Pencil Stubs Online
Reader Recommends


Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

We Didn’t Know The Half Of It

A high-profile T.D. blamed television for it. It was a thriving industry which contributed nothing to the exchequer in taxes. My nose has a Grecian bend because a concerned citizen, who disapproved of my telling jokes about it, head-butted me in Blessington in 1963. I’m referring to sex in 20th century Ireland when everything from masturbation to gazing at female dummies in drapers’ windows merited Eternal damnation.

All pelvic activity was spoken of in metaphor and euphemism on a nudge-nudge, wink-wink basis. Abuse, frustration, erectile dysfunction, VD, rape, homosexuality, infanticide, bestiality and incest were subjects to be avoided in serious conversation and media coverage. As the late John B. Keane put it at the time, “Writing about sex in Ireland is like writing about poitin in Iran. The anti-sex mullahs will bid for your jugular.”

In the introduction to his latest book, Occasions of Sin, Diarmaid Ferriter refers to Ireland in the twenty- first century as, “a country long accustomed to a strict policing of sexual morality . . .” and which has, “carnally come of age”. When an author is doing research, on almost any subject, he or she can, usually, rely on the newspapers from the relevant period. Professor Ferriter did not have this luxury. There is a dearth of information on sex crimes in the newspapers of the day. The scant references to such crimes reflected a severe anti- woman bias. The Cork Examiner, in 1936, reported a judge referring to two teenage girls being used for sex in the back-streets of Cork City. No male was criticised but the learned judge said the, “two little girls . . . . were a positive danger to the people of Cork.” It would appear that the Judiciary hadn’t broken free of the mindset which prompted Elizabet Cady Stanton, in the previous century to say, “ Woman’s degradation is in man’s idea of his sexual rights.” But, as Professor Ferriter points out, there was no shortage of transgressions, “ . . . which becomes apparent when one begins to examine the extent of sexual crime and abuse, as well as legal behaviour perceived as socially transgressive, like unmarried motherhood.”

Occasions of Sin is a history of sex and society in twentieth-century Ireland and is an eye-opener for those who were born towards the end of it and contains some vivid reminders and revelations for those who lived though it; we didn’t know the half of it. The last century, in Ireland, was an age when the word “shift” in a script caused riots, Alan Simpson was brought to court over “The Rose Tattoo” and the mention of a “nightie” on the Late Late Show caused uproar. I had to hide “The Ginger Man” in the cow-house and shop assistants were obliged to pull down the shutters when changing the clothes on mannequins. Those were the things that we knew about. Professor Ferriter points out that, “It was assumed that in terms of sexual morality Ireland was different to other countries; there was a delusion that there were certain sexual problems from which Ireland had immunity; they were ‘ foreign vices’ usually associated with England.” In more recent times Peter DeRosa wrote, “Irish people are among the most intelligent in the world. Why did they allow idiots to decide for them what was, or was not, art and mortality?” Perhaps Diarmaid Ferriter has found a partial answer to that question.

This book is, as the author tells us, “ . . . filled with the voices of victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, violence and assault. The recounting of their experiences as revealed in the depositions and witness statements prepared for court cases is essential in order to get some sense of how these sexual crimes impacted on individuals and communities, the language used to express what was experienced, the vulnerability experienced and a sense of what went on behind closed doors.”

Angela Audretsch of Profile Books told me, “We are thrilled to be publishing Diarmaid’s new book – he is one of Ireland’s most brilliant young historians tackling a critical topic in Irish history which has often been neglected and misunderstood.”

Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.


Refer a friend to this Column

Your Name -
Your Email -
Friend's Name - 
Friends Email - 


Horizontal Navigator



To report problems with this page, email Webmaster

Copyright © 2002 AMEA Publications