Road to Repeal

Feminist reformers and the ‘discovery’ of marital violence in 1970s Ireland

This article is part HWO’s “Road to Repeal” series, a collaboration with the Activist Histories of Ireland Conference, a conference exploring histories of political activism in modern Ireland, which takes place in Hertford College, Oxford, 12-13 July.

In Ireland today, domestic violence is a widespread concern.  The mainstream media regularly acknowledges the pervasiveness of the problem, while the government recently passed the Domestic Violence Act (2018), which increased protections for those facing domestic abuse, and at least forty domestic violence services offer various forms of practical and emotional support to victims.  For the first fifty years of Irish independence, however, domestic violence was shrouded in secrecy and denial.  Few acknowledged the grim reality of many women’s lives until the 1970s when feminist reformers shattered the illusion that the home was always a site of safety for women (and their children).  These feminist activists launched publicity campaigns to increase awareness of marital violence, established emergency refuges for battered women and their children, and demanded that the government draft new legislation to protect victims of family violence.  The new consciousness regarding marital violence ultimately led to improved legal protections for victims of violence and increased options for women seeking to escape violent marriages.

“Safe Homes Same Communities” campaign image by Safe Ireland

Although newspapers had reported on spousal assault court trials throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was little public discussion of the issue and few actions taken to combat it before the 1970s.  Abused wives were particularly vulnerable prior to the reforms of the late twentieth century: they had no access to divorce facilities and few legal recourses; most did not work outside of the home and were thus kept in a state of financial dependence; and they faced enormous social and religious pressure to stay with their husbands, whatever their sins.  Ireland’s longstanding idealisation of family life made it even more difficult for abused wives to escape violent marriages.  Marital violence directly challenged the mythologised image of the Irish-Catholic family, and, unfortunately for the battered wife, maintaining the appearance of healthy families often took precedence over helping those who strayed from this ideal.

In the 1970s, however, feminists challenged the apathy with which the issue of marital violence had been greeted.  Although much of the Irish public was aware of the problem before this time—neighbours had long whispered about troubled couples—it was second-wave feminists who brought the issue of marital violence out into the open and created a sustained public discussion about its detrimental effects upon women, children, and family life in general.  More broadly, second-wave feminists played a critical role in raising awareness of a number of issues that had previously been considered private or off-limits, such as rape and marital breakdown.

Although the radical feminists of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement questioned women’s role within the family and challenged traditional marriage, it was the more moderate reformers who achieved real change on behalf of abused women. The AIM (Action, Information, Motivation) group, for instance, played an instrumental role in the passage of legislation that increased the protections available to victims of marital violence and advanced the rights of married women more generally.  Of particular importance was the founding of Women’s Aid in 1974, which directly addressed the needs of abused wives.  Prominent feminist Nuala Fennell, who would go onto to become a Fine Gael TD, founded the organisation after watching a BBC documentary called Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear, about the women’s refuge movement in England.  The documentary featured two Irish women, who spoke of the lack of protection available to them at home.  Fennell later wrote, ‘I was so sad and angry that Irish women were so helpless, so totally vulnerable.’  She sent a letter to the Irish Times highlighting the problem, and received an ‘overwhelming’ response from both abused wives sharing their stories and from concerned citizens eager to help.  Fennell and a dedicated group of volunteers set about cleaning and restoring a derelict four-bedroom house in Dublin, and, in April 1974, they opened the doors to offer emergency accommodation for battered wives and their children.  By November 1974, the refuge had housed forty women and 135 children, and volunteers had offered advice and assistance to around 400 abused women.  Acutely aware of the need for services for abused women, other feminist activists throughout Ireland established additional shelters during the late 1970s.

Women’s Aid founder Nuala Fennell famously wrote a letter to the Irish Times in 1974 highlighting the problem of wife abuse in Irish society. Photo courtesy of Irish Women’s Aid

In addition to offering emergency housing, Women’s Aid and its sister organisations sought to highlight the scale of the problem in Irish society and foster a sense of legitimacy for their cause.  Fennell supplied newspapers with a steady stream of shocking tales of wife beating and insisted that the large numbers of battered women who utilised the services of Women’s Aid proved that marital violence was a pervasive social problem in Ireland.  For the first time, victims of marital violence had advocates working on their behalf and legitimising their struggles.  As Ailbhe Smyth, influential Irish academic and activist, argues, ‘Feminist anti-violence activists have enabled women to speak by providing them with shelter and support, with a sense of legitimacy, and with a vocabulary and framework through which to recount their experiences.’  Largely due to feminist activism, the Irish State could no longer turn a blind eye to the reality of men’s violence against women.

But, of course, domestic violence is not a problem that has been solved.  The National Crime Council estimated in 2005 that 15 percent of women in Ireland had experienced ‘severely abusive behaviour of a physical, sexual, or emotional nature from an intimate partner at some time in their lives’.  Safe Ireland, a national network of domestic violence services, reveals that over 10,000 individual women sought help for domestic violence in 2016.  Of those, 1,460 were accommodated in emergency refuges; a further 3,981 were turned away because the refuges were already at capacity.  Much work remains to be done, but feminist reformers have ensured that the State now addresses the needs of victims of domestic violence.   Indeed, abused women are no longer trapped in a culture that seeks to deny the reality of their struggles and fails to provide them with adequate protections or paths of escape.

If you are affected by the issues discussed here, please contact the Women’s Aid National Domestic Violence Helpline, which offers confidential information, support and understanding.

Ireland: 1800 341 900

UK:  0808 2000 247

For further reading, please see Cara Diver, Marital Violence in Post-Independence Ireland, 1922-96: ‘A Living Tomb for Women’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).

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