Media Library


‘Institutionalising Exclusion in Modern Ireland’ - Lindsey Earner-Byrne

26th May, 2022

On 25 August 1928 the readers of the Connacht Tribune were informed:

On Thursday morning a young woman inmate of the Magadalen Asylum, Galway, whose name was stated to be unknown, escaped from the institution.

She is described as being aged about 25 years, wearing a black skirt, and had a slight stoppage in her speech.1

This small snippet of a day in the life of Ireland in the late 1920s – barely a square inch of newsprint - tells us much about the status of women, the power of institutions and how our brutal treatment of the most vulnerable was normalised.

The strange bred of ‘young woman inmate’ did not even warrant the very basic ingredients of biography, the only distinguishing feature of certainty was her ‘slight stoppage’ of speech. In this period of commemoration we might pause for a minute and think about the life obscured in this ad and the world revealed by it. How could anyone placing this ad not know the woman’s name? How long had she been in the asylum? She was twenty-five, so legally an adult, on what grounds was she imprisoned? Was it that ‘stoppage’ in her speech that had singled her out and rendered her different? Was she caught and returned to her prison? Did anyone ever remember her name and record either her life or death?

In her bid for escape she pierced, briefly, the sanctimonious world of moral certainty Ireland was building on backs such as hers. She also tells us a good deal about what the President has asked me to consider today – the institutionalisation of exclusion.

We are currently experiencing a period self-reflection as a nation and it is focused on our treatment of women and children in carceral institutions. This is no coincidence because the systematic demonization of the so-called ‘unmarried mother’, since the mid-nineteenth century, was indicative of a wider system of structural violence in which all women were contingent actors – their belonging dependant on their behaviour. Any woman could have been sent to either a Magdalen asylum or a mother and baby home and be held there for an indeterminate period of time against her will. This, as we can see from the ad in the Connaught Tribune, was played out in full sight of the nation, in part, because it was supposed to act as a warning to others, but also, because it was part of the process of institutionalising exclusion. This process was considered vital to the new nation, underpinned as it was by ideas of belonging: we can only include if we have a sense of who is to be excluded. The process of normalising those categories – the insider and the outsider, the respectable and the deviant – was a vital component of nation-building in many places beyond Ireland. As we’ve seen among Prof O’Leary’s Belfast shipyard workers, the process was often complex and always inflected by the priorities of the given context be that religion, gender, class, ethnicity and/or race. It is usually framed as intuitive and natural or God-given because a perquisite to institutionalisation is the normalisation of exclusion. In Ireland institutionalising became the verb of choice for the realisation of exclusion.

The visible role of women on the anti-Treaty side of the Civil War and the active role of many women in the unrest and revolution since 1916 added a new intensity to an anxiety evolving since the early days of the suffrage campaigns. Thus, characterising the women engaged in the Civil War as hysterical, crazed and emotional, did important work in denying them any political agency and effectively undermining the idea of women as capable of any independent political consciousness that was not dangerous. As Cardinal Logue lamented in 1923: ‘a number of young women and girls have become involved in this wild orgy of violence and destruction

…Should this fell spirit spread, alas for the future motherhood of Ireland! We have ever been proud of the women and girls of Ireland; and justly so. Their reputation has been a precious asset of the nation.’2 While there is little doubt that the fear of social unravelling underlay much of the moral panic of the 1920s, Irish nationalism and unionism’s cleavage to the precepts of respectability was an equally important driver.

How deviance is classified and marginality defined tells us a good deal about where political power lies. The notion of respectability provided fertile soil for the making of the fledgling Irish nation embedded as it was in middle-class ideas of ownership, progress, governance and control.3 In effect ‘respectability’ became an organising principle, it had places and spaces for people creating a logic for governance and behaviour, by ordering, protecting and confining. Its greatest trick was to mask the violence used to hold it in place by rendering it normal, for the greater good, thus converting implicit and even explicit violence into a reasonable correction, an action to protect the whole.4 On Confirmation Day 1924, the Catholic Bishop of Galway explained to his flock that there were six local women ‘on the parish’ due to their ‘lapses in virtue’.5 To the fathers of Ireland he instructed: ‘if your girls do not obey you if they are not in at the hours appointed lay the lash upon their backs …’.6 The permission this ordering gave for the embedding of violence at the heart of social relationships and social structures remains palpable and had real and physical consequences for thousands of people. In the name of respectability institutions such as magdalen asylums, county homes and mother and baby homes were normalised as sites of moral correction.7 Nor was this a uniquely Catholic message, the readers of the Church of Ireland Gazette were informed that the increased moral threat was ‘owing to the fact that young women have a greater degree of liberty accorded to them…with applications [to Rescue Homes] pouring in from a superior class of unmarried girls, from clerks, typists, teachers and certified nurses.’8

Deviant women, and the definition could be broad and arbitrary, were to be excised from the bosom of the nation.9 The single mother was framed as an anathema to the ‘legitimate’ family, she undermined it, endangered the standing of its other members, thus the ‘respectable family’ needed to banish her. Indeed, the fact that in individual homes around the country it was often impossible to reconcile the ideal and the real was not a weakness of this orthodoxy but its core strength, because the tension created by this disjuncture encouraged conformity and silence. When the consequences were so high, how many people were in a position to speak up? The ruse of protection meant that only when you failed to perform as you ought, did you notice the categories that held your social existence – ‘good daughter’, ‘good mother’ etc. - were not merely abstract.10 Then the protective veneer became something else, something much less benign, something with the power of moral correction, a licence to control and force compliance. A dangerous mother was removed. An immoral daughter was expelled. A neglectful parent had their children taken away. This could be done for your own good, for the greater good, for the good of the nation.

The implications of the moral universe the new Irish Free State cultivated was not just hyperbole, its painful and often devastating impact is inscribed in our archives. Its political economy informed everything including, for example, the Military Service Pension Collection. In 1922 Mrs Rose P. sought a pension for herself and her two small children upon the death of her twenty-four year old husband – shot dead after only 3 weeks of service in the new National Army.11 However, there was a fly in the official ointment, Rose had not been legally married to the father of her children. Although the Irish Ministry of Defence pointed out that the British Army would have recognised her as his common-law wife, the new Irish dispensation was to prove its discerning credentials by refusing her and her children support.12 Her children ended up institutionalised. The price of the new State’s moral imperative was quite literally the institutionalisation of exclusion. Despite this negation of Mrs P.’s legitimacy as a mother and her right to compensation for the loss of her breadwinner and life partner, she had no sense of rightful anger and was merely fearful that the Department of Defence would blow her social cover and inform her employer that she was not a ‘legitimate widow’ of the nation.

The gap between the ideal and the real was often left to women to negotiate alone and in fear. While the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State honoured the commitment to equal suffrage, it did not prove effective at preventing the enactment of legislation in the 1920s and 30s which sought to pigeonhole and restrict women’s citizenship. The 1937 Constitution represented the high point of this gendered vision defining women’s roles through their capacity as homemakers. Indeed, in response to the draft of the Constitution, the Joint Committee of Women’s Societies called out the ruse of protectionist rhetoric for what it was informing de Valera: ‘The only protection women need, and the only protection women ask, is equality, under the Constitution, of rights and opportunities.’13 Mrs Rose P. might well have agreed.

And what of the historian? Saidiya Hartman, who works so imaginatively to reclaim the history of black women, when considering the challenge of writing the history of women slaves asked: ‘How does one revisit the scene of subjection without replicating the grammar of violence?’14 One clear way to avoid re-inscribing the harm of the past in the narrative of our history, is by deconstructing the eco-system of power that has shaped the nation, its archives and, in many respects, the discipline of history itself. We might ask how many could afford to see the world differently? Who was in a position to act differently? What would it have taken to produce a counter-narrative of inclusion and compassion? How many lived against the grain of this consensus absorbing their pregnant daughters, standing by their disgraced children, siblings or neighbours? What were their strategies and what can we learn from them? Institutionalising exclusion was pivotal to the structural violence that underpinned inequality in the past; a failure to acknowledge this in the history we write misses how central it is to the story of the nation and its relationship to continuing inequalities today.

1 ‘Patient’s escape magdalen asylum’, Connacht Tribune, 25 August 1928.

2 ‘His Eminence Cardinal Logue’s Lenten Pastoral. Demoralisation of Youth. Lamentable Events,’ Irish Independent, 12 February 1923.

3 See, Maude Royden, ‘Religion, and Modern Sexuality’, Journal of British Studies 52 (2013), pp. 153–78

4 I am greatly influenced the work of a whole host of scholars here, but most particularly Jacqueline Rose, Patrick Joyce, Kingsley Scott, etc.

5 ‘Evil Tendency: Immorality in Galway Deplored by Bishop: Warning to Girls – Influence of Dancing and Bad Literature, Freemans Journal, 11 April 1924.

6 Ibid.

7 See J. Smith’s, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (Manchester, 2007); L. Earner-Byrne, Mother and Child: Maternity and Child Welfare in Dublin, 1922-60 (Manchester, 2007).

8 A Door of Hope’, Church of Ireland Gazette, 21 November 1924.

9 We know women were incarcerated for reasons as broad as ‘fears’ their moral safety, reporting sexual assault, incest and pregnancy outside marriage.

10 I am influenced by Sara Ahmed’s work on categories of existence see, in particular, Ahmed, ‘A Willfulness Archive’, Theory & Event, 15: 3 (2012), pp. 1-22.

11 Military Service Pensions Collection: MF54PatrickPerry.

12 Miniter for Finance refused the pension, the Minister for Defence would have granted it. Department of Finance Memo, 28 April 1924. MF54PatrickPerry.

13 Mary S. Kettle, Chairman of the Joint Committee of Women Societies, 10 May 1937

14 Saidiya Hartman, ‘Venus in two acts’, Small Axe, 26 (12: 2), June 2008, pp. 1-14, p. 4.