Wednesday 28 June 2017

A very discreet affair: Irish sex in the '50s and '60s

Joe O'Shea

It's a cliché almost to the point of parody to claim that sex only arrived in Ireland with colour TV and Vatican II.

Sex in Ireland in the '50s and '60s may have been furtive and often dysfunctional. But as historians such as Diarmaid Ferriter have pointed out, Irish society always had the full range of sexual activity, from the dark and shameful to the just illicit or ordinary.

Public figures, such as the late broadcaster Cathal O'Shannon and his contemporary Frank Hall, were having affairs, sometimes very openly amongst their peer group. Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards may have been the only gays in the village, but their relationship was relatively public and not really remarked upon.

There was, according to Ferriter and others, plenty of sex -- it was just that talking about it was not the done thing.

Friends and colleagues who have been fondly remembering O'Shannon have talked openly about his womanising ways and also hinted that his wife of many years, the journalist Patsy Dyke, had affairs of her own.

In his recent study of Ireland's complicated relationship with sex, Occasions Of Sin, Diarmaid Ferriter points out that if Oliver J Flanagan had been right about sex starting with RTé TV, his social history of sex and the Irish would have started at some point in the mid-60s and been pamphlet-sized.

"It actually starts in the 1860s and runs to over 600 pages," says Ferriter.

"I discovered there was a hell of a lot more sex going on in Ireland than we might have previously suspected; you just had to know where to look for it.

"Most of the historical information available on sex is actually sex in a very negative way, through the courts as a result of prostitution, abuse and what used to be called gross indecency.

"But when you go looking for information on what you are talking about with Cathal O'Shannon and what went on inside marriage, it is really, really difficult.

"It is even difficult to find people talking about the joy of sex or the variety of sex or even what people's own personal arrangements were."

Professor Ferriter says that with no divorce and people often trapped in unhappy marriages, many, especially the middle-classes, often "came to their own arrangements".

"It was still a fairly suffocating society, but couples like O'Shannon and his wife could work around that, especially in their peer group, which would have been slightly more bohemian, more arty, maybe a bit more open to the idea of having affairs."

The historian also points to the broadcaster Frank Hall, of Hall's Pictorial Weekly fame, who had a long-running and very open (at least in the tight media and arts circles of the times) affair with the radio agony aunt Frankie Byrne.

"It was probably more acceptable in the circles they moved in. But that is not to say that it was only celebrities having affairs, it was going on but you weren't hearing about it or reading about it."

Ferriter highlights a Magill magazine survey in 1978, an expose titled 'The Irish Sex Explosion', as a watershed in the way the Irish media dealt with the issue.

"That was extraordinary. They were writing about swinging couples in the Dublin suburbs, escort agencies, massage parlours and they were basically saying there is a whole new world here, a quite middle-class world, people swapping partners and being unfaithful and it's come to Ireland."

With divorce, the rise of the confession culture and highly sexualised imagery now commonplace in daily Irish life, we may have come a long way since the repressed times of recent history.

But it is important to remember that this current generation, or even the one before, didn't invent sex.

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