Irish History Live

What else could I do?

Author: Clíona Rattigan

Publisher: Irish Academic Press

Published: 2012,Dublin

Pages: 274

Price: £19.95 / €24.95(Paperback)

Reviewer: Lynsey Stewart


Clíona Rattigan’s study of single mothers and infanticide in Irish society during the first half of the twentieth century provides a unique and significant contribution to the continuing analysis of women in Ireland’s past.  While previous work conducted on women and infanticide has focused primarily on Britain as whole, periods prior to the twentieth century or subsequent to an independent Ireland,[1] Rattigan is the first to examine pre-Independence Ireland.  Her work examines vital issues such as gender, class and criminality.  Through the use of over three hundred court records, Rattigan adds much needed context to raw statistical data, and links such criminal acts to broader discussions of the socio-economic pressures on young, unmarried mothers and poor women during this period. 

Rattigan organises the contents of her study into the following chapters: ‘Unmarried mothers and infanticide’, ‘Irish families and infanticide cases’, ‘Single women and sex’, ‘Detecting infanticide cases in Ireland, 1900-50’ and ‘Sentencing patterns in Irish infanticide cases’.  While this is not necessarily a flawed structure or organisation, the study would possibly flow better if the issue of ‘single women and sex’ was addressed prior to ananalysis of ‘unmarried mothers and infanticide’.  By following this format Rattigan would ensure that readers were more informed on matters regarding social perceptions and expectations during this period. 

Rattigan’s research demonstrates that traditional values and expectationsof appropriate behaviour continued to influence society’s perception of women in the twentieth century.  Whilst Rattigan argues that this is most likely due to the continuing influence of the Catholic Church upon the Irish population (p. 3), this theory seems somewhat simplified.  Rattigan’s work focuses primarily on women who were more likely to commit infanticide due to societal pressures, such as single women in their mid–twenties, often employed in domestic services for whom an illegitimate pregnancy would likely result in the loss of employment.  Moreover, whilst Rattigan defines such crimes as a ‘rural phenomenon’ (p. 40), an assumption often held by other academics, she acknowledges that there was evidence of such cases in more urban locales, especially so in Northern Ireland.  As recognised by Rattigan, rural women were perhaps under closer societal scrutiny and subject to communal gossip more so than their urban counterparts.  Yet, despite the anonymity and relative freedom of the city, young, employed women exchanged the watchful eye of their families and communities for that of their employers.  Consequently, Rattigan concedes that rural occurrences of infanticide were better documented and that there is a ‘dark figure’ in urban areas that cannot be statistically analysed. 

Rattigan’s study is based predominately on significantly underused archival materials, including approximately three hundred court records sourced from the National Archives of Ireland and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.  In addition to these records she includes nineteen photographs, depicting various crime scenes.  She gleans evidence from twenty-two newspapers from across Ireland to illustrate how women were portrayed by the media, and in turn perceived by society.  Through the use of contemporary published sources, Rattigan depicts how professionals, academics and government officials viewed this phenomenon.  Her research, while confined predominately to primary sources, relies to an extenton previous studies, ranging from the 1970s to work published in the past few years. 

As well as being a well-researched and well-written piece of work, the sources used in Rattigan’s book are also varied and well presented.  She provides a list of all the infanticide cases, divided into pre-Independence and post-Independence samples, Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, along with their reference code.  While by no means a simplified or uncomplicated piece of work, Rattigan’s style of writing makes it academically challenging aswell as engaging.  While this work would appeal to those outside the academic sphere with an interest in Irish social history, it is in essence an academic piece of work.  The list of sources would prove useful for those who wish to conduct further research on the topic or who want to investigate particular cases.

One of the main arguments that emerge from Clíona Rattigan’s work is that those who committed infanticide in the first half of twentieth-century Ireland were predominantly young, unmarried, working-class women who succumbed to societal, familial and economic pressures. Her study also predominantly portrays these women as victims of circumstance, often seduced, then abandoned and thus driven to extreme measures out of shame and desperation.  This argument is a stark contrast to other studies in the field, such as M. J. Maguire’s recent book which contends that infanticide during this period was a form of birth control,[2] and that such acts were not acts of desperation but pragmatism.  Rattigan also demonstrates how families reacted to and dealt with pregnant, unmarried daughters during this period.  She illustrates that such situations were subject to gender divisions with female relatives being more inclined to provide aid and help conceal or destroy evidence of unwanted pregnancies.  According to Rattigan, this demonstrates how Irish families may have ignored the laws and prioritised the moral reputation of the family. 

In addition, Rattigan argues that despite sexual behaviour being a largely taboo subject during this period, trial records often provide remarkably in-depth and frank admissions. She therefore reveals the gulf between perceived Irish chastity or sexuality morality, and the reality.  The role of communities is also outlined; idle gossip and rumour aided the discovery of infanticide cases while members of the locality could also regulate the behaviour of young, unmarried women. Consequently, Rattigan depicts Irish communities as largely parochial, inward-looking, and to an extent hypocritical, societies because young, unmarried men rarely received such scrutiny. She also highlights the drastic changes in sentencing patterns after Independence in 1921.  Whereas Northern Ireland, like Englandand Scotland, adopted the Infanticide Act, whereby infanticide was seen as a form of manslaughter rather than murder, the Irish Free State did not similarly amend the law.  Instead ‘girlmurderers’ were detained in religious-run institutions and subject to lengthier sentences.  Not only was this a bid to stamp out sexually transgressive behaviour but it also proved to be an inexpensive way to detain women who were seen as having engaged in inappropriate sexual behaviour.  In essence, Rattigan comes to the conclusion that the experiences of these unfortunate women are often overlooked by historians who simply chose to focuson the act itself, and neglect the circumstances and influences behind their decisions. 

Rattigan’s work, while examining infanticide in a previously neglected period and making use of underused sources, fails to acknowledge or adequately tackle certain topics.  For instance,while she clearly acknowledges the divisions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after 1921, as well as thedifferences in their respective societies and cultures, it would appear thatthis is primarily an examination of infanticide and single mothers in the Republic of Ireland, with Northern Ireland at times being merely used for comparative purposes.  This is perhaps no fault of Rattigan, but possibly due to that fact that the Republic of Ireland had a greater number of infanticide cases with which to construct and support her hypotheses or that the sources are more accessible in the National Archives of Ireland than at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.  In addition, Rattigan does not go into great detail about the frequency with which the insanity verdict was used in relation to infanticide, or in turn the women often being defined as criminal lunatics.  Instead she briefly examines the perception held by the media, society and the courtrooms that those women who committed such acts were ‘mentally deficient’ at the time.  In total Rattigan dedicates only five pages of a 240-study to this concept; one that warrants a more extensive and thorough examination.

While, as of late, there has been resurgence in the study of women and infanticide in modern Ireland, Rattigan manages to bring something fresh to the academic table.   Not only does she refocus the lens of female criminality upon recent history, she demonstrates that infanticide is not some distant phenomenon confined to long-ago centuries.  The greatest benefit to women’s history, especially which related to criminality, is the copious amount of courtrecords, newspapers and crime scene photographs that Rattigan has utilised and contextualised.  Rattigan has also managed to deal with a controversial topic with great sensitivity and highlighted how these women were not necessarily cruel or evil women, but victims of their society and circumstances.


[1]Including Ann Higginbotham, “Sin of the Age’: infanticide and illegitimacy in Victorian London’ in Victorian Studies,vol. xxxii, no. 3 (1989), Diarmaid Ferriter, Occasions of sin: sex and society in modern Ireland (London, 2009),Elaine Farrell (ed.), ‘She said she wasin the family way’: pregnancy and infancy in modern Ireland (London, 2012) and Louise Ryan, ‘The press, police and prosecution:perspectives on infanticide in the 1920s' in Alan Hayes and Diane Urquhart (eds),Irish Women's History (Dublin, 2004).

[2] M. J.Maguire, Precarious childhood inpost-independence Ireland (Manchester, 2009), p. 203


This review was written by Lynsey Stewart. Lynsey is an Irish History M.A. student at Queen’s University Belfast.  She graduated from Queen’s with a First Class Honours in Modern History (Major) with Social Anthropology (Minor) in 2012.  Her current M.A. research focuses on violent women in Ireland, 1900-1920.  

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