In 1892, the Dublin Aid Committee (NSPCC)1 synopsized 16 of the 209 cases that had come to their attention the previous year. Among the cases that had been investigated, the following were typical examples:
WS and Wife: neglecting their four children; two of whose heads were in a most shocking condition, as reported by the Medical Officer. The room when first visited by the Inspector, was almost devoid of furniture, and the bedding consisted of an old rotten mattress for the entire family. Evidence was forthcoming to prove that the parents were heavy drinkers, but the magistrate declined to convict, and postponed the case for a month to give time for improvement, signs of which have been observed since the case came under notice, owing, doubtless, to the case being closely watched by the [End Page 62] society's Inspector. It was discovered that the man could sometimes earn £2 a week.
M.A.F. An illegitimate child. Our inspector's attention was called to it. He visited it, but was unable to detect very much wrong at the time; warned the mother to look well after it. He saw it again in about ten days afterward; it was then in a state of collapse, and died soon after. He informed the police; an inquest was held; mother tried for causing its death. She was imprisoned for two years.
T.B. the father wrecked and destroyed the house furniture, turned wife and child out of doors, whilst B. himself went to live with his relatives—all owing to his passion for drink. He was fined 40s or a month, and ordered to pay 10s a week for wife and child's support.2
These three short narratives illustrate the defining features of what was to become the first and longest surviving child rescue agency in Irish society, the NSPCC. It was the first child rescue agency in Ireland to make extensive use of the press to further its aims, and through newspaper accounts of its work, its annual reports, and its monthly meetings, revealed the extent and nature of cruelty to children in Ireland. The society made a virtue of its attempts to investigate all cases of abuse and neglect no matter what strata of society were involved. It also stressed parental responsibility for the care of children. Its work was carried out by active intervention in the home, but it had a strong belief in the ability of abusive parents to be reformed. The purpose of the society was to "prevent the necessity of charity, much of it at least by bringing up the moral nature of parents to do their duty by their children."3 It did not desire to split up families but sought to "furnish aid to those worthless parents who make children wanderers homeless and destitute and to render other provisions than their own home less necessary."4 Within the first few years of its operation in Ireland, the society played a major role in defining and bringing to light instances of abuse and in so doing helped to define what constituted both abuse and neglect and [End Page 63] how these terms were understood in society at large. It thus challenged the general popular understanding that "such things" did not occur in Ireland. Unlike earlier organizations concerned with the welfare of children, the NSPCC, especially the London branch, initiated campaigns to change the law in relation to children. Its means of operation benefited from legal advances in child welfare legislation, and the society developed a strong alliance with the legal agencies of the state.
This article focuses on the place of the Dublin Aid Committee in shaping attitudes and understandings of the care, neglect, and abuse of children, especially in the period between 1889 and 1910.5 Branches of the NSPCC were first formed in Ireland in 1889; this was also the year in which the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act was passed, an act that greatly enabled the work of the NSPCC in Ireland. The period between 1880 and 1914 is widely recognized as an era when the "rights" of...