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No pedestals: women and violence in late nineteenth-century Ireland.

In English courts in the nineteenth century women were at a marked disadvantage. Officials accepted the image of women as delicate creatures who required the protection and supervision of men. Women who failed to match the image were usually denied legal protection.(1) However, the position of women in late nineteenth-century Irish courts differed significantly. Given the overwhelming power of the Roman Catholic church and the conservative nature of Irish peasant society it might be expected that Irish women suffered the most extreme oppression.(2) Certainly the rhetoric of the Catholic clergy was even more rigid than that of the most Victorian thinkers in terms of the proper role for women. But an examination of the records of the Irish criminal courts between 1865 and 1892 indicates that in the late nineteenth century the treatment of Irish women before the law was primarily determined by their individual actions rather than their gender.(3)

There are several areas in which the Irish court's views on women and violence differ significantly from those found in England. One such difference lies in the English courts' attitude towards women who fought. In Ireland the courts recognized that women, like men, might respond to provocation with violence. They also recognized that physical differences meant women who fought men might be at a disadvantage. Whereas in England women who defended themselves forfeited their right to legal protection, in Ireland the courts actually showed increased concern for women who had fought gamely but succumbed to a stronger opponent. Many of these fights involved family members in disputes over land and inheritance.(4) As changes in inheritance patterns during the nineteenth century created new tensions among family members, women were often actively involved in resolving these tensions through force. These strains on familial bonds may be traced to the famine. The memories of the famine horrors may have put a premium on survival at all costs and weakened ties among family members. This attitude could also contribute to the neglect of minor children, for even infanticide cases produced distinctive rhetoric and punishment. While the Irish law was harsher to unwed mothers than that of England, Irish courts often showed sympathy for these women and condoned their acts of desperation while expressing disgust at the escape of the fathers. Finally, unlike in England where decisions in cases of sexual assault depended on the perceived moral character of the parties involved, Irish courts convicted in rape cases regardless of the status and relationship of the victim and the accused.(5) The courts generally treated rape and indecent assault as they did other violent crimes, without yielding to rhetoric about seduction. In fact, some officials even suggested this matter-of-fact attitude regarding sexual offenses should be extended to cases involving prostitutes.

The courts' relative indifference to gender distinctions may have its origin in ancient Celtic traditions. In ancient Ireland women could own property, could marry and divorce as they chose and could rule in their own right.(6) Even the Catholic Church had made concessions in early Celtic society. The Book of Lismore includes the indignant observation from Canair, a holy maiden, that "Christ came to redeem women no less than to redeem men ... No less than men do women enter the heavenly kingdom."(7) The equality of women in ancient Irish society extended to physical as well as spiritual matters. The Roman observers of the Celts were often struck by the power of their women warriors. Ammianus Marcellinus observed that an entire troop could not defeat a Celtic warrior "if he called his wife to his assistance, who is usually very strong ... especially when, swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth, and brandishing her sallow arms of enormous size, she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks."(8) Cuchulainn, the greatest of Irish heroes, was trained in warfare by a woman. Both Maeve and Boadiccea represent a long tradition of strong Irish women wielding extensive influence in their community and enjoying a fair degree of respect for their physical prowess as well.

Yet by the nineteenth century, the Victorian ideal of docile, delicate women, happy in a life of deference and submission informed the rhetoric of the Irish church as well as Irish literature.(9) However this genteel ideal does not seem to have permeated rural Irish culture. Women in rural Ireland, especially in the west, were expected to perform physically demanding labor. Travellers were astonished to find barefoot women, often pregnant, carrying loads which would strain the strength of the average man.(10) Given the harsh physical realities of women's lives it is perhaps not surprising that in late nineteenth century Ireland little stigma was attached to women who were physically violent.

While notions of female delicacy did not prejudice the courts against women who fought, the courts did acknowledge the physical disadvantages of women in combat. Of the 1,926 homicides in Ireland between 1866 and 1892, women were the assailants in 71 cases and the victims in 338. The differences can be explained in part by the fact that an unarmed woman was less likely to inflict a fatal blow. Only 14 percent of women who killed used no weapon whereas 30 percent of all homicides involved no weapon. Even though women who killed were more likely to use a weapon they were still less likely to be executed. Only one woman (2.5 percent of those convicted) was executed between 1866 and 1892 as opposed to 40 men (5 percent of those convicted). The death penalty was also much more likely to be invoked when the victim was female. Forty-one percent of the persons executed in Ireland between 1866 and 1892 had killed women though women were the victims in only 17 percent of all homicides.

Though women were much more likely to be homicide victims than killers, they were almost as likely to be accused of indictable assaults as they were to be victims of such assaults. In the four counties for which complete records survive 217 women were indicted for assault and 262 women were victims of indictable assault. Again perhaps because women were less likely to inflict serious injury the penalties were often light. Fifty-one percent of women accused of an indictable assault were convicted but only 27 percent served jail time for the offense. Assaults on women were punished somewhat more severely. Sixty percent of persons accused of an indictable assault on a woman were convicted and 41 percent served jail time.

Violence was accepted by both men and women as a means of resolving a dispute or avenging a wrong. Women accused of violent assaults often showed no remorse and in fact argued that their actions were justified. After killing another beggar in a shoving match Honore Clifford told the police "it was her and everyone like her, strangers that spoiled the town." Anne Madigan, who assaulted William Boland with a meat cleaver for taking her husband's job, took a similar view of the propriety of personal vengeance saying, "thanks be to God that it was no robbery that I committed." The courts often agreed that provocation was acceptable grounds for violence. When Mary Kiernan's neighbor insulted her, she responded by hitting him in the nose with a bucket. But as the Cavan Weekly News reported, "as she got provocation and had been already a week in gaol she was only fined five shillings and costs." Even among the gentry the tradition of women fighting back survived. One landlady responded to three men chasing her carriage by hitting the men with her umbrella. When gunmen fired at the carriage of Miss Louisa Ellard, a landlord's daughter who was managing her father's estate, "she turned around and fired three shots from a small revolver." She also ordered the driver to unhitch the horses and ride after the assailants but he demurred.(11)

In addition to avenging insults and answering challenges, brawling (with attendant drinking) was also a form of recreation in which women might participate. The Limerick Chronicle noted in 1866 "they all knew that when a disturbance commenced in a town on fair or market day, men were not only involved but women also." In 1883 the Petty Sessions Chairman in Limerick complained that "The women are the cause of all the disturbances. The men are not half as bad." Women brawlers were not modest about their accomplishments. At the Kilkenny Quarter Sessions in 1877 Margaret Brennan charged that Jane Bourne had challenged her to box and then thrown a stone at her. When an attorney asked Brennan if it was true that she was the rowdiest woman in town, Brennan replied "What's it to you?"(12)

Generally deaths in brawls were viewed as regrettable but hardly criminal. The ten women who killed during brawls were sentenced to less than one year in all but one case. Mary Considine, a prostitute in Limerick, was sentenced to five years for killing another prostitute in a drunken quarrel over money. The heavy sentence was justified on the grounds that Considine had a long record of convictions at Petty Sessions and was considered a bad character. But Considine's case was an anomaly for in 75 percent of the cases where women were killed in brawls the assailant was sentenced to less than five years. In a typical case Patrick Fitzgibbon was charged with manslaughter in the death of Alice Maher. Fitzgibbon had been fighting with Maher's son when Alice Maher began throwing rocks. Maher's husband told the police that he had separated the boys and then gone back out to drag his wife in: "She was sober but in a very excited condition trying to go at Mr. Fitzgibbon.... She was a hasty quarrelsome woman. I believe the stone was thrown at me and I ducked my head and my wife got hit." She died from the skull fracture a week later. Fitzgibbon was sentenced to six months.(13)

Women were also involved in faction fighting - the ongoing feuds which provided justification for frequent violent confrontations. In Limerick the conflict between the Conways and Kearneys which had been going on for twenty-three years peaked during the 1870s. In 1871 Patrick Conway testified against Catherine Kearney at Petty Sessions. On the way home from court he was ambushed and beaten to death by the Kearneys while Catherine shouted: "Kill him, kill him, don't you rise off him until you leave him cold." Catherine and her daughter Bridget were both charged as accomplices to the murder. At their trial the defense attorney assured the court that Catherine and Bridget could not have used disgraceful language during the murder as at the time "they were in fisticuffs in the road". The Kearneys were convicted. A year later Honora Conway, the pregnant wife of a faction leader, was assaulted by four members of the Kearney faction. The case dragged on for several years but no jury was ever willing to convict, either because factions were accepted as normal behavior or because the intimidation tactics of the Kearneys discouraged jury members from voting against them.(14)

The fact that Honora Conway was pregnant when she was assaulted does not seem to have attracted much notice. Generally brawling was not considered incompatible with women's roles as wives and mothers. Often the women who came before the court were either pregnant or had young children. Jane Davidson was seven months pregnant when she assaulted a neighbor by throwing sewage at her. Mary Magory was eight months pregnant when her next door neighbor hit her in the stomach. The seriousness of the assault was somewhat abated by the fact that Magory had started the fight by striking him with a stool. He was acquitted. After Eliza Burke, mother of an infant, was sentenced to one month for assaulting Mary Dalton with a hatchet, a debate began as to whether nursing infants went to prison with their mothers. The Clerk of the Court suggested that the child had to be formally named in the commitment but the judge said it was a matter of course. Kate Kitt was nine months pregnant when she hit Margaret Downs in the head in a dispute over money. Kitt was sentenced to a [pounds]3 fine or one month; there was relief in the courtroom when she elected to pay the fine.(15)

Motherhood was sometimes a factor in sentencing. Mary Molloy, convicted of assault after a brawl with her neighbors over a tuff bog, was released on her own recognizance because she had small children though the judge noted that "her conduct was disgraceful." In an 1866 assault case the defense attorney pled that "the female prisoner has three young children I do hope that you will pardon her." The J.P. wearily responded, "Very well, dismiss the charges against her." In 1877 when "a married woman with babe in arms" set fire to her lodging house while drunk, the judge warned her to stop drinking but released her on recognizance.(16)

While women warriors were not unusual in brawls and faction fights the extent of their involvement in political violence is less clear. I have found no evidence of female moonlighters though it is possible that English preconceptions about the delicate, passive nature of females may have protected women activists from detection.(17) Some women were the victims of moonlight attacks though they often refused to be intimidated. In 1879 Mrs. Anne Omeara, a Limerick publican, reported seven different incidents of shots fired into or near her pub and home apparently because she refused to join the Land League. The Outrage Report noted that "Mrs. Omeara, the widow of a Royal Irish Constabulary Pensioner, gave her reason for not joining the Land League or subscribing that if her husband were living he would not support it either." While Mrs. Omeara's political convictions may have been inherited from her husband, she continued to hold them despite the shootings. Margaret Upton, a twenty year old dressmaker, showed similar resolve. When she refused to allow the Ladies Land League to continue meeting in her home, moonlighters fired at her house. She responded by giving information to the police which led to the arrest of her assailants under the Protection of Person and Property Act.(18)

Though there is no evidence of women perpetrating serious political violence, 21 percent of assaults for which women were indicted were connected with land. Nearly half of these incidents involved disputes with neighbors or relatives over trespassing, inheritance or possession of a turf bog, but in a quarter of the cases the women were accused of assaulting officials attempting to carry out evictions or seizures of property. For example in 1890 Bridget Cooney snatched the decree from a sub-constable trying to seize some of her livestock and then hit him in the head with a spade. Catherine Farrelly, "a respectable looking woman" with eight children, used boiling water and stones to dissuade an old man who was trying to serve an eviction decree on her husband. In what may he an indication of public sentiment about the interference of officials in such disputes, only two of the women indicted for assaulting bailiffs were sentenced to prison - both for less than thirty days.(19)

Land or inheritance disputes were the motive in 33 percent of assaults in which women fought with relatives. Much of this violence might be traced to the demographic and psychological effects of the dreadful potato famine of the late 1840s. The potato famine created a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions. Though the accounts of roadsides littered with the dead and dying are horrifying to read, by the 1860s the famine was long over and in many ways Ireland had recovered. Ironically, the demographic changes created by the famine left a more prosperous population. The proportion of the rural population which was landless fell dramatically. The economic advances were accompanied by an increase in literacy and a burgeoning provincial press. However, the psychological and social legacy of the famine was profound. The lesson of the famine, at least on one level, had been that overpopulation and division of land caused catastrophe. After the famine marriage patterns changed as keeping the family farm intact took precedence. Only one child would inherit. Other adult children could either emigrate or remain as unpaid servants. Consequently an enormous number of people were simply never allowed to function as autonomous adults. They were referred to as "boys and girls" and treated accordingly.(20)

Though only one child could inherit it did not have to be the eldest. As a result tensions among siblings and between parents and children worsened as the inheritance became a prize to be won. Family members often did not hesitate to use any means to gain control of family property. For example in Mayo in 1891 Anthony Nolan had the sheriff evict his sister Margaret McCormack and her four children as well as his father. After the family had been put out with all their furniture, Margaret returned and forced her way in with an iron bar. Nolan responded by successfully prosecuting Margaret for intimidation. He completed his house cleaning by having his father committed to the workhouse.(21)

Women who inherited farms were particularly liable to assault from envious relatives. Over half the female homicide victims named as farmers in the Outrage Reports were killed by in-laws or other relatives in disputes over inheritance or possession of the farm. One woman suffered midnight firings into her home after she evicted her son for marrying without her consent. Nine women were killed by siblings in disputes over land or money. One of the most interesting cases involved sisters from a respectable Westmeath farming family. Anne Croghan was charged with hiring the gunman who killed her sister Esther. Their mother had decided to leave the family farm to Esther. Fearing she would be evicted, Anne had apparently solicited a number of different assassins before finding one willing to accept the job.(22)

The fact that marriages were often arranged on the basis of land and property settlements increased tensions among in-laws. Eight percent of female homicide victims were killed by an in-law and 15 percent of women who killed, killed an in-law. In 1876 Michael Reardon murdered his son's wife because he believed he had not received proper support since turning his land over to his son. Reardon believed his daughter-in-law was to blame and explained to police that he had had to get rid of her. Widows were especially vulnerable to attack by in-laws who wanted the family property returned. One Limerick widow reported that her house had been fired into repeatedly after she refused to give her late husband's farm back to his father. Despite the attacks she insisted she would stand her ground unless her dowry were returned to her.(23)

Property issues also created tension between husbands and wives. In 1881 a woman charged her husband with beating her with a blackthorn stick telling the court, "I have threatened that I would bring him into court and I have kept my word; I shall support my children in spite of him; I have opened a little shop in New Street and he smashed my windows and said he would not allow me to sell anything . . . my children would starve if I had to depend on him." The court ordered him to find sureties of [pounds]20 or spend six months in jail. He cried and begged for forgiveness but his wife refused to take him back.(24)

Women who brought dowries to marriage or inherited land in their own name sometimes maintained individual control. The Limerick Chronicle reported with considerable glee a case in which Patrick and Elizabeth Roche fought it out over her marriage portion. The couple had separated after "continual strife" and "whilst in 'exile' he conceived he had a right to live in what he looked on as his own house and gathered a band of fellows and proceeded to take possession." Roche and his friends used hatchets and an iron-axle to try to gain possession of the house but his wife and her female friends resisted and "presented a bold front to the invaders and like worthy amazons simultaneously rushed on the first man who entered (happening to be the unfortunate husband) felled him and prostrated themselves on his body administering to him a sound thrashing." The husband and his friends were forced to retreat. The light-hearted tone indicates both the lack of concern about violence in general as well as the fact that women were clearly not perceived as helpless victims.(25)

Many Irish women used force to defend themselves against abusive husbands. In an interesting reversal of the pleas heard in many English cases, Mary Flanagan, who was charged with stabbing her husband during a dispute over clothes, told the police "if I kick and beat my husband, what is that to any other person?" When the Cavan Petty Sessions heard charges against Mary Fitzpatrick for beating her husband in the head with a shovel, she explained that he had failed to provide money to support their four children for the preceding six months. In a similar case in Limerick Winifred Dwyer was charged with inflicting serious scalp wounds on her husband Michael. Winifred told the court that during their three year marriage Michael had squandered her fortune on drink. He had also previously been bound for beating her because "she was a robber of a wife." Since Winifred was nine months pregnant the judge suggested that she plead guilty and promised there would be no jail. She took the advice and was released on her own recognizance; Michael was warned to "keep sober in the future and to be kinder to his wife."(26)

Though Irish women were willing to fight back, obviously in a physical battle the husband would ordinarily have the advantage. Over ten times as many husbands (126) were accused of killing their wives as wives (12) were accused of killing their husbands between 1866 and 1892. Eight of the twelve women accused were convicted. Of these, four served life sentences, one twenty years, one five years and the other two less than six months. When wives killed their husbands the courts considered provocation a mitigating factor. Mary Bingham served only four months after she admitted she had killed her husband with a poker because he had called her a whore. Witnesses established that Mary Bingham was a good wife who had been provoked by a man "of intemperate habits."(27)

Though women who plotted to kill their husbands were treated more severely, even then motives and root causes were considered. In 1879 Margaret Brosnan was convicted of killing her husband with a hatchet. She had married a man twenty-six years her senior in return for her husband's rescuing her father's farm from foreclosure. According to the Outrage Report said "they lived very unhappily together, it being rumored that an improper intercourse existed between Mrs Brosnan and a neighboring young man." But the judge felt that her crime could be attributed to the greed which led to arranged marriages. Before sentencing he told Margaret Brosnan, "You have been made a victim by that selfish old father of yours by coercing you to marry a man against whom you had such a dreadful animosity." She was sentenced to twenty years.(28)

Unhappy marriages could also endanger children. Edward and Anne Fallon spent Christmas Day, 1891 in drunken brawling. The weapons used included fire tongs and after several blows were struck on both sides Edward grabbed the boiling kettle and said "By God almighty, I'll scald you to death." Tragically he tripped over their fourteen month old daughter's cradle, fatally scalding the child. Beyond its sheer horror, the case is significant in the testimony in which both the parents and grandparents agreed that such violence was a regular thing between Edward and Anne. As Anne Fallon told the court "We did not live well together." Edward was sentenced to six months for manslaughter.(29)

While the Fallon child's death was clearly unintentional it was not unusual in its element of negligence towards the welfare of children. In much of the testimony regarding the deaths of children at the hands of their mothers, there is a tone of callousness born of despair as if survival was the responsibility of each individual and even infants were on their own in the struggle. Once again the famine may help explain this negligence. Child-rearing practices were inevitably disrupted by the famine and even in the second and third generations, those who raised families in the period between 1866 and 1892, the famine legacy remained. Nurturant parents usually produce nurturant children and unfortunately people who are abused or neglected as children often become abusive or neglectful parents.(30) It seems reasonable to suggest that famine conditions in some cases could have done serious if not irreparable harm to relations between parent and child.

Certainly most Irish mothers cared for their children, but some women may have never seen or internalized nurturant behavior. For example Bridget McGurney, described in the newspaper as a tramp tinker, was charged in the death of her infant. She had been drunk and wandering the streets carrying the child like a rag doll. A physician noted that the child's head and neck were covered with bruises, and warned McGurney that the child could die if she kept it out all night and continued to carry it so carelessly. After the child's death McGurney told the police: "Five children have died on me. I do not know of any provocation I gave the child. It was naturally defiant." She was sentenced to two months. Catherine Gaffney of Cavan refused to nurse her illegitimate infant and told friends she had put the child in the workhouse because she would not injure herself by nursing a baby. Others simply had no idea what to do. Ellen Moore whose five day old infant died of starvation explained, "It was my first child I did not know how to treat it." She was not indicted. Judges and jurors seemed to sympathize with this ignorance rather than harshly condemn these "unwomanly" sentiments.(31)

When an infant died as a result of abuse or neglect a number of legal options were available. In addition to the fourteen women accused of murder for killing their minor children another 1,056 women were accused of infanticide which could include the deaths of children up to two years old. In addition to the deaths of newborns there were also cases in which women who had tried for several months to care for their babies finally abandoned the effort. Life was clearly very difficult for a single mother. When Bridget Kelly's three month old daughter died from neglect she told the court "I done the best I could for it. I had to go out to work. I proffered 6d a day for the minding of it. I had to go to work to get victuals for the other two children and myself and pay rent. I applied for relief and all I got it for was six days." The Grand Jury chose not to indict her.(32)

Infanticide cases most often involved illegitimacy and so were tied in with sexual mores. The affiliation laws in Ireland were stricter than those in England. An Irish woman could not win a paternity case without a corroborating witness. This was a sharp departure from ancient Celtic traditions which made fathers responsible for children born out of wedlock.(33) Some officials in the Catholic church felt that the stricter laws helped to insure the chastity of Irish women. When the members of the Board of Guardians in Roscommon discussed whether the Irish laws should be amended to match those of England a local priest warned "It is a temptation to a woman who has once fallen to continue her evil course when she has only to swear that a certain person is the father of her child to recover from him a certain weekly allowance." The English practice had led, the priest was certain, to the immorality so common in Britain. "In the matter of morality Ireland is, in very truth, an island of saints compared with England or Scotland." The priest warned that changing the Irish law might undermine this saintliness. "At present the Irish girl knows that she has nothing to gain but disgrace if she outsteps the bounds of morality, and they should be cautious before they place any temptation in her way."(34)

Priests might have thanked legal safeguards for Irish morality but many nineteenth-century Irish judges felt that fathers got off too easily under the Irish law. One judge told a servant whose infant had bled to death after being left in some bushes, "I think you are more sinned against than sinning - go and sin no more." When a woman was accused of killing her three-month-old infant the defense attorney pointed out that "the real culprit, I say, is not in the dock. The real culprit is that beast - that brute who first destroyed this woman's virtue - then threw her upon the world an unfortunate wanderer." In fact the defense claimed that the accused had left the infant at the father's house and he had killed it. She was acquitted at the judge's direction. Another indication of the willingness of Irish courts to place moral blame on fathers is found in the case of Anne Aylward. After drowning her eighteen-month-old daughter, Aylward told the police "she could have no nature for the child, for the father denied the child." Though the jury convicted her they recommended her to mercy "on account of her youth, on account of her honest efforts to support the child for so long and finally on account of the state of desperation to which she had been driven by the heartless desertion of the father of the child who had seduced her, and his flight to America with her sister whom he had also seduced." Aylward's death sentence was commuted to life. Indeed of the fourteen women charged with the murder in the death of their children only one served more than two years. In fifty-five infanticide cases for which complete records survive only nine women were sentenced to prison.(35)

Many of the women charged in the deaths of newborns were servants, who had given birth alone and simply refused to acknowledge the child's existence. The question of when a child became a person with protection under the law was never explicitly discussed but it is important to note that in cases involving the deaths of children under a year of age, the police always recorded whether or not the child had been baptized. Anne O'Connor has argued that in Irish folklore regarding infanticide "the fact that an unwanted baby was deprived of baptism and therefore of an afterlife was the central issue."(36) Only one abortion case appears in surviving records. A man and woman in Carlow were accused of "administering noxious drugs to Sarah Williams to procure abortion." The jury deliberated less than an hour before acquitting them.(37)

There were two other crimes against infants with which unwed mothers might be charged. One was child abandonment. Between 1866 and 1892 the Outrage Reports included 998 charges of child abandonment. The courts considered circumstances in these cases. At the Kilkenny Assize in 1872 Ellen Forrestal was accused of abandoning her infant in a yard while she followed the child's father to seek money from him "as she had nothing to buy food or tobacco." The child had died of exposure but though the original charge was for manslaughter the Grand Jury only indicted for child abandonment. Justice Fitzgerald said in his charge "It was a case of an unfortunate - one which they would feel more pity than condemnation for." She was sentenced to six months. Another woman who left her child in a deserted house "to bring it before its reputed father" was sentenced only to time served while awaiting trial. Abandonment cases could also be judged on the basis of intended outcome. The Cavan Quarter Session Chairman explained "A person might desert a child as that its life would not be in danger. They would have to consider was the child left in such a lonely place so that if it were not discovered for some time its life would be in danger." Bridget McGovern had abandoned her infant on the doorstep of a couple who had it baptized and cared for it. Since McGovern's intention had been to provide a better home for the child rather than simply get rid of it she was acquitted.(38)

Another possible charge against unwed mothers was concealment of birth. This charge was usually brought against unwed mothers who had given birth and then disposed of the child's body. The charge implied (rightly or wrongly) that the child's death had been a natural one. In practice it was often a less severe way to deal with infanticide cases. Newborns most often died of suffocation or bleeding from the umbilical cord, both forms of death which could result from ignorance or accident as well as malice.

Judges often released women charged with abandonment or concealment of birth on the basis of technicalities. For example, Marcella Hoffmeyer claimed her child had died on the way home from the workhouse and she had buried it on the roadside. She was arrested but the clerk of the court pointed out that she could not be accused of concealing a birth which had taken place in the workhouse. The courts also required proof that the child had been born to the woman charged. In Limerick in 1871 a woman was seen throwing her infant at its father and leaving it there to die in the road. The judge told the jury "it would be an injurious precedent to establish that a mother who was bound to maintain her child was at liberty to throw a child on the road to the father" but having said that he directed an acquittal because the name and the sex of the child were not specified in the indictment and thus the link between the accused and the dead child had not been proven. In another case a woman who threw her still-born child in a lake was released after claiming she did not know it was a crime to do so.(39)

While judges and juries often felt compelled to ameliorate the laws regarding the care of illegitimate children, there was a legal option for women who had been seduced and abandoned: filing a civil suit for breach of promise or seduction. The damages awarded varied according to the estimation of the losses to both reputation and prospects. In 1891 a Kilkenny man whose daughter had been seduced by a farmer while a servant in his house appealed to the court for [pounds]50 in damages. The girl claimed she had been violently raped and had given birth to her master's child; however, she had not brought criminal charges. The court ruled that "the father did not suffer financially by the seduction of his daughter" and dismissed the action. But in another case in 1877 a workhouse girl won [pounds]50 from a seventy year old farmer. The awards could be substantial. When a Donegal man broke his engagement claiming it had been "conditional" with both parties free to opt out within three months, his fiancee sued for [pounds]1,000, some 20 percent of his total worth. Though the defense argued that the defendant had taken to drink and felt he was no longer suitable for marriage, the plaintiff was awarded [pounds]800.(40)

Seduction could also lead to violence. Revenge or chastisement for seduction was mentioned as a possible motive in sixteen homicides. The most dangerous person for a lothario was his victim's brother. Seven men were killed by the brothers of women they had seduced. But relatives were not the only ones who resented the exploitation of women. In at least three cases communities took it upon themselves to cleanse the neighborhood, killing men who had made a habit of seducing local girls. No one was prosecuted in any of these cases. Jilted women sometimes needed no male avenger or legal recourse. In Cavan in 1885 the Quarter Session Chairman "referred to a case in which a woman was charged with having thrown a vessel of hot water over a young man, and made some remarks about how frequent a crime this was becoming among young ladies, which were inaudible owing to the laughter which they evoked." The defendant was acquitted. When Ann Flanagan of Roscommon was arrested for shooting a local farmer, the magistrates released her after she explained he "had attempted to take liberties with her." In 1869 a servant in Tipperary who killed a magistrate who had seduced and abandoned her was not even arrested.(41)

The sympathy shown by the courts to unwed mothers and claims of seduction reflects at least a partial rejection of the sexual double standard. The treatment of sexual assaults reveals an even stronger trend towards gender equity. Sexual assaults were relatively rarely reported in Ireland. Between 1865 and 1892 there were an average of seventy-four sexual assaults charges per year in Ireland, less than 5 percent of the total reported serious offenses. However the authorities were willing to deal severely with these cases. The conviction rate of 50 percent for sexual assault cases was slightly higher than the over-all conviction rate for felonies of 47 percent. In Victorian England rape charges were usually only sustained when a respectable woman of good character had been brutally assaulted in public by a total stranger.(42) In the Irish evidence cases meeting these criteria were extremely rare. The assailant and victim were complete strangers in only four of the 315 cases for which complete records survived.

The concept of acquaintance rape which has been very slow to gain acceptance in British and American courts was recognized in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. For example in 1889 James Connerly and Margaret King were walking back from a shop together when he assaulted and raped her. King, a married woman, shouted and resisted. The police discovered scrapes and braises on both the victim and the accused. At the trial the victim told the court that Connerly had shouted that "he was a better man than Paddy King," Margaret's husband. The defense attorney tried to establish consent but she parried his questions. "I deny using bawdy language. I was not drunk that night. I don't know anything about my husband offering a settlement. I was never charged with improper conduct with any other man." Despite the suggestions of consent made by the defense attorney and the fact that the case rested on her word against his, Connerly was convicted and sentenced to five years penal servitude.(43)

Twenty-two men were accused of what in modem terms would be considered date rape, i.e., sexual assaults on women they were courting. Thirteen of the men or 59 percent of them were convicted. In several of these cases sexual assaults were clearly intended to force marriage by mining the victim's reputation and chances on the marriage market. Patrick Mullen, a young man on the Isle of Aran, assaulted a neighbor's daughter while she was trying to milk a cow. She screamed and resisted and was rescued by her aunt. She told the court that as Mullen ran away he shouted that "he'd enough done that no man would want to marry me." A friend of the prisoner's told her "We will be after you until we cotch [sic] you for him." At Mullen's trial the defense attorney specifically mentioned marriage as a solution to which the victim replied, "I never walked a foot of the road with him." Mullen was convicted of indecent assault and sentenced to twelve months. Another young man, Martin Faherty, got his father to help him kidnap his employer's daughter and lock her in his bedroom. She escaped by hitting him with a saucepan. At his trial Faherty assured the court that the victim had been promised to him three years earlier and that he had offered [pounds]20. He was convicted of indecent assault and sentenced to eighteen months. In another case Mary Cunningham had first refused but then accepted Patrick Joyce's invitation to "walk out." She told police he had talked in a way she did not understand and then raped her. After his arrest Joyce admitted to police that he had been intoxicated but said he meant to "give her as much as will bring her to America and that it was very strange she went out with a drunk man." He was convicted and sentenced to eight years.(44)

Though the courts were clearly willing to convict in such cases, sometimes the ploy worked. Michael Knight of Mayo raped Bridget Ruane after she rejected his marriage proposal. She initially told no one of the assault and agreed to marry Knight. Later she told police she had agreed to marry Knight as "I said I'd do anything before my character would be scattered on account of him." In a happier outcome the trial of Thomas Higgins for the rape of Bridget Swift ended abruptly when the prisoner and prosecutrix asked that the case be held over for an hour. When the trial resumed "the accused presented a certificate of his marriage with the prosecutrix whereupon the prosecution collapsed and the accused and his wife left the court arm in arm."(45)

Unlike their English counterparts, Irish courts showed no favoritism to men who raped social inferiors. Even employers who raped servants were convicted. Thomas Moore of Queens was accused of raping his servant Judith Kennedy in 1891. Moore had come home late, drunk, and after asking for a light had burst through Kennedy's bedroom door and raped her. She had first gone to her priest and on his advice brought the broken bolt from her bedroom door when she reported the rape to the police. His attorney tried to argue consent on the basis of her failure to scream. Kennedy replied, "I called for no assistance as there was no one in the house at the time but his wife and young child. The wife is a cripple." The attorney then tried to impugn her character to which she replied: "I never offered to the prisoner to commit any sin with him. I never had any connection with any man before this. I never had a child." As a final witness the defense presented Kennedy's sister who swore that Judith who was thirty years old had previously given birth to an illegitimate child. But despite the implication of a previous lapse (and of perjury on Kennedy's part) the jury convicted Moore and he was sentenced to five years penal servitude.(46)

The very idea that a woman's reputation or previous behavior should be considered in cases of sexual assault was explicitly rejected in Limerick in 1884 when a man was accused of raping Catherine Fleming after she asked for help in getting her drunken husband to bed. When the case was heard at Petty Sessions one magistrate kept asking if she had been sober, prompting the resident magistrate to remark "I don't think it should be propounded from this bench that because a woman happens to be slightly under the influence of drink any man is at liberty to use her indecently." Offended, the magistrate replied "I am astonished that any magistrate sitting should insinuate unintentionally or otherwise that I propounded so ridiculous, so absurd, or so wanting in Christian feeling an idea that because a woman was drunk she should be insulted. That's the time as I have said, she ought to be protected." He went on to insist, "I have always dealt determinedly with assaults on women. I made myself notorious, in fact, unpopular, owing to the extremity with which I carried out the law as far as I could to protect women from assaults." The fact that both magistrates felt it necessary to assert their position in a public forum indicates that they felt it was impolitic to think otherwise.(47)

Though social status or prior behavior was not a factor in the victim's credibility, her vulnerability could worsen the offense. At least seventeen rope victims were over sixty year of age. The assailant was arrested and convicted in 65 percent of these cases and 54 percent of those convicted were sentenced to at least five years penal servitude. Sentences were also heavier in the twenty-three cases in which exceptional violence was used. In the most violent cases, the nine in which the victim was murdered, four men were arrested, two were executed, one sentenced to life and another to twenty years.

Irish courts even protected women who were not a part of the local community. Six of the rope victims were "tramping woman" who traveled about the countryside looking for work. They were not necessarily prostitutes - as one pointed out "she had never walked at night," but clearly represented an outside group. Their assailants met with the same likelihood of conviction and harsh sentence as did those who assaulted local married women. In 1883 John Quinn of Kildare was accused of raping a tramping woman who was "living rough as she had no money." Quinn had first propositioned her and then raped her when she turned him down. A physician said he found no marks of violence and "I am of the opinion that she had not been a virgin previous to July 16, 1883." Despite the doctor's opinion Quinn was convicted. The most exceptional of these cases occurred in Galway in 1889. Eliza Prynne, a traveling woman, reported that when she went to apply for admission to the workhouse, the relieving officer and two of his friends raped her. The case was taken very seriously by the courts. Justice Richard Douse warned that "if Jennings, the relieving officer, were convicted before him, he would inflict a sentence that would make workhouse officials tremble all over the country." Apparently Jennings took the warning to heart. He jumped bail before trial as did one of the other accused men; the jury failed to agree in the trial of the third.(48)

Men who raped prostitutes were as likely to be convicted as men who raped other women. Mary Carmody, who admitted she had been a prostitute for four years, accused a young man of taking her against her will. Her assailant, who had said "she was a prostitute and she was bound to go with him," told police she had taken a shilling and then told him to go to hell. He was convicted, as was a soldier who raped an "unfortunate girl" because he had no money. In 1892 a Tipperary constable rescued a drunken prostitute from three men who were attempting a gang rape. All three assailants were convicted.(49)

In addition to the active prosecution of men who raped prostitutes, there was also concern among some officials that the civil liberties of prostitutes not be denied by the police. C. F. Bourke, the Chairman of the General Prison Board complained to the Chief Secretary in 1891 that the police were sometimes overly harsh in their treatment of prostitute. "I am of opinion they should be protected by law as far as possible and should not be driven by persecution into the class of heinous criminals or be deprived, on account of being prostitutes, of the protection and liberty accorded to other of her majesty's subjects."(50)

Irish judicial authorities generally recognized the rights of women as subjects, without regard to gender or their sexual morality. They granted that women had the right to fight back in brawls and domestic squabbles but also recognized that women were at a physical disadvantage and so might need extra protection. Though the law was harsh towards the unwed mother who failed to care for her child, the courts often attempted to ameliorate that harshness.(51) In dealing with sexual assaults, the area of the criminal law most obviously influenced by preconceptions on matter of gender, the Irish courts usually treated such crimes simply as crimes regardless of the circumstances, the social status of the accused or the reputation of the victim. Similarly women accused of crimes were judged on the basis of their actions without regard to gender.

The causes of this surprisingly progressive outlook among judges in the courts of a country often perceived as a backwater are not immediately apparent. The continuity of ancient Celtic traditions is a possibility. Even though Celtic law had been replaced with the English Common Law by the early modem period, Raymond Gillespie has argued that the criminalization of women which occurred in the seventeenth century in England and Scotland and had its fiercest manifestation in the witch craze did not occur in Ireland. He suggests that community cohesion maintained social control without resorting to the law.(52) Whatever the reason the fact that seventeenth-century Irish courts did not experience this criminalization process may partially explain why in the late nineteenth century Irish courts were still less effected by gender issues than their British counterparts. More recently, perhaps the trauma of the famine had reinforced the emphasis on individual survival, rendering other considerations less important. Certainly the fact that Irish women were expected to perform physical labor as arduous as that of men argues against a stereotype of female delicacy.

It is particularly striking that this relative equality should have been found in nineteenth-century Irish courts. Women in twentieth-century Ireland have been the victims of extremely harsh discriminatory legislation. The bans on contraception, abortion and divorce as well as the marriage bar which forbade married women from many professions were designed to restrict women to the role of submissive wife and mother.(53) In the late twentieth-century Irish women continue to struggle for rights already granted to most European women. By contrast, in the courts of late nineteenth-century Ireland, despite the efforts of the Catholic church and the tone of Victorian discourse, women, both as defendants and victims, enjoyed an equality which their sisters across the Irish Sea did not.

Department of History Birmingham, AL 35294-3350


1. On this point see Ellen Ross, "'Fierce Questions and Taunts': Married Life in Working-Class London, 1870-1914," Feminist Studies 8 (1982); Nancy Tomes, "'A Torrent of Abuse': Crimes of Violence Between Working Class Men and Women in London, 1840-1873," Journal of Social History 11 (1978); Carolyn Conley, The Unwritten Law: Criminal Justice in Victorian Kent (Oxford, 1991).

2. See Maria Luddy and Cliona Murphy, Women Surviving: studies in Irish women's history in the 19th and 20th centuries (Dublin, 1990), and Maria Luddy, "An Agenda for Women's History in Ireland, Part II, 1800-1900," Irish Historical Studies XXVII, 109, (May 1992).

3. The criminal records for the period 1866 to 1892 have survived in mixed fashion. Records for all homicides were kept by the Chief Secretary's Office and are available (Irish National Archives, CSO ICR volumes I and II). Some additional criminal records (depositions, Grand Jury Books and/or indictments) survive for seventeen counties but complete records for the entire period are only available for Cavan, Kilkenny, Limerick and Roscommon.

4. Joseph Lee, The Modernization of Irish Society, 1848-1918 reports that the proportion of female farmers rose from 4 to 15 percent between 1841 and 1911 (p. 5). For Ireland see Rita M. Rhodes, Women and the Family in Post-Famine Ireland: Status and Opportunity in a Patriarchal Society (New York, 1992). For English laws regarding women and property see Katherine O'Donovan, "The Male Appendage: Legal Definitions of Women," in Fit Work for Women ed. Sandra Burman (New York, 1979), pp. 138ff; Lee Holcombe, "Victorian Wives and Property: Reform of the Married Woman's Property Law, 1875-1882," in A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women, ed. Martha Vicinus (Bloomington, IN, 1977), p. 4; Patricia Branca, Silent Sisterhood: Middle Class Women in the Victorian Home (London, 1975), p. 9.

5. For England see Carolyn Conley, "Rape and Justice in Victorian England," Victorian Studies 29 (1986).

6. Donncha O'Corrain, "Women in Early Irish Society," in Women in Irish Society: The Historical Dimension ed. Margaret MacCurtain and Donncha O'Corrain (Westport, CT, 1979), p. 5.

7. Quoted in Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness ed. Christopher Bamford and William Parker Marsh (Stockbridge, MA, 1987), p. 78.

8. Quoted in Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick, The Celtic Realms (New York, 1967), p. 154.

9. Luddy, "An Agenda for Women's History, 1800-1900," pp. 20, 21.

10. David Fitzpatrick, "The Modernization of the Irish Female" in Rural Ireland 1600-1900: Modernization and Change ed. by Patrick O'Flanagan, Paul Ferguson and Kevin Whelan (Cork, 1987), p. 166.

11. Ireland, National Archive, Dublin, Ireland, Crown Files at Assize (Tipperary, 1891); Crown Files at Assize (Limerick, 1892); Cavan Weekly News, 14 July 1882; Limerick Reporter, 18 April 1882; 31 December 1880; Irish National Archives, Return of Outrages Specially Reported to the Constabulary Office 1879-1892 (CSO ICR 2), 1880, p. 17.

12. Limerick Chronicle, 11 January 1866; Limerick Reporter, 31 August 1883; Kilkenny Journal, 10 October 1877.

13. Return of Outrages, 1883, p. 10; Limerick Reporter, 7 July 1883; Crown Files at Assize (Limerick City, 1889); Reports of Outrages, 1889, p. 12; Limerick Reporter, 10 December 1889; Clonmel Chronicle, 11 December 1889.

14. Limerick Reporter, 20 October 1871; 8 March 1872; Munster News, 23 March 1874; 10 July 1875; 26 February 1876.

15. Cavan Weekly News, 3 July 1874; Kilkenny Journal, 2 January 1878; Kilkenny Journal, 4 January 1882; Cavan Weekly News, 29 December 1882.

16. Mayo Examiner, 15 March 1890; Cavan Weekly News, 18 August 1866; Limerick Reporter, 2 March 1877.

17. "Moonlighters" refers to persons committing acts of terror by night, usually in connection with agrarian or political grievances. Shooting into houses, arson and vandalism were the most common acts of moonlighters during this period.

18. Return of Outrages, 1879, p. 27; 1882, p. 34.

19. Crown Files at Assize (Cavan 1890); Cavan Weekly News, 3 March 1890; Cavan Weekly News, 17 June 1881.

20. Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball, Family and Community in Ireland, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1968), pp. 52, 149; Robert E. Kennedy Jr., The Irish: Emigration, Marriage and Fertility, (Berkeley, 1973); James S. Donnelly, Jr., The Land and the People of Nineteenth Century Cork: The Rural Economy and the Land Question, (New York, 1975), p. 249. Some recent research has suggested that the marriage patterns changed before the famine. Regardless of the timing however, the norm in the late nineteenth century was late marriage and high celibacy rates. See Cormac O'Grada, Ireland Before and After the Famine (Manchester, 1988) and Brendan M. Walsh, "A Perspective on Irish Population Patterns" in Eire-Ireland IV, No. 3 (1969); Rhodes, Women and the Family, pp. 75-90 and passim.

21. Crown Files at Assize (Mayo 1891); Mayo Examiner, 25 July 1891.

22. Return of Outrages, 1891, p. 20; Crown Files at Assize (Cavan, 1891); Kilkenny Journal, 7 July 1883; 8 December 1883; Kilkenny Moderator, 7 July 1883; 8 December 1883. Also see Rhodes, p. 98 on women and inheritance.

23. Return of Outrages, 1876, p. 8; Munster News, 19 July 1876; Cork Examiner, 5 March 1877; Return of Outrages, 1875, p. 12.

24. Limerick Reporter, 1 June 1881.

25. Limerick Chronicle, 25 January 1873.

26. Crown Files at Assize (Galway, 1890); Galway Express, 19 July 1890; Cavan Weekly News, 11 October 1867; Munster News, 6 March 1875.

27. Crown Files at Assize (Mayo, 1889); Mayo Examiner, 7 December 1889.

28. Return of Outrages, 1879, p. 9; Limerick Reporter, 11 December 1879.

29. Crown Files at Assize (Galway, 1892).

30. James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein, Crime and Human Nature: The Definitive Study of the Causes of Crime (New York, 1985), pp. 213-263.

31. Crown Files at Assize (Tipperary, 1889); Clonmel Chronicle, 17 July 1889; Cavan Weekly News, July 10, 1874; Crown Files at Assize (Kildare, 1888).

32. Crown Files at Assize (Kildare, 1886); Kildare Observer, 18 December 1886.

33. O'Corrain, "Women in Early Irish Society," p. 8.

34. Roscommon Journal, 1 October 1881. Also see James Kelly, "Infanticide in Eighteenth-Century Ireland" Irish Economic and Social History: Journal of the Economic and Social History Society of Ireland XIX (1992). In her study of folklore Anne O'Connor also found indications of popular resentment of priestly censure for unwed mothers. Anne O'Connor "Women in Irish Folklore: The Testimony Regarding Illegitimacy, Abortion and Infanticide" in Women in Early Modern Ireland, ed. Margaret MacCurtain and Mary O'Dowd (Dublin, 1991), p. 316.

35. Sligo Champion, 10 December 1892; Cavan Weekly News, 6 March 1868; Crown Books at Assize (Kilkenny, 1871); Kilkenny Journal, 2 April 1871.

36. O'Connor, "Women in Irish Folklore," p. 309.

37. Carlow Sentinel, 5 March 5, 1887; K. H. Connell concluded that abortion was rare in Ireland. K. H. Connell, "Illegitimacy Before the Famine" in Irish Peasant Society (Oxford, 1968), pp. 64-65.

38. Kilkenny Journal, 17 July 1872; 15 July 1891; Cavan Weekly News, 1 June 1888; 9 March 1883.

39. Crown Files at Assize (Tipperary, 1891); Limerick Reporter, 14 July 1871; Galway Express, 18 July 1891.

40. Kilkenny Journal, 15 July 1891; 10 March 1877; Freeman's Journal, 14 December 1886.

41. Cavan Weekly News, 9 January 1885; Return of Outrages, 1870, p. 15; Return of Outrages 1869, p. 11.

42. Conley, "Rape and Justice in Victorian England," p. 536; Also see Anna Clark, Women's Silence, Men's Violence: Sexual Assaults in England 1770-1845 (New York, 1987).

43. Crown Files at Assize (Galway, 1889); Galway Observer, 7 December 1889; Galway Express, 7 December 1889.

44. Crown Files at Assize (Galway, 1890); Crown Files at Assize (Galway, 1889); Crown Files at Assize (Galway, 1891).

45. Crown Files at Assize (Mayo, 1892); Freeman's Journal, 15 March 1889.

46. Crown Files at Assize (Queens, 1891).

47. Limerick Reports, 6 June 1884.

48. Crown Files at Assize (Kildare, 1883); Galway Observer 14 December 1889; Crown Files at Assize (Galway, 1890); Tuam Herald, 19 July 1889.

49. Crown Files at Assize (Limerick, 1890); Limerick Reporter, 8 July 1890; Crown Files at Assize (Kildare, 1886); Crown Files at Assize (Tipperary, 1892); Clonmel Chronicle, 9 July 1892.

50. National Archives, CSORP 447/1891.

51. Judicial softening of harsh laws especially those involving sexual morality was not unique to Ireland. For another instance, perhaps not accidentally also in a Catholic context, see James Donovan, "Justice and Sexuality in Victorian Marseille, 1825-1885," Journal of Social History 21 (1987): 229-261.

52. Raymond Gillespie, "Women and Crime in Seventeenth-Century Ireland" in Women in Early Modem Ireland, p. 51.

53. Jenny Beale, Women in Ireland: Voices of Change (Bloomington, IN, 1987); J. J. Lee, "Women and the Church Since the Famine," in Women in Irish Society, pp. 37-45; Liam O'Dowd, "Church, State and Women: The Aftermath of Partition," in Gender in Irish Society ed. Chris Curtin, Pauline Jackson, Barbara O'Connor (Galway, 1987), pp. 3-36.
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Author:Conley, Carolyn
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Date:Jun 22, 1995
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