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Modern Family: Growing up out of the shadows


The iconic 1960s postcard depicting a typical Irish childhood. Image courtesy of johnhindestudios.com

The iconic 1960s postcard depicting a typical Irish childhood. Image courtesy of johnhindestudios.com

The iconic 1960s postcard depicting a typical Irish childhood. Image courtesy of johnhindestudios.com

There is a famous John Hinde postcard of Ireland that sums up the traditional view of the Irish childhood. A boy and girl stand either side of a turf-laden donkey. The children have red hair and freckles. The mountains of Connemara stand in background, guardians of the innocence and racial purity of the Irish child.

The postcard dates from the 1960s, a time when people still leaned on the three sturdy pillars of Irish society: the Catholic church, the GAA and Fianna Fáil.

If a modern-day Hinde were to take a photograph that encapsulated the modern Irish childhood, in a time when only one of those pillars still stands, what would the image be like?

Well, the mountains would be gone for a start. Of the 1.1 million children in Ireland, over half live in Dublin, Cork and Galway.

And the red hair might have to go, too. Ireland is a much more racially diverse place now, with 93,005 foreign national children (up 50pc from 2006) and 14,245 Traveller children (up by 30.3pc from 2006).

In fact, the whole premise of the original photograph - that of children doing manual labour outdoors - would not longer stand scrutiny. Nowadays, the subjects might have to be photographed on a sofa with a games console in their hands

Back in the 1960s, corporal punishment was permitted, even encouraged, and children were seen and not heard. When I was growing up in the Dublin of the 1970s, my uncle referred to children as "little horrors", I was lifted by the ear out of my chair whenever an adult entered the room and I was conscious of being seen as almost an alien species.

So how has childhood in Ireland changed in the intervening years? Firstly, we know a lot more about Irish children, thanks to several research initiatives.

The 2010 report State of the Nation's Children by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and the ongoing Growing Up In Ireland project, give a partial picture of what life is like for children in contemporary Ireland. The 2011 census adds to the picture, as does the 2010 Health Behaviour in School Age Children (HBSC) Report.

The problem is that these reports concentrate on the child's interaction with the State. Their experiences at school and in childcare, their health, weight and intake of breast milk, their literacy, numeracy and chances of catching a disease, are all measured. But the texture of everyday life is missing.

A new study, Children and Young People's Everyday Experiences of Participation in Decision-making at Home, in School and in their Communities, from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, aims to rectify that. It's in the final stages of editing, so social sciences lecturer Dr Deirdre Horgan of UCC, who worked on it, can't say much, but does confirm that "the family did emerge as a positive space for children".

She also attributes this lack of official attention to an unusual source. "The relative lack of research in this area has to do with our Constitution and the primacy of the family," she suggests. So what does this blizzard of paper and statistics tell us about being a child in modern Ireland? Well, first off, it tells us how many of the "little horrors" there are. A quarter of the population are children (under 17), the highest in Europe.

And once you're born in Ireland, you have a good chance of survival: our infant mortality rate is 3.4 per 1,000, below the EU average of 4.2. (Romania's, for instance, is 9.4).

Some statistics are encouraging. Almost one in three children have a say in setting their school rules, an unthinkable situation even a generation ago, when brothers or nuns stalked the corridors, a leather swinging from their belts alongside the rosary.

Many (72pc) eat regularly with their families, and can talk to their mothers (more than 80pc) or fathers (64pc) if something is bothering them. The vast majority have friends (nearly 90pc), and just over half have good places to play in their area.

Nine out of 10 are happy with their lives, and fewer smoke or drink than in the past. One in four children under 17 has had sex and three in four have a family pet.

One in six children lives in a one-parent families, and there are 339,596 only children in Ireland (up by almost 40,000 from 2006), which is just over 30pc of the 1.1 million total.

So far, so promising. Then there are the advances in the area of children's rights. Ireland ratified the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, which "held Ireland to account", says Dr Horgan, and has had a big influence on public policy. Since then, we amended the Constitution to protect children's rights and give them a say in what happens to them in legal proceedings.

But there have been setbacks, too. The proposal to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 has been dropped, as has the suggestion that the age of consent, which has stood at 18 since 1935, be reduced by a year.

The statistics, too, have a negative side. Lots of children (24.3pc) are bullied at school, living in danger of poverty (18.8pc) or experience consistent poverty (9.3pc). The research points to a lessening of parental engagement as children get older and to decreases in reading and mathematical literacy. The various ways in which parents arrange the care of very young children can also cause concern.

The publication in November 2014 of a commentary on the Growing Up In Ireland project painted a picture of an Ireland caught between two worlds: an older, more traditional one with a stay-at-home parent and extended family involvement, and a newer, more commercially driven one with the care of children outsourced so the parents can maximise earnings.

The project is following almost 20,000 children through the early part of their lives and tells us much about those born into Celtic Tiger Ireland. We learn, for instance, that 36pc of Irish children are in childcare of some sort. Of these, 38.2pc are there for more than 30 hours a week.

The extended family still plays a major role, with family members looking after 42pc of children in childcare. The rest are looked after in the home by childminders (31pc) or attend creches (27pc).

Childcare comes at a financial price as well as a social one. Families spend 29pc of their income on childcare; the EU average is just 12pc. And single parents can find themselves in something of a poverty trap here. They spend 52pc of income on childcare, with the EU average standing at just 17pc.

The boy in the postcard was Paddy Lydon, who died, aged 65, in 2013. He had four siblings, and his sister Mary was out cutting turf with him that day. The life of any modern-day Lydons is almost unrecognisable from those of "Red" Lydon and his sister. They have more rights, more comfort, more possessions. But childhood is still a contested space, and the voice of the child is all but drowned out by the competing agencies and departments trying to claim that the experience of childhood in Ireland is wonderful and getting better, or purgatorial and getting worse.

Childhood years are supposed to be the best ones of your life. But it is one of the many ironies of childhood that, by the time you realise how great it is, it's too late: you've already slipped into adulthood. Children have no concept of childhood; for them, it's simply "life".

Irish Independent