Who’s the daddy? Disputed cases of paternity in eighteenth-century Ulster

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 earliest times to the present day. This month we have PoP Director Leanne Calvert talking about men and sexuality in the 18th Century.

DNA testing has become the standard method of determining paternity. Daytime television shows, such as ITV’s The Jeremy Kyle Show, regularly include segments that feature disputes and arguments over paternity, usually involving multiple potential fathers. A quick mouth swab, inevitable rows, and a dramatic pause later, the question of ‘Who’s the daddy’ is solved relatively quickly. But how did those in the eighteenth-century determine paternity? In the age before DNA testing (and before daytime television hosts), how did women and men figure out who exactly was the daddy? 

Wellcome image

‘A baby has been left outside the town-house of an old bachelor, and a young woman watches from the corner of the street. Engraving, 1784. Credit: Wellcome Collection’


The minutes of the Presbyterian church courts (known as Kirk-Sessions) in Ireland offer a fascinating insight into how paternity was established. While these courts had no official civil authority, and their rulings were not legally enforceable, many Presbyterian women and men looked to the Kirk-Session to settle such disputes throughout the eighteenth-century. 

When a woman appeared before the church court and named the alleged father of her child, the Kirk-Session launched an investigation into her claims. Kirk Sessions asked women to provide as many as details as possible, including the number of times they had sexual intercourse and the places where it happened.(1) For instance, when Jean McCullan named Andrew McKeown as the father of her illegitimate child, she gave the Session intimate details of their trysts, explaining that ‘ye act was committed on Bellyclare fair day, when Andrew McKeowns mother was abroad, his brother at … work, and his father about the house’.(2) Similar details were revealed by Margaret McCrea when she confessed to committing adultery with her neighbour, John Wales. According to Margaret, the pair had sexual intercourse three times: once in the garden, another time in a stable and a third time in ‘her own bed on a Sabbath morning’.(3) 

Like the church courts in Scotland, Irish Kirk-Sessions were concerned to pin down the exact date that sexual intercourse had taken place. This focus reflected wider beliefs about conception at the time, with contemporaries measuring pregnancy from the last date of sexual intercourse. While estimates varied, nine months was generally used to determine paternity.(4) Predictably, the reliance on using fixed dates caused confusion for some men, and many disputed paternity when the dates did not match. A common defence used by men in the Presbyterian courts was that the birth did not ‘come to his time’ -meaning, that the child was born either too early or too late. For example, in October 1719, Robert McAlpine expressed doubt that he was the father of Mary Irvine’s child because it did ‘not com[e] exactly to his time of guilt with her’. (5) Mary agreed to take an oath that she was telling the truth and the Session confirmed that Robert was the father.

It was much trickier for the Session when a man completely denied having had sexual intercourse with his accuser. Such a case came before Templepatrick Session in November 1710, when Margaret Kennedy appeared, confessed fornication with Samuel Reid and named him as the father of her illegitimate child.  According to Margaret, the pair had sexual intercourse ’14 dayes before May last past in [Samuel’s] fathers house’ and she knew it was Samuel because ‘he came down stairs from his own bed to her in the night time’ and that ‘he spake to her at the time’. (6)  Samuel was called in and denied that ‘he ever had anything to do’ with Margaret. His brother Andrew also appeared and cast doubt on Margaret’s character, claiming that she had been caught lying in bed with a man named Alexander Agnew ‘ten dayes before April 1709’ -suggesting that someone else was the father of her child. Samuel also told the Session that Margaret had been recently spotted with Alexander ‘standing under a hedge and yt she was sore weeping’ -a fact that the Session thought ‘not materiall’, given that Alexander was alleged to have been her ‘courtier’.(7) Unable to come to a clear conclusion, the case slowly disappeared from the Session minutes. 

That is until November 1712. This time it was Samuel who sought the advice of the Kirk-Session. After two years spent denying that he had ever had sexual intercourse with Margaret, Samuel appeared and confessed that her allegation was true. Asked why he had now chosen to admit guilt, Samuel confessed that he believed God was punishing him for his sin, remarking that Providence had ‘crossed him in all his worldly affairs’. (8)

These snippets from the minutes of Irish Presbyterian church courts cast light not only on the intimate sexual activities of women and men in eighteenth-century Ireland, but also their understandings of conception and pregnancy.(9) In the absence of medical testing, women had to convince the church courts that the man they named was the true father of their child. The wider context of their sexual activities, including the dates, places, and the number of times sexual intercourse took place was essential in this process. 

Dr. Leanne Calvert is a Research Fellow in Intangible Cultural Heritage in the History Group. She is a historian of women, gender and the family, and her research interests include the family and its relationships, the life-cycle, religion (with an emphasis on Presbyterianism and Dissenting traditions) and migration.


(1) Rosalind Mitchison and Leah Leneman, Sexuality and social control: Scotland, 1660-1780 (Oxford, 1989), p. 207.

(2) Templepatrick Kirk-Session minutes, 30 May 1704 (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, hereafter PRONI, CR3/12/B/1).

(3) Cahans Kirk-Session minutes, 15 March 1756 (PRONI, CR3/25/B/1).

(4) Rosalind Mitchison and Leah Leneman, Sexuality and social control: Scotland, 1660-1780 (Oxford, 1989), p. 207; Cathy McClive, Menstruation and procreation in early modern France (Farnham, 2015), 178-80.

(5) Templepatrick Kirk-Session minutes, 18 October 1719 (PRONI. CR3/12/B/1).

(6) Templepatrick Kirk-Session minutes, 5 November 1710 (PRONI, CR3/12/B/1).

(7) Templepatrick Kirk-Session minutes, 30 November 1710 (PRONI, CR3/12/B/1).

 (8) Templepatrick Kirk-Session minutes, 9 November 1712 (PRONI, CR3/12/B/1).

(9) If you are interested in reading about the role that sexual activity and sexual intercourse played in courtship in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland, see my latest open-access article: Leanne Calvert, ‘ “He came to her bed pretending courtship”: sex, courtship and the making of marriage in Ulster, 1750-1844’, Irish Historical Studies, 42:162 (2018), pp 244-64.


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