meaning of ‘hit me now with the child in my arms’

The Irish-English phrase hit me now with the child in my arms, and its variants, are used to express pretended fear of, and/or provocation to, a physical attack.

The earliest occurrence that I have found is from Amusing Description of the “Freeman’s Journal”, published in United Ireland (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Saturday 23rd January 1892—the phrase was already in current usage, since the speaker does not explain it and the listeners react to it with laughter:

Last Friday, at the hearing of the action brought by Mr David Sheehy, M P, against the Freeman, Mr Bushe, B L, addressing the jury on behalf of the plaintiff, said that […] he did not wish to say anything harsh of Mr Gray at all. He had been put forward in a rather ridiculous light by his own advocates. The MacDermot wept for him, “poor young man,” “poor young creature,” “poor little infant” (laughter). He was not a responsible person, he was under the control and influence of wiser minds. That was The MacDermott’s excuse for the Freeman’s Journal. They came forward and said—“We have got a poor, young, callow, half-fledged thing, tender, young, and inexperienced, and because he is only just of age, and because he has no knowledge of the world, and because he can be controlled and dominated by other men, for that reason we have invested him with the exercise of personal authority in the matters relating to the editorial conduct and policy of the Freeman’s Journal, and the result is this—armed with innocence and infancy (laughter), we go out on the streets and we lampoon and insult any honourable gentleman we may, and when he seeks redress we say, “Oh, you would not go and do it; sure it is only little Eddy Gray; sure he is hardly of age—oh, would you hit me now with a child in my arms?” (Loud laughter.)

The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from the speech that the Irish lawyer and politician James Henry Mussen Campbell (1851-1931), M.P. for Dublin University, delivered at Lancaster on Friday 19th November 1909—as transcribed in The Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 20th November 1909:

'hit me now with the child in my arms' - The Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) - 20 November 1909

The attitude of the Government in the present crisis was well described last night by Mr. Campbell, K.C. They were (he said) like the virago at the street corner, who excited her husband to an act of violence, and then, picking up her child, cried, “Hit me now with the child in my arms!” For four years the Government had threatened and run away, and now, after tacking its rejected legislation on to the Budget, said, “Hit me now with the Budget in my arms!”

The phrase occurs in the account of Coleraine Petty Sessions, published in The Ballymoney Free Press and Northern Counties Advertiser (Ballymoney, County Antrim, Ireland) of Thursday 26th May 1921—Joseph M. Tomb had charged Robert Clyde with assault and threats of violence; Mr. MacLaughlin was a solicitor:

Tomb—[…] Clyde put me down and kicked me.
Jane M‘Grath corroborated Tomb’s evidence.
M‘Grath—I called on Robert Clyde to stop. He lifted a brick to hit me, but I dared him to do it as I had a child in my arms.
Mr. MacLaughlin—“Hit me now, with the child in my arms.” (Laughter.)

A variant of the phrase occurs in the following, from the North Down Herald and County Down Independent (Bangor, County Down, Ireland) of Saturday 21st November 1925—here, dial denotes the face:

In the Summons Court at Belfast on Monday last some of the amenities of Shankill Road formed the subject of investigation. […]
There were Gaskins in the trouble also and others too numerous to mention, as the drapers’ handbills often say.
According to Mamma Gaskins, she, “with two of the kids, one on her arm and another by the hand, were returning from “signing the buroo,” when she was met by Matt Gaskin, who had with him then, or later, or both times, or sometime, a sister who married a Crow—a zoological sort of family—and, according to her Matt, “gave her across the dial [= face]” with his cap, and someone else did the chess-board decoration on her mother’s face, a clear case of “hit me now and the child in me arms.”

Michael O’Regan used the phrase attributively in his political column, published in The Kerryman (Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland) of Friday 4th October 1996—Leinster House, in Dublin, is the seat of the Oireachtas, the legislature of the Republic of Ireland:

By common consensus in Leinster House, the Minister for Agriculture, Ivan Yates, is firm favourite to win this year’s Oscar for best public performance following last week’s demonstration by farmers outside the Hotel Europe in Killarney. The protest — provoked by a mixture of frustration and political alienation on the part of the farmers — was modest when compared to what some politicians, or indeed their spouses, have to sometimes endure.
Instead of allowing it to fade away, as it inevitably did, Mr Yates addressed the gathering and spoke of the aeroplane commitments his guests had at Farranfore Airport. Clearly, another glass of wine and a chat about Listowel Races was out of the question.
But the Minister excelled himself when he opted for thehit me now with the child in my armsschool of political rhetoric. “There are women inside who are very upset”, he declared. It all conjured up visions of the Minister offering himself as a sacrificial lamb, complete with headage grant, no doubt, to the farmers, if the women were set free!
There are times when a politician should remain silent. This was one.