RTÉ One, Thursday, 7.00pm

Scannal! Nurse Mamie Cadden

© The National Archive of Ireland
© The National Archive of Ireland
© The National Archive of Ireland
© The National Archive of Ireland

An Irish abortionist - sentenced to death for murder - it was a scandal that convulsed the nation in the 1950's. Just like today, abortion was an taboo subject but not as uncommon as we might think.

The authorities of the fledgeling Free State turned a blind eye to the covert, but widespread practice of illegal abortion in Ireland during the first twenty years of Independence. In premises from Parkgate Street to Merrion Square, from leafy Rathmines to Upper Pembroke Street, a succession of chemists, doctors, electricians, and above all, qualified midwives treated 'all sorts of cases', as the coded advertisements of the day implied. The names Coleman, Ashe and Williams have fallen out of public memory. Not so, however, the most notorious of them all, Nurse Mamie Cadden.

The emergence of a Catholic majority of professionals in Garda HQ, The Four Courts, Kings Inns, The Incorporated Law Society, the Medical Schools and the Universities led to a crackdown in the 1940's. With the twin pillars of Catholic social conservatism Eamon De Valera and Archbishop McQuaid at the height of their powers, all of Dublin's back-street abortionists were imprisoned by the mid-forties.

Only one was to emerge from Mountjoy in 1950 to resume where she had left off, Nurse Mamie Cadden. Originally from Co. Mayo & near destitute, having long lost her three storey nursing home in Rathmines and her red MG Midget sports car, Mamie Cadden operated from the grotty confines of a one-room flat at No. 19 Hume Street. A succession of unfortunate women continued to avail of her services. Most survived, and vanished into the night. Two were to die on her kitchen table.

Mamie Cadden was famously convicted of the murder of the second of those women, a Mrs. Helen O'Reilly of Kilkenny. Cadden was sentenced to be hanged in Mountjoy Jail in 1957.

'Scannal' re-visits the story of Mamie Cadden, placing her and her activities in the context of the Ireland of her times.

Producer/Director Seán Ó Mealóid
Presenter/Reporter Pat Butler

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