A different kind of childhood

June 25, 2019

If you ever wanted to see what the world might look like after the Tribulation, you could do worse than visit the Burren land on the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Most of my adopted country still looks as lush and green as in the tourist guides, but the Burren has only rock, with thin soil in the cracks –a rippling moonscape of pale hills that stretches to the sea, with few trees to slow the screaming Atlantic winds.

It’s lovely to visit, but living here would seem to us like being marooned on an alien planet, and raising children unthinkable. It would not seem very thinkable now, in a house with heat and wi-fi; in the 1930s no one here had electricity or cars, no lights or radio, and people lived much the way they had in the 1830s, or for that matter the 1830s BC. Dersie Leonard, who grew up in the Burren then, later described how she and her childhood friends walked miles every day in all weather, barefoot and wearing clothes made from old flour sacks. Modern American kids, growing up in a cocoon of toys, clothes and Xboxes, would struggle to picture a more depressing existence.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, Leonard wrote joyfully about her early life, saying she and her friends had “lakes and rivers, good land and bad, bog and rocks, not to mention fairy rings and forts – in fact everything a person could wish for.” They spent their days exploring, playing games, singing and telling stories, immersed in the adventure of childhood, and she considered herself lucky to live as she had.

When I say that to modern people, they assume she must be an unusual case, but in the fifteen years I’ve lived in rural Ireland, I’ve talked to dozens of people who grew up in similar circumstances, and they all said the same thing. I’ve also spent years reading and listening to interviews with elderly people — local library records, town archives, old radio archives, Irish television documentaries, books and history journals — all told, about three hundred interviews with people who grew up in Ireland between 1900 and 1960. These were years when most Irish, even into the 60s and 70s, managed a life without cars and electricity, living on less money than we would pick up off the sidewalk today, and without any of the electronic devices that modern people carry around all day. In terms of their culture, it was like a different century.

When I say they lived in poverty, I don’t mean like American inner cities. I grew up a few miles from the highest-crime ghetto in America — East St. Louis — thick with gangs, drugs and gunfire, and even they had a median income of $33,000 a year. Irish people in the 1970s were making less than one one-hundredth that amount of money per year — one year its GDP-per-capita was lower than Gabon in central Africa — so you’d think they’d have a hundred times more problems. Yet Ireland then had so little crime that a single murder was a nationwide event, robbery and drugs almost unknown, and almost everyone kept their doors unlocked.

Relying only on local village schools, Ireland then had a literacy rate higher than the USA does now, and produced generations of celebrated novelists, poets and scholars. Even taking their poverty into account, and even without the advances of the last 50 years, their average health was still better than most Americans’ today. And they were much happier than modern people, both according to surveys at the time and the memories of people who lived through those days. They lived their lives and I didn’t, and I’m not going to tell them that they’re all wrong.

“What kind of upbringing did I have?” said Tom Shaw, who was born in a one-room hut in 1935. “Brilliant – you couldn’t have wished for better.” Shaw, interviewed by Irish radio, said that he had “no electricity, no running water, no central heating, no indoor toilet,” but that “under any circumstances, it would be a great youth — we got to spend a lot of time with my mother and father, and they were disciplinarians, yet we had total freedom to run around.”

Children on a train in Ireland
Children on a train in Ireland, courtesy of

“We were real happy children, never bored,” said Jenny Buckley, who grew up in County Offaly in the 1930s. Most of the elders I interviewed said the same – their early years were filled with picking wildflowers and finding birds’ nests, climbing trees and looking under logs, swimming to islands or rowing boats, declaring themselves kings and queens of their domain, swearing eternal friendship, and engaging in the feral joy of a hunter-gatherer childhood.

Mind you, they had plenty of chores on their family homesteads — picking crops, caring for animals, all the other duties that kept their families fed. “Our farm kept us going; we bought nothing but tea, sugar, rice and sultanas,” she said. “Now our pocket money was that we had a hen each and collected her eggs and sold them.” I hear the same from many of my neighbours; by the time they hit the hormones of adolescence, they had already gained more business savvy and shouldered more responsibility than most 50-year-olds today.

Of course, most of them went to school – not a cement institution like most modern Americans had, but a one-room shack where all local children met. Despite this, however – or perhaps because of it – many children remember reading complex literature and philosophy at an age when many of my countrymen are still struggling to read.

Most of them described walking to school, but with a group of friends and siblings, and what they learned walking across the countryside proved as educational as what they learned at a desk.

“…we didn’t walk through fields to school, but travelled the then-rugged and stony way which was up hill and down dales,” remembered Bessie Byrne Sheridan, who grew up in County Wexford in the 30s. “No tarmacadamed (paved) roads in those days of sparse cash but healthy living. Making ourselves happy with very little was the norm for us all. Those times were known as the ‘hungry thirties,’ which I think is a misnomer because there was plenty of home-produced natural food available everywhere,” and if anyone didn’t have enough of something, all the neighbours shared with them.

“…it was much more a children’s world, for few people remember anyone who would harm a child, nor were there any media around that could corrupt them,” said Irish radio producer Tommy Ryan about Irish village life. “Children ran everywhere freely and safely. There was less hurry to get out of childhood and into adolescence.”

Most of my neighbours said they ran barefoot for months, but that wasn’t the hazard it would be today, for roadways were not lined with auto parts, broken glass or needles. “There a picture somewhere of my last school year, and half of the children were in their bare feet,” my neighbour Jack told me. “And it was quite usual at that stage that when the summer holidays were coming on, you’d get your shoes or boots taken away, and you trotted down in your bare feet for a few months.”

You might think of such children as deprived, but Jack said that everyone looked forward to the bare-footed seasons. “Shoes were something to get used to, and unwillingly,” and they stretched it out further than they were supposed to, Ryan said. “We took our boots as far as the stile, hid them there, went to school barefooted, and on the way home put them on again. Our parents didn’t want us to go barefoot until May, but we had it going from March.”

Village children in those days rarely had to worry about strangers, for they knew everyone around, everyone saw everyone else, and gossip was a powerful tool for keeping people in line; if a stranger came to town, everyone knew. Nor could children get away with much either, not with so many eyes on them, connected to people who talked to their parents every day.

Children at chores, courtesy of
Children at chores, courtesy of

“Twenty years ago you could leave your bike on the footpath and nobody would touch it,” said Con Moloney, who grew up in County Laois. “Everybody had the time to talk, and you didn’t have to jump out of the way of lunatic drivers behind the wheel of fast cars.”

In fact, many people I talked to feel sorry for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whom they see at family gatherings buried in their electronic devices. I wouldn’t want to be a child these days, they tell me.

Top photo: My daughter several years ago on the Burren, County Clare. Middle photo: Children on a train in Ireland, courtesy of Bottom photo: Children at chores, courtesy of

Brian Kaller

Former newspaper editor Brian Kaller wrote his first magazine cover story on peak oil in 2004, and since then has written for the American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News, Front Porch Republic, Big Questions Online and Low-Tech Magazine. In 2005 he and his family moved to rural Ireland, where he speaks to schools and churches, and writes a weekly column for the local newspaper.  

Tags: rural communities, social history