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…This is Jerome Connor’s proposal for the penny coin. He thought of the penny as a child’s coin and conceived a design that reflected this by celebrating childhood—the scampish boy is based on his own grand-nephew John. It was, on the face of it, an image appropriate to the new state’s aspirations…
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In January 1926 Minister for Finance Ernest Blythe told the Dáil that the new Irish Free State should have ‘a coinage distinctively our own, bearing the devices of this country’. A committee, chaired by the poet and senator W.B. Yeats, was asked to adjudicate on the best designs submitted. One was by sculptor Jerome Connor. Born in Annascaul, Co. Kerry, he emigrated to Massachusetts when he was fourteen and eventually established his own studio in Washington, DC. He moved back to Ireland in 1925 to work on a memorial to those who lost their lives in the sinking of the Lusitania off the Cork coast in 1915.
This is Connor’s 1927 proposal for the penny coin. He thought of the penny as a child’s coin and conceived a design that celebrated childhood the scampish boy is based on his own grand-nephew John.
It was, on the face of it, an image appropriate to the new state’s aspirations. The Democratic Programme adopted by the first Dáil in 1919 had set itself a very high aim:
It shall be the first duty of the Govern – ment of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter.
Many children in the new Ireland did enjoy a safe and happy upbringing, but the aspiration to ensure that no child went hungry or cold was certainly not met. Moreover, children were among the worst victims of the dark side of the new state: its elaborate system of social repression through which ‘problem’ citizens were incarcerated in harsh, sometimes dangerous institutions.
Between the 1920s and the 1950s, more than one per cent of the population was locked up in a mental hospital, a Magdalene laundry, where women thought to be at risk of sexual immorality were made to work without pay, or an industrial school. To these latter institutions, run by religious orders, one child in every hundred was sent. Between 1936 and 1970 approximately 170,000 children entered the gates of one or other of the 50 or so industrial schools, staying on average for seven years. The great majority were committed, not because they were guilty of any offence, but because their families were deemed to be ‘needy’.
A commission of inquiry established in 2000 found that severe beatings were pervasive in both boys’ and girls’ schools and that, in the institutions for boys, sexual abuse was ‘endemic’. The commission also found that such abuse was allowed to continue because of a general ‘culture of silence’ and because of the ‘deferential and submissive attitude’ of the state authorities towards the religious congregations.
This was the cruel side of what many in the new state would have regarded as its greatest virtues—its strong emphasis on sexual morality and social control and reverence for religious institutions. For some, those virtues were a source of great pride. For others, they were the excuse for a systematic abuse of power over society’s most vulnerable members.