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Column: 'Churching' women after childbirth made many new mothers feel ostracised

I believe strongly in the idea that we are formed by our past, so I tried to understand how the practise of churching in 1913 Ireland affected the women cleansed of the ‘sin’ of childbirth, writes Louise Lewis.

Image: Anna Azimi via Shutterstock

ALL THROUGH MY childhood I was told stories of how my family and the many generations before us lived in the tenements, and how the strength of the women at this time was what held families together in what at times were horrific conditions.

So, for a long time, I wanted to create a one woman theatre piece based around life in 1913 Tenement Dublin with a strong emphasis on physical theatre as a means of storytelling.

Collecting stories of my grandmother was the beginning of this journey. Our family history is rooted in the Dominic Street tenements, and the research I and my co-writer, Simon Manahan, conducted both through the national archive and in family interviews brought us to the creation of our character, Happy Cullen.

Myself and Simon’s exploration of the lives of women in the tenements introduced us to the difficulties of their daily lives from unemployment to child mortality, hunger, disease and abject poverty as well as introducing us to the idea of the ‘churching’ of women after childbirth.

The ‘sin’ of childbirth was washed away

From the point of view of knowing nothing about the ‘churching’ of women it became apparent to us, through our research, that this was a practice that sat uneasy with some of the women at the time and in doing so fuelled our imaginations as theatre makers. The fact that in 2012/2013 few of our generation knew of the practice of ‘churching’ this became the catalyst for the telling of Happy’s story, and that of so many Irish women throughout the following decades.

Churching’ refers to a blessing that mothers were given following recovery from childbirth. After remaining at home for 4-6 weeks after giving birth, the woman would go to church where she would thank God for the safe delivery of her child and receive a blessing from the priest.

Only married women were eligible for the blessing. They were to be appropriately dressed, and would carry a lighted candle. The priest would then mark the woman with the sign of the cross in holy water.

Churching is thought to derive from a Jewish purification rite, where the sin of childbirth was washed away. Many people considered that childbirth made a woman unholy or unclean because it resulted from sexual activity; sexual abstinence and virginity being equated to holiness. People considered the purification rite, or rite of churching to be very important as it allowed the ‘unclean’ woman to re-enter the church in a ‘state of grace’.

The rite was dropped by the Catholic Church after the second Vatican Council of 1967-65.

The stigma of being labelled as ‘tainted’

I know there are a lot of women who enjoyed the ceremony of ‘churching’ and saw it as a “thanksgiving ceremony of women after childbirth” and I respect that but for some that really was not the case.

A lot of women we interviewed and testimonies we read from the early 1900s to the 1970s of practising Catholic women, did not support the ceremony or the idea of being ‘churched’.

A lot of them felt the stigma of being labelled as ‘tainted’ or ‘dirty’ after going through an often difficult but the no less life-affirming joy of childbirth as something that affected them for the rest of their lives. Their questioning of it was often ignored by family members or neighbours if they dared vocalise it at all.

Testimonies from the early part of the 1900s where women talked of feeling ostracised from everyone until they were churched, for they were not allowed to ‘even pick up a knife to prepare food as they would taint it’. Some felt over time this distanced them from their faith.

We are formed by our past, so we must understand it

As theatre makers we were drawn to the stories of the women who struggled with this ceremony and we set about staging that struggle so as to provide space for a modern audience to interrogate that. It is the fictional story of a woman struggling through a difficult situation in 1913 while waiting to be ‘churched’, this is just part of her story.

The stories we’ve collected over the years from family members and other sources had one thing in common the spirit and strength of the women of this time was inspiring. The challenges they faced on a daily basis did not defeat them, if anything from my knowledge of them, it pushed them on.

I believe strongly in the idea that we are formed by our past, and in trying to understand who we are now and in order to move forward we must look to these; the personal stories of who we are and not allow them to be forgotten.

Louise Lewis co-wrote The Churching of Happy Cullen

The Churching of Happy Cullen runs at Project Arts Centre  (Cube) from Sep 17 -21 as part of Dublin Fringe 2013 which runs city-wide from Sep 5–21 – for further details and bookings log onto www.fringefest.com/1850 374 643 (from Sep 21)

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