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Punished for being Poor

Jeremy Kearney

The Cruelty Man: Child welfare, the NSPCC and the State in Ireland, 1889-1956, by Sarah-Anne Buckley, Manchester University Press, 225 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-0719087660

The much-told story of the founding of the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) movement involved a church worker in New York in 1874 who was concerned about a young girl, Mary Ellen McCormack, who was being regularly beaten by her foster mother. As there was no specific agency at the time she could report the abuse to, her last resort was to contact Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The foster mother was prosecuted using legislation to protect animals.

Bergh apparently saw the girl as a “vulnerable member of the animal kingdom needing the protection of the state”. The case became a cause célèbre and quickly led to the establishment of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children later that year. Following a visit to the New York SPCC by a Liverpool businessman in 1881, a meeting of the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals in the city extended an appeal for a dogs’ home into one that included the protection of children. Consequently, the Liverpool SPCC branch was formed in 1883, followed by one in London in 1884. The first Irish branch was set up in Dublin in 1889 as the Dublin Aid Committee, which formally became known as the NSPCC in 1890.

I can vouch for the fact that the story of the need to use animal welfare legislation in the first child cruelty case was still being mentioned by the NSPCC in the United Kingdom at public meetings in the 1980s (sometimes with the embellishment that the child was taken into the court in a horse blanket) and would usually provoke a gasp from the audience. Presumably they were unaware that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824, some sixty years prior to the establishment of the NSPCC and in Ireland the Dublin SPCA was formed in 1840, some fifty years before the Irish branch of the NSPCC. The relative worth of animals and children was not a straightforward issue for a good deal of the nineteenth century. It was not until 1877 that the Local Government Board issued a list of conditions that had to be followed by foster parents in relation to boarded-out children, of which one was that “no child shall be permitted to continue with any foster parent who … shall keep any pig, cow, donkey or other such animal in the dwelling house”.

Sarah Jane Buckley’s book The Cruelty Man is a detailed account of the history of NSPCC in Ireland, from the foundation of the first branch in Dublin to the separation from the parent body in Britain in 1956 and the renaming of the organisation as the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Drawing on access to the full archive of the NSPCC, she has been able to examine annual reports, inspectors’ notebooks and a limited number of case files. For a variety of reasons, the only case files that have emerged so far relate in the main to Wexford and to lesser degree, Wicklow and Mayo (although somewhat confusingly, on the same page that she tells us this, Buckley says that the case files were available from Wexford “with a small number from Cork and Waterford”). While Buckley’s analysis of the case files and the notebooks give some graphic descriptions of the poverty and poor housing which was the lot of many of the families the society’s inspectors dealt with, the annual reports are very revealing of the changes in official thinking over the years and of the society’s relationship with the state, particularly after 1922.

The first report of the Dublin Aid Committee (which was the first branch of the NSPCC in Ireland) stated: “whilst others seek to house and provide for the wanderer, homeless, destitute, it (the Society) seeks to punish those worthless parents who make children wanderers, homeless and destitute, and to render other provision than their own home less necessary”. In those words, it encapsulated an attitude and approach that was to characterise the society’s mode of operating in Ireland for many years. As Buckley illustrates, the vast majority of those who ended up being punished were poor and working class families with very little access to any kind of home assistance.

Buckley places the establishment of the NSPCC in the context of increasing interest and concerns about children in the second half of the nineteenth century, both as “assets” to society and as being vulnerable because they were orphaned or deserted. More specifically, in Ireland the early history of child welfare in the nineteenth century was as much about religion and proselytising as social need: “Catholic orders established orphanages and schools to counteract what they saw as the proselytising fervour of Protestant institutions.”

Childhood was being redefined and its perceived importance increasing, and this was reflected in the burgeoning legislation affecting children. The NSPCC was influential in the passing of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act in 1889 and in the following twenty-year period over fifty acts related to child welfare were passed in Britain. In terms of how the history of Irish child welfare later developed in the twentieth century one of the most significant turned out to be the 1868 Industrial Schools (Ireland) Act. At the same time, the NSPCC was quickly embraced by the philanthropic elite and, while undoubtedly some reformers participated in the organisation to better the lives of children and families, it provided an opportunity for the middle and upper classes to participate in what was called the “child-saving” movement: most members “appeared to be primarily motivated by the need to organise and regulate the lives of the poor …[and to inculcate] ‘a sense of responsibility’ into people of the working class”.

From an early stage, in the absence of any alternatives, the NSPCC became the primary child protection agency in Ireland. Its interactions with families, predominantly the poor and deprived, became more interventionist, prescribing how the family should live and the children be managed. The case statistics reveal the speed of its expansion and the focus of its work. The numbers dealt with by the Dublin branch increased from just over two thousand in 1899 to almost 18,500 ten years later. Of that latter figure, nearly 95 per cent of cases were dealt with in a punitive manner, either by prosecution or the issuing of a warning.

At the same time, the focus of the SPCC’s work internationally was shifting from child cruelty to neglect and therefore many more children (and families) came under the NSPCC’s remit, particularly in a country with widespread poverty, a very limited state welfare assistance programme and what were described as the “worst slums in Europe”. It was unsurprising then that by 1900 neglect had become the most common aspect of the cases dealt with by the society. The concept of neglect was expanded to include neglect to provide, moral neglect and neglect to provide proper guardianship. Such broad categories facilitated intervention in many families and for many different reasons, and the sheer elasticity and subjective nature of the concept is well shown by the comments of an inspector in 1908: “No word picture, however complete, can accurately portray a case of real ‘Neglect’ as our men discover by the thousand every month … Each will accept the description in a comparative way, and each will determine the depth of the evil by his or her own experience …”

Writing in 1989, Robert Dingwall argued that concepts such as child abuse become subject to what he called the “definitional fallacy”, where the definition of the original concern is broadened to “embrace virtually any problem which may have an adverse impact on a child and can possibly be attributed to some act of commission or omission by an adult”. The shift in focus by the NSPCC from a concern with child cruelty to child neglect can be seen as an early example of this broadening process and it had the result of greatly increasing the number of poor families potentially open to the society’s interventions. Therefore, it is not particularly surprising to learn that by the mid-1930s on average three-quarters of the cases dealt with by the society were categorised as neglect.

Although the NSPCC in Ireland did not become a separate organisation (ISPCC) until 1956, the establishment of the Irish Free State after independence meant that the society had to adjust its focus in order to adapt to the situation in the newly independent country. As has been pointed out by a number of writers, although the 1916 proclamation pledged to cherish “all the children of the nation equally” and the Democratic Programme of the first Dáil in 1919 said “it shall be the first duty of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children”, the actual policy initiatives of the Free State government made no effort to turn this high rhetoric into practical action. On the contrary, in the 1920s the increasing influence of the Catholic Church led to the introduction of a range of fundamentalist social policies, such as the abolition of legal divorce, a ban on women sitting on juries and the introduction of the civil service marriage bar, which did much to undermine the position of women. Censorship, and a deep conviction on the part of the church that dance halls were having a malign influence on the morals of young Irish people, also increased the cultural and social isolation of local communities. The state made little effort to address the serious poverty affecting a large part of the population by any practical financial measures and it continued to rely on institutionalisation to deal with the needs of children, with the result that many families were split up. As Bruce Arnold has argued in The Irish Gulag, in many ways political independence was a disaster for children’s rights.

It is clear that no serious effort was made by the Irish government to seriously consider alternatives to the strategy of institutionalisation developed in the nineteenth century. Adoption was illegal until 1952 and boarding out was resisted on the religious grounds of concerns about proselytism. While other countries, including Britain, which had introduced industrial schools into Ireland, had by the third decade of the twentieth century started to move away from such a policy towards more enlightened approaches to the care and treatment of juveniles, the political conservatism of the state and the social conservatism of the church meant that Ireland continued with its nineteenth century approach to child care.

In this milieu, the NSPCC, with its existing role as the only national organisation involved in child protection, was able to take on the role that in other countries became the remit of public child welfare services. As well as being the agency for protecting (and removing) children and prosecuting parents, it also developed an advisory role to those seeking advice and material assistance. It took on board the responsibility for implementing the raising of the school age under the 1926 Act and so had more cause to intervene and regulate families. As Buckley says, “…due to the State’s fear of debt, it treated the NSPCC as a semi-State body, allowing its inspectors to act as school attendance officers, social workers, police and general observers of working class and poor families”.

A key aspect of research in The Cruelty Man relates to the role the NSPCC played in relation to the continued institutionalisation of children in the post-independence era. As Eoin O’Sullivan and Ian O’Donnell have shown in their book Coercive Confinement in Ireland: Patients, prisoners and penitents, between 1926 and 1951 the average number of people confined in either industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, mother-and-baby homes or mental institutions was 31,500, or one per cent of the population. Even more strikingly, within this overall figure, a similar proportion of one out of every hundred children was also incarcerated, the great majority in the industrial school system. In his work Madness and Civilisation, Michel Foucault points out that during the “Great Confinement” in the seventeenth century one per cent of the population of Paris was locked up, but that was three centuries earlier. It is the proximity of the operation of this system of confinement in Ireland to the present day that is profoundly shocking as, of course, many of the former residents are still alive and over the last two decades years have been telling their stories of violence and abuse ‑ and, most importantly, having them heard. The operation of these institutions is recent enough for me to have visited some of them in the early 1970s as a newly employed youth worker, even though they were by then finally being phased out.

Although the NSPCC initially denounced the use of these schools in the late 1890s as institutionalisation was at odds with its philosophy of working to maintain the family unit and encourage parental responsibility for children, it quite quickly adjusted to the need for them. This was partly because of the lack of other alternatives, particularly after 1922, but also because of its acquiescence in the use of such institutions to deal with poor and difficult children. By 1948, the annual report of the Dublin branch was acknowledging that “During the year we have had to arrange for the placing of a large number of children in industrial schools chiefly because their parents were unable to maintain them …”

Much of the debate on industrial schools has centred on the relative responsibility that should be visited on the two main actors, the State and the Catholic Church. A great deal of the initial focus was on the responsibility carried by the Catholic church, as the violence and abuse inflicted on children in the schools was perpetrated by the religious staff. On the other hand some commentators have seen this as absolving the state, which after all had the fundamental authority for the courts system that committed children to these institutions; it also funded the schools and was responsible for inspecting and regulating them. Overall, less attention has been paid to the NSPCC and the role it played as an agent of the state in facilitating the entry of many young people into these institutions.

Buckley’s analysis shows the key “middleman” role it played (between the state, the courts and the religious orders) in facilitating the admission of children into the industrial school system. Although the annual reports of the society from the mid-1920s onwards always emphasised that its first aim was to keep the child at home, it was becoming clear that it was instrumental in placing more children in industrial schools. While Buckley says that of the cases she examined in her study, approximately 12 per cent of the children were placed in an industrial school, she notes that the Ryan Report found that, on the basis of a much larger sample, NSPCC inspectors had facilitated 37 per cent of committals. That report also comments that the public perception of the society at the time was that it removed children from families: the society’s inspector was popularly known as “the cruelty man”. One Catholic social activist, Frank Duff of the Legion of Mary, had no doubt about the role of the NSPCC in committing children. In a letter to the then archbishop of Dublin he wrote that a particular inspector, with the help of a district justice, was “simply shovelling children into Industrial Schools”.

Politicians were well aware of the situation in institutions for young people: Deputy James Dillon in 1937 berated the Department of Education for being “antediluvian in outlook” in relation to juvenile delinquency. Even more interestingly, she illustrates how Thomas Derrig, as minister for education in 1933, had the opportunity to modernise the rules governing the operation of industrial schools and bring them more in line with progressive child care practice at the time. Instead, he recertified the original rules of the pre-1922 British administration, which permitted severe physical punishment of inmates. Yet, four years earlier, when debating the 1929 Children Bill as an opposition deputy, he criticised the then minister for not improving conditions and argued that the state should look to introduce similar reforms to those taking place in England. As Buckley points out, these debates show there was awareness of the conditions in the schools and of the more modern policies being introduced elsewhere, but the political benefits to both church and state of maintaining the existing system were too significant.

One aspect of the collaboration between the society and the religious managers of the schools that is not clear is whether inspectors received payments for committing children. As these were funded on the basis of individual capitation fees from the state, more children meant more funding. In her introduction, Buckley states that the “NSPCC was involved in placing children in schools, but also that monetary gain was at the heart of many inspectors’ and managers’ actions”. In the relevant chapter however, there is only brief discussion of the financial issue and Buckley states she has little evidence to prove that inspectors were receiving money for helping commit children to schools. Nevertheless, some of the letters quoted from superiors of institutions to NSPCC inspectors are quite suggestive of a collusive and mutually beneficial relationship. Interestingly, the Ryan Report was more forthcoming in this area and gives considerable detail on a case where payments were made to two inspectors. The report also confirms that from evidence presented to it by the Christian Brothers, inspectors were accustomed to receiving payment for expenses. This is an area that would have benefitted from further exploration.

In later chapters, the author also addresses specific themes in relation to Irish social policy, including on incest and domestic violence. It is rather striking to note that while legislation making incest a serious crime was introduced in Britain in 1922, it was not until 1995 that there was legislative change in Ireland. For the NSPCC, allegations of sexual immorality in families were a basis for institutionalising the girl, whatever the details of the circumstances. If mothers or daughters raised the issue this would mean the separation of the girl from the rest of her family, and often very little action against the perpetrator. With regard to domestic violence (“wife-beating”) and desertion of wives by their husbands, the position of the NSPCC was constrained not only by the Catholic Church and attitudes of the state but also by the middle class backgrounds of the predominantly male inspectors. While they would use their contacts in Britain to try and trace husbands who had deserted their wives and families and attempt to persuade them to return or contribute economically to the maintenance of their children, they would only rarely support the woman in taking action against a violent husband.

While there is much that it valuable in this book, it does show some signs of its origin as a PhD research project and at one point there is a reference to “the literature review”. As mentioned already there are also some discrepancies across different chapters and some explanation of the source material is vague, with more than once a sense that linking material may have been edited out. One particular question is the author’s choice of end date for the study ‑ 1956. While there is some logic in this decision in so far as this was the date that the NSPCC in Britain separated from its Irish branch, that event in itself was not particularly significant in terms of the operation of the successor body, the ISPCC. The ISPCC continued its role as the child protection system of the state and consequently the admissions to industrial schools continued. It might have made more sense to continue the discussion up to 1970 and the introduction of health boards and publicly funded social workers. Although Buckley does mention, very briefly, the 1970 Kennedy Report into the industrial school system she ends with the rather strange comment: “The year 1970 is indeed a landmark in the history of reports into child welfare. Whether it signalled a dramatic change is yet to be proven.” The meaning of this is rather obscure as the report is now nearly forty-five years old. Although the Kennedy Report marked the beginning of the closure of the industrial schools, it has since been heavily criticised by numerous authors for not revealing the violence and abuse that was taking place. As we now know, it took nearly another forty years after its publication for the full story to emerge in the Ryan Report.

Jeremy Kearney has recently retired from the University of Sunderland, where for a considerable period he was head of Applied Social Studies. He also served as a youth worker and social worker in Ireland, but mainly in the UK. He currently researches and writes on childcare and child protection and his co-edited book Constructing Risky Identities in Policy and Practice was published last year by Palgrave Macmillan.



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