The Pill

Centre for the Social History of Health & HealthcareContraception & modern Ireland, c1922-92

Dr Laura Kelly

Funded by Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship, (Ref: 106593/Z/14/Z , £288,444) 2016-2021

Contraception was illegal in Ireland from 1935 to 1979.

Uniquely, contraception was banned in Ireland 'with little or no recourse to the demographic and eugenic concerns and debates that underpinned similar legislation in continental Europe' (Pasêta, 2003). Anti-contraception rhetoric in Ireland was heavily influenced by moral panic and Catholic teachings and not by pro-natalism as in other European countries with similar bans.

In spite of the contraceptive ban and the persistent image of the traditionally 'large' Irish family, historical and demographic research has suggested that many couples were utilising some means of birth control. How did 'ordinary' Irish men and women gain access to contraceptives and contraceptive knowledge in the period? What are the stories of individuals involved in the illegal contraceptive trade?

Contraception was an extremely divisive issue and while some members of the population supported its legalisation, others believed it would have negative moral repercussions.

For example, one woman writing to Woman's Way magazine (1971) suggested that the legalisation would be 'an open invitation for young couples who have become tired of drink, smoking and everything else'. Others, such as feminist groups such as the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement and Irish Women United, played an important role in opening up debate around the issue.

My study will provide an insight into the experiences of and attitudes to birth control of Irish citizens, assessing how these were shaped by Ireland's social and cultural context while also illuminating related facets of everyday life such as sexuality and marriage. The stories of activists who supported the legalisation of contraception, and those who opposed it, as well as persons prosecuted for the illegal import and sale of contraceptives, who have previously received limited attention from scholars, will also be explored.

Utilising a range of sources including oral history interviews, memoirs, women's magazines and archival sources, ‘Contraception and Modern Ireland’ will examine the following key research questions:

  • What were the most common birth control practices in Ireland? How did these change over time? How were practices and attitudes shaped by factors such as class, religion and location?
  • How significant was the illegal trade in contraception?
  • How did Irish men and women learn about contraception and sex?
  • What was the role of activist groups in the debates on contraception?
  • What can an analysis of contraception in Ireland tell us about the wider global story? 

The project is of contemporary relevance to questions of women's reproductive rights in Ireland which have recently attracted international attention. The research will advance the subject area and allow us to situate the Irish case within a broader canvas. A range of academic outputs and novel public engagement activities are planned to ensure that the historical research is disseminated to a variety of audiences in a range of innovative and exciting ways.

Recent Publications

Project News

  • In September 2020, Laura presented a webinar to CHOMI, University College Dublin on ‘Sexual Knowledge and Family Planning Practices in Ireland, c.1950-80: an oral history’.
  • In August 2020, Laura presented on her work on contraception in Ireland as part of a CSHHH Summer School webinar with Georgia Grainger, Kristin Hay and Oonagh Walsh. The webinar may be watched back at this link.
  • Laura was invited to give one of the keynote lectures at the Society for the Social History of Medicine biannual conference in Swansea in summer 2020. This was postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19.
  • In January 2020 Laura gave an invited seminar paper at HPS, University of Cambridge on ‘The contraceptive pill in Ireland: activism, women's agency and doctors' authority in the 1960s and 1970s’.
  • In November 2019, Laura and her colleague Agata Ignaciuk (Granada) published a co-edited special issue in Medical History on the theme of ‘Contraception and Catholicism in the twentieth century: transnational perspectives on expert, activist and intimate practices’.
  • In March 2019 Laura visited Purdue University with PhD student Kristin Hay for several days as part of our growing exchange programme in collaboration with Professor Wendy Kline. While there, Laura gave a talk on her research on women’s reproductive health activism.
  • During 2018-2020 Laura completed the oral history element of her research project. This entailed 40 interviews with activists involved in campaigning for and against legalisation of contraception in Ireland as well as 105 interviews with men and women in Ireland born before 1955.
  • In September 2019, Laura was invited to speak and become a member of the European network for Catholicism and reproductive health, based at the University of Leuven.
  • In summer 2018, Laura organised a series of three public lectures as part of a series entitled Histories of Reproductive Health and Activism at Glasgow Women’s Library. Talks included Professor Naomi Rogers (Yale) ‘Taking women’s medicine back into our own capable hands: Feminist Activism and American Medicine, 1945 to the Present’, Dr Laura Kelly (Strathclyde) “We shall not conceive”:  the feminist campaign for free, safe and legal contraception in Ireland, c.1971-81; and Professor Wendy Kline (Purdue) ‘The Politics of Place: Joseph DeLee, Home Birth, and the Rise of Modern Obstetrics’.
  • In July 2018, Laura organised a successful workshop on the theme of Reproductive and Sexual Health Activism, c. 1960-present AT Glasgow Women’s Library in collaboration with Dr Jesse Olszynko-Gryn. The keynote speaker was Professor Naomi Rogers (Yale). The workshop was generously supported by the Wellcome Trust. The programme is available here.
  • Laura presented six papers on her research in 2018. These included talks at the Society for the Social History of Medicine(University of Liverpool), Intimate Politics conference (University of Edinburgh), the American Association for the History of Medicine Annual Conference (Los Angeles), the Irish Conference of Historians, (University College Cork), the European Social History Society Conference, (Queen’s University Belfast), and the Centre for Gender History seminar series (University of Glasgow).
  • Laura will present three papers over the coming months on her research on feminist activism and the legalisation of contraception in 1970s Ireland: Yale Holmes Workshop (April 2017), American Association of the History of Medicine Annual Conference (May 2017) and the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders and Sexualities (June 2017).
  • Laura was invited to present a paper at the College of Charleston in March 2017 entitled ‘‘We shall not conceive’: the feminist campaign for free, safe and legal contraception in Ireland, c.1971-1981’. While at the College of Charleston, she also met with graduate students working on the history of medicine and Irish history, and took part in a panel on the history of reproductive rights.
  • Over the academic year, 2016-17, Laura has been a visiting fellow at the Section of the History of Medicine at Yale University. While based at Yale, Laura has been enjoying writing up the first strand of her research, attending conferences and workshops, and meeting US-based scholars.
  • Laura and her colleague, Agata Ignaciuk (University of Warsaw), have co-organised two panels at the forthcoming European Social Science History Conference in Belfast in April 2018. Session 1 is on the theme of 'Birth control controversies, movements and activism in the twentieth century: transnational perspectives from Catholic countries' and Session 2 will explore 'Gender, sexuality, birth control activism and practices in the twentieth century oral testimonies: transnational perspectives from Catholic countries'. 
  • Laura will present a paper on the anti-contraception campaign in 1970s and 1980s Ireland at the  “Gender and contraception: what kind of (r)evolutions?” conference in Paris in December 2017. This paper will be part of a panel co-organised with colleagues Agata Ignaciuk (University of Warsaw) and Christabelle Sethna (University of Ottawa) entitled 'Uneasy Allies: Contraception and Abortion in Canada, Spain and Ireland'.
  • A blog post on Laura's research on contraception and feminist activism in 1970s and 1980s Ireland was published by Nursing Clio in August 2017. Click here to view the post:
Centre for the Social History of Health & Healthcare - See How They Won