Lockout Special – Children: Scandal of child neglect goes beyond delinquent crèches

Children featured prominently in one of the most controversial fracas of the 1913 Dublin Lockout . Tellingly the actual  children’s interests were instrumental, not really a matter of concern for the grown-ups and their politicking. One hundred years later, has anything changed in the status of children in Ireland, asks Niall Crowley, commissioning editor of this Lockout special [one of a series] 

The already precarious social and economic position of children was aggravated as wages coming into the family disappeared during the Lockout and dependence on food handouts deepened. Children over the age of 12 would normally have been seeking work or working. Their situation deteriorated, as they were among those locked out.

The scheme to relieve the hardship of the children of those locked out by bringing them to stay in the homes of trade unionists in Britain caused a furore. The authority of James Larkin, the leader on the union side, who had agreed to and supported the scheme, was damaged as a result. The interests of the children were not of concern within the wider battles being fought by employers and Catholic Church.

Dora Montefiori, a British socialist and campaigner for women’s rights, proposed the scheme. In doing so she was reflecting a practice that had already been used in other prolonged strikes in Britain, Belgium and the USA.

The newspapers owned by William Martin Murphy, the leader on the employer side, denounced the initiative with venom. They depicted it as an attempt by godless socialists to kidnap Irish children to be indoctrinated into alien faiths. The newspapers subsequently published the names and addresses of any parents who sent their children to England.

There already was tension between the Catholic and Protestant churches over children. The Irish Church Missions was still actively proselytising among Catholics in Dublin. They paid working-class families to give over their children to be cared for in Protestant orphanages. The Society of the St Vincent de Paul was characteristically feisty in subverting this.

The reaction of the Catholic Church to Montefiori’s scheme was aggressive. The clergy in Dublin were already opposed to the unions and supportive of the employers. They charged that the children would be subject to Protestant or atheist influences once brought to Britain. Members of the clergy organised groups to stop people boarding trains or boats with children. If these people could not prove the children were their own, they were not allowed to board.

After the Lockout Archbishop William Walsh gave his reasons for opposing the scheme. One reason was that children would have unrealistic expectations after spending time in Britain. They would not have fitted back into the slums of Dublin. Only a small number of children was sent to England.

It would appear that they had a good experience. Children were mere pawns in a wider struggle.

The centenary of the Lockout challenges us to look to the experience of children today. Without doubt their situation has improved. However, it is equally clear their status has not improved in step.



A crowd mostly of children in Dublin’s docks awaits arrival of the first food ship from England, 28 Sept 1913. UCC multitext project.
A crowd mostly of children in Dublin’s docks awaits arrival of the first food ship from England, 28 Sept 1913. UCC multitext project.


“Nelly” was abused by a family member and a family friend from the age of four. She was self-harming at the age of fifteen. She disclosed what had happened to her teacher and she was taken into care by the HSE. She was in a number of different placements, including for several months in an adult psychiatric hospital. When she reached eighteen she moved into an apartment on her own. “Nelly” struggled to cope, ended up homeless for a while and eventually had nowhere to go but home. Following a near fatal drug overdose, she received drug rehabilitation treatment and got her life back on track, writes Jennifer Gargan, Director of EPIC (Empowering Children in Care) 

She is twenty now and has been offered a place in College. She never had any aftercare support from the HSE but she will not be entitled to any support from them once she is twenty-one. EPIC (Empowering Children in Care) is advocating on Nelly’s behalf, and supporting her to develop the skills to advocate for herself, so that an aftercare plan and financial package are put in place before she is twenty-one so she can take up this College place.

Children and young people in, and leaving, the care system experience many adversities. There is a responsibility on the state, acting in loco parentis, to provide the best possible care and put children at the centre of the care system. More often than not the needs of the system are prioritised over the needs of the child.

Children in care should have the right to have their concerns and voices heard. The voices of children should contribute to change in the care system such that their best interests are placed firmly at the centre of all decision-making affecting their lives.

There have been numerous reports cataloguing the failures of the state to protect children. These include the Ryan Report, the Roscommon report and the Child Death Review. A recurring theme is the invisibility of the child and the absence of the child’s voice.

EPIC (formerly IAYPIC) is an independent association that works throughout the Republic of Ireland, with and for children and young people who are currently living in care or who have had an experience of living in care. This includes those in residential care, foster care, hostel, high support & special care. EPIC also works with young people preparing to leave care and in aftercare. EPIC has been set up to:

  • Give a voice to what young people with care experience are saying
  • Explain the rights of young people in care
  • Give information, advice and support to young people with care experience
  • Help people who work with young people in care to involve them more when decisions are being made about them.

The most common problem concerns where children are living – that their placement is not appropriate. Children are increasingly being moved or placed on the basis of cost rather than of need. Concerns relating to care and aftercare planning are also raised by young people. Not having a plan for the future, especially when nearing the age of eighteen, is stressful. It can also limit opportunities to review their progress and identify any difficulties at an early stage.

Through advocacy, children should secure greater access to siblings and family,  access to services, accommodation, education, and aftercare support. Advocacy should also contribute to policy and practice change and foster a cultural change towards a more child- centred, children’s-rights-based approach within the care system.

There are challenges to ensure the voice of children and young people is heard in the care system. The right of children to be heard is not readily accepted across Irish society and in all sectors of our public services. The culture within the care system has to be changed. The resistance to children’s participation must be broken.

There are challenges too in ensuring every child in care knows about and can easily get access to EPIC’s advocacy service. This is particularly difficult for children in foster care, and care of relatives. EPIC depends on HSE social workers to reach these children.

There have been positive developments including the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the passing of the Children’s Rights Amendment and the decision to establish the new Child and Family Agency. This offers hope for the future. Children need to be inspired by the possibilities of the future and not be limited by the experiences of the past. They need advocacy to this end.

Jennifer Gargan is Director of EPIC, www.epiconline.ie, tel 01 872 7661



Children’s interests, but not necessarily their rights, have flourished since 1913, writes Ursula Kilkelly, Director of the Child Law Clinic, Professor of Law and Dean of the Faculty of Law, University College Cork 

Ireland was a very different place for children when the Dublin Lockout took place. In 1913, children’s very survival was at stake with high mortality rates. Children’s development was limited by very poor health and education outcomes. Apart from constant threats to their wellbeing from the social and economic conditions of the time, this was a time when children’s value as individuals of equal worth with adults was little appreciated. Some of this is evident in the use of children as pawns during the Dublin Lockout.

Internationally, it was the League of Nations that led the way in children’s rights, with the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924. This pre-dated the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights by 24 years and was drafted by Eglantyne Jebb (the British campaigner who founded Save the Children). It was followed in 1959 by a second Declaration, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, which was noteworthy in using the language of rights to express children’s needs.

The 1959 Declaration formally acknowledged children’s right to special protection, health, education and protection from exploitation and discrimination. Significantly, the Declaration recognised the right of the child to family-based care. It introduced the concept of the ‘best interests of the child’ that aims to secure a child-focused approach to decision-making for children. This still dominates the law of families.

In 1989, the international community embraced a legally-binding comprehensive treaty setting out the rights of children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has forty-two detailed provisions. It is defined by its recognition of children as individuals, worthy of respect in their own right, with standing as rights-holders and a right to equal protection. This is best captured in the requirement that all actions concerning children should focus on their interests and be informed by what children themselves have to say.

The Convention reflects that children’s rights are not just the concern of their parents or carers, but are, like all human rights, the concern of states and their Governments. In this way, the Convention, which Ireland has a legal obligation to implement, marks a definitive move from the treatment of children as vulnerable citizens in need of protection, to those with rights-claims that (notwithstanding children’s limited capacity) the state has a duty to vindicate.

In the Ireland of 2013, advances in mortality rates and the quality of education and healthcare systems, notwithstanding some serious problems, have improved children’s chances of having happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. By other indicators, however, it is not clear that Ireland’s progress has kept up with the international development of children’s rights obligations. It does not appear that Ireland has moved from its paternalistic approach towards children to an approach that recognises the individual worth of all children and their entitlement to treatment with respect and dignity, care and protection.

Research conducted for the Ombudsman for Children has found that children are largely invisible in law and policy as well as in administrative decision-making that affects them. The absence of mechanisms to child-proof law, policy and budgets means that those making decisions about children are not obliged to consider their rights, interests or views. Limited structures to co-ordinate the implementation of children’s rights across government departments and agencies mean that children regularly fall through the cracks. Recent improvements, like the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, are very welcome and there have been particular achievements in child participation initiatives and children’s research. But, to date little progress has been made in the mainstreaming of respect for children’s rights across all Government activity.

The state of child law in Ireland is another important barometer of our attitude to children. Irish constitutional law, for example, articulates education as a right and duty of parents, rather than as a right of the child. This has had a significant influence on the Education Act 1998, the major statute in this area. The legislation was a negotiated compromise between the state, teachers’ unions and school patrons. As a result, it makes few references to children, focusing instead on the entitlements and responsibilities of the state (schools) and parents. It makes no provision for the rights of children in schools. Although many schools operate according to child rights standards, by being inclusive and involving students in decision-making for example, this is not a legislative requirement.

The many shortcomings of the state system in child protection are well documented. Although efforts are being made to address serious problems in institutional practice, there is no attempt at reforming the legislative framework that wraps around existing Constitutional provision.  The ‘best interests’ principle, for example, a core principle that aims to secure child-focused decision-making, applies only where it does not conflict with the rights of parents. Although the Child Care Act 1991 makes some provision for the right of children to have a say in judicial proceedings, the lack of infrastructure to enable this to happen frustrates the realisation of this objective in practice.

Irish constitutional law, for example, articulates education as a right and duty of parents, rather than as a right of the child. This has had a significant influence on the Education Act 1998

The fact that Irish law does not expressly provide for every child’s right to care and protection, to family-based care, to regular reviews of the child’s progress when in the care of the state, and to the child’s involvement in those reviews illustrates the lack of a child-rights focus. A separate, but related shortcoming is our failure to prohibit physical punishment in the home, as we have done in schools. This reluctance to guarantee rights to zero tolerance of all forms of ill treatment of children, including physical punishment, has been criticised by several international bodies.

Children’s treatment in the legal system has improved little in recent decades.  Children are rarely listened to by decision-makers when their parents separate, notwithstanding their desire, need and right to be involved. Child victims still suffer treatment that compounds the hurt caused by abuse when they step forward to aid the prosecution of perpetrators. Children continue to be detained in St Patrick’s Institution where they cannot be kept safe, constituting multiple breaches of Ireland’s international commitments. The inability to provide care for children with specialist needs continues to result in them being sent abroad for treatment. The experience of asylum-seeking children in direct-provision centres shows how unequal our commitment is to ensuring that all vulnerable children’s needs are met. The failure to provide a modern framework for children’s involvement in healthcare decision-making means that progress in this area is limited to pockets of good practice.

The recent constitutional amendment on children’s rights is construed as evidence of sweeping change in attitude and  legal provision. Article 42A does mark progress, especially in its recognition of all children as rights-holders and the state as ultimate duty bearer, with some scope for litigating to secure better treatment for children.  If the duty to incorporate the best-interests principle and the right to be heard into legislation on adoption, child protection and private family law is implemented in a robust and expansive manner, then the treatment of children in the judicial system should improve.

Regrettably, the Constitutional amendment offers little direction to administrative decision-making – which is where the vast majority of decisions are made affecting children’s lives. The same holds true for other areas like healthcare and education outside the scope of its provision. It is not clear where the impetus for reform can come from in these areas. More generally, the very poor turnout (33.5%) in the referendum and the marginal success of the ‘Yes’ campaign (58%), which had cross-party support and the weight of Ireland’s large children’s sector behind it, are worrying signs for the acceptance of children’s rights in Ireland.

No single country has a perfect record on children’s rights but there are many, in Europe and elsewhere, which have committed to the highest standards of rights protection, by giving children’s rights the full effect of constitutional law and legislation. These countries are associated with good public awareness of children’s rights and with a positive attitude to children that extends beyond a heartfelt concern for their own children to a commitment to the protection of children’s rights, in general.