‘Always Ready’: Handywomen and Childbirth in Irish History

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. This weeks post on the assistance during birth of handywomen in Ireland comes to us from Cara Delay, Interim Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston.

On duty in the west of Ireland, one of Lady Dudley’s nurses reported her experiences with a maternity case in 1910. She wrote:

Had just gone to another case when this patient sent for me. Then they went for [the] handy woman, who is a great scold. Doctor also had to be sent for, and he would not have me go whilst this woman was there. Afterwards I was called. The house is an old stable. There is no bed in the house, just a table, one chair and one stool; they are very poor. Patient was lying in the corner in a frightful condition. I got assistance and had her removed and made her comfortable.[1]

Revealing the practical difficulties involved in early twentieth-century Irish nursing—rural travel and poverty among them—this report also points to the tensions that developed between nurse-midwives, doctors, and traditional ‘handywomen’ during a time of transforming health care ideals and realities.

Tracing the history of handywomen in particular is fraught with difficulties. These women—female family members or neighbors who traditionally assisted at birth across Ireland—rarely interacted with officials or the written word. Their skills were based on experience, observation, and word-of-mouth, not formal training. Descriptions of them from ‘official’ sources abound, but their own thoughts and words are harder to access.

And by the late nineteenth century, their knowledge and authority was under attack. In an 1869 speech, John Ringland, president of the Dublin Obstetrical Society, derided what he called ‘the many so-called midwives, who were, in most instances, merely “lucky women”, as they were designated, but whose ignorance was only exceeded by their audacity…The result is easily told; many of [the women served] never left their beds of suffering until they were carried forth to burial, the victims of the grossest ignorance’.[2]

 

 

Mayo News August 27, 1932

As observers like Ringland called for medical professionalization in Ireland and specifically for trained nurses and midwives suitable for maternity care, they continued to maintain that existing care for women in childbirth was dangerous. In 1903, Thomas Lawler, parish priest of Killorglin, County Kerry, expressed his support of the recently implemented Lady Dudley’s Scheme that brought nurses to remote western parts of the island. He wrote:

Maternity cases were sadly to be pitied. They had to depend on unskilled and ignorant midwives in the neighbourhood. Some poor mothers either lost their lives or were injured for life owing to want of skilled nursing at, or after confinement ….[3]

These impressions that handywomen were dangerous, untrained, and unsanitary, however, were not shared by the people they served. Overall, handywomen emerge as respected authority figures in local communities whose work was viewed as valuable and who took pride in their accomplishments. Speaking of her mother, Kathleen Sheehan of County Cavan remembered, ‘She was always ready to walk miles to deliver a baby, perhaps at night even, when a man could call for her, complete with his lantern, and they would set off over the hills and fields. I am well aware of the mothers and babies whose lives she saved’.[4] A Sligo man remembered of handywomen in the early twentieth century, ‘…they were very old at that time and I think they loved the job. There was always entertainment on an occasion such as that and it wasn’t weak tea but they done their job if it was water they got, for poor or rich’.[5]

As professional nurses and midwives permeated rural areas of Ireland by the early twentieth century, they sometimes relied on the experience, wisdom, and extra hands of local handywomen. Caitriona Clear’s investigation of mothers in the early twentieth century reveals that, because of the lack of professional midwives in some areas, ‘handywomen, grandmothers or neighbours were often the only ones available to deliver babies’.[6] On Achill Island in 1932, an untrained woman was prosecuted for acting as a midwife. In her defense, she argued that she acted only in an emergency ‘to save the mother and child’. Here, local authorities decided ‘not to press the case hard and to ask for a light penalty’.[7] Despite attempts to professionalize maternity care some handywomen continued to work. And in rural areas, birth continued to take place in women’s homes, usually with a female (nurse, midwife, or handywoman) attendant. In some ways, therefore, childbirth remained female-centric and tied to the home well into the twentieth century, particularly in isolated, rural areas.

Despite the centrality of motherhood to religious and national discourses in modern Irish history, little is written about women’s experiences of pregnancy or childbirth. While gaining access to the words and thoughts of ordinary Irish women, including handywomen, remains difficult, there is clearly much to say. An understanding of the ways in which women themselves, whether laboring women, handywomen, or nurses, continued to influence home-based reproductive care and childbirth practices could help us not only to understand women’s lives in the past but also to provide much-needed context for those issues and debates—symphysiotomy, abortion, mother and baby homes—that fascinate and trouble us today.

 

[1] Lady Dudley’s Scheme for the Establishment of District Nurses in the Poorest Parts of Ireland. Ninth Annual Report, January 1, 1911-December 31, 1911, 16 (District 9).

[2] John Ringland, Annals Of Midwifery in Ireland: An Address Delivered at a Meeting of the Dublin Obstetrical Society on 20th November 1869 (Dublin: John Falconer, 1870), 26.

[3] Lady Dudley’s Scheme for the Establishment of District Nurses in the Poorest Parts of Ireland. First Annual Report, April 23, 1903-April 23, 1904, 10.

[4] Recollections of Kathleen Sheehan (1894-1985), County Cavan, 1900-20, in No Shoes in Summer: Days to Remember, ed. Mary Ryan, Seán Browne and Kevin Gilmour (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1995), 89.

[5] Cited in Caitriona Clear, Women of the House: Women’s Household Work in Ireland, 1922-1961 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2000), 102.

[6] Clear, 131.

[7] Mayo News, August 27, 1932.

Biography
Cara Delay, Associate Professor of History and Interim Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston, holds degrees from Boston College and Brandeis University. Her research analyzes women, gender, and culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, with a particular focus on the history of reproduction, pregnancy, and childbirth. She has published in The Journal of British Studies, Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, Feminist Studies, Études Irlandaises, New Hibernia Review, and Éire-Ireland and written blogs for Nursing Clio and broadsheet.ie. Her co-edited volume Women, Reform, and Resistance in Ireland, 1850-1950, was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. In 2012, she received a Fulbright fellowship to travel to Dublin to research and write Desolate Journeys: Reproduction and Motherhood in Ireland. At the College of Charleston, she teaches courses on British and Irish women’s history and the history of birth and bodies.

Contact Information

Cara Delay

Associate Professor

History Department

College of Charleston

66 George Street

Charleston, SC 29424

USA

delayc@cofc.edu

843 789 0168

 

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2 thoughts on “‘Always Ready’: Handywomen and Childbirth in Irish History

  1. Pingback: Sir Ernest in Dublin 1909 - Endurance Exhibition | Endurance Exhibition

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