A social history of illegitimacy in Ireland from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century

  • William Paul Gray

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This study is an examination of illegitimacy in Ireland from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. It has been undertaken against a backdrop of shifts in social policy in the United Kingdom where the single mother and the child 'born out of wedlock', to use an archaic phrase, have assumed a major significance. The rise in births outside marriage (the current term which has replaced the more value laden label of 'illegitimate') has prompted much soul searching amongst members of successive recent governments and has acted as a focus for various social concerns in the last decade or two. These concerns have focused on low levels of educational attainment and rising levels of criminality amongst children, the role of women and the responsibility of men. In particular, dependence of single mothers on benefits has been an important factor in galvanising the thoughts of policy makers. [8] As such thinking on the supposed links between babies and benefits seems not too distant from nineteenth-century concerns with unmarried mothers and poor relief, perhaps this study is not altogether esoteric. Concerns over the family, children, and deviations from sexual and social norms are recurring themes in social history and it may not be too great an expectation that the past may illuminate, however dimly, areas of current debate.

The data embodied in this study reflect the fragmentary nature of the source materials, which are of a qualitative and quantitative kind. Chapter 1 presents a general overview of the literature on illegitimacy. As such it encompasses the European historical literature but more particularly those English and Scottish studies of bastardy, together with a discussion of the more social scientific literature.

Chapter 2 outlines the available Irish literature on illegitimacy. The seminal work of Kenneth Connell and the only major analysis of parish register material, that of Sean Connolly, are considered. Other, more minor contributions to an understanding of Irish illegitimacy are also brought into the reckoning.

Chapter 3 assesses the variety of source materials used in the study. The major sources - Presbyterian church court records, parish registers, official records and workhouse registers - are examined in turn and their strengths and limitations acknowledged.

Chapter 4 presents data obtained from Presbyterian church courts in the eighteenth century. The data relate to two levels of church courts, Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions, and provide quantitative data on cases brought before such courts, together with a flavour of the qualitative evidence. A limited comparison is made between Presbyterian courts and the disciplinary procedures of the Church of Ireland and Quaker denominations.

Chapter 5 is mainly concerned with a quantitative analysis of parish register material on illegitimacy and pre-nuptial pregnancy. A sample of parishes is used to examine illegitimacy within pre and post-Famine time frames. Illegitimacy during the Great Famine is likewise investigated. An Ulster parish sample is used to interrogate further illegitimacy behaviour during the period 1820 - 1899, this time within the counties of Antrim and Down. Some data are presented for pre-nuptial pregnancy in Presbyterian congregations for both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and comparison is made with Sean Connolly's data for both centuries. Finally, a variety of other topics concerning illegitimacy are examined, including the role of workhouses, and occupational data pertaining to illegitimacy.

Chapter 6 takes the analysis of the three regional clusters, explored in Chapter 5, a stage further by assembling a more detailed social and economic profile of three contrasting parishes, each parish broadly reflecting conditions in each cluster. Some correlations are presented to ascertain which correlates might be associated with illegitimacy and the social and economic profiles of the three parishes are compared with their illegitimacy behaviour. An interpretation of this behaviour is then developed. Likewise some correlations are presented for a cluster of Ulster parishes from County Down. One parish in particular, Seapatrick, is selected for more detailed analysis. Illegitimacy is related to the social and economic structure of this parish, while variations in illegitimacy levels are related to the economic fortunes of the principal industry, that of linen.

Chapter 7 examines illegitimacy within the context of the workhouse in the 1850s. A sample of workhouses is used to assemble data on illegitimacy levels and trends, mortality of children, and occupation and age of unmarried pregnant women on entering the workhouse. Some information on the religious composition of illegitimate workhouse births is also considered. Lurgan workhouse is used as a case study and there is a comparison of the illegitimacy behaviour of textile workers and domestic servants. The growth in illegitimacy during the decade may well be connected to problems in the linen industry locally and nationally. The life of the unmarried mother in the workhouse is explored by examining the privations she would suffer together with her vulnerability, stigma and susceptibility to sexual exploitation. Finally, the issue of the implication of illegitimate workhouse births for the recording of illegitimacy in parish baptismal registers is addressed.

Chapter 8 is concerned with illegitimacy and regional persistence from the advent of civil registration until 1920. Irish illegitimacy ratios are placed within the context of European ratios. Within Ireland itself provincial ratios are compared and regional persistence within the twenty-six county area is explored. Narrowing the focus still further, illegitimacy in the north and in particular the north-east is analysed and some correlations between illegitimacy and occupations, particularly those associated with linen manufacture, are presented.

My aim in this study has been to provide some insights into illegitimacy in Ireland building on the work of Kenneth Connell and Sean Connolly. Whilst quantitative analysis has been a major focus, care has been taken not to eschew the qualitative evidence. The life of the unmarried mother and her child in Ireland was in many cases a fugitive one, denied the eloquence of testimony, or more prosaically, it left us little by way of record. As such we are obliged to construct from inadequate materials, and as best we can, a portrait of those who lived not only on the margins of society, but on the edges of subsistence.

Date of AwardJul 2000
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorLiam Kennedy (Supervisor)

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