Hard times: 'We have too many sissies in this country. . .'
Damian Corless on the way we were in our slap happy Republic
Attempting to chart any scientific history of slapping in Irish households over the past century is an exercise doomed to failure, mainly because there was so much of it. The striking of children by parents was such a social norm that it rarely came up in public discourse, except in cases where there seemed to be too much, or too little, of it in a family.
Q The Free State inherited the UK Children's Act of 1908 which was borne out of concern in late-Victorian England, fanned by writers like Charles Dickens. The Act permitted "reasonable and moderate chastisement" by parents, although the vague language meant the law was more a guideline than a rule. The law also provided the loophole that any parent charged with assault could claim "reasonable chastisement". In effect, short of killing a child, parents were untouchable.
Q For Irish Catholics, while the Church's instructions on the treatment of children were equally vague, they also set the tone. Up to the 1960s, one of the most widely followed publications was the Catechism Ordered By The National Synod Of Maynooth endorsed by Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh. Q: What is matrimony? A: Matrimony is a sacrament which gives peace to the husband and wife to live happily together, and to bring up their children in the fear and love of God. The Protestant King James Bible put it more pithily: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son."
Q Under the 1908 Act teachers, who acted 'in loco parentis', were only entitled to administer the same "reasonable and moderate chastisement". Taking a wide interpretation of this, they employed the leather strap, the rattan cane, the birch and other means to instil fear, obedience and learning. Supporters of corporal punishment argued that once the short sharp shock had been administered, the errant pupil could be returned immediately to class, while suspensions meant lessons missed.
Q Outside of school the birching of young boys for "juvenile delinquency" was common. In 1943, with public opinion turning, Justice Minister Gerry Boland commuted the birchings of four Dundalk youngsters, but refused calls to "delete" the punishment from the statute books.
Q In 1940, lamenting the locking up of young delinquents, FG's James Dillon laid blame at soft parenting, saying: "I want the district justice to be able to say to the parents of the child, 'Well, now the best thing you can do is to bring him home and give him a skelping and let this not happen again.'"
Q Seven years later his colleague Patrick Giles claimed: "We have too many sissies in this country." He too blamed lax parenting, telling the Dáil: "There are many children who want a good spanking very often, but they are not getting it."
Q As legislators attempted to balance children's and parental rights in 1994, Justice Minister Máire Geoghegan-Quinn remarked, to general approval in the Dáil: "I am not in favour of parents slapping children, but I am a product of such punishment." The 2001 Children's Act made it an offence to assault, ill-treat, neglect, abandon or expose a child in a harmful way.