I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Maedhbh McNamara

Marital violence in post-independence Ireland, 1922-96, by Cara Diver, Manchester University Press, 280 pp, £80, ISBN: 978-1526120113

During the Great Confinement of 2020, thoughts turned quickly to the plight of people for whom home was a place of abuse rather than of safety. The government ran a media campaign to inform those immured in violent homes of the services available to support them, and to alert the public to the issue.

It was not ever thus.

In the early decades of post-independence Ireland, marital violence was regarded as an individual pathology. While women and men could resort to violence, most abused wives had few, if any, paths of escape. A woman who wished to flee her husband’s violence encountered a host of economic, legal and social obstacles. She had few legal remedies available to her and had no access to divorce. She was unlikely to be employed in paid work and was thus in a state of financial dependence. She faced enormous social and religious pressure to stay with her husband, whatever his crimes.

Cara Diver’s compelling book analyses the factors giving rise to this grim situation of cruelty and misery. Given women’s low status and their consequent inability to escape the violence, marital violence is identified by Diver as a social problem arising from male dominance rather than a private issue. She contends that by failing to provide victims of wife-beating with any real refuge, Irish society ignored and tacitly condoned male violence.

Irish nationalists defined themselves in opposition to England, and often chose to define wife-beating as an English malady. A Catholic desire to maintain the sanctity of marriage could also explain the lack of acknowledgment of battering. With the advent of independence, even existing meagre divorce provisions were taken away. The Constitution of 1937 banned divorce. Post-independence, judges in marital violence cases became more lenient. Instead of handing down prison sentences, they tended to bind violent spouses to the peace or give suspended sentences.

Restrictions on female employment left wives dependent on their husbands. Studies have shown that financial dependence is one of the main reasons why women remain in abusive marriages. The state failed an abused wife where she was unable to get maintenance, could not get work and where she and the children went hungry.

Post-independence, two legal avenues were open to battered wives. A woman with sufficient means could petition the High Court for a judicial separation (termed divorce a mensa et thoro), based on cruelty. Obtaining a deed of separation, however, depended on mutual co-operation. A cheaper option was to charge the husband with assault in the District Court. Working class women, lacking financial resources, tended to use this option, which contributed to a perception that battering was a working class phenomenon. However, records reveal that marital violence occurred in all classes.

Diver has used key sources such as the court records and newspaper reports as material for her analysis to striking effect.

The District Courts attempted to provide redress for marital violence by applying flexibly the provisions of the Married Women (Maintenance in Case of Desertion) Act, 1896. If a wife and children were forced to flee their home because of cruelty, this could be classified as “constructive desertion” and the wife could apply for maintenance. But if the wife was awarded maintenance she could only leave if she had somewhere to live and enough money to support herself (and her children) at least temporarily.

A frequent trigger for marital violence was gendered expectations surrounding marriage. Women’s domestic work had intense emotional meaning for men. Men’s dependence rendered them susceptible to extreme disappointment and frustration when it was not forthcoming. Another trigger was alcohol. Many men were drunk at the time of the incident, or they complained of their wife’s drunkenness or her time spent at the pub.

Both men and women contributed to the escalation of conflicts. Wife-beating arose not just from women’s subservient status, but from their attempts to resist subordination. Women’s responses included appeals for help to family, friends or neighbours, or to parish priests or to the gardaí.

Diver shows that both women and the courts extended the definition of marital cruelty beyond the physical to include verbal, psychological and sexual cruelty. Court records are full of references to rape and sexual assault. Among the saddest cases are women beaten shortly before giving birth because of perceived inadequate domestic performance and beatings leading to stillbirths and miscarriages.

The most affecting part of the book is the section on wife murder. If lethal intent could not be proven, the lesser sentence of manslaughter was handed down. A defendant could be sentenced to manslaughter if s/he successfully pleaded the defence of provocation. One such tragic case involved a man who stabbed his wife to death. It emerged during the trial that he had a long history of violence towards his wife. Her family lived nearby and were aware of the violence. When she had fled to her sister’s house, her sister had encouraged her to return home “for the sake of the children”. The verdict was manslaughter and the husband was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

A most poignant case is that of the young wife who in 1943 feared for her life because she was aware that her husband wished her dead, and fled her burning house with their two-week old baby. She was murdered when their infant was six weeks old. Because premeditation could be proved, the jury found the husband guilty of murder, and he was hanged.

Diver states that women also could be sole perpetrators. She is even-handed in discussing the relative frequency of violence by wives and husbands. Some men facing assault charges claimed that their wives had initiated the violence. The courts recognised that wives might be active, violent and independent, and judged them accordingly. However, Diver finds that records suggest that wives were in the minority of violent spouses and in general that their attacks were less severe. Few husbands charged wives with assault; fewer husbands petitioned for judicial separation based on cruelty. Diver suggests that the primary reason for this might have been shame. Also, abused men had more avenues of escape. With access to financial resources, they could leave the home. She speculates on whether some men who emigrated might have been victims of violence.

Gardaí did their best, but lacked the time, resources and/or inclination to provide more than short-term physical protection. Priests would offer private guidance, but cited the indissolubility of marriage. Viewing black eyes and broken bones as more acceptable than broken marriages, priests advised women to stay with their husbands. The Catholic church did not address the issue publicly; violence challenged the idealised image of the Catholic family.

Some men beat their wives in public, in streets, shops and pubs. A Justice in Co Leitrim joked “A man must not beat his wife on the public street. He must preserve that for his own home.” (Laughter in court).

Many violent husbands appear to have been violent fathers as well. Abused wives who were mothers could seek help from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children from the 1930s onwards.

After the catalogue of suffering, it is a relief when Diver proceeds to the 1960s and 1970s and discusses the economic and social changes which led to the “discovery” of marital violence and the start of reforms to improve protections. Among the social changes which affected the status of wives were increased economic opportunities for married women, which removed a roadblock to escape, a decline in fertility and the rise of the feminist movement.

Feminists wrote frequent articles in newspapers, newly seeking causes and explanations for marital violence. A pathbreaking journalist in this regard was Nuala Fennell, who was one of the founders of Women’s Aid and AIM (Action, Innovation and Motivation). These were two highly effective campaigning organisations which were critical to the legal reforms to follow. Nuala Fennell with Women’s Aid opened the first refuge to provide emergency housing for abused women in 1974.

Legislation instituting judicial barring orders for violent spouses followed in 1976. The courts began to impose harsher sentences for spousal assault.

In the late 1970s official agencies began funding Women’s Aid and the first custom-built refuge opened in Rathmines in 1984. Women’s Aid liaised with Erin Pizzey, who had founded the first English refuge. According to Pizzey in 1975: “Violent husbands are usually from homes where they have watched their father beat their mother and where they have been beaten by either or both parents.” Both Pizzey and Women’s Aid agreed that it was difficult for violent husbands to escape the pattern of violence.

Literary works featuring violent marriages began to be published. The Countrywoman, by Paul Smith, published in 1962, was based on his experiences of growing up in a violent home. It was banned. Conversely, Roddy Doyle’s The Woman who Walked into Doors was a Number 1 bestseller in 1996. However, Doyle recalled in the press recently that a priest in Raheny had complained in a sermon that Doyle was undermining the family, society and the Catholic church.

Legislative remedies gathered pace in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1981 barring orders were lengthened from three months to twelve months and protection orders were introduced. The Domestic Violence Act 1996 increased the length of barring orders to three years, increased the powers of arrest of the gardaí, and extended protections to co-habitees, parents and children. The cost of family law cases declined and the government introduced a free legal aid scheme. In 1996 also the constitutional ban on divorce was repealed. US evidence suggests that unilateral divorce decreased rates of domestic violence and wife murder. In 1996 a Task Force on Violence against Women was set up and reported in 1997.

In the 1990s even the Catholic church addressed the issue. The bishops asked priests to raise the subject in their homilies and arranged for a representative from Women’s Aid to speak at Masses in Dublin.

In considering the changes that led to the cultural transformation, Diver might have added the factor of women’s increased representation in the Oireachtas. During the two decades between 1973 and 1992, the proportion of women members of the Oireachtas trebled from 3.8 per cent to 12.4 per cent. Elected women included feminist activists such as Nuala Fennell, who became minister of state with responsibility for women’s affairs and law reform. Gemma Hussey was a member of Women’s Aid and AIM who became Fine Gael spokesperson on women’s affairs. Monica Barnes was vice-chair of the joint committee on women’s rights. These activists were ably supported by other Dáil and Seanad women members. Fine Gael set up an office for women’s affairs.

This impressive book traces through the prism of marital violence the progress of Ireland from underdevelopment to modern social transformation. The book fills a major gap in the historiography. It will appeal to both the academic and the general reader and is a welcome addition to the literature on the history of the family, of gender and of social history.


Maedhbh McNamara is author of A woman’s place is in the Cabinet: women government ministers in Irish government 1919-2019 (2020). Paperback and ebook available from Choice Publishing, www.choicepublishing.ie



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