in Writing

Ireland in 1916 – Children

In the years up to 1916 the words adolescent and 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 total population of 4.39m, over 1.72m were aged under 15, almost 40% of the population of Ireland in 1911. 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 80% 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 national school, 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 showing younger ones what to do and keeping an eye on them. In urban areas, children worked after school – cleaning, getting 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 fourteen 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, and 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 and put it 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 were really up against was in their 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 eleven born died within a year.

In England it was one in ten, and one in nine in Scotland. 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”. And the sight of children begging prompted a newspaper letter which said “…boys and girls of school going age who, with a persistence worthy of a better cause, solicit alms from all and sundry…”.

The Children’s Act of 1908, also known as the Children’s Charter, 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 complaints concerning over 4000 children.

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

And 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”.

• First published in The Irish Independent, Decade of Centenaries, 10 December 2015