at the conference to put together the special issue. They worked collectively on answers to this Q&A about the issue and how the issue remains alive through the “History of Irish Childhood Research Network” (, the website created by the conference organizers.

What was the path to take the proceedings from the 2014 "Twenty years a-growing" conference to this special issue?

As we were aware before the conference of the possibility of having an Irish special issue we agreed that the conference organizers would listen to all papers and see what would be the best “fit” to give an overall sense of the scholarship at present. It was also agreed that the editors and members of the conference committee would not be permitted to submit essays. After an initial editorial board meeting, we decided to contact all conference participants and we asked them to submit essay abstracts to us if they were interested in publishing their work in the Irish special issue of the JHCY. We then approached five authors whose abstracts were of a very high standard and provided a broad chronological, interdisciplinary, and thematic picture of Irish childhood between them. We did commission two pieces: Caoimhe Nic Lochlainn’s object lesson which focuses on the Schools’ Folklore Scheme which ran from 1937 to 1938 and resulted in the collection of over a million documents; and Georgina Laragy’s essay on children, employment, and training in Northern Ireland, 1921-1939. Taking any conference proceedings to a special issue of a journal is always a challenge, but luckily we were able to work with excellent scholars and authors, and have hopefully produced an issue that will be of scholarly value.

With Ireland's great literary history, how important is it to reflect on the use of the word "children" four times in the Easter Proclamation in the introduction?

As we discuss in the introduction, the term was utilized four times in the Easter Proclamation but in a broad and figurative sense. Scholars now agree that the line “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally” refers to all the people of Ireland and was concerned in particular with appealing to Unionists. Nevertheless, the choice of language is not insignificant and serves as an indicator of the growing centrality of child-related rhetoric within Irish nationalist public life at the time. Children had become increasingly visible both politically and socially, and in terms of child welfare, both the State and voluntary sector were invested in the lives of children particularly from the end of the nineteenth century alongside the dramatic change brought about with the introduction of compulsory education.  

How important is it for a journal like JHCY to devote space to work like this?

The development of the history of children and childhood in Ireland adds to the body of research on the history of children and childhood already undertaken internationally. While a new area of research, it is emerging rapidly as can be seen in the quantity and quality of recently published scholarly publications. The breadth and depth of the scholarship can be seen in this volume which begins with Emer Dennehy’s study of infant burial in postmedieval Ireland and ends with Karen Smith’s examination of laws and policies in relation to child protection in twentieth-century Ireland. Work on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is particularly welcome, with two excellent contributions from James Kelly and Anne Markey looking at the topic of child abductions and the very different literary representations of children. The Society for the History of Childhood and Youth and the journal particularly are a leading light for scholars of Irish childhood. While the development of the history of children and childhood as a discipline has been slower in Ireland, the journal’s commitment to this history has demonstrated an interest in the history of children and childhood in an Irish context as well as platform to promote recent research into this topic.

What are the unique challenges facing Irish children who had to deal with physical borders such as the one with Northern Ireland and cultural ones such as the Irish language?

The unique social, political, educational, and cultural challenges which faced Irish children are a key aspect of this volume. Georgina Laragy’s essay on juvenile unemployment in Northern Ireland resonates with the situation in the Irish Free State and the wider international context of the time, but the added dimension of the border is critical to the attitudes to delinquency. Religion, language, and nationalism are other important aspects, as can be seen in Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid’s essay which deals with the death of the Easter Rising’s leaders, and the proprietorial interest that republican Ireland proceeded to take in the education of the children of these men.

The History of Irish Childhood Research Network keeps these kinds of discussions moving forward. How important is it to have a printed publication for both those involved and those who will come after?

The History of Irish Childhood Research Network was established by the conference organizers and is managed by historian Mary Hatfield. Its website, which is available at, provides a bibliography of sources on Irish childhood (compiled by Mary Hatfield and Jutta Kruse), and it also provides information on upcoming conferences, publications, links to international organizations, etc. It is the first stage in our attempt to build up the history of children and childhood as an important area of study in Ireland and it will be of great use to scholars and students in years to come. However, we do understand the importance and benefits of developing the History of Irish Childhood Research Network into a more formal organization that would have the capacity to discuss, shape, and develop the History of Irish Childhood through a printed publication of its own. As teachers and scholars, we can see the enormous benefits of having printed publications stemming from the History of Irish Childhood Research Network.