The joy and misery of growing up in Galway

Sarah-Anne Buckley and John Cunningham with 'Growing Up in Galway: Histories and memories' which they edited. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.
Sarah-Anne Buckley and John Cunningham with 'Growing Up in Galway: Histories and memories' which they edited. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Lifestyle – A new book chronicles memories of childhoods in Galway, detailing anguish and suffering as well as happiness and privilege from the 1840s through to the 1970s. Judy Murphy met the co-editors of the publication.

“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood”.

That was Frank McCourt’s observation in his bestselling memoir, Angela’s Ashes, and it raised a wry smile of recognition among many readers in this country.

Miserable Irish childhoods haven’t been ignored in a new publication, Growing Up in Galway: Histories and Memories, edited by NUIG history lecturers Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley and Dr John Cunningham. And misery couldn’t be ignored, given the suffering of so many children in post-independence Ireland, due to the collusion of Church and State.

But this collection of oral histories, songs, research papers, and memories from the 1840s to the 1970s  offers a rich tapestry of childhood experience – not just grim tales.

It’s being launched this Friday night at Galway City Museum by poet Elaine Feeney and the venue is appropriate, because that’s was where many of these stories were first shared, during Culture Night 2016, as John Cunningham explains.

He’s been involved with Culture Night at the Museum since 2011 when he was first asked to organise a history-related event there as part of Ireland’s biggest cultural celebration.

John felt a traditional long-form lecture wasn’t right for Culture Night, so he devised a format where a range of people – academics, local historians and people with memories to share – would speak briefly on a chosen topic.

There’s a different theme each year, with childhood being the focus in 2016, while women’s history was in the spotlight on another occasion, and last September’s event was all about labour.

“We ask colleagues to give us a taste of their research and also ask people around the town and county to take part,” John explains.

Generally, the event has some 12 speakers, each restricted to eight minutes.  Talks take place in the Museum foyer and the public are welcome along at any time during proceedings.

Sarah-Anne Buckley, originally from Cork, who joined NUIG as a lecturer in 2011, has been involved since then. Her specialist area of research is the history of childhood and child welfare in Ireland. When she and John were planning for Culture Night last year, Sarah-Anne suggested the Museum event could form part of a bigger conference on Children and Childhood Before and After the Revolution in Ireland that she was organising at NUIG on the Saturday.

“The idea of publishing this book came from people who were attending the conference the following day,” recalls John. “They were amazed by the number and variety of contributors at the Museum.”

For the publication, as with Culture Night, John and Sarah-Anne wanted to provide a broad spectrum of childhood experiences.

“Generally, dealing with childhood, there are two types of story, either institutional misery or privilege and money,” remarks Sarah-Anne. “We went seeking stuff that was more mainstream.”

And they succeeded.

Growing Up in Lower Salthill is Maisie Collins’ moving account of being reared by her aunt and uncle following her mother’s death when Maisie was just two. She was well-treated by the couple, who had a business in Lower Salthill, and the contrast between her life and those of less fortunate children nearby is highlighted by Maisie.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.