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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
February 2023
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Creative Commons:
Creative Common License - CC Creative Common License - BY Creative Common License - NC Creative Common License - ND
This content is Open Access and distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

Book description

Contraception was the subject of intense controversy in twentieth-century Ireland. Banned in 1935 and stigmatised by the Catholic Church, it was the focus of some of the most polarised debates before and after its legalisation in 1979. This is the first comprehensive, dedicated history of contraception in Ireland from the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 to the 1990s. Drawing on the experiences of Irish citizens through a wide range of archival sources and oral history, Laura Kelly provides insights into the lived experiences of those negotiating family planning, alongside the memories of activists who campaigned for and against legalisation. She highlights the influence of the Catholic Church's teachings and legal structures on Irish life showing how, for many, sex and contraception were obscured by shame. Yet, in spite of these constraints, many Irish women and men showed resistance in accessing contraceptive methods. This title is also available as Open Access.


‘As reproductive rights emerge with visceral relevance on the international stage, Laura Kelly’s intervention with Contraception and Modern Ireland provides a timely reminder that playing politics with people’s bodies ends in bedrooms, bathrooms and backstreets of fear. This is a history which finds its rhythm in women’s words and those of the first interviewee sum up much of the paradox of Irish society’s response to contraception in the twentieth century. ‘We were awful innocent’, Deirdre, a mother of six recalls, ‘We were awful innocent’. Indeed, the awfulness often sat in deadly proximity to that innocence causing, until Kelly’s book, untold misery, fear, and anxiety. This impressive book charts the history of the last generation in Ireland to live without access to legal contraception. It explores the implications of that legacy, the shifting ground of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the development and impact of reproductive activism, and, through oral history, accesses for the first time the quiet, private and everyday ways women and men negotiated the realities of ‘awful innocence’ in the bedroom.’

Lindsey Earner-Byrne - University College Cork

‘Laura Kelly has masterfully captured the interlocking spaces of religious, political and health expertise, activism and sexual practices that have shaped the circulation of contraception in modern Ireland. This beautifully written and thoroughly researched book is a key contribution to the history of contraception and, through the personal narratives of Irish men and women who advocated for, prescribed, used, desired and rejected birth control, uniquely illuminating.’

Agata Ignaciuk - University of Granada

‘In this fascinating study of contraception in Ireland between the 1920s and 1990s, Laura Kelly provides us with a nuanced narrative that fully captures the complexities of sexuality in modern Irish society. Her use of oral histories to illuminate the experiences of men and women negotiating family planning and contraception makes for a rich and valuable study of those whose stories would otherwise be lost. This book is sure to become the definitive history of reproductive rights in modern Ireland.’

Wendy Kline - Purdue University, Indiana

‘Eloquently and thoughtfully written, this book offers a ground-breaking, original and significant contribution to our understanding of contraception in twentieth century Ireland. The mix of archival and oral history methodologies offers a unique perspective on the subject and is an exemplar of how to use oral testimony in an effective and engaging way.’

Leanne McCormick - Ulster University

‘This important book is full of testimony of [women’s] endurance … Built on the back of the personal experiences of 103 interviewees born in Ireland before 1955, the book also provides dense detail about the wider history of contraception as reflected in numerous archives. It is absorbing, disturbing and revealing …’

Diarmaid Ferriter Source: Irish Times

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Full book PDF
  • Contraception and Modern Ireland
    pp i-ii
  • Contraception and Modern Ireland - Title page
    pp iii-iii
  • A Social History, c. 1922–92
  • Copyright page
    pp iv-iv
  • Dedication
    pp v-vi
  • Contents
    pp vii-vii
  • Figures
    pp viii-ix
  • Acknowledgements
    pp x-xi
  • Notes
    pp xii-xii
  • Abbreviations
    pp xiii-xiv
  • Introduction
    pp 1-20
  • 1 - Access to Contraception and Family Planning Information in Ireland from the 1920s to the 1950s
    pp 21-50
  • 2 - Sexual Knowledge and Morality from the 1940s to the 1970s
    pp 51-85
  • 3 - Birth Control Practices and Attitudes to Contraception in the 1960s and 1970s
    pp 86-128
  • 4 - The Pill, Women’s Agency and Doctor–Patient Relationships in the 1960s and 1970s
    pp 129-150
  • 6 - Family Planning Clinics and Activism in the 1970s
    pp 184-221
  • 7 - Feminist Campaigns for Free, Safe and Legal Contraception in the 1970s
    pp 222-260
  • 8 - Campaigns against Contraception in 1970s and 1980s Ireland
    pp 261-292
  • 9 - Family Planning after the Family Planning Act
    pp 293-321
  • Access to Contraception in 1980s and 1990s Ireland
  • Conclusion
    pp 322-324
  • Appendix
    pp 325-336
  • Bibliography
    pp 337-355
  • Index
    pp 356-364


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