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  • Male Defendants and Infanticide in Mid-Twentieth-Century Ireland
  • Moira J. Maguire

In June 1928, John Looby stood trial for the murder of the newborn infant born to his girlfriend Margaret Slattery. Mr. William Carrigan, K.C. (king’s counsel) called Looby’s alleged crime a “disgustingly barbarous murder,” while Mr. Justice Hanna suggested that “it is in savage South Africa you should be.”1 Forensic evidence suggested that the child died of asphyxia due to inattention at birth, hardly the “disgustingly barbarous murder” described by Hanna.2

Why, if the medical evidence pointed to neglect as the cause of death, did Carrigan and Hanna describe Looby’s actions in such provocative terms? Carrigan’s opening statement, summarized in the local press, helps to explain the extreme language: “although the crime of infanticide was unhappily, but too frequently, the source of investigation in the court, the circumstances here were of an exceptional character, inasmuch as here it was the man, the origin of the wrong-doing, who was in the dock.”3 In other words, Looby became a scapegoat for all men who impregnated innocent young women and then abandoned them to deal alone with the consequences. But Looby was far from the rogue depicted in official rhetoric. Many men did, in fact, abandon young unmarried women to face the consequences of their illicit sexual liaisons alone. Looby, in contrast, [End Page 62] stood by his girlfriend and did the best he could for her, clumsy and inadequate though his efforts might have been.

The vast majority of defendants in judicial cases of murder, manslaughter, infanticide, and concealment of birth were women. Most of those female defendants were the mothers of the dead infants, but it was not unusual for mothers, sisters, and aunts to conspire in the death or concealment of an unwanted or illegitimate child. What was unusual was for men to be drawn into the drama. In the judicial record of infanticide, men typically appear only as judges, jurors, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. The male defendant was a rare specimen, indeed. The archives of the Central Criminal Court and circuit courts throughout the country reveal that, of more than six hundred defendants in infanticide and related cases, only forty (or roughly 7 percent) were men.Eighteen of these men were the spouses or sexual partners of the woman whose child had died, usually the fathers of the dead children. Seven of the male defendants were the fathers of the women involved; three were siblings; two were uncles; one was an in-law; one was an employer; and in eight additional cases, the relationship between the defendant and the mother of the child was unclear.

The presence of men in the infanticide record raises two important questions, one having to do with their relationship to the criminal justice system and the other with their motivations. How did the courts evaluate men’s actions both in their own right and in relation to the actions of their female counterparts? Were men, in fact, treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than their female counterparts simply because they were men, and regardless of their actions, as the Lobby case would seem to suggest? And why, given the ease with which men could and often did distance themselves from all responsibility for unmarried mothers and their children, did some men get drawn into the drama of infanticide?

The period encompassed by the cases discussed here—from the 1920s to the 1950s—was pivotal. In the 1920s Ireland gained Independence and set about the task of building the Irish state, a process that culminated in the Constitution of 1937. But although the criminal justice system was under the control of the Irish Department of Justice, the law governing the prosecution of infanticide was, until 1949, a relic of British rule. The 1949 Infanticide Act was intended to bring the law into line with what had become common practice since the 1920s. It created infanticide as a criminal act distinct from murder and it sought to take the death penalty off the table; in those rare cases when women were convicted of murder, their death sentences were, as a matter of course...


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pp. 62-80
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