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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 4°C

Nowhere to turn: These Irish women killed their babies to avoid lives of scandal and poverty

Some women were sentenced to death for killing their children but none were actually executed as the justice system was sympathetic to their plight.

BETWEEN 1850 and 1900 in Ireland, there were more than 4,500 suspected cases of infanticide of a child under the age of three by their mother.

It was a time when having a child out of wedlock would have brought disgrace on a woman and her entire family. Being a single mother in 1850 meant resigning yourself to a destitute life for you and your child.

Ann Maher was one woman faced with this crisis in 1898. She was 20 years old and single. Ann gave birth to a baby boy and made several attempts to hand over his care to someone else.

05 - Anne Maher on entry NAI, GPB / PEN/1900/111 Photograph from penal file of Anne Maher, on her entry to prison. NAI, GPB / PEN/1900/111 / PEN/1900/111

She first went to an institution for destitute children in Dublin but her little boy was not taken. Afterwards, she went to another institution in Drumcondra but, again, they refused to take her baby. She made a third attempt to find a childminder but they were not at home.

Her baby boy was later discovered dead in a manure pit near the childminder’s house. Ann was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison, where she served more than two years.

06 - Anne Maher discharge NAI, GPB / PEN/1900/111 Photograph from penal file of Anne Maher, on her exit from prison. NAI, GPB / PEN/1900/111 / PEN/1900/111

Missing fathers

Historian Elaine Farell, who has studied infanticide during this time in Ireland’s past, said fathers tend to be missing from most of the records of the babies’ deaths.

She said their absence would have been a big contributing factor in the murder of the children.

“Most of them would have been illegitimate children. The mother would be completely responsible for them and where wouldn’t be any child benefit so they’d be reliant on their own means of getting money. If the family didn’t help she was essentially alone and could end up in the workhouse. The most common occupation was domestic servant but you couldn’t live in as a servant in someone’s house if you had a baby.”

The father of the child may have been married, it could have been incest or rape or they may have emigrated.

In a lot of cases they never traced the person responsible for a baby’s murder, as they obviously did not have DNA to work from.

“Sometimes a baby was found with clothing from a particular workhouse and police would go and ask about single women who had left recently. In one case, a woman left a baby and in the pocket of its jacket was a letter from her mother so that was easy,” Farrel said.

In some cases, there were rumours around the woman as her shape grew and then changed again and there was no baby to show for it. Neighbours would also spy on one another and would tip off police.

Post-pregnancy abortion

Farrell said infanticide was being used by some women as a post-pregnancy abortive method, as there was sometimes talk around a woman’s conviction of her having killed one of her babies before.

This was the case with 38-year-old Mary Howard, who was found guilty of murdering her baby after giving birth in a workhouse in 1895, and who features in Farrell’s Infanticide in the Irish Crown Files at Assizes, 1883-1900.

03 - Mary Howard on entry NAI, GPB / PEN/1900/116 Photograph from penal file of Mary Howard on her entry in prison. NAI, GPB / PEN/1900/116 / PEN/1900/116

She blamed Patrick Quinlan, the reputed father of the child. She told the court that he told her to “do away with the child, to tie a handkerchief around its neck and make a hole in the ditch and leave it there”.

I took a white cloth out of my pocket and tied it around the neck of my child until it was dead.  Patrick Quinlan turned his back to me while I was strangling it.

When questioned, the man denied he was the father and that he had refused requests for financial assistance. This was not the first time the woman had been suspected of infanticide but this time she was convicted and she served five years in prison for it.

04 - Mary Howard on discharge NAI, GPB / PEN/1900/116 NAI, GPB / PEN/1900/116 / PEN/1900/116

Documents from the time give fairly graphic details of how these babies were killed, according to Farrell.

“Most were smothered or suffocated. In some cases weapons would be used and in those cases punishment would be more severe, say if a know was used or the baby was attacked.

It was strangulation in some cases, with some kind of material tied around the baby’s neck. Often the baby was thrown into a river, sometimes with a rock attached to it to keep the child under the water.

Between 1850 and 1900, 29 women were sentenced to death in Ireland for killing their own babies. However none of hem were actually executed. Many served short sentences and some were even released immediately after their convinction.

A woman called Mary Darby from Tyrone, however, came closest to being executed. She served 20 years following her conviction in 1865 after it was found that her toddler had been physically abused over a long period and the abuse had been the cause of the child’s death.

‘You’re a good girl’

Farrell said judges in these cases were often extremely sympathetic towards the women, despite the fact that illegitimate births were considered such a scandal.

Typically the judge would say something along the lines of: “You’re a good girl, it’s not your fault, it was obviously the father’s fault for failing to marry you. I’ll release you now but you have to be on your best behaviour”.

This kind treatment of the women most likely came about because judges were aware of the reality for a woman with an illegitimate child.

As the country moved further into the 19th century, Farrell said the justice system and society became even more sympathetic to women like those mentioned above as they recognised post-partum depression and the lack of education given to women about sex and childbirth.

However those 4,500 cases of children under three who were thought to have been murdered by their mothers may well have been just the tip of the iceberg, according to the historian, as the stories marked in history are only those of the women who were caught and punished for their actions.

Read: Meet Ireland’s early 20th century female drunkards>

Read: These mysterious caves in a Sligo hillside carry secrets from the Ice Age>

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