PRECARIOUS CHILDHOOD IN POST-INDEPENDENCE IRELAND.
MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY PRESS. 2009. 60[pounds sterling].
MOIRA MAGUIRE'S STUDY OF childhood in post-independence Ireland explores state provision for neglected and impoverished children, as well as provision for illegitimate children from the 1920s to 1960. Throughout the book, she exposes the gap between republican rhetoric on the state's responsibility to the nation's children and social policies which effectively ignored the needs and best interests of vulnerable children. She also highlights the disparity between Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life and its treatment of disadvantaged children. The ways in which poor parents, both married and single, struggled to raise their children on low incomes in substandard housing are well documented. Child sexual abuse and corporal punishment in the home as well as in schools is also explored. By drawing on the records of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), public assistance minutes, and Department of Health files, Maguire demonstrates that life could be precarious for impoverished Irish children, both legitimate and illegitimate. Many children were committed to industrial schools because of poverty. Precarious Childhood sheds new light on the manner in which applications for home assistance were processed. "Moral" concerns regarding parents who applied for aid often took precedence over the needs of children in the allocation of relief. The selection process appears to have been arbitrary. Consequently, many poor families were broken up. Maguire paints a vivid picture of the problems poor married couples had in securing housing which led, in many instances, to the separation of children from parents.
This study builds on existing scholarship in the area, most notably O'Sullivan and Raftery's seminal work on children committed to industrial schools Suffer the Little Children (1999). Maguire is dismissive of O'Sullivan and Raftery's ground-breaking study, describing it as "sensationalist" and "poorly researched," yet she revisits many of the same themes, often coming to the same conclusions (98). Maguire also draws extensively on the autobiographical narratives that they compiled.
Maguire contests the notion that most illegitimate children were separated from their mothers and were institutionalized, boarded out or adopted. A significant number of unmarried mothers who gave birth in mother and baby homes took their children with them when they were discharged. Illegitimate children born in county homes and maternity hospitals were just as likely to go home with their mothers as they were to be boarded out, institutionalized or adopted. Maguire makes excellent use of public assistance records, noting that on occasion unmarried mothers were successful in petitioning the local authorities for home assistance, enabling them to raise their children themselves. Unfortunately, statistics indicating how many illegitimate infants left mother-and-baby homes and hospitals with their mothers are, as Maguire concedes, "sketchy" and it is not possible to know precisely how often this may have occurred (51). Moreover, it is not known what proportion of the illegitimate babies who were discharged with their mothers actually spent any length of time with them. Many women may well have arranged to have their children fostered soon after their discharge. Very little is known about unmarried women who struggled to raise children born out of wedlock themselves, and the public assistance records and ISPCC records Maguire draws on offer a tantalizing glimpse of their experiences. For instance, in Co. Wexford an unmarried mother was struggling to raise three children on 1 [pound sterling] per week in 1960. The odds were stacked against unmarried mothers who wanted to retain custody of their children in mid-twentieth- century Ireland. Those who tried but failed were unsuccessful "primarily because of poverty" (107).
The final two chapters deal with infanticide. Maguire has examined a large body of infanticide cases tried in the Central Criminal Court and Circuit Courts. Her discussion of the judicial records adds to understandings of the ways in which the courts dealt with women tried for the murder or concealment of birth of infants born out of wedlock or as a result of extra marital affairs. The passage of the Infanticide Act (1949) is discussed at length, and Maguire highlights the Irish Catholic Church's apparent lack of concern with the fates of illegitimate newborns. Maguire argues that the frequency with which infanticide occurred and the manner in which the courts dealt with the crime suggests that respect for life did not apply equally to all individuals in post- independence Ireland. This had also been evident in the two decades prior to independence. Sentences imposed in the higher courts post-independence were, in many instances, harsher than those imposed in Ireland between 1900 and 1921.
In her analysis of defendants' statements Maguire shows very little awareness of the processes of filtering and distortion involved, claiming that single, sexually experienced Irish women were not "always shy and embarrassed about discussing sexual matters with Gardai and court officials" (206). It is improbable that in a society that placed such value on female chastity that women suspected of taking their infants' lives would have felt comfortable discussing their sexual experiences with police. Maguire takes no account of the circumstances in which statements were made. The fact that female suspects may well have been pressurized or intimidated by their male interrogators to disclose information about their sexual encounters cannot be discounted. Few of these women would have been aware of their legal rights. Most would have been alone when questioned and would have been unable to access legal advice.
The myths surrounding traditional notions of Irish sexual purity have come under scrutiny in recent years and the chapters on infanticide contribute to understandings of Irish sexual culture. Maguire rightly asserts that many Irish women were active agents in the sexual liaisons that resulted in pregnancy outside wedlock. Some had multiple sexual partners. She might have indicated how many women in the cases examined had had several sexual partners. My own research has shown that in many instances sex took place in the context of a relationship that seemed stable and probably on the road to marriage. Maguire highlights the small number of cases where women had multiple sexual partners without providing a discussion of cases involving women in long-term relationships. Cases where the defendants had themselves been the victims of rape, incest, or abuse are also overlooked.
Maguire argues that "infanticide should not be viewed only as the act of desperate women confronted with an unwed pregnancy in a society that placed a high premium on premarital celibacy and stigmatized unmarried mothers and their children" (203). Infanticide was committed mainly by unmarried domestic servants in their late teens to mid-twenties and must be viewed, first and foremost, within the context of the way unmarried mothers were viewed in mid-twentieth-century Ireland. "Women who committed infanticide generally put the fate of their newborn children low down in their list of priorities" (202). The fate of their newborn infants was low down on the list of many single women's priorities presumably because the options for poor unmarried expectant women in mid-twentieth-century Ireland were so limited. Material circumstances militated against them. It was difficult for unmarried women to compel the fathers of their infants to pay maintenance costs. Many found it difficult to maintain payments to foster mothers. Single mothers clearly experienced a great deal of hostility. Many single women feared that pregnancy would lead to rejection by their families. The records of infanticide trials show that some single women were indeed turned out of their parents' homes. The sense of shame attached to premarital conception should not be underestimated. While Maguire concedes that there was a certain element of desperation inherent in some infanticide cases, the circumstances that prompted unmarried women to take the lives of their newborn infants merit further exploration.
Instead, Maguire seems at pains to prove that many women were callous and showed a patent disregard for the lives of their newborns. Such women, according to Maguire, were not victims. She argues that only a small percentage of women fitted the stereotype of the infanticidal woman as young, unmarried, seduced and abandoned, driven to infanticide by shame and desperation. My research has shown that most single women who stood trial at the Central Criminal Court fitted the stereotype, and although most may not have been seduced and abandoned, some certainly were. Most were quite young. The average age of unmarried women tried at the Central Criminal Court between 1922 and 1950 was twenty-four. Three were seventeen when the case went to trial. The vast majority were from working-class backgrounds; some extremely poor; few with much formal education; some illiterate; and several inarticulate. There is no discussion of women who attempted suicide shortly after taking the lives of their newborn infants, or of the mental anguish and physical suffering many experienced.
Maguire might have offered a detailed breakdown of sentencing patterns over time. She does not indicate whether sentencing practices changed between the early 1920s and 1960 or whether sentencing patterns changed after infanticide legislation was passed in 1949. Historians of infanticide will be disappointed to find that Maguire fails to differentiate between Central Criminal Court and Circuit Court cases. This is problematic. Women who stood trial in the higher courts would have been charged with murder and related offences, whereas those tried in the lower courts would have been charged with concealment of birth. According to Maguire, 38% of defendants were confined in Magdalene asylums for periods ranging from one day to five years. Maguire might have indicated what proportion of women served relatively short or lengthier sentences and whether the length of time served corresponded to the offence. According to Maguire a large number of defendants were not punished at all. Closer inspection shows that only 27 single women out of a total of 181 tried at the Central Criminal Court between 1922 and 1950 were acquitted. Were acquittal rates at the Circuit Courts higher? The decision to assign defendants in infanticide cases alternative names might have been explained. An appendix listing the infanticide cases examined and indicating the geographic spread would have been useful.
Precarious Childhood in Post-Independence Ireland is a valuable and timely contribution to the history of poor, marginalized children in the mid-twentieth-century. It will be of particular interest to historians of childhood, the family, welfare provision, and infanticide in twentieth-century Ireland. Yet while it adds considerably to historical studies of childhood, more work in the area is needed. Maguire has pointed to the need for a study of sexual offences against children in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. A study of middle-class experiences of childhood in twentieth-century Ireland would be worthwhile, as would comparative studies of childhood both north and south of the border.
--University of Warwick
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|Title Annotation:||Precarious Childhood in Post-Independence Ireland|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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