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/ )

Maternal Impressions

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, PoP network member Sarah Fox shares her insights on the debates (both historical and contemporary) on maternal impressions.

On the 14th September 2020, the Daily Mail reported upon a pilot study being undertaken at the University of Heidelberg.  The headline read: ‘Anxious mums can pass on their stress to their babies – leaving them with an ‘emotional imprint’ that can scar them for life, scientists warn.’  The article reported that children of mothers suffering from anxiety or depression experienced raised heart rates during a stress test called ‘still face test’. “We found that if a mother was anxious or depressed, their baby had a more sensitive physiological response to stress during the test than did the babies of healthy mothers” researcher Fabio Blanco-Dormond is reported to have said.  An article on sciencetimes.com raised the stakes still further reporting that the infant’s significantly (8 bpm) increased heart rate “could develop into emotional stress in later years.” The findings are reported as being at the cutting edge of scientific research. “To our knowledge this is one of the first times this physical effect has been seen in three-months old infants” according to the Daily Mail’s report.  Yet the idea that a mother’s thoughts and feelings can impact both physically and emotionally on their unborn child has very long and complex roots.

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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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“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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The Disembodied Mother

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 Rachel Botha considers the visual representations of mothers in debates surrounding abortion.

The Disembodied Mother: the representation of motherhood in the visual
culture surrounding the abortion debate.

According to the Eighth Amendment in the Constitution of Ireland the right to life of the unborn is equal to the right to life of the mother. This legislation is ultimately transferred to the visual culture that surrounds the brewing debate of abortion in Ireland. In this piece I shall be honing in on the impact of visualising the foetus, and how it essentially disembodies the pregnant woman to exaggerate ‘life’- the life of the foetus as a separate entity to the mother.

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Gothic Pregnancy

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. Today’s post from Louise Benson James explores the representation of pregnancy in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House.

Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House (2007) is narrated by Maja, a young Afro-Cuban woman living in London, and pregnant for the first time.  Pregnancy in The Opposite House is presented as a Gothic experience. Maja’s anxiety about the process of giving birth is tracked from monstrous images imagined in childhood – ‘I had vague ideas about one day having to do something large and bloody, put my eye out, or split my forehead open’ – to the adult fear that she will not survive it: ‘I am beginning to understand that at the end of this time there is going to be a need for strength, that as the skin over my stomach pulls tauter my centre descends, and one day I am going to have to push. I don’t know how anyone survives it, the thought or the happening. I will not’. [1] Maja expresses the alienating and disordering effect of her changing pregnant body: ‘my breasts are rotten lumps hooked into my ribcage, and I can’t touch my body at all, I can’t’ (p.17). Clare Kahane states:

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Conception – Past and Present

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. Today’s post from Isabel Davis introduces us to a new project that examines conception in the past and the present.

Those undergoing IVF treatment look modernity in the face. Watching a cell fertilise and an embryo develop in a petri-dish necessarily inspires awe in modern science. Read, for example, this moving account of embryo transfer by New Zealand blogger Little Red Hen.[1]  At the same time as marvelling at reproductive technology, she spares a thought for the people of the past, who lived without these assistive technologies; in spite of her own struggles it makes her ‘feel lucky’.

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Missing Mothers: Maternal Deaths in the United States

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. Today’s post from Laura Neff asks why there is not more debate about maternal deaths in the United States.

Introduction:

Ten years ago, I watched pro-choice and pro-life activists marching towards the US Capitol Building. It was a hot afternoon, and the muggy air felt like an oppressive sea to swim through in Washington, DC. Their signs were like oars in the ocean and the two opposing sides were like two great naval flotillas, gearing up for battle. At the time, I was an intern for the Office of the House Historian and I was fascinated with the social understandings of life and death in the womb. Yet, neither group debated life and death for the mother during pregnancy, childbirth or post-partum. Why is maternal death and its prevention not a larger issue in the US 2016 presidential election? And more broadly, have the risks associated with maternal death been overshadowed by the binary pro-choice/pro-life debate?

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‘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.

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The Pregnant Eighteenth-Century Actress

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’s post is contributed by Helen Brooks and examines the pregnant eighteenth-century actress.

Writing in 1802 that a woman’s duties as a mother began ‘not only from the birth of her child, but even from the moment of its origin’ Christian Struve voiced the opinion of many an eighteenth-century commentator.[i] Maternal conduct literature often placed as much emphasis on the months preceding the child’s birth as it did on those following it. Women were advised to carefully moderate their levels of physical activity, and to avoid dancing, riding, or even walking. Yet at the same point they were warned of the dangers of idleness, indolence or ‘excessive effeminacy’.[ii] The ‘fatiguing dissipations’ of the bon ton also presented risks, whilst anything which might be described as ‘tumultuous pleasures, violent passions’ or ‘an irregular life’  could all lead to serious harm or miscarriage.[iii]

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