Sex and the Irish: A Necessary Debate

“To work on Irish social history over the last few decades has been to research during a time of extraordinary detailed revelations about a great range of suffering and the historian cannot stand completely outside of the environment in which they exist. But there is still an onus on us to remind of the need for context.” - Diarmaid Ferriter, The Irish Times, June 23rd

Before a capacity gathering at Waterford’s Central Library on Wednesday evening last, Diarmaid Ferriter addressed a topic which I’d never previously been party to at any public assembly: the historical relationship between the Irish and sex. “I do think that our sexual heritage is something that we neglect and we need to hear more about, particularly now,” said Professor Ferriter, when framing the topic of his presentation: ‘Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland’. The clash, as he put it, between current affairs and history, has become pointed in recent times given the “revelations and difficult uncoverings of various hidden histories and truths that we do need to confront if we are to make sense of our social, and by extension, sexual history”.
Referring to the comments of Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin in advance of Pope Francis’s 36-hour sojourn in Dublin and Knock, Prof Ferriter pondered “what was it that led to an Irish Catholicism that was so harsh”. The significance of ‘occasions of sin’ “as a phrase, as a warning, as a denunciation” was probably lost on younger Irish generations, he argued, adding: “and aren’t they lucky when you consider what that particular warning or admonishment meant in decades past”.

Diarmaid Ferriter delivered a compelling address at Waterford’s Central Library on Wednesday last.

Diarmaid Ferriter delivered a compelling address at Waterford’s Central Library on Wednesday last.

Prof Ferriter said he was moved to use the phrase as a title for his 2009 book not just because of its historical connotation in an Irish context but due to its use by author Brian Moore, in his novel, ‘Fergus’. “In it, the protagonist Fergus English returns to the school where he had been taught by Father Kenneally and he encounters the now elderly Fr Kenneally and he says to Fr Kenneally: ‘Tell me, is it true that you used to cut out the advertisements for bras and corsets in the school dentist’s waiting room? And Fr Kenneally replied: ‘I thought it was wise. Remember: an occasion of sin is an occasion of sin even when it is not intended to be an occasion of sin.’ It was almost like a triple lock mechanism in relation to how Fr Kenneally viewed suspect or dangerous advertisements at that time.”A “judgemental and censorious” approach to sex or the notion that sex could be considered enjoyable outside of its procreativity brief, is a narrative which dominated the moral code as decreed by the Catholic hierarchy for most of the 20th Century.

The ‘shame’ attributed to sex outside of marriage, and what that meant for so many unmarried Irish mothers, women who were shunned by their parents and neighbours during the Mother and Baby Home/Magdalene Laundry era, is a legacy issue that we are only now attempting to come to terms with.
It’s worth recalling that “Ireland imprisoned or incarcerated one per cent of its population during the 20th Century,” a fact UCD’s Katherine O’Connell shared at the launch of the Justice For Magdalenes Research (JFMR) Archive at WIT’s College Street campus in February. “More than any other country in the last century. More than Soviet Russia.”
But Irish society, in the early decades of the 21st Century, according to Prof Ferriter, “now finds itself in the throes of a delayed sexual revolution. There’s a neat, historical symmetry to this idea that we have moved from sexual darkness to sexual light and like all such neat historical symmetries, it doesn’t necessarily do justice to the various forces that are at work throughout our sexual history, particularly over the last 150 years”.

He added: “There is an idea that a country that was long accustomed to a strict policing of sexual morality that it was finally able to carnally come of age – and there is truth in that thesis of course – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are talking about, in the modern era, an enlightened era across the board when it comes to these questions and the experience of sexuality. So do keep in mind the danger of simplifying the notion of a journey from sexual darkness to sexual liberation. Sexual liberation brings its own problems and its own difficulties – that’s not about being nostalgic for the past or the kind of attitudes that I’ve mentioned – but it is about being aware of changing contexts and the pressures that work and the currents and impulses that work at various stages of our modern Irish history.”

As I sat in the Library, alongside our Arts Critic, Liam Murphy (in typically chipper form), I couldn’t help wondering how much smaller the crowd would have been at the same venue had this particular topic been up for discussion even 20 years ago. Thirty years ago, it might not have been countenanced. Forty years ago, I suspect anyone spotted heading into such a lecture might have been subject to an admonishment and offered a recommendation to visit the Confessional. But such days and diktats have largely passed and commentators such as Prof Ferriter, who have not shied from casting light into the darkest corners of our past, deserve both our thanks and attention.

And I’ll return to Prof Ferriter’s Central Library speech in a second instalment next week

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