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Bastardy and the Great Famine: Ireland, 1845–1850

    • Published online: 01 December 1999

‘A woman who has had an illegitimate child is looked on with contempt, and would not be associated with. But the young women have a great deal of discretion, and few of them go astray in that way.’

Parish of St. Mary's, Cork, 1835

While the claim may seem surprising, Irish society enjoys no mean place in the history of sexuality. Malthus may be said to have re-focused attention on the folly of giving free rein to the passion between the sexes, and some historians, as well as contemporary commentators, viewed the state of pre-Famine Ireland as a confirmation of the dangers of runaway population growth. Post-Famine Irish society, by contrast, gave the appearance of being fashioned according to the principles of Malthusian population policy: an older age at marriage for men and women, a rising incidence of permanent celibacy and a relative absence of ‘vice’. Indeed, long before the end of the Victorian era Irish people were renowned for their prudential approach to matters sexual. This extended to sex outside marriage. Irish illegitimacy rates were amongst the lowest in the Western world. Ideologues protested the virtue and purity of Irish women, and of the Irish race more generally.

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Continuity and Change
  • ISSN: 0268-4160
  • EISSN: 1469-218X
  • URL: /core/journals/continuity-and-change
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