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  • Jonathan Swift's Childhoods
  • Mary Shine Thompson (bio)

To date, historians have paid scant, incidental attention to Irish childhood during and before the Enlightenment. Outside Ireland, childhood has been a contested historical field. In the 1960s and 1970s, historians first addressed it systematically and concluded that prior to the early modern period adults did not invest emotionally in children. Recent scholarship contradicts that case, showing that the care and affection accorded children have changed little since the late Middle Ages and that children have always resisted authority and created their own culture.1 We now know that parents' demonstrations of affection were inflected with the gendered norms of each period. Although poor eighteenth-century children remain invisible and unheard, the systems and structures that surrounded them are open to reassessment.2 The hypotheses and findings of recent non-Irish studies underline the degree to which historiographical approaches [End Page 10] and foci construct historical knowledge. They owe much to the influential "new" sociology of childhood that resists "the propensity to routinize and naturalize childhood, both in commonsense and in theory."3

This sociology, and the theory that identity is socially constructed—social constructivism—are at the core of recent Irish interdisciplinary childhood studies. This field emphasizes children's being, not their "becoming," and perceives children as participants in shaping social, political, cultural, and economic structures.4 It acknowledges the Foucauldian emphasis on gender and sexuality as primary categories of social identity, it maps subaltern interests based on class and race, and it is sensitive to historically contingent and social variables. Irish childhood studies have evolved their own dispositions, schemes of perception and analysis, and evaluation of practices: what Pierre Bourdieu terms "habitus." Habitus implies "a sense of one's place," but also "a sense of the place of others."5 They interrogate children's peripheral position in public and scholarly discourse, but not by attempting to bring historically embedded representations of child subjects to life. Rather, they look for childhood on the margins. This case focuses on texts written by or associated with Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), and reads in them late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth-century understandings of childhood in Ireland. They are found in his letters, sermons, and verse, in the unlikely and enduring children's classic Gulliver's Travels (1728), and in pamphlets, especially "A Modest Proposal" (1729).6

This essay does not propose to produce a systematic or comprehensive description of a discursive unity—childhood—or of the [End Page 11] totality of practices relating to it. Neither is it to focus on Swift per se. Instead, it finds ways of thinking about early modern children's complex and varied everyday practice. Children constitute a fragmented group with no specific site of operation. However, as an identifiable group they can "inhabit" texts, and this essay maps the multiple ways in which they "inhabit" Swift's writing. The essay's approach is "playful, protesting, fugitive," mirroring its mercurial subject.7 By "poaching in countless ways" on Swift's textual territory, by drawing on passing references and accounts of intimate relationships, commonplace activities, personal memories, and public perceptions, it identifies and accumulates dispersed traces of childhood.8 The references that surge up, disappear, and return are negotiated within a dialogic process that involves describing, organizing, clustering, classifying, and relating them to each other.9 The ambivalence, contradiction, and assumptions surrounding childhood are tested against the specifics of the Irish situation. The essay asks whether children exercised even limited power and whether childhood was a stable and unitary concept or transient and varied.

Swift's Childhood

Swift's versions of his childhood are extraordinary, minimal, and unreliable, and he varied his accounts—only some aspects of which can be verified—to suit his purposes.10 Nonetheless, they are of interest as a personal account of one early modern fatherless middle class childhood. His father, Jonathan Swift (1640–67), steward of King's Inns, Dublin, died less than two months after his conception. [End Page 12] Swift had a sister, but they were not close. Their parents' marriage was "on both sides indiscreet [improvident]." That "indiscretion" marked him for life: Swift senior's "death happening so suddenly before he could...


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