Gender instantly assumes greater salience in attempts to understand lethal violence when the perpetrator is a woman. The scholarship has identified differential responses to male and female offending behaviour, noting the dominance of discourses such as pathology, ‘double deviance’, the idea of women as ‘not dangerous’ and the ‘bad woman’ when seeking to explain responses women’s violence. Postcolonial Ireland offers a new background against which to examine these questions. The findings of the analysis herein suggest the ways in which the Irish example demonstrates both convergence and divergence with the existing literature, and presents novel ways of considering women’s lethal violence. Drawing on the previous chapters, the Conclusion seeks to understand women’s lethal violence in Ireland, situating analysis within the broader literature on gender and punishment and women who kill. Seminal ideas, such as ‘double deviance’, are explored in the Irish context, while the confinement of convicted women in religious sites of detention is investigated under a framework of postcolonial penality and religion.
Gender and punishment in Ireland: Women, murder and the death penalty in Ireland, 1922–64 is the only book to examine the spectrum of women’s lethal violence in Ireland, exploring the state and public responses to female-perpetrated homicide and the sentencing and punishment of such women. Drawing on comprehensive archival research, including government documents, press reporting, traces of public sentiment and the voices of the women themselves, the book contributes to the burgeoning literature on gender and punishment and women who kill, presenting, for the first time, the case of Ireland. Engaging with concepts such as ‘double deviance’, chivalry, paternalism and ‘coercive confinement’, the work explores the penal landscape for offending women in Ireland. The book presents an extensive interdisciplinary treatment of women who kill in Ireland, and will be useful to scholars of gender, criminology and history. Gender and punishment in Ireland considers the position of women in postcolonial Ireland, tracing the lives of women before the courts, the offences for which they stood accused and the gendered punishment regimes which saw so many confined to religious control following conviction.
Women prosecuted for murder in Ireland were subject to parsimonious pathologising, when pathology is considered through the formal lens of legal insanity in the criminal trial. Across the cases, it was clear that certain women were more likely to receive such a judgement, namely women who were married. Nevertheless, while insufficient to ground findings of insanity, insinuations as to women’s mental capacity were everywhere in evidence. Informal assumptions of ‘weak-mindedness’ and of biologically provoked mental disturbances coloured attempts to explain women’s actions. These were highly gendered and classed understandings of mental capacity, locating women within their reproductive capabilities, within their class positions and within their families. Throughout, claims of ‘low mentality’ could be read as references to both poverty and perceived sexual deviance.
Annie Walsh was convicted of the murder of her husband and executed in 1925. As the only woman to die by the hangman’s noose in Ireland after independence in 1922, her case is assured a certain status in the annals of Irish criminal justice history. However, while she may have been alone in facing execution, many of the aspects of her story are far from unique. Between independence in 1922 and the enactment of the Criminal Justice Act in 1964, 292 women and girls were prosecuted for murder in Ireland. This chapter presents the framework for the examination of these 292 cases, situating the research within the criminological literature on gender and punishment and women who kill as well as the scholarship on Irish criminal justice history.
Women accused of murder were understood according to normative womanhood. The insistence on passive sexuality was mandated by the dominant moralist discourses. Yet, appropriate womanhood was an idea mediated by place and time, and for most of the women before the courts they were understood within a cipher of identity that revolved around rurality, poverty and their position as members of the ‘labouring classes’. Inevitably, gender discourses were refracted through this situatedness. While there were very clear views, then, on the most privileged ways of being a woman, there was considerable nuance within this according to circumstance. For instance, the cases of wives accused of husband-murder by poisoning suggest that accommodations were made when it was evident that women were labouring in a marriage to a ‘bad’ husband. The disapproval towards extramarital sexuality was not a blanket condemnation. While unmarried women were generally subject to punitive surveillance and treatment, there was more leeway for married women. The poisoning cases in particular disrupt ideas of ‘double deviance’.
Irish society, bolstered by the policies and discourse of Church and state, lived under overwhelming taboos in relation to sex and sexuality in the decades post-independence. Within these limits, illegitimacy became an unthinkable prospect for many unmarried women who found themselves pregnant. The intensity of this shame moulded the profile of women’s lethal violence, ensuring that the criminogenic powers of shame motivated women to destroy evidence of extramarital sex. Despite these clear patterns, and the example of Britain, there was no urgency in government to reform the law on infant murder. Instead, there was a clear symbolic function in retaining the legal condemnation for as long as it remained unchanged. This commitment to a symbolically punitive regime appears more perverse in light of the sobering rates of infant mortality within those institutions established for the confinement of unmarried pregnant women and their infants. Despite the structures of censure, the cases offer glimpses throughout of the experiences of motherhood in Ireland in these years, demonstrating the complexities of the meanings of maternity, and providing examples of offending women as mothers.
For women reprieved from a sentence of death in Ireland, their negotiations for clemency did not cease once they were free of the condemned cell. The petitioning of women from prison, while they cannot be read uncritically, provide rare examples of the women’s voices. In this light, petitions illustrate the position of women within their families and reveal the emotional and physical strains of imprisonment. Further, the petitions demonstrate sparks of resistance and anger, which serve to acknowledge the lived experience of imprisonment and confinement, and the subjectivities of reprieved women. Crucially, reprieved women’s experiences of imprisonment differed significantly from reprieved men; ‘punishment’ did not end at the prison door for women. In Ireland, release from prison often worked to conceal gendered punishment regimes which captured women for life. The transcarceration of women from prison to religious institutions contributed to the fall in the rates of women’s imprisonment post-1922 as imprisonment came to be viewed as inappropriate for women.
Overwhelmingly, the women before the courts on charges of murder were drawn from rural or small-town Ireland, a demographic fact which entailed some stark consequences for women in these decades. In the years of nation-building post-independence, notions of rural Ireland, and especially the ‘West’, enjoyed a vaunted status as an emblem of the ‘real’ Ireland. These ideals crumpled on impact with the Dublin legal sphere as notions of ignorance and depravity infused debate on the women’s crimes. These assumptions laid bare the moral judgements which were targeted at members of the labouring classes. Crucially, minorities such as Irish speakers and Travellers were often doubly suspect, and were ‘Othered’ before the courts. Such positionality not only shaped criminal justice responses; the imperatives of Irish rural life could also shape the motivations to kill for some women before the courts.
The cases of women prosecuted for murder and convicted of lesser offences demonstrate the intensely gendered punishment regimes prevailing in postcolonial Ireland. The sentencing for this cohort illustrates the shadow system of penality, operating with the explicit imprimatur of the formal state but often beyond the bounds of state oversight. The delegation of punishment to religious orders was notable for particular cases, namely younger women who could be deemed to have committed an offence of morality. For such women, the ‘sin’ of sexuality rendered them subject to religious control. Religious detention came to dominate as the decades passed, rising in importance as the idea of the prison as a site of punishment for women fell out of favour.
This chapter presents the profile and trends over time of women prosecuted for murder in Ireland from independence. The profile of prosecuted women speaks to the strange phenomenon whereby hundreds of women were capitally prosecuted in circumstances in which there was no notion of eventual execution. The legal frameworks which persisted until the reform of the law on infanticide ensured that a punitive regime prevailed for women suspected of killing their illegitimate infant. Throughout, the profile of these women was signally different from the cases of women prosecuted for the murder of an adult, reflected in the individual circumstances of the women before the courts and the criminal justice responses. Despite the intensely gendered nature of crime and punishment in these decades, in which separate gendered regimes of punishment were devised for women, the criminal justice apparatus was always predicated on the male offender. This presumed ‘maleness’ obscures the female experience of these processes and regimes. An analysis of murder and punishment in Ireland from this perspective creates an alternative map of significance.