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Monday 1 September 2014

Sex and Sensibility

Darragh McManus

Published 14/06/2008 | 00:00

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It was once famously said that there was no sex in Ireland before television, which would suggest that either all our ancestors were created in a laboratory or someone was exaggerating a bit. Regardless, this was a fairly repressed place until quite recently, with the bishops ever ready to give a thump of the crozier to anyone getting a little frisky and pursed-mouthed puritans trawling the land, desperately searching for things they could get offended by.

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Then, in the 1970s, it all started to change. Presented by Simon Delaney -- he of Bachelors Walk and every second radio advert at the moment -- Sex and Sensibility examines that time and the cultural forces that were changing Irish society, from a gloomy 'Irish Taliban'-style theocracy to the nation of fun-loving sex maniacs we are today.

Television played a huge part in loosening everyone up and this show goes into some detail on how and when. We have Terry Prone contending that soaps, rather than dusty old current affairs programmes, best effected social change. We have The Riordans causing scandal when Maggie goes on the pill. We have the so-called 'contraceptive train' to Belfast, a reminder that, bizarrely, family planning was seen as a vice and not a virtue in the bad old, good old days.

And there's more. The Late Late Show and its lesbian nuns, Bill Hughes on the underground gay scene, David Norris being asked if he was 'sick' by a TV presenter, the birth of the Leeson Street clubbing scene and Toni the Exotic Dancer, a housewife from Tallaght who flashed her ample bosom for the after-mass crowd. And if there's a better summation of the Irish mindset than that confluence of the risqué and the religious, we've yet to hear it.

While it's impolite to look back on past times and sneer superciliously at the beliefs and societal mores, it has to be admitted that Ireland was a funny (as in strange, not ha-ha) little place back then. Protesters brought portable Virgin Mary statues to the RTE studios, for instance. What were they intending to do with them - batter the door down?

As well as being an interesting social history, this documentary will be worth catching for the pure nostalgia factor. How long ago it all seems now: the outlandish clothes and big hair; the grey streets; the economic dire straits; the piety and moral zealousness; the fact that everyone got so bent out of shape over something so natural, unavoidable, harmless and -- unless we want the species to die out -- necessary.

Sex and Sensibility looks like it's taking a reasonably light-hearted approach to the topic, and there's no harm in that -- we've had more than enough sour-faced handwringing and over-earnest 'contextualisation' of our past, thank you very much. And besides, how straight a face can anyone keep when talking about Leeson Street nightclubs, exotic Toni from Tallaght and those portable Marys?

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