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  • The Global and the Local: Mapping Changes in Irish Childhood
  • Tom Inglis (bio)

The global image of Ireland has changed. It has moved from De Valera’s dream of a nation of romping, sturdy children, athletic youths and comely maidens, to one in which innocent boys and girls were incarcerated in industrial and reformatory schools where they were demeaned, abused, and brutalized. And yet the Irish seemed deeply committed to children, at least to having them. Throughout most of the twentieth century Irish fertility was higher than that in most other Western societies. It would appear that successive generations of women who married wanted to have large families. For many people, growing up with numerous brothers and sisters was central to childhood. Now fertility is more controlled, families are smaller, and more mothers are working. Given this change in demographics, Luddy and Smith (2009, 6) ask some simple questions: “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?” One of the main changes is that married women no longer see themselves simply or primarily as mothers, and that the reduction in family size, together with an increase in economic prosperity, has led to changes in the way that children are seen, understood, and treated, which in turn has led to a new sense of self among Irish children.

If we can describe and analyze what is different about contemporary Irish childhood, we may understand how Ireland itself has changed. I suggest that what has changed most in Ireland is the influence [End Page 63] of global culture. The regimes of caring, disciplining, and controlling children have altered. The everyday life of children revolves around a new individualism that is based on self-expression and self-fulfillment. Irish children live locally but have adopted lifestyles, tastes, and practices that are increasingly similar to those in the rest of the West. This new sense of self stands in contrast to the culture of self-denial and humility that was central to family and school life in the last century when the Catholic church dominated social and cultural life. Parents have the competence and resources to plan when children are born, the wealth and resources to fulfill their children’s interests and pleasures, and more importantly, they have the time, space, and competence to develop close, emotional relations with their children. These changes have been linked to a shift from formal to informal relations, from authority to mutual bonding between adults and children, thus altering the way in which children and adults see and understand each other (Wouters 1999; 2007). If the prophecies of some globalization theorists are correct (Bryman 2004; Cook 2004; Peterson 2005), some of which are supported by recent research findings (Haller 2010), then it may well be that the sense of self, embodied through socialization experiences, which was central to Irish cultural difference, is being slowly swallowed up within Western culture.

Irish children’s lives have become permeated by images, ideas, and practices that emerge from global media and markets. To develop an understanding of this process, we need to make use of theories and concepts which enable us to look for evidence of the impact of global culture. I argue that it is best to analyze changes in Irish childhood in terms of children being caught up in global flows. But they are also caught up in local and national flows. What is required, then, is an analysis of how the global and the local come together in children’s lives—what some commentators refer to as glocalization. We also need to use innovative research methods. As part of an exploratory study in the globalization of Irish childhood, I make use of short essays written by some schoolchildren that provide insights into their daily lives and sense of self. I conclude that what is different about contemporary Irish childhood is the permeation of messages about the importance of self and the pursuit of pleasure. This sense of self-worth and confidence can be linked to the rise...


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pp. 63-83
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