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  • Shame and the Breastfeeding Mother in Ireland*
  • Abby Bender (bio)

There has been considerable discussion about why breastfeeding rates in Ireland are the lowest in Europe, perhaps even the lowest globally.1 Newspaper articles and blogs signal how fraught the topic has become: breastfeeding, or rather its widespread absence, is presented not just as a fact but as a crisis and a site for national self-examination. Why, ask all the newspapers, don't Irish mothers breastfeed? As medical literature and social movements in both western and developing nations argue for the benefits of breastfeeding, Ireland has witnessed a mobilization at both the national and grass-roots level to encourage mothers to nurse their babies. Lady Sabina [End Page 104] Higgins now organizes an annual "latching-on" event to raise awareness of low rates in Ireland, and in 2018 she asserted that the global movement for breastfeeding was "probably the most important thing in the world."2 President Michael D. Higgins has also been involved in the campaign, which included a 2016 presidential Christmas card depicting Mary nursing the infant Jesus. Irish writers, particularly Emma Donoghue and Doireann Ní Ghríofa, have made breastfeeding central in their recent works.

Yet even in this period of "latch-on" events, a nursing Madonna holiday greeting, and the "Breastfeeding Welcome Here" signs in city shops and cafés, a Nigerian asylum-seeker was denied the extra food she needed for herself to nurse her three-month-old child. For asylum-seeking mothers housed in Ireland's infamous direct-provision centers—where families are often forced to live for years in institutional settings while awaiting processing—a ghettoized austerity inhibits breastfeeding. The report Infant Feeding Guidelines for Direct Provision Centres (2007), produced by the government of Ireland, admits that immigrants "from countries with supportive breastfeeding cultures" may have been given the "impression that Ireland does not value or promote breastfeeding."3 Indeed, this institutional discouragement of breastfeeding for those held at the margins is an echo of both past and present in which breastfeeding was and remains a site of shame. The images of the Higgins's breastfeeding-promotion events, with the ornate backgrounds of their formal reception rooms and privileged white guests proudly celebrating motherhood and breastfeeding, should be read alongside other stories—current [End Page 105] and past—in which women's feeding practices have been quite literally controlled and abjected by state institutions: mother-and-baby homes and Magdalen laundries in the twentieth century, direct provision in the twenty-first.4

Breastfeeding must be considered along with the other methods by which women's bodily practices in Ireland have been regulated directly or indirectly—that is, through biopower and specifically shame—by the state. Ireland's famous enshrining of motherhood in the 1937 Constitution reified, as Mary McGlynn writes, "a longstanding effort to control unruly female bodies, transforming cultural and religious practice into state policy."5 Although we can read bodily regulation of women and children most explicitly in institutions that imprisoned them within what James Smith has termed "architectures of containment," biopower works its way into every woman's body, whatever her economic and social status. "None of the building blocks of the shame-industrial complex was intrinsically Irish or intrinsically Catholic," writes Caelainn Hogan in Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland's Institutions for "FallenWomen" (2020), "but independent Catholic Ireland brought them to a dark perfection."6

Revelations, excavations, and journalistic and literary examinations of these hidden histories have revealed the experiences of women and children who suffered institutional incarceration and abuse. But even as reports are released, plaques hammered into place, and apologies rehearsed by the state—if not by the religious institutions most directly involved in the management and staffing of the homes and laundries—the damage persists. Birth, health, and adoption records continue to be withheld from survivors and their children. Moreover, as activist writers and academics have been arguing for years, the carceral structures and experiences of twentieth-century institutions have much in common with the current system [End Page 106] of direct provision.7 Nevertheless, a historical blindness to the analogies between the past and the present persists. In one exemplary case Clair...