Historical essay
Murder and Motherhood in 1950s Ireland: The Trial of Abortionist Mamie Cadden

Murder and Motherhood in 1950s Ireland: The Trial of Abortionist Mamie Cadden

On the evening of April 17, 1956, thirty-three-year-old Helen O. visited nurse Mamie Cadden at 17 Hume Street, Dublin, for what she likely thought would be a routine, if illegal, abortion.1 Helen O.’s death after the attempted abortion provoked a national controversy that complicated dominant constructions of motherhood and domesticity in mid-twentieth-century Ireland. In the decades after independence (1922), a new Irish state, supported by the powerful Irish Catholic Church, defined women as mothers, asserted that motherhood was women’s only valuable role, and glorified domesticity.

The 1956 murder trial of Mamie Cadden for the death of Helen O. became a national spectacle because it exposed how women’s actions contradicted this rhetoric. It brought to light the ways in which some women, both those who sought out and those who provided backstreet abortions, seemingly rejected motherhood — and thus Irishness itself. The Helen O. case also underscored the dangers that some women — notably unmarried, financially independent women like Cadden — posed to the moral order and thus to Irish national values.

Cadden grew up in County Mayo, migrating to Dublin in the 1920s to pursue studies in midwifery. Her career as a nurse-midwife did not go smoothly; she was in and out of court and jail, charged with infant abandonment and abortion, for an almost twenty-year period from the 1930s to the 1950s. Her first encounter with the law occurred in 1939. According to court records and newspaper accounts, Cadden falsely informed a pregnant client that she would be able to place the woman’s infant up for adoption. After accepting £50 for this service, Mamie Cadden and her assistant allegedly abandoned the baby on a road leading out of the city.2

Screen shot of a newspaper article from 1956 on the Cadden trial. The headline reads "Miss Cadden tells landlord: 'You lie'"
Excerpt from digitized Irish Press article on the Mamie Cadden trial. (©Irish News Archive)

After losing her midwifery license and spending a year in prison for child abandonment, Cadden resurfaced in Dublin in 1940. There she built a thriving health-care business based on everything from treating dandruff and constipation to performing backstreet abortions. In 1944, Cadden even publicized her services in the Dublin Evening Mail. Under the “Personal” section, she advertised the following: “‘Nurse’ Cadden, 21 Pembroke St. (Upr.) – Male, Female Ailments Treated; Hand Massage, Enemas, etc.”3 While the short ad does not explicitly mention illegal abortion, it uses coded language. The phrase “female ailments,” for example, may have signified pregnancy to some women, and treating “female ailments” may have been a code for giving abortions.

Cadden appeared before the courts again in 1945. In this case, police apprehended Cadden when her client, an unmarried domestic servant, ended up in the Holles Street maternity hospital with post-abortion sepsis. Found guilty, Cadden received a prison sentence of five years for providing an abortion.4

Less than a year after Cadden’s 1950 release from prison, a woman allegedly died after an abortion at Cadden’s home. While police could not find enough evidence to charge her in this case, the death of Helen O. five years later gave them another opportunity to prosecute. This time the evidence held up: Helen O.’s body was found outside Cadden’s home, and police found abortion instruments — as well as Helen O.’s name in a receipt book — in Cadden’s residence. Cadden was convicted again, this time of murder, and sentenced to death. This sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but authorities ultimately placed Cadden, who was notoriously irreverent, outspoken, and even erratic, in an insane asylum, where she died a few years later of a heart attack.

Mamie Cadden’s transgressions in 1950s Ireland went beyond her attempts to give women abortions. In an age that celebrated marriage and motherhood as Irish women’s sacred roles, she was single and apparently never interested in becoming a wife or mother. Moreover, Cadden flaunted not only her single status but also the prosperity and independence that came with it. During Cadden’s murder trial, prosecutors for the state admitted into evidence a list of hundreds of items found in Cadden’s home, which doubled as her office. The perhaps-expected medical items — two duckbilled speculums, 3 Higginson syringes, and a flushing curette — were exhibited alongside the personal possessions of a woman in Cadden’s relatively well-off position — fox furs, five combs, and a pair of earrings. During Cadden’s trial, these items were displayed in the courtroom on a “long canvas-covered table” for all to see.5 In court, Cadden allegedly showed off by wearing a fur coat, and she was known around Dublin for driving a flashy red sports car. Moreover, a reporter for the Irish Independent described a group of women who supported Cadden throughout her 1956 trial as “a number of well-dressed young women.”6

Cadden’s trial and the press coverage of it highlighted the material items that reflected her relatively well-off social and economic status as an unmarried, professional woman and suggested that her supporters — other well-dressed women — were of a similar status. This was an age in which state and Church leaders defined modernity and women’s changing roles as dangerous and urged Irish women to be modest in all circumstances. Modern fashions, for example, were associated with foreignness and thus stood in opposition to native Irish womanhood. Dialogues about women’s fashion reinforced the regulation of the female body, affirming that women’s bodies — the way that they were displayed and contained, and the way that women managed them — were integral to a modern Irish Catholic respectability.7

Mamie Cadden and her case remain well-known in Irish criminal history, and her controversial activities are the stuff of pop culture legend. Representations of Cadden decades after her death persisted in revealing a fascination with her looks and body. In the only biography of Cadden, for example, politician Ray Kavanagh discusses her “mass of dyed blonde hair.” David Kiely, in his book on Irish female killers, entitles his chapter on Cadden “The Blonde Midwife from Hell.”8

Sketch of the Dundrum asylum, an imposing three story building with two wings.
The Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Dundrum, where Mamie Cadden died after her death sentence was commuted and she was committed as “insane.” (Wellcome Collection)

While commentators have categorized Mamie Cadden as either one-dimensionally villainous or heroic, her life was, of course, more complex. Cadden’s motivations for her alleged crimes certainly were financial: as Diarmaid Ferriter writes, there was a lot of money to be made in “backstreet” abortion, and Cadden likely did not help women out of the goodness of her heart.9 Still, the fact that women continued to seek out her services across decades also points to the realities of reproductive life for women in a state that may have glorified motherhood but did little to support women as mothers, particularly those whose pregnancies did not conform to the norms of the time. Cases like Cadden’s provide evidence that Irish women did their best to manage unwanted pregnancies in difficult circumstances, even as they expose the profit-seeking entrepreneurial businesses of backstreet practitioners, both women and men.

As Emma Jones argues for the English context, “popular histories have leaned towards sensationalist accounts of individual abortionists.”10 Sensationalist depictions of Mamie Cadden, both in the 1950s and more recently, as a criminal, a villain, or even a plucky feminist hero, should not distract us from engaging in serious research about Ireland’s history of abortion.

Mamie Cadden’s interactions with the law and her image in the popular press provide a window into debates about motherhood and women’s roles during pivotal years of the nascent Irish Republic. In the wake of last year’s referendum, in which the Irish people, by popular vote, repealed anti-abortion legislation and finally paved the way for legal, medicalized abortion, it is time for these historical abortion narratives in Ireland to come to light.

Further Reading

Elaine Farrell, “A Most Diabolical Deed”: Infanticide and Irish Society, 1850-1900 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

Cliona Rattigan, “What Else Could I Do?”: Single Mothers and Infanticide, Ireland 1900-1950 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2012).


  1. Mary Anne Cadden death sentence file, 1956, Department of the Taoiseach file S16116, National Archives of Ireland, Dublin. Return to text.
  2. Letter from M.J. Wymes, Superintendent of Garda, Court of Criminal Appeal, Cadden case 36/56, National Archives of Ireland. Return to text.
  3. Dublin Evening Mail, Friday, April 28, 1944. Return to text.
  4. Letter from M.J. Wymes, Superintendent of Garda, Court of Criminal Appeal, Cadden case 36/56, National Archives of Ireland. Return to text.
  5. Irish Times, June 12, 1956. Return to text.
  6. Irish Independent, July 26, 1938. Return to text.
  7. See Cara Delay, Irish Women and the Creation of Modern Catholicism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), chapter one. Return to text.
  8. Ray Kavanagh, Mamie Cadden: Backstreet Abortionist (Cork: Mercier Press, 2005), 12; David M. Kiely, Bloody Women: Ireland’s Female Killers (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1999), 200. Return to text.
  9. Diarmaid Ferriter, Occasions of Sin: Sex & Society in Modern Ireland (London: Profile Books, 2009), 255-257. Return to text.
  10. Emma L. Jones, “Representations of Illegal Abortionists in England, 1900-1967,” in The Female Body in Medicine and Literature, ed. Andrew Mangham and Greta Depledge (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), 196. 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.