The lat­est re­views and in­ter­views

Chil­dren ac­counted for a dis­pro­por­tion­ately large num­ber of deaths dur­ing the Famine and many who sur­vived were shipped to Canada to be­come labour­ers. A new book tells their story, says

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside - Ma­jella Flynn

THE im­pact of Ire­land’s Great Famine on chil­dren has been largely over­looked, says writer Marita Con­lon-McKenna, in the fore­word to Chil­dren and the Great Hunger in Ire­land.

It is this ‘great si­lence’ that the book seeks to break.

As the Great Famine struck in the 1840s, chil­dren and the aged com­prised one-third of the pop­u­la­tion, but ac­counted for three­fifths of the deaths. Although chil­dren have fea­tured promi­nently in vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Famine and in fic­tion, their plight, dur­ing and af­ter the Famine, has re­mained largely un­ex­am­ined in schol­arly works.

This vol­ume, edited by Chris­tine Kinealy, Ja­son King, and Ger­ard Mo­ran, draws to­gether the work of schol­ars on both sides of the At­lantic. It ex­plore three themes con­cern­ing chil­dren dur­ing the Famine — the work­house, the lives of Famine chil­dren or­phaned in Canada, and the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of trauma — through lenses that in­clude his­tory, lit­er­a­ture, folk­lore, folk mem­ory, and vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions.

“Dur­ing the Great Famine, chil­dren were nei­ther pro­tected, nor priv­i­leged, in the var­i­ous schemes in­tro­duced by the gov­ern­ment or lo­cal elites,” writes Chris­tine Ki- in the first of four chap­ters de­voted to chil­dren’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the work­house. The Poor Law of 1838 failed to make special pro­vi­sion for chil­dren, and no ad­di­tional pro­tec­tion was of­fered by poli­cies in­tro­duced af­ter 1845.

Chil­dren were ill-treated in the work­houses. As Ger­ard Mo­ran writes: “The fun­da­men­tal weak­ness with the Poor Law, and the work­house sys­tem, dur­ing the Famine, was that it was try­ing to cope with a catas­tro­phe that it was never de­signed for. Nowhere was this more ev­i­dent than how it re­sponded to those chil­dren who be­came in­mates.”

There was a be­lief that the sys­tem de­stroyed the child’s in­di­vid­u­al­ity and that long-term in­mates were turned into au­toma­tons, un­able to func­tion out­side of the sys­tem.

Si­mon Gal­lagher adds, in chap­ter three, that although the coun­try be­gan to re­cover in the 1850s, chil­dren in the work­houses were left in the same po­si­tion as when they en­tered. He says that, “viewed in eco­nomic terms, as both a fi­nan­cial bur­den and a na­tional labour re­source, such chil­dren were vul­ner­a­ble to ex­ploita­tive child labour prac­tices” and he dis­cusses the in­sti­tu­tion­alised en­vi­ron­ment in which th­ese chil­dren found them­selves.

The phys­i­cal dam­age done to child in­mates of the work­houses comes to light in Jonny Ge­ber’s chap­ter, based on the anal­y­sis of hu­man re­mains dis­cov­ered in mass burial pits near the work­house in Kilkenny city, where, be­tween 1846 and 1851, some 2,194 chil­dren died. Ge­ber says that both this ev­i­dence and his­tor­i­cal sources show that chil­dren did suf­fer from in­sti­tu­tion­al­nealy isa­tion. How­ever, he adds: “Both sources also give wit­ness to how the work­house, as an es­tab­lish­ment, did at­tempt, re­gard­less of the dra­co­nian reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing the pro­vi­sion of re­lief, to pro­vide them with the best care pos­si­ble un­der the cir­cum­stances.”

The next sec­tion of the book shifts to Canada. At the height of the Famine, in 1847, some 109,000 Ir­ish peo­ple set sail for Canada, Nova Sco­tia, and New Brunswick. Th­ese chap­ters look at the lives and ex­pe­ri­ences of Ir­ish chil­dren in their new home — or­phans who, hav­ing lost their par­ents, ei­ther on the cof­fin ships cross­ing the At­lantic or in the fever sheds of Grosse Ile and Mon­treal, in 1847, were ‘adopted’ by French-Cana­dian fam­i­lies.

The ma­jor­ity of Ir­ish or­phans in Que­bec, where more than 400 ships, car­ry­ing Ir­ish em­i­grants, landed in 1847 alone, be­came child labour­ers, rather than cher­ished mem­bers of the fam­i­lies in which they were placed, re­veals Mark McGowan, in a chap­ter that de­bunks some of the myths about such ‘adop­tions’. He ar­gues that, in most cases, the fam­i­lies had no in­ten­tion of adopt­ing the chil­dren in their care and that

Chil­dren and the Great Hunger in Ire­land Chris­tine Kinealy, Ja­son King and Ger­ard Mo­ran Cork Univer­sity Press, €25

Pic­ture: The Print Col­lec­tor/Print Col­lec­tor/Getty Im­ages

A peas­ant fam­ily’s hut dur­ing the Famine, which lasted from 1845-49, as il­lus­trated in ‘The Life and Times of Queen Vic­to­ria’, by Robert Wil­son (1900).

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