Ireland’s fertility revolution happened later but more rapidly than in other western countries

Injunctions in the Confessional caused distress to men and women, but also gave men a licence to have sex with their wives, regardless of the women’s wishes

In 1961 Irish couples had, by a considerable margin, the largest families in the western world. Although Irish women married at a later age than elsewhere, they were having almost twice as many children as their counterparts in England and Wales, and almost 40 per cent more than women in Spain, a conservative Catholic country with legislation against contraception that was similar to Ireland.

By the late 1940s, Catholic couples in Britain had families of similar size to the rest of the population. So how do we explain the large Irish families? Until the contraceptive pill became available in the 1960s, the primary responsibility for controlling fertility rested with men, and the main methods used were abstinence and withdrawal during sexual intercourse. These methods were available in Ireland, but they obviously required male co-operation, as did the rhythm method which was approved by the Catholic Church.

Priests, bishops, some politicians and many members of the public spoke with enthusiasm about Ireland’s large families, ignoring the consequences of recurrent pregnancies for women’s health and welfare, the greater risk of poverty, and the fact that many of these children had to emigrate. The Irish Catholic Church continued to teach that the purpose of marriage was to beget children well into the 1960s, by which time Catholic churches elsewhere were emphasising the importance of love and mutual companionship.

Most Irish people attended Mass regularly, and more importantly they went to Confession at least once a year – and often more frequently. Unlike some other parts of Europe where many women went to church, but fewer men, there was no noticeable gender difference in religious practice.


In the 1930s, a doctor in Co Clare, who was the father of two children, told the Harvard anthropologist Solon Kimball that “the Catholic Church is a bloody tough religion”. If a man confessed that he was taking steps to prevent conception, the priest would refuse absolution unless he gave an undertaking to desist. He would also be asked whether he had made a similar Confession in the past. This doctor was “on the abstention route”, because he could not afford to educate a larger family. He claimed that a priest told him that this was “all right” provided that the couple had agreed, but if one party wished to have sexual relations and was denied, it would be a mortal sin.

When family planning became available in Ireland, many men seem to have regarded it as women’s responsibility

Another father of two children said that “sometimes it is a problem because the priests are always after you to have more”. One father of a large family no longer went to Confession or Communion, though he attended Mass occasionally. He had been denied absolution in Confession by a missionary priest because he was no longer having sexual relations with his wife. When he complied with the priest’s demand, his wife again became pregnant.

Catholic teaching elsewhere does not appear to have been as dogmatic. In Italy, where withdrawal was one of the main methods of contraception well into the 1980s, many priests in the diocese of Padua in the 1930s appear to have made a conscious decision not to ask about this in Confession, and a similar silence has been reported in the Netherlands.

While these injunctions in the Confessional caused considerable distress to men and women, they also gave men a licence to have sexual relations with their wives, regardless of the women’s wishes or the risks to their lives and health. Raymond Cross, a gynaecologist attached to the Rotunda Hospital, commented that “ignorance, drunkenness, selfishness and non-co-operation unfortunately seemed to go hand-in-hand with ill-health and grand multiparity” [very large families].

In late 1969, a doctor spoke at a public meeting about one of his patients, a mother of 10 living children, who had had four spontaneous abortions [miscarriages]. She had no knowledge of the safe period and no interest in learning about it because her alcoholic husband insisted on his conjugal rights at all times. He had prescribed the pill. A Catholic priest who was present at the meeting described this woman’s treatment by her husband as “no more than repeated acts of rape”, but he was atypical.

John McGahern’s mother died in her early 40s shortly after giving birth. Her brutal husband had continued to have sexual relations with her, despite the fact that she had had surgery for breast cancer. That last pregnancy almost certainly shortened her life.

When family planning became available in Ireland, many men seem to have regarded it as women’s responsibility. The fact that the pill was the first reliable method of contraception that was available probably reinforced this attitude. In 1973, almost nine out of 10 of the clients visiting Family Planning Services – which at the time only provided condoms – were women, and well into the 1980s most condoms were bought by women.

Most of the men interviewed believed that family planning should be a joint decision, one in five had never discussed contraception with their partner

A survey of attitudes towards contraception among working-class couples who had recently had a baby in the Rotunda Hospital revealed some disconcerting evidence about male attitudes. One hundred women agreed to be interviewed, but only 50 of their 80 partners. One man declined because he believed that such surveys “would ruin the moral standards of the country and encourage women to be loose”. Almost one in five of the men believed that “artificial contraception was wrong”, but only two gave a religious reason to justify their views.

Several women who hadn’t used “artificial” contraception and didn’t plan to do so cited their husband’s opposition as the reason. Although most of the men interviewed believed that family planning should be a joint decision, one in five had never discussed contraception with their partner, and although none of the women wanted another pregnancy within a year, one man in five did not share this attitude. The authors of this report concluded that the men believed that it was women’s duty to be better informed about contraception.

But change was under way. By the 1990s, Irish family size was somewhat higher than the EU average, but lower than in the United States; Ireland was no longer exceptional. Most of the decline had happened by 1980, before contraception was legally available – even for “bona fide family planning” purposes. In 1960 almost one baby in five was born to a mother who had already given birth to five to nine children; by 1980 this had fallen to one in 12.

Despite opinion polls showing that rural Ireland was less supportive of reforming the laws on contraception, there was no significant urban/rural divide: the trend towards smaller families was nationwide. Key to this revolution was the changing attitudes towards larger families, and the negotiation by couples of this sensitive and complex issue.

The Vatican’s decision in 1968 to retain its ban on “artificial” contraception and the tortured and protracted debate in Irish politics about legalising contraception provided a space for women and men to discuss fertility control.

Television, newspapers and women’s magazines played an important role in these debates. The contraceptive pill, family planning clinics and mail-order sales of contraceptives enabled some couples to plan their families, but greater use of “natural” family planning methods, especially Billings, was probably more important in artificially reducing fertility in rural Ireland.

With the advance of second- and third-level education, it was not only the Clare doctor who had to consider the cost of educating children. The growing number of women who remained in the workforce following the birth of their first child, second-wave feminism, and the expansion of third-level education all contributed to changing attitudes.

Ireland’s fertility revolution – which happened later and more rapidly than in other western countries – is an important component in the shaping of Ireland today.

The Battle to Control Female Fertility in Modern Ireland by Mary E Daly is published by Cambridge University Press