In November 1972, as the editor of the Irish women's magazine Woman's Choice, with a weekly circulation of some 55,000 copies, I published a guide to family planning. It was the first readily available of its kind in the country detailing the various forms of contraception and was compiled in association with the Family Planning Clinic in Dublin with full medical approval. It was published in contravention of existing laws at the time forbidding the distribution and dissemination of such information.
A summons was later issued against the magazine under the Obscene Publications Act but nothing came of that in the ensuing publicity the guide generated.
The issue sold out and there were constant demands for more copies. The popular broadcaster Liam Nolan, the so-called "king" of Irish morning radio at the time and not known for liberal views, questioned me on his programme about my "right" to print such information.
It was published on foot of a survey conducted in the magazine on the contraception issue, then a hotly debated subject in Ireland.
We received over 600 completed questionnaire forms, whose findings were broken down into four categories, and the conclusion was unanimously in favour of a change in legislation.
It had become clear through our problem pages that women were desperately in need of advice. Our "agony aunt", writing under the nom de plume Sheila Collins (who also contributed to a pop magazine called New Spotlight), dealt with around 20 letters a week, more than a thousand a year, some of which were published, but most received private replies.
Those who wrote were mostly married and more than half made either direct or indirect appeals for advice on family planning. At the time there were growing numbers of queries about male and female sterilisation and abortion – requests for names of people and places to go to in England. Many were looking for a doctor other than their own GP or for a sympathetic priest "to whom they can talk so as to remain practising Catholics while using 'forbidden' contraceptives", according to Collins. In five years of this advice column, she established a network of sympathetic doctors all over the country who would write prescriptions for contraceptives and more importantly, sympathetic pharmacists who would dispense them.
The letters often outlined the very real tragedies in everyday Irish life – spelling out the misery of marriage to an alcoholic, to a wife-beater, sex maniac, gambler or penny-pincher. “And there were and are and always will be the letters and letters from pregnant single girls looking for a home to go to, for an abortion or somewhere in England – with nobody else to ask but me”.
There was also the problem, Collins recounted, of “the straitjacketed consciences of so many Irish doctors, those men and women whose scruples prevented them from helping those patients whose simple demand was for birth control”.
Afraid to ask their doctors to help; one, a mother of eight babies delivered by the same doctor, wrote in despair because she couldn’t ask him about family planning.
One response to the questionnaire came from a woman in Donegal, a 27-year-old mother of four children who scrawled, "I am fed up with this marriage and feel I can't live like this much longer. God bless."
For her New Spotlight column, readers were younger, aged from 13 to18, many revealing the agonies of adolescence and the loneliness of the Irish countryside. The letters from young girls presented "a frightening indication of the level of their sexual knowledge when they leave school" and many who were pregnant, unaware of risks from one casual encounter, were looking for a place to hide, particularly from their parents. The bulk of queries from boys were about social failure, masturbation and fears that this would affect their ability to father families. Incest and homosexuality often cropped up and most letters were from "lonely, ignorant or frightened teenagers suffering from a real lack of self confidence and perhaps above all, from the utter lack of any communication with a sympathetic adult, parent, teacher, clergyman, doctor or social worker".
It was not until more than 20 years later that contraceptives eventually became freely available in Ireland and a new internet age of information that changed everything. In the light of present issues over abortion and the forthcoming referendum, it is worthwhile remembering how these advice columns, often ridiculed, formed such an important service for a generation at a time when no one else was listening or wanted to hear. The stories and cries for help contained in those columns are valuable social documents, and should not be overlooked by historians.