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Diarmaid Ferriter: Normal People sets the sexual bar too high

Today’s television sex is far too polished and sophisticated

It is perhaps fitting that we are currently being subjected to an abundance of sex on screen as today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Oliver J Flanagan, the colourful and controversial Fine Gael TD who made the most famous pronouncement on sex in Ireland. Reacting to the Late Late Show’s perceived pushing of boundaries in 1966, he declared: “Sex never came to Ireland before Telefís Éireann went on the air.”

Flanagan was sort of correct. As pointed out by Ken Gray, the television critic of The Irish Times at that time, it was “not that there was no sex in Ireland before television, but that there might as well not have been because nobody talked about it publicly and intelligently”.

As it continued on its broadcasting journey, the reactions to RTÉ-hosted discussions or depictions of sex or just uncovered flesh were much more entertaining than the sex itself and this remains the case today. Much of it had to do with what was regarded by liberals as a ridiculously broad definition of what constituted indecent or obscene and by traditionalists as Ireland embracing the tide of foreign filth and Godlessness.

The archive of John Charles McQuaid, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin at the time, reveals that the same year Flanagan made his comments, a diocesan of McQuaid wrote to him insisting the Late Late Show “seems to be taken up with sex, pornography and obscene films. These ‘frank discussions’ never contain a single reference to any religion, much less the Ten Commandments . . . as a direct result of this terrible state of affairs, it would be interesting to know the number of teenage ‘shotgun’ marriages in Dublin over the past five years.”



McQuaid responded that viewers had to publicly protest, as television was sensitive to public criticism, adding ominously: “I have my own way of reaching these offenders.” But the truth was that he did not to the extent he would have liked. As RTÉ director-general Kevin McCourt admitted to McQuaid the same year, “Not infrequently to my frustration, I cannot be the policeman of all I want.” Neither could McQuaid, whose power was waning. McCourt also received an irate letter from a Sligo bank manager after Victor Lownes of American Playboy fame appeared on the Late Late Show in search of 50 Irish “beauties” to help staff London’s first Bunny club: the show, he complained, was “permitting obscenities that are unheard of in normal Irish society”.

There was consternation the following decade when RTÉ’s programme The Spike included a nude scene; actress Madelyn Erskine played the part of a shy girl attending confidence-building classes at a college where an art teacher asks her to pose for his class. Her embracing of this confidence-building measure had severe consequences for the founder of the League of Decency, JB Murray who, it was reported, suffered a heart attack, attributed to the stress caused by the sight of the naked female body. Murray’s wife told reporters the family had tried to stop him watching it but he had insisted: “He got very worked up over the nude scene and was phoning the newspapers to complain when he came to grief.”

Rapid sex routine

As for off-screen sex during the Flanagan era, it was hardly dynamite for most. Donald Connery’s book The Irish (1968) painted the following portrait of an Irish wife and husband: she was “a kingsize hot water bottle who also cooks his food and pays his bills and produces his heirs. In the intimate side of marriage he behaves as if he were slightly ashamed of having deserted his male friends and his bachelorhood. He takes what should be the happy, leisurely love-making of marriage like a silent connubial supper of cold rice pudding. A rapid sex routine is effected as if his wife is some stray creature with whom he is sinning and hopes he may never see again. Though many Irish wives are preconditioned to such behaviour, having seen its like in their own fathers and uncles, they resent it deeply”.

The television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People is in another league altogether, but we should not get too carried away by believing Ireland has undergone a completely transformative journey from sexual darkness to light. Today’s television sex is far too polished and sophisticated and does not reflect the norm of student sex in my experience, though we were, I suppose, somewhat hampered by having to unlace 10-hole Doc Martens, something of a passion killer.

Unfortunately, we did not have access to “intimacy coaches” who make all this television sexual magic these days; indeed, some didn’t even bother to take off the Docs in drab bedsits in the 1980s and 1990s. Normal People sets the sexual bar too high, though perhaps it will contribute to enhanced and more satisfying Covid copulation for some.