Saturday 16 December 2017

Children of the revolution

Fergus Cassidy on what kept young people entertained - when they weren't working

Dublin children collecting firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising. Photo: Getty Images
Dublin children collecting firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising. Photo: Getty Images

In the years up to 1916 the word 'teenager' did not exist. The line separating children and adults was thin and grey, with the word 'juvenile' arriving as definition of a hazy middle ground. The 1911 census provides statistics based on ages up to 15 years old, but then jumps to figures for 20 year-olds.

Out of a population of 4.39million in 1911, over 1.72m were aged under 15, almost 40pc of the total. Yet their position in society did not reflect such strength in numbers. Daily life for many children, especially those aged over 12, mirrored that of adult life - dominated by work and making ends meet. For younger children working before and after school was normal.

A national primary school programme, started in 1831, was revised around 1900, with new principles, such as "development from within rather than moulding from without". By 1901 there were 20,478 teachers in Ireland. Sixty per cent of those were female, earning about 80pc of the male wage. A Blasket Islander remembered his first day of school: "Shyly I sat on the bench. The children were making a power of noise. The mistress went to the cupboard and took out a big tin and put it down before me. Then I saw a sight which put gladness into my heart - sweets in the shape of a man, a pig, a boat, a horse and many another. 'Be a good boy, now', said she, 'and come to school every day'. So there I sat looking at the book while not forgetting to fill my mouth."

A teacher in Coolbanagher NS, Laois, was examined and her results show the type of skills required to teach in 1903: "...needlework and literacy, hand and eye training, which included stick-laying, paper-folding, scale drawing and string work".

Children worked before going to school, especially in rural areas where they helped out on farms. Older children also had the responsibility of minding and showing younger ones what to do. In urban areas, children worked after school - cleaning, fetching water, fuel for a fire, and maybe a paper round. In cities many children worked on the streets and in markets. Street-trading included: "The hawking of newspapers, matches, flowers and other articles, playing singing or performing for profit, shoe-blacking and any other like occupation..."

An overhaul of the Employment of Children Act in 1915 stipulated that only boys aged 14 and over could legally trade on the streets (over 16 for girls), and they had to have a licence in the form of a badge. They could lose it if caught trading during school hours, or if obstructing the footpath.

When not at school or working, children played in the fields or in the streets. Most made their own toys, from sticks, wood, paper, matchsticks. A length of rope was ample for group skipping, which is probably where James Joyce picked up the following street rhyme he used in Ulysses: "Give a thing and take it back/God'll ask you where is that/You'll say you don't know/God'll send you down below."

Where children really struggled was in health and welfare. Twenty percent of the 72,475 deaths recorded in 1911 were children under five. Causes of death included convulsions, bronchitis, scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough. In 1914, one baby out of every 11 born died within a year. Children also went hungry, as reported by the Ladies' School Dinner Committee, which provided for hundreds of children, "...some paying a halfpenny, most received it for free". It consisted of "a pint of Irish stew, or pea soup and bread". The Children's Act of 1908 legislated on the prevention of cruelty and the protection of infant life. In its 1914 report, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children recorded 4,000 complaints.

While Ireland had no school medical inspection programme, there was one for dental, which included 49 clinics: "The need for dental inspection is shown by the fact that while only 4pc of children aged 7 have decayed teeth, 75pc of children aged 13, who have not previously been inspected, have decayed teeth."

That didn't stop some children helping themselves to sweets and chocolates during the Rising, as newspapers reported that Woolworths, Noblett's Toffee House and the Maison Philippe's chocolate shop had their stocks removed free of charge.

"Whoever did it", wrote author James Stephens, "must have tasted sweetstuffs they have never toothed before and will never taste again in life. And until they die, the insurrection of 1916 will have a sweet savour for them".

Irish Independent

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