The Decade of Centenaries –  Independence and its  legacy for women’s role in society. By Sylvia Turner

One of the ironies during the first two decades of the 20th century is as women were beginning to gain equality with men, it was taken away during the next two decades by the Government under Éamon de Valera. Such inequality between men and women has led to repercussions across Irish society until the present day. According to Amnesty International , violence against women is both a consequence and a cause of inequality between men and women. There is widespread concern that this has now reached endemic levels, as acknowledged in the debate in Parliament following Ashling Murphy’s murder on 12th January 2022. Reasons why the situation has developed in a predominantly rural country of just five million people needs to be addressed if it is to be resolved.

The promise of equality for women with men had been included in the 1916 Proclamation. This was realised and the new Irish Free State enshrined equal voting rights into its Constitution in 1922. Following Independence and the ensuing Civil War, Éamon  de Valera, who opposed the Treaty, broke away from Sinn Féin and formed a new party called Fianna  Fáil  and led it into the  Dáil  in 1927.  He gained popularity and won elections in 1932. An example of his popularity can be seen in the Midland Counties Advertiser on 28th June 1934.

De Valera wrote a new constitution in 1937 asserting greater autonomy for Ireland. He was supported in its writing by a committee but particularly by the priest, Charles John Mc Quaid, later to become Archbishop of Dublin. In 1937 De Valera was elected Taoiseach and under his rule, the cultural identity of the Irish Republic as Catholic and Gaelic was asserted. Increasing  restrictions were put on women’s rights to employment, bodily autonomy and personal rights. In 1927 an Act was passed exempting women from jury duty and allowing a woman to opt out if she chose.

Has a useful essay on women and jury service that is also available as a podcast as is the entire collection via RTE.

The sale and importation of contraceptives was banned in 1932. In 1935 the Marriage Bar was extended to all parts of the civil service and granted the government power to limit the number of women employed in any industry. This meant that married female public servants could no longer work. Divorce was made illegal in 1937. What can now be seen as regressive policies towards women led to public protest by such organisations as The Irish Women Workers Union. However, the constitution was accepted and clearly women voted for it as constitutional change required a plebiscite rather than by an elected body.   

As a result of the 1937 Constitution, de Valera had a mandate to uphold what were considered family-orientated social policies for longer than most countries in the West, supported by the fact that changes to women’s rights largely reflected the status quo of the rural based lives and economy of women in Ireland. The church largely controlled many of the state’s hospitals, and most schools, and remained the largest provider of many other social services. A report in the Midlands County Advertiser on 14th September 1939 contextualises  employment discrimination shown towards women. Although Britain did not have a written Constitution, women in  Government posts were similarly  required to retire from their posts on marriage.

It was against the backdrop of Constitutional discrimination against women that many of the Mother and Baby Homes were established. As the Final Report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation(2021) states:

Ireland was a cold harsh environment for many…… It was especially cold and harsh for women. All women suffered serious discrimination. Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment. Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches. However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when the families provided no refuge at all.

Societal attitudes were influenced by theshame attached to illegitimacy that could pass from generation to generation, so great was the stigma attached to pregnancy outside marriage. The Report also highlighted that while mother and baby homes were not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon, the proportion of Irishunmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or county homes in the twentieth century was probably the highest in the world. As the report stresses, families generally did not take on the responsibility for their unmarried pregnant daughters and their babies.

Discriminatory practices against women were maintained in Ireland for over forty years. One key factor was the continued influence of De Valera and Mc Quaid on politics which lasted until their retirement in 1973 and  1972 respectively.  Other catalysts for change were the rise of a number of women’s groups such as the  Irish Women’s Liberation Movement and Ireland’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1973. According to the European Commission, one of the first benefits was that more women were able to access the labour market once the bar was lifted  for women having to resign  in public service jobs when they got married. Irish gender equality legislation was first introduced after Ireland became a member of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973.

Societal attitudes towards illegitimacy, contraception, abortion and divorce  have taken longer to change. The 1983 referendum on abortion was lost with 66.9 per cent of the electorate voting that the baby had an equal right to life as the mother. The topic of abortion and pregnancy outside marriage continued to be widely debated throughout 1984 due to a number of high-profile stories involving women, pregnancy outside marriage and their treatment by society, Church and State.

One such case was that of Ann Lovett who died aged 15 after giving birth to a full-term stillborn son at a grotto in Granard, Co Longford. Her pregnancy appeared to have gone unnoticed by all who knew her. Other women, often unmarried,  and who had the means,  took a different route when finding themselves pregnant and went to England for an abortion. Liverpool became a key place to go as activist groups there offered accommodation and support to women travelling from Ireland seeking abortions at  Liverpool Women’s Hospital.

Offaly women at the 1916 Commemoration parade in Tullamore in 1966

Irish women continue to deal with the impact of discriminatory practices which underpinned the formation of the Irish State during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Access to contraceptives finally became legal in 1980, with full restrictions not being moved until 1995 while the 2018 referendum allowing abortion  demonstrated widespread acceptance that women could control their own reproductive bodies. In 1995, a referendum was passed in Ireland which removed the prohibition on divorce and it was updated in 2019.

The European Institute for Gender Equality Report (2020) stated that Ireland scored 71.3 out of 100 points, and ranked 7th in the EU on the Gender Equality Index. Between 2005 and 2017, Ireland showed faster progress towards gender equality than other EU Member States. However, it noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to restrictions on mobility. The media and women’s organisations have reported a sharp increase in the demand for services for women victims of violence.

Mary Mc Auliffe, writing in the Irish Times (10th December, 2018) states that aspects of the gendered ideology still impact on women’s lives in Ireland such as the gender pay gap being  partly as a  result of the marriage bar, while the necessity of gender quotas in politics and academia, a legacy of the discriminatory legislation passed against  in the first decades of the Irish Free State. Laura Galvin, writing in the Trinity Times on 22 December 2021 believes that Ireland has retained a dark cultural past of gendered violence, more than many  other European counterparts and that the blurring of boundaries between the Church and State has paved the way for state sanctioned misogyny to take place across many aspects of people’s lives. She identifies factors such as the attitude of Irish people towards women in general, ingrained religious values that are still prevalent in the minds of a large number of the population  as well as governing bodies and the constitution. The issue of continued negative attitudes towards women was echoed in the Debate in the  Dáil  on January 22nd of this year.

Even today there are legal issues still outstanding.  Article 41.2 of the Constitution states: ‘In particular the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ Today, in modern Ireland these beliefs do not sit comfortably with a number of the population. The proposed referendum in 2018 to remove this clause was postponed.

In conclusion, although, the battle for equal rights was fought and won in Ireland over 100 years ago, the blurring of boundaries between Church and State has delayed equal rights being realised .  Since the passing of the 1973 amendment when Ireland joined the EEC , Ireland has become a secular State but retained significant religious influence over laws, education, and state business, diminishing only in more recent times. As identified in the recent debate in the  Dáil , preventing men’s violence against women starts with creating a zero-tolerance culture towards misogyny in which gender-based violence occurs. Financial and educational resources to achieve this aim need to be put in place quickly if the mission of the SafeIreland Agency is to make Ireland the safest country in the world for women and children.’ It is to be hoped that in a country of just five million, this is an achievable goal.


European Institute of Gender Equality  Gender Equality Index  available @ accessed 14/02/2022

History IrelandThe Catholic Church and the writing of the 1937 constitution available @  accessed 14/02/2022

History Ireland ‘The Ireland that I would have’ De Valera & the creation of an Irish national image available @, accessed 16/02/2022

Houses of the Oireachtas Dáil Éireann debate -Wednesday, 19 Jan 2022 available @ Dáil /2022-01-19/11/ accessed 16/02/2022

UCD Decade of Centenaries 1912-1923 Timeline available @ accessed 14/02/2022

Sylvia Turner February 2022

Our thanks to Sylvia Turner for this thought provoking overview. There is much work to be done on Offaly’s social history since 1922 and before. We welcome short essays of 900 to 1500 words with an Offaly theme.

Jackets here from Offaly History Library at Bury Quay, Tullamore. Great reading and research to be done at our library and at Offaly Archives