Repeal the Eighth: The Rebirth of a Nation

May 25th. Normally, I’d have my technology hat on and be discussing GDPR, a new regulation that comes into force within the EU to protect our online data. Instead, I want to weigh in on the Eight Amendment Referendum. Back before I was writing about tech or online I was a budding young historian. Today it dawned on me: my dissertation dug into the core of modern Ireland’s social problems.

Why was divorce on the cards in 1995? Why did it take until 2015 for same sex marriage to be legal on our shores? And why is it only now, in 2018, we are finally heading to the polls to decide on whether abortion should be legal in Ireland.

My dissertation’s title is:

Embodying the Nation: The ‘New Girl’ and Church Influence within the Free State Identity creation process

Being honest, I was very bloody well proud of that title and always argued a good title was worth a few grades. But it was only today I realised just how influential the foundation of the Irish Free State was in terms of the debates and discussions we’re still having today.

I’ll try get back to tech at the bottom, I swear.

Repeal the Eighth Amendment

I’m a man, and the Eighth Amendment has a massive impact on my life.

October 28th 2012. Savita Halappanavar died when she was denied an abortion following a septic miscarriage. This story hits me so hard on a level that makes me realise how much my partner means to me. I can’t help but put myself in the shoes of Savita’s husband. I’m not quite sure if this is a controversial opinion or not, but if I had to choose between my unborn child or my partner, I know I would pick her every single time and no government, religion or individual should have a right to tell me otherwise.

This is just one scenario where abortion should absolutely be allowed, but why exactly is abortion viewed with such vigor in Ireland? It’s right at the core of our national identity and comes as a result of post-war insecurities and Catholic Church driven national identity creation.

This is a bit of a history lesson in parts, but please let me nerd out — I haven’t done it in ages.

Founding the Irish Free State

Over the course of history, national borders have been built and destroyed and laws have been introduced and revoked. In the early twentieth century, Ireland was in the depths of a struggle to gain freedom from the British Empire. The Republic of Ireland was declared following the 1916 Rising which took place in Dublin, but would not become officially recognised until 1949. This period of transition, from British rule to an Irish Republic brought the foundation of the Irish Free State; a dominion of the British Commonwealth with self-governance brought into being through the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

The Irish Free State was a state born into blood, a distant entity from the republic envisioned by the revolutionaries of 1916. The Free State was not what many had laid down their lives for during the War of Independence, leading to a deepening unrest amongst the Irish population. Some, known as ‘Free Staters’, accepted the Free State as a stepping stone towards the eventual founding of a Republic. Others believed the Free State was an unacceptable attempt to placate the Irish people with many taking particular exception to the Oath of Allegiance to the British crown; considered to be in direct conflict with the Oath taken to fight for the foundation of a Republic.

The political chasm which divided the nation would incite the Irish Civil War, an intensely personal war as men who had recently fought for the freedom of Ireland turned their guns on Irish people and each other.

The Catholic Church in the Irish Free State

‘The legislation is for the Free State. The Free State is mainly Catholic’
Fr. James Dempsey

Within this tumultuous political and social landscape the Free State would be expected to forge a new national identity. The function of this identity would be to:

  • promote the nation on an international stage
  • resolve the political division within the nation

As the ‘common enemy’ Britain left the fray, the State would seek to install a new sense of shared public identity. The exact details of how that identity would be forged had yet to be hammered out but one thing that was certain: the Catholic Church would play a central role. With the British out of sight, decision makers insisted Ireland have a common denominator which would bind the divided peoples of the nation. If it wouldn’t be a common enemy, it would have to be a common bond; religion. This would be a mutually benefical arrangement.

Prior to the founding of the Free State, the Church had led several organisations to carry out crusades against ‘immorality’, with a limited degree of success. The Church attempted to control the flow of certain printed materials available to the people of Ireland as literacy rates within the Free State were amongst the highest internationally. Approximately ninety per cent of fifteen to fifty-eight year olds were literate.

With the Chuch’s early content crusades proving ineffective and the Free State in need of that binding common denominator, the stage was set for the national identity creation process to begin with a combined Church and State. The State utilised the Church to appease the citizens of the nation, while the Church could now petition the state to succeed in ‘policing’ morality, where crusades had failed.

Birthrates: Early Church Influence in the Irish Republic

On 8th September 1907, the focus of the Church shifted greatly, as Pope Pious X promulgated the Pascendi Gregis, vehemently condemning modernism and ‘pernicious books’, which was to include both novels and the newspaper media. While their early efforts to stem the flow of these books stuttered State influence provided the catalyst the Church needed.

Founded in 1926, the The Committee on Evil Literature (CEL) is arguably the most visible indicator of both Church involvement and influence in Free State decision making and identity creation. The CEL was founded with the aim “to consider and report whether it is necessary or advisable in the interest of public morality to extend the existing powers of the State to prohibit or restrict the sale and circulation of printed matter”.

consider and report whether it is necessary or advisable in the interest of public morality to extend the existing powers of the State to prohibit or restrict the sale and circulation of printed matter

The CEL consisted of five men in total; three laymen and two clergy, one Catholic and one Church of Ireland. These men were Robert Donovan, a Professor of English Literature in University College Dublin, William Thrift, Thomas O’Connell, Rev. James Dempsey and Rev. J. Sinclair Stevenson.

As a result of their work, successful cases like that of the Dublin chemist, Fredrick A. Rice became more common. Rice was imprisoned for twelve months after he advertised ‘rubber goods’ (condoms) and some 240 books. Contraception remained a central thorn in the side of moral reformers, whom abhorred the availability of any family limitation methods, considering such to be the ‘most evil’ of materials.

Evidence was submitted to the CEL stating many ‘journals of high standing’ promote the use of contraceptives ‘as a remedy for an alleged excess of population’. Padraig de Burca, an editor of the Irish Independent, made known his concerns regarding the effect birth control could have within the fledgling state. He abhorred the availability of any family limitation methods, considering such to be the ‘most evil’ of materials, citing the Netherlands as an example of . Here, birth control was taught publically, leading to a twenty-five per cent reduction in birth rates in less than fifty years.

De Burca also highlighted ‘methods of avoiding conception’ and infections were publically available within the Free State. He highlighted a book called Safe Marriage, which was aimed at married couples. De Burca believed the book was really providing precautions ‘that may be taken to avoid venereal diseases before and after intercourse with prostitutes’. De Burca stated it was materials such as these which provided a threat to all nations, particularly contraceptive materials, which threatened to ‘[dry] up their very source of life’.

Procreation and its inherent symbolism are both considered to be intrinsic elements of national identity building
Padraig de Burca

This was a stand out quote during my research and one that made clear what was happening in the Free State. Procreation and its inherent symbolism are both considered to be intrinsic elements of national identity building. To diverge from my college research, the Catholic Church’s obsession with birth always seemed to be a self-service population management tool rather than a moral belief. As I type this, I’m watching Wild Wild Country on Netflix where a young ‘religion’ takes in the homeless, but only those who are not gay. Immediately, my first thought is — “of course, you need your followers to procreate in order for your religion’s growth to be sustainable”.

Anyway, that hot take aside, de Burca and the efforts of the church and the CEL are at the root of why contraceptives, divorce, family, gay marriage and now abortion have been topics Ireland as a nation has struggled to address. They’re right at the core of our historical national identity but so too were women themselves.

The New Girl — Chaste By a Nation

The future of the country is bound up with the dignity and purity of the women of Ireland
Rev. Thomas Gilmartin

Owing to a combination of the failed attempts by early moral reformers to stem the tide of ‘evil literature’ and the Free State requiring assistance from the Church to reconcile a politically torn country, the national identity creation process would be heavily influenced by moral interests. Within this stream of identity creation, the female experience within the Free State was unique.

As Ireland fought for independence from Britain, women across Europe had fought for equal rights. From the 1916 Rising to the War of Independence, women played a pivotal role within Irish movements, ranging from medical aid to delivering important strategic messages. Following the foundation of the Free State, women widely believed that they would be afforded equal rights, due to their significant role in the fight for independence. The Constitution of the Free State initially appeared to have awarded women such equality, stating that:

All citizens of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) without distinction of sex, who have reached the age of twenty-one years and who comply with the provisions of the prevailing electoral laws, shall have the right to vote for members of Dáil Eireann, and to take part in the Referendum and Initiative

Today, we prepare to hit the polls in an attempt to repeal the 8th and afford women the right to choose what happens to their own bodies. During the foundation of the Irish Free State women had been awarded the right to vote, just as their male counterparts were permitted to. The right to vote, however, is a problematic and poor indicator of equality, as the women of the Free State would soon learn.

Post War Masculinity Anxiety

Anxiety was a common trait of post-World War I Europe, as men, including Irishmen, often left employment to join the mobilisation. Consequently, the mobilisation led to a gulf in their home nation’s workforce, a void often filled by women. Returning veterans were to experience a crisis of gender, as they returned home to find unemployment, while women, often displaying modern fashions which blurred the physical gender boundaries, were enjoying new semi-skilled employment within modern clerical positions.

Returning veterans were to experience a crisis of gender

In Germany, the “Bubikopf” or “bob” hairstyle was an example of fashion men found problematic, while semi-skilled occupations included women being typists and telephone operators. Following the Civil War, the Free State policy makers were required to justify their own powers and legitimacy to the politically and socially fractured population, attempted through enacting policies of law and order which would become as aspect of the national identity creation process. Such an approach, combined with the Church influenced moral identity, was to have severe consequences upon the female population of the Free State which is still felt today.

For many decades prior to the foundation of the Free State, the Church possessed a vocally defined role for women. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII outlined the ‘natural’ duty of women in the encyclical Rerum Novarum, stating that women are by nature ‘fitted for home work and it is this which is best adapted to preserve her modesty and promote good upbringing of children and the well being [sic] of the family’.

women are by nature ‘fitted for home work and it is this which is best adapted to preserve her modesty and promote good upbringing of children

The alignment of Free State policy and Church teachings is evident, as the state actively pursued the application of this role to the women of Ireland, both in an attempt to enact authority and appeasing the desires of the Church. It’s here we can see the crux of the modern issue inflicted on the Irish population — an apparent defined role for women and gives a nod back to the issues of contraception I mentioned earlier.

Many of the concerns surrounding ‘evil literature’ centred upon women, albeit sometimes indirect. Contraception was reducing the ability of women to reproduce, while divorce cases documented the breakdown of marriages. Of course such divorce cases required a male and a female participant, but women were often considered the ‘deviant’ within a broken marriage. In an effort to overcome the perceived ‘morality crisis’, attempts began to forge a national identity which was chaste and pure. The foundation upon which a national identity is contrasted requires history and imagery. Both requirements would have consequences for the women of the Free State.

How I Met Your Mother Ireland

Throughout the fight for freedom with Britain, the image of ‘Mother Ireland’ proved popular in Irish iconography. Emerging from the Celtic Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, ‘Mother Ireland’ was characterised within several plays, such as William Butler Yeats’ Cathleen Ní Houlihan (1902). Such plays symbolised a call for the ‘sons’ of Ireland to help the metaphorical ‘Mother Ireland’, cast out the ‘strangers’ from her house.

Cathleen Ní Houlihan immortalised on the Lavery bank note

Padraig Pearse, a leader of the 1916 Rising, had adapted a ninth century poem within which ‘Mother Ireland’ speaks, stating ‘mise Eire’, asserting the motifs position within popular culture and nationalist rhetoric. The motif transcended poetic nationalism, to be utilised within the debates and speeches of the Free State’s politicians; Michael Collins writing ‘Ireland was a MOTHER COUNTRY’, while in his 1922 St. Patrick’s Day speech, Eamonn de Valera stated the Anglo-Irish Treaty would only be implemented once the ‘Free Staters’ marched ‘over the dead bodies of their own brothers’; the sons of ‘Mother Ireland’.

The association of the body with national identity creation was common and within western society, the female body is often considered an element of identity building. The creation of an identity for modern Poland provides ‘striking parallels’ to Free State. High rates of abortion led the Polish government to focus upon this issue amid more pressing political matters. The Polish government wished to impose authority upon the female population as an act of legitimization and control, leading to the banning of abortions, indirectly displaying control over the female population.

Sidenote: Interestingly, abortion debates have returned in Poland recently.

Within the Free State, the government had undertaken a similar project, insisting the women of Ireland adhere to the guidelines inherent within the ‘Mother Ireland’ motif. Women were expected to be the passive members of Free State society, operating within the domestic sphere, fulfilling the role of mother and wife. Such use of symbols was also not confined to modern Ireland, as heroines of Celtic mysticism became a long standing central motif of Irish nationalist iconography.

Women were expected to be the passive members of Free State society

Several aspects of Ireland’s struggle for freedom were characterised through figures such as the Shan Van Vocht embodying sacrifice and suffering, while Erin represented the vulnerability of the nation. Throughout the formative years of the Free State, the use of ‘Mother Ireland’ imagery would increase, as the motif developed from an imagined idealistic piece of imagery, to yielding repercussions for the real female population.

Aonach Tailteann — The Tailteann Games

As mentioned earlier, the national identity creation process was to serve many purposes. ‘Mother Ireland’ provided the Free State with a multifaceted motif, fulfilling all requirements of a national identity. The first international event to promote ‘Irishness’ and to forge a national identity was the Aonach Tailteann. The Aonach Tailteann derived from ancient Ireland and according to folklore, the festival was a combination of sport, music and dance.

The ancient games were held in honour of Queen Tailte, whose step-son Lugh Lamh Fhada, upon her death organised the festival. The inherent symbolism of the games were ideal for the Free State to promote itself. The origins of the Aonach Tailteann precede the Norman invasion of Ireland, as the games were held regularly until 1169. This chronology allowed the state to celebrate a festival which could trace its heritage to a time when the island of Ireland was void of all English influence. Ironically, it would have been expected the Church would protest such a festival, which celebrates Pagan beliefs, but the Church did not intervene, realising the symbolic potential within the games.

The structure of the Free State Aonach Tailteann would mimic the modern Olympic Games, as the festival opened with a lavish ceremony, focussed upon the Queen Tailte, played by actress Nancy Rock. Rock was the living embodiment of ‘Mother Ireland’, wearing traditional Celtic attire. Rock wore a long dress, Celtic jewellery, specifically a Celtic brooch, and her hair in long braids.

Owing to the large number of emigrations through the previous century, the Free State government viewed the games as an opportunity for the disapora to return to Ireland. The Irish Independent clearly understood the imagery the Free State were attempting to portray, publishing an article stating ‘Tailte takes her children to her bosom. 6,000 in review. Old Glories Revived’.

Queen Tailte was the symbol of Irish nationalism, from an era void of English influence, casting away the foreign influences and adopting ‘traditional Ireland’. A comparison between Rock’s Queen Tailte and Yeats’ Cathleen Ní Houlihan support the assertion that the Free State was actively promoting the ‘Mother Ireland’ motif. Such a connection is given further support when comparing the passive role of Queen Tailte during the games, while men displayed their strength and athleticism, competing in the ‘arena’ under the watchful eye of the Queen and her maids.

This echoes Yeats’ passive ‘Mother Ireland’ who calls for her sons to rid the house of ‘strangers’, symbolic of the Free State casting out ‘evil’ foreign materials. The Aonach Tailteann were effectively providing a framework of identity for a nation, and placing a certain expectation upon Irish women; leading to a possible juxtaposition between real and imagined women of the Free State.

Queen Tailte successfully embodied the ‘Mother Ireland’ motif and provided an example depicting the Church influenced role the Free State wished to impose upon women. She did not, however, embody the real women of the Free State. Within post World War I Europe, women’s fashions had undergone significant change, which remains one of the most visible indicators of modernity. The mobilisation which accompanied war and left many positions of employment available for women, would lead to women earning their own income, subsequently becoming more involved in the increasingly consumeristic modern society. This compounded the anxiety of gender, most prevalent in war torn countries, such as Germany and France, but was also witnessed within the Free State, apparent through the national identity creation process which sought to return women to the domestic sphere.

Fashion and the Flapper

Fashion, the most visible indicator of modern woman’s development, underwent radical changes, blurring ‘traditional’ physical gender roles. Women adopting these new fashions became known as the ‘new girls’ of the 1920s. The trends adopted by the ‘new girl’ can be attributed to increasingly consumeristic marketing towards the female population within the press and the stars of Hollywood on the ‘big screen’; the latter will be discussed in chapter four. The ‘bobbed’ haircut was a typical trend adopted by the ‘new girl’. The ‘bob’ was a short hairstyle, approximately earl-length, doing much to distort the ‘traditional’ long hairstyle; such as was worn by Rock as Queen Tailte.

While the hairstyle blurred the gender division between men and women, the clothing of the ‘new girl’ emphasised the sexualised female body. The long, ‘traditional’, dress was replaced by shorter skirts, while sleeves were replaced with bare arms and shoulders. The ‘new girl’ would regularly frequent the entertainment districts of cities, enjoying socialising in a manner which had until then been restricted to men, both consuming alcohol and smoking cigarettes. The press regularly reported on the habits of the ‘new girl’, who was also to be known as a ‘flapper’.

Newspaper advertisements were now often aimed towards the ‘new girl’ and her moderate degree of affluence attained through her new position of employment. These advertisements catered to the consumeristic needs of the ‘new girl’, becoming apparent through evidence submitted to the CEL. Moral reformers took offense to advertisements promoting the use of female grooming products:

I discovered these advertisments in the Commitee on Evil Literatire records in the National Archives of Ireland: Irish Independent, 26 August 1927
Irish Independent, 29 March 1926

The media were now being targeted for their role in incubating the ‘new girl’. Another interesting advertisement regarding the ‘new girl’ and Free State morality is a stylish advertisement for evening wear:

Irish Independent, 20 January 1926.

Initially, the advertisement appears rather conservative, but it is interesting to juxtapose the image with the guidelines which had been issued by the Mary Immaculate Modest Dress and Deportment Crusade. The sleeveless dress in the advertisement conflicts with the ‘one inch below the elbow’ requirement for evening wear issued by the group. The model in the image also has bobbed haircut. These advertisements support the assertion that Irish newspapers were readily catering to the consumer needs of the ‘new girl’, simultaneously supporting her existence. With such advertisements deemed immoral due to their support of the ‘new girl’ and her adopted habits, it is fair to state that target audience for such advertisements were also deemed as immoral.

The ‘new girl’ was considered ‘immoral’, receiving the same classification as ‘evil literature’. Many believed it was the mobilisation across Europe which had led to a deterioration of the family structure, with The Times of London condemning acts which were considered to be ‘the familiar beginnings of a corrupt society’, such as ‘contact with questionable companions’, also claiming such societal trends were becoming increasingly popular amongst an excitable population which, prior to the war, had already been displaying passions for ‘excitement and for the latest novelty’. It did not take long for moral reformers to surface and stand against the ‘new girl’. Groups, such as the aforementioned Mary Immaculate Modest Dress and Deportment Crusade, in Limerick, founded in an effort to stem the ‘anti-Christian’ fashions which were gaining popularity in Ireland. This particular group provided an in-depth set of guidelines for suitable attire for the women of the Free State. Furthermore, the guidelines extended to include the actions of Free State women, insisting upon abstention from smoking, ‘immodest attitudes’ and ‘loud talking or boisterous laughter in public and coarse or irreverent exclamations.’ Smoking is described subsequently as ‘certainly a mannish habit’, which should be avoided by the women of the Free State.

There grew an increasingly vast gulf between the idealised and real women of the Free State. As an inherent element of the national identity creation project, the state wished to portray an image of purity and chastity through ‘Mother Ireland’. ‘Mother Ireland’ also relied upon the juxtaposition of the strong athletic male and the passive dependent women, an image with which the ‘new girl’ was in direct conflict with.

Finally but perhaps most interestingly, ‘Mother Ireland’ sought to banish the ‘strangers’ from Ireland. Within the Free State identity creation process, this was to signify the duty of Irish women to cast away the ‘strange’ foreign fashions and ideals which had been adopted, or risk being isolated from society. Women’s ‘equality’ which was set out in the Free State Constitution all but vanished from the national identity creation project of the state. Instead they were expected to conform to a ‘Mother Ireland’ role, deemed ideal by both Church and state, representing the home as an element of the state, reproducing and educating the state’s future population. Such a role is supported by evidence in chapter two. The sale and advertisement of contraceptives was banned, as it threatened to ‘[dry] up their very source of life’.

Reports of divorce proceedings were considered ‘evil’ as they were feared to create a culture of imitation, further threatening the family unit and the ‘traditional’, motherly role of women. However, highlighting the ‘modern girl’ as a threat to the desired chaste and pure Free State identity was not simply due to a perceived immorality inherent within the habits and actions of the ‘modern girl’, but instead was to provide the Free State policy makers with subject of whom an example could be made.

The ‘new girls’ of the Free State were, by Church and policy makers, considered deviants. The ‘new girl’ was considered to be a byproduct of imported culture, which has become apparent through chapter two to be considered ‘evil’. Owing to this, ‘Mother Ireland’ provided the ideal alternative to the unacceptable ‘new girl’, as the motif was expected to grow from an imagined ideal, to a real woman, attempting to remove the ‘deviant’ modern woman, replacing her with a domesticated, pure and chaste definition accepted by the Church and state.

Through the formative years of the Free State, legislation was to have direct consequences for the rights of women. The motive behind such legislation was not simply a prudish attempt to remove sexual content from the public sphere, but instead to actively promote and protect the chaste ideals associated with the ‘Mother Ireland’ motif at the heart of the fledgling state’s national identity, which was considered to be under attack from foreign influence.

Ironically, motions were made to remove women from jury duty on the grounds that women should not be subjected to the gruesome details which accompanied assault and rape. While the movement failed, this would have removed those from the jury and a position within which they could share most empathy and understanding with a victim. Yet, today many women put forward the case of being unable to abort a pregnancy conceived during a rape; a juxtaposition I find both interesting and upsetting.

The lack of empathy within the courts led to many women becoming isolated as they fell pregnant out of wedlock, with numbers reaching an annual average of 1,853 between 1926 and 1929. This was an ever increasing figure, as the number of illegitimate births rose by twenty-six per cent between 1912 and 1922. There have been many cases documented where women felt compelled to hide pregnancies and births, where the ultimate outcome has been attempted suicide, suicide and infanticide.

Of illegitimate children reaching full term, five in every seventeen would die within the first two years, either due to poor care or infanticide. While governmental reports discussed the strain placed upon women due to illegitimate pregnancies, such reports rarely alluded to the fact that many of these pregnancies were due to rape. These women were often forced to serve a certain period of time within work houses following a sexual assault, regardless of the punishment (or lack thereof) bestowed upon the perpetrator.

While reading through my dissertation which looks at Ireland during the 1920s, I’m shocked to find this quote which resonates so much today; both for the referendum and the recent findings of the Belfast trial:

The condition of the Free State point towards a disturbing conclusion; that the law was geared towards men exploring their sexuality while actively oppressing women’s ability to do so

Today, it’s the hangover of these laws and thinking that have left women fighting for the right to control what happens to their own bodies.

So, if you ever wondering why Ireland is so damn Catholic, there you have it. It was a strategic move that benefited both a fledgling state and a relgious superpower. If you ever wonder why women, pregnancy and family are valued more than individual life itself as was the case for Savita Halappanavar, it’s because the mother and the child are at the very core of our national identity.

The irony is not lost on me. The Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home scandal, paedophile priests — it’s incredible that the church has been allowed such a privilaged position in Ireland’s identity, but hopefully as we go to the polls on May 25th, one of the final bastions of Catholisicm in Ireland will fall; the Eight Amendment.

Vote to Repeal

And back to tech. Now that you know where all of this has come from, it’s up to you to decide where it’s going. Given the Cambridge Analytica scandal, you can be sure there will be misinformation galore online in an attempt to keep the people of Ireland living within a national identity forged during the formative years of the Free State. Here’s the timeline:

  • 1980: Contraceptives made legal in Ireland
  • 1995: Divorce made legal in Ireland
  • 2015: Gay marriage made legal in Ireland
  • 2018: Referendum to make abortion legal in Ireland

I hate the term “tolerant” to describe Ireland. That suggests we’re ok with everyone regardless of what they choose to do in life. I prefer to think we’re progressive and supportive of everyone seeking happiness and health for all. Tolerant doesn’t quite cut it. Should we, as a nation, vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment we’ll have completed our forging of a new national identity, one that celebrates the nation’s population and puts us onto an international stage.

Much of the research here was originally submitted by myself to the University of Limerick as part of my MA History dissertation. It is available for short term loan from the Glucksman Library…if you’re into that kind of thing.