100 years of contraception in Ireland.‘Sometimes, there was a contraceptive courier service. People with family and friends in Britain.’

100 years ago this month, Margaret Sanger, the woman who first coined the phrase “birth control” – and its best-known advocate – was prosecuted for opening a clinic issuing contraceptives in Brooklyn, New York.

It was the first clinic of its kind in the United States and Sanger was at the forefront of what soon became a worldwide birth control movement.

But as the movement gathered pace across the Western world throughout the 20th century, Ireland remained in something of a time warp, with legislation restricting the distribution of contraceptives in place right up to the early 1990s.

In a fascinating discussion on Today with Sean O’Rourke, Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, looked back at some of the highlights (or lowlights) of the story: the story of Ireland’s relationship with contraception.

One of the first major cases in this regard came in just a few years after the foundation of the State, in 1928, in relation to a Dublin bookseller who was furtively selling a book called Family Limitation, by Margaret Sanger, a book prohibited under the Censorship of Publications Act.

“He was taken to court, charged with selling an obscene libel, prosecuted and fined £50, which was a lot of money.”

That said, Ireland wasn’t unique in its restrictive laws in relation to birth control and there was an “international pro-nationalist movement” which was particularly strong in Mussolini’s Italy. But the question in Ireland, of course, was set in the context of a country which was 93% Catholic in the pre-war years.

“What we get in 1935 is the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which is a blanket ban on the importation, sale, and distribution of contraceptives. But that was part of a wider review of laws in relation to sexual offences, unlawful carnal knowledge, the age of sexual consent.”


But the Irish, as we all know, have always had a rather lax attitude towards these rules. And Diarmaid outlined how many people managed to get hold of what they regarded as an essential need.

“Sometimes, there was a contraceptive courier service. People with family and friends in Britain.”

There were also what he described as “home-made remedies” in relation to contraception, with one disturbing tale of a gynecologist who experienced a baby coming out with a Guinness bottle top on its head.

For many years, according to legislation, only married couples could access contraception. But even still, that wasn’t necessarily good enough. According to Diarmaid, “it wasn’t illegal for doctors to prescribe contraception. The problem was trying to get access to them.”

“An Irish solution to an Irish problem.” A classic one-liner from former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, pretty much summing up the absurdity of our attitude to contraception and, in a broader sense, all issues of sexuality.

It was a terrific interview, a real education, and if you want to hear it in full, click here.