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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Death and Dying in Ireland, Britain and Europe

Historical Perspectives
Kelly, Lyons (eds)
Irish Academic Press


 Sexual virtue was the primary index of female respectability in eighteenth-century Ireland; and, because the consequences of transgression were so acute, there was little that women caught in this maelstrom were not prepared to contemplate in order to escape the social sanction that followed the loss of reputation. Attention to date has focussed disproportionately on the phenomenon of infanticide, most of which was perpetrated by young women in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of the consequences of their venery, and the prospects of economic immiseration and social ostracism if they sought to live their lives as single parents.' Based on the number of cases brought to trial, it is clear that a large majority of women who committed infanticide evaded detection, but this possibility did not liberate them from the fear of apprehension, and, should they be tried, of being sentenced to death. Arising out of this, at least fourteen pregnant women chose to kill themselves not only 'to avoid shame' but also to evade the other implications of single parenthood. This was not the only route chosen; a smaller number of women gave birth only to take their own lives and that of their child. These are particularly arresting manifestations of the moral power of social convention; and this power was illustrated further by the eleven women who took their own lives when they were abandoned by the men to whose charm they had succumbed. Suicide may be perceived of as an unjustifiably extreme response to the experience of seduction. But the reality was that, in common with the married woman from Arklow, County Wicklow, who was 'abused by some of her female neighbours, for want of that fidelity to her husband which is consistent with the character of an honest wife' when it was discovered that she had an affair, and the 14-year-old girl who was raped by a ploughman near Celbridge, County Kildare, these females chose to take their own lives because they perceived that this was preferable to living in a society that viewed them as tainted for having infringed the laws of female honour.

Men too paid a high price when they were perceived to have behaved dishonourably. The most obvious evidence for this is the number of men who duelled to expiate insult, but every embarrassment did not lend itself to resolution by a preparedness to demonstrate personal bravery under fire. Approximately 3 per cent of male suicides to whom a firm motive can be ascribed chose to take their own life rather than to be portrayed as dishonourable. Their plight can be illustrated by the decision of John Deseroy, whose father was an alderman in Kilkenny, to cut his throat rather than endure 'the slight he had received .....