Giving a voice to women who have been silenced

One woman’s investigation of the Irish uterus is the subject of an exhibition this month at the Backwater Artists on Wandesford Quay, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Giving a voice to women who have been silenced

Tina Whelan, whose project at the Crawford College of Art and Design is called ‘The Irish Uterus’

THERE are days when artist Tina Whelan, would like to mindlessly doodle or paint pretty pictures of the sea — but she has taken on a challenging project which is taking its toll.

The project is her MA at Crawford College of Art and Design entitled ‘The Irish Uterus’. It deals with “the social realities of the Irish womb from 1916 onwards”.

Its main focus is “on the impact of national ideology and Catholic ethics on Irish obstetrics” with an emphasis on the symphysiotomies that were carried out in this country from 1940 to 1990, rendering women incontinent and sometimes lame for life.

Tina’s ‘interim exhibition’ on ‘The Irish Uterus’ is on show at Studio 12 at the Backwater Artists on Wandesford Quay until December 7. Her masters degree is part thesis and part art using textiles.

“I’m looking for a material language to express pain and hurt,” she said. “I’m very interested in textile and fibre. I have silk handkerchiefs juxtaposed with ropes and keys.

“I’m using lead which is used in x-rays. Inside the lead are medical hairnets, blue with a frill around the edge. There is also religious memorabilia and medical implements.”

Tina is inviting the public to respond to her incomplete exhibition, entitled ‘Re-Dressing from the Inside Out’. She is exposing her processes. The exhibition includes a felted wool cast of the torso of Lady Elizabeth Flemyng’s cadaver (1520), the only cadaver of a female in Ireland that Tina is aware of. It’s in St Peter’s Church in Drogheda. The concave stomach of the woman suggests that women are “just seen as a vessel to carry babies”.

As we are in the decade of centenaries, Tina is looking at the Irish uterus from 1916 onwards.

“I’m critiquing the statehood and the underbelly of 1916. The Proclamation and its august intentions of cherishing the women and children of the republic equally is not what I’m finding,” said Tina.

While symphysiotomies are thought to have started being carried out in Ireland in 1940, Tina says there is some confusion and they may have been part of medical practice in the 18th century.

She also points out that they can be “a life-saving procedure when the baby’s head is engaged but stuck. Cartilage on the pelvis is cut on both sides so that baby’s head becomes unstuck.”

However, unnecessary and traumatic symphysiotomies were carried out here on 1,500 women without their knowledge, consent or understanding, says Tina.

“It was historian Jacqui Morrissey who discovered this when she was doing her doctorate on the impact of Catholic ethics on Irish obstetrics. What is clear is that the women didn’t know what was being done to them and they didn’t get after-care.

“The reason they were carried out is because it was thought that after three caesareans, a woman would have to be sterilised. But particular hospital policies and doctors did not want this. They thought a symphysiotomy would enlarge the pelvis permanently, which is not the case.”

The idea was that women could continue to procreate and have vaginal births. In some cases, symphysiotomies were carried out long before labour started.

While a redress scheme has been set up, Tina said: “The government still won’t give out rates of symphysiotomies or the doctors and hospitals that carried them out. The State is hiding behind closed doors. In the vast majority of cases, survivors of symphysiotomy are women in their eighties and nineties who are being asked to come up with their medical records from fifty years ago. They have told their doctors that sex was excruciating for them, they became incontinent, they couldn’t ride bikes and they became lame. Basically, they gave birth through broken bones.”

Asked if she feels angry about the subject matter she’s working on, Tina replies that she never set out to have a rant.

“What I’m doing is not coming from a place of anger and it’s not wishing to re-stimulate distress. I’m coming from a place of investigation, saying ‘Let’s look at this and not hide it anymore’. I’m looking to physically give meaning to it.

“Academically, I’m looking at epigenetics and family constellations which means we carry trauma from one generation to the next. How we treated women and pregnancy affects our cultural psyche. Hurt and trauma is inherited. I’m giving material voice to women that have been silenced by the State.”

Tina says the seeds of her work were sown some years ago. Her late brother, Dr Diarmuid Whelan, who lectured in history at UCC, came across Peter Tyrell’s letters to Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington when he had access to the national archives for his doctorate on Conor Cruise O’Brien. Peter Tyrell, born in 1916, was brought up in Letterfrack Industrial School which was a devastating experience. Traumatised for life, he wrote to Senator Sheehy-Skeffington about the abuse and beatings he suffered at the institution. In his last letter before he set fire to himself on Hampstead Heath in London and died, he wrote that Ireland sought home rule but what it got was Rome rule, which was crippling. Diarmuid published Peter’s letters in a book entitled, Founded on Fear.

“It’s something I’m looking at as well. I did a piece of work on it which I took to China. I was very struck (by Peter Tyrell’s story),” says Tina.

She will finish her thesis next year and the plan is to have a full exhibition around it. On Friday at noon, there will be a discussion open to the public between Tina and Professor Linda Connolly at the Backwater Artists’ Studios.

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