The Salley Gardens

Women, Sex, and Motherhood in Ireland

by Jo Murphy-Lawless (Author) Laury Oaks (Author)
©2022 Monographs X, 328 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 106


By the early 2000s, women in Ireland were arguably freer than any past generation to shape their sexual lives amidst the social freedoms of a globalised society. The Salley Gardens presents reflections from seventy-three heterosexual young women on growing up, forming sexual relationships and some becoming mothers in the last years of the «Celtic Tiger». The authors explore their hope and despair about what it means to be a woman, to use their agency, within the inescapable tensions of newly wealthy Ireland. Their efforts to build their sexual lives are complex and the significant problems they encountered remain unresolved.
Women’s search for agency is woven into our complex history and continues to reverberate. The bewildering juxtapositions young women faced fifteen years ago have intensified in the present. Then and now, we face conflicts with social expectations of our lives as sexual women, caring women, partners, wives, and mothers.
Turning our older history in Ireland towards an exuberant resistance enables us to illuminate the limitations of the female identities imposed by contemporary Ireland. The Salley Gardens helps us rethink what we mean by agency and resistance, revaluing women’s actions as we endeavour to value our own lives.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction Images of Women Present and Past
  • Chapter 1 ‘In a field by the river my love and I did stand’: Changing Social Forms, Modernity and Resistance
  • Chapter 2 ‘Young women saying “I love having lots of one-night stands” is still not quite acceptable’: Making Sense of Sexual Experiences
  • Chapter 3 ‘And she didn’t know what to do’: The Many Obstacles to Sexual Freedom
  • Chapter 4 ‘It’s not the right time for me, I can’t go through with this pregnancy. And it should be free choice’: Abortion as the Loneliest Decision
  • Chapter 5 ‘It’s not just about having children – how can you build a life?’: Motherhood Becomes Another Country
  • Conclusion Loss, Athwartness, Resistance
  • Note on the Cover Artist
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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We have many people to thank. First and foremost, the young women who generously opened their lives and experiences to us during two research projects for the Crisis Pregnancy Agency between 2003 and 2006 deserve our gratitude. We also want to thank successive cohorts of midwifery students in Trinity College Dublin, between 2006 and 2018 who explored much of this material about the changing contexts for women in Ireland as part of their sociology coursework. Abundant thanks are owed to the following:

Alish Banks, Valerie Blake, Lauren Boon, Clare Brady, Therese Byrne, Liz Cassin, Tasmin Coe, Ellen Cooke, Clare Daly, Sarah Davies, Declan Devane, Lelia Doolan, Margaret Dunlea, Nadine Edwards, Michael Edwards, Doreen Fitzmaurice, Andrea Foley, Sharon Foley, Sinead Fulcher, Anne-Marie Green, Barbara Grimes, Nicole Harper, Kate Harris, Maria Herron, Sian Hodgins, Julie Horgan, Mary Howard, Martina Hynan, Roisin Kavanagh, Cecile Kizenga, Rena Maguire, Leona Mahon, Rosemary Mander, Mary Martin, Ann Maxwell, Sarah McCann, Anne McCarthy, Linda McDyer, Marie McEneff, Claire McNab, Roisin Molloy, Christine Monahan, Rita Monahan, Sophie Moxon, Gerry Mulvenna, Rachel Murphy, Oisín Murphy-Lawless, Brenda O’Brien, Cherisse O’Brien, Siobán O’Brien-Green, Taylor O’Brien-Pintos, Jim O’Donnell, Emma O’Grady, Stephanie O’Keeffe, Eadaoin O’Sullivan, Karin O’Sullivan, Magdalena Ohaja, Carlos Panero, Ciaran Power, Sean Rowlette, Vic Russell, Kevin Ryan, Bridget Sheeran, Mary Smyth, Olivia Smyth, Malgorzata (Gosia) Stach, Ilona Sulikova, Fleur van Leeuwen, James Webster, Jeannine Webster, Jianwei Wu.

We deeply thank friends, colleagues and students at and beyond the University of California Santa Barbara. The research team provided meticulous copy-editing and skilled assistance to track down and organise needed information. Invaluable have been feminist studies graduate student AP Pierce and undergraduate students Elsie Amador, Dominica Aranaga, ←ix | x→Casey Chen, Tianyi Huang, Ginger Lamb, Teyah Lopez, Olivia Moreno, Katherine Ripley, Aine Roonan, Veronica Varner and Angela Zou. We also want to thank Liz Farsaci for her skilled indexing.

We thank two erudite anonymous reviewers.

Many thanks to Senior Commissioning Editor for Peter Lang, Tony Mason, for his unending patience, commitment and support; thanks also to the skilled staff at Peter Lang for their editorial thoroughness, and to Eamon Maher, the Reimagining Ireland Series Editor for grasping the core of this project with alacrity.

Special thanks to Dominick Jenkins for his consistent mentoring.

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Images of Women Present and Past

Yeats’ poem, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’, is the source for this book’s title. The story it presents is of the man who regrets a love lost to him, who has failed to act on his desire for a life with the woman who is confident in hers. With this evocative image in mind, we present the reflections of seventy-three heterosexual women, aged 19–34 years old, on their growing up, forming sexual relationships and, for some, becoming mothers in the last years of ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland, a time of far greater affluence than Irish society has ever before known.1 The problem of social constraint on the one hand and agency on the other has been at the fore of arguments by feminists about social change in relation to sex and sexuality in Ireland. Women have been freer than any generation before them to shape their sexual lives and to access in ever greater numbers social and sexual freedoms. Yet their efforts to get to grips with what they wanted or needed, the problems they have encountered along the way, have been far from straightforward, and many critical matters remain unresolved. Throughout the book, we share the voices of young women who expressed both hope and despair as they experienced what it means to be an Irish woman – to construct the self – within the inescapable tensions specific to the Celtic Tiger historical moment and simultaneous departures from and pulls to social expectations of the past regarding being a working woman, a sexual woman, a caring woman and a partner, wife or mother. We argue that turning the history of our deep loss towards an exuberant resistance will enable us to effectively ←1 | 2→puncture the limitations of the identities late modern Ireland would have us compliantly assume.

The impact of Celtic Tiger times

The Celtic Tiger term itself was initially used in the overarching spheres of economics and politics but slipped quickly into everyday discourse in the 1990s (Keohane and Kuhling 2004: 139). It provided a self-accepting ‘collective identity’ (ibid.) as Ireland entered into the boom time of tax-incentivized multinational corporations, export-led industries like the high-tech and pharmaceutical sectors, unrestrained credit expansion in globalized financial markets and feverish property dealing such as Ireland had never seen before. The ‘collective moral force’ of the Celtic Tiger term was perfectly suited to the global neoliberal economy we welcomed as a society, and it was used to sway people into spending without limit, ‘into borrowing and buying’ (ibid.: 144), a game promoted by successive governments which did likewise until the economic collapse of 2008 (Allen 2003).

The appendage of ‘Celtic’ was itself intriguing, suggesting a connection with a transcendent history venerated as ‘an heroic age, a timeless time, a Celtic twilight that is also a perpetual dawn’ (Keohane and Kuhling 2004: 146), an understanding that conveniently provided us with a one-way ticket out of modern twentieth-century Ireland which had been anything but heroic. Up to 1987, the year domestic unemployment was at its highest recorded level in the last half of the twentieth century, 17 per cent, Ireland with its ‘dismal’ struggling economy (Geary 1992: 277) had produced a demographic regime completely at odds with Britain and the rest of western Europe. It comprised late marriage, if marrying at all, but high rates of fertility within marriage. Fintan O’Toole (1994: 168–9) has written that when his parents married in the mid-1950s, 64 per cent of the Irish populace was single and he quotes the UCD economist James Meenan that Irish society ‘was largely based on the refusal of many of its members of the opportunity to found a home and family. In demographic ←2 | 3→terms, this was an evil quite as harmful as emigration; in human terms it was more monstrous by far’ (ibid: 169). In class terms, social mobility was gained by emigrating from Ireland, not by staying here. In 1987, a mere 6.5 per cent of people from a working-class background had entered the professional and managerial classes (Allen 2000: 1). That was the Ireland swept away by Celtic Tiger times when, from 1994 to 2001, the country’s GDP averaged 7.8 per cent, in an ‘abrupt leap-frogging from a predominately pre-industrial economy to a post-industrial high-tech economy’ (Donovan and Murphy 2004: 19). With ‘globalization and Europeanization’ coming together (ibid.: 24), the Celtic Tiger exploded into a rapid rise in living standards that introduced us to the gleaming consumer worlds of ‘shiny new buildings, business and retail parks … designer stores, gallerias and plazas’, along with ‘arts centres, theme parks … hotels, golf complexes and housing estates as people with significant disposable income sought easy ways to spend it’ (Lucey et al. 2019: 1). Fintan O’Toole (2003a: 49) has rightly observed about this landscape:

Until we understand the choices made in the course of Ireland’s final entry into the global economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the nature of contemporary Irish society is incomprehensible. Until we know why some were given a leg up into the roaring 1990s while others were kicked in the face, we won’t be able to come to terms with the coexistence of manic affluence and mean despair of boom-time Ireland. (O’Toole 2003a: 49)

This was the Ireland in which our interviewees came to adulthood and then had to live through the crisis-ridden setting which followed on swiftly with the Celtic Tiger’s collapse amidst international economic turmoil from 2008 onward. By then Ireland and women’s lives in Ireland had changed irrevocably.2

The Celtic Tiger era helps explain how contemporary Ireland has come to be far more in tune with the contradictory characteristics of late ←3 | 4→modern societies across the world. Our societies are globalized and fluid, not least in the rapid turnover demanded by consumer capitalism. They are radically unequal societies. They also carry unpredictable risks for individuals in their pursuit of life goals which means there is an ongoing need for self-reflexivity and decision-making, no matter what their social class. Hence core notions for young women in contemporary Ireland are those of agency, identity and choice. Young women expect to exercise their personal agency, to be free to discover unhindered aspects of themselves as sexual beings, to explore what is most important to them about intimacy, to anticipate decisions about their identities and futures, to shape those futures as they choose. As Zygmunt Bauman argues, they embrace willingly the belief that their identity grows and changes as a result of their experiences, that their identity itself is always an ‘unfinished task’ (2004: 20), and that their sexuality forms a crucial part of their identity. This unfinished task of identity-building in relation to sexuality and the connection to ‘choice’ as part of the demanding patterns of consumption captures young women’s attention daily: globally accessible mass media and internet reinforce what they see in the centre of Irish cities and towns and those innumerable chic shopping pavilions which have been built in recent decades.

Mass media and social media are awash with extensive coverage of the consumer habits, clothes sense, sex lives and often the chic motherhood of international celebrities along with anyone who attracts a following as an internet influencer. One way or another, Irish women must deal with what appears to be a principle of late modern life, an awareness of material consumption which appears to be vital to make sense of their desire to find out who they are and who they might become, how they present themselves and how they learn what to do as sexual beings. They must live with constant change as an imperative of this ‘consuming life’ which ‘cannot stand still’ (Bauman 2005: 3). One of the women we interviewed describes how this profusion of messages is received:

We live in a culture that is a ‘McDonald’s Culture’ which is to say that everything is fast … fast … fast. This has become a country so very different from the one five to seven years ago. Sex and body image are pushed on us all to sell things from toilet roll to ice-cream, and one can’t turn on telly or open a magazine without sex being there each and every time. Sex is portrayed as something that is great and casual. It ←4 | 5→would seem that everyone is doing it, and if you’re not, there is something wrong with you. (Christine, 31, small town, unemployed)

Bauman (2003, 2005) argues that for the individual this seeming fluidity has put paid to older social ties that constrained the body, especially the sexual body, within rigid conventions. This is not done without its own costs. The very fluidity of consumption, of what is new and ‘now’, contributes to the sense that the individual is always incomplete and is always yearning for what comes next, working to make better ‘choices’ to achieve that completion. This imperative also recasts the nature of intimate relationships. Bauman asserts that they become ‘mixed blessings’ in that they can ‘vacillate between sweet dream and a nightmare’ (2003: viii): ambivalence about relationships becomes a predominant theme in people’s lives. Amidst the welter of impressions of how a life can be well lived, we may be doing less than we realize to actively acknowledge and support the validity of women’s desires about their lives, most especially in relation to sexuality. Deborah Tolman (2002: 4) has argued that while ‘we are supposed to develop a mature sense of ourselves as sexual beings by the time we have reached adulthood’, this is a fraught project due to the ongoing social constraints, different to once rigid restrictions, but that are distinctively gendered in their impact. Young women still find it hard to fully articulate sexual desire as a healthy aspiration for themselves in a confident manner, and in ways where they feel they will not come to any emotional or other harm (Durham 2009).

Understanding constraints and agency for women

The problem of social constraint on the one hand and agency on the other has been to the fore of arguments by feminists about social change in relation to sex and sexuality in Ireland. Anne Byrne speaks of a patriarchal society that long sought to confine women to a ‘narrow repertoire of permissible identities’ (Byrne 2003: 45) and which, in the memorable phrase of Rosita Sweetman (1979) left women ‘on our backs’. Similarly, ←5 | 6→Pat O’Connor sees the notion of patriarchy as an important starting point for understanding ‘the practices and processes’ whereby older masculinist and familial ideologies limited the ways in which women ‘constructed their lives’ (1998: 29).

Contraception is often cited as the technology that gave women in advanced economies a critical edge in ending the most obvious masculinist constraint on the sexual body, namely the burden of unwanted pregnancy that had pushed so many lives into the shadows. Hera Cook argues that the availability of the pill meant that at last women could act on their own desires, insist on sexual autonomy and think of pregnancy as a ‘freely chosen outcome of sexual intercourse’ (2004: 339). This assertion has special resonance in Ireland. On the fiftieth anniversary of the contraceptive pill being released for use, Medh Ruane (2010) described how ‘in living memory’, there was a period when no contraception, let alone the pill, could be accessed freely and legally in Ireland and the reality of unwanted pregnancy prevented women from discovering ‘the passionate, joyous’ aspects of ‘women’s pleasure’.

Many Irish women born in the 1940s and 1950s will have harsh personal memories related to the legal unavailability of contraception. They will recall their own sense of dread at becoming pregnant, which, if it happened outside marriage, precipitated decisions about marrying sooner than they might have wanted, and possibly marrying someone whom they did not want. Within marriage, they would have dreaded raising a large family. They will recall as well, the haunting stories of young relatives or near neighbours who were forced to go to the infamous mother and baby homes of twentieth-century Ireland and give up their babies for adoption or pretend that the child was born late on to aging grandparents, while the birth mother was conveniently relocated to London or the United States. Some women who might have travelled regularly to and from England or from Dublin to rural areas in Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s will recall discrete and urgent requests that would be made to please bring back ‘something’ by women who could not face another new baby. In 1971, 41 per cent of women still had a completed family size of four to six children, with 15 per cent of women having a completed family size of seven to nine children (Murphy-Lawless 1987). If married women were lucky, they might convince ←6 | 7→their GP to prescribe the contraceptive pill which was being legally imported from 1963 as a ‘cycle-regulator’ for irregular menstruation with the convenient side-effect of limiting their families (Solomons 1992: 23). By 1966, it was reported that 25 per cent of Catholic doctors were prescribing oral contraception (The Irish Times 1966: 1).

Several family planning clinics were set up in Dublin in the late 1960s using a loophole in the law (Solomons 1992), and their existence helped to raise the issue more widely of gaining access to effective contraception. Gradually over the next two decades, state and medical opposition to legalising reliable contraception was taken apart. A women’s movement which had developed at two levels, locally with grassroots activism and special interest groups, and nationally, with the Irish Commission on the Status of Women in 1970 followed by the Council for the Status of Women in 1972 (L. Connolly 2003), challenged a restrictive legislative and constitutional framework in the courts. This took place alongside the country opening up to the European Economic Community with its insistence on equal status for women and men in relation to employment and welfare issues. The 1972 McGee case, which successfully overturned the 1935 ban on the importation of contraception and contraceptive devices, helped to break the control of a dominant male legislature on this aspect of women’s reproductive agency (Speed 1992; Murphy-Lawless and McCarthy 1999; L. Connolly 2003: 142–4).


X, 328
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. X, 328 pp.

Biographical notes

Jo Murphy-Lawless (Author) Laury Oaks (Author)

Jo Murphy-Lawless is a sociologist and Research Fellow in the Centre for Health Evaluation, Methodology Research and Evidence Synthesis, NUI Galway and a member of the Elephant Collective. She has a lifelong commitment to establishing reproductive justice and to eradicating social and economic inequalities. Laury Oaks is Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies and affiliated with the Department of Sociology and Department of Anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on sexual and reproductive politics. Laury was introduced to Jo while doing research in Dublin on the X Case in summer 1992, and they have sustained a dynamic connection across the miles and decades.


Title: The Salley Gardens