- Editors' Introduction
The emergence of childhood studies as an area of critical inquiry within interdisciplinary cultural studies informs, in part, the selection of essays in this special issue of Éire-Ireland. To date, there has been no sustained engagement of this topic in an Irish context.1 This volume is also shaped by what we perceive as a pointed, and perhaps obvious, coincidence in contemporary Ireland. On the one hand, representations of Irish childhood have dominated cultural production over the past twenty-five years, from Oscar-winning movies to Booker- and Pulitzer-winning novels and memoirs, award-winning poetry collections, dramas, and investigative documentaries. Think, for example, of Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot, Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke ha, ha, ha, and John McGahern's Memoir. And then there was Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. Childhood [End Page 5] is the critical experience informing these various genres of cultural representation that, to our eyes, reflect but also ask questions about changing identities, nostalgia, and complacency in Irish society.
On the other hand, the past twenty-five years have witnessed a series of social, political, and sexual controversies with children at their very center. One could begin with Ann Lovett in 1984, move to the X-case in 1992, and then pursue a trajectory linking the clerical child-sexual-abuse scandals, the residential-institutions-abuse scandals, the Ireland–United States adoption scandal, the emergence of Gaelscoileanna, the citizenship debate and Irish children in an increasingly multiethnic society, the proposed Children's Rights referendum, escalating child care costs, early childhood education needs, and children's health concerns. The list, seemingly, is exhaustive.
What to make of this coincidence? It is hardly accidental. The articles in this special issue suggest that the story of contemporary Irish society, a story that many claim signals unprecedented social and economic transformation, is a narrative with the child as its central trope. And because this is the case, there is an attendant need for cultural critics and historians to understand the deployment of this trope against a broader historical and/or sociological context. What if anything is new about how childhood is currently understood in Ireland? How has the understanding of Irish childhood changed over time? And how do earlier conceptions of Irish childhood feed into and/or inform more recent conceptualizations?
We initiated this special issue with a call for papers on the history and literature of Irish childhood in mid-2007. Within a matter of weeks, we had received an unprecedented seventy-plus abstracts in response, literally from all around the world. Needless to say, a single issue of a journal could not commit to publishing so many essays, and we selected proposals representative of the work currently being done on Irish children and childhood. The articles in this volume thus reflect the interests of historians, literary critics, and the discipline of social work in an attempt to cross-reference how children have been understood in the past, and how certain attitudes and concepts related to childhood evolved over time.
The study of children and childhood, and the concepts associated with these words, is only beginning in Ireland, while in other countries, [End Page 6] considerable scholarship already exists in these fields. Irish Studies can benefit greatly from this research, allowing us to operate in a comparative context and see where Ireland is either exceptional or similar in the ways children and childhood were understood over time. Much of the significant work on the history of childhood concerns itself really with the ways adults perceive and understand children, and traditional studies stress the social construction of childhood. Adults, as Hugh Cunningham and Carolyn Steedman have revealed, attach symbolic and psychological meanings to the figure of the "imagined child."2 Harry Hendrick, among others, has shown how, by the nineteenth century, an ambiguous vision of the child as pure and innocent and thus in need of protection, or as potentially depraved and a threat to society and thus requiring discipline or incarceration, had become common.3 Middle-class society in England, and in Ireland, perceived the existence of poor street children, or the children of the...