Mná na hÉireann

My last post made me think about something that had never before crossed my mind. What was it like to be a woman in 1960s Ireland? 

But how could I know? Not only am I a man, I have no sisters and the only female presence in our home was my mother. And I never discussed such things with her before she died in 1974. 

Although my first teachers in the convent school I attended were female, boys and girls were taught in separate classrooms and never allowed to mix. Male teachers only were employed in the single-sex primary and secondary schools I went to later. At my Holy Communion and Confirmation ceremonies girls and boys were separated by the long aisle that divided the church from the altar to the entrance. And of course, my years as a Mass server were all male affairs too.

It was not until I turned 14 that I had my first real contact with girls. The Legion of Mary organised afternoon dances (or reunions) for its younger members at a time when social outlets for teenagers were few and far between. I remember being completely awe-struck the first time I saw dozens of scrubbed, fresh-faced young girls lining up on the edge of the dance floor. 

But despite these and other opportunities to mingle with the opposite sex, I could never comprehend them. It was only later in life that I began to appreciate the simple truth that women had to live in a world designed and run by men.

During the 1960s women were second-class citizens. A host of petty restrictions, not applicable to men, limited their potential and demeaned their lives. Female staff working in the public service and in some private institutions were compelled to resign if they married. Once married, a wife needed her husband’s consent before she could borrow in her own name. She had no right to stay in the family home if her husband chose to sell it. 

Women were reminded constantly that their lives were meaningful only in the context of their relations with men. In the 1963 movie, Charade, the character played by Audrey Hepburn, then in her early-30s, becomes instantly besotted by Peter Joshua (Cary Grant - pushing 60). When, eventually, he proposes, she expresses the hope that they have “a lot of boys and we can name them all after you”.[1]   

But if Audrey thought she could relax into domestic bliss after the nuptials, listening to Jack Jones’ big hit “Wives and Lovers” (also 1963) might have worried her. The lyrics, written by Hal David, reflect a juvenile view of women and sex that was not uncommon among the Playboy set of the time. Even though husband and wife are bound by the most solemn vows, the song makes it clear that it is the woman’s responsibility to keep the marriage going, because:

Day after day

There are girls at the office

And men will always be men

Don't send him off

With your hair still in curlers

You may not see him again[2]

In Ireland, women had more basic concerns. The sexual revolution launched by Margaret Sanger and Gregory Pincus did not reach us until long after the 1960s. Even those in favour of artificial contraception at the time made their case in the context of married life and family planning.[3] The idea of a young single woman taking the Pill regularly would have been equated with “illicit sex” which, as Archbishop McQuaid noted, “is a sin”.[4] 

But was the sin shared equally by both partners? One young Irishwoman who became pregnant outside marriage reflected ruefully:

The trouble is nobody would ever know he’d had a child but everyone will know I had a child.[5] 

Without access to effective contraception, the consequences of sexual intercourse could be life-changing for a woman. This is clear from an interview in 2006 with Mary Margaret McDonagh, a member of the travelling community.

You had babies having babies. My husband's mother was married at 14. She had 18 children. My mother was married at 20, she had 15.[6] 

But was the solution a new pharmaceutical product (with potentially damaging side effects)? Not if the experiences of those at the forefront of sexual liberation were to be believed:

Women who sought meaning in sexual relationships were often dismissed as frigid. As the feminist Robin Morgan remarked, ‘A woman could be declared uptight or a poor sport if she didn’t want to be raped'.[7] 

So did the longer wait by Irishwomen for accessible contraception simply delay the substitution of one form of male repression for another?

[1] YouTube, Movieclips, 16 Jun. 2011, "Charade (10/10) Movie CLIP - Whatever Your Name Is (1963) HD",  [], 13 Feb. 2021.

[2] Lyrics, “Wives and Lovers” [], 13 Feb. 2021.

[3] Irish Independent, 2 Dec. 1963

[4] Diarmaid Ferriter, Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland (London, 2009), p. 341.

[5] 7 Days, “All our children”, RTE, 29 Nov 1968.

[6] Ferriter, Occasions of Sin, p. 351.

[7] Gerard de Groot, The Sixties Unplugged: A kaleidoscopic history of a disorderly decade (Basingstoke, 2008), p. 217.