Robert Bloomfield’s beloved memory of life on a farm

Post by Audrey Kinch, Special Collections and Archives

For though on hoary twigs no buds peep out,
And e’en the hardy brambles cease to sprout,
Beneath dread Winter’s level sheets of snow,
The sweet nutritious Turnip designs to grow.

These lines are an excerpt from the ‘winter’ section of the poem entitled The Farmer’s Boy by English poet Robert Bloomfield (1766-1823). The poem was first printed in March 1800 and a copy is held in the English collection in the Russell Library.

Title page The Farmer’s Boy

Robert Bloomfield was born in Honington in the English county of Suffolk and he was one of six children.  His father George was a tailor who died when Bloomfield was a year old.  His mother Elizabeth was a schoolmistress and he learned to read and write at an early age mostly under her guidance.  Elizabeth later re-married and the family continued to grow.  When he was approximately 12 years of age, Bloomfield was sent to live with his uncle William Austin at Sapiston.  William worked a farm for the Duke of Grafton and Bloomfield spent three years as a farmer’s boy where he was treated well.  He always held fond memories of this time in his life. 

In May 1796, Bloomfield began writing The Farmer’s Boy which was originally intended as a gift to his mother.  The poem is about a boy called Giles as he completes his chores on the farm, his observance of and interactions with nature.  It is a pastoral poem, a celebration of rural life and is c. 1,512 lines in length.  The poem is divided in four sections which correspond to the seasons. 

Due to a slight build, Bloomfield was deemed not wholly suited to the manual work on the farm so his uncle advised his mother to find another position more suited to his abilities.  Elizabeth arranged for him to move to London and his brother George would teach him to become a shoemaker.  In 1781, at the age of fifteen he arrived to London, stayed with George and four other cobblers in Coleman Street and learned the trade of shoemaking.  Bloomfield had apparently a great memory for poetry and could recite numerous lines.  By 1786 he was a qualified shoemaker and explored his interests in music by acquiring a violin and hand-crafting aeolian harps.  In 1790 he married Mary-Anne Church and their first child Hannah was born in 1791. 

Frontispiece The Farmer’s Boy

The poem opens with an invitation for spring to come with a positive and uplifting tone ‘Sweet inmate, hail! thou source of sterling joy’ with an observation of snow topped hills, the morning dew and open skies.  Though privately mourning for his father, Giles is depicted as happily pre-occupied in his work and his mind is off his worries.  His uncle is portrayed as a kind man, engaging with his young nephew and setting out his work for him to do. 

The summer section refers to the weather and the harvest, ploughing the land and all the labour involved in the harvest from toiling in the fields with the ‘sweeping scythe’ to working in the barn until it is filled.   Bloomfield notes after the day’s work ‘Sweet twilight, welcome!, Rest, how sweet art thou.’  Descriptions of the rain falling, ploughing in the fields, insects swarming, a sky-lark singing, clear blue skies and crops appearing as ‘the smiling produce of the land’ provide a clear image of rural life.

In the Autumn section the changing season is visible with fallen acorns, blowing winds and fallen leaves which lie on the ground.  Bloomfield depicts the wild ducks, pheasants and foxes in the woods and gives account of village life.  He comments on Gile’s and how he is tired, weary yet diligent in his work.  Nature is both recognised and praised ‘bless the Power that rules the changing year.’  The tone within the autumn section remains positive, ever-looking forward ‘That Spring will come, and Nature smile again.

Winter arrives in the final section, the ground is under frost, ice and snow.  The farmer thinks of respite when he returns home ‘the cold may pierce, and storms molest, Succeeding hours shall cheer with warm and rest.’  In the evenings, Giles visits the cows in the shed and the pigs in the sty, his voice is familiar to the animals and they eagerly feed from his hand.  The gentle, strong hardworking farm-horse Dobbin is happy to return at the end of the day ‘And joys to see the well-known stable door, as the starv’d mariner the friendly shore.’  Ewes and lambs die due to damp and cold however the farmer is uplifted to see the flock group together and the orphan lambs survive.  The remaining lines give thanks and praise for the experiences of the seasons which appears an insightful, deep appreciation of nature.  In a moment of mindfulness for anyone this could be considered a poem of positive wellbeing which is relaxing to read.

Initially three publishers rejected publication of The Farmer’s Boy and Bloomfield gave up and gave the poem to his brother George as a gift.  George showed the poem to editor and writer Capel Loftt who was also an influential figure in Suffolk society.  Loftt included an evaluation and The Farmer’s Boy was published in March 1800 by Vernon and Hood.  Robert Bloomfield published further volumes of poetry in his lifetime and he died in Shefford, Bedfordshire in August 1823. 

The edition of The Farmer’s Boy held in the Russell Library was published in Halifax by William Milner in 1837.  The Russell Library is open on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10.00am to 1.00pm and 2.00pm to 5.00pm.  Access to the Russell Library is arranged through appointment by telephone (01) 7083890 or e-mail

Snowdrops in winter

In beaded rows if drops now deck the spray,
While the sun grants a momentary ray,
Let but a cloud’s broad shadow intervene,
And stiffen’d into gems the drops are seen;

Bloomfield, Robert: A Farmer’s Boy, rural tales, ballads and songs (1837)
Kaloustian, David:  Bloomfield, Robert (1766-1823), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

Women of the Revolution : Hannah Condon Cleary on her service in Cumann na mBan 1918-1923

By Ruth O’Hara, Library Assistant, Maynooth University Library

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To read a firsthand account of the Irish War of Independence and Civil War is illuminating. When the eyewitness happens to be a woman a different and yet still relatively rare vision of these defining moments in Irish history presents itself. This is the case with the four-page manuscript acquired recently by Maynooth University Library written by Hannah Condon Cleary, a commanding officer with Cumann na mBan. It details her “active service” from 1918 to 1923 in Anglesboro Co. Limerick and brings to the fore the roles open to women in the fight for Irish liberty.

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First page of Hannah Condon Cleary’s manuscript detailing the year she joined Cumann na mBan

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Sketches from the battlefield: Captain George Vaughan Wardell and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift

By Nicola Kelly, Archivist, Maynooth University Library

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The Wardell Archive comprises the personal papers of the Wardell family; William Henry Wardell senior (1799-1881) a Major in several regiments, including the Royal Canadian Rifles; his wife Eliza Wardell (b.1800); William Henry Wardell junior (1838-1903)  Major-general, and an instructor at Woolwich Academy. The majority of the collections contents are the letters, photographs and sketches by George Vaughan Wardell  (1840-1879) Captain of the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot.

Captain George Vaughan Wardell’s correspondence reflects his family life and military career which began when he enrolled as an ensign in the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot in May 1858. He writes between 1864 and 1871, mainly to his parents but also to his brothers and sister, a series of letters detailing among other matters his experiences in faraway postings such as Mauritius, Rangoon, Madras, Malta and Burma.

Captain George Vaughan Wardell

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The College Bells

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By Anna Porter, Archivist, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth

Sometimes an enquiry to the archives of Saint Patrick’s College Maynooth (SPCM) leads to an investigation into some obscure aspect of the college’s history.

Tim Jackson’s request for information regarding the college bell was one such query. Tim’s research on behalf of Dove’s Guide for Church Bell Ringers [1] prompted him to enquire whether SPCM’s bell exceeded 40 Cwt (2 tons) in weight.

A search of the college archives revealed little about bells except for a letter dated 8 September, 1853, from John Murphy, bell founder of 15 Thomas Street in Dublin (SPCM/8/35/153).

College bells image 1
Letter from John Murphy, bell founder to Rev. Dr, Renehan. SPCM/8/35/153

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Look Out! They’re Lurking About: Books That Go Bump In The Library

By Emma Doran, Special Collections & Archives Library Assistant.

Image taken from the Book Irish Wonders by D. R. McAnally Jr. Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1888.


It’s that time of year again when the days wane toward the impending colder weather and the campus is alight with leaves of red, orange and gold and that can only mean one thing…Halloween is fast approaching. Having scoured our special collections treasures in anticipation of writing this blog, I have selected a few devilishly delightful rare books for you to sink your teeth into. My selections ranging from the 15th to the 20th century, hail from both the Special Collections Reading Room and the Russell Library and they explore all elements of the dark arts, judgement of witches and even exorcising demons and promise to send a chill down your spine. 

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The aerial voyage: an account of Ireland’s first balloon flight

This post first appeared in the Russell Library blog

Imagine the impact of the first hot-air balloon rising into the sky in 1783. Suddenly, it was possible to fly! The first living flight was from Versailles in June 1783, with a sheep, a duck and a cock in the car. Four months later the maestro himself, Étienne Montgolfier, rose above the earth in a splendidly decorated balloon. Others across Europe quickly followed suit.

‘The balloon’ in Francis Olivari, The balloons of Citizen Campenas   (Dublin, 1798)

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‘Observations on Nature’ Heritage Week in the Russell Library

Post by Saoirse Reynolds, Special Collections & Archives

The Secretary of States’ House at Palmerston
 Published by J. Fisher 1792


me and os
Ordnance Survey Map of Kildare

On August 21, 23 & 24 the Russell Library took part in Heritage Week with an exhibition exploring nature through the historical print collections of the Russell Library. Books on gardening, botany, agriculture, husbandry and medicinal plants were on display some of which referred to the local area.

A 6inch Ordnance Survey map of Kildare was on display as well as items from our Special Collections in the John Paul II Library.

One of the most visually interesting and beautiful books which was on display was William Hanbury’s, A complete body of planting and gardening published in London in 1770-71. Hanbury was a Church of England clergyman and horticulturist, was born at Bedworth, Warwickshire in 1725.  He matriculated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford in 1745 and graduated in 1748. The degree of MA was subsequently conferred on him by St Andrews University on 11 November 1769 in recognition of his achievements in planting.

cortusa hanbury
Image of Spotted Cistus, Purple Cortusa and Double Blossomed Cherry
 In ‘A complete body of planting and gardening’ by William Hanbury


A Rare Book from the Russell Library which was on display was Scenery of Ireland: illustrated in a series of prints, of select views, castles, and abbeys, in this kingdom by Jonathan Fisher. The book was printed in Dublin in 1792 and has beautiful illustrations of castles and abbeys of Ireland. Fisher was an Irish painter and was born in Dublin in 1740. He is first recorded in 1763 when he was awarded a premium by the Dublin Society for a landscape. He is best known for his fine engravings and aquatints of Irish scenery. He travelled all over Ireland and published views of Killarney in 1770 and 1789. He lived at Great Ship Street, Dublin, from about 1778 until 1805, when he moved to Bishop Street, Dublin, where he died in 1809.

scenery fisher
‘Scenery of Ireland’ by Jonathan Fisher


Another beautiful book we had on display from our Special Collections was Ireland’s wild orchids /orchid portraits by Susan Sex with accompanying text by Brendan Sayers. It was printed by Nicholson & Bass in Belfast in 2004 and is a limited edition of 700 signed and numbered copies.

Two volumes of Charles Henry Dessalines d’Orbigny’s Dictionnaire universel d’histoire naturelle were on display also. D’Orbigny was a French botanist and geologist

Images of colourful butterflies and a rose
in d’Orbigny’s ‘Dictionnaire universel d’histoire naturelle’

specializing in the Tertiary of France. He was the younger brother of French naturalist and South American explorer, Alcide d’Orbigny. At the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, d’Orbigny identified many of the flowering plant species returned to France from his brother’s natural history collecting journeys through South America.

For more information on any of these items please contact us:

Special Collections John Paul II Library

Phone: 01-4747423, e-mail:

Russell Library

Phone: 01-7083890, e-mail:

St. Canice’s Library: The Otway-Maurice Collection

By Yvette Campbell, Susan Durack and Barbara McCormack, Special Collections & Archives

The Otway-Maurice Collection of St Canice’s Cathedral Library, Kilkenny is a very important collection which was recently acquired by Maynooth University Library on long-term loan from The Representative Body of the Church of Ireland for restoration and safe keeping with Hugh Murphy (Senior Librarian) and Barbara McCormack acting as project managers.

St. Canice’s Library Room

This is a unique collection of early printed books, mainly that of Bishop Edward Maurice, who was Bishop of Ossory in the mid-18th Century. It includes many fine examples of woodcut illustrations, historic bindings, and manuscript fragments. Particular highlights of the collection include: four items of incunabula (pre-1500 printing), a Shakespearean Fourth Folio (1685) and a Sarum Missal printed for Fleet Street printer Wynkyn de Worde.

Collection processing was carried out on a phased basis to provide access to the collection as soon as possible: the first stage was to list the material in the collection and then each item was catalogued to a minimum level before the final stage of full DCRM (B) compliant cataloguing can begin.

A substantial amount of work began on the collection in September 2015 which included a basic clean, freezer de-infestation and transportation from Kilkenny to Maynooth. It was strongly recommended that the collection be housed in an environmentally controlled storage area to prevent insect damage and deterioration due to fluctuating humidity and temperature. This was especially essential that all pre-1600 items (approximately 310) and other particularly rare and valuable items be housed in this storage area.

St. Canice’s Library Room

One of the highlights of the collection is a magnificent copy of Shakespeare’s Folio, one of the most sought-after books in the world. The First Folio, printed seven years after Shakespeare’s death, brought together 36 plays – 18 of which would otherwise not have been recorded. Without this publication, there would be no copy of plays such as Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and The Tempest.

This copy was published in 1685 and is the fourth printing in perfect condition. The book is also the only source of the familiar dome-headed portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout.

Shakespeare's Folio
Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio 1685

Another favourite is our copy of The Ship of Fooles by Sebastian Brandt printed by John Cawood in 1590. Brant’s satire on human foolishness became a European bestseller. By 1574, more than 40 editions of the text had appeared, including translations into Latin, French, English, Dutch, and Low German. The text describes a fictitious sea voyage of 112 fools, each representing a certain type of human misconduct, to the promised land of “Narragonia.” The succession of fools is led by the foolish reader: convinced of his learning, he is engaged in chasing away the flies buzzing around his desk piled with books, but he does not open the books to gain knowledge. Brant does not so much criticise foolishness as remaining foolish by failing to recognize one’s own shortcomings.

The Ship of Fooles
The Ship of Fooles

One of the reasons for the work’s great success was undoubtedly the high-quality woodcuts that introduce and complement the text. Each sin or vice in the book is accompanied by a finely detailed woodcut that gives either a literal or allegorical interpretation of that particular sin or vice. Chapters are devoted to such offenses as Arrogance Toward God, Marrying for Money, and Noise in Church. Among the artists with whom Brant collaborated on this work was the young Albrecht Dürer, who soon after the completion of this work left Basel for Nuremberg.

Our copy of John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs is a perfect example of a medieval book in all its glory – great binding, elaborate text accompanied by striking images.

John Foxe’s survey of Christian martyrs throughout history laid strong emphasis on those who had died for their faith during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-58), and was widely read during the 16th and 17th centuries. It had a great influence on popular opinion with regard to Catholicism over the following centuries, providing support for the legal oppression of Catholics until the 19th century.

Foxe's Book of Martyrs
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

While Foxe was by no means an impartial writer, and his presentation of history is selective and peppered with comment, his access to the evidence from very recent trials and eye-witness accounts renders his work generally reliable and fascinating.

As a Protestant in exile in Germany he continued writing, as news of the persecutions in England reached him. The first edition of his book, in Latin, was published in 1559, and contained little information about the recent Protestant martyrs, whose stories were included in the much fuller edition published in English in 1563.

Paradise Lost
Milton’s Paradise Lost

Our 1688 copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost is certainly an incredible treasure in this collection. Since its first illustrated edition rolled off the press in 1688, Paradise Lost has fired the imaginations of artists. Generations of painters, draughtsmen and printmakers have tried – and sometimes failed – to create a visual equivalent of Milton’s poetry. Between the late seventeenth and early twentieth centuries a flurry of illustrated editions of Paradise Lost appeared. Apart from being beautiful artefacts in themselves, these books and their engraved plates are an invaluable sign of what Paradise Lost meant to the periods that produced them. Satan, for example, looks very different in 1680 to how he looks in 1860.

Other items of interest include the oldest item in the collection – which are latin fragments known as binder’s waste from the early 1500’s; Books with such topics as Greek Mythology, Cannibalism, Demonology, Witchcraft and Botony; Epitaphs on the tombs in the Cathedral Church of St. Canice Kilkenny; material with provenance history from Queen Christina of Sweden to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The St. Canice’s Library Collection is certainly without a doubt a treasure trove that offers both researcher and enthusiast alike a chance to step back in time and discover a hidden gem. Below is a geographical map of the origins of the collection showing the places of publication across Europe from the 16th to the 17th centuries.

To date, 3152 books from the St. Canice’s Library Collection have been catalogued and can be accessed online via the LibrarySearch discovery tool.

Access to this collection is by appointment only – Please email



British Library

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Darkness Visible: a resource for studying Milton’s Paradise Lost





Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946)

By Olive Morrin, Special Collections & Archives

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington died on the 20th April 1946 and this year marks the 70th anniversary of her death.  She was born in Kanturk, Co. Cork but the family moved to Drumcondra, Dublin  in 1887 and Hanna attended the Dominican Convent in Eccles Street.  She was a bright student and was one of the few women at the time to receive a third level education.  She graduated with a degree and later an MA  in 1902.  She became a teacher in Eccles Street and also lectured in Rathmines School of Commerce.


She married Francis Skeffington in 1903 and both took each other’s surnames. She was a talented orator, well informed in Irish and international affairs and was renowned for her independence of thought and wit.  She and Francis were very involved in the suffragette movement and for her entire life she continued to campaign, highlighted anomalies in the new state’s legislation if it discriminated against women and fought for women’s rights.  She never compromised her strongly held views which sometimes left her isolated.  She was a liberal and possibly a radical in the increasingly conservative and church bound new state.  She was an atheist who refused to see a priest even on her deathbed.  She remained a socialist following the beliefs of James Connolly in a society that was becoming more materialistic.  When she was imprisoned in Holloway in 1918 Kathleen Clarke widow of Tom Clarke said of her “She was a highly-gifted woman, and one of the straightest I ever met, and I had great admiration for her”.

In 1913 she was arrested for throwing stones at Dublin Castle in a feminist march. She was imprisoned but went on hunger strike and was released but was soon rearrested. This was the first of the many times she was arrested for her activities, but it never dented her resolve. She was also dismissed from her teaching job after this incident.

Francis Sheehy-Skeffington – image from British militarism as I have known it

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Mothering Sunday – Happy Mother’s Day!

Embryology and female anatomy: selected images from the St. Canice Library Collection

By Yvette Campbell, Special Collections & Archives

If anyone ever says childbirth is easy, show them this!

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Woodcut of childbearing – The “gagliarde” able to sit up, 1596. – Scipione Mercurio

To celebrate all motherhood on this day, have a look at some of the amazing images from a 16th century book on pregnancy from the St. Canice Library Collection here at Maynooth. This most important, curious and fascinating book deals with human ontogeny (from embryo generation to birth) and with female anatomy (mostly concerning pregnancy and childbirth). It was most likely used for instruction and learning. Scipione Mercurio, a friar, wrote this handbook in Italian rather than Latin: hence, midwives could understand it.

The work written by the Dominican friar Scipione Mercurio (1540-1615?), La Comare o Ricoglitrice, was published in Venice in 1595 & 1596 respectively; it is composed of three volumes which investigate pregnancy, childbirth, aid in case of difficulty during delivery, and obstetrical, gynaecological, and childhood diseases. The first volume is equipped with precious anatomical tables representing pregnant women, engraved in a copper slab by Francesco Valesio (1524-1592).

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Engraving of the labelled anatomy of a woman – Francesco Valesia (1524-1502)

Before the 17th century, when surgeons started to enter the labour room, theory, training and practice were assigned to midwives who used to assist their patients without the help of a physician or a surgeon. Because they embed a great number of didactic pictures, some of which may compete against any modern book of anatomy, embryology and obstetric, some of these are shown.

Some of the illustrations in the second volume are quite bizarre, when Mercurio shows the positions to be taken by women in case of difficulties during childbirth or when women in labour are quite overweight. Here are also represented the two proper positions for a caesarean section, distinguishing between the ‘strong’ women (the gagliarde), who could be operated while sitting on the bed, and the ‘weak’ ones (the deboli), to be operated while lying in bed.

Canice 1
Woodcut of the “deboli” lying-down, 1596. – Scipione Mercurio

Mercurio states, that the woman was held by the shoulders by another woman, while the midwife stood at the base of the chair, ready to take the baby and, in case the obstetric chair was not available, the patient sat on the knees of the midwife herself. Men usually would not attend this event to protect female privacy, the surgeon was called only in case of embryulcia and embriotomy, to extract the dead baby from the mother’s womb. 

As this book deals with difficulties during delivery, perhaps this is why we see so many men in these images. By the end of the 16th century, however, childbirth in presence of a surgeon was an exceptional event: midwives summoned doctors very rarely.

Obstetricians were supposed to favour, if possible, the lying-down procedure, regarded by Mercurio as safer for both mother and child. The friar believed that lying-down avoided infections and stopped the bad tradition of laying the baby on the floor.

Canice 6
Diagram of a baby leaving the mothers womb.

The volume is equipped with a rich critical apparatus of surgical instruments. The forceps, invented by Chamberlen in 1572, was the instrument that was to become the symbol of this new obstetrics: known as the ‘‘instrument of life,’’ it allowed surgeons to extract the baby alive by seizing it by the head with two pairs of pincers.

The Comare textbook was extremely successful in Italy and abroad, too, as it was edited twice in German. The main issue of this book is that the image of the midwife and her education come out as very positive as the author wrote: “Do not think my idea is educating and transforming my midwife into a physician“.

Canice 8
Diagram of the baby in the womb

At this time the midwives were often not educated and usually they were taught by an older and more expert colleague. They used herbs, spices, sometimes magic and simple instruments to help their patients, such as a tiny rope to tie the baby’s limbs together, fats and oils to ease labour. For their deep familiarity with herbs and magic spells, these women had been very often blamed for sorcery and damned to the stake in a male society, where only men attended a formal education, their knowledge, based on tradition and female sharing of experience, was considered dangerous and able to undermine the teachings of men.

This changed dramatically in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the surgeon’s presence into the labour chamber led to a fundamental decrease of infant and maternal mortality, but transformed the idea of delivery into the idea of extracting the foetus alive from the birth canal and of easing the mother’s pains only. Schools for Midwifery were opened across Europe and women were provided with an educational curriculum and together with surgeons, they helped mothers safely deliver their babies.

As if mothers need reminding…



  • Vanucci, L., Frigenti, L., and Maria-Simonetta Faussone-Pelleggrini. “From conception to birth: ancient library sources of embryology and women anatomy kept in the Biblioteca Biomedica of the Università degli Studi di Firenze (Biomedical Library of Florence University)” Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology Vol . 116, n. 2: 93-103, (2011).


  • Lippi, Donatella, and Domizia Weber. “Crouching or lying-down? The reason of a (uncomfortable) delivery position” The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, Early Online 1-3, (2013).