The Root of Ireland’s Abortion Problem

Abortion is once again in the news in Ireland. Clare Daly’s latest attempt to introduce legislation reforming the laws on abortion in Ireland has failed. The Independent Socialist TD tabled a bill that would permit the termination of a pregnancy where a fatal foetal abnormality had been detected. It was defeated yesterday by 104 votes to 20, with Labour TD Anne Ferris defying the whip to vote in support of Daly’s bill. The bill comes just one week after BBC Three broadcast Abortion: Ireland’s Guilty Secret?, a documentary that reflected on the pro-life and pro-choice divide on the island of Ireland. The story of one young unnamed woman who travelled secretly to England and flew back home while bleeding heavily the same evening was particularly distressing. The documentary lifted the veil on what has previously been deemed ‘Ireland’s hidden diaspora’. This term — used as the title of Anne Rossiter’s 2009 book — aptly describes the thousands of Irishwomen who have quietly made the journey to Britain to end their pregnancies for an array of reasons. Recently, though, such women have not been so quiet and, particularly after the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, more and more women have spoken out against Ireland’s laws on abortion.Continue reading “The Root of Ireland’s Abortion Problem”

Media Contribution: Contraception in Ireland

On Sunday, I joined Diarmaid Ferriter (UCD) in a discussion about the history of contraception with Myles Dungan on RTÉ’s The History Show. This month marks the 25th anniversary of The Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act, 1985. The legislation was introduced by the then Minister for Health, Barry Desmond, who explained in one interview,

I regard the issue of contraception as a health matter.

Continue reading “Media Contribution: Contraception in Ireland”

Speaking at The Collins Institute & The Just Republic Launch

I was back in Dublin earlier this week to speak at the public launch of The Collins Institute, a new think tank set up with financial support from Fine Gael but ultimately independent of the party – a point made clear by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Institute Chair Marian Coy. The purpose of the Institute is to make recommendations going forward for the future development of the country. Though supported by Fine Gael, there is no guarantee that the party will adopt any of the proposals produced by the board (which is also open to the possibility of discussions with other political parties).Continue reading “Speaking at The Collins Institute & The Just Republic Launch”

Negotiating #SocMedia4Hist: Seminar at the IHR

Things have been a little quiet around the blog recently as I’ve been focussing on my Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition, which opens at the National Print Museum (Ireland) in July 2015 and examines the perceptions and representations of women in 1960s Ireland as seen through the pages of women’s magazines. Happily, my crowd-funding efforts proved successful and I reached my target of €2,500 on Fund:It (thank you to everyone who donated!). While family, friends and colleagues were kind enough to support me, much of the money, I’m confident, came through as a result of social media, which was used to raise awareness of the exhibition and fund-raising campaign.Continue reading “Negotiating #SocMedia4Hist: Seminar at the IHR”

Please Support Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition on Fund It

Modern Wife, Modern Life is my exhibition running at the National Print Museum of Ireland  between August and October 2015. It explores the idea of the ‘modern wife’ in 1960s Ireland as seen through the pages of women’s magazines. Please consider showing your support for the exhibition by donating on Fund It. A private tour for you and two guests, a limited edition booklet, a framed display of your choice once the exhibition ends, and reproduction images are among the rewards on offer for donating to the funding of Modern Wife, Modern Life. Donations start from as little as €10. Details below.

Continue reading “Please Support Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition on Fund It”

Modern Wife, Modern Life Exhibition at the National Print Museum of Ireland


I am delighted to announce that the National Print Museum of Ireland has agreed to host my exhibition, Modern Wife, Modern Life. It will run between August and October 2015.

Continue reading “Modern Wife, Modern Life Exhibition at the National Print Museum of Ireland”

(When) Should Children be Told the Facts of Life?

In my latest research into everyday lives in the 1960s using women’s magazines as my main source, I have noticed repeated references to the facts of life and different debates about the extent to which children should receive sex education. During the week I stumbled across the 2006 main report from the Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, and was intrigued to see what this modern report said about ‘Learning About Sex’ (the title of chapter three).

The authors note, ‘a number of studies have found that many Irish adults have a less than adequate understanding of the basic facts of life’.[1] This is certainly compatible with the bewilderment expressed by teenagers — most of whom would now be in their sixties — in the sources I’ve read from the 1960s. The recurring letters to various magazines, particularly as the 1960s wore on, asking for basic information points to the near-absence of sex education. A lack of adequate eduction in schools, coupled with parents’ reluctance to discuss such matters with their children, resulted in a generation of teenagers who had a patchy or non-existent knowledge of the facts of life. This is confirmed in a 1996 study which found that only 15% of those surveyed aged 55 to 60 had received any form of sex education.[2] The authors of the 2006 report made a similar finding:

ISSHR Report
The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships: Main Report, p. 54.


When the sample group in the study were asked about the nature of sex education that young people should now receive, at least 92% favoured education on the subject of sexual intercourse, sexual feelings, contraceptions, safer sex and homosexuality.[3] These are all themes that emerged in the letters and articles I have read (though homosexuality is the least prominent), and about which people — both teenagers and adults — grappled for information. Yet, although these very public requests for guidance indicated that there was something lacking, there was still a debate about whether children should be taught the facts of life. As one woman wrote,

Dear Editor, although I appreciate your articles on sex education, I submit that the present trend is to give to our children too much, rather than too little, instruction in the so-called facts of life.[4]

And there was also a debate not about when children should be told, but rather, if they should be told. But while such debates were happening, the children, but more particularly teenagers, who were being discussed in an abstract way, were showing real signs of ignorance, worry, despair and confusion. Though one of the more extreme examples, the following extract from a letter sent to Angela Macnamara in 1968 captures this reality:

I am nearly 15 and very ignorant about the facts of life. A few weeks ago a boy who works with me waited for me one night and pulled me into a room and kept on trying to kiss me. I admit I was aroused but didn’t give in. I’m so frightened I might be pregnant because of the feeling I got…[5]

In the absence of adequate information in schools and in many homes around Ireland, magazines arguably played an important role — readership strategies are something that my current project will be investigating in far greater detail. Ten per cent of the respondents to the questionnaire that formed the basis of the 2006 report who were under forty, reported that books, magazines and friends were the most common ‘other source’ of information for their knowledge (the main source being sex education at school, followed by education in the home).[6] For an older generation, it is reasonable to assume that a significantly higher number would have spoke of the importance of magazines during their formative years.

Many of the teenagers who wrote to the advice columnists in publications such as Woman’s WayWoman’s Choice and Woman’s View were encouraged to purchase such titles as My Dear DaughterTowards Maturity or Girls Growing Up. The problem, of course, was that such books were not free. Even if they did have the money, they still had to undertake the very public act of going to a bookstore, selecting the title from the shelves and paying for it at the till. The potential embarrassment involved in such a transaction was sure to put plenty off. Moreover, for those living in rural Ireland, access to a bookshop was not convenient, and typically when titles were recommended, it was the name of Dublin sellers that was provided.

Even if teenagers did manage to source the recommended reading, not all found them particularly insightful.

I am really ignorant about the facts of life. I am 17, and afraid to go to a dance, or make a date, as I don’t know how a person could become pregnant. This is my main problem, and even though I have read My Dear Daughter (books 1 & 2), I find there is not much about it there.[7]

Magazines were more affordable, and there was no potential embarrassment in buying one. Plus they were also more easily sourced: letters to the various publications indicate they were being read by country women, and hand-to-hand passing also increased circulation beyond the official figures. Even if a teenager did not have the pocket money to purchase a magazine, there was a strong possibility — particularly with Woman’s Way, which had a significant circulation, making it Ireland’s best-selling women’s magazine — that his/her mother would buy them and leave copies around the home. Magazines were thus far more accessible than the formal facts of life guides.

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 16.42.21

But how useful were they, once in the hands of a teen — especially if advice columnists were simply recommending facts of life guides? The columnists always supplemented their suggestions with further information. And while they did not have the space to provide detailed information, regular readers could piece together vital information. In addition to the advice columns, the magazines typically carried health columns also that gave guidance on topics such as menstruation and fertility. Moreover, the magazines provided a interactive format that the guides simply couldn’t. If a reader could not find the answer to their specific question in a manual or guide, they could  outline their circumstances in a letter to the magazine in the hope of getting a response. And even if their letter was not printed, similar letters may have provided the answer, perhaps giving reassurance or even confirming their fears. The magazines were also useful beyond the letters page. Publications such as Women’s Choice ran multi-part series on reproduction, etc.

Of course, while all of this was useful, it was far from ideal. And even when sex education was taught in schools, it was taught through a religious and moral lens. The result was that boys and girls entered adulthood with a hazy knowledge of the facts of life, and, more worryingly, that children did not have the necessary language when needed to tell an adult that they had been sexually abused. In fact, when formal sex education — the Relationships and Sexuality Education programme or RSE, which includes understanding feelings and personal safety — was introduced in schools in 1997, it was largely in response to the increase of reported child sex abuse [8].


[1] Richard Layte et al, The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships: Main Report (October, 2006), p. 50

[2] M. Wiley & B. Merriman, Women and Health Care in Ireland (Dublin, 1996), quoted in Layte, Main Report, p. 53

[3] Layte, Main Report, p. 66

[4] Woman’s Choice, 3 December 1968.

[5] Letter to Woman’s Way, 5 January 1968.

[6] Layte, Main Report, p. 57.

[7]  Letter to Woman’s Choice, 12 November 1968.

[8] Layte, Main Report, p. 52.

‘Obvious Child’: a Refreshing Take on Abortion in Film


As my research on unwanted pregnancy touches on depictions in popular culture, I headed into London earlier today to see the film Obvious Child. Briefly, the plot centres on Donna Stern, a late-twenty-something woman who has an abortion after a one-night stand. But rather than trotting out the familiar cliches that audiences have almost come to expect, this film breaks new ground and deals with abortion in a refreshingly different way.

Continue reading “‘Obvious Child’: a Refreshing Take on Abortion in Film”

Can you help? Crowd-sourcing the 1960s

My current research project focusses heavily on the 1960s, looking at everyday lives in general and the domestic setting in particular. There are three strands to the outputs for this project: a book, journal article and an exhibition (more on that at a later stage).

My research to date has been concentrated mostly on women’s magazines, in the pages of which I have found references to various manuals, guides and pamphlets. Certain titles are held at the National Library of Ireland or the British Library, others I have been able to track down elsewhere, but some still allude me. Understanding what people were reading for guidance and the nature of the advice given is an important aspect of my work, so I’m hoping that social media might be able to help fill in the gaps.

I’d be very grateful if you might take a moment to consider if any of the following might be in your attic or in a drawer somewhere in your house — I’d also be interested in items from the 1960s not on the list below, but that you feel might be useful / relevant. And if you can’t help directly, perhaps you might share this? Thank you!

Continue reading “Can you help? Crowd-sourcing the 1960s”

Would you bare all on an Irish beach?, Irish Independent

Gabrielle Monaghan of the Irish Independent recently contacted me to learn more about Irish attitudes towards the body as part of the research for her article on nudity. I’m quoted towards the end of the piece, which you can read in full here.

Pushing the Boundaries: Sex Advice in Women’s Magazines, 1960s Ireland

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 12.33.01

Manuals on how to be a good wife were widely available in Ireland at the start of the twentieth century. Publications such as The Young Wife (1938 edition), provided women with practical advice on such matters as housekeeping and budgeting, or emotional guidance on understanding and caring for her husband. They did not, however, generally offer advice on matters of intimacy (other than to warn against intimate relations before or outside of marriage).

It was not unusual for such pamphlets and books to appear in the 1960s: Building a Happy Marriage was translated from French and published in Dublin in 1964, for example. However, magazines in that decade began to surpass such guides as the main source of information on how to be a good wife. Advice columns and letters pages, mixed with cautionary tales told under the guise of short-stories, instructed women on how to be the perfect wife or, at the very least, maintain their marriage:

Woman's Way Guide to Happy Marriage
Woman’s Way, 14 April 1964

But magazines also addressed matters commonly left unspoken in what were usually Catholic marriage manuals. Woman’s Way raised the issue of the ‘first night’ in February 1966.

First Night
Woman’s Way, First Fortnight February, 1966

While Catholic teaching dealt with sex between husband and wife in terms of creating new life, passing reference only is made to creating a family through the physical expression of mutual love.  Rather, this article focusses on enjoying the physical act.  The word ‘sex’ appears in the sub-title and ‘climax’ can be found in the main body of the article. These are hardly shocking words, but remember that February 1966 is also the month and year that The Late Late Show, presented by Gay Byrne, found itself in trouble with the Bishop of Clonfert after audience member Eileen Fox, when asked the colour of her nightdress on the first night of her honeymoon, answered that she hadn’t worn one at all (though subsequently gave the answer of ‘white’ — a detail overlooked by the Bishop). Footage of the quiz has been lost, but a sound recording still survives and is available to hear on the RTÉ on-line archive.  (Hat tip to Brian Murphy for pointing this out to me).

The implication of her quip was clear.  In his Sunday sermon the following morning, the Bishop referred to ‘morally — or rather immorally — suggestive parts of the show’, which he deemed ‘most objectionable’ and ‘unworthy of Irish television’. RTÉ (the Irish broadcaster) was initially reported as having nothing to say on the matter.[1] The following day, though, The Irish Times carried comments from Gay Byrne who explained that

it has never been our intention that viewers should be embarrassed by the programmeWe now realise that a part of last Saturday’s show was embarrassing to a section of the viewers, and we would like to say that we are sorry for this.[2]

Clearly then, women’s magazines were pushing the boundaries in a way that television was not able to do. And while the page-length article in Woman’s Way was not explicit and did not provide any instructions on engaging in the physical act, it did offer reassurance to couples anxious about their first intimate encounter.

It should be remembered that the bride requires more time to reach a climax than her husband and in the early days it is often extremely difficult for the man, much as he would wish to do so, to wait … It is not uncommon and provided that the wife is understanding and does not exaggerate the difficulty, it will soon resolve itself. She should be aware, too, that her husband may need some guidance and assistance and that her active participation in love-making is a fully-accepted and natural element in a happy marriage relationship.[3]

Aside from a physical relationship being a deeply private act between a couple, sex was something of a taboo issue (as evidenced by The Late Late debacle) in Ireland: magazines covering such topics thus provided an important source of information.*



[1] The Irish Times, 14 February 1966.

[2] The Irish Times, 15 February 1966.

[3] Woman’s Way, First fortnight February, 1966.

* This post is based on my current research project on the everyday lives of Irishwomen in the twentieth century as seen through the pages of women’s magazines.


Advertising Domestic Violence?

Last week afforded me the opportunity to spend the week at the National Library of Ireland continuing my research on the everyday lives of Irishwomen. I was working my way through copies of Woman’s Way magazine from the mid-1960s when I discovered somewhat unsettling advertisements for Kincora Carpets.

The advertisements recognised the fact that women were the domestic purse-holders and main decorators/designers of home interiors, but also acknowledged that they might not always have the final say. Placing the woman is a position of power, they advocated that she assert herself in favour of Kincora Carpets, which boasted ‘the most exciting new patterns, the richest shades, the softest luxury, the longest life’.

If her husband should disagree, the advert asked, ‘what should you do?’.  By today’s advertising standards, the suggestion is startling   In addition to the advert below, which shows the husband with a black eye, another features the husband with his head pressed against the presumably soft carpet, a woman’s hand forcing him down.  These ads appeared frequently throughout 1966 and, in both instances, the very visual images prove more effective than any written word.

'If your husband insists on choosing your new carpet before you've inspected Kincora ... what should you do?'
Woman’s Way, second fortnight in May 1966.

Though the management at Kincora Carpets (or the advertising company behind the campaign) were hardly supporters of domestic abuse, the adverts do make light of the matter. As domestic violence was generally still seen in the 1960s as a private issue to be resolved within the family and behind closed doors, it is intriguing to find the subject not just hinted at, but actually featuring in an ad campaign, albeit in a comical way. Furthermore, these adverts were appearing at a time when emerging second wave feminism was starting to bring some previously taboo issues — including domestic violence — into the public arena.

I’d be intrigued to know how the ads were received at the time.

Updated (23.49, 27 July 2014): Bronwyn Labrum made an interesting observation over on twitter that the advert might be tapping into the kind of Carry On humour of role reversal that was popular at the time. Intriguing suggestion. Will follow up.





Generating a Conference via Social Media

Directions to the Perceptions of Pregnancy Conference

Almost one year after Jennifer Evans and I began talking about the possibility of organising a conference that would explore pregnancy throughout history, the event has drawn to a successful conclusion. On 16 July, we welcomed a very international delegation to the University of Hertfordshire for three days of discussion on perceptions of pregnancy from the medieval to the modern. We were joined by historians, midwifes, curators, political geographers, literary critics and scholars working on visual culture. The conference was bookended with an exhibition on Victorian Post-Mortem photography curated by Liz Burns of the Burns Archive in New York, and a sneak peak into Ellen du Pont’s forthcoming gift-book for the ‘thinking mother’. The latter is a collection of forty historical images of pregnant women, accompanied by quotations, to coincide with each week of pregnancy.

With our conference, we wanted to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and social media played an important role in helping us to achieve that. It was nice to see our efforts acknowledged by Sharon Howard (project manager for various digital history projects at the University of Sheffield) on twitter:

Thank you, Sharon, for this and the other kind observations you tweeted!


We had speakers from Britain, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Poland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Canada and the United States. And although we distributed the call for papers through all the usual channels — H-Net, Institute of Historical Research, various academic mailing lists,, etc. —  we are confident that the international complexion of our conference and diversity of disciplines represented is largely due to our activity on twitter. The midwives in attendance, for example, are not on the mailing lists of the various history departments and organisations we contacted.

Both Jennifer and I are on twitter, so not long after we had resolved to organise the conference, we set up a specially-dedicated twitter account with the handle @Pregnancy_Conf. Very quickly our follower numbers grew as we connected with people we already knew on twitter. I think the effectiveness of our twitter account lies in the fact that we did not simply use it to convey information about the conference, but also to tweet news stories, blog posts, journal articles, etc., of relevance to historical pregnancy. By including #twitterstorians or #histmed at the end of our tweets, we made ourselves visible to the on-line community monitoring such hashtags, and they subsequently began to follow us too. Similarly, as people began to re-tweet our tweets so that ‘@Pregnancy_Conf’ appeared in their followers’ timelines also, our follower count grew.

Twitter allowed us to reach a much wider and more diverse audience than mailing lists, etc., ever could. The broad geographical span of speakers whom we attracted to the conference, I believe, is reflective of this. With having so many countries represented, not just in terms of people’s nationalities but also as places the subject of research, we fulfilled one of the main aims of our conference: to hold an international conversation.

Moreover, while we had more than sixty people physically in attendance, we were joined virtually by countless more who followed us throughout the three days as we live tweeted the sessions. Well in advance of the event, we had created the hashtag #pregconf so that people unable to attend could still follow the conversation. Some even joined in and asked questions for our speakers via twitter.

The Perceptions of Pregnancy Blog

While Twitter is undoubtedly useful, the 140-character limit can be restricting, and since both Jennifer and I run our own blogs, it was inevitable that we created one for the conference. WordPress is free and easy to use, and allows anyone to create their own site. But like our twitter account, we did not use the blog just to release updates. In addition to the ‘Messages from the Conference Organisers’ section, we also featured ‘Columns on Conference Themes’ and announcements submitted by delegates. The columns were essentially short posts from people coming to the conference to give a taster of what could be expected.

Although the conference is over, the blog will remain active. A further aim of our conference was to build networks and facilitate conversations, and we see the blog as an excellent forum to do so. In fact, the conference was only a starting point — not just an event in itself. We’ve encouraged those who presented to think about sharing elements of their papers on the blog, but we also welcome contributions from anybody who has an interest in pregnancy throughout history. Furthermore, we are happy to use the blog to advertise upcoming events of interest and relevance. The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog could very easily become a space for the community of researchers working on the male and female experience of fertility, pregnancy and childbirth to engage, exchange ideas and highlight their work. Please do not hesitate to contact us, if interested.

We are delighted with how the conference went, and with the feedback we received. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire, the Social History Society and the Royal Historical Society. We are especially grateful to our delegates who travelled from far and wide to deliver fascinating, stimulating and exciting papers, and to those who joined us from a distance through twitter. Lets keep the conversation going now.



Round-Up: The State of Ireland, 1914 Conference #TSOI1914

Conference Venue

I’ve been in Manchester for the past couple of days to attend The State of Ireland, 1914, conference organised by Dr Katherine Fennelly and Dr Patrick Doyle of the University of Manchester.  While discussion of the First World War and the Irish Revolution naturally could not be escaped, it was really refreshing to consider 1914 beyond the centenary of WW1 and Ireland’s decade of commemoration.

Click for Programme

There was a great blend of papers looking at the political, social and cultural scene in Ireland. Presentations played on the conference title to consider both Ireland as a State and the state of the country by 1914. My own paper explored the content of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin newspaper, which first appeared in 1906 and was suppressed shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. While I enjoyed all of the papers, there were some that really captured my interest.

In the session on ‘Reflections on the State’, John McAuliffe (University of Manchester) spoke about W.B. Yeats in 1914. While I enjoy Yeats’ poetry and have an awareness of some of the influences on his work, I was surprised to learn about the effect that the Third Home Rule bill had on the poet. As McAuliffe explained, in The Grey Rock Yeats explored both his Irish and Anglo heritage and this was made possible due to the fact that the Home Rule legislation was redrawing the relationship between Britain and Ireland.

Grey Rock Extract
Extract from ‘The Grey Rock’.


Children of the Dead End
Click to view on Amazon

In the same session, Liam Harte (University of Manchester) reflected on Patrick MacGill’s Children of the Dead End. For me, this riveting paper was the standout contribution of the conference. MacGill’s 1914 publication was hugely successful, selling 10,000 copies in its first two months of publication and has never been out of print since. Despite its publishing success, the book has not been without its criticisms, most notably of the ending which jars with the overall tone of the book. Widely read as fictionalised autobiography, it completely by-passes the national question to give an insight into everyday lives in the Irish West. Providing a realistic exposé, it strips away the mythical facade that the cultural nationalist movement sought to create for peasant life in the West of Ireland. Commenting on the relationship between priest and landlord, MacGill’s work, Harte explained, echoes Joyce’s thesis that Ireland was ruled by two masters: one in Westminster, the other in Rome. Harte also noted that the book gives an insight into the formation of masculinity in early twentieth century Catholic Ireland — an aspect of the book, he commented during lunch afterwards, that has been largely overlooked.

I also really enjoyed the paper from Sarah Bartosiak (Eastern Connecticut State University / Trinity College, Dublin) on gender roles and the struggle for Irish nationalism. I was particularly interested in what she had to say about how the traditional role of the woman in the house was extended by women’s nationalist organisations, such as Cumann na mBan. As she noted, women who contributed to 1916 as cooks or nurses were essentially expanding their roles in the home beyond the traditional domestic setting. ‘Buy Irish’ campaigns were often targeted at women, with one particular flyer specifically targeting mothers to buy Irish-made sweets for their children.

The day was rounded off with a brilliant and very timely paper from Virigina Crossman (Oxford Brookes University). Exploring poverty and welfare in Ireland, she spoke of the division in attitudes between those towards the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’. Society was prepared to aid people who had fallen on difficult times for reasons beyond their control (unemployment, ill-health), but it was believed that those groups seen as responsible for their own poverty (vagrants, unmarried mothers, prostitutes) should be treated more harshly. To be lenient would only encourage them to continue an immoral life, it was thought. In the context of these attitudes, Crossman referred to the current scandal of the Mother and Baby home in Tuam (for further information on Tuam, see Philip Boucher-Hayes’ blog). As she pointed out, historically, it hasn’t just been the Catholic Church that says we should be harsh on so-called ‘immoral people’, but rather this is a much deeper, more complex idea that stretches across Ireland (and Britain), Nationalists and Unionists.

Well done to Katherine Fennelly and Patrick Doyle for organising such a stimulating day of discussion.

Column: Policy changes conceived in Costello’s ’Just Society’ (Irish Examiner)


Declan Costello
Declan Costello


The Irish Examiner published a column today from me on Declan Costello’s Just Society, marking fifty years since Fine Gael adopted his proposal as official party policy. Now considered a milestone in its history, the document divided the party at that time.  

Read the piece in full here.




A Graveyard with Character

I’m back in Dublin for a few days. With the blessing of the graves just around the corner, I went with my Dad to water the flowers on our family plot. The graveyard has always intrigued me.

According to local folklore, an underground tunnel connects Dunsoghly Castle (which I’ve previously mentioned here) with the former church that lies in ruins in the graveyard.

Dunsoghly Castle (beside my parents' house)
Dunsoghly Castle (beside my parents’ house)

Folklore aside, the charm of this old graveyard appeals to me. A broken pathway, crossing over a local farm, reminds visitors that they are in the countryside. Partial ruins are visible.  It is the first indication that the graveyard which lies ahead is of an older generation:

Entrance to St Margaret's Graveyard, St Margaret's Village, Co Dublin.
Entrance to St Margaret’s Graveyard, St Margaret’s Village, Co Dublin.

At first glance, the graveyard seems to blur into the rolling fields that surround it:


There is no obvious planning to the layout: no perfectly neat rows of headstones, edging that marks out every grave or neatly-cut grass. Headstones rest at odd angles, and graves are also nestled in the ruins of an old church. But this higgledy-piggedly appearance gives the graveyard a sense of character not found in the newer, more uniform cemeteries.


Marble headstones dot the landscape, but they are the exception. It is the multitude of granite headstones that reveal the age of the graveyard (which is now full, apart from those family plots which still have some space). In contrast to the newer marble markers, the engravings on the granite headstones are mostly illegible, worn away with the passage of time. That granite is a hard rock, which is eroded by the weather slowly, the condition of these headstones further points to the maturity of the graveyard.



As the number of living descendants dwindles and weather-induced erosion continues, it will be a shame to see these monuments to the dead, testaments of former lives, disappear into the landscape.

worn and damaged headstones
worn and damaged headstones



Launch of First World War Centre, University of Hertfordshire

Last night I was at the launch of the First World War centre at the University of Hertfordshire. There was a great turnout for an evening of soap-boxes, a Roadshow of artefacts and ephemera, and a production of J.M. Barrie’s play, A Well-Remembered Voice (1918).  In addition to academics from other universities and representatives from such museums as the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum, there was a wide variety of community groups in attendance.

Our First World War centre is one of five First World War Engagement Centres in the UK funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. Each centre has a different focus, and the University of Hertfordshire (in collaboration with the Universities of Essex and Northampton) considers everyday lives: How did war affect daily life between 1914 and 1918? What was the legacy of the conflict?

Everyday Lives in War banner

With this theme in mind, we heard about how soldiers fashioned biscuits into things like photo-frames to send home to their families, and our own Matt Benjamin, who has just finished his undergraduate degree, spoke brilliantly on homes for heroes and the Becontree Estate in Dagenham.

Some of the objects brought in for our experts to examine for the roadshow included a tea-pot, a teenager’s diary from 1917 that actually makes little reference to the war but routinely details daily meals, a collection of photographs and a variety of medals.

For me, the highlight was Barrie’s play, superbly staged by the Io Theatre Company. Barrie — best known as the author of Peter Pan — produced  A Well-Remembered Voice in 1918. Unusually, the semi-autobiographical play explores grief from the point of view of a father, challenging the typical assumption that, when a child’s life is lost, grieving is almost the reserve of the mother. At the centre of the story is the family’s son, killed in the war, who appears from the afterlife to his father. Barrie, of course, had suffered the loss of George Llewelyn Davies who had died in the fighting in 1915.  (George and his brother Jack had inspired Barrie to write Peter Pan, and when their father died in 1907, Barrie became something of a father-figure to them).  The play, which really spoke to the Centre’s research interests in supernatural beliefs, childhood and family relationships, was a perfect way to round off the evening.

The Centre is led by Dr Sarah Lloyd, Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. Further details can be found on the website.



Locating Men in Abortion Narratives

How do we locate men in abortion narratives?

With our Perceptions of Pregnancy conference just around the corner, Jennifer Evans and I have been keeping an eye on newspapers for stories relating to pregnancy. This story from The Guardian caught our attention: Ohio’s state assembly has tabled a bill that, if passed into law, would give fathers a say in the decision-making process when it comes to abortion. In cases where a woman is unsure of the father, she could be asked to list five potential men who would then be tested for paternity. If the father could not be identified, a termination would not be permitted. Similarly, in cases where the father’s identity is known, if the man refuses consent, the woman would not be allowed end the pregnancy.

The proposed legislation raises numerous moral and ethical issues (beyond the scope of this post), but what interests me from the perspective of my research on abortion is the role of the father. In considering the historical debate around a woman’s right to choose, I have at times considered what it must be like for a man who desperately does not want a pregnancy to be terminated. But I must admit, I’ve only thought about it fleetingly — and often these thoughts are prompted by plot-lines in soaps or films.  Viewers of Emmerdale, for example, will be familiar with the current storyline surrounding the character of Charity whose new husband Declan had married her because she was pregnant with a child he desperately wanted. Unbeknownst to him, she had an early abortion, which she subsequently passed off as a miscarriage. He was devastated, and viewers are now following him as he struggles to come to terms with his lost chance at fatherhood.


Reading the article in The Guardian today made me reflect on the manner in which men figure in my research on unwanted pregnancy — or, more specifically, why fathers don’t feature. Men regularly make an appearance as politicians, policymakers and campaigners. But what about the man whose role as father is actually at stake? They have been peculiarly absent from my work — and from the sources. Thinking back over the documents I’ve reviewed, fathers have typically been referenced in the context of having deserted expectant mothers. They are normally mentioned as absentee figures. The advice columns of women’s magazines, for example, contain letters from anxious women afraid of the stigma and perceived repercussions of single motherhood.

But it is a sweeping generalisation to assume that all men are absentee figures. What about the men who participate in the decision to end a pregnancy, or, indeed, those who oppose it?

The question is, how do we locate men in abortion narratives? Where can they be found in the sources? Or will locating them actually involve a careful reading between the lines?

#OnThisDay: Fine Gael accepts Declan Costello’s Just Society

Fine Gael Minute Books, 26 May 1964
Fine Gael Minute Books, 26 May 1964

It has been fifty years since the Fine Gael parliamentary party unanimously voted to send Declan Costello’s proposals for a Just Society to its policy committee. The outcome was Towards a Just Society, unveiled at the 1965 general election as the party’s manifesto. It was not the type of document that Irish voters have grown accustomed to (especially after Fianna Fáil’s ‘give-away’ manifesto in 1977): it made no promises and was of little value to canvassers knocking on doors during the campaign.  But what it did do was offer a blueprint for a new Ireland.

The document envisaged improved care for the physically and mentally disabled; a choice of doctor for all; reform of the treatment of juvenile offenders; changes in banking; greater state involvement, and so on. Costello, part of a new generation of socially-minded politicians born in independent Ireland, was participating in a broader discussion about the role of the state and its commitment to its citizens.

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In addition to improving Ireland, Costello also considered his Just Society proposals to be Fine Gael’s opportunity to step out from the shadow of Fianna Fáil, and to define itself as something other than its main rival’s opposition. If adopted, it would allow Fine Gael to firmly claim its place in the party political system. But, resistance was strong among certain elements of the party, and, although the document was unanimously accepted, this happened because of the lack of alternative. The identity crisis that seemingly emerged in Fine Gael under Garret FitzGerald’s leadership in the late 1970s and, more particularly, during the 1980s while in government, has typically been attributed to FitzGerald’s Constitutional Crusade and pluralist policies. But, arguably, the roots of that identity crisis lie in the Just Society era when Costello attempted to move Fine Gael in a different direction, one with which the traditionalists were particularly uncomfortable.

Click to view on Amazon
Click to view on Amazon


The Just Society was the focus of my recently published book, A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987, the introduction for which is available here. If you’re interested in hearing more about Declan Costello, the policies contained with his document or its impact on Fine Gael, you can listen to me discussing it on Newstalk’s Talking History [starts 18.27], RTÉ’s The History Show and on an older podcast for the podcast series. I have also previously written here about the split that the document caused in Fine Gael.



What Makes a Good Wife?

I was back in the National Library of Ireland today to continue reading copies of Woman’s Way from the 1960s. I’ve been exploring back issues of the magazine for what they can reveal about how women were represented and perceived. Yesterday, I wrote about the arrival of the fridge and the contribution it made to the housewife’s day-to-day life. Today, I’ve been thinking about what the magazine reveals about what made a good wife in the early 1960s.

Advertisement for Arnotts Bridal Gown Department, Dublin, Woman's Way, 14 February 1964
Advertisement for Arnotts Bridal Gown Department, Dublin, Woman’s Way, 14 February 1964

In Joyce Bazuin’s short story Wait Till You Meet Mother, we are introduced to Marion as she scrapes slightly burnt toast — a subtle commentary on her culinary skills and the first indication that she might not be the perfect housewife. Over breakfast, her new husband, Howard, talks of the pending visit of his mother that weekend, which unnerved his wife. His mother is painted as a strong, capable woman — her qualities summed up in Marion’s semi-rhetorical question, ‘Your mother is good at everything, isn’t she, Howard?’, and her husband’s response, ‘Yes, mum’s pretty wonderful at most things’.

This short story, published in Woman’s Way on 14 February 1964, reveals much about the role of the housewife and the expectations of a new wife — the pressure to maintain the smooth running of the house. Marion’s kitchen is described as ‘untidy’ and we are told that her sink is in a state of ‘disorder’. Breakfast had only ended and used dishes in the sink are to be expected, but the description of the room is an implied criticism of her housekeeping skills. This is reinforced by her own musing,

It really was too much to think you could get married one week and automatically become the perfect housewife the next.

and by the description of her upstair’s neighbour’s kitchen:

Marion followed her [Mrs Morgan, the neighbour who offered to help her with cooking] silently up to her spotless blue and white kitchen, rich with the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee and a wave of despondency swept over her when she thought of the chaos in her own kitchen.

‘Chaos’ was an interesting — we’re only really told about some used and yet-to-be-washed dishes — but deliberately chosen choice of word. The cumulative effect of this imagery, together with the homemade cake that Howard’s mother brought with her, is to give the reader the sense that Marion is lacking as a wife. In a twist, the reader also discovers that Howard’s mother cannot cook either and her ‘homemade cake’ is actually store-bought. Her lack of culinary abilities was something she had covered up for many years. That she presented herself as accomplished in the kitchen serves as a further indication of what was expected of the housewife.

Though Bazuin’s story is a work of fiction, the content had much in common with letters written from (as far as we can tell) real Irish housewives. Letters included those written by women looking for cooking tips, complaining about husbands who did not contribute to the housework, and advice on how to deal with mothers-in-law when a newly married couple lived with the husband’s family.

A common complaint in letters I’ve read so far focussed on the expectations of husbands. As one letter writer in July 1963 put it,

My husband was an only son and spoiled darling of his adoring mother, sisters and maiden aunts. They always danced attendance on him, and he expects me to do the same

The Cork bride was advised that to ‘un-spoil a man calls for time and patience’. But generally, women who complained that their husbands did not help out around the home were criticised for expecting him to do so. Maura Laverty, Woman’s Way‘s first advice columnist, deemed such an attitude ‘selfish’.

I consider it most unfair to expect the breadwinner to wash dishes after his day’s work, unless in exceptional circumstances, as when the ‘bean a tighe’ [lady of the house] is ill.

How, or if, that advice changed as time passed is something I’ll be watching out for as my research progresses.

Refrigerators: The New Approach to Home Life

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English Electric Washing Machine, c. 1950 (On display at Hertford Museum)

If there’s one comment guaranteed to provoke a reaction in my classroom, it’s my suggestion that the arrival of the washing machine had a greater impact on the lives of women than the vote. It’s a remark that is usually met with shocked looks. I’m not downplaying the importance of the vote, but, as I explain to students, for the ‘ordinary’ woman, any technological advancements that made her day-to-day life easier was of far greater relevance than the more abstract idea of the vote. This was really brought home to them when I played an extract from an interview that I did with my mum about her memories of my grandmother’s domestic routine. My mum recalled how, as was the case for most Irishwomen, Monday was wash day. My grandmother would begin hand washing as my mum and her brothers and sisters were leaving for school in the morning, and she was still washing when they returned in the late afternoon. The arrival of a washing machine into the house made a huge difference to her life, significantly freeing up her time on Mondays.

I’m in Dublin at the moment for a few days, and have been at the National Library of Ireland reading issues of Woman’s Way from the 1960s as part of the research for my women in the media project. The magazine is filled with advertisements for new technology — like the washing machine — promising to improve the lives of women. The most common was an ad from the ESB (Electricity Supply Board) asking, ‘Have you got your fridge yet?’ One of the benefits, according to the advertisement, was the ability to ‘cut down your shopping time to one day a week’.

On 15 June 1963, Woman’s Way carried a major feature on the refrigerator, which was noted to have become a ‘necessity from the economic and health viewpoint’ rather than a ‘luxurious addition’ to the kitchen.

Woman's Way, 15 June 1963
Woman’s Way, 15 June 1963

Over several pages, readers were shown how the housewife and her new fridge were ‘going to be very close friends’. The feature included ‘dos and don’ts’ tips on using the refrigerator, a recipe page entitled ‘Cooking with a refrigerator in the background’ and a spread on the different types of fridges available, depending on the size of one’s kitchen.

The feature was clear as to the positive impact that the fridge could have, most notably (and similar to the washing-machine) on the housewife’s time:

You can work out a whole new working-plan whereby your leisure will be increased. Complete meals may be prepared and stored for a day or two when you have a refrigerator to keep them fresh. It could even happen that the refrigerator will give you a little longer in bed in the morning! Some people prepare breakfast the night before and leave it ready for the actual cooking next day. The same clever housewives prepare the evening meal in the morning and leave themselves a free day until the actual cooking period starts, they prepare a whole day’s supply of baby food in the morning, too.

It is hardly surprising that this multi-page feature appeared at a time when refrigerators were becoming more affordable — taking them out of the ‘luxury item’ bracket — and were increasing in popularity. Not only did they keep produce fresh and perishable items lasted longer than they would at room temperature, but their popularity can also be explained because of the contribution they made to day-to-day lives of housewives.