Constructing Moral Hospitals: Childhood Health in Irish Reformatories and Industrial Schools, c.1851-1890’

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This intersection of bodily concerns with post-Famine regimes of institutional child welfare has not been well documented. However, it is a crucial theme that requires consideration when analysing the development of Ireland’s reformatory and industrial school system. Tom Feeney has persuasively argued that the idea of reforming criminal children was popularised in Ireland during the 1920s and 1930s when child guidance clinics became fashionable; sites where behaviour deemed deviant could be medically and psychologically rectified. However, Feeney’s arguments fail to recognise a longer genealogy of managing child deviance in Ireland that has much in common with early twentieth-century interventions. Although abandoned, neglected and orphaned children were assimilated into a range of institutions following the Famine – including orphanages, ragged schools and workhouses – mid-nineteenth century reformatories and industrial schools served as key sites of bodily, psychological and moral reform. In recent years, the system, as a historical artefact, has been intensely criticised and scrutinised in response to internationally publicised allegations of sustained child abuse having surfaced. Recent historical literature pertaining to these institutions tends to mirror modern perspectives by adopting an understandable, but somewhat biased, strategy of uncovering historical accounts of abuse and neglect. Conor Reidy, for instance, places the phrase ‘moral hospital’ in inverted commas in the title of his recent study of early twentieth-century borstals; a narrative act presumably intended to suggest the irony of the words ‘moral’ and ‘hospital’ when applied to sites now commonly associated with sexual abuse and violence. Yet if we are to fully understand the historical development of Irish institutional provision for children, and, indeed, to appreciate what was actually meant by the label ‘moral hospital’, it is crucial to fully contextualise its origins and to avoid routinely imposing negative preconceptions on our historical conceptions of these institutions. Accordingly, within this chapter I probe into the bio-psychological paradigms that underpinned ‘moral hospitals’ and chart how childhood health was negotiated and managed with reference to a historically specific set of concerns over juvenile criminality. I begin by suggesting that criminality was often understood within an organic framework that identified the bodies and minds of child criminals as having abnormally developed in the absence of nurturing parental influence. This precept played a formative role in the development of Irish reformatories and industrial schools; sites that both emphasised bodily and psychological reform as a mechanism deployed to restore normative patterns of physical, mental and moral growth. I continue by demonstrating that reformatories and industrial schools were initially designed as healthy environments juxtaposed to the criminal settings where the ‘dangerous classes’ were reared. Accordingly, institutional regimes targeted the physiological and psychological roots of criminality. As illustrative examples, I explore the multiple uses of outdoor work and diet as tools to reinstate normative growth. I conclude by suggesting that although these ideas remained predominant, other forms of medical superintendence evolved as new institutional health demands surfaced and as shifting forms of biological knowledge – in particular germ theory – needed to be incorporated into the bodily strategies of reformatories and industrial schools. Importantly, the forms of illness and disease encountered in reality were often not those that medical thought had connected to criminality, meaning that these institutions ultimately came to, or were forced to, provide services bordering upon paediatric healthcare. Overall, I explore what reformatories and industrial schools were intended to be as a guide to furthering our knowledge of their development and to provide an alternative narrative that complements critical commentary on how these sites gradually transformed into places where the sanctity of childhood was threatened and undermined.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGrowing Pains: Childhood Illness in Irish History, 1750-1950
EditorsMac Lellan Anne
PublisherIrish Academic Press
ISBN (Print)978-0716531739
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1 Jun 2014


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