Project Description: "The Irish Child/Childhood and Ireland."

James M. Smith, Associate Professor

English Department, Boston College


This project considers the place of the child in Irish society and it evaluates representations of childhood in contemporary Irish culture. It returns, in part, to aspects of my doctoral dissertation put aside when the focus on my first book narrowed to a consideration of Ireland’s Magdalen laundries, specifically two chapters, one addressing Irish adoption practices, the other considering children marginalized by institutional care. The new study builds on the primary archival research conducted for the earlier project. In part collaborative, this multi-dimensional research model is entitled “The Irish child/childhood and Ireland,” and it is developing on three distinct but inter-related levels:

(i) My second critical monograph focuses on the multiple representations of children/childhood in Irish cultural production over the past fifteen years. The texts under investigation span a number of genres, but unlike the first book where I engaged archival, historical, and sociological material, I concentrate on creative and imaginative narratives. For example, I am writing about novels that I have been teaching in graduate seminars for the past few years, including Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke, ha ha ha (Booker Award Winner, 1993), Éilís NíDhuibhne’s The Dancer’s Dancing (Orange Prize for Fiction, 2000), and Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (Irish Time Fiction Prize, 1998). Likewise, I plan on writing a thorough consideration of contemporary Irish memoirs that focus on “traumatic” childhoods, for example Frank McCourt’s Angela Ashes (Pulitzer Prize 1997), John McGahern’s Memoir, and Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody? In addition, I envisage a chapter evaluating filmic representations of Irish childhood that deploy sentiment and nostalgia to separate “the dark old days” of Ireland past and an un-problematized newly cosmopolitan post-Celtic Tiger Irish society, for example Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot (Two Oscar Awards, 1991), Mike Newell’s Into the West, and most recently Aisling Walsh’s Song for a Raggy Boy.

Childhood as a site of cultural critique is the critical experience informing the various strands of this project that asks questions about the roles of identity, nostalgia, and complacency in contemporary Irish society. And, the books incorporate research already published and in process. My journal article on Patrick McCabe’s novel The Butcher Boy and Mary Raftery’s documentary series States of Fear, for example, demonstrates how Ireland’s colonial legacy complicates cultural representations of the child-subject. Similarly, a recent conference presentation—evaluating novels by Anne Enright and James Ryan—suggests how the fictional trope of the child-adoptee undermines the traditional incorporation of the heteropatriarchal family, defined by the Irish constitution as “as the natural primary and fundamental unit of Society” (ACIS Notre Dame, 2005). This fall, I will present a related paper in Dublin demonstrating how the stigma of “illegitimacy” forced both Church and state to respond legislatively to adoptive parents’ concerns that a child’s baptismal certificate might undermine a family’s established social respectability.

(ii) The second component of the project is collaborative in nature.  Together with Professor Maria Luddy, University of Warwick and Burns Library Visiting Professor (2005-2006), we are proposing to guest edit a special issue of Éire-Ireland that focuses on interdisciplinary approaches to Irish childhood.  The goal here will be to solicit contributions from leading scholars in various fields within Irish Studies, including literature, history, politics, sociology, law, education, healthcare, social welfare, religion, and the visual arts. Our timeline calls for us to submit a proposal to Éire-Ireland this coming fall with a prospective publication appearing in late 2008 or early 2009.

(iii) Maria Luddy and I are planning to host a conference on “The Irish child/childhood and Ireland” in Dublin, and we plan to publish a collection of essays thereafter. Ideally, the conference would take place at BC Ireland house on St. Stephen’s Green. Our goal is to distribute a Call for Papers in Spring 2007 with a broad-based focus on the various child welfare issues that have received prominent media attention over the past fifteen years, e.g., The Ferns Report, The Residential Redress Board, The Child Abuse Commission, etc. This conference will represent one of the first serious scholarly responses to the seemingly endless scandals involving children in Irish society.