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“Knackers” and “baby-murderers”: two social censures in contemporary Irish society

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Social censures always appear in the form of the vernacular, are emotive, and evoke knee-jerk reactions.  The application of the derogatory slang term knacker to Irish Travellers, an indigenous nomadic minority ethnic group, is thought to derive from the association that horses have with Traveller culture.  Originally the word knacker was used to describe a person who worked at the “knacker’s yard” where old horses were brought (to be disposed of) when they were no longer useful as working animals.  When the term knacker is used today it is not describing any particular behaviour but is referring to what Travellers represent to settled Irish people – unruly, passionate/irrational, immoral, dangerous “others”.

Meanwhile the Irish social censure of abortion appears to be an expression of cultural disapproval regarding the termination of foetuses in utero which designates women as the focus of blame.  Furthermore this censure is clearly “irredeemably suffused” with patriarchal Catholic ideology, its moral judgements concerning pleasure, desire and sexuality, and especially its condemnation of pregnancy outside marriage, which reflects its political agenda to control Irish society.  This article will examine the social censure of Irish Travellers and the Irish social censure of abortion, in each case outlining how these social censures relate to Irish history and social structure.

Social censure theory

'No particular behaviour or personality can be shown to be universally deviant or criminal…censures of crime and deviance are irredeemably suffused with ideology...[and] are highly acculturated terms of moral and political judgement' (Sumner 1990: 22, 26).

Developed by Colin Sumner (1990), social censure theory acknowledges that while it is vital to analyse criminal and deviant behaviour from a critical perspective in order to expose the political nature of these categories, more importantly crime and deviance must fundamentally be re-conceptualised as being social censures, and must be studied as such.  Thus the theory emphasises that crime and deviance are actually censorious categories which express cultural disapproval or which act as signs of blame.  Furthermore these negative categories are moral and political judgements, grounded in dominant ideologies, and deeply-rooted within specific historical contexts (Sumner 1990; 2001).  The dominant social censures of a society are usually reflected in its criminal law e.g. in modern societies where murder is a social censure, homicide is illegal and punishable under law.  Since social censures exist with the function of reinforcing dominant ideologies (i.e. the ideologies of the ruling groups in society), they can be considered as tools for social control.

Social censures can also be understood in terms of Michel Foucault's “analytics of power”.  Foucault highlighted that power works subtly through “capillaries” within the “political anatomy”, extending into ‘the very grain of individuals…right into their bodies…[permeating] their gestures, their posture, what they say, how they learn to live and work with other people’ (Foucault 1977 in Sheridan 1997: 217).  Thus, via the “capillaries of power”, social censures, ‘mark off the deviant, the pathological, the dangerous and the criminal from the normal and the good’ (Sumner 1990: 27).  In light of these relations and effects of power, social censure reveals how society polices itself.

(Neo)racism towards Travellers: a devastating combination of “settled” Irish ethnocentric prejudice and the legacy of colonialism

Throughout settled Irish society, the social censure of Travellers is apparent in that they are variously stereotyped as being criminal, violent, prone to drunkenness, lazy, or dirty.  Binary divisions which have developed between settled Irish society and Traveller society are evident in the common practice of publicans refusing to serve alcohol in their pubs to Travellers.  This discriminatory practice reflects the binary, prejudiced belief that when Irish people drink they have the craic, but when Travellers drink they fight. As is common with the creation of “moral panics” (Cohen 1980) concerning “deviant” or censured groups in societies, the Irish media plays a significant role in the perpetuation of this stereotyping.  Essentially, Travellers are constructed as being inferior “others” due to ‘undesirable cultural differences’, such as, ‘itinerancy, trailer-living, particular occupations, and poverty’ (Helleiner 2000: 8).

Irish Travellers at roadside campfire (June 1963) by Richard Tilbrook

Compared with their settled peers, Irish Travellers have markedly poorer health, lower life expectancy, higher levels of unemployment and lower levels of education (Central Statistics Office 2012).  Clearly members of this censured group are almost exclusively located at the bottom of the social structure in contemporary Irish society. 

The censure of Irish Traveller culture may have its roots in that the existence of a minority Irish ethnic group threatens the ideology of Irish nationalism and its’ political agenda, which arose during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Irish Travellers at roadside campfire (June 1963) by Richard Tilbrook. Image Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland 

Despite the fact that Travellers are routinely identified in Irish society as a distinct ethnic and cultural minority group (and routinely discriminated against as a result), since the foundation of the state, official formal recognition of their ethnicity has been consistently denied, in utter contempt of calls to the contrary by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  Helleiner (2000) and Lentin (2004) both argue that this ethnicity denial has been facilitated by an Irish nationalist myth which claims that the Irish population has traditionally been a homogeneous group, albeit until relatively recently.  As Sumner asserts, ‘the ideological character of censures is nowhere clearer than in the history of colonialism’ (1990: 33).  How could an Irish nation of “cosy homesteads” and “happy maidens” be established without the existence of a homogeneous Irish population to validate such a project?

While there is much evidence to suggest that Travellers are descended from a pre-colonial nomadic Irish group, Irish nationalist ideological discourse on Travellers’ origins is that they are descendants of settled Irish peasants who were, ‘forced into landlessness and mobility by the evictions and famines suffered by the Irish during the centuries of British domination’ (Helleiner 2000: 30).  As such, they are seen merely as casualties of poverty who, over time, morally transgressed.  In essence, Travellers are dehumanised through the application of this social censure, this, ‘cultural package of blame’ (Sumner 2001: 266).  

Repression, oppression and misogyny in Ireland: the trouble with the patriarchal dogmatism of the Catholic church

Another censure that arises from certain dominant Irish ideologies, both historically and contemporaneously, is that of abortion.  Indeed, while the censure of female sexuality in Ireland is evident through various slang terms such as maggie (a woman who worked in a Magdalene laundry), as well as more universal ones such as slut, slapper or whore, abortion itself is so censured in Irish society, it is such a taboo, that it has traditionally been referred to only in euphemistic terms e.g. “she was in trouble and she took the boat to England”.  Rarely is the highly socially censorious term “baby-murderer” used overtly.

Misogynistic gender binaries abound in contemporary Irish society and this was made particularly apparent during the debates surrounding the enactment of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013.  Pro-life moral and political advocates opposing this act portrayed all women as immoral liars who would, en masse, feign suicidal ideation in order to have legal terminations of their pregnancies.  Despite the fact that many thousands of Irish women travel abroad each year to terminate their pregnancies – in 2011, 4,149 Irish women travelled to Britain to have abortions (Ring and Ryan 2012) – abortion is still illegal in Ireland, except where there is a risk of loss of life, including suicide.  These contingent terms were only added to law in 2013 and largely in response to public outrage over the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died in October 2012 after having been refused the life-saving abortion she needed on the grounds that Ireland is “a Catholic country”.

Inglis (1998b) explains that in the years after the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s/50s the Roman Catholic Church developed a “moral monopoly” in Ireland.  Irish population growth needed to be controlled during this time and the Church satisfied this need through its moral regulation of all desires and pleasure, especially those concerning sexuality (Inglis 1998a).  Catholic ideology and its censures of desire and pleasure persisted in Ireland via “capillaries of power” that extended from Rome to the archbishop to the local pulpit, the community and the family – ‘children were expected to internalise these virtues [of modesty and chastity] to the extent that they became part of their automatic behaviour, a central element of their demeanour and outlook on life’ (Inglis 1998a: 170).

Smyth (2005) writes that until a referendum in 1972, the Church’s “special position” as a moral authority in the Irish nation-state was recognised in Article 44 of the Irish Constitution and was thus reflected in Irish social policy – education, health and social services were all extremely influenced by the moral and political dimensions of Catholic ideology.  For example, until 1980 contraception was not legally available in Ireland without a prescription.  Pregnancy outside the context of marriage was particularly censured, with single mothers labelled as “fallen women” and “grave sinners”.

A print consisting of multiple layers of symbolic meaning and significance.  Estimated to date from the late 1800s/early 1900s.  Source unknown.

Irish solutions developed to this Irish problem – some women with sufficient economic and/or social capital (usually located higher up the social structure) travelled to Britain to have abortions.  However, many other women (mostly located lower down the social structure) delivered their babies “out of sight” and frequently within religiously-run institutions such as Magdalene laundries.  Often their babies were either adopted – including being exported for adoption – or spent their childhoods in various other religiously-run institutions.  In other cases infanticide occurred, as was the case with the Kerry babies scandal of 1984.

A print consisting of multiple layers of symbolic meaning and significance.  Estimated to date from the late 1800s/early 1900s.  Source unknown.

Although not at all surprising, it is still worth highlighting that in regard to abortion in Ireland, men’s behaviour has gone almost entirely un-censured, even though men play a crucial role in women becoming pregnant in the first place!

Why it is essential that “crime” and “deviance” are conceived of and studied as socially censorious categories of cultural disapproval and blame

In exploring here what are falsely believed to be the “deviance” of Travellers and the “crime” of abortion, this article supports the tenet of social censure theory – that censures of crime and deviance are, in actuality, negative categories of moral and political judgement informed by ideology.  As such, social censures are used as a means of social control by making it clear to all members of society that which is “good” and that which is “bad”, as well as intimating and assigning corresponding “appropriate” cultural responses.  Therefore, compared with concepts of crime and deviance, which are always in danger of becoming reified as “scientific” descriptive categories, social censure theory offers a far more accurate means of describing, as well as investigating, that which is, ‘truly immoral, useless, dangerous, anti-social and inadequate’ (Sumner 1990: 16 [emphasis added]).


Central Statistics Office (2012).  Profile 7: Religion, Ethnicity and Irish Travellers.  Dublin: Stationery Office.

Cohen, S. (1980).  Folk Devils and Moral Panics: the Creation of the Mods and Rockers.  Oxford: Martin Robinson.

Helleiner, J. (2000).  Irish Travellers: Racism and the Politics of Culture.  London: University of Toronto Press

Inglis, T. (1998a).  Lessons in Irish Sexuality.  Dublin: UCD Press.

Inglis, T. (1998b).  Moral Monopoly.  Dublin: UCD Press.

Lentin, A. (2004).  Racism and Anti-Racism in Europe.  London: Pluto Press.

Ring, E., and Ryan, C. (2012).  “Number travelling for abortion lowest since 1991”, Irish Examiner, 30th May 2012, [online], available at: [accessed 29th May 2014]

Sheridan, A. (1997).  Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth.  London: Routledge.

Smyth, L. (2005).  Abortion and Nation.  Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

Sumner, C. (2001). ‘Social Censure’.  In: McLaughlin, E., and Muncie, J. (eds.).  The Sage Dictionary of Criminology.  London: Sage Publications.

Sumner, C. (ed.), (1990).  Censure, Politics and Criminal Justice.  Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Naomi Dowds is a second-year undergraduate in Sociology at University College Cork, Ireland. 

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