Correspondences to:


Many children’s voices from the past have never been heard or have been long forgotten, particularly those children who have been marginalised in society. While we may not be able to access the voice of the child from the past in the traditional sense, examining past events can give us some insights into the attitudes towards children as well as the lives of some children, potentially helping us to hear their untold or forgotten stories. This paper highlights how, through the examination of historical sources, (such as newspaper reports of events at the time, annals of religious orders, census records and medical journals) information about the experience of children within a particular time can be pieced together to share some elements of their experience that may otherwise be lost. It also gives an opportunity to compare it with children’s health and wellbeing in our current context.

Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 2005) provides a framework from which to consider historical events from a multisystem perspective with the child central to the study. While Bronfenbrenner puts the child at the centre of his model, in terms of Irish history however, the voice of the child has not been central to our historical narrative. The author is currently engaged in research focusing on the lives of children in an orphanage in Limerick, Ireland in the early 1900s. This paper describes a particularly tragic event in November 1908, in the Mount St. Vincent orphanage in Limerick, where 10 girls died and over 70 became ill due to food poisoning from beef stew. Juxtaposing the past and the present, the Mount St. Vincent building is now the John Henry Newman Building, part of the Mary Immaculate College campus where this research is being conducted.

Considering Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Framework

Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) bioecological systems theory stresses that in order to understand children’s development, it is necessary to consider the interactions between the child’s individual (biological) dispositions and their (ecological) environments. Bronfenbrenner (2005) represented this model through a series of systems or nested structures. Through this lens, this paper briefly considers the relationship of children’s experiences in the past and current research on the health and well-being of children in contemporary society. Figure 1 below gives an overview of Bronfenbrenner’s model applied to this historical research.

The ‘chronosystem’ refers to time, both in the short and long term, across the life course, and considers how children’s development is influenced by historical events and sociocultural factors (Bronfenbrenner, 2005). From the perspective of the ‘chronosystem’, this research is tracing the short lives of some of the girls who lived and died in Mount St. Vincent orphanage, and the lives of others that survived. This paper gives a very brief overview of the timeline of the tragedy at the Limerick orphanage, considering the context beforehand, the epidemic itself and the aftermath. Many of the parents of these girls died in the workhouse, usually from Tuberculosis (Phthisis), and in some cases, generations of the family died within a short space of time, including siblings and grandparents. (This spread of infection through an extended family might have resonance for us at present, in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic).

Bronfenbrenner (2005) refers to the ‘macrosystem’ as the culture in which the child lives, including policies and accepted norms and beliefs. The Mount St. Vincent orphanage in Limerick was opened in 1852 by the Sisters of Mercy and was considered a safe refuge for young girls from the workhouse at the time. “Poor female orphans’’ were viewed as particularly vulnerable, given the conditions at the workhouse (Freeman’s Journal, 1853). Fundraising campaigns for Mount St. Vincent were successful and over the next fifty years, according to the Sisters of Mercy annals, the institution provided a ‘’happy scene of childish life and merriment’’. Through the annual inspection reports, the conditions in industrial schools were documented and league tables were generated based on several criteria including children’s physical and general well-being. Mount St. Vincent ranked highly in these league tables and in general, the girls’ schools rated much better than the boys’ schools, particularly when the domestic science curriculum was introduced in the early 1900s. The aim of the domestic science curriculum was not only to secure future employment but also so that the girls could “live in a manner that will promote their own health, and contribute to the health and happiness of others” (47th Annual Report, 1909). This image of the orphanage or industrial school as a place of respite, to promote the well-being of children and others in future employment may challenge the narrative that has subsequently emerged, but reflects the macrosystem of these children at the time.

The census records of 1901 and 1911 list the girls who lived in Mount St. Vincent at the time and where they were from. The majority were from Limerick but there were also girls there from other surrounding counties. Not all of the girls were orphans, some had complex family circumstances, compounded by poverty and overcrowded living arrangements (also evidenced through the 1901 census records).

A Tragic Event

Based on the subsequent inquest and medical notes, in 1908, there were 197 girls living in the orphanage at the time of the tragedy. As highlighted, domestic science was a core component of the industrial school day, however, it was on foot of a technical cookery class that led to a disastrous outbreak of food poisoning. On Monday, 2nd November 1908 during this class, the older girls prepared a stew with leftover meat from previous meals. On Tuesday, this stew was reheated and served for lunch at noon. Some offcuts of cold meat were also served to some children, but the stew was mainly eaten by the older girls. The youngest age group (‘the babies’ aged 3-7) had a broth made of the boiled bones. By 6pm that same day, several girls were sick, some violently so, and by 7am on Wednesday 3rd November, the first victim, Sarah King, had died. Over the next few days, ten girls died and over seventy were ill. None of the youngest class were ill and the epidemiological investigation rapidly identified the meat as the source of infection (both the stew and also a cold cut of meat that had been left in the larder). The epidemiological notes tracing the spread of the infection indicated that some of the girls in the middle class had been given some meat by the older girls, some had swapped food and one girl had sat at the table with the older girls with tragic consequences. Despite being documented in a very clinical way in terms of specifically identifying the spread of infection through the different classes and age groups, this account of the cookery class and mealtime provide some insights into life and relationships within the orphanage at this time in terms of Bronfenbrenner’s microsystem. According to Bronfenbrenner (2005), the ‘microsystem’ refers to the child’s immediate environment in which the child has the most interactions. During the mealtime experience we could consider if the older girls were perhaps looking after younger girls (possibly sisters) within this microsystem, sharing their meat and swapping food for example? Within this community, there were sets of sisters and this research is documenting, where possible, the family trees of some of the girls. In some instances, the girls’ brothers have also been traced to industrial schools for boys.

Bronfenbrenner (2005) noted that the ‘mesosystem’ “comprises the linkages and processes taking place between two or more settings containing the developing person”. (Bronfenbrenner, 2005 p.148). This is demonstrated within the Sisters of Mercy annals as they describe how the nuns were “crushed with grief” and how they observed the “scenes of grief and wailing outside” as parents and relatives enquired after their children. The linkages between the institution and the home environment are represented in this description and the power and process involved are highlighted as the nuns decided whether to allow the parents of the sick and deceased into the building. However, it would appear that the clergy were automatically allowed in to anoint children without any question.

Bronfenbrenner (2005) refers to the ‘exosystem’ as the system incorporating social settings that affect, but do not directly include, the child. Although child mortality rates were higher in general at the time (and as the annual inspection reports indicate, mortality rates were higher again within institutions), similar to today, death from food poisoning was not a common occurrence in childhood. Hence, this tragic event received widespread attention from the media and from a medical audience at a local, national and international level. In terms of the exosystem, for example, this event had a significant impact on the local community. The Mayor of Limerick described the event as “the most lamentable calamity which occurred in the city for a long period of years” (Limerick Chronicle, 1908) and thousands lined the streets of Limerick to pay respects to the funeral cortege of the young girls. There was also widespread sympathy for the nuns and the Bishop of Limerick. This widespread and extensive mourning has come as a surprise to some people when this story has been shared with different audiences. For many years afterwards, this outbreak was noted as a highly significant case of food poisoning from meat. From a medical perspective, the seriousness of this case of meat poisoning attracted significant attention both at home and abroad. Professor McWeeney (1909) deliberately published his conclusions in the British Medical Journal as a learning opportunity to reach a wider audience, rather than a more specific bacteriology journal. However, in any writing of the incident, the girls themselves were generally referred to as ‘inmates’ or in similar generic terms, which gives an insight into the low status of children in society at the time.


Examining events from the past with a focus on childhood experiences can give us new insights and possibly challenge preconceived ideas or a narrative of a different time, space and perspective. Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems framework (2005) is a particularly useful lens to adopt as it places the child at the centre and considers the relationships between the different systems that impact on children’s lives. The focus on the voice of the child and the importance of children’s views and the right to be heard, as well as seen, is a relatively recent approach to childhood. However, the findings of this research so far have shown that examining historical documents and a range of sources can provide some insight into childhood experiences of the past, to allow lessons to be learned and to ensure that, while the voices of these children may be lost, their stories and legacies are not.