The regulation of public morality in Offaly during the war years, 1914–18: a story from Birr. By Michael Byrne

There is so little of the undercurrent and gossip of a town in a local newspaper and yet we rely on them so much to tell us ‘what really happened’. Will we ever know from the reportage? We are grateful to have the lately published witness statements in the Depositions of 1642–53, or those in the pension records of the 1916–23 conflict. Yet we are advised to be cautious in using such records. What we do know of what ‘right-thinking people’ were saying about sexual morality in Birr, during the years of the First World War, we have from a sermon preached in Birr Catholic church in November 1917. It was one of the Birr curates who was the most outspoken while the then recently appointed 65-year old parish priest of Birr, Canon Ryan, had little to say. Or if he had it was not recorded. ‘Delicate’ subjects then as now, were seldom spoken of from the pulpit or the newsroom except in generalisations. In the case of the Laois-Offaly depositions it has taken over 300 years for the sworn affidavits to reach the public arena. For the witness statements provided by War of Independence veterans near enough sixty years. Is it any wonder that court cases with their mostly contemporary renditions are so popular?  It is the same with sermons that touch on local sexual life – the subject being almost taboo except in the abstract. Seldom spoken of in the church and hardly ever recorded in the local news media before 1970. The press reports of court case evidence can be more satisfying as contemporary first-hand accounts, but for the public and no less for the judges, it can often be hard to know what the real story is.  The reports of public morality debates or pulpit declamations in the years before and after 1922 are hugely important in helping to understand the concern (and who was raising it) over unmarried mothers and their children that would feed away, as if an unspoken of cancer in society, over the years from 1922 to the early 1970s.

Birr Workhouse with the cross erected by Violet Doolin with thanks to the New York Times. The workhouse closed 100 years ago and the patients were moved to Tullamore, boarded out or dismissed.

The’ separation women’ having a good time

The war years of 1914–18 gave rise to more social concern because for the first time a significant number of what were called the ‘separation women’ had a weekly allowance to help maintain the family and themselves while a family member was serving in the armed forces away from home. Wages were low in the war years of 1914–18, food prices rising and the public services were keenly trimmed by the ratepayers who sat on the town and county councils and on the poor law union boards. All of this would go some way to explain the resentment against the separation women who, relative to the working man, and depending on the number of children, were in receipt of a good income each week during the war. Of course, the emotional distress of one-parent families in constant dread of the knock at the door with bad news from the Front was never considered. Excessive drinking and child neglect cases featured in the press on a regular basis, but there was little or nothing in the way of child-care or counselling for afflicted families of soldiers killed in the war.  The ‘government woman’ of early 1916 was by mid-1917 indirectly likened to a prostitute. The Guardian reading James Pike, editor of the Midland Tribune, wrote of the chief supporters of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) candidate at the Clare by-election in July 1917 that the IPP ‘has a following of separation allowance ladies and children who nightly parade the streets’ (Midland Tribune, 7 July 1917, 21 July 1917). It was the same class mainly from ‘the barrack quarter’ who were creating the disturbance outside the Sinn Féin rooms in Tullamore in March 1916 or so it was said. The Separation Women had their weekly payment, but prices doubled over the period 1914–18 and the 5s. pension for the over 70s greatly diminished in value by contrast with seven years earlier when first issued. By December 1916 people were talking of another famine in Ireland akin to 1846–7. Fr Callary, the parish priest of Tullamore (who would have trouble later in the war in agreeing to having treatment for venereal disease provided in the county infirmary) had started a Poor Relief Fund in December 1916 to squeeze money out of the employers, traders and professionals. Milk and eggs were getting scarcer all the time and it got worse in 1917 and 1918 with extreme poverty in those years and labour unrest. It was no different in Birr, but that town probably had more separation women on supportive pensions because of a higher level of recruitment to the war effort.

Also, in the years after 1900 there was more mixing among the sexes. By 1910 cinema theatres had become widely available and perhaps thereby facilitating meetings between men and women without supervision. The well-off had that pleasure from the 1880s with the development of sports such as hunting, tennis and from the mid-1890s golf.

Archdeacon Ryan, parish priest of Birr, died 1948 at the age of 96

Birr the “Cesspool of the Midlands”

It was against this economic background that Fr Thomas Martyn, the Birr Catholic curate (since 1915) spoke at Sunday mass in Birr in November 1917 on a subject that must seldom have been mentioned (save perhaps in the confessional or at a mission) in the first 100-year history of that church.  Fr Martyn told his congregation that impurity was growing in their midst.

“You are allowing your town,” he continued, “to become the cesspool of the midlands.” He was, he said, asked by the Parish Priest to refer to this matter. The impure were devils and did the devil’s work. Parents in some cases were brought to an early grave by shame of their daughters’ actions. Yet, parents would not divest themselves of the responsibility towards their daughters. The conduct of the latter was shocking in many cases. Sometimes they were forced to leave their country (for the country’s good) and to live among the refuse and off-scourings of the cities and towns of England and America. Or they remained at home, and became outcasts or inmates with their illegitimate children of the workhouse. “Do not deceive yourselves” he continued – “The end of all impurity is damnation. It is a sin and a crime   and should receive the treatment of a crime. It should not be condoned. In this conviction I may say that a certain section of the girls of Birr are fast bringing disgrace on us all. They cast aside all maidenly modesty, and night after night they throw themselves in the way, and almost into the arms, of utter strangers. What the difference is between open solicitation and their conduct is, I fail to see. Let the whole community know that, and give them the treatment due to the prostitute, for that is what it comes to. Respectable people can do very much in this direction. They can brand these girls for what they really are. They can prevent their children or their dependants associating with them. I know if I were asked to apportion the blame of this scandalous state of morality in this town I would conscientiously lay the greater part of it on the parents of these girls and their mistresses [employers of female servants]. They are to blame in allowing their children or their servants to be out at night, and for the sins committed in consequences, these parents and these mistresses, will be held accountable before a just god. Your priests have already enough to do in the administration of the Sacraments without undertaking the additional duty that belongs by right to the neglectful parents and mistresses. I may say that I, for one, have no intention of undertaking the policing of incipient prostitutes. I have spoken plainly today, and it is now for you to do your duty. “Place the brand of infamy on the proper shoulders.”

A more moderate tone was adopted by the Rev J. O’Meara, who also spoke on the subject. He said he felt very reluctant to mention the matter before a respectable congregation, such as he was addressing, as the question only concerned a very miserable minority. He knew very well that his speaking of it would not stop it – he had no illusions on that point –but if the clergy did not refer to the matter it might be taken that they condoned it; therefore they were fulfilling a duty when they had to speak of this distasteful subject.

Rev. Canon Ryan, P.P.V. F., and Rev E. J. Scanlan, also referred to the subject, the former at early Mass, and the latter at the evening devotions.

Birr Catholic church about 1910

The ‘utter strangers’ that Fr Martyn was referring to were almost certainly the soldiers in Birr Barracks during the war years. The implication being that it was a cash transaction. The women were viewed as almost entirely culpable, and they and their children were to be shunned and to become outcasts in the workhouse. There was class involved also in that Martyn appears to have been referring to servant girls who needed to be better managed by their employer. In ‘placing the brand of infamy’ on a ‘certain section of girls’ Fr Martyn was reinforcing a course of action that would be adopted in Irish society for another fifty years. ‘Respectable people can . . . brand these girls for what they really are. They can prevent their children or their dependants associating with them.’

Some of the Leinster Boys at Birr Barracks

Fr Martyn did not condemn the soldiers or their officers and was not actuated by any political motive such as support for Sinn Féin. In his obituary notice it was said that he never took part in public affairs. Martyn was promoted to Portroe, Nenagh as parish priest in March 1921 (just 100 years ago this week) and died a few months later in July 1921. Fr Martyn was from Cooraclare and was ordained in 1890. His parish priest in Birr, Archdeacon Ryan, survived him by another 27 years and died in 1948 –  still in office at the age of 96. Their bishop, Michael Fogarty (1859–1955), survived both parish priest and curate and having been bishop of Killaloe since 1904 had the longest episcopate in Ireland in modern times.

In a later article we will look at court reportage and what was the value in money terms of a seduced daughter during the 1914–18 period. The Decade of Centenaries, 1912–23, is not so much about celebrating as taking stock of the time and trying to see society from the perspective of those who lived through it. This is what we will be aiming to do this year in forthcoming articles on that momentous decade. If you would like to contribute an article for the blog email us at Our circulation is over 2,000 views per week.

The Good old Days were not good for everybody. Oxmantown Hall before renovation