‘That is no country for old men’, declared W.B. Yeats in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, describing his native land’s fascination with youth and vitality, recurring tropes in early Irish literature. In the political sphere, taoiseach Eamon de Valera summoned an idyllic version of Irish childhood when he pledged his commitment to an ideal Ireland of happy maidens, sturdy children and athletic youths. Throughout the history of modern Ireland, cultural representations of youth and childhood have served as focal points for discussions of social and political issues. Swift used Irish babies to make his case against negligent landlords in his outrageous ‘modest proposal’, and images of the Irish nation as simultaneously ancient and youthful, as both the Poor Old Woman and the young queen or aisling, as in Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, have underpinned movements for political independence from the seventeenth century through to the height of the Northern Irish Troubles in the 1960s and 70s. Since the beginning of the Northern Ireland peace process, children’s experiences have served to heighten adult understanding of sectarian divisions: in 1998, protests surrounding the Orange Order parades in Drumcree stopped only when three young boys were burnt to death in their Ballymoney home, and in 2001, the world was stunned by images of crying schoolgirls in Tiger’s Bay, Belfast, who were forced to walk the gauntlet of adults’ sectarian abuse in order to attend their primary school classes. Even more recently, idealized representations of Irish childhood such as those offered by de Valera in the 1940s have been challenged by controversy over the experiences of children within church- and state-sponsored schools, as well as by popular memoirs that reveal the grim underside of growing up in dysfunctional Irish homes and families.
The most straightforward definition of youth and childhood is purely chronological, and it might seem tempting to limit the scope of this volume by imposing an arbitrary limit on the age of its subjects. The essays in this collection reveal, however, that the very concept of youth and childhood has always been politically constructed, both in past eras and in our own time. Far from being a time of unperturbed innocence and purity, childhood is undershot by the currents of the social and political realities that form its context. In certain circumstances children are forced to grow up fast, while in others they linger in a prolonged adolescence until they are into their early or even their late twenties.