Although it is to state the obvious, there has always been a history of children. However unlike the more obvious economic trends and political views, children's histories have for the most part remained hidden. Although there is disagreement amongst historians as to when childhood was invented, it is generally accepted that there was a profound change in attitudes towards children during the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries which reached its climax in the nineteenth.
Eighteenth-century Ireland witnessed immense economic and political changes and these were paralleled in the domestic sphere as the increasingly private realm of eighteenth-century family life underwent adjustment and change. The beginning of the century saw the development of the ascendancy class, the big house and the improving landlord while on the other hand the continuing lack of industrial development and the increase in population presented the poor and vulnerable with more forbidding challenges as the century progressed. All Irish children, but especially poor Catholic children were seen as a means of expanding and stabilising the Protestant religion in Ireland, thus ultimately reinforcing the authority and power vested in the emerging ascendancy.
There are no specific organisations or archives dedicated to the history of children in eighteenth-century Ireland. Indeed a perusal of National Library of Ireland catalogues would indicate a definite bias in favour of political events. Thus the information for this study has to be extracted from a broad range of primary sources such as family papers - an under-appreciated source - journals, biographies, newspapers, government and institutional records, and a range of manuscripts, the majority of which have been deposited for safekeeping in Irish repositories.
While the above sources can yield much valuable information about the elites and 'the middling sorts', information establishing the actuality of children's lives for the peasant/pauper and 'the unwanted' is slightly more difficult and perhaps reflects their position in eighteenth-century Irish society. Nevertheless, papers such as the House of Commons reports, the Incorporated Society for promoting Protestant Schools in Ireland archive, and reports made by individuals throughout the eighteenth-century provide details and testimony of the children being cared for in institutions.