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Meet Ireland's early 20th century female drunkards

Though more men at the time were convicted of drunkenness, there were more women locked up in reformatories for the offence.

IRELAND’S REPUTATION OF being a nation of drunks (however unfair that may be) goes back centuries and though it might not make it into the school books, criminal inebriation has its own place in our history.

It is not widely known but back in the early 20th century, there were specialist institutions within the prison system to hold people who had been convicted of drunkenness and related offences.

The largest was the national reformatory in Ennis and nearly two thirds of its inmates were women.

Dr Conor Reidy, who is a history lecturer at the University of Limerick and has done a vast amount of research on these institutions, said he noted figures showed far more men than women were convicted of drunkenness but far more women were locked up for it. Judges tended to be harsher on women because drunkenness was something that was expected of men, he said.

“Mothers were seen as bearers of children and therefore expected to have higher standards,” Reidy explained. “Female drunkenness was a scandal because it challenged people’s ideas on motherhood and femininity.”

When these women went to court, they would be given a much harder time by the judge and the witnesses. In lots of cases mothers were charged with child neglect, ill treatment, and they would be treated very poorly by the judge, condemned and basically humiliated.

Though it does appear the intentions were noble in the case of the Ennis reformatory and the two smaller institutions which were run by religious groups, they were not very successful in helping the women stay sober.

Several slipped back into alcoholism as soon as they were released and there were even reports of women arriving back home on trains from Ennis already drunk by the time they reached Dublin to rejoin their families.

“There were no scientific or medical interventions at all to help people come off the drink or stay off the drink, or for the side effects of going off it,” Reidy says.

In his book, Criminal Irish Drunkards, Reidy tells the stories of a number of the women who spent time in Ennis.

  • Anne M was 73-years-old at the time of her admission and was described as a woman “ravaged by prolonged alcoholism and neglect”. In court, she was referred to as a tramp with no relatives and despite an estimated 15 years of heavy drinking, was said to be in “fair health”. Before arriving at the reformatory, she had 145 convictions for drunkenness. Her six months stint there had little or no impact on her. Follow-up reports after her release all described her as “still a hopeless drunkard”. 
  • Galway woman Bridget P was 22-years-old and single when she was convicted of assault and of being a habitual drunkard in March 1911 in Dublin. She worked for years as a prostitute and had become addicted to alcohol at a young age, when she started ‘keeping company’ with a former solicitor and began leading an ‘immoral life’. After her time in Ennis, she was sent back to Galway to live with her parents. Their employer lobbied at the time to have Bridget send to a laundry instead but failed. In one report after her release, it was stated she had fallen back into her drunken ways and was consuming “all the intoxicating drink she could get”.
  • 47-year-old Teresa was the mother of five children, three of whom had died. She was a widow born in Dublin but with no fixed abode when she was sentenced to 18 months in Ennis for attempted suicide and for being a habitual drunkard. Upon her release, she was offered a job by the order of nuns in Henrietta Street, in their laundry. However it took just days for her to fall back into her old habit and soon she was serving a one month sentence in Mountjoy.

According to Reidy, in many cases, details about the things that may have contributed to the women’s alcoholism often only emerged after their time at the Ennis reformatory.

After they were released, records on how they were doing were kept for up to five years and they would have to check in with a discharge officer to show that they were leading sober lives.

“They might show up with a black eye one time and it’s only then that it is noticed by somebody in officialdom that her husband beats her,” Reidy said.

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At a time when working class families were large, it was not unusual for a number of a mother’s children to have died. Registries for the women at the time show many of the inmates at the reformatory had lost multiple children and there were no supports in society to help mothers cope with this devastating loss.

Factors like depression after the death of a baby or domestic abuse were not taken into consideration in the courts when a woman was convicted; they would not have even been mentioned in front of the judge.

Reidy said this was part of the patriarchal society the women lived in at the time where things like this were not discussed.

By the 1920s, reformatories for Irish citizens convicted of criminal drunkenness had closed down.

Though these women represent a dark part of Ireland’s history, their stories give a fascinating insight into how the State, at that time, dealt with a problem that still plagues modern Ireland.

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