The Sixth Sense



St Ciarán of Saigir


Land of saintly termination.

The roots of lay and clerical anti-abortionism in Ireland would appear to be a modern phenomenon as medieval sources indicate a country in which abortion could be seen as a less severe offence by clerics, for example, than bearing an unwanted child or committing ‘fornication’.

In the middle ages women commonly underwent abortions in Ireland and the fact that they did so is reflected in numerous sources. Enshrined in the medieval Irish legal code is that fact that a wife could be divorced if she had procured an abortion for herself. This prohibition is part of a long list of grounds for divorce which included infanticide, flagrant infidelity, infertility, and bad management.

Thus the circumstances in which a man could divorce his wife were obviously quite severe but even still the wife was allowed to receive her marriage-portion back (even after an abortion).

Ireland has four saints who are recorded as openly and miraculously carrying out abortions, Ciarán of Saigir, Áed mac Bricc, Cainneach of Aghaboe and Brigid of Kildare.The life of Saint Ciarán (c. 6th century) told the story of a young virgin, Bruinech, kidnapped by King Dimma who raped her, and she became pregnant. Bruinech appealed to Saint Ciarán, who miraculously aborted the foetus. Later, versions of this Life told of Ciarán making the foetus disappear rather than aborting it. Áed blessed a nun who was pregnant and the foetus disappeared, similarly with Cainneach. Brigid was the only female saint to carry out abortions. She is also the premier female saint of medieval Ireland.

The Penitential of Finnian written c. 591 CE lists the punishment for women who abort

  • If a woman by her magic destroys the child she has conceived of somebody, she shall do penance for half a year with an allowance of bread and water, and abstain for two years from wine and meat and fast for the six forty-day periods with bread and water.

It is worth noting here that the penance is quite a lenient one and was much less for example than the time assigned to penance for childbirth which demanded six years fasting on bread and water. These sanctions appear to indicate a society where women were certainly acquainted with reproductive choices, exerted agency in choosing to abort and in which the penalties for doing so were quite minor.

Knowledge of abortifacients must have been passed down through the (female) generations and were thus greatly feared by the (male) Establishment because “they subversively aimed the devious weapon of spells and potions at the patrilineal kin group, the community, and all orderly, congenial gender relations.” Thus the killing of the foetus was not so much the issue at stake rather it was the power of the women who chose to do so (and had the means to do it) that was feared as it lay outside male knowledge. Making the link between a woman’s reproductive freedoms and witchcraft ranks as a severe challenge to female reproductive agency.

Abortion in Medieval Ireland (Dr Gillian Kenny)

With kind permission.

Thanks Ciara

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17 thoughts on “The Sixth Sense

  1. Mr. T.

    The church in Ireland was far more local in flavour before Pope Adrian IV gave carte blanche to Henry II of England to invade and more or less act as the Vatican’s agent and enforce church reforms here.

    Before that, there was much merriment with monks brewing beer and living among the people. It was great craic altogether and Rome was a very distant and minor influence.

    The Vatican destroyed this country.

    1. Sinabhfuil

      However, hasn’t that ‘Laudabiliter’ bill or bull gone mysteriously missing, never to be found except at second hand?

  2. CousinJack

    Ireland is the world leader in mythical history, and such factual history as presented above will be regarded as the sinful ‘revisionism’ by middle ireland.
    We are at the pinnacle of Irish mythical history as the 1916 to 1922 commemorations approach

  3. Dawn Maisie

    Well I for one am delighted to live in a society where women can get rid of vile abusive husbands if they so wish. Just imagine where we’ll be in another 100 years!


  4. Inooways

    Ireland is primitive, I get it. But since even if by some luck we the people were finally given a new referendum, it would still mean this country had one of the most primitive systems regarding abortion in Europe , or in the western world. Thus I am taking a break from the repeated abortion coverage of late, its too toxic for my mental health . Ps get your rosaries off womens ovaries you fcuking hypocrites

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