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Infantacide, Sexual Assault and Abduction in 18th Century Ireland

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This essay as the title suggests aims to deal with the phenomenon of infanticide, abduction and sexual assault in Eighteenth century Ireland. Each will be dealt with in their own right and this essay will also set out to discuss what these phenomena revealed about the patriarchal order that obtained in eighteenth-century Ireland. In the case of Infanticide, women were often forced to come to this desperate conclusion due to the way an illegitimate child would affect their lives. Not only would id destroy all chances of a woman engaging in an advantageous marriage but it would also risk the young woman being thrown out of her lodgings, losing her job, (if she had one) and raising a child that would be discriminated against from birth. She would be entirely marginalized and disregarded for the rest of her life. In most cases, the woman had little or no support from the male involved, particularly if the baby was conceived by way of sexual assault. Infanticide was always deemed a woman’s crime but one wonders is this as a direct correlation to the fact that most men involved simply didn’t want to know.

We see in these cases that again men held the reigns and although were equally involved in the conception bore none of the stigma or blame. Secondly this essay will continue to discuss the evidence of a patriarchal society through sexual assault. Assault at the time was a common issue in which women were taken from streets, places of work or any other outlet and raped or sexually assaulted by one or a group of males. The woman although through no fault of her own, was in many cases deemed unfit for a favourable union and so limited in her options later in life. The price of a husband was a dowry and the maidens virginity. Without one a woman held little hope of securing a husband of their status or above. Some women even conceded to marrying their abductors to avoid the humiliation of a court trial. In these cases we again see the patriarchal order that prevailed in Irish society. A woman was worth very little if her honour was not intact and although a woman who was raped did not damage her honour herself she was still not pure and thus an unsuitable marriage partner. Men on the other hand could redeem lost honour quite easily through duelling.

Men could also get away with prosecution if a woman had been known to have consumed alcohol on the night of the assault, if she did not come forward quickly after consent was suspected, if she refused to either have an intimate medical examination to prove rape or take the stand and undergo an embarrassing and through cross examination. Thirdly this essay will move onto the phenomenon of abduction. Abduction was a common occurrence in which a man or group of men abducted a young heiress, forced her to marry them or sexually assaulted her. If a girl was forced into marriage the groom was entitled to a proportion of her riches, particularly if the marriage was consummated afterwards. In the case of assault, if a woman was sexually assaulted by an abductor she was often encouraged to marry him anyway as her chances of securing a union as a result were slim. Men saw these wealthy women as opportunities. They knew how to evade prosecution and secure an extremely advantageous marriage. These men cared little for the rights of the woman and thought only of how they could benefit from the abduction.

This essay will seek to examine how men’s attitudes and actions at the time were greatly influenced by their position in this patriarchal society. Women were seen as objects and little more. They were attractive to a male only for their wealth and honour. When taken from them women held little or no status in society. These phenomena show clearly that a patriarchal order obtained in Irish society. That is not to say that women were not cared for, in many cases women were protected by men and were seen as delicate creatures who needed to be sheltered from the dangers in society. It is when we discuss the rights of the woman and her position in society we see through instances like this that women were for the most part objects, and bore little weight in society. In Eighteenth century Ireland, infanticide was an increasingly common issue. At a time when a woman’s virtue was worth more than her life, an unexplained premarital pregnancy was not easily overlooked. A woman who became a single mother allowing her sexual history be known not only destroyed all prospects of engaging in an advantageous marriage but also weakened her position and that of her family in society.

Known primarily as a woman’s crime, infanticide tended to be carried out by single mothers who ashamed of the discovery of their misfortune, determined to avoid the stigma of immorality and the burden of raising a child the law deemed ‘illegitimate’ by discarding the product of their sexual activity. This idealization of feminine honour was the cause of many tragic cases of infanticide. If a woman’s reputation was in question in any way was deemed an unsuitable marriage partner. Whereas a man who injured his reputation from a failed duel could redeem himself effortlessly through a subsequent display of bravery, if a woman’s reputation was not above suspicion they were to remain penalized and excluded. In this case the patriarchal nature of society is clearly evident in that a woman’s value was based wholly on her honour and without it she had nothing. This of course was not the same for a man who could engage in several sexual activities and still expect a desirable marriage partner. It is well documented that the vast bulk of the burden of societal disapproval of sexual transgression in eighteenth century Ireland was directed at women.

The issue of infanticide continued throughout the eighteenth century. Not only did women who fell pregnant risk loosing all status in society and any chance of a beneficial union, the threat to their wellbeing and current lifestyle was acute. Expectant single mothers were very often turned out onto the streets by land lords with little or no regard for their wellbeing which sometimes had fatal consequences. not only was the single mother marginalized but the ‘illegitimate’ child was also discriminated against legally and socially victimized. A woman who was evicted from her home with a socially marginalized child was not in a easy situation, particularly given that raising a child at this time was difficult for an average family was difficult as most adults were pressed to make ends meet. In society at the time a man could walk away from a single mother with not obligation what so ever, leaving the woman in this fragile state. Women who were particularly susceptible to sexual advances and who had quite a lot to lose if found to be pregnant were women in service. Women who worked as servants oftentimes aimed to save up enough money to guarantee themselves a match to secure them for life.

Although male and female servants were bound by a serious code of conduct the service was also a place of heightened sexual temptation. Masters, their sons and other male servants often times took advantage of the female servants precarious position. Not only did extra-marital pregnancy ensure dishonourable dismissal it almost guaranteed immiseration. Knowing that the prevailing attitude towards extramarital sex and ‘illegitimate’ children was unforgiving, a servant from the lower ranks of society in this situation was in a serious predicament. Any woman in employment, servant or otherwise, faced almost certain dismissal from work, expulsion from home and misery if her condition became public. the significant number of servants particularly who committed infanticide suggests that masters their sons and other male servants were quite often to blame.

Due to the nature of the patriarchal society of Ireland it was not them who held the burden, research suggests that although infanticide was considered a woman’s crime this is significantly due to the lack of involvement in the pregnancy at all by the male responsible and the repercussions of the women’s decision if they did choose to have the child. There are many cases where men were involved in the premature and untimely death of their own child but their rarity suggests that the majority of men simply didn’t want to know. The women who did however commit infanticide and were caught were in no better position than those who chose to raise the child. According to Anne O’ Connor, The fact that an ‘unwanted baby was deprived of a baptism, and therefore of an eternally blissful afterlife, was the central issue of concern in Irish folk tradition.’ the patriarchal nature of society meant that again women suffered the consequences of their actions and the reasons for doing so were never taken into account. Unless a man was involved in the murder of the child it was immaterial who the father was and once again they would be acquitted of any responsibility.

Women on the other hand were seen as ‘bloody and inhuman monsters’ and ‘unnatural mothers. There are many other issues evident in the eighteenth century that reveal quite a lot about the patriarchal order that obtained. For one the issue of sexual assault is extremely telling of the position of women in society. Women in eighteenth century Ireland lived in fear of violence and sexual violence mainly. Their freedom was extremely limited and a woman who wished to avoid sexual attack was advised not to go into ‘the darkness of mist, the darkness of wood and the darkness of night’ unsupervised. Those who were unfortunate enough to endure the painful crime of sexual assault were left scorned and with little hope of securing an advantageous union. As virginity was seen as the only appropriate state for an unmarried woman (except for widows), a woman who‘s virtue has been impugned whether through her own or someone else’s fault, was tarnished in the eye of society and this made her less than a desirable marriage partner for most men of her own situation.

In an attempt to salvage what they could of their reputation many women came forward in the hopes of prosecuting whomever was involved. A woman was allowed up to forty days to alert the authorities of rape though prompt reporting was advised as any concealment implies a consent before the fact. Furthermore a woman was expected to cry out and use her utmost strength to resist, if it could be shown that she did neither the case against her assailant would be commensurately weakened. If a woman did make it to court she was to expect an extremely thorough and quite embarrassing cross examination in which she would be required to provide intimate and frequently embarrassing details of the assault to prove that penetration and ejaculation did take place. This along side a physical examination to secure evidence of injury characteristic of rape was also required. Although prosecution was not entirely uncommon and men were often charged and sentenced to death, a woman’s reputation was still tarnished and many could not bare the embarrassment they would be put through if they did decide to prosecute ‘the prosecution of a rape is …attended with such a shocking examination that some women would rather die than go through with it.’

If it could be proved that a woman had consumed any alcohol the chances of the male being found guilty were slim. In society at the time it was seen as a mans duty to defend women who were described as ‘this most delightful part of… creation [who are] … from the delicacy of their frames extremely helpless.’ This not only contradicts the vast number of rape cases in eighteenth century Ireland but also contradicts the view that a woman’s reputation was tarnished even through no fault of her own. Man saw woman as this beautiful delicate creature they most protect but if that creature is deflowered by any cause they are, a lot of the time, not worth protection. Women in marriage were expected to submit to any sexual advances of their husband and no legal recourse if she alleged sexual assault by her husband. Similarly if a man married a woman who he had previously assaulted, he could escape prosecution, ‘in the cases of rape which concluded in marriage the authorities were disinclined to take any action.’

Women in marrigae were the property of their husbands. Unless asked to take part in ‘unnatural’ acts they had no legal standing. A woman as mentions who had lost her honour had little choice when it came to marriage and thus marrying her attacker may prove to be only option. This shows clearly how male dominated society was and the emotional mental and physical pain endured by a woman due to sexual assault of any kind was second to her position and marital prospects. The price of a husband was the dowry a girls father could afford and her virginity. One without the other did not fare well for the woman involved. The patriarchal order of society was also clearly evident in the growing number of cases of sexual assault involving military personnel. Due to the solidarity the bound soldiers together and the persistently high level of antipathy between civilians and military, soldiers were inclined to help each other cover up their crimes and to turn a blind eye if one of their number sought to satisfy his sexual desires on the body of an unwilling female passer-by.

These men who were sworn to protect civilians, male and female alike had little regard for the consequences of their actions and though only of fulfilling their own passions. This again shows the position of women in society as objects rather than people. It is obvious from evidence that men did not see women as there equals, and they most certainly did not treat them as such. What is incontrovertible is that this sexual violence created an environment in which women were not able to function free of fear. Women again were victimized and belittled once again. The patriarchal order of Irish society ensured women knew what their value was and had them living in fear of tarnishing their reputation. Another continuing issue in eighteenth centaury Ireland was that of Abduction. ‘Abduction or forcibly carrying off or heiresses, was another of those crying evils which formerly afflicted Ireland.’

The abduction of Heiresses was a widespread phenomenon in which a man or group of men would abduct a known heiress, take her to an agreed location where a priest would be waiting and have a marriage materialize. The marriage would then be consummated and the girl in many cases would have little other choice than to remain with the abductor thus marrying them into her family’s wealth. In other cases of abduction, the girl would have been immediately sexually assaulted and due to her loss of innocence in many instances she would be advised or forced to marry her abductor. Some abductors would not have been sexually assaulted the women they chose but having a woman in a room alone with a man for a long period of time caused enough suspicion that she would not be eligible for a advantageous marriage. Abduction was seen as a very attractive scheme in order for a man to involve himself in a beneficial union.

This epidemic shows clearly that men at the time cared little for a woman’s opinions or rights and saw an heiress as an opportunity rather than a human. By 1707 forcible abduction became a capital felony and preventative measures came in to being to inhibit abductors enjoying their wives property. Unfortunately these measures were not all successful. Those involved in abduction realized that if a woman abducted a man he was not punishable. For example if a woman was placed before a man on their horse the abductor may evade punishment as it seems less forced. The number of prosecutions was starkly less than the number of offences as the majority of women involved reconciled with their ravishers. In the south of Ireland an association began entitled ‘The abduction club’ in which the members ‘bound themselves by an oath to assist in carrying off of such young women as were fixed upon by any members.’ This type of organization just confirms how low in status women were in this patriarchal society.

These men would monitor the movements of an heiress in order to strike at the most optimum time. In these situations men sought only to advance their position in society by marrying into wealth and though little of the rights of the woman. As Walsh states, ‘opulent farmers as well as the gentry were subject to these engagements with the clubs’ showing that the men were not always concerned with how wealthy the woman was but were happy to abduct a woman who could acquire wealth of any kind. This nonchalant attitude to the marital rights of a woman show clearly the patriarchal order that obtained in Eighteenth century Ireland. This essay has tackled the three issues of infanticide, sexual assault and abduction and what it reveals about the patriarchal order that obtained in eighteenth century Ireland. In the case of infanticide, women who found themselves in the situation where they were to be a single mother faced a huge number of issues. For one, women were in many cases thrown out of their lodgings if they fell pregnant.

They also risked losing their jobs if they were working. The large number of infanticide cases evident among servant women suggest that these women feared losing the only livelihood they had. Also if women went through with the pregnancy they were at risk of being significantly marginalised and their children were widely discriminated against. Infanticide was always seen as a woman’s crime, although men were sometimes involved. Research suggests that the reason men tended not to be involved as they did not want to be. A single mother in eighteenth century Ireland took all the blame for her situation and for the death of the child if it was to take place. The males involved could leave the woman in question with little or no responsibility. This shows how the patriarchal order treated women, a woman’s value was her honour and wealth. If her honour was compromised she was not a suitable marriage partner. A male on the other hand could regain their honour through duelling. Secondly this essay dealt with the phenomenon of sexual assault.

In eighteenth century Ireland women lived in fear of sexual assault in any setting. Women who were sexually assaulted were although through no fault in her own, ‘damaged goods’ as it were. The price of a husband in eighteenth century Ireland was a dowry and the brides virginity. Without her honour intact she was not suitable for men of her standing. In an attempt to redeem themselves some women chose to prosecute, these women had to go through an intimate physical examination and an extremely thorough and embarrassing cross examination. Men were of course often found guilty if there was sufficient evidence but due to the nature of the trial many women feared the process. Some of these women were advised to marry the man who assaulted them as they were less likely to engage in a beneficial union. Men who married their victims also entirely escaped prosecution.

Lastly this essay aimed to discuss the phenomenon of abduction and what it revealed about the patriarchal order that obtained in eighteenth century Ireland. Abduction of heiresses was not uncommon. Men saw these wealthy women as opportunities and not as humans with rights. Women were taken against their will, and married to an unknown man. If the marriage was consummated the woman had little choice for marriage after the fact. We see through all of these phenomena that women were seen as objects and not a person with rights. Although men did set out to protect the women in their lives there was no denying that a woman’s value was her honour and her wealth and little else matters. Through this essay we have discussed three major issues that prevailed in eighteenth century Ireland. Men although the cause of each of these issues rarely dealt with the consequences. In many cases men benefited from their actions through marrying a wealthy woman, one who was of a higher status then they. The patriarchal order was very clear in every day life at the time but it was extremely clear in these particular phenomena.


Harrison, Alan, Ross Campbell, Ian and Carpenter, Andrew, Eighteenth Century
Ireland (Dublin 1995) Kelly, James, Irish Economic and Social History (Dublin 1991) McCurtain Margaret and O’Dowd Mary, Women in Early Modern Ireland (Edinborough 1990) Walsh, Edward John, Rakes and Ruffians: The underworld of Georgian Dublin (Dublin 1979) Counell, K.H, Irish peasant society (Dublin 1996)

[ 1 ]. James Kelly, ‘A Most inhuman and barbarous piece of villainy’: An exploration of the crime of rape in Eighteenth Century Ireland in Alan Harrison, Ian Campbell Ross and Andrew Carpenter, Eighteenth Century Ireland (Dublin 1995), p 78 [ 2 ]. James Kelly, ‘Infanticide in early Eighteenth century Ireland’ in Irish Economic and social history (Dublin 1991), p 7 [ 3 ]. Kelly, Infanticide in Economic and social

[ 5 ]. Kelly, Infanticide in Economic and social history, p 8 [ 6 ]. ibid
[ 8 ]. Kelly, Infanticide in Economic and social history, p 12 [ 9 ]. ibid, p 17
[ 10 ]. Anne O’Connor, Women in Irish folklore: the testimony regarding illegitimacy, abortion and infanticide in Margaret McCurtain and Mary O’ Dowd, Women in early modern Ireland (Edinborough 1990), p 309 [ 11 ]. Kelly, Infanticide in Economic and social history, p 19 [ 12 ]. Kelly, An exploration of the crime of rape, in Harrison, Ross and Carpenter, Eighteenth century Ireland, p 105 [ 13 ]. ibid, p 80
[ 16 ]. Kelly, An exploration of the crime of rape, in Harrison, Ross and Carpenter, Eighteenth century Ireland, p 89 [ 17 ]. ibid
[ 21 ]. Kelly, An exploration of the crime of rape, in Harrison, Ross and Carpenter, Eighteenth century Ireland, p 89 [ 22 ]. ibid, 102
[ 24 ]. John Edward Walsh, Rakes and Ruffians: The underworld of Georgian Dublin (Dublin 1979), p 32 [ 25 ]. Walsh, Rakes and Ruffians, p
[ 27 ]. Walsh, Rakes and Ruffians, p 33

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