An Bhean Ghlúine

ebook ‘Woman of the Knee’, Midwife, Handywoman

Emma Laffey


My name is Emma Laffey and I am a volunteer for the Skehana & District Heritage Group since 2016. Working in a maternity department in one of Ireland’s Saolta University Hospitals, I see at first hand the work, compassion, empathy and medical intervention required for our modern maternity services to keep both mother and baby safe and well. There is also a pioneering home birth service that, eventually, will be available to pregnant women through our midwife clinic and this put me in mind of home births that were once an only option to women.

In this e-book you will be introduced to the amazing work and lives of our local community midwives also referred to as ‘handy women’ or ‘bean ghlúine’, during the 19th and 20th centuries through photographs, stories and podcasts. They had limited resources at their disposal as they faced pregnancy, delivery and, unfortunately, death during their working life. They supported our local women through one of the biggest life-changing events befalling to any woman from being pregnant to giving birth. Although a birth is generally a very happy occasion, it can also be tainted by poverty, sickness, miscarriage, mental health issues, life-changing disabilities and even death.

Upon entering the homes of birthing women, many midwives who practised during the 1900s faced really hard and desperate situations. There was a lot of poverty and lack of education so the local midwife not only provided a kind and sympathetic face but also engendered a feeling of safety and reassurance to the mothers-to-be when they didn’t know what was about to happen themselves or what complications might occur. The midwife’s only support was the local General Practitioner and, to quote midwife Bina Kelly from Kilconnell:

You went into the home of the patient and you would see the mother in the bed and all of her other little children looking at her from the bottom of the bed and I hoped and prayed to God they would have their mother at the end of this.

Mrs Kathleen Ward, a member of the travelling community, granted me permission to do a podcast with her in which she chats about her detailed experiences of childbirth, the superstitious customs surrounding pregnancy and birth, their traditional values surrounding miscarriage and death and their deep faith in God expressed through religion and prayer, all of which gave women the strength to endure the safe delivery of their babies in the travellers’ camps, often alone.

I am grateful to every person who has submitted valuable family information to help create this e-book and help our readers get a greater understanding of the marvellous women featuring in it. It is wonderful to be able to have the book online so it is easily accessible to everyone, both nationally and internationally.

As this publication has been funded by The Heritage Council, I owe tremendous thanks to them for their support, also to Galway County Heritage Officer Marie Mannion for her valued advice and direction, to my colleagues within the Skehana & District Heritage Group for helping to get this whole project off the ground, to Michael Heffernan GKMedia for the graphic design and to Hassan Dabbagh from Irish Community Archive Network for his support with our heritage website.

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This page was added on 26/07/2022.

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