Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The battle to control female fertility in modern Ireland

Mary E. Daly

Ireland was the last country in the western world to make contraception legally available, and the debate over doing this was divisive. In 1981, one year after contraception became legal on a restricted basis, the Irish birth rate was two-thirds higher than in the rest of western Europe. The book examines the adoption of family planning in Ireland, and the reasons why it was so bitterly contested. The common explanation given is that over 90% of the population in independent Ireland were Catholic, and the attitude of the Catholic church to contraception forms an important part of this story.

But for most of the twentieth century married couples in Ireland had much larger families than in other Catholic countries. So, there are other factors at play. This is the story of an Irish identity centred on large families, rural life, sexual puritanism and traditional gender roles, and the efforts to preserve that identity while seeking to enjoy the material benefits of a modern western society. The attempt to hold the line against contraception and the sexual revolution; to demonstrate that Ireland was different, ultimately failed. But the efforts to do so condemned countless women (and men) to the strains of coping with large, unplanned families, or heart-breaking efforts to control their fertility through sexual abstinence.  In 1978 almost two-thirds of new mothers in one provincial hospital said that their pregnancy was not planned. This is primarily a story about married couples, though this culture also impacted, often tragically, on single women.

In 1961 Ireland was poor and predominantly rural. The most common employment for women was in domestic service or the family economy. Married women did not work outside the home. One-quarter of adults never married, and the majority of these were not sexually active, but those who married had by far the largest families in the western world. In the 1960s the contraceptive pill became available – the first reliable form of contraception legally available in Ireland. This was also the decade when television came to Irish homes; Ireland enjoyed a belated post-war marriage boom and the Vatican’s delay in pronouncing on contraception resulted in the first open discussion on family planning and large families. Countries in western Europe or US States that had restricted or prohibited contraception were repealing these laws. Ireland was an exception. In 1973 the Supreme Court affirmed the right of married couples to plan their family, but contraception did not become legally available until 1980, and only for ‘bona-fide family planning purposes’ – an undefined term that was commonly interpreted as confining it to married couples. Unrestricted access only came in the 1990s, partly because of the HIV crisis. But in the 1970s family planning clinics opened in Irish cities, and contraceptives were sold by mail-order in defiance of the law, and although Irish fertility was the highest in western Europe, family size fell steadily, and a growing number of women were travelling to Britain for abortions.

The argument that Ireland was exceptional did not disappear despite strong evidence to the contrary. In the 1970s it was hoped that the Billings method of ‘natural family’ planning, which spread throughout Ireland, mainly by women activists, would show the world that this modern country could dispense with ‘artificial’ contraception. The 1983 Amendment to the Constitution affirming the right to life of the ‘unborn’ was the last attempt to assert that Ireland was different, despite thousands of Irish women travelling to Britain for abortions. 

The book covers a large and diverse canvas. It includes the often-heart-breaking letters to women’s magazines seeking advice on family planning, the name of a sympathetic doctor or confessor; the injunctions by confessors to men and women, who appeared to be limiting the number of children; letters to the clergy and politicians by men and women who were determined to uphold traditional values and those who rejected them. In contrast to their colleagues in the Netherlands, Britain or Quebec the Irish Catholic clergy made no effort to promote church-approved methods of ‘natural’ family planning until the contraceptive pill became available. They preferred to keep Irish couples in ignorance of the possibility that family size could be controlled. 

By the 1970s the Catholic church had reframed their argument against contraception – highlighting the damage that it would cause to Irish society. Many Irish people agreed. All the major political parties were divided. Although feminists engaged in a high-profile demonstration demanding legal contraception – ‘the contraceptive train’, many women were prominent in the anti-contraception campaigns and the movement to secure a pro-life amendment. The medical profession led the way in opening family planning clinics, motivated by the medical and emotional impact of frequent child-bearing on women, but doctors were also prominent on the conservative side, as were nurses and pharmacists. Opponents of contraception referred to Ireland’s centuries-long struggle against England; the long battle to retain the Catholic faith and the fight for Irish independence, presenting their opposition to contraception as the latest of these battles.  The campaign for legal contraception coincided with the Northern Ireland Troubles and demands for civil rights for the Catholic minority.  Campaigners for legal contraception invoked this language of civil rights, especially the rights of the Protestant minority in independent Ireland to make family-planning choices that were compatible with their religion.  

All research projects leave some unanswered questions, or topics that need further attention. The history of Irish women and female sexuality has been widely researched in recent years. We need to focus more attention on Irishmen and masculinities, as they relate to marriage, family and sexuality. Before the pill, men had a primary role in limiting the size of families, and the evidence suggests that many Irishmen took little account of the physical and emotional strains that women suffered from frequent childbearing, often into their forties. This is a story of social change, and generational change. Falling emigration in the 1960s meant that significantly more young adults remained in Ireland, and the expansion in Irish higher education and the opening of new higher education institutions in provincial Ireland had implications for Irish social and political life that are not yet fully understood. The cover of this book was deliberately chosen to reflect that aspect of this story.

The Battle to Control Female Fertility in Modern Ireland by Mary E. Daly

About The Author

Mary E. Daly

Mary E. Daly is Professor Emerita in Modern Irish History, University College Dublin. She is the author of ten books and co-author of eight edited volumes, including Sixties Irelan...

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