Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, April 12, 2013

Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland by Diarmaid Ferriter (2010, 640 pages)

March 1 to April 21

It is not to late to participate in Irish Short Story Week Year III.  
If you are interested, please contact me.

Occasions of Sin:  Sex and Society in Modern Ireland by Diarmaid Ferriter covers the years from 1845 to 2005.  The image of sex in Ireland that emerges in this book is that of a very rigid, very conservative society dominated by centuries of repression.   In the short stories I have read one clearly gets a view of a society in
which there seems to be little sex without guilt, up until perhaps twenty years ago.   Much of the data in this book comes from court records and institutional documents.  The rate of illegitimate births in Ireland for much of this period was way lower than the rest of Europe and the United States but the clerics carried on as if the few such births were evidence that Ireland was place of great sin.  For a woman to have a child out of wedlock brought tremendous shame on her whole family.  Infanticide was very common as of course abortion is still illegal in Ireland.  

Ferriter says nothing in this book he does not back up with copious references.   He shows through court records that raping a 13 year old girl was likely to get you a shorter prison term than a consenting homosexual act between men.  Oddly there seem to be no cases of arrests for women in same sex relationships.  I suspect the answer of the clerics and school masters of much of the period would be that there were no lesbians in Ireland until 1990 or so.  The Ireland depicted in much of this period is one in which a book like The Joy of Sex would be considered not only obscene and get the seller arrested but would be about something that just was not seen as existing.  Even in marriage sex was seen as almost a sin, a quick relief for the man and a duty for the wife.  Prostitution was a huge factor in Irish society, especially in Dublin for much of the period of this book.  Partially driven by poverty and the insistence that women be virgins until married there was a huge market for the services of prostitutes.  House maids were also very vulnerable to molestation by their masters and if caught or if they get pregnant, they would be turned out to streets and labeled as whores.  The author says outsiders considered that the Irish were the least sexual people on earth for much of this period.  No one received any sexual education.  Girls were rarely advised about the meaning of their first periods and when it came it was seen as very shameful and the girls were made to feel unclean.  Boys in school were subject to sadistic teachers, some clerics some not, who beat them.  

People married latter in Ireland than elsewhere in Europe.  This was in part a legacy of the famine with much of the younger population leaving the country.  The rate of never married, never had any sort of sex persons in Ireland was, per the author, much higher in Ireland than elsewhere.  The Irish short stories I have read are full of old bachelors living at home waiting to inherit and spinster aunts living with their brothers.  There is very little of what one might call recreational sex in the short stories I have read.  Any sex act carries with it a huge load of guilt, the woman yields either because she is paid, it is her duty, or she hope to ensnare a man into marriage.  In any case it is over fast.  Most sexual encounters found at least one of the parties drinking as a prelude.

In 1970 with the wide spread of TV in Ireland, things begin to lighten up.  We still have a country where much of the population is sexual reticent, if Ferriter is right.  As Ireland began to become very prosperous, many eastern Europeans with freer ways began to help change the mores of Dublin.  

There is a rude saying that were it not for Guinness or Jameson the birth rate in Ireland would be zero.   I know this is a joke but Ferriter makes me understand it was probably not a lot of fun to be Irish if you were gay, an unwed mother, someone who just liked sex with multiple partners, or an unmarried woman much over twenty five.  Ferriter tells us that for much of the period, a sexually active single woman with more than one partner might find herself placed in a mental hospital and he also tells us this never happened to men.   

This is very related to the matters of the weak or missing Irish father I have spoken about quite a bit as one of the central themes of the Irish short story.  Declan Kiberd says this is in large part a legacy of colonialism and arises from the domination of the clerics over daily life in Ireland.

Occasion of Sin:   Sex and Society in Modern Ireland is an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) work.  It focuses very largely on court cases and government records.  There is very little speculation in this book, what the author says, he backs up in the 200 pages of notes.  

I am very glad I read this book. It is anything but a light read, it is a serious work of history.  It is a picture of a very repressed society.  Frank O'Connor said, I think anyway, that many people left Ireland just because they were so bored of living in the priest dominated society and I can see the truth of that in this book.  The book is considered definitive by historians.  Ferriter is  Professor  of Modern Irish History at the University College Dublin.

Official UCD Biography

Graduate of UCD, BA (1991), PhD (1996). Lecturer in Modern Irish History at UCD 1996-1998. Researcher  and writer with Dictionary of Irish Biography 1998-1999. Senior lecturer in Irish History at St Patrick's College, DCU, 1999-2008. Appointed Professor of Modern Irish History at  UCD in 2008. Visiting Burns Library Scholar at Boston College 2008-2009.
 Main research interests: the social, political and cultural history of twentieth century Ireland.

I hope to read his book on modern Irish history, The Transformation of Ireland soon.

Mel u

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