‘Seen But Not Heard – A Century Of Childhood In Ireland’

Exhibition | 2008

An exciting travelling exhibition entitled “Seen But Not Heard – A Century Of Childhood In Ireland’, dealing with Irish childhood in the twentieth century was curated by a number of County Museums in Ireland. Commissioned by The Local Authority Museums Network and funded by The Heritage Council of Ireland, the exhibition went on to tour the network local and regional museums throughout the Island of Ireland from 2008, and for many years afterwards.

The exhibition received its national launch at Cavan County Museum on 1 May 2008, when it was opened by Minister Brendan Smith. ‘Education’, ‘Health’, ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘Work and Play’ were just some of the many themes explored in this unique interactive exhibition.

Schools, youth groups and adults all found something to interest them in this exhibition which ran in Cavan County Museum until the end of June. The exhibition featured photographs, toys, audio recordings, clothing, school books and other artefacts associated with childhood during the twentieth century.

The Exhibition

The last 100 years have seen significant changes in the roles and responsibilities of Ireland’s children. The childhood of the past was for many filled with innocent times, when respect for your elders and an expectation to help with daily tasks exercised discipline and values. The exhibition recalled memories of playing outside until bed-time, perennial sunny summers, the independence afforded by a bicycle, the wealth of a coin in a child’s pocket in contrast to the perceivably tougher times for children of the 21st century.

With increased pressures academically and socially, children today are being forced perhaps to mature faster than those generations before them. A younger society moving at a quicker pace confronted with the internet, mobile phones and a latch-key lifestyle has seen our youth lose some of the
innocence that was once a part of being a child of Ireland.

Although we may not share the same childhood experiences as our forefathers, we do have one common link; we were, are and will continue to be children.

The Good Old Days!

Earning your Keep 

Unlike today where children have an opportunity to go to school, then college and even travel for a year or two, it was expected in the early part of the 20th century that all children “should earn their keep”. Working around the house, doing jobs for neighbours was seen as contributing your bit to your family, your food and your home. To be brought up on a farm meant more daily duties than most, with jobs such as drawing water, feeding animals, planting and picking crops, saving hay, very much a part of your growing up. Children from middle class or wealthy families fared better.

While some worked, they did so after their primary schooling was complete. Some young boys got work running deliveries for local shops or in factories. Others had apprenticeships with a builder or carpenter, both highly respected positions. Of course many boys and girls worked on farms on a seasonal basis. For many girls a working life with a local shop or factory, weaving, spinning, knitting or ‘in service’ beckoned until such time as they

School Days ae the best! 

 The Twentieth century saw great changes in education. The Department of Education was set up in 1924 and introduced a revised syllabus. Children were taught religion, Irish, English, arithmetic, history, geography, music and for girls, needlework. Extra subjects included nature study, drawing, physical training, cookery or laundry or domestic economy for girls and manual instruction for boys.

In 1922 the Constitution established Irish as the national language. By 1928 most subjects in primary school were taught through Irish. Many schools however were understaffed, with classes which were too large, or else uneconomically small, buildings that were old fashioned, and heating, lighting and sanitation, which were often totally inadequate. In 1963 there were still 736 schools with one teacher and 2,458 two teacher schools and despite
increases in expenditure on school buildings many children were still taught in schools that dated from the 19th century.

Are you coming out to play? 

There are so many levels of play and games to define our childhoods. From the simplicity of two jumpers making goal-posts to the organisation of a locally arranged community games; sport and play have formed an integral part of our childhoods. Do you recall hopscotch or donkey, skipping or stuck in the mud? Did you play football with an old can or chase a hula-hoop gone astray? Can you recall the hours spent with the Dandy or the Beano? The bruises obtained whilst jumping a stream, swinging from a tyre or climbing a tree are long forgotten, but perhaps not the location where these secret adventures occurred.

These were the everyday activities that we remembered fondly but for most there were also more structured events. Sporting organisations such as the FAI (Football Association of Ireland), the IRFU (Irish Rugby and Football Union) and the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) have all contributed in the twentieth century in providing a strong local presence for sport in almost every part of the island of Ireland. Local clubs have always existed to support swimming, athletics, gymnastics and basketball. Similarly so, the Scouts and Guides Associations have been an outlet for our youth. For both girls and boys, Irish dancing, music, singing and participation at the various Feiseanna around the country provided an opportunity to showcase local and regional talents.

“Your health is your wealth”

The health and welfare of Irish children and adults was largely a family and community matter in 1900. Medicine was quite primitive and doctors did not exert a major influence on national health issues. Infectious diseases were common and deadly, with tuberculosis especially dangerous and rampant
among young people.

By 1913, however, reformers were trying to expand government involvement in health services and focus on maternal and child health, including, for the first time, medical inspection and treatment for all school children. Reformers recognized the link between children’s health and poverty, and targeted everything from milk supply to playgrounds to ensure children’s wellbeing. Health services in Ireland improved greatly in the 1940s-50s. A national
effort brought tuberculosis and other infectious diseases under control, improved mother and baby services, and reduced maternal and infant
mortality significantly. By the end of the 1950s, Ireland had a modern health service



The Local Authority Museums Network is made up of the 12 museums around the Republic of Ireland, which are funded by local authorities. Each museum is represented on this network by its Curator. These 12 people meet throughout the year to discuss how best to promote and protect the cultural heritage and historical richness of their regions. It was through the collaboration of this network together with funding received from the
Heritage Council and the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism (now the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media) that this exhibition was first made possible back in 2008.