The Female Body and Shame

Katie McGrath
Katie McGrath
Katie Elizabeth McGrath, born October 24, 1983, is an Irish actress and model from Ashford, County Wicklow, Ireland, best known for playing Morgana in the BBC One TV series Merlin. | Photo: Sven Arnstein | Link | Katie Mcgrath, Actress, Ireland, Irish, Bbc, Merlin, Sexy,

The Catholic Church, Shame and the Irish Female Body

The female body has been, and continues to be, shamed in Ireland due to the conservative moral grounds of virtue enforced by the Catholic Church. The female body as a source of shame can be seen in the debates of abortion, unmarried mothers and rape cases. According to the Catholic Church, which has been the main authoritive institution in Ireland for centuries, the female body is sinful. Moira J Maguire from The Changing Face of Catholic Ireland: Conservatism and Liberalism in the Ann Lovett and Kerry Baby Scandals stated, "In 1983 Bishop Cassidy declared that the most dangerous place in the world is the woman's womb. It is in the womb that the actions and consequences of male sexual behaviour are made flesh." The pregnant body of the unmarried mother was seen as a form of shame due to the Catholic moral belief that one must remain chaste until they are bound in marriage. The sexual deviance of the female must be controlled since the health of the country is judged upon the purity of the females living within the country.

The Irish female body has been used as a form of National allegory for centuries, which has led to the Irish female becoming glorified and worshipped as the representative of the country. In Colleens and Comely Maidens: Representing and Performing Irish Femininity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries Barbara O'Connor summed up that: "nationalism was inscribed on to women's bodies." This has been problematic due to the fact that the Irish female then has this mythical and unreachable aspiration to live up to; the "comely maiden", the chaste Cail?n and the good, nurturing mother who rears strong children. These 'good' mothers were referred to in De Valera's Saint Patrick's Day Speech 1943: "The State shall... endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home."

The modern Irish female identity is divided between the moral values of the Church, which have been ingrained in generations of Irish families, and modernity. The ideology of patriarchy has been prominent in Irish societies for centuries and the notion that the female should be constrained to the domestic sphere, wifely duties and motherhood is still present in the Irish Constitution. In Abortion and Family Values: The X Case, Sexuality and 'Irishness' Lisa Smyth noted, "The 1937 Constitution explicitly made women responsible for both the reproduction of the population and the transmission of national identity through the practice of mothering."

  • The role of the female within Irish society.
  • The gender binary between the masculine and the feminine in relation to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
  • The notion that the Catholic Church was a highly influential and overbearing "Ideological State Apparatus" throughout Irish history which continues to influence the thoughts and actions of the Irish people.
In order to relate this constructed hierarchal institution with the idea of female shame, I will look at the concepts of single motherhood, crisis pregnancies and the issue of abortion.

There are a multitude of case studies including the infamous 'X' Case (1992), The Kerry Babies Case, The ABC Case and, in most detail, the Ann Lovett Case. The cases range from the Late 1980's until the present day. The issues which arose in these media reports are still issues which must be dealt with in contemporary times (the current Savita Praveen Halappanavar case being a prime example); rape, concealed pregnancy, shame, prejudice, inequality and abortion are still present problems.

However, the media reportage on the cases paved a way for the public "to consider the extent to which prevailing notions of acceptable and unacceptable, inclusion and exclusion, prompted pregnant women to remain silent rather than seek help" (Maguire). I aim to examine the on-going struggle for Irish women in the modern world which promotes sexual freedom since they are, somewhat, still bound to the traditional Catholic morals which still prevail in older generations, traditions and predominantly in the rural areas of the country.

In order to understand the dominance the Catholic Church holds on the Irish state one must look at the history of the Church as a main governing body; one which promoted sexual purity until marriage, patriarchy and strict, oppressive moral codes. "A social code of sexual Puritanism, tightly policed by an increasingly authoritarian patriarchy, was established" (Smyth). The Magdalene Laundries were set up in the 18th Century and maintained until the late 20th Century for 'fallen women' who had 'sullied' their purity with unmarried sex and had become pregnant. The pregnancy of an unmarried mother was seen as a tremendous sin to God, a family shame and a community embarrassment which resulted in the 'promiscuous' female being 'imprisoned' in an institution against their own will.

The gender binary between the male shame and the female shame of producing an illegitimate child was completely imbalanced. The female was accused of sexual deviance and punished, while the male remained unnamed and, even in cases of incest and rape, unshamed. Inglis and MacKeogh summed it up entirely in their publication The Double Bind: Women, Honour and Sexuality in Contemporary Ireland: "Women who broke the mould... who threatened the sanctity of marriage and family became subject to the supervisory gaze and disciplinary tactics."

Katie McGrath
Katie McGrath

Katie Elizabeth McGrath, born October 24, 1983, is an Irish actress and model from Ashford, County Wicklow, Ireland, best known for playing Morgana in the BBC One TV series Merlin. | Photo: Sven Arnstein |
One case which highlighted the prejudice of unmarried pregnancy and teenage sexuality was the Ann Lovett scandal in 1984. It is important to note that the incident occurred the year after the abortion referendum which banned abortions in Ireland. The death of the fifteen year old convent schoolgirl, Ann Lovett, caused uproar throughout Ireland due to the prevailing circumstances of her death. Ann Lovett gave birth in a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary in small-town Granard, Co. Longford. The young girl died of exposure to harsh weather conditions and complications due to giving birth to a still born child on her own.

The community in which she lived was reported in the media as being a 'backwards' society where the townspeople had gossiped idly about Lovett's predicament but had not helped her. "Lovett's pregnancy and death confronted small-town Irish society with a host of issues which were not new in the 1980's... what was new in 1984 was that the community was forced, by one young girl's personal and painful dilemma, to wrestle with how it defined right and wrong, inclusion and exclusion, [and] punished transgressions from the norm" (Maguire).

The notion of shame surrounding the case is evident in the fact that the young girl did not confide in her parents, or in anyone else from the town about her situation, instead, she concealed her pregnancy. The notion of community shame can also be noted since "initially Lovett's death was ignored in the local media, which did not even carry an obituary" (Maguire). It was a week later when the tragedy was featured on the front page of the Sunday Tribune that the story began to shock the nation.

The townspeople were enraged with the way the media represented Granard as a "depressed little country town". They also "did not want Lovett or their community to become platforms on a feminist political agenda or scapegoats in the aftermath of the abortion referendum." (Maguire) In a similar vein, it was not only the community who felt a collective shame and guilt, the Catholic nuns who taught Lovett denied speaking to the young girl and her family about the crisis pregnancy. It was claimed that the local shopkeeper knew that the nuns had been aware of the situation and had approached the young girls home about the problem, but the superior denied this.

According to sources, the Lovett family were ostracized from the Catholic townspeople far before their daughter's death due to their 'immoral' ways of living. The parents did not seem to conform to the rituals of the community and they were seen as social outcasts. "Lovett's father was unemployed, allegedly alcoholic, and rumours were rife that he physically and sexually abused his children" (Maguire). Perhaps it was due to this social othering that the townspeople felt they did not need to impose on the family's personal matters and speak to the young girl about her pregnancy. Their status as outsiders and family reputation seemed to allow for the loosening of 'traditional' community responsibility.

The townspeople began to backlash against the 'biased' and 'unfair' reports that were written about Granard. The following quote is from the local newspaper which was used as a reaction against the preconceptions splashed across National newspapers. However, this quote proved as an excellent example of the blind eye the whole country, not only Granard, was turning against unmarried mothers and their plight due to the on-going Catholic social conventions. "Every week in every country in Ireland babies are born to young girls out of wedlock. Some are left on doorsteps, some are born in the arms of voluntary organizations, many more are aborted in backstreet clinics in England. In all cases there is no publicity, no media treatments, no television camera crews. The people of Granard are no less caring or no less charitable than any other community in this country."

In 1984 the Kerry Babies Scandal outraged the public and was a prominent feature in media reports as they followed the unjust tribunal of Joanne Hayes; an unmarried mother who had been engaged in an affair with a married man. During her tribunal Hayes was cross-examined about personal issues such as her sexual history and her use of contraception. "Despite the evidence, the police maintained during a subsequent Public Inquiry into the events, that she had become pregnant with twins through having sex with two different men within 48 hours" (Inglis, MacKeogh). Unlike the Ann Lovett case, the media and the general public took an outspoken and anti-tribunal reaction against the institutions such as the Court and the Catholic Church. "The tribunal punished Joanne Hayes not alone for her sins of womankind aswell and, more significantly, for the sins of men who were unable to control their behaviour and unwilling to take responsibility for the lack of control" (Maguire). The Kerry Babies Scandal showed that there was a stigma against unmarried mothers since "the abortion referendum and public humiliation of Joanne Hayes suggested that unmarried women were still subject to official control of their sexual and reproductive activities" (Maguire).

The case revealed the fissures in Irish society between, what Catherine Heffernan refered to as, a "European, progressive, secular Ireland" and a "traditional, backward Catholic Ireland." This fragmentation of Irish identity and values in relation to the female body was also presented in the media in 1992, almost a decade after the previous case studies, with the reportage on the 'X' case. The 'X' case revealed the deeply rooted problems of Irish society at the time and called the notion of morality and collective shame in to question.

The case followed an unnamed fourteen year old girl who had been raped and had fallen pregnant. The young girl went to the guards to report the crime before her departure to England to an abortion clinic. An injunction was placed on the young girl that banned her from leaving the country until her pregnancy term commenced. This injunction caused media frenzy and it was met with a public outcry against the system. There were many outraged letters published in the National newspapers such as the following letter which was printed in the Irish Times on 20 February 1992: "I feel fear, shame and revulsion-fear of being a woman in Ireland, shame of being part of a society which can pass such inhuman and intransigent laws, and revulsion towards those who simple-mindedly and smugly insist on telling us how we should live our lives."

Katie McGrath
Katie McGrath

Katie Elizabeth McGrath, born October 24, 1983, is an Irish actress and model from Ashford, County Wicklow, Ireland, best known for playing Morgana in the BBC One TV series Merlin. | Photo: Sven Arnstein | Katie Mcgrath, Actress, Ireland, Irish, Bbc, Merlin, Sexy,

In relation to the notion of abortion, the ABC case proved that the problem has not subsided in contemporary Ireland. Three anonymous women challenged Ireland's restrictive abortion rights at the European Court of Human Rights in 2009. These women claimed they had to travel to another country for an abortion which caused strains on their health and their financial situations. The first woman had four children in foster care due to personal problems and feared another baby would ruin her chances of being reunited with her children, the second applicant did not wish to raise a baby on her own and the third applicant was in remission from cancer. These applicants' complaints were concerned with the strict abortion laws in Ireland which had caused them extra expense, shame, trauma and even threatened the life of the third female. The trial resulted in the Irish system having to make leniency's of abortions in relation to life-threatening cases.

Although the various cases I have mentioned have brought light to the subjugation of women in Ireland, and have argued for the female's right to choice, there is still prevailing issues in this present day concerning the female body. The female body is still being governed by the oppressive Catholic Church and the female is still seen predominantly as a mother figure. It can be challenged that the female body is seen as an incubator and a vessel of reproduction. This is evident in the Christian faith website which lays claim that: "An extremely popular argument asserts that because a woman has a right to control her own body, she therefore has a right to undergo an abortion for any reason she deems fit. The unborn entity within the pregnant woman's body is not part of her body... Although the unborn entity is attached to its mother, it is not part of her."

In recent times the Catholic Church has lost the brunt of its power to institutions such as the media. However, the social doctrines and moral standards of the Church still remain infringed in Irish society. The power of the Catholic Church came to an irreversible collapse during the 1990's due to the media releasing cases of sexual abuse which had been inflicted on those in Catholic institutions and reform schools by priests and nuns. The shameful stories of male priests sexually abusing young boys and the concealing of these abuses by the higher powers caused a frenzy which questioned Catholicism and, in turn, the Irish identity. "In Belfast, Father Brendan Smyth was convicted of sexually abusing children over a period of twenty years... [H]is order had long been aware of the problem, but had done nothing to control or discipline him" (Cullingford).

These feelings of outrage against the Church for the abuse stories over the last two decades have shown liberalization concerning the issue of abortion with the founding of the 1995 Abortion Information Act. This was to permit medical and health professionals to "discuss abortion within the context of counselling on crisis pregnancies and to provide information on English abortion services" (Maguire).

According to the Crisis Pregnancy Agency's statistics from January 2007 there has been a large drop in issues such as adoption, crisis pregnancies, and abortions while there has been an increase in sexual education and in births outside of marriage. These statistics reveal the loosening of the Church's hold on Ireland and on the Irish moral ethics as it becomes more-and-more cosmopolitan and modern. In other words, the notion of female shame is not as prevalent in Irish society as it was in the 1980's, but there are still issues that need to be addressed such as concealed pregnancies, gender binaries, rape and the ceaseless debate of a woman's right to abortion.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:10 PM EDT | More details


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