New research discovers illegal abortion cases in Twentieth Century Ireland


Karmel had a surgical abortion but ended up in Holles St as an emergency case and, a few months later, wrote another letter to Dennis:

“Dear Dennis,

You’ll be relieved I’m sure, that everything is successfully over, with no (apparent) ill effects. I ended up as an emergency case in Holles St hospital! These last four months have been like a horrible nightmare. I cannot tell you how relieved and happy I am to know that the worry and sickness is at an end. The operations were naturally painful and an horrific nervous strain. However, that was my side of it and I would like to think I faced up to it as decently as you did to yours. Very many thanks for you help, Dennis. Good luck and good wishes.


In almost all of the correspondence Delay has studied, women portrayed abortion as their sole responsibility.

In her research, Prof Delay also finds that the networks, in which women sought help, were almost exclusively female.

She recounts one case from 1940, where an 18-year-old woman Nell turned to her grandmother for help after she found out she was four months’ pregnant. Nell’s grandmother told Nell’s mother, Mary. Mary turned to her two best friends, Margaret and Emily. The three women attempt an abortion on Nell, using soap and water, on Mary’s kitchen floor. The procedure went horribly wrong and Nell died. While she lay dying, likely from an embolism, Margaret and Emily ran down the road and knocked on the door of a retired maternity nurse, who lived two doors down. The nurse told them to get another nurse, who lived five streets away. The second nurse arrived and said ‘get the doctor’. The doctor came and said ‘call the guards’.

*Prof Delay is on a Fulbright scholarship in UCD to conduct her current research on her project Desolate Journeys: Reproduction and Motherhood in Ireland, 1950-2000. Essentially she will be investigating Irish women’s experiences of reproduction, contraception, abortion and motherhood in late 20th Century Ireland.

Listen to a history hub podcast of her lecture ‘Noxious Things’: Illegal Abortion Cases in 20th-Century Ireland here.