Bridget English
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Ciara Breathnach

Oxford University Press, 2022. 290 pages.

ISBN: 9780198865780

Historical narratives about death often focus on the extraordinary or the exceptional: tales of self-sacrifice, heroic war deaths, brutal murders, or historic catastrophes. It is the quiet deaths – by accident, disease, drowning, or asphyxia – of ordinary people that are often written out of these grand meta-narratives, rendering the lives of the poor, women, and children invisible or irrelevant. Ciara Breathnach’s brilliant new book, Ordinary Lives, Death, & Social Class, places the deaths of everyday people at the centre of the story, using coroners’ inquests and eyewitness testimonies to unearth these largely forgotten narratives. Employing original quantitative research data from coroners’ inquests and the 1901 census to interrogate the workings of biopower in Ireland during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, Breathnach makes a hugely significant contribution to historical scholarship on gender, class, death, and the law during this period.

As Breathnach reminds readers early in the book, the protocols surrounding the discovery of a body in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries in Ireland were much like they are today: the police were notified, they carried out a preliminary investigation and generated a report that was sent to the coroner. After deciding whether an inquest was necessary, the coroner assembled a jury of “no fewer than twelve and up to twenty-three local men from 1881-1926, and according to section 22 of the 1846 act they were to be residents and rate-payers of over £4. By these decrees jurors were ordinarily of a higher social standing than the subjects of the Dublin City coroner’s court” (5). One of the key arguments of Ordinary Lives hinges on this very point, which indicates how wealthier and more prominent Dubliners were often left to determine the fates of those less fortunate. Nevertheless, despite this seeming lack of agency, Breathnach emphasizes that the coroner court records do “contain clear voices of the poor, even if their experiences are mediated through the DMP and the court clerk”, raising “fundamental textual and contextual problems: where, how, and can we locate coronial court records in terms of agency of the poor and authenticity of voices” (7). These questions animate this study and open new ways of examining historical documents by utilizing official documents to uncover narratives of the underprivileged. As the introduction makes clear, power and gender are the central analytical frameworks for this book, and Breathnach is careful to reference gender theorists like Judith Butler to highlight the instability of these categories and to point to the ways that men and women experienced city life differently.

The first chapter of Ordinary Lives situates readers in the socio-economic contexts of coroners’ cases. The remaining three chapters are divided into causes and location of death: sudden and accidental deaths in domestic settings; deaths in public and workplace settings; and unnatural, suspicious, and violent deaths. This organizational pattern provides not only categories for comprehending likely causes of death in Dublin during this period, but also allows for a wider picture of how the lives of women, children, and the elderly were impacted in these contexts. In chapter two, for instance, Breathnach explains how “for older people, fear of death in the workhouse and the social stigma of the pauper burial was very real. Engagement with the Poor Law for impoverished parents was always a calculated risk that brought child custody into the equation” (88). Primary causes of death in the domestic setting included tuberculosis, cardiac problems, and pulmonary diseases, and many of these deaths were caused by either neglect of personal health or lack of awareness of underlying health conditions. Accidental deaths included those from fires and falls from windows and stairs and other hazards of cramped living spaces, situations that significantly impacted the lives of small children who frequently died from burning and scalding in tenements.

The outside world posed different kinds of risks to Dubliners living in the rapidly modernizing city. Chapter three details some of these outdoor threats, including road traffic and transport accidents, drownings, and workplace accidents. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is the “accidental deaths in waterways” section which describes the topography of Dublin, divided by the Liffey into North and South, and its watery perimeters marked by the Royal and Grand Canals. Breathnach points out that “swimming clubs were the preserve of the middle and upper classes. Lifesaving skills were more common to the elite in Ireland” (155). Without these skills, working-class Dubliners were more vulnerable to drownings, especially in the summer months when bathing became alluring, even for weak swimmers. Additionally, drunken night swims were popular and perilous, and the treacherous waters of the Irish Sea continually posed a significant threat, as did walking on unkempt canal banks. Workplace deaths were particularly devastating, and this chapter details a particularly gruesome incident that occurred in the Guinness Brewery on Easter Monday 1902, in which three men were crushed by a concrete floor. Taken together, these stories, and others involving railways, are not simply titillating narratives for morbidly curious readers but highlight the lack of public safety measures in Dublin during this period and the workplaces and public spaces in need of reform.

The concluding chapter, on unnatural, suspicious, and violent deaths, will be one of the most engrossing chapters for many readers, given public interest in criminality. However, this chapter is even more unsettling for its descriptions of infanticide and suicide. Breathnach expertly navigates the blurred lines between criminals and those who were subject to unjust rulings based on eyewitness testimony rather than evidence. The chapter is thus divided into two sections: the opening section focuses on infanticide and the critical role the coroner’s court played in these cases; and the second examines suicides, which during this period fell under the legal category of “foul play” or yielded verdicts of “temporary insanity”. While murder was a capital offence under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Breathnach notes that the state rarely brought murder charges. Further, Breathnach reminds us that “with great frequency, light sentences were handed down in cases of gender-based violence giving a distinct impression that the victims’ lives did not matter as much as the perpetrator’s reputation or the potential pecuniary impact on dependant family were they punished more fully” (179). Despite these injustices, there was no public outcry following most of the deaths covered in the chapter, a fact that highlights one of the central aims of this book, which is to expose past injustices.

The deaths detailed here include infanticide, malnutrition, starvation, drowning, murder, and suicide, which posed significant challenges to the coroner. Breathnach clarifies that “suicide in the nineteenth century occupied a legal grey area – the existing legislation had ramifications for both the burial rites and the property of the deceased. Unlike infanticide, which was specifically nominated in a series of acts and, in particular for our purposes, as a misdemeanour in the Offenses Against the Persons Act 1861, the statues pertaining to suicide and attempted suicide did so indirectly” (193). Despite this fact and the ambiguity surrounding suicide in Irish homicide law, the act could still cause a range of issues regarding “posthumous handling of the corpse”, burial, and the estate of the deceased. The differences between Irish and English law become particularly pronounced here, as a combination of canon and common law characterized the Irish legal approach to suicide. As Breathnach notes, “Suicides had legacy impacts for families who had to bear the perceived stigmata of mental health problems in the lineage” (199). The fact that the Catholic church forbade the burial of suicide victims on consecrated ground further complicated matters as coroners’ reports listed “temporary insanity” or “actions whole of unsound mind” to shield surviving relatives from the shame associated with suicide and allow for proper burial. Overall, this chapter foregrounds the intriguing ways that vernacular and formal justice systems co-existed during this period as well as how implementation of the law was highly localized.

Ordinary Lives is a remarkable book that examines the medico-legal system of Dublin city coroners’ inquests through the frameworks of blame, gender, and power. What Breathnach’s skilful analysis exposes is not only the history of the Dublin City coroner’s court, but also the marginalized lives that often evaded the surveillance of biopower. The methods and ethical approach to the subject demonstrate exemplary historical scholarship, but this study will also appeal to literary and cultural studies scholars because of its finely grained attention to Dublin life and attention to biopower. By writing these forgotten stories back into the historical narrative of Dublin, Ordinary Lives invests the quotidian deaths of this period with meaning and value.