‘Too Many Children’? Family Planning and Humanae Vitae in Dublin, c. 1960- 1972 by Deirdre Foley


On 7 October 1960 Mrs Bridget Maguire, a street trader from Cabra, a working-class suburb of Dublin, gave birth to her twentieth child in the Rotunda maternity hospital. The birth of baby Thomas was reported in many newspapers not due to his myriad siblings, but because at the age of fifty-one, his mother was the oldest woman to give birth in the Rotunda since records began.[1]The phenomenon of high parity, or frequent pregnancy, was familiar to Irish obstetricians. The problem was so common for decades in Dublin that the term ‘dangerous multipara’ was coined by Dr Bethel Solomons, Master of the Rotunda from 1926-1933.[2]

Under section 17 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1935, the import, sale and advertisement of artificial contraception was banned in Ireland. Additionally, the production, sale, and distribution of any publication advocating contraception was outlawed under section 16 of the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929. Consequently, many Irish people were without the necessary knowledge with which to plan their families. However, as the 1960s progressed, Ireland’s long-established demographic pattern of large families and late marriage began to break down slowly. While a rise in the number of marriages and births occurred from about 1963, the average family size nonetheless began to decrease for the first time, as did the age at which couples tended to marry.

The contraceptive pill arrived in Ireland in 1962, and evaded a ban by means of classification and prescription as a ‘cycle regulator’; at least 15,000 Irish women were taking it by 1966.[3]A survey of Irish obstetricians in the same year revealed that 75% were prescribing the pill ‘for social reasons’, rather than for the purpose of regulating a woman’s cycle. 1967 was the biggest year of growth for the pill in Ireland; sales increased by about 50%.[4]In July 1968, the papal encyclical Humanae Vitaere-iterated the Pope’s ban on artificial contraception. Use of the ‘safe’ or infertile period, also known as the rhythm method, was the only acceptable option for Catholics. The encyclical also stated that Catholic obstetricians should make themselves fully proficient in this method.[5]At a time when family planning had just started to develop at maternity hospitals, the encyclical complicated the situation for Catholic patients and doctors alike.

Drawing on a range of medical and diocesan sources, as well as diverse material from the news media, my essay explores how family planning developed in Dublin from 1960-1972. It is demonstrated that whilst the medical and social work community, as well as their patients, began to exhibit a more liberal shift in views on the issue of artificial birth control, the Catholic hierarchy was compelled to re-promote official teaching on the subject after the publication of Humanae Vitae. Two of the three largest maternity hospitals in Dublin operated with a Catholic ethos, and the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, was particularly mindful of how medics operated within these hospitals with regard to birth control. Consequently, the encyclical created new difficulties for medical professionals working in Catholic maternity hospitals who wished to develop more sophisticated programmes of family planning therein. Prescription of the contraceptive pill, which had occurred on a case-by-case basis, was no longer possible in these hospitals. Even prior to the encyclical, the issue of access to artificial birth control was viewed increasingly by many medical and social care professionals – as well as many of their patients – as a private issue of health and welfare, rather than a moral problem.

Additionally, my essay demonstrates that family planning was a class issue.As the annual reports of the maternity hospitals demonstrated repeatedly during this period, the health and welfare of working-class women – those who were least likely to access contraception – often suffered greatly as a result of multiple births. A strong, patriarchal network of authority, made up of the Irish Catholic hierarchy and an obeisant section of the medical profession, sought to re-affirm control over Catholic women’s bodies in the wake of Humanae Vitae.


Deirdre Foley, a PhD candidate in the School of History and Geography at Dublin City University, is the recipient of the 2018 WHAI Mac Curtain/Cullen essay prize.


[1]Irish Press, 8 October 1960; Irish Examiner, 8 October 1960;Irish Times, 10October 1960.

[2]L. Earner-Byrne, ‘Moral Prescription: The Irish Medical Profession, the Roman Catholic Church and the Prohibition of Birth Control in Twentieth-century Ireland’ in Catherine Cox and Maria Luddy (eds), Cultures of Care in Irish Medical History, 1750-1970 (London, 2010), p. 215.

[3]C. Hug, The Politics of Sexual Morality in Ireland(New York, 1999), p. 86.

[4]Ibid., pp. 86-87.

[5]Dublin Diocesan Archive (hereafter DDA), AB8/B/XX/2, English translation of Humanae Vitae, July 1968.

Sex, Sexuality and Reproduction conference report

The 32nd Irish Conference of Historians took place in University College Cork from 26 – 28 April. The theme of this year’s conference ‘Sex, Sexuality andReproduction’ was one which was propitious and opportune as the country surged towards a momentous and historic referendum on the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment. As my taxi pulled up outside of UCC, the driver asked me what conference I was attending. When I told him the title I think he nearly blushed! “Oh!” was his response.

What was particularly memorable about this conference was the wide range of themes. Over the three dayperiod, topics from 1960’s sex advice and pornography, to motherhood and breastfeeding were presented.

The unlimited timeframe allowed for a conference for both early and modern historians alike. There was fascinating keynote presentation from Ruth Karras exploring the ‘myth of masculine impurity’ in the Middle Ages followed by panels focusing on sex and sexuality in medieval and early modern history. Other panels included nineteenth century midwifery, marriage and marital status, and religion and repression. The panel on sex and the Irish revolution shifted from the usual focus on women’s activism and rebellion. Mary McAuliffe’s argument questions the sexual orientation of some of the main female figures during the Irish rebellion. Thursday ended with a keynote lecture by Shelia Rowbotham who spoke about the life of William Bailie in the 1880s and 1890s.

On Friday morning there was a very interesting and timely panel on ‘Abortion and Assisted Human Reproduction in Ireland’ which included Mark Benson’s research on abortion in Northern Ireland, Linda Connolly on abortion in the Republic of Ireland and the research of Don O’Leary on the Vatican regarding assisted reproduction. Other panels included: ‘sexology and sexual science’, ‘eugenics and feminism’, and ‘maternal bodies’.

There was a keynote lecture by Michael Cronin who discussed the politicisation of sexuality and women’s bodies. He argued that there was a re-assertion of male power with the forming of the Irish Free State. Women who were considered sexually trangressive were punished. Abstract categories of respectable and non-respectable women were defined depending on class and social status. This tied in with the panel entitled ‘Free State?’ in which Sandra McAvoy discussed the push for legal contraception, Síle Healy Hunt explored the Public Dancehalls Act 1935, and Conor Heffernan discussed the sexually restrictive 1930s.

Although, papers on adverse topics such as infanticide, historical child sex abuse, and rape and sexual violence made for extremely interesting discussion, there were also aspects of humour in many of the research papers. In his paper on social purity work, Martin Walsh informed us on “how to occupy the mind” when one is tempted to feed into their sexual desires, the advice coming from social purity workers in early twentieth century Ireland and Britain. Laura Kelly presented research on grassroots activism in the push for legal contraception with some youths dressing as condoms outside the court house in 1991 during the ‘Condom Counter’ Case.

Keynote Jeffery Weeks led the conference to a close. In his paper he argued that there are moments of agency; moments of resistance and moments of change when looking at sexual history. He urged us as historians to be mindful of identity histories and generational sexualities. People of the same generation do not necessarily have the same experiences as we are subject to our social surroundings- important information for all historians to remember.

The only criticism I can allude would be the four panels running at the same time as it made it very difficult to choose which one to attend. Thank you to the Women’s History Association of Ireland for the scholarship to attend the conference.Finally, I would like to say congratulations to Donal Ó Drisceoil and his team for putting together afantastic and really enjoyable conference.


Lorraine Grimes, BA., MA.,

PhD Candidate and Tutor,

Department of History,

NUI Galway


Irish Conference of Historians report

ICHSThe Women’s History Association of Ireland contributed towards my participation at the 32ndIrish Conference of Historians at University College Cork, April 26th-28th2018. This year’s conference theme was, ‘Sex, Sexuality and Reproduction: Historical Perspectives’. The conference included a broad range of panels covering topic’s such as: ‘eugenics and feminism’, ‘maternal bodies’ ‘infanticide, foundling hospital and social purity work’, ‘pornography’, ‘sex advice’, and ‘LGBT Irish history’, amongst many others. Renowned scholars in the field of sexuality and feminism: Ruth Mazo Karras, Sheila Rowbotham, Michael G. Cronin and Jeffrey Weeks provided four stimulating keynote lectures. Their lectures covered topics such as ‘The myth of masculine impunity: male adultery and repentance in the Middle Ages’, ‘Doing Sexual History’ and ‘Sex, class and hegemony in twentieth-century Ireland’.

Two particularly interesting papers were Judy Bolger’s ‘Breastfeeding in nineteenth-century Ireland’ and Rachel Bennett’s ‘Inmates of an entirely different class’: regulating the maternal body in the nineteenth-century Irish prison. Bolger’s paper sought to determine whether upper – and lower-class women in nineteenth century Ireland had similar or different breastfeeding experiences. Bolger concluded that upper-class Irish women were afforded flexibility in their mothering abilities as their decision to breastfeed was often based upon personal choices. While, lower-class, or poor Irish women’s innate ability to mother was often capitalised on through the employment of wet-nursing, this in turn, Bolger argued, meant that lower-class women’s decision to breastfeed was often for financial reasons, rather than maternal responsibility. Bennett’s paper explored what it was like to be pregnant, to have a baby and to be a new mother in a nineteenth-century Irish prison. Bennett concludes that the maternal body was a source of concern for the authorities but also a vehicle for resistance on the part of the prisoner as it could act as a barrier to discipline. These papers and the many others presented resonated quite strongly with current debates and events in Irish society today. In particular, Linda Connolly’s ‘Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland, 1970-2018’, and Ciara Molloy’s, ‘The Politics of Rape in 1980s Ireland’.

My paper, entitled; ‘The circumstances peculiar to organising gay people in the West are indeed a quare lot’: Gay and Lesbian Activism in 1980s Galway’ was presented on the third day of the conference as part of the panel, ‘Queering Irish History: revealing, persevering and sharing LGBT histories’. The paper focused on the hitherto ignored activities of provincial gay and lesbian activists in 1980s Galway. By focusing on Galway, my paper made two key arguments. Firstly, it sought to demonstrate the extent to which lesbian women were not passive agents in the efforts to improve the situation of Irish gay and lesbian citizens pre-1993 and decriminalisation of sexual activity between males. Rather, they were active agents in seeking to provide a social space for gay and lesbian individuals to meet others like themselves and become more confident in their sexuality. This, I argue, has been ignored in Irish historiography as an important form of resistance and activism, which contributed to the wider recognition and toleration of homosexuality in the latter period of the twentieth century in Ireland. Secondly, the paper sought to move the current narrative on Irish LGBT history outside of Dublin to include provincial regions where resistance and activities were taking place to challenge the discrimination of Ireland’s homosexual community. Only by broadening the current narrative, particularly to include the other forms and locations of resistance can we really begin to contextualise the dramatic transformation in attitudes towards LGBT citizens in Ireland in the recent years.

The conference provided a wonderful opportunity for scholars of sex, sexuality and reproduction, to meet and discuss topics which hitherto have been marginalised in Irish historiography. This conference may well mark a watershed moment in bringing greater attention to these issues and further contribute to the promotion of research/collaborations in these areas, and with it our understanding of Irish history. In particular, as a scholar of Irish Queer history, I was extremely pleased to be part of a panel which explored some of Ireland’s LGBT (hidden) history. In particular, topics such as gay fathers in Ireland, Ireland’s transgender community, gay and lesbian activism in Cork, and queer identities on Irish documentary film. Two documentaries shown at the conference, Outitude and A Different Country, offered viewers an insight into life as an LGBT citizen in twentieth century Ireland, discussing issues such as identity, homophobia, activism, and community. The study of Ireland’s LGBT history is still in its infancy, but this year’s conference has brought a wider attention to its significance and place in twentieth-century Irish historiography.

The Irish Committee of Historical Sciences, along with its many constituent societies, and the organising committee, in particular, Donal O’Driscoll deserve our appreciation and thanks for putting together such an important conference, which has given a voice to many hidden histories. I would also like to thank the Women’s History Association of Ireland for providing me with a bursary to attend this conference. The WHAI was strongly represented at the conference with a number of its members presenting papers.

Patrick James McDonagh

European University Institute, Florence


WHAI Spring Seminar 2018: New Directions in Early Modern Irish Women’s History

The WHAI is delighted to announce its annual Spring Seminar which will take place at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway on Friday 16 February 2018 between 11am and 5pm.

Keynote addresses will be delivered by Professor Mary O’Dowd (QUB) and Professor Jane Ohlmeyer (TCD).

The seminar is free to attend but advance registration is necessary.

To register via Eventbrite, click here.

For more information and to view the programme, click here.