Lifting the lid on Irish sexuality


SOCIETY: IVANA BACIK reviews Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Irelandby Diarmaid Ferriter
Profile Books, 694 pp. €30

ARE WE A uniquely sexually repressed nation? In this comprehensive work, Diarmaid Ferriter suggests our sexual history is “as complex and multi-layered as in many other countries”. His own research, from an impressive diversity of sources, unravels many of these layers. What emerges is the sense that, while there may have been little unique about Irish sexuality, the Irish State responded with laws that were uniquely submissive to the doctrines of the dominant church.

Covering the period from 1845 to 2005, Ferriter presents a bleak portrait of the extent of sexual abuse in 19th-century Ireland, and the impact of the Famine on patterns of marriage and reproduction. He gives graphic depictions of tenement overcrowding, and provides riveting excerpts from court records on sexual abuse cases. Inevitably, the emphasis is on abuse. Ferriter does his best to locate sources documenting “the joys of sex”, relying upon contemporary literature, novels and plays; but he recognises ruefully that these sources are much less extensive.

From independence onwards, the Catholic Church wielded a pernicious influence. Its leading ideologue, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, appeared to find sex itself intrinsically sinful, finding “any public airing of issues to do with the female body and reproduction distasteful”. McQuaid’s biographer John Cooney once said that he was “totally obsessed with sex”, but Ferriter suggests that McQuaid was initially more preoccupied with controlling discussion of religion, and became obsessed with sex because he realised the growing resistance to Catholic doctrine was located in a changing sexual morality.

Access to the Dublin Diocesan archive material has yielded truly fascinating insights into McQuaid’s obsessions. In 1944, the Archbishop expressed to the secretary of the Department of Health his disapproval concerning the use of tampons, particularly by “unmarried persons”. There are references in his papers to “pro-birth control slum mothers”, and his final pastoral in 1971 was entitled “Conscience and contraception”.

Despite McQuaid’s influence, Ferriter argues that Ireland was, in some ways, no more sexually repressive than, for example, Italy or Spain at comparable periods in each country’s history.

Truly unique to Ireland was the extent of the State’s reliance on religious orders to provide institutional care to children, and the abusive conditions that prevailed in those institutions. Ferriter powerfully summarises the conclusions of the Ryan Report, saying that “thousands of children suffered systematic physical and sexual abuse between the 1930s and the 1970s and lived in a climate of fear in residential institutions founded by the state and run by religious orders”.

From his coverage of the widespread abuse of children in institutions and overcrowded tenements, to his discussion of the rape of female domestic servants by their male employers, issues of class and gender dominate the text. Working-class women and children were overwhelmingly the victims of a repressive approach to sexuality, strongly influenced by the dominance of the Catholic Church and its warped teaching on matters of sex.

FERRITER’S GREAT STRENGTH as a historian is that this conclusion emerges from his own original research; he does not need to make the connection explicit. But the reader will become increasingly angry about the failures of policy-makers over many decades to confront religious doctrine on sexuality. The treatment of sex as sinful caused such unnecessary human suffering. Women who became pregnant outside marriage, and their children, were treated brutally.

Perhaps the harshest punishment was reserved for those unfortunate women in the Magdalen institutions; abandoned by an uncaring State, made to give up their babies for adoption, and forced to work in conditions of slavery. Disgracefully, the State still fails to acknowledge its responsibility to the women condemned to those institutions. In this context, the introduction of a State allowance for unmarried mothers in 1973 was hugely significant, as were the other rights for women that followed Irish entry to the EEC, but it was 1987 before the status of illegitimacy was finally abolished.

By then, the influence of the Catholic Church was greatly diminished, but was this due to the 1960s sexual revolution? Ferriter argues that in Ireland, the 1960s did not begin until the 1970s, and that the battle over contraception “dwarfed many other considerations of aspects of sexuality throughout the 1970s and 1980s”.

This is not surprising. The book reminds us of the enormous human problems associated with the absence of birth control, and the extraordinarily liberating power of the pill for women. Ferriter recounts some of the heartbreaking letters of distress from mothers of large families in poverty who wrote seeking help from Archbishop McQuaid, noting: “It would be a simplification to reduce all [their] problems to the issue of contraception, but it is relevant.”

Indeed, one of the most poignant excerpts quoted is from a letter written by a former Artane inmate to taoiseach Jack Lynch in 1972. “Your governments have declared illegal the use of contraceptives within the Republic of Ireland. Your governments have also made miserable the lives of thousands of unwanted babies within the Republic.”

This abuse survivor, who, like so many others, emigrated to England on leaving Artane, certainly saw the link between the denial of contraception and the consequent misery.

THE CAMPAIGN TO legalise contraception, led by brave individuals such as Dr Michael Solomons (a key founder of the Irish Family Planning Association) and Mary Robinson, whose contraception bills in the Seanad helped to force change, was finally successful in 1992, and is well documented here. Equally well documented is the campaign to reform the law on homosexuality, only decriminalised in 1993. Ferriter uses material from the Irish Queer Archive and other sources to show how, once again, courageous activists such as David Norris led the way in securing progressive legal change. He notes, however, that the gay marriage campaign continues. On censorship, he provides an engaging account of different battles over the banning of countless books and films, and the legal reforms that eventually followed.

But his discussions of the abortion debates of the 1980s and 1990s are somewhat less detailed. While he deals at some length with the 1983 amendment, there is little reference to the campaigns around the rights to information and travel in 1992, and no mention of the referendum campaign in 2002, when an attempt to reverse the X case was successfully defeated by an alliance of progressive groups, a result that led one tabloid newspaper to run a front page declaring “Women 1: Bertie 0”.

A 2006 survey Ferriter quotes found that 64 per cent of Irish people favoured legalising abortion in some circumstances, indicating that this is another area where change has yet to happen.

So, is Ireland unique? Ferriter does not answer this question directly, nor does he have to. It is clear from his impressively researched and compellingly written text that the Irish authorities were uniquely controlling in their desire to keep “uncomfortable truths behind closed doors”. The pretence persisted for many decades that no sex happened in Ireland; the reality was very different. Ferriter’s book makes an immense contribution in bringing this into the open, while maintaining a fair balance between dwelling unduly on the abuse, and celebrating the brave battles won.

Unfortunately, there are still key battles to be won. McQuaid’s legacy lives on in the State’s refusal to recognise some very basic aspects of human sexuality.

Ivana Bacik is a Senator, a practising barrister, Reid Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology at TCD, and author of Kicking and Screaming: Dragging Ireland into the Twenty-First Century, published by O’Brien Press