An Experience of Home Births in Rural Ireland: 1883 – 1903

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 week Kim Burkhardt explores her great-great grandmother’s experiences of birth in rural Ireland.

Harriet Susannah Ellis – the fifth of twelve children (plus an older half-sister from her father’s first marriage) – was born February 5, 1863 in Co. Sligo, Ireland. Her family moved around Ireland – seemingly possible due to the country’s new railroad system – as her father transferred from one teaching job to another. Her family moved to Co. Wicklow, south of Dublin, when she was seven. 

Harriet and James Chartres Bookey went to Dublin from rural Ireland (from Co.  Wicklow) to get married on September 5, 1882. Both were the children of professionals; Harriet’s father was a school master; James’ father was a doctor. Their fathers had served together on the parish vestry in their Church of Ireland parish in County Wicklow in 1870. Her parents and many of her siblings had left Co. Wicklow – due to her father’s next job transfer – prior to her marriage. She and an older sister had remained in Co. Wicklow (she was a teenager when her father accepted his next job).

After their apparent “elopement trip” to Dublin, Harriet and James returned to briefly to Co. Wicklow, then lived in the tri-county area of Counties Wicklow, Wexford, and Carlow until emigrating to North America in 1913. Four of their older surviving children – adults, by this time – emigrated ahead of them, one at a time. Harriet and James – with another five of their ten surviving children (still children) – then followed the first four emigrants to Vancouver, Canada.

Ireland’s 1911 census records indicate that Harriet had thirteen pregnancies, with ten surviving children. Genealogical research uncovered birth certificates for twelve of her children (information presented in the chart below created for her descendant’s genealogy book). Given that registering stillbirths in Ireland didn’t start until 1995 (it is still optional), it’s uncertain whether the thirteenth birth certificate simply wasn’t found or if that pregnancy involved a miscarriage or a stillbirth. 

table created by Kim Burkhardt

All of her children were born at home. For the twelve birth certificates identified, midwives were present for all but the first three births. The midwives who attended the births of Harriet’s later children – and who then submitted birth certificates for those children – spelled Harriet’s name in a variety of ways (see chart).

Harriet was twenty years old when she gave birth to her first child in Co. Wexford, eleven-and-a half months after getting married. It was an unattended home birth. The child – a male who wasn’t named – only lived two hours. In what must have been devastating for Harriet following this unattended birth in her first year of marriage, Harriet herself completed both the child’s birth certificate and the child’s death certificate, reporting that the child was “weakly from birth, no medical attendant.” This first child’s birth and death records are shown below:

When genealogy was underway, we pondered whether a medical attendant at the birth might have been able to save this child; if, for example, a midwife had been present or if her father-in-law – a doctor (and, by this time, the husband of Harriet’s older sister) – had been present at the birth.

Harriet gave birth every one to three years over the course of twenty years. When one of the youngest children was born, it was born late in the evening when the other children had already gone to bed. The midwife brought the newborn into a bedroom of some of the children, asking those children if they wanted to meet their new sibling; one sibling, named Florence (who recalled this story when she was a centenarian), recalled that she and her siblings all shouted “NO!” and they pulled their blankets over their heads!  Given that her last child was born twenty years after her first child…and her last child was home until adulthood, Harriet ultimately spent forty years raising children. Harriet’s husband – who was seven years older than her – died in 1919 in Vancouver when their youngest child was sixteen, so Harriet finish raising children as a widow.

Harriet had come from a large family; she was the fifth of twelve children (plus an older half-sister from her father’s first marriage); her husband James was the youngest of eleven children. She mirrored this pattern having thirteen children, ten of whom lived (two of the children who died did so in their first three months of life, we don’t know whether the third was alive at birth). Harriet and James’ siblings, however, did not have large families. Five of Hariet’s siblings had no children, one sibling had children but we don’t know how many, one sibling had four children, two siblings had five children each. Thus, Harriet’s large brood was an outlier among her siblings.


Kim Burkhardt, M.B.A is one of Harriet’s great-great granddaughters. She co-wrote  Harriet’s biography (2016) with Brian Ellis, Brian Ellis being a grandson of Harriet’s youngest brother. The full biography tells the story of her, including more about her experience of raising children. Her biography can be ordered online at  https://harrietsusannahellis.wordpress.com/. She is now writing the biographies of all four of her maternal great-great grandmothers. These for great-great grandmothers were born in the 1840s – 1860s – one born in Ireland, one born in Canada, two born in the United States. Three of these women became widows while still raising children, the fourth died of Tuberculosis – thus leaving her husband a widower with children still at home; in no cases did these widow/widower spouses remarry until after their children were grown (Harriet was the only one to remarry at all; she remarried at the age of seventy-one). (see:  https://womenofyesteryear.com/ )

Open the womb to receive seed again

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 week Amy Kenny explores why superfetation was removed from The Comedy of Errors.

“Open the womb to receive seed again”: Removing superfetation from The Comedy of Errors

In the source material for The Comedy of Errors, Alcmena becomes pregnant with twins fathered by two different male suitors, a medical condition known as superfetation.[1]  Those familiar with The Comedy of Errors will recall no such plot twist in Shakespeare’s play.  So what accounts for the change in dramatizing gestation? What can this switch suggest to us about the play’s portrayal of pregnancy and twins?  Throughout the early modern period, multiple births were often considered suspicious because they played on the cultural anxiety surrounding gratuitous female sexuality.  If a woman could commit adultery even while pregnant, fathers feared the paternity of their heirs.

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Motherhood as rite of passage

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 week, in the second of a two-part series, Margaret O’Connor explores women’s decision making processes. (part one available here)

Motherhood as rite of passage – What about the rest of us?

As discussed in a separate post, motherhood is a powerful concept which affects women throughout their lives, both by its presence and absence. It can now be a conscious choice, theoretically at least. There is increasing accessibility to reproductive technologies for people with fertility issues. Meanwhile, there is a growing proportion of women who actively choose not to become mothers. This choice is relatively new.

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The Motherhood Decision

The Motherhood Decision: How do Women Decide and what Influences them?

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 week, in the first of a two-part series, Margaret O’Connor explores women’s decision making processes.

Motherhood is a powerful concept which affects women throughout their lives, both by its presence and absence. Motherhood can now be a conscious choice, theoretically at least, to be actively pursued or avoided with medical technology. There is increasing accessibility to reproductive technologies for people with fertility issues. Meanwhile, there is a growing proportion of women who actively choose not to become mothers. This choice is a relatively new experience. Continue reading

Thank you to Ciara

As we come to the end of 2017, we thought we would take a moment to thank Ciara Meehan – co-founder and co-director – of the network, who has decided to step down from her role. We wish her all the best with her future endeavours and hope to welcome her back to the committee in the future. Ciara has written several fantastic blogs for the network since it began. So to say farewell here are some of the topics she has fascinated us with.

‘It was quite shocking’: The Day the Government Leader Voted Against his Government’s Legislation on Contraception

Before Mumsnet and What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Women’s Magazines as Sites of Information

 

‘Am I Pregnant?’: Women’s Magazines as a Source of Information

Sensitive Services

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. In this week’s post Karolina Kuberska investigates the new protocols surrounding pregnancy loss for Baby Loss Awareness Week.

While researching the experiences of pregnancy loss as well as bereavement care pathways in England, I had the opportunity to see a number of funeral services for pregnancy losses occurring before 24 weeks’ gestation. I was also able to talk about these services with bereavement care providers, including bereavement care crematorium and cemetery managers.

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“For ourselves, for our house, for this”

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. In this week’s post Jeni Buckley considers the  representations of motherhood and pregnancy in Game of Thrones

“For ourselves, for our house, for this”: Dialectics of Maternal Imagination in HBO’s Game of Thrones

Motherhood is a major trope of Game of Thrones, the narrative perhaps most famous for characters such as Daenerys Targaryen; ‘Mother of Dragons’, and Cersei Lannister; the sociopathic queen mother. The HBO television series, based on the novels of George R R Martin, is now a global obsession which arguably outstrips interest in Martin’s seven-book series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. Academic interest in the phenomenon is also gaining momentum; this month will see the first international Game of Thrones conference at the University of Hertfordshire, where the George R. R. Martin Society will also be officially launched. My own interest in Game of Thrones centres on the way that pregnancy is presented in the series. For example, the seventh and most recent television installment of the franchise featured the announcement of Queen Cersei’s illegitimate and incestuous pregnancy with her brother-lover, Jamie Lannister. Given the show’s focus on the question of royal succession, it is perhaps inevitable that the issue of pregnancy receives attention; however I want to highlight the way that the representation of highborn pregnancy in the series is part of a wider discourse of maternal imagination and responsibility.

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