No sex, please, we're Irish


SOCIAL HISTORY: MAUREEN GAFFNEYreviews Asking Angela Macnamara: An Intimate History of Irish LivesBy Paul Ryan Irish Academic Press, 228pp, €60/€24.95

BETWEEN 1963 AND 1980, Angela Macnamara’s column in the Sunday Pressreceived 4,000 letters a year from people asking for advice on the most intimate aspects of their lives. Only a handful of letters were replied to in print each week, although hundreds of others received private replies. But with a peak circulation of 400,000, and in a period when the whole concept of sexual and emotional intimacy began to change, it is hard to overestimate the influence of Angela Macnamara, the devout Catholic mother of four children who became agony aunt to a nation.

This book sets out to map the social changes in that 18-year period: how dating couples related to each other in dance halls, in the darkness of the cinema or down country lanes; how married couples communicated their needs for love, affection and sex; how women negotiated their emerging concerns about equality; and how adolescents and young adults who knew or suspected they were gay or lesbian dealt with that dreaded realisation in the prevailing atmosphere of fear and hostility. Ryan, a sociologist, was interested in how men in particular experienced that time.

Paul Ryan used 645 of the letters published in the Angela Macnamara column, together with interviews with some men who read the column, as the basis of his analysis. At times the book is an uneasy mix of academic thesis and a book designed for the general reader, particularly at the beginning. For example, in two pages alone, there are 10 references to the Dutch sociologist Cas Wouters, complete with all the tell-tale academic idioms: “Wouters argues”, “Wouters identifies”, “Wouters illustrates”, and so on. When the author uses his own voice, the text lightens up considerably. His account of his own difficulty, while writing the book, in expressing his feelings following a diagnosis of bowel cancer is heartfelt.

But, above all, the cries for help and guidance in the letters to Macnamara rise like an anguished de profundis from the depths of the sexual confusion, guilt and pain of her correspondents. Macnamara found herself at the centre of the clash between the irresistible movement towards personal freedom, sexual emancipation and equality and the immovable object of a rigid and all-powerful Irish Catholic Church. It was not an easy position. She was, in the words of the journalist Kevin Marron, “trying to help half the country, while the other half is laughing”.

She herself comes across for the most part as compassionate and thoughtful, all the while trying to manage her own doubts about how the Church was responding to this social revolution. To the end, however, her belief in the infallibility of Catholic dogma obliged her to “remain steadfast in offering advice that was in compliance with that teaching, even, as the years progressed, when the advice was often impractical, stretched credulity or went against her private beliefs on a topic”.

She had to constantly negotiate a fine line between being open to the real issues that were raised in the letters and withstanding the deep disapproval of powerful churchmen such as Archbishop McQuaid, who could have had her fired by the highly conservative Sunday Pressif she overstepped the mark.

The letters and the interviews offer a fascinating glimpse of an Ireland that has almost been forgotten. It was an Ireland where, for many, the only information on sex and intimate relationships was from the Catholic Truth Society booklets sold from the Legion of Mary trolley outside the church, supplemented by women’s magazines from England and the vigorous informal trade in well-thumbed “dirty” books or more literary sources like Edna O’Brien and John McGahern

It was an Ireland where a young couple, trying vainly to control the size of their family by the “safe period”, had four children inside five years. They finally decided that the only way out for them, “Catholic style”, was to abstain from sexual intercourse altogether. As the young wife concluded grimly, “That was 12 years ago.” Another anguished woman wrote, “My husband strikes me and slaps me across the face when he is angry about something. I don’t mind being struck so much but I wish he wouldn’t do it in front of the children.”

The only advice Macnamara felt free to offer her was to confide in a priest, ask her doctor for help in getting over her depression, encourage her to try to love her husband by praising any little effort he made; and to “pray, and keep praying, no matter how you feel”.

Heartbreakingly, it was also Ireland where a 16-year-old teenage boy, worried about being homosexual and about his “habit of masturbation”, wrote asking if these “two plagues” were connected and begging her, “Please tell me if I have a chance of becoming normal.”

A place where children – and even 19-year-old young women – were beaten by their fathers; and where one man remembered his wedding day as the first time his mother kissed him.

It was an Ireland where, according to Macnamara, the issue of child sexual abuse “did not enter the picture. It was not written about in those days so I did not have to deal with it.”

Neither, apparently, was it raised in the 645 letters selected by Ryan. I am surprised, nevertheless, that Ryan does not devote more than a few sentences to this issue. It does not even appear as an item in the index. He does note, however, that the letters to the column were subject to strict censorship (presumably by the Sunday Presseditor) as to “suitable” content. The reader is left wondering whether any references to sexual abuse in childhood by family or clergy were censored.

Ironically, despite her strenuous efforts to hold the Catholic line, the church was deeply suspicious of what Macnamara was doing. She recounts an occasion when she paid a visit to Archbishop McQuaid to try to get greater support for the work she was doing in sex education. Instead of seeing the archbishop, she was met by a “formidable” nun who told her angrily that she found Macnamara’s work “distasteful”. The nun warned her to give up her column and her sex-education work in schools or she would advise the schools to stop inviting her. The nun then led her to the hall door and showed her out.

Ryan has done an admirable job of putting Macnamara and her column in historical and cultural context, both nationally and internationally. He is particularly successful in showing how concepts like “traditional” or “modern” – whether applied to individuals or to whole societies – often do not yield the neat divisions we expect. Angela Macnamara is a case in point.

Maureen Gaffney is adjunct professor of psychology and society at University College Dublin. Her book Flourishingis published by Penguin Ireland