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Thursday 2 October 2014

Churching, labour and deliveries

Published 13/10/2012 | 05:00

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Ireland's midwives had their work cut out, with fraught home births and religious oddities, says Anita Guidera

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Incredible as it may seem now, until the 1960s, many women who gave birth could only return to the church after they received a blessing from a priest. This 'churching' took place five or six weeks after the birth, purportedly so that the "sin of childbirth" could be washed away.

Retired midwife Mary Higgins from Cork recalled accompanying her mother to be churched after the birth of her brother in 1957.

"The whole thing was about childbirth being considered as unclean.

"After that you could go back to attending Mass. It meant that the baby was always christened in the absence of the mother," she said.

Happily now consigned to the past, 'churching' is just one chapter in the long history of childbirth in Ireland through the ages.

Like so many life events in bygone times, pregnancy and childbirth were shrouded in tradition and superstition.

It was said that a pregnant woman had to avoid meeting a hare to prevent the child being born with a 'hare lip'. Twisting her foot in a graveyard would result in the child being born with a club foot.

Remaining in a house with a corpse was also considered a taboo for a pregnant woman.

A child born at night was thought to have the power to see ghosts and fairies. Being born after its father died ensured the child had special powers.

A Sunday birth was considered unlucky, with the child destined to be a killer or be killed, but a crushed worm on the baby's hand shortly after birth ensured it would not kill.

Home births were still commonplace in the early half of the past century.

The late, famous, community midwife, Kate Duggan from west Cork, delivered her niece at home in Ballydehob in 1912.

In the documentary 'Natural Traditions', Mary Hurley, the daughter of that baby, described how the midwife had already delivered a baby on an island off west Cork earlier that evening and had to be brought back when her grandmother went into labour.

'Natural Traditions' charts the changing role of the midwife in Ireland from independent, community-based midwives in the early years of the State to hospital-based ones from the 1950s onwards.

Islanders would alert Kate Duggan by lighting that would be visible from the mainland, and a local boatman would transport her to the island.

It is estimated that Kate delivered 1,000 babies in the west Cork area during the first half of the 20th Century. She was still practising when she was 70 years old.

Another west Cork midwife, Nell Levis, told the filmmakers how they used to knock a horse's whip against the window to alert her that a woman was in labour.

Traditionally, midwives in the region would lay out a white cloth to soak in the dew on the eve of St Brigid, who had been a midwife and healer.

On St Brigid's feast day, the cloth would be blessed and used to weigh the babies.

If it was a long labour, the white cloth would be wrapped, cocoon like, around the mother.

But home deliveries in remote areas were fraught with danger when complications arose. Infant and maternal mortality rates were high.

In the 1930s, four women per 1,000 were dying in childbirth. By 1944, 79 per 1,000 babies died at birth in Ireland, dropping to 30 per 1,000 by 1961.

The Central Midwives Board, which had been established in 1918 to formalise community midwifery and offer training and registration for those already in the field, put an end to the practice of midwives also being involved in the preparation of corpses because of the risk of infection transfer.

In the 1950s, midwives working in the community were called back into hospitals and the tradition of community midwives died out.

Mary Higgins, who worked as a hospital midwife in Cork city, believes passionately in the special role of the midwife but she pointed out that a threat in the 1950s that the position of midwife would be replaced by that of maternity nurse had been narrowly averted.

"I have always been adamant I was a midwife, not a nurse.

"Things have changed a lot down through the years. We have achieved an awful lot but we have lost other things.

"Women today are more fearful about labour instead of seeing it as an empowering thing.

"Nowadays, home births will probably always be for a minority but there is a real argument for the development of midwife-led maternity units like there is in Drogheda and Cavan.

"The women who attend these units can have all their midwifery care in the one place -- a more homelike atmosphere."

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