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Consecration of Dr John Charles McQuaid as Archbishop of Dublin Alamy Stock Photo

Historian Our distrust of religious institutions with healthcare is rooted in the past

Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley says Ireland’s history illustrates that the healthcare of women often came second to a Catholic moral code.

LAST UPDATE | 7 May 2022

SOME OF THE most interesting conversations I have had with students in recent years have revolved around the involvement of the Catholic Church in modern Ireland.

The growth of the institution in the 19th century, the influence of men like Cardinal Paul Cullen and the increase in vocations, particularly female vocations – it is a strange world for many of them.

Documenting history

By the time we reach the 1930s, the concept of popular devotion, the sodalities, the abstinence, and the enshrining of the Catholic moral code in law brings heated discussion to our classes.

We examine images of the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, the socio-medico debates surrounding the so-called ‘Mother and Child Scheme’, extracts from sermons, newspaper articles and parliamentary debates.

We discuss the mistreatment of women, queer people, children in State care; those without power. As history students, they need to contextualise, examine the evidence and critically address the topic. As we examine topics such as symphysiotomy, churching and rape within marriage, they locate the evidence, yet it is a farcical world to many of them below a certain age.

We discuss identity – how, in many ways, Catholicism offered a ‘ready-made badge of separateness’ in the new state, with what Tom Inglis has termed ‘a Catholic habitus’ – a way of thinking and acting in conformity with this view of the world permeating all social classes.

There is a sense that this is the past, it is an Ireland that they will not experience in their lifetime. So, amid the National Maternity Hospital debate, why is it that so many in Ireland are anxious about religious interference in women’s healthcare, and what can we learn from Ireland’s recent past?

The medical viewed as the moral

We began the 21st century in Ireland in what has been coined by historian Katie Wright an ‘Age of Inquiry’. In several countries, governments have been forced to investigate historic abuse in institutions and the community, many investigations involving the Catholic Church.

Add to this declining vocations, secularisation, and referendums on divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion; the political influence, moral authority, and practical role of the Catholic Church in Irish society appears to have diminished more than any other time in the past two centuries. Recent referendums have demonstrated that public opinion has shifted radically, while Catholic doctrine has remained the same, yet the question of ownership, ethos and the future continue to cause concern for many.

In 1922, Esther Roper wrote to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington – ‘never had there been such a firm foundation of justice and freedom guaranteed by any country of its women citizens’. She was discussing the Irish Free State.

Looking forward – we know this was not the case. Socially, what people read, watched, and wore garnered increasing attention – the censorship of information on contraception, the banning of divorce, women needing to opt-in to sit on juries, and the increasing curtailment of women in public and private life. Suffrage and the promise of equality for women may not have occupied the minds of all, but the retrenchment in the coming decades must have been a bitter disappointment to those feminists who had fought for independence and a more equal nation.

The result of many of the restrictions on marriage and work, and concerns for succession would lead Ireland to hold the very unusual title of having the highest birth rate in Europe in the 1950s, but the lowest marriage rate. For many, those who were gay or queer or those who had not been allowed to marry or couldn’t afford to, the Irish Free State was not an inclusive one – and leaving was the best option.

Until 1972 when a law was passed that both men and women could not get married until the age of 16, Irish females could legally be wed at age 12 and males at age 14. This was a rarity, with only 30 per year in the 1960s but tellingly, the only denomination against a minimum age was the Roman Catholic Church.

Discussions of female fertility, puberty and their future roles as wives and mothers in the Seanad still bring sobering reading, counterbalanced by the views of politicians like the then Senator Mary Robinson. At that time, the country was in the middle of discussing the removal of the ‘Special Position of the Catholic Church’, and as with the earlier ‘Mother and Child Scheme’, the hierarchy still needed to be consulted and appeased.

The vice grip

This is a narrative known to many in recent years as the darker aspects of Irish history, the history of institutions, of women and of marginalised groups has been highlighted more frequently.

It is a history in which moral concerns eclipsed medical care. It is a history where women’s voices and women’s health were not the primary concern – their potential as mothers was. Not their actual care, or the care of their infants in the case of those in Ireland’s institutions, their potential to be mothers.

I am 37 years of age and I have had the following occur in my lifetime – received inadequate sex education in school (except a fear of becoming pregnant before marriage). Attended a consultant for an investigation of polycystic ovaries syndrome and had the Billings method cited as the best option for family planning. After requesting a DNC, been actively encouraged to consider the damage and possible future pregnancies that may be affected.

This is minor in comparison to what other women have experienced, but it is why I am concerned. If the last two hundred years has shown anything, it is that when it comes to gender, class, sexuality, and health – the moral over the medical has caused enormous trauma for many.

Are we willing to risk the next three hundred?

Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley is the Head of the Department of History at the National University of Ireland Galway and a past President of the Women’s History Association of Ireland.


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Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley
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