Alumni news: English children’s literature in the Irish Free State

NCRCL alumni Mairéad Mooney, now studying for her PhD at University College Cork, on her academic journey from BA to PhD and her current doctoral research.

Serendipity has always been pivotal in my academic trajectory. I almost bypassed English as a subject choice for my B.A., having found it a singularly joyless learning experience in preparation for my Leaving Certificate examinations. Fortunately, studying literature at university is a far more gratifying undertaking. I later qualified as a librarian by distance education and anticipated graduation with much relief as the course had been quite an exacting two-year commitment.

However, instead of savouring my liberation from study, I chafed under the freedom and within a couple of months had registered for an M.A. in Children’s Literature through the University of Roehampton’s distance education programme. My dissertation topic was inspired by a birthday present given to me when I was ten: Tim Kennemore’s YA short story collection Here Tomorrow, Gone Today, in which I explored the author’s destabilising of chronological age and the adult-privileging witholding of power from the young. With scholarly fervour, I determined to progress to PhD studies and again, my topic was dictated by an incidental book recommendation: Tom McCarthy’s account of the burning of Cork City’s Carnegie Library in December 1920, a casualty of reprisal burnings during the War of Independence.

The newly-formed Irish Free State sought to create and promote a distinctive and separate sense of nationality following independence from Britain. This purging of the colonial legacy included the establishment of a punitive Censorship of Publications Board in 1929, in response to the perceived contaminating influences – morally and culturally – of foreign publications. Four decades of intense scrutiny and censoring of adult literature ensued.

corklib

The Carnegie Library, Anglesea Street, Cork, which was destroyed by fire in December 1920 (The Lawrence Collection, Cork Past and Present).

My initial plan was to document the children’s literature banned during this period but to my astonishment, this proved a fruitless exercise. I then began to examine the accession records of the children’s collection as developed by the city library once it had been re-established. What was striking was the very lack of responsiveness to the ideological project of nation-building that was otherwise very strongly evidenced in the early decades of the post-independence period. In consequence, the almost total dominance of British texts as the staple recreational reading for children in Cork remained. The self-image of imperial Britain, together with its assumptions of cultural superiority, was thus effectively embedded as a norm for the children who were to be the future citizens of the new state.

If, as F.S.L. Lyons asserts, “[i]t was English manners and morals, English influences, English Protestantism, English rules, that they sought to eradicate”, then the library’s circulating of English children’s literature was in conflict with national sentiment. My research investigates how this anomaly was rationalised and the role of the library in constructing conflicting models of identity for the child reader. This will be based on archival research and the close textual scrutiny of a number of pertinent texts from a post-colonial perspective.

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About Sarah Pyke

NCRCL PhD student currently researching LGBTQ adults’ memories of childhood reading as part of the AHRC funded project, Memories of Fiction: An Oral History of Readers’ Life Stories.

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