“so a word to the wise’: reassessing the role of the upper-class Irish father in nineteenth-century childrearing’

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week Judy Bolger writes about a father´s involvement, through written advice, in the upbringing of his children.

‘So a word to the wise – Your mother says asses’ milk – or Breast milk given on a spoon’ wrote John D’Alton to his wife Catherine in 1819.[1] Though spending much of his family’s early years away from home, John’s surviving letters demonstrate that he was still very much engaged with his children’s feeding habits and their daily lives in Summerville, Dublin during the early nineteenth century.[2] Through these various references about his children, an alternative representation of the father is reconstructed. Much scholarly attention toward the period has reinforced the severity of the public and private divide amongst women and men.[3] However, such a sweeping generalisation about the gender norms of the period may not be as clear-cut as we have understood. In a nuanced manner, these letters not only showcased John’s engagement with his children’s rearing, but also his advice and interest in tasks that have hitherto been deemed outside his gender’s concern. Therefore, the extracts from the letters blur the lines between the traditional roles within the nineteenth-century upper-class Irish family.

Pat Jalland argued that it ‘is impossible to generalise very far about the upbringing of Victorian upper-class children; diversity was the outstanding characteristic.’[4] A diversifying aspect of parenting was infant-feeding. During the early modern period, upper-class women throughout the Continent began to move away from the traditional practice of hiring a wet-nurse to feed their infants. As Anthony Fletcher put it, ‘There were growing expectations, […] that the good mother would breastfeed her own baby.’[5] This move towards maternal feeding aligned with the emerging medical profession’s emphasis on the benefits of maternal breastfeeding for both the mother and baby’s health.[6]

Interestingly, though such a ‘private’ practice, much evidence survives regarding the role of the father in breastfeeding experiences. For example, Leanne Calvert’s work demonstrated that upper-class Irish Ulster women often fed their infants maternally.[7] Calvert also highlighted that their desire to do so was encouraged by their husbands, which Sally McMillen also found common in the husbands of the Antebellum South of the United States.[8] McMillen stated that many men praised their wives’ ability to be ‘competent nurturers’ to their newborns.[9] However, this re-evaluated role of the father within maternal-feeding experiences is also of relevance when assessing the experiences of mothers who did not breastfeed.

            Despite the renewed call for maternal-feeding from many aspects of Irish society,


Image of one of John Dalton’s Letters, Triniy College, Dublin Manuscript Dept. IE TCD MS 2327

not all women breastfed their babies and through their various reasons for not choosing the practice are of significance, what is also of value is the relevance of the fathers in making such choices.[10] For the D’Altons, their choice to procure a wet-nurse was frequently discussed within their correspondences. Catherine expressed some of the practicalities of sourcing a desirable wet-nurse with suitable milk. She informed John that his aunt had written sending information about a potential wet-nurse and that her own mother had suggestable candidates as well. After seeking advice from her doctor Francis L’Estrange (1756-1836) about a potential wet-nurse, he also had a suitable candidate to which Catherine wrote to her husband to ‘beg’ that he ‘would advise’ his thoughts on the matter.[11] Considering maternal feeding constituted such a personal event, obtaining a wet-nurse was rather a communal affair within the D’Alton family.


            John’s understandings of childrearing were not ill-informed. Rather, they were constructed through some of the leading parental advice tracts of the period. Specifically, D’Alton had read ‘several passages’ of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emilius (1792).[12] This text represented what Collin Heywood called the ‘first serious’ writing relating to the care of infants in France.[13] Rousseau’s work called for a reform of mothering and situated the role of breastfeeding as cruc


Title Page of a later edition of Emilie or Education, Liberty Fund, Online Library of Liberty

ial to the mother-child bond.[14] D’Alton’s critique of the text was not light; in particular, he stated ‘as far as I have read I have been more entertained than instructed and by no means convinced into all his systems many of which appear wholly wild and paradoxical.’ However, he did recall that he read enough to appreciate his wife’s expertise and told her ‘how excellent has been my dearest Kate’s system of rearing infancy and am perfectly satisfied Rousseau’s treatise had been more wise if it theorized your practice’.[15] Other references to Rousseau’s and Catherine’s parental practices within the letters demonstrate the respect John held for his wife’s mothering abilities while also highlighting his familiarity with childrearing. John wrote critically to his wife about other parents’ childrearing practices he encountered.[16] Like his comparisons to Rousseau’s writings, John used these moments to reinforce his trust in both his and his wife’s childrearing practices.


Akin to Maeve O’Riordan’s stance that male and female roles ‘overlapped’ within the upper-class household management during the period, decisions regarding the care of children were similarly, often conducted through a partnership between husband and wife.[17] John’s in-depth analysis of parenting and his offered support and guidance, despite being far away from his family suggest that these familial conversations were part of family life for some families. Thus demonstrating that conversations about their children’s upbringing was clearly part of what some married couple discussed, and signifies the role of men in how their children were raised. Moreover, what these letters showcase is that there was something of a partnership between mother and father and that the Victorian idea of separate spheres for both men and women, where male involvement in the private sphere of the family was less prominent is not as certain or universal as previously understood.


Judy Bolger is currently a PhD student in the Department of Modern Irish History at Trinity College, Dublin. Her PhD seeks to examine women’s experiences of maternity and motherhood in Irish workhouses during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and this project is being fully-funded by Trinity College, Dublin 1252 Postgraduate Research Scholarship. She holds a first-class M.Phil. degree in Modern Irish History from Trinity College, Dublin and a first-class Honours B.A. in English and History from Carlow College. Her areas of interest are primrily in the social and cultural histories of Ireland during the 19th and 20th centuries with a particular interest in gender and poverty.




[1] John D’Alton, TCD MS 2327/70, 23 Sept 1819.

[2] A collection of nearly three hundred personal letters between husband and wife are housed in the Trinity College, Dublin manuscript department. John William Alexander D’Alton (1792-1867) was born in Bessville, County Meath. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin and was an antiquarian, barrister, Irish historian, genealogist, biographer which warranted much time away from his family.

[3] In particular, historians Freedman and Hellerstein argued that ‘the doctrine of the separate spheres, as elaborated in literature, medicine, and religion, prescribed that women’s personal lives centred around home, husband and children. Estelle B. Freedman and Erna Olafson Hellerstein, ‘Introduction to Part II’ in Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France and the United States, ed. by Erna Olafson Hellerstein, Leslie Parker Hume and Karen M. Offen (Stanford: The Harvester Press, 1981), pp. 118-33 (p. 118).

[4] Pat Jalland, Women, marriage and politics: 1860-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 9.

[5] Anthony Fletcher, Growing up in England: The Experience of Childhood 1600-1914 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 96.

[6] Eleanor S. Riemer and John C. Fout, eds, European women: a documentary history 1789-1945 (New York: Schocken Books, 1980), p. 157.

[7] Leanne Calvert, “A more careful tender nurse cannot be than my dear husband’: reassessing the role of men in pregnancy and childbirth in Ulster, 1780-1838’, Journal of Family History, 42.1 (2017), 22-36 (p. 26).

[8] Sally McMillen, ‘Mother’s sacred duty: breast-feeding patterns among middle- and upper-class women in the Antebellum South’, The Journal of Southern History, 51.3 (1985), 333-56 (p. 338).

[9] Calvert, p. 26 and McMillen, p. 343.

[10] A particular advocate for maternal-feeding was Irish obstetrician and medical writer Fleetwood Churchill (1808-1878) acknowledged that some women simply chose not to breastfed despite it being what he deemed their maternal duty. Granted, he noted that these non-breastfeeding mothers were a minority, and that most women ‘anticipate the period of nursing with pleasure, as drawing closer the tie between themselves and the objects of their tenderest [sic] love.’ But, he argued that women who rejected their ‘duty’, risked the development of their maternal bonding with their infant.[10] Churchill stated that non-breastfeeding mothers ‘lose a portion of the affection, for the natural ordinance of the Creator cannot be violated with impunity.’ Fleetwood Churchill, Diseases of children, Dublin: Hodges and Smith, 1850), pp. 37-40.

[11] ‘Letter from Catherine to John D’Alton, 22 September 1820’ (TCD MS 2327/23).

[12] ‘Letter from John D’Alton to Catherine D’Alton, 4 July 1822’(TCD MS 2327/108).

[13] Colin Heywood, Growing up in France: from the Ancien Régime to the Third Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 63.

[14] Heywood, p. 122.

[15] ‘Letter from John D’Alton to Catherine D’Alton, 4 July 1822’ (TCD MS 2327/108).

[16] ‘Letter from John D’Alton to Catherine D’Alton, 23 September 1819’ (TCD MS 2327/70).

[17] Maeve O’Riordan, ‘Assuming control: elite women as household managers in late nineteenth-century Ireland’ in Irish Elites in the Nineteenth Century, ed. by Ciaran O’Neill (Dublin: Four Court Press, 2013), pp. 83-98 (p. 86), p. 85.


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