New research is revealing for the first time the degree to which poverty, famine and shame drove thousands of Irish women to commit infanticide in the 19th century. Irish historian Elaine Farrel has identified over 4,600 cases of suspected infanticide between 1850 and 1900. Farrell’s findings are significant because they correct widely held views – originating in the 19th century but reinforced by historians as late as 1970s – the infanticide was either non-existent or extremely rare in Victorian Ireland.
Irish newspapers and public opinion in the 19th century were convinced that infanticide was an English problem, common in London, but not in Ireland. Indeed some Irish newspapers reported infanticidal crimes of English women in graphic detail, while under-reporting similar or worse cases in Ireland.
In fact, Dr Farrell suspects that a real figure for infanticide may well have been even higher than her research suggests. Around 70% of all the infanticide cases that came to light were commited by servants, who were more likely to be apprehended for the crime because they lived away from families that might otherwise have tried to shield them.
If the prevalance of infanticide among servants (just under half Ireland’s female workforce) was reflected among the rest of the population, then Dr Farrell’s suspected cases may be the tip of the iceberg.
Infanticide was a difficult offence for the authorities to prove. An offender who had given birth alone could easily claim that her newborn had suffocated durin labour, had been strangled by the umbilical cord, or had died immediately after birth.
What’s more, the law only regarded baby-killing as infanticide if the child had fully emerged from the birth canal. If the child was murdered while still partly inside the canal, then the perpetrator could not be prosecuted for murder.