Sex and the Famine

Recently, I was reading through several books on the ‘Great Famine in Ireland’, or ‘Genocide for those who prefer to think of it that way.  I read about Mayo, Sligo, Galway and West Cork where the men women and children died in their thousands during the ‘Great Famine’ in towns like Skibbereen and Ballinrobe. But, among this list should be numbered a coastal town in County Clare that is located in the south-west of the county, near the mouth of the River Shannon. This is Kilrush and there were few places, except for those named above, that suffered more severely from a combination of eviction and famine in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Reading an article by Paul Gray and Liam Kennedy, both lecturers in history at Queen’s University, Belfast, which was published in a recent edition of “History Ireland”, heightened my interest in all areas of life affected by the Famine. They pointed out that Kilrush was renowned for something that I had never thought of before.  The area became noteworthy for the apparent surge in illegitimate births that occurred over the twenty years after the ‘Great Famine’. According to reports, by 1864 these illegitimate births accounted for at least ten per cent of all births that were recorded in the baptism register for the Catholic parish of Kilrush.  Both Gray and Kennedy point out that this was a remarkably high proportion for mid-Victorian Ireland, especially when one considers that prior to the ‘Famine’ the ratio was barely one percent in most years. Their conclusion was that the spectacular and sustained rise in recorded illegitimate births might suggest that there was a radical change in sexual mores in this County Clare town and its surrounding area. The surprise in these statistics lies in the fact that this occurred in the west of Ireland, which is generally considered to be the one region of Ireland were morals were high and, therefore, there were very few illegitimate births.

The article’s authors questioned the possibility that the ‘Famine’ and the associated evictions were likely causes for the surprising rise in illegitimate births. They suggested that it was possible, that in all the tragedy and suffering experienced by the people of Kilrush and its environs during those years of ‘Famine’, that sexual morals may have been forced to disappear by circumstances. With starvation rampant, surely it is not too far-fetched to imagine that some women felt it necessary to barter their bodies for food, a roof over their head, or money to help their suffering.  It is an unfortunate fact of life that food shortages in a male dominated society can also open numerable opportunities for the sexual exploitation of women by unscrupulous men. In many cases there were many who became pregnant and were comfortable to declare that their husbands had abandoned them to sail for America, or other destinations. In more normal times, the alleged father would have most certainly been dragged to the altar and obliged to honour his responsibilities. These days, however, were far from being normal times. The collapse of the Irish peasantry’s potato-led economy, the decimation of family, the breakdown of communal support, and the beginnings of mass emigration made abandonment of responsibilities a strategic alternative for the restless and rash-minded males. For these women, in such desperate times, the ability to bring social pressures to bear on such men was not easily accomplished. The vulnerable and too trusting women, especially if the family and community support network had been lost because of death or emigration, were left to bring up the child alone in conditions that were not good for continued survival.

From the records it appears that illegitimacy in Kilrush rose considerably during the ‘Famine’, as well as during its immediate aftermath. The effects of the ‘Famine’, however, were only short-term rather than long-term in nature, which suggests other possible causes for the rise in illegitimate births in this area. One possible answer could be the fact that Kilrush is a port town, which are often associated with prostitution and illegitimacy. Furthermore, with the rise of coastal holidays during the Victorian era, the town became the gateway to the growing holiday resorts of west Clare, such as Kilkee on the Atlantic coastline. The authors of the article, Gray and Kennedy, quote a visitor to Kilkee complaining that the resort was “infested by a number of unfortunate women, who disturb the inhabitants and visitors at night”. This must have been a most enjoyable attraction to some of the visitors to the town because, despite a public condemnation from the pulpit of the Catholic Church, the infestation continued unabated. It is reported that two of these unfortunate ladies from Kilrush, were assaulted by the local priest as they plied their trade. The priest, however, was arrested and was subsequently fined one shilling and costs for his pains. There are also suggestions that the sex trade in this area was being supplemented seasonally, to coincide with the tourist trade, by prostitutes from Limerick city.

The increase in the incidence of illegitimacy suggests that this can only be a small part of the story as to why it occurred. There is, of course, the speculation that Kilrush, and the area surrounding the town, had within it a “bastardy-prone sub-society”. Research suggests, however, that of the 211 mothers recorded as giving birth to children outside wedlock in the quarter-century after the ‘Famine’, only eighteen per cent were bearers of more than one illegitimate child. The article gave the example of a woman called, Mary Giffin, had illegitimate children baptised in August 1858, August 1861, September 1863 and September 1868. A certain Margaret Byrnes is also mentioned, whose illegitimate children were baptised in June 1859, March 1861, August 1863 and May 1865. These examples, however, were more the exception than the rule and most single mothers did not repeat the experience of bearing a child out of wedlock.

The explanation put forward by Mr Gray and Mr Kennedy is much simpler than any of the preceding suggestions. Taking a more detailed examination of the Catholic baptismal register for Kilrush parish revealed that approximately sixty per cent of births for the period 1850–75 were to women from the workhouse. But, the Kilrush workhouse served the entire union and not just the parish of Kilrush. When these workhouse births were excluded from the statistics, then the numbers that could be attributable to Kilrush were reduced to the more normal levels expected in a town situated in the west of Ireland. From these results, then, the inflated levels of illicit sexuality in Kilrush after the ‘Famine’ appear to be due to a quirk of registration rather than from any radical shift in the sexual behaviour of Clare men and Clare women. But, the result raises wider questions about the validity of parish register information on illegitimacy.  This is true, not just for Ireland but for all those societies where the institutionalised provision of welfare might affect the recording of illegitimate births.

What kind of life did these unmarried mothers, who increasingly used the workhouse, live? The answer is not clear to us since the indoor relief registers for Kilrush, which would give some detail of the individual lives of unmarried mothers, have not survived. The indoor relief registers for the Rathdrum and Shillelagh Poor Law unions have somehow survived, and they provide a touching image of unmarried mothers and their children. While some of these women appear to have merited only a few lines, there were others who were more regular visitors. Mary Donnelly, was a 22-year-old servant from Arklow, who was admitted to Rathdrum workhouse on 16 August 1850. She was heavily pregnant when admitted and she gave birth to Thomas on 6 September, leaving the institution with the child ten days later and does not appear to have returned to the workhouse.  A certain Ellen Power entered Rathdrum workhouse on 18 February 1851, as a homeless 24-year-old charwoman. Her daughter was born on 27 March 1851 and taken from the workhouse without her mother on 8 August 1851.  Ellen subsequently left the workhouse on the 14th of that month. Another young woman called Eliza Ashton, a 22-year-old servant, arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850, and left again a week later. Then, on 6 October, Eliza was admitted into the workhouse as a patient and less than a week later Thomas was born. Both mother and child left on 26 October, Eliza does not appear to have returned to the workhouse again.

While some unmarried mothers left little trace in the workhouse record, there were others who made many appearances in those records. A woman called Eliza Geoghan, a 25-year-old garden worker, used the Rathdrum workhouse 23 times between 27 August 1850 and 2 June 1862. During that time her son John was born on 21 December 1850, with mother and child subsequently leaving the institution on 24 February 1851. Both entered the workhouse again, however, with John being removed on 24 June, a month before his mother left. While nothing more of John is recorded, Eliza returned to the workhouse, pregnant again, on 19 February 1854, and Dennis was born just over a week later. Both mother and child left the workhouse on 23 June 1854, but they were to enter the institution three more times between June 1854 and April 1856. Unfortunately, during their last visit, beginning on 23 September 1855, Dennis was to die on 9 April the following year. Eliza appears to have left only 9 days later, on 18 April 1856 but returned many times, spending the winters of 1856 and 1857 there, though she gave birth to no more children in the workhouse. It appears that most of the time she lived within the electoral division of Dunganstown East, only changing her residence to another townland twice. On her last two visits to the workhouse, however, she was most probably homeless and suffering increased destitution. She was mostly described as a ‘servant’, but also a ‘garden worker’ and, on what was her penultimate visit, she was said to be ‘infirm’ and apparently unemployed.

Yet another example of the multiple user was that of Jane Allen, who was to use Rathdrum workhouse on 34 occasions between 17 September 1850 and 13 March 1863. She was a twenty-six years old servant, who first arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850 and gave birth to her son, John, on 19 October. John was subsequently taken away on 6 June 1851 and Jane left four days later. While nothing more is known about John, we do know Jane was to have three more children: Eliza (30 July 1852), born in the workhouse, Ellen (1856), born outside the workhouse, and James (8 September 1861), born in the house. During these years Jane is known to have stayed in Dunganstown South or Dunganstown West electoral divisions, though she did occasionally change townlands. It is also known that sometimes she and her children would stay for several months. On other occasions they would  stay only a matter of days. Although during her earlier stays in the workhouse Jane was referred to as a servant, for most of the times that stayed in the workhouse she was described as a ‘charwoman’. More interestingly, it seems that her marital status changed during the period, for example she was registered as being single for the period up to February 1861, then she is described as ‘married’ during her stay in February/March 1861, but on her next admittance, in August 1861, she is described as ‘single’ once again. Her children were admitted as ‘deserted’ in March 1861, leaving in June 1861, but the family was reunited in August 1861. They were to enter the workhouse five more times after this and, on each occasion, Jane is described as married. Her marital status can be said to be confusing during these years and one must wonder if she was not in fact a deserted wife, or perhaps intermittently so.

Stories such as these help to give us a much clearer picture of the perilous existence that faced an unmarried mother at this time. To some the workhouse was viewed as a resource in the constant battle against poverty, especially among the peasantry, including unmarried or abandoned mothers. We can, therefore, say that to some extent the unmarried mother did have some support, but in mid- and late Victorian Ireland this support system was of an extremely restricted kind. Throughout rural Ireland the life that faced unmarried mothers was one of desperation.  They faced religious, family and community hostility, as well as an unsympathetic and sometimes punitive system of welfare provision. Those who were known as ‘bastard-bearers’ were generally ground down between the actions of society and the state although, to some extent, their Unfortunatelysituation may have varied within the urban and industrialised Province of Ulster

Little is known of the fate of the illegitimate children born during this period. But, Gray and Kennedy give us the case of Eliza Pearson, who was aged four-years when she was discovered at the door of ‘Shillelagh’ workhouse and was deserted by her mother, Anne.  Eliza was taken into the workhouse on 19 June 1850 and left on 10 April 1856. Another child, Thomas Dwier, who was aged five and described as a ‘bastard’, was admitted on 29 February 1852. His mother had been transported and had left him ‘destitute without food’ and, in fact, is one of the very few instances where a male illegitimate child is mentioned in the records available. There is, however, no record of his departure from the workhouse. Finally, Bridget Nugent was nine when she was deserted by her father and as a deserted bastard, she had no friends or home. She was, therefore, admitted on 10 January 1851 and did not leave the workhouse until the 28 July 1855.  

It has surely not gone unnoticed that unmarried and pregnant women suffered stigmatisation and degradation under both the workhouse system and in the larger society, men appear to have largely escaped notice or sanction. The Thurles union replied to a circular from the ‘Poor Law Commissioners’, concerning moral classification, by condemning the unfairness in gender terms of a system that singled out female morality in the workhouse. At the same time the Thurles Union pointed out that no classification in this respect has been made at the male side. It is a fact that there are few clues as to the unmarried mothers in Kilrush, whose names are contained in the parish records. It must be said that even less is known about those shadowy but potent figures of males who had set women on a downward course to vilification, destitution and disgrace.

It is an irony of the history of the Irish workhouses that they could have become places for ‘immoral behaviour’, despite the rules and regimentation that governed these grim institutions. In the minutes of the Kilrush union for 1853 it is revealed that the master and the matron of the workhouse had been accused of immorality. The accused persons were, however, later acquitted. According to the rules and regulations of the Poor Law system, women and men were to be strictly segregated within the penal institution of the workhouse. But in 1853 the master reported, no doubt with some concern – ‘I beg to report to the board that Mr Nolan the resident apothecary informed me on Sunday last that a pauper woman named Kate Quinn who has been in this house for a long time was pregnant. On enquiry it would appear that a pauper man named John Griffin who is also in the house for a long period is the father. Kate Quinn left the workhouse on the 15th inst. Griffin also took his discharge on the 17th inst.’

As expected ‘The Poor Law’ guardians were not amused – ‘It is much to be regretted that such an evil should have occurred, and the guardians conceive that there must be much neglect on the part of the officers in charge’.

The workhouse system itself was the subject of much criticism, and it certainly bore down heavily on its inmates, both in terms of physical hardship and stigmatisation. But, we must also recognise that it also furnished a safety net for the single mother in her battle for survival in an increasingly hostile moral climate of later Victorian Ireland. There appears to be a tradition within Ireland of labour exploitation and repression, and sometimes outright cruelty, in various societies like the workhouses and the later Magdalene asylums, that were run by Irish Catholic nuns. In pre-independence, or post-independence, Ireland it is evident that society would ensure that there was no easy way out of the trap of unmarried motherhood.

N.B. If you should wish to read more of the work of P. Gray and L. Kennedy the following books are available –

‘Famine, illegitimacy and the workhouse in Western Ireland’, in A. Levene and P. Nutt (eds), Illegitimacy in Britain (London, 2005).

Also L. Kennedy’s study,

‘Bastardy and the Great Famine: Ireland, 1845–1850’, Continuity and Change 14 (3) (1999).

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Author: weebush

I am an author of Irish Short Story books and have two books currently in publication i.e. "Across the Sheugh" and "Short Stories and Tall Tales." other new stories can be previewed on my blog

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