In a very grim way, Mamie Cadden (1891 -1959) found her way into the folklore of Dublin city. Dublin’s most infamous ‘backstreet abortionist’, her name was almost synonymous with evil in the city for a generation, and she emerges in several memoirs of Dublin in the mid-twentieth century. Edna O’Brien remembered hearing of Cadden, “to some an angel of deliverance, to others a murderer, and who would die, declared insane, in a lunatic asylum in Dundrum.”
Yet Mamie Cadden, whose story has inspired books (Ray Kavanagh’s Mamie Cadden: Backstreet Abortionist) and documentaries was just one part of a much bigger tale. In the Dublin of her time, there were many others who emerged as so-called ‘backstreet abortionists’, and across the city men and women like Cadden offered to provide terminations to women who found themselves in crisis pregnancies.
In 1941, the The Bell noted that when faced with a crisis pregnancy, “The well-off young woman confesses to her parents; she is hustled off, normally to London, Paris, Biarritz, comes back without the baby, and nobody is any the wiser.” For working class women unable to travel to Britain for terminations, Dublin provided options, but to what extend did the authorities know this was going on, and what motivated people like Cadden and others discussed in this piece?
Exporting Abortion, “An English Solution to an Irish Problem”:
In his groundbreaking history of sex and Irish society, historian Diarmaid Ferriter clearly demonstrated that there is little new about Irish women traveling to the UK for terminations, noting that:
There were no prosecutions in Ireland for illegal abortions between 1938 and 1942…but as a result of the travel restrictions imposed during the war years, there were 25 cases prosecuted in Ireland between 1942 and 1946, while after the war the number of prosecutions decreased, with only 12 cases between 1947 and 1956.
The late 1930s witnessed the beginning of moves towards the liberalisation of British abortion laws (though it was still a long journey towards the 1967 Abortion Act) and it has been argued that “the trek of pregnant women from Ireland to England to have abortions really began in the late 1930s, not the late 1960s as is usually stated“. As British abortion laws changed in subsequent decades, and travel became more affordable, more and more women availed of the option of terminations in Britain. In 1975, June Levine wrote in the Sunday Independent that:
If England closed her doors to Irish clients, Ireland would be beset with a major problem of backstreet abortion. The savage treatment of single mothers in our society is in the main the cause of the abortion trek to England.
William Henry Coleman of Merrion Square:
Were it not for Cadden, perhaps William Henry Coleman would be the most widely known of Dublin’s ‘backstreet abortionists’ historically. Certainly, plenty of column inches went on reporting on trials of Coleman in the 1940s, as his Merrion Square clinic was on the receiving end of much police attention. As Cadden’s biographer has noted, “he was very different to Mamie Cadden especially in that he had no medical qualification whatever….He was an electrician with a criminal record. In 1933 he had been convicted of arson, attempts to procure money under false pretences and a bankruptcy-related charge, and had received three years penal servitude.”
Coleman advertised his services in Dublin newspapers, offering to deal with “psychological, nervous [or] sexual troubles.” There was nothing new about cryptic newspaper advertisements for such services, advertisements like Coleman’s had been appearing in the international press since Victorian times. His services were not cheap; Tim Pat Coogan has recalled hearing of Coleman’s business operation:
I later discovered that he had run a flourishing abortion practice, charging Dublin’s better-off women IR£60 a time, a very large amount of money in those days. Other well-known abortionists of the period charged approximately half that amount, but such fees were still utterly beyond the reach of working class women who lived in a world where labouring men earned two or three pounds a week….
Coleman and others like him benefited from the travel restrictions imposed here during ‘The Emergency’, which made it difficult for women to access terminations in Britain. In April 1944, Coleman was arrested and his premises raided. When he made it to the courts the Prosecution went as far as to say that “no fouler being has ever crossed the threshold of the dock: Your Lordship has never had before you a man so consummate in his infamy, so depraved and vile in his occupation and in so many aspects of his life.” Coleman was sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude, later reduced to seven years.
Before the suppression of Coleman’s premises, an earlier police operation had closed a Parkgate Street abortion clinic, which was said to be the busiest in the city. On that occasion, a woman was sentenced for “nine counts concerning an illegal operation”, receiving ten years penal servitude. It was clear the authorities were cracking down.