Rough-headed urchins and bonnetless girls : a study of Irish childhood in Derby in the mid-nineteenth century
This inter-disciplinary study explores the entry into childhood made by migrant Irish children who lived in the urban, industrialised environment of Derby in the English Midlands between 1830 and 1870. It shows how these children were inserted into an area of childhood experience as they moved between the town's factories, mills, schools and the workhouse, entering a psychological and social state of childhood that was available for the children of the poor in mid-nineteenth century Britain. The study argues that Irish children's moves into childhood were largely accomplished through their association with the Roman Catholic church. In particular, they were encouraged to enter an experience of childhood through the work of the Sisters of Mercy, who played a key role in enabling them to make the transformation from 'worker' to 'child'. An exploration of schooled literacy will demonstrate that certain reading texts Irish children met in school took them into a world of childhood that opened up learning possibilities for them. The study argues that the particular childhood experience under review needs to be inserted into the cultural debate about childhood; a debate which at present defines working-class childhood in general terms, largely as a single a-cultural state. Yet as migrants, Irish children experienced cultural shift and change, and were possibly bilingual. Their distinctive physical features, their dress, their language, their cultural traditions, and above all their religion, set them apart from local children. The story of these Irish children and their move into childhood is therefore another story to add to the complex of stories about nineteenth-century childhood.