- The Country of the Young: Interpretations of Youth and Childhood in Irish Culture ed. by John Countryman and Kelly Matthews
Eamon de Valéra's idealized image of an Ireland peopled by joyous maidens, youths, and children, all frolicking in enjoyment of robust good health, was just that: an image. In the relentless glares of history and evaluation, it has been dismantled bit by bit. Although his vision of "the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths" may have been dismissed by academics long ago, it has nonetheless taken an inordinately long time for interdisciplinary Cultural Studies to focus comprehensively on truths about Irish childhoods. Tales of childhood and child protagonists have always abounded in all genres of Irish literature, but scholarly examinations came late to the feast. The first such essay collection, Childhood and Its Discontents: The First Seamus Heaney Lectures, edited by Joseph Dunne and James Kelly, did not appear until 2002. The Studies in Children's Literature Series of Four Courts Press initiated publication in 2004. A special issue of Éire-Ireland on children, childhood, and Irish society, edited by Maria Luddy and James M. Smith, appeared in 2009. Specialized studies and journal articles continue to fill the lacuna; certainly, the increasingly horrific revelations of child sexual abuse by clergy and abuse in residential and institutional facilities have stimulated scholarly attention. John Countryman and Kelly Matthews, prompted by presentations at the 2010 New England regional meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies at Framingham State University have now compiled a collection of nine interdisciplinary essays. The volume builds effectively upon the earlier work.
Matthews states in her introduction that, "Collectively, the essays in this book argue for a fresh consideration of youth and childhood in Irish culture, and for a new discussion of the ways that childhood is socially and politically constructed in the modern era." The contributors' specialties include the disciplines of history, literature, drama, and cinema; Matthews emphasizes the hope that the diversity of their specialties and critical approaches will serve to continue the scholarly conversation and engender new questions and new research. These essays should certainly do so, and will undoubtedly inspire further critical inquiry and debate.
Stellar among the historians' presentations is Cara Delay's "Ever So Holy: Girls, Mothers, and Catholicism in Irish Women's Life-Writings, 1850-1950." Delay argues brilliantly that these writings uncover deep complexities in the mother-daughter relationship, as well as the centrality of women's roles in the creation of modern Catholic Ireland. Moreover, in elegantly written prose, she marshals an exhaustive array of bibliographical source material. The footnotes [End Page 157] alone will be instrumental for future work. Another outstanding historical essay comes from Gavin Foster, who painstakingly and perceptively explains why "the Irish revolution came to devour its own children." His account of the early years of the Free State, when the new nation's leaders shifted from adulation of the youthful volunteers who had fought in the anti-British struggle to condemnation of these same youths who sided with the anti-Treaty forces, is chilling. Further, Foster contextualizes this specific Irish situation within the larger parameters of civil war animosities and colony-to-nation transitions.
In the field of literature, Mary Fitzgerald-Hoyt's exemplary essay on Claire Keegan's long short story Foster (2010) is a welcome step in the attention finally being paid to this author. Fitzgerald-Hoyt situates the story within a framework of themes, references, metaphors, and symbols of famine and hunger. She builds convincing connections between the practice of fosterage in Brehon law and Gaelic custom. Identifying both the physical and psychological nurture attendant to the practice, and applying them to the child in Foster, her essay opens up exciting dimensions in the story. Susan Cahill also considers an often overlooked woman writer, of an earlier time. Her excellent discussion of Máirín Cregan's children's literature opens with an indispensable pr...