The Politics of Sexual Knowledge: The Origins of Ireland's Containment Culture and the Carrigan Report (1931)
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Journal of the History of Sexuality 13.2 (2004) 208-233



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The Politics of Sexual Knowledge:

The Origins of Ireland's Containment Culture and the Carrigan Report (1931)

Boston College

"In Ireland—whenever a child is born out of wedlock, so shocked is the public sense by the very unusual occurrence, that it brands with an irreparable stigma, and, to a large extent, excommunicates the woman guilty of the crime."1 Writing in 1922, the same year that the Irish Free State was founded, James F. Cassidy, himself a Catholic priest, captured the inherent contradictions informing contemporary Irish attitudes toward women's virtue and outlined the ramifications for those women who violated that social and moral ideal. Branded by the public as simultaneously a mother and a criminal, a family member and an outcast, the unmarried mother faced shame, betrayal, and exile. With little or no social welfare system to fall back on, her choices were limited to entering the county home, begging on the streets, or possibly resorting to prostitution. Cassidy's scenario carefully avoided the unmarried mother's male partner, father to her "illegitimate" child. Similarly, he ignored the social powerbrokers—Church and state—that facilitated these communal responses.

The historically powerful Catholic Church and the fledgling Irish Free State cooperated increasingly throughout the 1920s as the self-appointed guardians of the nation's moral climate. Already by 1925 this partnership had provoked legislation establishing censorship of films and proscribing divorce, characteristic hallmarks of the socially repressive Free State society. These initiatives were followed by a series of official investigations, for [End Page 208] example, the Inquiry Regarding Venereal Disease (1925), the Committee on Evil Literature (1927), and the Commission on the Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor Including the Insane Poor (1928). Such inquiries typically generated lengthy reports that subsequently resulted in legislation addressing social and moral issues, including the Censorship of Publications Act (1929), the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation Orders) Act (1930), the Legitimacy Act (1931), the Registration of Maternity Homes Act (1934), and the Dance Halls Act (1935). This essay examines the historical contexts informing one final Church-state initiative from the early Free State years, the Committee on the Criminal Law Amendment Acts (1880-85), and Juvenile Prostitution (hereafter referred to as the Carrigan Committee), its ensuing report, and the subsequent Criminal Law Amendment Act (1935). The Carrigan Report, I propose, was a formative moment in establishing an official state attitude toward "sexual immorality," and the subsequent legislation authorized Ireland's containment culture.

In its concrete form Ireland's architecture of containment encompassed an array of interdependent institutions: Industrial and Reformatory Schools, mother and baby homes, adoption agencies, and Magdalen asylums, among others. These institutions concealed members of society who had been marginalized by a number of interrelated social phenomena, including illegitimacy, incest, and infanticide. In its more abstract form this architecture comprised both the legislation that inscribed these issues and the numerous official and public discourses that resisted admitting to the existence and function of their affiliated institutions.2 In arriving at a hegemonic discourse that responded to perceived sexual immorality, the Carrigan Report and the Criminal Law Amendment Act not only sanitized state policy with respect to institutional provision but also disembodied sexual practice, concealing sexual crime while simultaneously sexualizing the women and children unfortunate enough to fall victim to society's moral proscriptions. Moreover, this official discourse helped construct an illusion of political nonpartisanship against the backdrop of post-civil war divisiveness. Finally, it helped to engineer widespread public consent by way of the legislative agenda, even while the operative functions of the institutional response to sexual practice were shrouded in secrecy. Examining the Carrigan Report and its political reception in this context underscores how the discourse of "sexual immorality" enabled, even as it was perceived to threaten, postindependent Ireland's national imaginary. [End Page 209]

Recent feminist historiography has considered how the project of national identity formation in the decades following independence mobilized Catholic notions...