Women faced ‘severe Catholicism’ in 1916 Rising aftermath

Former President Mary Robinson has spoken of how “severe Catholicism” in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising effectively barred women from full citizenship.

She made her comments as part of a documentary, No Country For Women, which explores Irish women’s lives since achieving the vote 100 years ago by travelling through time to seek historical answers as to why lawmakers drafted a raft of discriminatory legislation against women after the country’s hard-fought independence.

While the Irish revolution promised equality, with many women playing key roles in the war, the documentary details how legislators in the young Catholic country contained women either in the home, in religious orders, or to life sentences of being locked up in institutions in the most tragic cases.

Ms Robinson said she believes “severe Catholicism” in the aftermath of the country’s independence had the most negative impact for women.

“I think it was a sort of severe Catholicism that had the most negative impact for women,” she said.

“Their place was in the home, child-rearing, playing that support role to the man. The laws that began to be introduced barred women from full citizenship.

“I think there are a lot of women who have felt that the law has oppressed them, that the law has discriminated.

“There was such an economic pressure on the single mother who wanted to keep her child but was being told you can’t look after her the way she would be looked after by others, and that pressure was enormous.”

In No Country For Women, Ms Robinson candidly reveals how taken aback she was at the visceral reaction to her proposal as a young senator to repeal the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935 which made it illegal to even advertise contraceptives.

She said: “I completely underestimated the reaction. Suddenly I was a pariah. I was denounced by bishops on pulpits. Archbishop [John] McQuaid required a letter to be read out to say that this measure would be and would remain a curse upon the country.

“We didn’t even get a first reading.”

Ms Robinson said she was fighting for women’s rights on both economic and health grounds.

“One of the reasons to legalise contraceptives was to give women the opportunity to choose when and whether you wanted to have children,” she said.

Women being able to be empowered to work — it was the economic dimension of access to contraception that was as important as the health.

Mary Magee, from Skerries, spoke about single-handedly challenging the contraception ban through Irish courts in the 1973.

She said: “I was having problems with pregnancies — pre-eclampsia, strokes.

“I got scared of having more babies. I couldn’t take the pill because of the stroke, so I found out about the coil.

“But you needed spermicide from England and my order was stopped by customs.

“It was stopped so you could say that was the start of me deciding to do something about the problem.”

The documentary also explores the heartbreaking story of Julia Carter Devaney, who spent the first 45 years of her life as an unpaid domestic servant in Tuam’s mother and baby home.

Her story is told with the aid of a newly uncovered tape of Ms Carter Devaney herself, made in the 1970s.

She is one of three women in the series who were confined to institutions because of poverty and not having families.

No Country For Women: A Woman’s Place airs tomorrow at 9.35pm on RTÉ One.

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