Why Irish film-makers and actors can’t do proper sex scenes

Film sex is fine. But sex featuring Irish actors, in films set in Ireland? That never really works

Ask your dad about the mini-scandal that gathered around a TV series called The Spike in 1978.

At this point Ireland was — to employ a term favoured by lecturers in modern history — still A Total Dump. Books were banned. Films were sliced to ribbons.

But you could still see the odd bosom on television. Both of Juliet Mills’s were put before the public during a screening of Billy Wilder’s Avanti! around that time. I made a note.

Domestic bosoms were a different altogether! In the fifth episode of that series, set in an inner-city school, the untouchable David Kelly played an art teacher who brings a nude model in for life drawing. The barest glimpse of nipple nearly brought the nation to anarchy.


“Is it a fact that the Taoiseach condemned this without having seen the programme?” Dr Noël Browne, always a font of sense, thundered in the Dáil. The question was evaded, but the series was cancelled anyway.

A great deal has changed since then. We nonetheless wish the makers of an upcoming Irish comedy called — wait for it, wait for it! — Thank You, Come Again all the best with their dangerous endeavours.

Steve Clarke Dunne’s film journeys out under the tagline: “A Porn shop, priests and blood diamonds … What could possibly go right?” That remains to be seen.

There is still lingering unease about seeing our own people get kit off and make with the bumping danglies. At any mention of local sex, we tend to run for euphemisms such as “kit off” and “bumping danglies”. But maybe the time is finally right for an Irish film that really is called Thank You, Come Again.

The history of sex in Irish films is short and miserable. Even before there was much Irish cinema to speak of, intimate relations were, as often as not, carried out perfunctorily or abusively.

Most of us now tolerate The Quiet Man, but John Wayne really is dragging poor Maureen O'Hara across the windy turf like a cave man carting home a dead goat. I hope he catches pneumonia.

In the current, more enlightened era, there's plenty of bad sex that is, to be fair, meant to be bad sex. Think of the squalid humping in Terry McMahon's still-controversial Charlie Casanova. Think of all those necessarily grim films — Peter Mullan's brilliant The Magdalene Sisters for one — that deal with clerical sexual abuse.

I have some memory of an Irish film in which a decadent female office worker performed oral sex on an estate agent to secure a posh flat, but I won’t bring any more opprobrium by naming and shaming it (again).

We can watch Pierce Brosnan having glamorous, glitzy sex with Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair. Pierce is a mighty industrialist in millennial Manhattan. Rene is a sleek insurance investigator. We wouldn't be so keen if the film was set in Brosnan's native Navan and Russo was playing an unstoppable TV license inspector (mind you…).

A little over a decade ago, writer and actor Mark O'Halloran guest edited an issue of Film Ireland that included a telling survey about sex in Irish cinema. The conclusion was that we were still more relaxed about foreign breasts – such as those on Juliet Mills – than those attached to honest Irish women.

“When we asked for comments about whether or not there should be more action in Irish cinema, some people actually said: ‘I don’t want to see Irish sex’,” O’Halloran explained. “They were very keen on foreign films and found actors from other countries very sexy. But it was as if once an actor is from Ireland, they could not have any sex appeal.”

It's all very well for James Joyce, Edna O'Brien or Anne Enright to write about sex, but no pure-born Irish person has to actually remove their surgical truss to make those scenes happen. There is no possibility that, after reading about one participant groaning lubriciously over another, we'll meet either tomorrow when walking the dog.

Mark O’Halloran eventually broke through that barrier. Right? His script for Viva featured sex between good-looking people that, under Paddy Breathnach’s direction, generated beautiful scenes that generated no discomfort among decent people and secured the film longlisting for an Oscar. The good people at Treasure Films deserved to feel proud.

Yes, all right. You're way ahead of me. Viva was set in Cuba. It would have been a very different film in Ennis (the town of Mark's birth).

We’re cleaner, less uptight, nicer looking, and better dressed than we used to be. We have same-sex marriage and all the mod cons of a modern society that is doing its best to no longer be A Dump.

But we haven’t quite worked up the courage to enjoy even the best looking of us getting it on. A faint inferiority syndrome still hovers about the part of the brain that allows arousal.

In Mark O'Rowe's recent The Delinquent Season, Cillian Murphy and Catherine Walker – both certainly pulchritudinous enough – can't have a shag on a windy beach without being laughed at by passing kids. How dare they attempt such a thing?

The definitive comment on the Irish sexual experience might be Tom Hall’s fine Sensation from 2010. Set in the midlands, it concerns the awkward relationship between a recently bereaved farmer and a visiting sex worker.

Sensation begins with Domhnall Gleeson having a J Arthur Rank in a field. Do you see what I am getting at?