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For many children in Ireland in the 1950s, life began in the home. While increasing numbers of babies were born in hospital, home births were still very common. Mothers gave birth with the assistance of district nurses or midwives. In some areas, where electric light did not yet exist, babies entered the world with tilly lamps or even candles providing light. Fathers were rarely present at the births of their children, because it was considered unseemly for them to be there. They waited in another room of the house, or, if the birth was in hospital, at home.
Baptisms were performed within days of the birth. This was due to a doctrine then promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church that held that if a baby died unbaptised, it could not enter heaven but was instead assigned eternally to a place called limbo. While life expectancy and medical care had greatly improved in twentieth-century Ireland, the country still had, at the start of the 1950s, the highest infant mortality rate in Western Europe, so it was considered essential that babies be baptised as soon as possible after birth.
The baby was brought to church by the father and godparents. While the baptism took place, the mother sat at the back of the church or outside. She could not take part in a sacrament such as baptism until she had been put through a purification ceremony known as 'churching', which made her spiritually clean again in the eyes of the Church. After baptism, the baby was well wrapped up and brought home. Visitors and family members placed holy medals or silver coins on the baby's cot or pram to bring good luck to the baby. The medals were seen as providing spiritual protection, while the silver coins were believed to ensure that as an adult the baby would escape poverty and live to a ripe old age. The coin would also bring good luck to the person who placed it on the cot.
The prams of the era were generally large and the baby was high off the ground – unlike the strollers of modern times. In fine weather, the pram would be wheeled outside so that the baby could get fresh air and sunshine. While men accompanied their wives and infants on walks, it was rare for a father to be seen wheeling the pram on his own.
Breastfeeding was in decline in 1950s Ireland and formula feeding, from manufacturers such as Cow and Gate, was becoming the fashion. The feeding bottles used included upright Pyrex or boat-shaped ones, with one or two rubber teats. In rural areas, newborns were often given milk from a calving cow to build up their immune system. This milk was known as 'bisnings'. As the infant moved on to solid foods, they would often be placed in a high chair at meal times. The chair would have a bar inserted between two holes across the front to secure the child.
Prams were sometimes converted into toddler go-karts, and old tea chests used as play-pens. One woman recalled how her father, who was a tailor, used to 'pad the top rim of the tea chests with scraps of material and do the same with the inside, for the comfort and safety of the little ones'.
Families in 1950s Ireland were often very large. Four or five children in a family would be the norm – six to eight children was quite common and nine or more not a rarity. Some parents raised families of twelve or even fourteen. Older children helped in the rearing of the younger ones, wheeling the pram, bathing, dressing and feeding their siblings. Many large families were raised in two-bedroom houses and it was normal practice for children to share beds. Two or three children could be fitted into one bed and there could be two or even three beds in one room. Small cottages, which might now be lived in by one person, could have had twelve or more occupants.
Advertisements in the papers for smart new outfits for 'kiddies' appeared daily in the national and local press. In 1958, for example, The Cork Examiner advertised Roches Store's offers of 'Kiddies' jumpers at 16/3s and slacks at 19/3/9d', but not all parents could afford to buy new clothes. There were high levels of poverty in Ireland at the time, with an economy that, until the last years of the decade, was actually contracting. So in many households, clothes were made rather than bought, and handed down from child to child. The clothes were patched up when tears appeared. Likewise, shoes were repaired, not replaced. Many houses had a last for putting patches on soles and tips on heels, and when new soles were needed the shoes were brought to the cobblers.
Clothes were often worn for several days in a row as washing machines and spin dryers were not in existence. Clothes were serviceable rather than fashionable. The family laundry was usually done on one day of the week, often a Monday, and this involved manual scrubbing. Before the arrival of electricity, water was boiled up on a range and a large tub used for the wash. The whole process of scrubbing clothes with a brush and drying them usually took the entire day. Boys usually wore short trousers and a shirt with braces. Girls wore pinafore dresses or smocks, and cardigans and vests, with socks.
In wet weather, children often wore wellingtons, which were polished using Vaseline. A big excitement for many children was the arrival of parcels of new clothes from relatives in Britain or America. What were known as 'American parcels' would often contain white suits and bright check sports coats, or brightly coloured dresses, that would dazzle the eye.
The children of the 1950s usually had a plain, healthy diet. In rural districts, and even in urban areas, families often grew their own food. Many households were all but completely self-sufficient, with only tea and sugar being bought. Cabbage, lettuce, carrots and turnips were grown; bread was baked, and cheese and butter were made at home as well. Farm families usually had pigs, turkeys, ducks and hens. Before preparing meals, parents and children would go outside and collect the food growing in their garden.
Where food was bought rather than home-produced, the shopping was done on a daily basis as there were no freezers until late in the decade, and not many fridges either. The average daily food shop took up to an hour, with one shopping bag being used for many years. Children ate the same meals as their parents, just in smaller portions. Bread and butter, porridge, bacon and cabbage, chicken, stews and mushy peas were the normal fare. The bread was usually home-made. Potatoes were grated raw to make 'boxty' – a traditional potato pancake – or boiled and mashed with butter, salt, pepper and spring onions to make concannon. In summer, mushrooms were taken home, peeled, placed on a hot coal and served with a pinch of salt.
For Roman Catholics, Friday was a no-meat day so fish was consumed instead, with ling a popular choice of fish. Fish and chips was a popular dish in urban areas. Eggs were also consumed, although not so much in rural areas where the eggs were brought to market to be sold rather than eaten at home. On farms, the cock chickens were reared for the table while the hens were kept for laying. Soups were usually made up from a variety of vegetables. Barley, lentils and peas were mixed into a broth and boiled up from bones acquired from butchers; in parts of Dublin this concoction was known as 'soup confetti'. Ketchup was also home-made and bottled for storage.
Dessert was usually a luxury reserved for Sundays or special occasions such as birthdays or Christmas. Popular desserts included custard and jelly, ice cream, or stewed apple tart. Favourite foods for children included 'cally' or 'champ' – a dish of new potatoes with a well of butter and scallions (spring onions) and 'goody' – bread baked in hot milk with sugar or raisins. There was also what was known as 'bang bang', which was warm bread fresh from the bakery cut up into thick wedges and smeared with butter and jam, washed down with milk.
Fruit was considered something of a luxury in many households. As one man recalled, 'There was no such thing as buying fruit and putting it into a fruit bowl to look at it!' Apples, plums, bananas and blackberries and raspberries were favourite fruits, and the apples, blackberries and raspberries were often gathered by children during holiday times or on their way to and from school. These seasonal fruits were preserved to make jams.
Popular sweets included toffees, penny bars, gobstoppers and sticks of rock. Crisps were also popular – particularly after the invention of the Tayto crisp in 1954. Cleeves Slab Toffee, 41/2p for a slab, 'equalled four days of blissful slobbering'. For many children, their weekly pocket money of 6p could buy a bar of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut, or thirty-six honeybee toffees or eighteen Nancy balls (aniseed), six 'fix' bags, six liquorice strings and a tar-black sweet called 'cough no more' described by the writer Deirdre Purcell as 'not for the faint-hearted'. A favourite sweet or dessert in Dublin was what was known as gur cake. This was made from stale bread soaked in black tea, with currants, raisins and sugar topped with pastry.
Children drank a lot of milk, as well as Bovril, cocoa and tea. Lemonade was often home-made, but soft drinks like MiWadi, which could be bought in local shops, were also popular. For some children, a once-a-week treat was a cup of Nescafé spooned from a tiny round tin and made with hot milk. Buttermilk was given to children, particularly in country areas. It was believed to be very good for children's health, and boys were told it would put hair on their chests. There was a tradition on Good Friday in country areas of gathering eggs that had just been laid. These eggs were known as clúdoe and were eaten on Easter Sunday.
To deal with childhood ailments, a variety of medicines were available to parents. Sick children were dosed with cod liver oil, syrup of figs, milk of magnesia, gripe water, Epsom salts, castor oil and petroleum jelly. Red flannel was used to treat colds and chest infections. Lucozade was regarded as a medicine at that time, and was given to children suffering from 'flu. The age of antibiotics had begun, so 1950s children were safe from the epidemics of diphtheria and scarlet fever that had claimed so many young lives in earlier times. Tuberculosis, however, remained a threat well into the 1950s in many parts of the country, although the disease diminished as new vaccines and better housing were introduced.
Polio was another serious health scourge, which afflicted children and teens as well as adults. There was a major epidemic in the Cork region in 1956, which led to the closure of schools, the postponement of sporting events and the cancellation of a planned circus visit to the city. Cork families working in England postponed planned holiday visits home. Children were warned to stay away from crowds and refrain from excessive exercise. Parents were encouraged to have their children in bed before nightfall. When the Cork/Kildare All-Ireland Football semi-final was not cancelled, a Dublin mother wrote to the papers condemning the GAA and the Minister for Health for not stopping the match. She wrote, 'it will be us mothers who will have the anxiety and sorrow if our children are struck down.' Parents were requested not to bring children under 14 to the match. Seventy-one of the ninety cases notified in Cork city were children under 10, and one child died.
Those children who contracted polio and survived went through a miserable time, often spending the whole day in a large machine known as an iron lung, which helped them to breathe. The experience was described by one patient as 'similar to lying in a coffin with one's head sticking out'. One woman recalled how she 'spent four years of my childhood in hospital after being diagnosed with polio aged 17 months. Due to the progressive treatment of the day, thankfully I recovered well in my early teens.' One of the most poignant images of the era was of small children on crutches with their legs encased in callipers.
Towards the end of the 1950s, a new polio vaccine developed in America was introduced into Ireland and the terror of polio faded away, although parents sometimes had to be persuaded to get their children vaccinated.
In 1955, there was a serious outbreak of gastroenteritis, which led to more than twenty children being hospitalised. The outbreak was linked to the impoverished conditions in which many Dublin children lived. Ringworm was another unpleasant infection that many children contracted. Those suffering from this illness spent many weeks in hospital and had to have their hair shaved.
Mumps, measles, rubella and chickenpox were the most common infectious illnesses affecting children in the 1950s. There was no MMR vaccine and it was considered that these illnesses were something children were almost guaranteed to get and a part of childhood. When a child got measles or mumps, the other children in the household would sometimes be put in the same bed as the sick one so that they could catch the disease and, as it were, get it out of the way. One man remembered how he was 'put in with' his sisters when they came down with measles, 'so we would all get it at the same time'. In the 1950s there was an average of 8,500 cases of measles in Ireland per year.
During the 1950s, the houses in which many children grew up were devoid of central heating or running water. Open fires provided warmth in the kitchen or sitting room area. In some rooms, what the writer Alice Taylor described as 'evil smelling' oil heaters were used. In winter months the windows were frosted up, with the frost often on the inside of the window. Rather than the duvets of today, children slept under layers of heavy blankets. One man whose father was a soldier remembered how his father's army greatcoat provided considerable warmth on cold winter nights. Chilblains were a frequent childhood affliction due to cold houses, with many suffering with swollen chilblained fingers and toes, which were very painful. Many houses had no bathrooms or indoor toilets. Like their parents, children trooped outside to a loo in the backyard.
Saturday night was traditionally bath night in many households as the family prepared for church the following day. The water, which sometimes came from a pump or well or was collected from a rain barrel, would be boiled up in a tin bath and placed before the fire. Children bathed singly or together, removing, as writer Alice Taylor described it, 'the mud, grass, earth, hay, dust and chaff that perfumed our daily lives'. After the bath, the lice comb was used, and girls had their hair tied up in rags and pipe cleaners to tease their curls – which made for an uncomfortable night's sleep. 'Sunday best' clothes were worn to church. Boys usually had short hair, with the hair being cut at home or at the barber's, where they sat on a plank that went across the arms of the barber's chair.
For many children in the 1950s in rural parts of Ireland, electric light was unknown. At home they played and did their homework by candlelight or oil lamps, and carried candles up to their bedrooms. In some towns, gas lighting continued well into the 1950s. Alice Taylor recalled how, in her Cork home, 'we experienced the tilly lamp as a big breakthrough into a world of light in about 1950'. The tilly lamp was fed on oil and gave a much stronger light. Tilly heaters also came into use.
The rural electrification scheme, which began in 1947, gradually extended electric light across the country and for many children, one of the most memorable events of their childhood was the coming of electricity to their village or farm. They watched the gradual advance of electricity poles towards their house, with one boy remembering coming home from school to find the electricity switched on. In villages up and down the country, young and old would gather for a special ceremony where the lights would be switched on by local dignitaries. Alice Taylor wrote about how electric light 'made the journey upstairs to bed much less frightening. It was now no longer necessary to check under beds for lurking spooks or to peer through shadowy doorways for silent figures waiting to pounce.'
It was a thrill for many children to be able to flick a switch and see the room filled with light, and to be able to read in bed or play board games without straining their eyes. A cartoon in the magazine Dublin Opinion showed parents watching the installation of electricity and saying 'how great it was that their children would now be able to study all night for the Civil Service.'
A major improvement in the lives of children in urban areas was the move to new council houses. In cities and towns there was a large-scale public housebuilding programme, which brought thousands of families out of slum housing and into new suburbs and estates (the Finglas area of Dublin for example). These new houses were usually two or three bedroom with small gardens that were often used to grow food as well as flowers. The houses had electricity and fireplaces, some also had central heating and indoor toilets. Although small and cramped by modern standards, these council houses were a massive improvement on the housing left behind.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A 1950s Irish Childhood"
Copyright © 2018 Ruth Illingworth.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Timeline of the 1950s in Ireland,
2 Primary School,
3 Secondary School,
4 Toys and Games,
5 Comics, Cinemas and Circuses,
7 The World of Work,
8 The Outsiders,