“On the Wisp” Rethinking birthplace in Ireland for a more-than-human world

Hynan, Martina
At the beginning of the twentieth century, most Irish people’s birthplace was synonymous with their homeplace. However, by the end of the century, 99% of all Irish births occurred in hospital settings. In that time there has been a significant move away from locally-provided maternity care towards centralised services concentrated in urban areas. Such national trends are similarly reflected in County Clare; a region in the west of Ireland where there have been no maternity services since 1987. This thesis argues that the historical shift from home to hospital-based births has disregarded society’s relationship with birthplace. The study identifies birthplace as the ongoing reciprocal exchange between the human body and the material physical environment. It contends that birthplace is an ecological process and event and proposes that birthplace be reframed within the more-than-human world. Such an environmental perspective on birth acknowledges the complex interdependency of human and non-human needs. This research project sits at the intersection of Irish Studies, Environmental Humanities, Medical Humanities, and Visual Culture. It is an interdisciplinary, research-led with art practice project. The art practice employs forms of sympoietic (making with) storytelling employing methods such as audio storytelling (multigenerational birthplace stories) with video, photography, and material practice such as paper made from straw. In Ireland, the once commonplace phrase “on the wisp” or “on the straw” described how women often birthed onto straw. This phrase is used in this study to reference the materiality of place and reflect the interconnectedness of people with ecology. The significance of this study is that it extends birth politics in Ireland by creating understandings of birthplace hitherto overlooked. By drawing upon the environmental humanities as a way of rethinking the historical context of birth, this study offers an alternative interpretation of the modern Irish maternity system. It reappraises established medical practices which have contributed to the decline in homeplace births and offers fresh insight into the current obstetric-led system in Ireland.
NUI Galway
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland