Up close and personal: understanding Ireland’s emotional landscape

Self-expression is the timely theme of The Merriman Summer School

Previous generations in Ireland did not talk about their emotions, and there a sense that it was shameful, especially for men, to show emotion. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Previous generations in Ireland did not talk about their emotions, and there a sense that it was shameful, especially for men, to show emotion. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


How do we deal with our emotions and their consequences in Ireland today? Are we any better at discussing our feelings now than we have been in the past? What legacies have been left by our difficulty in understanding and reluctance to deal with our emotions? These are some of the areas for discussion at this year’s Merriman Summer School.

When its director, Patricia Coughlan, was asked to devise a theme for this year’s programme, she was slightly taken aback that her suggestion, Emotional Life in Ireland, was accepted so enthusiastically. While this area has begun to emerge to prominence in recent years, she was aware it was a departure from the typical summer-school programme.

However, the recently retired professor of English at University College Cork felt it was a timely topic for a country that has yet again been dealing with the aftermath of trauma as hear stories of hidden pregnancies, secret births and unacknowledged deaths.

The Merriman School, which opens tomorrow in Ennis, Co Clare, has a long tradition of exploring and reflecting on topical and pertinent societal issues in Ireland but this year’s programme contains some particularly insightful talks.

Range of topics

Divorce Irish style, older Irish women’s accounts of sexual knowledge and experience, and the role of literature in mental health are among the wide range of topics that will be discussed by a rich panel of speakers made up of social historians, writers, ethno-musicologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, journalists and critics.

“The aim is to bring the topic of emotion more into a realm where it can be discussed. Previous generations did not talk about their emotions; it was not something considered discussable or rational.

“They were told to tamp down their emotions and there was very much a sense that it was shameful, especially for men, to show emotion. The idea that the psyche or inner life was something you could open up and discuss was not permitted,” says Coughlan.

She notes that we have moved from that tradition of nondisclosure and containment of emotion into a language of entrepreneurship and success where doubt, anxiety and failure are just not acceptable.

“In his book In My Room, Jim Lucey, who is our opening speaker tomorrow night, mentions a survey carried out by St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in which 42 per cent of the sample felt it would be a failure to seek help for any kind of mental distress.

“To me, to seek help is the opposite of failure. If people believe it’s a failure to seek help for mental distress and that it’s incurable, it goes a long way to explaining our suicide rate.”

In her talk, Dr Máire Leane, who lectures in the school of applied social studies at UCC, will be exploring emotion in older Irish women’s accounts of sexual knowledge and experience from the 1920s to the 1970s. Leane’s talk will provide an insight into the lack of information about sexuality and female reproduction, even among married women, and the guilt and shame that shrouded the issue. The women in her study talk about not knowing what menstruation was, never mind ovulation, or how conception occurred.



At about the age of 12 or 13, they were told to “mind themselves” without really knowing what that meant and one woman said she thought at the time her mother was telling her to be careful on her bike.

Girls were warned not to touch their own bodies or to look at them in the mirror and on no account were they to let a boy interfere with them, whatever that meant.

The only information that was available came from older sisters, neighbours or cousins who went to England and brought or sent information home.

The women speak of the huge anxiety and distress they went through in trying to limit the number of children they had through the withdrawal and Billings methods. They recall being asked by the priest in confession if they were doing anything to limit their fertility, which was a sin in the eyes of God, and tell of the guilt they felt about lying. There was one particular priest in Cork who would absolve women who admitted to avoiding pregnancy, and people would queue for more than an hour to see him. Leane says: “There was great anger among the women about the practice of churching, which continued into the 1960s, in which women had to go to church to receive a blessing from the priest so the sins of childbirth could be washed away.

“Looking back, they found it hard to understand why they had not questioned this at the time but the cultural attitudes were so pervasive and strong that it was very difficult for anybody to step outside them and question them.”

To seek help is the opposite of failure

Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, a lecturer at the department of history in NUI Galway will present the voices of deserted wives and husbands in 20th-century Ireland in her paper “Divorce, Irish Style”.

Using recorded interviews and letters from the archives of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children dating back as far as the 1920s, Buckley captures the desperate situation that deserted women, in particular, found themselves in.

“Deserted wives’ allowance was introduced in 1970 so if a husband left prior to this, the woman could not remarry without a death certificate, nor could she claim widow’s allowance or social welfare.

The State did not acknowledge their situation, trying to support themselves and their children, and even when the allowance was brought in, it was a very meagre payment initially.

“They were left in such a desperate and precarious position.”

Buckley explains that many of the men in these families initially left for work in England or the US but ended up setting up new lives, often with new families, and in some cases committing bigamy. The Merriman Summer School runs tomorrow until Sunday at the Glór cultural centre in Ennis, Co Clare. Visitors can attend one event, a full day, or the whole school. There will be lectures and panel discussions, morning symposia in English and Irish, poetry readings during Cúirt an Mheán Lae, and music at night. For information, call 086-3820671, or see merriman.ie. To book, see glor.ie

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.