‘A very jolly spree’: Irish Contraceptive Laws in the 70s

by Georgina Fitzpatrick, in response to Caroline da Costa’s memories of the Contraception Train (published in Tinteán in November)

I was still in Melbourne in May 1971 but was about to leave in August with David Fitzpatrick, my new husband and Irish historian. Our first visit to Ireland was in January 1972, when we spent the month travelling around the Republic, assessing the local records for each county related to the 1912-21 period. We worked as a team, one going through filthy mounds of workhouse records, Sinn Féin Court records, local runs of newspapers, anything and everything, while the other would take down the  description to be assessed later. Sometimes with the car headlights giving us enough light into the County Manager’s garage. That was how County Clare was chosen for Politics and Irish Life.  In June, we returned for a year.

But how was I to manage my contraception for so long? Fortunately, my Cambridge GP entered into the spirit of things (he had been in the British rowing team in the London Olympics of 1920), thought it was a very jolly spree and gave me prescriptions for the year which I filled before leaving. I have never smuggled anything over borders before or since and I was extremely nervous, but our car was not searched on the way over. The return trip was a different matter. At Holyhead, we were taken in for separate questioning over David’s IRA notes and the car pulled to bits.

I spent the year, particularly in Clare, being clucked over by the women during David’s interviews. They were constantly praying for me as I had been two years married and still no child.

Fortunately by the time I returned to live in Dublin, 1979 to 1999, it was legal to use contraceptives but the question was how to find an obliging GP and then find an obliging chemist. My local GP was fine about it but all five chemists in middle-class Ranelagh, Dublin 6, refused to dispense his prescription for me. Again, fortunately for me, I lived within a short cycle to the Well Woman’s Centre near Harcourt Street and they would fill my prescription. Rural women had no such options.

Having completed my family with the birth of my second child in Dublin, I began to investigate getting my tubes tied. Even the Protestant hospitals would not go there (this was before the great amalgamation of hospitals). It was a legal grey area. Only two doctors in the Republic offered the procedure – a brave Protestant doctor in Co Kildare who also illegally dispensed the condoms he had (by law) to make out a prescription for and another doctor who came every Wednesday in the ferry from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire to operate in borrowed rooms. They both had waiting lists of two years or more.

Over the years in Ireland, I went to Divorce Action Group meetings and voted in both the failed Divorce Referendum and the referendum to oppose the insertion of the abortion ban into the constitution – My four-year-old daughter marched to our polling station in Pearse’s old school on Oakley Road, shouting: ‘Vote No. Vote No’ , much to the amusement of other voters. In both referenda, our South east Dublin Electorate along with Dun Laoghaire were the only ones on the losing sides in both issues.

I despaired of Family Law and associated women’s issues while living in Ireland. We witnessed close friends run its gauntlet;  an annulment followed by a civil divorce followed by a failed attempt to be married in Ireland. It turned out that the Republic did not recognise a Catholic annulment. Now that was a surprise! Well it was not recognised if you were the woman in the first marriage. The ex-husband was married by the Bishop of Killaloe in the cathedral. The Church of Ireland would not touch the new couple for fear of offending the other lot. So with the second child in womb, the friends had to do an English registry office job. But that left the first son as ‘illegitimate’ (a term not removed until Alan Shatter TD got to work). Adoption was suggested but then that was prevented because they had a ‘mixed marriage’ and a child could not be adopted by a mixed-marriage couple (even if they were his biological parents). To protect the first child’s rights against any claims by the next ‘legitimate’ children, a trust fund had to be set up and the father under orders not to die for the next five years! Fortunately he lived to old age and saw his children to adulthood and a kinder Ireland.

My final memory in this vexatious field of Family Law was the discovery in the 1980s that ‘criminal conversation’ was still on the Irish Statute books! It was all over the newspapers when a cuckolded husband attempted to take the offending other man to court for ‘criminal conversation’. The Government and legal profession tried to pretend it was an oversight. When English law was taken over into the legal corpus of the new state sometime after the War of Independence, it had remained there dormant. In my blackest moods, I felt the authorities did not mind that a woman was still considered the property of her husband and therefore a husband could prosecute the man who took away his possession! It was quickly removed from the Statute book as it did not quite fit the modern image Ireland wanted to present to the EU in the 1980s.

Ireland’s membership of the EU also played its part in the decriminalisation of homosexuality, thanks to Senator David Norris taking the case to the European Court who declared that its law overruled national law. Are you listening Poland?

Those laws caused so much unhappiness in Ireland for so long. It was amazing how quickly it all unravelled from the mid-1990s on, starting with the no-faults divorce.

Georgina Fitzpatrick

Georgina lived in Ireland in 1972-3 and again in 1979-99 when married to David Fitzpatrick, the Melbourne-born Irish historian. While there, she published commissioned histories and curated two exhibitions, as well as doing school teaching and sessional work at TCD and DCU. Back in Australia, after a Ph. D at ANU (2009), she was appointed Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Centre for Military Law, Melbourne Law School (but was based at the Australian War Memorial). She is the lead author of Australia’s War Crimes Trials, 1945-51 (Brill, 2016) which was short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Australian History award in 2017.