No Pedestals: Women and Violence in Late Nineteenth-Century Ireland

By Conley, Carolyn | Journal of Social History, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

No Pedestals: Women and Violence in Late Nineteenth-Century Ireland


Conley, Carolyn, Journal of Social History


In English courts in the nineteenth century women were at a marked disadvantage. Officials accepted the image of women as delicate creatures who required the protection and supervision of men. Women who failed to match the image were usually denied legal protection.(1) However, the position of women in late nineteenth-century Irish courts differed significantly. Given the overwhelming power of the Roman Catholic church and the conservative nature of Irish peasant society it might be expected that Irish women suffered the most extreme oppression.(2) Certainly the rhetoric of the Catholic clergy was even more rigid than that of the most Victorian thinkers in terms of the proper role for women. But an examination of the records of the Irish criminal courts between 1865 and 1892 indicates that in the late nineteenth century the treatment of Irish women before the law was primarily determined by their individual actions rather than their gender.(3)

There are several areas in which the Irish court's views on women and violence differ significantly from those found in England. One such difference lies in the English courts' attitude towards women who fought. In Ireland the courts recognized that women, like men, might respond to provocation with violence. They also recognized that physical differences meant women who fought men might be at a disadvantage. Whereas in England women who defended themselves forfeited their right to legal protection, in Ireland the courts actually showed increased concern for women who had fought gamely but succumbed to a stronger opponent. Many of these fights involved family members in disputes over land and inheritance.(4) As changes in inheritance patterns during the nineteenth century created new tensions among family members, women were often actively involved in resolving these tensions through force. These strains on familial bonds may be traced to the famine. The memories of the famine horrors may have put a premium on survival at all costs and weakened ties among family members. This attitude could also contribute to the neglect of minor children, for even infanticide cases produced distinctive rhetoric and punishment. While the Irish law was harsher to unwed mothers than that of England, Irish courts often showed sympathy for these women and condoned their acts of desperation while expressing disgust at the escape of the fathers. Finally, unlike in England where decisions in cases of sexual assault depended on the perceived moral character of the parties involved, Irish courts convicted in rape cases regardless of the status and relationship of the victim and the accused.(5) The courts generally treated rape and indecent assault as they did other violent crimes, without yielding to rhetoric about seduction. In fact, some officials even suggested this matter-of-fact attitude regarding sexual offenses should be extended to cases involving prostitutes.

The courts' relative indifference to gender distinctions may have its origin in ancient Celtic traditions. In ancient Ireland women could own property, could marry and divorce as they chose and could rule in their own right.(6) Even the Catholic Church had made concessions in early Celtic society. The Book of Lismore includes the indignant observation from Canair, a holy maiden, that "Christ came to redeem women no less than to redeem men ... No less than men do women enter the heavenly kingdom."(7) The equality of women in ancient Irish society extended to physical as well as spiritual matters. The Roman observers of the Celts were often struck by the power of their women warriors. Ammianus Marcellinus observed that an entire troop could not defeat a Celtic warrior "if he called his wife to his assistance, who is usually very strong ... especially when, swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth, and brandishing her sallow arms of enormous size, she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks."(8) Cuchulainn, the greatest of Irish heroes, was trained in warfare by a woman.

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No Pedestals: Women and Violence in Late Nineteenth-Century Ireland
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