Clodagh Finn: Medical pioneer’s fire lit by childhood eviction trauma

Clodagh Finn: Medical pioneer’s fire lit by childhood eviction trauma

Delia Moclair overcame the trauma of childhood eviction to become a pioneering doctor.

Is there any word in Irish history which carries a more visceral charge than ‘eviction’?


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There are few words that carry a more visceral charge in Irish history than ‘eviction’, other than perhaps, ‘famine’ and ‘emigration’.

Its spectre has been with us for centuries, delivering misery into people’s lives, its impact to be found lingering even in social circles where you might not expect to find it.

I’m thinking of Tipperary woman and obstetrician Dr Delia Moclair.

Her family was evicted in a high-profile case when she was a child, yet she went on to become the first female assistant master of the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street in Dublin, elected unopposed in 1922.

She never forgot, however, that April day in 1888, when her father Patrick Moclair, tenant farmer and a noted land reform activist, was removed from his house by bailiffs.

His seven children, of whom Delia was youngest, and his wife Margaret were not home when he put up “a stout resistance to the sheriff and his bailiffs, who were aided by a posse of police”, as the Freeman’s Journal put it.

“Being denied admittance, the evictors were proceeding to break in the doors when the bailiffs were deluged with lime water and a shower of stones. They renewed the attack with the assistance of the RIC, and after a prolonged fight broke their way through,” the paper reported.

Patrick Moclair was sentenced to three months in Cashel Gaol with hard labour. Two other prison terms followed. Yet, he continued to be politically active and, from a new base in Cashel, was elected to South Tipperary County Council.

His wife Margaret, however, never got over seeing her family “thrown out on the roadside”, to quote a contemporary report, and died a few years later.

A lasting influence

The early loss of her mother had a lasting impact on Delia Moclair who, for the rest of her life, campaigned to improve living conditions and public health.

She was one of the first health professionals to insist love and cuddling were as important to a new baby as feeding and changing, at a time when strict timetables were in fashion.

The Irish Press speculated that her awareness of this need was heightened by the loss of her own mother in infancy, and also claimed that her father’s work, fighting for the rights of tenants, had influenced her: “From her father, one of the leaders of the ‘Plan of Campaign’ [successor to the Land League], she inherited a fiery streak and she could be a formidable adversary. Roused to anger by some injustice or misdeed, she was devastating.

“An early supporter of women’s rights, her emphasis was always on ‘back-room’ work, assembling of accurate facts, the building up of a case and its presentation, and then using every opportunity to break down prejudices.”

I wonder what she would say now if she were here to witness an Irish government lift a ban on evictions before putting in place firm measures to re-house those affected.

Mind you, we are not short on back-room work or accurate facts when it comes to describing the anguish of those in danger of losing their rented homes within weeks.

You might say — with a degree of cynicism — that Delia Moclair’s early eviction spurred her on to work for the greater good. It certainly did, but she was the exception rather than the rule. Her father eventually found his way back into his dwelling house and farmstead at Windmill in Tipperary, but in 1911, some 23 years after he was first evicted.

Meantime, Delia attended school during those difficult years. Given the circumstances, it is a singular achievement that she went on to third level and qualified with a degree in medicine from UCD in 1921.


The following year, she became the first woman to be elected assistant master of the National Maternity Hospital.

This was despite initial opposition from some of the hospital’s Conservative governors.

She served three terms in that role — an early breaker of the glass ceiling.

But that was the least of it. Dr Delia Moclair was also a pioneer who broke new ground in obstetrics, public health, and social activism.

She was one of the first to run pre-marriage courses and ran health and hygiene courses to support young women. She highlighted the importance of midwives and was an early champion of encouraging new fathers to take an active role in childcare.

If her experience of eviction still resonates today, so too does her warnings about the under-reporting of sexual violence. 

It is sobering to think that nearly 100 years ago, she was warning that a culture of secrecy and shame was hiding the true extent of sexual violence against women and girls.

In 1930, she and Dr Dorothy Stopford Price represented the Irish Women Doctors’ Committee at the Carrigan Committee. It was set up by WT Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal government to review the Criminal Law Amendment acts and to consider the need for a law on juvenile prostitution.

The two doctors told the committee they knew mothers as young as 13, and that many other young girls only admitted they had been raped if they became pregnant.

They highlighted the need for sex and health education, but their calls were not mentioned in the final report.

The report, however, did issue stark findings, describing “an alarming amount of sexual crime, increasing yearly, a feature of which was the large number of cases of criminal interference with girls and children from 16 years downwards, including many cases of children under 10 years”.

It noted the shortfalls in a judicial system that sometimes treated victims as accomplices to the crime, and it highlighted the difficulties in securing prosecutions.

Age of consent

Among its 21 recommendations, the report called for the age of consent to be raised from 16 to 18 and emphasised the need for a series of legal reforms to protect women and children.

The Department of Justice, however, vehemently opposed publication of the report. When de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government came into power in 1932, its justice minister, James Geoghegan, deemed it too one-sided, and unfair to men. It was never published.

While the age of consent was raised to 17 in 1935, no other measures were adopted. Unlawful knowledge of a minor was still considered a misdemeanour rather than a crime.

As others have noted, you have to ask how much suffering and heartache might have been avoided if the governments of the 1930s — and all since then — had acknowledged the extent of sexual abuse among children and went about developing policies to deal with it?

You have to ask, too, if a country with such a painful history of eviction has learned from the past? Public policy can cause untold suffering in ordinary people’s lives. The government still doesn’t seem to understand that.

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