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

Tue, Aug 12, 2014, 01:00

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.

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