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Historical Origins of Social Work Essay

Essay: In what ways do the historical origins of social work influence the current profession in Ireland? In order to provide an in-depth discussion on how the historical origins of social work have influenced the current nature of the profession in Ireland, it is important for me to provide a specific understanding of what the term denotes. Defined by Smale, Tuson and Statham (2000; 5), ‘social work is about the interventions made to change social situations so that people who need support or are at risk can have their needs met more appropriately than if no intervention were made’. Morales and Sheafor (1977) state that ‘professional social workers are dedicated to service for the welfare and self-realisation of human beings; to the disciplined use of scientific knowledge regarding human and societal behaviour, to the development of resources to meet individual, group, national and international needs and aspirations; and to the achievement of social justice’. Many individuals, other than field social workers and including all those who work in residential, day care and domiciliary care, otherwise known as social care or care workers are all involved in different types of social work.

The Emergence of Social Work

According to Sheldon and Macdonald (2009, p.19), ‘the term ‘social work’ was first used in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century’. During this era, people practiced social work in an attempt to establish more realistic ways of overcoming social distress as opposed to relying on traditional forms of charity work and philanthropy. Skehill (1999) and Darling (1972) state that Irish social work shares many traditional aspirations of social work elsewhere, such as in Britain and Finland and has been influenced by such countries. However, it is also shaped by the particular nature of Ireland’s society and by key political processes within the country over the past centuries. Albeit Ireland ‘industrialising’ at a different rate in comparison to England and elsewhere, key features of modern society such as: the growth in expert knowledge in relation to individuals and the family, the emanation of new expert professionals and the emergence of a liberal form of government do appear to have had an impact on shaping Irish social work (Skehill, 1999).

Earlier forms of social work in Ireland evolved from religious motives which included the giving of alms and the giving of service. Skehill (1999) highlights that the relationship between the religious bodies and their concern with the provision of charitable relief is of great importance, with the rivalry between Catholic and Protestant charities being the most significant aspect of the religious base of charities in the 19th century. Down through the years, Ireland has been a place where individuals have been ‘inspired by a sense of vocation and largely guided by intuition’ (Darling, 1972; 24). Such individuals have endeavoured to alleviate the pain and suffering of the casualties within our society. An example of such heroic bodies in Ireland includes ‘Mary Aikenhead, daughter of a Cork doctor and founder of the Order of Irish Sisters of Charity, who began prison visiting in Dublin 1821’ (Darling, 1972; 24). The 19th century is ‘characterised by a whole plethora of charitable activities relating to education, health and welfare’ (Skehill, 1990).

In England, social work began with the identification, categorisation and organisation of various charities, which is most evident in the work of the Charitable Organisation Society. The COS evolved in 1869 and was primarily known as the Society for Organising Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity. This charitable body had a specific aim of attempting to address the disconnectedness between philanthropic organisations and bring these bodies together under some coherent umbrella (Skehill, 199). Over the same period of time (19th century), no such major body for social work existed in Ireland, however at the beginning of the 20th century the Irish state saw an attempt to standardise charity within the country. Notably, the nature of social work in Ireland is highlighted by the ‘link between philanthropy and its broader cultural and political discursive field, the relations between religion and charity, the gendered nature of practices, and the individualistic approach to social problems’ (Skehill, 1990).

Although, social work progressed to a greater extent in the 20th century, one could argue that some of the most defining characteristics of its current shape in society could be accredited to its earlier presence in the 19th century (Skehill, 1990). For example, social work in Ireland continues to be a practice that is primarily interested in assisting the less well off in society, with families and children being a key target for social work intervention and practice remaining individualistic. Also, the profession has continued to function traditionally based on caring for and overlooking the clients of its service (Skehill, 1990). Because of this, it is important to look at certain aspects of philanthropy in 19th century Ireland in order to explore the charitable works’ contribution to the present day social work strategy (Skehill, 1990). Although social work began to emerge in the 19th century, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that a coherent strategy of social work developed (Skehill, 1990).

What is significant about social work in the early 20th century is that it continued to be characterised by continuities in voluntary charity work and developed towards a more ‘strategic and structured practice of professional social work’ (Skehill, 1990; 61). However, throughout this era, social work also expanded due to a dual process of development between interacting strands of cultural, political, intellectual and institutional progression. This dual process of development includes ‘the emergence of training and education for social workers and the continued expansion of untrained social work’ within charitable bodies (Skehill, 1990; 97).

The pattern of social work training that established in the 20th century persisted in the following decades, with the continuation of an individual focus, home visiting, in-depth inquiries and concentration on the poor, women and children remaining to be at the core of its’ practice. In Ireland, the health and welfare service continued to develop in the mid-20th century and as a result, had a crucial influence on the evolution of social work within this period. There was a decrease in the influence of the Catholic Church, professional training and employment for social workers increased and the State developed a greater role in the provision of social services which led to increasing opportunities for the development of social work.

According to Darling (1971), formal social work training in Ireland began in 1899, when Reverend R.M. Gwynn established an association in Trinity College Dublin, with a primary aim of promoting the study of poverty. ‘The establishment of the Civic Institute of Ireland in 1914 marks a significant step in the evolution of social work in Ireland’ (Skehill, 1999; 91). The main aim of this society was the ‘study and investigation of all questions and problems affecting the lives of the Irish public in their capacity as citizens or as inhabitants of a city, urban or rural area of Ireland’ (Civic Institute of Ireland, 1914 in Skehill, 1999; 91).


* Considine, M. and Dukelow, F. (2009) Irish Social Policy: A critical introduction, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd. * Sheldon, B. and MacDonald, G. (2009) Textbook of Social Work, London: Routledge. * Skehill, C. (1999a): The Nature of Social Work in Ireland, a Historical Perspective, Lewiston, USA: Edwin Mellen Press. * Morales, A. and Sheafor, B.W. 1977. Social Work: A Profession of Many Faces. Boston: Allyn and Bacon Inc. * Darling, V. (1971) ‘Social Work in the Republic of Ireland’. Social studies, Irish Journal of Sociology, 1(1)24-37. *

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