Ireland’s criminal conversations
Criminal conversation, the legal action whereby a husband could bring a case for monetary damages against a man his wife had committed adultery with was more widely discussed in Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s than at any other time in its three-century history. Popularly known as crim. con., this process was based on trespass and, as women were legally seen as the property of their husbands, was only available to men. Indeed, it was only from the 1890s that a woman could give evidence in such cases. Damages awarded in crim. con. trials highlight that not all wives were considered of equal value. Damages awarded in Irish cases vary from a farthing to £20,000, the amount depending on the alleged purity of the woman, her station in life and what her alleged infidelity denied her spouse. Crim. con. hearings attracted considerable attention and proceedings were often subsequently published, serving both to titillate readers with tales of sexual misdemeanours and as a moral warning to those who might stray from the marital bond. Within the UK the practice existed in England, which included Wales in its jurisdiction, and in Ireland, but the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 moved English divorce hearings from parliament to court and ended the crim. con. action although its spirit lingered in the damages which could be claimed from a co-respondent in court until 1970. Crim. con. was only abolished in the Republic of Ireland in 1981 and far from being a defunct legal action, cases continued to be brought in the twentieth century. The largely forgotten campaign for its reform was headed by an amalgam of second-wave feminists. This paper explores why this action existed for so long in Ireland’s history and the symbolic significance of its reform in an era where family law was very much to the fore.
Diane Urquhart is Professor of Gender History in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics (HAPP) of Queen’s University Belfast and President of the Women’s History Association of Ireland (WHAI) . The former chair of modern history in the Institute of Irish Studies of the University of Liverpool, Diane is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She has published extensively on Irish women’s history, gender and politics including Irish Divorce: A history (2020), The Ladies of Londonderry: women and political patronage (2008), Women in Ulster Politics, 1890-1940 (2000), five edited/co-edited international collections as well as the co-authored Irish Abortion Journey, 1920-2018 with Lindsey Earner-Byrne (2019). Diane is currently working on the first full-length history of the criminal conversation legal suit.