What did it mean to be a ‘dangerous woman’ in post-Independence Ireland?

Lynsey BlackLynsey Black recently completed her PhD in the School of Law at Trinity College Dublin. Her research explored women sentenced to death in Ireland post-1922, taking a feminist methodological perspective. Lynsey has published previously in the area of media and crime, including in the recently published Routledge Handbook of Irish Criminology. Lynsey has also researched and published in the area of the representation of women offenders in the Irish press.

The question, ‘what does it mean to be a dangerous woman’, went to the heart of my doctoral research. Dangerous women were, after all, the core of my research as a doctoral student exploring cases of women sentenced to death in Ireland post-Independence.

It seemed self-evident that the term ‘dangerous women’ would be interchangeable with ‘women sentenced to death’. The death sentence was the ultimate expression of societal disapprobation. It felt intuitive that women who had been sentenced to death would therefore represent the ‘worst of the worst’.

However, the archival files revealed a profile of death-sentenced women which suggested that ‘dangerous women’, in this context, was a term loaded with meaning that was only explicable in the context of the prevailing social mores.

Ireland after Independence was a nation busy defining itself in opposition to England. National identity was constructed around the shoring up of moral standards and particularly around juxtaposition with the moral laxity of the perceived ‘foreign’ influence of England. This new moral order was carved out through a succession of laws passed in the 1920s and 1930s, which gave statutory underpinning to the conservatism of the early ‘Free State’ politicians. One result of this legislative onslaught was the creation of an archetype of the idealised ‘Irish woman’.

Sandra McAvoy (1999) and Margaret Ward (1995) are among those writers who have documented the climate in which these laws were enacted, citing an ethos of moralism and the loose demarcation between Church teachings and State policy. For example, the Censorship of Publications Act 1929 prohibited advertisement of contraceptives or any other artificial method of birth control. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935 raised the age of consent for girls to 17, as well as prohibiting the import or sale of contraceptives. In this wave of conservative legislation, the Public Dance Hall Act 1935 targeted the nefarious existence of sites of social coming together, requiring dance halls to have licences, and holding that taxes were to be levied on tickets sold. This period of legislative activism culminated with the 1937 Constitution, which enshrined at Article 41.2.1:

‘In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’

The various laws and constitutional provisions enacted in this period paint a picture of the preferred life course for Irish women. Through the denial of access to contraceptives, and culminating in a constitutional provision which enshrined the role of women in the home, it seemed that the comely and virtuous maiden would gradually morph into the matronly wife and mother.

In this context, a dangerous woman could easily be a woman who defied convention with regard to sex and sexuality. This was borne out in the cases of many of the women who were sentenced to death.

The Women Sentenced to Death

In all, 22 women were sentenced to death in Ireland from Independence in 1922 until the death penalty was abolished in 1990. Of 22 women sentenced to death, 12 had been convicted of the murder of an infant. Typically, these women had killed their own infant, although two women had killed the infant of a close female relative. In all cases, the prospect of living with the infant, which was invariably illegitimate, would have signalled a form of social death.

In addition to these 12 women, Mamie Cadden was sentenced to death in 1956 for the murder of Helen O’Reilly, who had died while undergoing an abortion. O’Reilly had come to Cadden because of an unwanted, ‘illegitimate’ pregnancy.

Over half of the women sentenced to death in Ireland, then, had committed murders relating to the termination of an unwanted pregnancy or the killing of an unwanted infant which was the product of such a pregnancy.

Although in England, the specific offence of infanticide had been formally introduced in 1922, and subsequently expanded in 1938, Irish legislation to this effect was not enacted until 1949. This meant that although there was no expectation that women sentenced to death for the murder of their infant would be executed, the failure to pass legislative respite from death sentencing ensured the continuation of a performance of societal condemnation. The intentional killing of an infant remained an offence of murder, and murder carried a mandatory death sentence.

The discourse on these cases frequently reveals the normative assumptions made by those in the legal realm. The cult of infant life, without regard for the consideration of how structural factors influenced women, was a recurring trope in the comments of judges as they summed up cases for juries in the trials of women charged with murdering their infants. The judge in the trial of Mary Somerville, convicted in 1938, complained that: ‘One hears a good deal of discussion from time to time about child murder, but let me tell you that the life of a young child is just as sacred in the eyes of our law as the life of any adult person’ (National Archives of Ireland, Department of An Taoiseach, S.11040).

In the case of Elizabeth Doran, the judge noted that ‘The whole social fabric depended upon the strict administration of the law.’ (‘Woman sentenced to death, Irish Examiner, 4 June 1926)

Such statements denied the role played by both the repressive nature of the law, as well as the stigma of illegitimacy.

It was evident too that many viewed such women with little sympathy. For example, in the case of Christina Russell, convicted of the murder of her illegitimate infant in 1930, the Secretary at the Department of Justice noted that the killing had been committed ‘in cold blood.’ (National Archives of Ireland, Department of Justice, 234/3332, letter, 17 November 1933)

In considering the reform of the law in this area, one civil servant wrote that: ‘I am mindful of the fact the mother of an unwanted baby is sometimes a hardened sinner who appears to kill with full deliberation’ (National Archives of Ireland, Department of An Taoiseach, S.7788A, Memorandum, 2 February 1944).

In the case of Mamie Cadden, convicted for a death occurring from an abortion, there was evident executive determination to convict her of the most serious offence. The antiquated doctrine of constructive malice was necessary to secure Mamie Cadden’s conviction for murder. Constructive malice held that if death resulted from the commission of a felony (section 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act in Cadden’s case) then the death would be considered murder, despite the lack of ‘guilty mind’. Therefore, when Helen O’Reilly died during the abortion procedure, the malice implicit in the crime of procuring a miscarriage was effectively stretched, and was transferred to the resulting death.

The judge in Cadden’s trial clarified for the jury:

‘it does not matter that the person committing the act I refer to did not desire the death of the person, or did not wish the death of the person, or tried to prevent it, or that the person against whom the act was committed consented to that act being committed.’

Cadden was a well-known figure among the Gardaí (police) in Dublin, having been convicted twice before, once for child abandonment and again for procuring a miscarriage. The judge in her 1945 trial for procuring a miscarriage declared in private that: ‘Of all the persons, men and women who have stood in the dock before me during my eighteen years on the Bench, I think this woman is easily one of the worst.’ (National Archives of Ireland, Department of Justice, 18/3562, Departmental memo, 1947)

Indeed, it would seem that the State bent over backwards to convict Cadden. It was only after conviction had been secured that the official view of Cadden softened somewhat. In the memorandum submitted for consideration by cabinet following Cadden’s conviction, it was suggested that: ‘The woman is undoubtedly a really “bad lot” but the killing of Mrs O’Reilly while it did occur in the course of the commission of an illegal act was definitely not premeditated.’ (National Archives of Ireland, 18/3562, Memorandum of 1 January 1957)

However, to some members of the public, Cadden continued to represent a serious threat. One letter writer corresponded with the Department of Justice, appealing that Cadden be given more time to repent and return to God; however, he concluded, ‘if she turns back to God before Wednesday next then Sir by all means let the law take its course.’ (National Archives of Ireland, 18/3562, letter 17 November 1956)

These 13 ‘dangerous women’ were convicted of murder, sentenced to death, imprisoned, hospitalised, and institutionalised. The 12 women who were sentenced to death for the murder of an infant had their sentences commuted to penal servitude for life. One of these 12, Elizabeth Doran, was declared insane and transferred to the Central Criminal Lunatic Asylum shortly after commutation of sentence. Six of the 12 women who had killed their infants were conditionally released from prison on the proviso that they would accept confinement in a religious-run institution instead, in some cases Magdalen laundries. In the case of Mamie Cadden, her sentence of death was commuted to penal servitude for life. Less than two years after her sentence, she was declared insane and transferred to the Central Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

The table below outlines the time spent by women in these institutions:

Name Time Spent: Prison Time Spent: Hospital Time Spent in Religious-Run Institution
Elizabeth Doran 51 days 4 years, 6 months
Elizabeth Hannon 2 years, 7 months Approx. 30 years, died in the institution
Mary Kiernan 6 months
Mary Anne Keane 1 year, 5 months At least 6 years
Deborah Sullivan 4 months, 21 days 3 years, 1 month
Catherine Aherne 4 years
Christina Russell 3 years, 4 months
Margaret Finn 2 years, 7 months At least 2 years, died in the institution
Elizabeth Edwards 2 years, 5 months 1 year, 3 months
Rose Edwards 1 year, 8 months
Mary Somerville 2 years, 1 month 2 months
Kate Owens 5 years, 5 months
Mamie Cadden 1 year, 9 months 8 months


The archival material on the 13 women therefore demonstrated that in Ireland during this period, a ‘dangerous woman’ was typically, a poor, marginalised and desperate woman. She was not the ideal creature of legislative imagination; she was the inevitable creature of a failure to live up to this archetype. Indeed, in this way, the law had created these dangerous women, both through the torrent of new legislation enacted from the 1920s, and the failure to remedy the harshness of existing laws relating to infant murder, and the procurement of miscarriage.


In Ireland, and across the border in Northern Ireland, the control and criminalisation of women who have taken control of unwanted pregnancies persists.

In Ireland, in 2014, the case of Ms Y demonstrated that state coercion was far from a thing of the past (Holland, 2014). Oppressive state interference with reproduction extends north of the border as well. In April 2015, a woman was convicted and received a suspended sentence in Belfast for procuring her own miscarriage; still an offence there, at section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (McDonald, 2016).

It would seem then, that what it means to be a ‘dangerous woman’ in Ireland has remained remarkably consistent across the decades. In Ireland, a ‘dangerous woman’ may be a criminal, but she is also, fundamentally, a sinner.



Kitty Holland, ‘Timeline of Ms Y case’, The Irish Times, 4 October 2014

Sandra L McAvoy (1999) ‘The Regulation of Sexuality in the Irish Free State, 1929-1935’, in Greta Jones and Elizabeth Malcolm, eds, Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland, 1650-1940 (Cork, Cork University Press) 253-266

Henry McDonald, ‘Northern Irish woman given suspended sentence over self-induced abortion’, 4 April 2016

Margaret Ward (1995) UnManageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism (Pluto Press)