Sex, Death, and Three Irish Women

Sex, Death, and Three Irish Women

In November 1984 the Catholic parish of Tynagh, County Galway, Ireland, gathered to bury a woman who had been dead for 150 years.1 Local tradition asserted that the woman, Áine, gave birth to three illegitimate children in the 1830s or 1840s and then became gravely ill. Citing her sexual transgressions, Áine’s parish priest would not give her last rites. When she died, he also refused to have her buried in consecrated ground. Áine’s neighbors buried her in an unmarked grave just outside of town.2

Over the years following her death, the spirit of Áine reportedly haunted the local Catholic clergy. Many local people interpreted these strange occurrences as Áine’s revenge. When the Galway community reburied Áine in sacred ground in November 1984, it attempted to put things right, thus restoring order to the Irish landscape and correcting a past offense.

In Irish history and tradition, the bodies of sexually active women, pregnant and post-parturient women (particularly unmarried women), and women who had committed sexual transgressions were considered dangerous and polluted, isolated from the rest of the community. The regulation of the female body within the landscape became a mechanism for harnessing troublesome women. By separating and containing the impure and sexual female body, earlier Irish communities established the twentieth-century institutions and gender hierarchies that would result in what James Smith has labeled an “architecture of containment.”3

In Irish tradition, burial was important. It was a ritual that allowed for closure, reconciling the body and the landscape. When those who died were considered polluted or impure, however, proper burial became impossible. In addition to the sad tale of Áine, the stories of two other nineteenth-century Irish women shed light on the ways in which communities continued their attempts to contain and control the female body even after death.

In 1875, a horrific murder disturbed Kiltomy, County Kerry. A local man, John Quilter, had beaten to death his mother and his paternal uncle (his dead father’s brother). John Quilter’s mother, Honoria Quilter, and his uncle, Thomas Quilter, had been living together, not as brother-and-sister-in-law, but as husband and wife, for nearly twenty years. This violated Catholic prohibitions against consanguinity. The local priest, the Franciscan missionaries, and even the bishop himself urged the couple to separate, to no avail. Eventually, the Franciscan missionaries convinced Thomas Quilter to move out of the couple’s home. Still, Honoria attempted to reconcile with Thomas, and he seemed vulnerable to her pleas. The couple remained together even after they were excommunicated. Only death would sever the ties between Thomas and Honoria: John Quilter killed his mother and his uncle in 1875.4

John Quilter allegedly murdered Thomas and Honoria because of the scandal that surrounded their sexual relationship. The community of Kiltomey also weighed in on the controversy. Thomas and Honoria Quilter were both buried in the local Catholic cemetery. Honoria Quilter’s remains, however, were quickly unearthed and scattered. On October 13, 1875, a local newspaper, the Nenagh Guardian picked up the story, reporting that “The charred fragments of the body of the murdered woman Honoria Quilter have been refused Christian burial by the people in Kerry….”5

By rejecting the advice of the Catholic clergy and refusing to follow local norms or to uphold the sexual order of the village, Honoria severed her connection with her community. Her friends and neighbors uttered the last word in the matter when they unearthed Honoria’s bones, ejecting her from the community permanently and displaying her body in a way that shamed her and even damned her.

The 1895 murder of Bridget Cleary also exposes the connections between women’s sexual behavior and the treatment of their bodies after death. Bridget Cleary, who was murdered by her husband, father, and cousins in rural County Tipperary, like Honoria Quilter and Áine, transgressed local norms, particularly sexual norms. She was rumored to be having an affair; and despite being married for several years, she had borne no children.6 After Bridget Cleary’s death, her husband buried her body in a shallow grave, where the police discovered it several days later. Several of Bridget’s relatives who had been involved in the murder were arrested and brought to trial. But, meanwhile, no one in the village would come forward to claim Bridget’s body or to arrange for her burial. The community, after this woman’s death, made a statement about her scandalous life. In the end, the police finally buried Bridget Cleary on the very edge of the cemetery, just outside of consecrated ground.7

Catherine Nash has argued that in Irish tradition the landscape, like the female body, has been “transversed, journeyed across, entered into, intimately known, gazed upon.8 I would suggest that we add to this analysis words such as violated and discarded. As recent controversies over abortion and symphysiotomy demonstrate, Ireland’s treatment of the female body may not have evolved much. Perhaps it is time to follow the lead of the parish of Tynagh in the 1980s and arrange for a proper unearthing and then reburial of these issues. Recognition and reconciliation can help heal the wounds of the past and contribute to a meaningful dialogue about women’s roles in Ireland today.

Further Reading

Bourke, Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. London: Pimlico, 1999.

Delay, Cara. “‘Deposited Elsewhere’: The Sexualized Female Body and the Modern Irish Landscape.” Études Irlandaises 37.1 (2012): 71-86.

Hoff, Joan and Marian Yeates, The Cooper’s Wife is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Nash, Catherine. “Remapping and Renaming: New Cartographies of Identity, Gender and Landscape in Ireland.” Feminist Review 44 (1993): 39-57.

Smith, James M. Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Tait, Clodagh. Death, Burial and Commemoration in Ireland, 1550-1650. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.

Witoszek, Nina and Pat Sheeran. Talking to the Dead: A Study of Irish Funerary Traditions. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B.V., 1998.


  1. Connacht Tribune, November 9, 1984; Nina Witoszek and Pat Sheeran, Talking to the Dead: A Study of Irish Funerary Traditions (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B.V., 1998), 23. Return to text.
  2. Connacht Tribune, November 9, 1984. Return to text.
  3. James M. Smith, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Return to text.
  4. Entry from October 7, 1875. Bishop David Moriarty’s Diary at the Kerry Catholic Diocesan Archive, Killarney, Ireland. Return to text.
  5. Nenagh Guardian, October 13, 1875. Return to text.
  6. Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary (London: Pimlico, 1999). Return to text.
  7. Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates, The Cooper’s Wife is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 352. Return to text.
  8. Catherine Nash, “Remapping and Renaming: New Cartographies of Identity, Gender and Landscape in Ireland,” Feminist Review 44 (1993), 54. Return to text.

Cara Delay, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston, holds degrees from Boston College and Brandeis University. Her research analyzes women, gender, and culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, Britain, and the British Empire, with a particular focus on the history of reproduction, pregnancy, and childbirth. She has published in The Journal of British Studies, Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, Feminist Studies, Études Irlandaises, New Hibernia Review, and Éire-Ireland and written blogs for Nursing Clio and broadsheet.ie. Her co-edited volume Women, Reform, and Resistance in Ireland, 1850-1950, was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015, and her monograph on Irish women and the creation of modern Catholicism is forthcoming from Manchester University Press. At the College of Charleston, she teaches courses on women’s history and the history of birth and bodies.

2 thoughts on “Sex, Death, and Three Irish Women

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      Great post Cara, though there are a number of cases of male transgressors of social norms being disinterred or refused burial in Ireland in the same period – and of bodies supposedly ‘supernaturally’ rejected (eg see my article in Lyons and Kelly in Death and Dying in Ireland, Britain and Europe).

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