A history of child abuse in Ireland

Irish children were hot commodities - kidnapped and sold as servants; stripped of their clothing; used as cheap labour.

The mistreatment of children is not new in Ireland, writes Aileen Lee. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were kidnapped for use as beggars, robbed of their clothes, or sold as servants and transported to British colonies in America

THE last two decades have revealed a culture of abuse of children, by Church and State, in 20th-century Ireland. We are still coming to terms with that dark chapter of our history, as the survivors push for recognition and justice.

But this abuse is not new — the 18th and 19th centuries are replete with stories of Irish children who were kidnapped and trafficked out of the country.

News reports from the time show that Irish children were seen as economic commodities — kidnapped and sold as indentured servants; stripped of their clothing; used as cheap labour; or physically deformed for begging. In some of these cases, the children met a brutal end.

This abuse predates the Victorian concept of childhood as precious, highlighting the myriad of ways that children were targeted to make money.

James Kelly, Cregan professor of history at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, has researched child kidnapping and trafficking in Ireland.

At a recent international conference on the history of Irish childhood, from the medieval to the modern age, Professor Kelly presented a paper, ‘An Infamous Trade: the Kidnapping of Children, 1740-1820’.

His research revealed “a stream of press reports of the kidnapping of children, between the ages of three and seven, beginning in the 1730s and continuing, fitfully, into the early decades of the 19th century”.

To set the scene: this was the era of the penal laws, of Protestant ascendancy, of the development of the landed gentry and the ‘Big House’. It was also a time of dire poverty — the famine of 1740-41 was of a similar magnitude to An Górta Mór (1845-1852) — rebellion, and factional violence.

“We will never know the true numbers of the children who fell victim to these criminal actions,” Kelly says, “as the incidents of child kidnapping that made it into the press were reflective only of those perpetrators who were caught in the act, or facing sentence. However, it is clear that it was a serious problem,” he says.

Britain’s control in the Americas extended across 13 colonies along the eastern seaboard. The colonies’ purpose was to enrich Britain and to do this they needed cheap labour. That need, combined with the increased capacity for passengers on ships, allowed for a market to open in the kidnapping and transportation of Irish children as indentured servants.

On arrival, an employer would purchase the agreed indenture from a sea captain, and the child would be obliged to work for between four and seven years. The indentures were binding in the local courts in America. The work was harsh, with a high death rate among the servants.

Kelly says it is likely that hundreds of children were kidnapped and transported to North America.

The main perpetrators identified in news reports were “strolling beggars, female vagabonds and avaricious ships’ captains”. The kidnapping appears to have been highly organised.

In September and October of 1750, for example, The Munster Journal reported three separate kidnappings of five children, with the intention being to ship them privately to America.

There was money to be made in the trade. Bridget Mooney, one of three women arrested in the space of a week, in 1781, for kidnapping children for transportation, said that she had received £30 from a sea captain in the harbour for supplying children. In today’s money, that is about €4,000.

Following the colonists’ victory over the British in the American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783), there was a surge in emigration from Ireland. With the number of passengers greatly increased, and the cost of passage with it, ship captains had no difficulty in filling their ships.

While, as a consequence, there was a lull in child kidnapping, it resumed in 1785, as evidenced by the statement in the Dublin Morning Post, on May 12, 1785, that “the infamous practice of kidnapping children is continued with impunity through this city”.

Not all abducted children were transported — some were used for cheap domestic labour, for example as chimney sweeps.

“In a small number of instances,” Kelly says, “the perpetrators were mothers with alcohol addictions, who sold their children on for ‘a guinea and a crown’s worth of drink’.”

Kelly also says that in cases where beggars kidnapped children without the intention of selling them onto ship captains, the “most compelling alternative explanation” is that they “kept them to assist them in their ongoing quest for alms”.

Kelly also says that beggars often broke the limbs of children “to distort them, and move compassion”, as reported in the Dublin Morning Post (1791).

Children were also kidnapped to be stripped of their clothes. An adult, generally a woman, would lure the child away with the help of sweets, fruit, ginger bread or the promise of a toy or reward. Once away from their home, the child was defenceless to prevent the adult stripping them of their clothes, before being abandoned.

“Though direct physical violence was seldom employed in these cases, it could be invoked if the child resisted,” Kelly says.

In a newspaper report in the Volunteer Evening Post (June 2, 1787), the daughter of a linen draper, from Mary Street in Dublin, was threatened with murder if she resisted.

At a time when the population was extremely poor, and clothing expensive, there was a big market in the pawning and selling of second-hand clothes.

For example, in Mary Conolly’s trial at the Dublin Quarter Sessions, in 1794, for the kidnapping of John Stockdale’s daughter, the three items of clothing she stole — a bonnet, coat and shift — were valued at five shillings 5d [pence] by the court (approximately €34).

Typically, children aged between three and six years were targeted, and it seemed to be more of an urban than rural issue, as the majority of recorded instances occurred in Dublin.

Take the following examples, reported in the Hibernian Journal on August 21, 1789: “At about one o’clock last Monday [17 August 1789], a little girl, the daughter of a grocer in King Street, standing [at] the shop door, was decoyed [lured away] by a female, and brought into an entry near the place, and robbed of her earrings, frock, skirt and buckles; and, the same day, the daughter of an ale-draper in Exchequer Street, a fine child of about five years old, was seduced in like manner from her parents’ door into an entry in said street, where the little creature was completely stripped and left naked.”

THE punishment of perpetrators by the authorities varied: some were publicly whipped, others fined and imprisoned.

News reports show that the public enacted their own punishment: giving perpetrators severe duckings, as in the case of Mary Spencer, who “made it a practice of stealing children”. She was caught at St Kevin’s Port trying to lure a four-year-old boy away (Freeman’s Journal, March 26, 1768).

In another example, from 1781, a woman was caught in Thomas Street, Dublin, with five children whom she had lured away with gingerbread cakes.

A group of people stripped her, dragged her about the street and cut off her ears, after which she confessed to having kidnapped at least 27 children and indicated where they could be found.

“Public anger was not unjustified. A substantial proportion of the children taken were never recovered,” Kelly says. He also speculates that the purpose of stripping children “cannot be completely divorced from child sale, child murder or paedophiliac intent”.

A child’s life could be brutally taken, as a horrific report in the Belfast Newsletter shows.

The body of a child aged about three or four years old, who was taken by a “strolling woman” in the summer of 1788, near Omagh, was found “lying at the back of a ditch near the town, with its throat cut from ear to ear, and stabbed in many parts of the body”.

In 1815, the authorities began imposing a sentence of seven years’ transportation for stripping offences, and it seems to have had the desired effect, as no incidents of children being stripped were reported after 1819.

Child kidnapping continued intermittently, until it became identified with slavery in the 1840s. From then on, the only identifiable incidents of kidnapped children were abroad.

These crimes highlight a society that was often callous in its treatment of children.

Kelly gives the example of the Foundling Hospital, in Dublin — near where St James Hospital is located — which was charged with the care of the orphaned and illegitimate, and which had a mortality rate of 95% in 1791.

“Six years later, Sir John Blaquiere, the MP who had originally highlighted the issue, reported that 98.86% of the children admitted to the hospital in the six years to March, 1796, were either dead or unaccounted for,” says Kelly.

The older children in the city’s Protestant charter schools were also prey to exploitative labour practices, physical abuse and poor care, the penalty for being ‘illegitimate’. Being poor was also penalised. Some children were not ‘illegitimate’, but were from destitute families, and, once removed from their families, it was difficult for them to be claimed back, as the authorities used a system of transplantation, moving children to schools in different districts.

Various official inspections confirmed these abuses, but they remained in operation until they petered out in the mid-19th century.

The closure of Ireland’s industrial schools and mother-and-baby homes has not heralded an end of the brutal abuse of children in this State.

Modern-day slavery exists here — almost half of the people trafficked in Ireland in 2012 were children. In 2013, 16 out of the 44 people formally identified as having been trafficked in the country were also children.

Denise Charlton, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, says that in the past two years 30 children have been “detected as being trafficked in Ireland for the purpose of sexual exploitation”.


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