'A Good Beating Never Hurt Anyone': The Punishment and Abuse of Children in Twentieth Century Ireland

By Maguire, Moira J.; Cinneide, Seamus O. | Journal of Social History, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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'A Good Beating Never Hurt Anyone': The Punishment and Abuse of Children in Twentieth Century Ireland

Maguire, Moira J., Cinneide, Seamus O., Journal of Social History


In recent years serious allegations have been made against the male and female religious orders that ran children's homes, including industrial schools, in twentieth-century Ireland. (1) These allegations range from sexual abuse to neglect of educational, training, and employment opportunities to malnutrition and starvation. One of the most common allegations relates to physical abuse and extreme or excessive corporal punishment. Those who administered the industrial school system could respond to these allegations by suggesting both that corporal punishment in the industrial schools was consistent with prevailing practice in homes and schools across the country, and that institutions that catered for such large numbers of neglected, and in some cases delinquent, children could not function without a stringent corporal punishment regime.

Media and popular accounts of these allegations have tended to highlight the most salacious and lurid details while silencing alternative memories or accounts and ignoring the historical context. In order to assess these allegations, it is necessary to examine prevailing policy and practice in homes and schools, to see what was regarded as acceptable and legitimate corporal punishment there. It is also necessary to consider public discussions of corporal punishment and of the need to protect children from abuse at the hands of parents and school teachers. As will be shown, the government and the courts consistently refused to limit the use, by parents and teachers, of corporal punishment, or to differentiate legitimate punishment from cruelty or abuse. (2) The physical chastisement of children was widely tolerated for much of the twentieth century, even to extremes that by today's standards would be regarded as abuse. This article examines corporal punishment in Ireland, in policy and practice, from the 1930s to the 1980s, drawing on a wide variety of sources including Department of Education files and circulars, Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) case files, Dail (Irish parliament) debates, letters to newspapers, newspaper coverage of court cases, and biographical and autobiographical accounts of twentieth century Irish childhood.

The corporal punishment of children in the home and in national schools (i.e. public schools for children aged 4 to 13) was still accepted practice in Ireland into the early 1980s, although arguments against it had been advanced as early as the 1950s. Historically there was little understanding that corporal punishment was potentially harmful or that it could have lasting negative effects on children; indeed, the view prevailed that "a good beating never hurt anyone," and that some corporal punishment was necessary to instil respect for authority, to maintain discipline, and to rear "good citizens". The right of parents to use corporal punishment, in their own homes and against their own children, was scarcely questioned, and the laws that in theory protected children from what would today be classified as abuse, in particular the Children Act 1908, specifically upheld a parent's right to punish his or her child. "Nothing in the Part of this Act shall be construed to take away or affect the right of any parent, teacher, or other person having the lawful control or charge of a child or young person to administer punishment to such child or young person." (3) Similarly, there were regulations for the use of corporal punishment in schools, and for lodging complaints against teachers who violated the regulations. However, it is clear from an examination of Department of Education complaint files that the rules were often broken, and that the Department of Education usually turned a blind eye. The Department consistently refused to hold teachers or school managers accountable for even the most blatant violations of the rules.

I. Discipline and punishment in the home

Public discussion of the right of parents to punish their children was rare in mid-twentieth century Ireland, but the available evidence indicates that corporal punishment was widely used by parents, and generally accepted as necessary to discipline children at home.

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'A Good Beating Never Hurt Anyone': The Punishment and Abuse of Children in Twentieth Century Ireland


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