Law and History Review


“A Fine Mixture of Pity and Justice:” The Criminal Justice Response to Infanticide in Ireland, 1922–1949

Karen M. Brennan 

MH, a domestic cook who was 26 years of age, was charged with murdering her newborn infant in September 1931. MH had been “seeing a boy” who, she stated, “took advantage” of her on one occasion, procuring her consent to sexual intercourse by a promise of marriage. She claimed that she only realized she was pregnant during the later months of her pregnancy, but did not inform the father of her child. Her employer, suspecting that MH was pregnant, enquired on several occasions whether she could do anything to help, but MH did not admit her “condition.” Although her employer was aware that MH had no family or home to go to, she gave MH notice to quit her job. A couple of weeks later, MH gave birth in her bedroom at her employer's home; she did not call out for assistance or disturb the girl with whom she shared the bedroom. MH admitted in her statement that the baby cried after birth and that she “tied a white dress belt … around its neck to kill it,” adding: “I tied it [the belt] tight. I killed the child and I know I killed it.” Afterwards, MH put the body in a suitcase, cleaned up the bloodstains, and returned to work. The suspicions of her employer eventually lead to the discovery of the dead infant. The postmortem examination showed that the infant had been born alive, but had received no attention at birth; death was the result of strangulation. MH was acquitted of murder at the Central Criminal Court.


Karen Brennan is a lecturer in law at the School of Law at the University of Essex <>.


  She thanks Shadd Maruna, Norma Dawson, Maurice Sunkin, and Elizabeth Brennan for agreeing to read earlier drafts of this manuscript, and for their helpful suggestions. She is also indebted to David Tanenhaus, Elizabeth Dale, and the four anonymous reviewers from the Law and History Review for their constructive comments. Any mistakes are entirely her own. She also expresses gratitude to the Irish Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which funded her PhD research, on which this article is largely based.