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  • "The Children of the Nation?":Representations of Poor Children in Mainstream Nationalist Journalism, 1882 and 1913
  • Margot Gayle Backus (bio)

In his novel A Star Called Henry (1999), Roddy Doyle has his fictional protagonist Henry Smart, a fourteen-year-old Irish Citizen Army volunteer, ask the socialist labor organizer and Easter Rising leader James Connolly to add something to the founding document of the Irish state, the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, "about the rights of children." This invention invites readers to consider that the Proclamation's famous commitment to "cherish all the children of the nation equally" might have been intended and understood, by at least some of the Rising's participants, as not merely symbolic but as a commitment to actual children. This move [End Page 118] on Doyle's part intervenes, perhaps deliberately, in a debate among literary critics about the significance of child imagery in early-twentieth-century Irish nationalist writing. Some critics view the use of such child metaphors as a necessary and empowering rhetorical move that presented Irish nationalists, rather than the nation itself, long personified as Mother Ireland, as the agents of national destiny, while others dismiss or decry them as infantilizing the Irish and naturalizing their domination by the British.1 Critical analyses of modern Irish nationalism's representations of children have typically focused on these images' symbolic dimension, while the significance of these representations as expressions of attitudes toward real children have been largely ignored. Doyle's imagined exchange between James Connolly and a juvenile Citizen Army volunteer, whom the reader has seen grow up homeless on the streets of Dublin, makes suddenly self-evident an alternative reading: that in a society in which vast hordes of homeless children subsisted or died under the most marginal of circumstances, some of those who fought to establish an independent Ireland would have had the welfare of literal children as a high priority.2 For such readers, the key phrase "all Ireland's children" would have emphasized class disparities among literal children rather than metaphorical divisions among Ireland's religious and political factions. [End Page 119]

That the Easter Proclamation's child imagery almost surely was read by some nationalists as primarily literal and by others as metaphorical can be explained by notable changes in nationalist representations of children that this article traces in the coverage of the 1913 Lockout by the nationalist newspaper of record, the Freeman's Journal. It argues that during this period, the editors, writers, and artists of the Freeman's Journal increasingly deployed representations of poor children that could be read as simultaneously symbolic and literal, so as to de-emphasize a series of material and predominantly class-based conflicts within the nationalist front. Over its history, the Freeman's Journal, published in Dublin from 1763 to 1924, consistently represented the interests of the most economically and politically powerful caste to claim nationalist credentials, while at the same time presenting those interests as those of the nationalist movement as a whole.3 Originally established as a mouthpiece for the Protestant "Patriot" movement, the Freeman's Journal was nominally nonsectarian up to the Land Wars in the late nineteenth century. By 1877, however, the personal conversion to Catholicism of the Freeman's editor, Edmund Dwyer Gray, was matched by the gradual conversion of his newspaper to a conservative nationalism that identified Ireland's interests with those of the Catholic hierarchy and the economic requirements of a bourgeoning Catholic middle class.4

These shifts in the paper's editorial positions and reporting took place in a context of competition among nationalist factions and newspapers. To maintain its readership, the Freeman's Journal at times allied itself with more progressive elements within the nationalist front. For instance, in the early 1880s, when its star reporter, William O'Brien, left the paper to become founding editor of the Land League's new weekly newspaper, the United Ireland, the Freeman's Journal reined in its opposition to Parnell's leadership so as not to lose circulation to the new publication.5 Similar pressures would [End Page 120] later drive the Freeman's Journal's editorial policy to the right, away from the interests...


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pp. 118-146
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