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  • The Rape of Mary M.:A Microhistory of Sexual Violence and Moral Redemption in 1920s Ireland
  • Lindsey Earner-Byrne (bio)

Co. Westmeath
3 July 1924

My Lord,

May it please your grace to spare me a few moments of your most valuable time. To each other we are perfect strangers but I appeal to your charity to listen to my pitiful tale and beg your forgiveness if I seem to intrude.

During the Political trouble when looting and robbing & raiding were carried on to such an extent in our country district my trouble began. In January 1923 a party of men armed to the teeth & calling themselves Republicans forced their entrance into our house where in three people resided. My Aunt who is totally blind and is over 70 years, my Uncle 70 and I their neice an orphan. The object of their visit was money or lives. When I strove to save my Aunt from being dragged from her bed and they were furious when they did not get money one brute satisfied his duty passion on me. I was then in a dangerous state of health and thro’ his conduct I became Pregnant. Oh God could any pen describe what I have gone thro’.

Lying amid a collection of thousands of “charity case” letters in the Dublin Diocesan Archives is an eight-page letter written by a rural Irish woman in July 1924 to the Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Edward J. Byrne (1921–40), seeking assistance.1 In many respects this letter [End Page 75] is similar to the hundreds before and after it in the collection: the author was in need of financial assistance and made her claims on the basis of her fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church.2 The majority of people who wrote to the archbishop referred to problems relating to poverty, unemployment, illness, or bereavement, but a small minority wrote about more sensitive problems concerning, for example, illegitimacy or incest.3 Mary M.’s letter, quoted above, fits into this smaller cohort; she was in need of financial help to resolve a moral problem. In keeping with the rules of the archbishop’s system, she supplied a religious referee, the name of a Franciscan, Father Cyprian.4 His two short letters are the only other surviving papers relating to her case.5

In her letter, Mary M. described the most intimate of “troubles” and balanced the dictates of decorum with the needs of her situation. She was an unmarried mother who was the main caregiver for her elderly blind aunt and uncle, and she wrote to the archbishop to request financial assistance to secure her son’s future. He was conceived, she explained, as a result of rape during the Irish Civil War (1922–23).6 In the process of enlisting the archbishop’s assistance, she outlined the trajectory that her life had taken since she discovered she was pregnant. She had concealed this knowledge from everyone close to her, apart from the Franciscan who had acted as her confidant and referee. As her pregnancy progressed, she traveled to Dublin, where she was directed to a Catholic rescue agency. On the advice of this agency, she forged a plan to return to Dublin just before her delivery to give birth in the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, where she planned to hand over the infant to the rescue agency and return to her life in County Westmeath. She wrote to the archbishop nine months after leaving her son in the rescue agency because she could no longer afford the fees for her son’s maintenance, and she [End Page 76] feared that unless she raised twenty pounds to pay the agency to arrange the private adoption of her son, he would be returned to her, exposing her as an unmarried mother.

Historians have written enough about how sexuality was perceived in 1920s Ireland for us to know that Mary M.’s fears were not unfounded.7 Extensive examinations of newspapers, religious sources, and court records have made it clear that a stringent moral code, which deemed sexual contact outside of marriage to be immoral, enshrined a sexual double standard...


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pp. 75-98
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