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Book Review: ‘What Else Could I Do?’

What Else Could I Do ? Single Mothers and infanticide in Ireland, 1900-1950

By Cliona Rattigan

Publisher: Irish Academic Press
Cloth – 978-0-71653-139-5 – €60.00<
Paper – 978-0-71653-140-1 – €24.95
Extent – 272 pages 

Reviewer: Rhona McCord

Cliona Rattigan’s 2012 book entitled What Else Could I Do? Deals with the harrowing subject of infanticide in Ireland during the first half of the twentieth century. The title was culled from one of the cases Rattigan investigated; the story of a young unmarried woman referred to as Ena P.

When Ena was arrested after the body of her newly born son was discovered on top of the wardrobe at her work place, a hotel in Dublin city, she told Gardai: ‘I gave birth to a child. I killed it. What else could I do?

Rattigan uses court sources to piece together the figures for this shocking crime in Ireland. Explaining the options or lack of options for women faced with an unplanned pregnancy, Rattigan uncovers many of the prevailing attitudes to sexuality in Ireland during this period.

The author divides her findings into two chronological periods: pre-independence, 1900-1921 and post-independence, 1922-1950. Three appendices provide sample court cases for both time periods and also a comparative of sample cases tried north of the border.

Explaining the options or lack of options for women faced with an unplanned pregnancy, Rattigan uncovers many of the prevailing attitudes to sexuality in Ireland during this period.

Unmarried mothers were shunned by society and many of the women in this book expressed a great fear of how family members, neighbours and employers, would judge them. While many women concealed their pregnancies from their employers because they would have been fired others hid it from their family for fear of being put out or in some cases a more violent reaction. Isabella in Co. Cavan in 1923 told the Garda that she was afraid to bring her newborn child home, as her uncle would, ‘have her life’.

Unmarried mothers were shunned by society and many of the women in this book expressed a great fear of how family members, neighbours and employers, would judge them

The body of the infant was found in a drain a quarter of a mile from her home. Shame was a key factor in a significant amount of cases. The story of K.F. is an example of this, when apprehended by the Police in Belfast in 1914 she asked them not to tell her family as it would ‘break their hearts and disgrace them for life’.

Socio-economic conditions were obviously a key factor but the law itself conspired to create unfavourable conditions for unmarried mothers. Those women who found themselves with an unplanned pregnancy were effectively backed into a corner. There were no facilities and a general tendency to criminalise unmarried mothers. Illegitimate children were considered less than others and viewed that way in the eyes of the law. There was no law that allowed for legal adoption and the foster services that did exist were private arrangements, which had to be paid for.

Laws to provide for the legal adoption of children had been developed in the U.K. in the aftermath of the First World War when there was an increase in orphans and illegitimate births. Adoption was introduced in England and Wales in 1926, in Scotland in 1929 and 1930 in the case of Northern Ireland.

The issue was not raised in the Dáil until 1939 even then Ireland remained reluctant to enforce this kind of change. Fears about inheritance, particularly in rural areas, along with fears for religious stability (there were many protestant institutions looking after unmarried mothers) were the main reasons for this conservatism. The reality was that many of these women and their children became fodder for the laundries and the workhouses.

Adoption was not made legal in Britain until 1930 and in the Irish state until the 1940s, leaving unmarried mothers with few options. Many ended up in the workhouses

The reality for those who had been placed in workhouses or other institutions was poverty and many on their release had no means to support a child. Rattigan discusses one such case of a woman referred to as C.K in Co. Tyrone who had been sacked from her employment because of her condition. C.K. was placed in a workhouse but was released soon after she gave birth, left to wander the streets with the infant without help or support; she took the child’s life.

This book looks beyond the role of unmarried mothers in cases of infanticide and examines cases when other family members have been involved in the death of a new born. In some cases sisters, aunts, mothers and fathers of the unmarried mother and the infant’s father were involved in infanticide. The investigating officers rarely looked at the role of fathers in the death of their infants.

Fathers were rarely accused of playing a part in the killing of new-born children. Up to 1949, women who did so were generally charged with manslaughter rather than murder. 

In fact according to Rattigan only 7% of her sample were questioned by the gardaí. In many cases there was suspicion that the father may have put pressure on the mother to kill the baby, yet the woman was left to face the consequences on her own. There are some more extreme cases of women who have been involved in more than one case infanticide. This raises issues about birth control and also suggests that although sex outside of wedlock was greatly shunned upon by society it was to a large degree in denial about it.

Infanticide was tried as a capital crime in the Irish courts until the 1949 Infanticide Act was introduced. Until 1949 most defendants were charged with concealment of a birth or manslaughter rather than murder. This was different in Northern Ireland were they were charged with infanticide from 1922 onwards. The figures provided here show that only 4.2% of cases were found guilty of murder in the pre independence period compared to 53.5% convicted of concealment of birth.

Manslaughter accounted for 11.2% in this period. The figures for the post independence show a significant increase in those convicted of manslaughter at 34.3% while concealment dropped to 32.8% and those found guilty of murder remained low at 4.6%. Sentencing opens up another can of worms in the history of the Irish state, as most of those incarcerated were sent not to prison but to convents. In Rattigan’s sample of 151 cases 24 women were given a prison sentence 74 women were sent to serve their time at a convent. It says something about a patriarchal society and the way it viewed young women who were sexually active.

The author here has utilised what at first appears to be a narrow source to shed some light on broader aspects of Irish social history. This book raises questions about the Magdalena laundries and the way women incarcerated at these institutions had their rights as citizens denied to them while they were exploited as a source of cheap labour.

Despite the tragic nature of her subject Rattigan has written a very informative book on a part of Irish history

Infanticide can be a measure of other aspects of society, it can point to attitudes towards illegitimacy, sex, poverty, birth control, women’s rights and protection of infant life. Infanticide and the taboo surrounding unmarried mothers continued well after this period as the case of the Kerry babies in the 1980s proved. Despite the tragic nature of her subject Rattigan has written a very informative book on a part of Irish history, which serves to reveal much about the complex nature of Irish conservatism.

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