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  • Creating "Common Sense" Responses to the "Unmarried Mother" in the Irish Free State*
  • Paul Michael Garrett (bio)

To better understand the treatment of the "unmarried mother" in twentieth-century Ireland, it is important to regard the encompassing institutional order that evolved after the Free State attained a limited measure of independence in 1922.1 This economic, societal, and cultural order furnishes the context for the construction of the unmarried mother as a "social problem" demanding a solution. In this essay Antonio Gramsci's theorization of hegemony offer conceptual tools to comprehend how such a climate of opinion was created and nurtured in Free State Ireland. I will argue, moreover, that Father Richard Stanislaus Devane, S.J. (1876–1951), as well as other Catholic intellectuals in the period, operated as "primary definers" of the unmarried mother.2 Particularly significant for the essay's argument is the rarely examined testimony heard by the Commission on the Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor, Including the Insane Poor (1927), which listened to evidence from 180 witnesses during thirty-two public sittings between May 1925 and December 1926.3 Evidence provided by [End Page 120] witnesses and members of this commission further conveys how the unmarried mother in Ireland became a criminalized figure.

A somewhat neglected presence in Irish historiography, Devane was a public intellectual whom Aidan Beatty describes as one of the "most important figures in the legislative history of the Irish Free State, with a strong influence on the soft authoritarian world of post-1922 social reform and social control."4 Devane gave evidence to the 1927 commission and later to the Committee on the Criminal Law Amendment Acts, 1880–85, and Juvenile Prostitution (1931), which produced the Carrigan report (1931).5 A prominent Jesuit, he wrote a number of articles for the Irish Ecclesiastical Record on a range of interrelated topics such as jazz, the "dance menace,"6 and the "indecent" literature found in the "reptile press"—especially the "English Sunday and other weekly gutter journals."7 He was committed to safeguarding a particular form of Catholic Irishness that he viewed as threatened by young people's capacity to expand—through, for example, the growing popularity of the motor car—the "circle of their enjoyments."8 Such fears applied particularly to "girls" and young women who appeared increasingly able to slip through the nets of community surveillance. [End Page 121]

Hegemony and the Emergence of the "Social Problem" of the "Unmarried Mother"

Gramsci's theorizing of hegemony focuses on how a dominant class organizes, persuades, and maintains the consent of the subjugated by ensuring that its own ideas constitute embedded "mental conceptions"9 and "common sense" within a particular social formation.10 Hegemonic power does not "flow automatically from the economic position of the dominant group," but has to be "constructed and negotiated."11 This imperative becomes key at specific historical conjunctures at which "levels of society, the economy, politics, ideology, common sense … come together or 'fuse.'"12 During such a period a constellation of seemingly unrelated circumstances cluster; particular thematic concerns and preoccupations appear to accumulate or condense to highlight broader questions within an emerging hegemonic apparatus. This essay contends that the figure of the unmarried mother functioned as such a nodal point during the early years of the post–Civil War Irish Free State. In the mid-1920s the Free State could best be perceived as transitional—that is, it was in the process of developing what Michel Foucault would view as specific ideologies concerning the "just" treatment of "deviant" and "shameless classes."13 Located at a conjuncture marked by an evolving postcolonial hegemony, the new polity slowly achieved both conservative stability and a modernization of the state's social apparatus.14 Breathnach and O'Halpin suggest that the first decade of Irish [End Page 122] independence was characterized by "unprecedented centralization in public administration, a process marked by an almost puritanical zeal for efficiency, modernity, and probity."15

An institutional social order was being crafted to serve the material interests of a new national ruling class. In 1914 James Connolly had accurately predicted that the partition of Ireland was likely to...


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