Different families

During the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth century, pregnancy outside marriage was frequently concealed because the social status, marriage and employment prospects of the single mother and even of her family were likely to be affected, as was the status of her child.

Girls who have had illegitimate children are, according to two witnesses ... constantly compelled to resort to begging ... are looked on with great contempt both by men and women and are seldom married.
Government reports, 1835 quoted in Maria Luddy, Women in Ireland 1800-1918, Dublin, 1995, p.37.

The Poor Law Act (1838) placed the sole responsibility for supporting the child on the mother and put the father under no legal obligation to his extra-marital child. Many single mothers had no option but to take refuge in workhouses. In response to complaints from rate-payers who supported the workhouses, an Irish Poor Law Amendment Act was passed in 1862.

It empowered boards of guardians to recover from a putative father the cost of maintaining his illegitimate child on the poor rates, after the mother had made a sworn statement, supported by corroborative evidence, before petty sessions ... The new laws gave no power to the mother to sue the father, and once she left the workhouse the liability of the father ended.
Joseph Robins, The lost children: a study of charity children in Ireland 1700-1900, Dublin, 1980, p. 274.

Extra-marital births accounted for only about three per cent of births in Ireland for much of the nineteenth century. Family and clergy brought intense pressure to bear on couples to marry whether they were willing or not.

Few questioned the justice of how single mothers and their children were treated at the time.

With very limited marriage and employment prospects, many single mothers reared their children in the workhouses. Some emigrated while others abandoned their infants in the workhouse or left them as foundlings near churches or institutions. Right into the twentieth century, many of their infants died in the first year of life because of poverty and malnutrition, both of the single mother and of her child. There were few trials for infanticide, though dead infants might occasionally be found in the sea, rivers, hedges or deserted buildings.

Several organisations, Catholic and Protestant, responded to this social problem in the early twentieth century by founding Mother and Baby Homes to provide support, secrecy and privacy to single mothers during the later stages of pregnancy and the early stages of the infant's life. Complaints were subsequently made about severe discipline in some of the homes, the attitude taken to single mothers and the strenuous work some were required to do in 'Magdalen laundries'.

Many mothers returned home, leaving their children to be reared in institutions or informally adopted or fostered in Ireland. About 1947, some Catholic Mother and Baby homes sent children to the US to be adopted by Catholic couples there. Over three hundred children were sent in this way in 1953 while thousands of children still lived in institutional or foster care in Ireland.

The Adoption Act (1952) introduced legal adoption to Ireland. Soon the proportion of non-marital children adopted rose from 67.8% in 1954 to a peak of 96.9% in 1967. The experience of adoption was successful for the majority of parents and children. Early adoption in Ireland, as in most other countries, was shrouded in secrecy and many adopted persons, together with birth parents, later sought exchange of information about each other while others either had no interest or disagreed with such contact. Amid controversy, a certain amount of openness was gradually introduced.

There was a steady decline in adoption during the 1970s. Cherish, an organisation campaigning for single mothers and their children was founded, and an allowance for single mothers (later Lone Parents' Allowance) was introduced in 1973. 1,493 children were adopted in Ireland in 1967 but only 317 in 1999 while about 1,000 children from abroad were adopted by Irish couples between the years 1991 and 1999.


  1. The Poor Law Act (-----) placed the sole _____ for supporting the child on the single mother, but after _____, a father might be ______ to _____ the child in the ____.
  2. Suggest reasons why the sole responsibility for supporting the child was placed on the single mother, despite the limited prospects for such women at the time.
  3. What attempts were made to solve the problems faced by single mothers and their children in the nineteenth century?
  4. What attempts were made to solve the problems faced by single mothers and their children in the twentieth century?


  1. Keeping the Government Report of 1835 in mind, write an article for or against the provision about single mothers and their children in the Poor Law Act of 1838.
  2. Write an article urging reform of laws and attitudes to single mothers and their children in the nineteenth century.
  3. Research one or more of the following: Mother and Baby Homes; Magdalen laundries; Adoption; Cherish; Lone Parents' Allowance.
  4. Discuss possible reasons for any of the trends in the above statistics.
  5. 'Societies can provide just laws for all parties to the family: mothers, fathers and children.' Discuss.
  6. Study Liverpool Mail in Documents at the end of this section.
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