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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
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
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).