Thursday 19 September 2019

Bleak time when children were jailed for throwing snowballs

Stock photo
Stock photo

Alan O'Keeffe

Throwing snowballs was a crime that resulted in children being locked up in adult prisons in Dublin, a historian has revealed.

Lawmakers in the city in the 19th Century had no difficulty passing laws to send children to prison for playing games in public if their activity was considered an annoyance, said historian and author Aoife O'Connor.

Playing ball, hurling, shouting in the street or swimming in the city canals could land children in prison cells as they often could not afford to pay the fines imposed, Ms O'Connor said in a lecture at the Royal Irish Academy last Friday.

Tough laws in force within the city reflected a fear of juvenile delinquency at a time when large numbers of children and young people were living in grinding poverty.

Ms O'Connor spoke of the imprisonment of children in Dublin in the period between 1859 and 1891.

Her research covered the period between the opening of the first reformatories in 1859 and the introduction of compulsory schooling for children under 14 in 1891.

In the 32-year period, more than 29,000 children were sent to reformatories but nearly the same number, almost 28,000, were sent to adult prisons.

The Dublin Police Act of 1842 criminalised play, stating "every person who shall fly any kite or play at any game, to the annoyance of the inhabitants" or who shall "make or use any slide upon ice or snow in any street or other thoroughfare, to the common danger" of the public, shall be liable for a fine not exceeding 40 shillings, or two pounds.

As poor families could not afford to pay fines, a child could be sent to prison for 24 hours or for considerably longer.

"The ability of the police force to round up groups of children from the street and commit them to prisons speaks to a level of control fuelled by fears of disorder," she said.

The Police Act resulted in a significant rise in the number of children in prisons where they were allowed mix with adult prisoners.

During the 32-year period, 87 children were locked up for 24 hours or more for causing annoyances by throwing snowballs or making ice slides. Some 19 were locked up for knocking on doors and running off and four were deprived of their liberty for "knocking off hats".

Children who ran away from workhouses could be prosecuted for stealing the workhouse uniform they were wearing when they escaped and they could end up being sentenced to years in a reformatory. If a child set fire to his workhouse bed, he faced four years' penal servitude or four years in a reformatory, depending on his or her age.

A 14-year-old girl, Ellen Sullivan, was charged with running away from an industrial school. She was sentenced to two weeks in jail followed by a three-year sentence in a reformatory.

Apprentices who "absconded" from their employers faced being imprisoned for one month before being returned "to their masters".

Ms O'Connor told the Sunday Independent: "Those laws were passed when Dublin was a very crowded and youthful city with poorer people living in tenements. The laws of the time were about a fear of a criminal class and I don't think we've seen that go away.

"I think criminologists today still struggle with the balance between punishment and rehabilitation and how to get that balance.

"They also had that debate in the 19th Century although it did not appear to be obvious when they were popping children into jail," she said.

Sunday Independent

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