Large numbers of poor people flocked to growing urban centres like Dublin, Cork and Belfast in the eighteenth century. They were leaving the countryside because of pressure on the land due to increasing population, to occasional agricultural crises and to the decline of domestic industry.
The Poor Law system in England whereby each parish was made responsible for its own poor was not extended to Ireland during the early modern period. In Ireland, most welfare was provided by voluntary organisations and women helped set up poor schools and voluntary hospitals. They made donations, organised functions, performed in theatricals, catered and assisted in countless ways. Charitable activities were seen as an extension of women's caring and mothering roles and women, it was felt, were tender, sympathetic and generous. But as they were considered unsuited to control and administration, men involved in these voluntary organisations were often reluctant to allow women be full members or have a role in decision-making.
Nano Nagle set up poor schools and other charities in Cork in the 1750s. Teresa Mulally (1728-1803-) founded a school for poor girls and an orphanage at George's Hill, Dublin.
Solutions to the problem of unwanted children were never satisfactory. In the early eighteenth century, there was a foundling hospital in Cork and one in Dublin where,
|... a revolving basket was placed on the gate of the hospital into which unwanted children could be put anonymously by day or by night. When a bell was rung, the porter inside would revolve the basket inwards and take the infant from it. This was not an original idea; it was a device associated with foundling hospitals since medieval times ... During the first seven years of the hospital's existence 4,025 children had been received, of whom at least 3,235 had died.
Joseph Robins, The lost children, Dublin, 1980, p.15.
The Dublin Foundling Hospital for unwanted children had been run on corrupt and scandalous lines for generations before Lady Arbella Denny set about its reform and 'put a stop to barbarity and murder.' She was given the Freedom of the City of Dublin in 1765. A Protestant, she set up a Magdalen Asylum at Leeson St, Dublin in 1766 offering training to prostitutes so as to enable them to earn an alternative living. Other women associated with setting up Magdalen Asylums were Theodosia Blachford and Bridget Burke.
Grizel Steevens inherited a large fortune for her lifetime from her brother in 1710. After her death it was to be used to found a hospital for 'sick and wounded persons whose distempers and wounds are curable.' But Grizel determined to set it up during her lifetime and spent much of her own money on the first voluntary hospital in Dublin which was opened in 1733 and called 'Dr Steevens Hospital' after her brother. Mercer's Hospital was next, founded in 1734 in a house donated by Mary Mercer. The proceeds of the first performance of Handel's Messiah were given to Mercer's Hospital - ladies were asked to come without hoops in their skirts and gentlemen without swords!
Women traditionally gave birth at home, assisted by other women called midwives. But medicine was becoming more scientific in the seventeenth century and only men could study at university, so male doctors became more involved in dealing with childbirth. Several jealously guarded their scientific knowledge and newly-invented obstetric instruments from competition by other doctors. Rich women engaged 'man midwives' and they became fashionable - and expensive - while a tendency developed to marginalise female midwives and hold them in low esteem, especially by doctors and the wealthy.
The Rotunda Hospital in Dublin was the first maternity hospital in these islands. It was founded by Bartholemew Mosse in 1745 and originally called the 'Dublin Hospital for Poor Lying-in Women'. The senior medical official was called the 'Master'. The hospital was funded by entertainments in the adjoining Round Room and gardens and by lotteries and subscriptions.
Few other maternity hospitals were founded at this time in Ireland and the majority of women still gave birth at home in the traditional way assisted by midwives. While disputes dragged on amongst the medical authorities about the training and licensing of midwives, many mothers and infants lost their lives, both in and out of hospitals. This was mainly due to under-developed medical knowledge, lack of experience and, above all, because most doctors did not realise the necessity for taking strict hygiene precautions until the later nineteenth century. Dangerous infections spread more easily in hospitals than they did at home because of overcrowding, lack of isolation wards and because doctors were likely to treat the open wounds of their patients without washing their hands after dealing with cases of contagion or even dissecting corpses. Midwives were less likely to arrive from such scenes of contagion and so, ironically, were the cause of fewer deaths in childbirth. Nevertheless, the Rotunda developed into an important teaching centre for the study of midwifery.