The Sex Factor

As a new TV series on 50 years of Irish nookie starts tonight, Damian Corless looks back at how our broadcasters have outraged the country's moral guardians

Nudity in RTE's 'The Spike' in 1978

Starting tonight, TV3 is to screen a six-part series entitled How The Irish Have Sex. It sets out to chart changing attitudes and practices over the past 50 years using "real-life stories from real-life people".

In episode one, two senior citizens tell of their "disastrous" wedding night, while another elderly couple recall catching the bus straight from their wedding reception to Bray Head where they "burned through the heather".

One middle-aged man reveals that he had his "sexual awakening" aged 12 while having his hair cut by a girl in hot-pants, while another details his battle with the urge to fiddle with himself.

One person who won't be turning on, but will instead be turning in his grave, is the late Eamon de Valera. When Dev launched Irish TV in 1961, his inaugural speech solemnly warned about its "nuclear" power to destroy morals. The second item on opening night was a benediction of the new service by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid

The Catholic Truth Society detested the very idea of TV in Ireland. Months earlier they warned: "More souls may be taken away from Christ through the Gospel of pleasure they absorb from television, than if the Antichrist would start an open bloody persecution in our country." As proof, the Society told how: "A baby was born in a taxi en route to the hospital, because the mother couldn't tear herself away from her favourite TV programme."

Irish TV's first sex scandal came in its second year when the station withdrew a sketch-drawing advert for Bri-Nylon underwear. Telefis Eireann conceded that the cartoon of Anthony and Cleopatra was "lewd and lascivious".

Things went quiet again until January 1966, when Playboy executive Victor Lownes arrived in Ireland. An appearance on The Late Late Show was scratched when he told reporters he was on a recruiting drive to snare Irish bunnies for England's Playboy clubs.

A month later the Late Late caught the belt of the crozier it had ducked with Lownes. The 'Bishop And The Nightie' affair has entered legend, but it was really much ado about nothing. Gay Byrne hosted an item based on the Mr & Mrs game show. Mr and Mrs Fox, from Terenure, were no swingers.

Asked to pick a dream date from A,B or C, Mrs Fox said her hubby would most likely treat her to a night down the local pub rather than a fancy restaurant.

The legend began when Gaybo asked the colour of Mrs Fox's nightdress on her wedding night. "Transparent," she tittered. Pressed, she admitted: "I didn't wear any." When the shrieks of laughter subsided she changed this to "white".

That night there were only three phoned complaints to Montrose, and one telegram. Sent from the Bishop of Clonfert, it read: "Disgusted with disgraceful performance."

The next morning the Bishop let fly from the pulpit, calling on "all decent Irish Catholics" to protest. The public ignored the call, leaving it to a handful of obedient public bodies to work up a head of righteous indignation.Loughrea Town Council branded the Late Late "a dirty programme that should be abolished altogether". Meath VEC accused it of "anti- national" treachery.

The bishop had called it badly wrong, and the vast majority of "decent Irish Catholics" left him to hang.

Ireland's top soap of the 1960s and 1970s was The Riordans, which engaged the hot social issues of the day -- mostly by skirting around them. When the show finally tackled birth outside of marriage, it was felt prudent to make the culprit an English niece of the local Protestant bigwigs.

At one point, writer Wesley Burroughs developed a plotline which hinted that Maggie Riordan was getting a little more pregnant each week (outside of marriage). Burroughs was called in by Montrose top brass and was told this was not on. He had to go through the medical texts to find an illness that would innocently explain away Maggie's condition.

In 1978 RTE began a series set in a tough Dublin school. One critic wrote that RTE had finally "found the magic formula for successful comedy". Except The Spike wasn't meant to be a comedy, it was merely so bad it was brilliant.

When Episode 5 contained the briefest flash of nudity in a real-life art class, the chairman of the League Of Decency had a heart attack while phoning the papers to complain.

One week on, just hours before Episode 6 was to air, RTE "deferred" the rest of the series, which has never been seen since. The deferral came too late for one of the actors who required medical treatment after he was, as the Evening Press elegantly put it, "thumped by a fat elderly lady".

A year later, in 1979, the Late, Late interviewed a lesbian, without raising a whimper of protest. But when the show lined-up two lesbian ex-nuns in 1985, all hell broke loose. Why? The answer is that by the late Seventies the Swinging Sixties had reached Ireland, and people were less hung-up about sex. In the mid-Eighties, however, traditional Ireland and liberal Ireland were locked in a vicious civil war fought out in rancorous referenda.

In the High Court, one upset Catholic wanted the Late Late item outlawed, claiming it would "greatly undermine Christian moral values" and "the respect of the general public for nuns". The case was thrown out, and the show aired, while 100 or so hardliners picketed Montrose reciting decades of the Rosary, singing hymns and hurling abuse.

By the mid-1980s, the VCR had invaded many homes, sparking a brisk trade in imported filth and prompting John B Keane to venture: "I don't think the pornographic video is suitable for teenagers." But in Montrose in 1986, the most visible threat to teen morals was 16-year-old Mandy Smith, who had shot to infamy when it emerged that she and Rolling Stone Bill Wyman had become an item when he was 47 and she was an underage 13.

Smith turned down the BBC's top-rated Wogan show to tell her story on RTE's Saturday Live. She was jetted in and installed at the Gresham, where, at the last minute, RTE phoned saying she'd been downgraded to an audience seat. When her manager refused, RTE axed Mandy and issued a statement that she was "not important enough". The press had a field day, quoting an RTE source as saying the station "felt she should not give a bad example to young teenage girls".

The Mandy Smith gagging story circled the world, with Ireland a laughing stock. It proved a turning point. The following year, in a special on AIDS, the Late, Late gave a demonstration on how to put on a condom (onto fingers, that is). The floodgates opened.

For the first time, RTE screened movies uncut, which might run 20 minutes longer than the bowdlerised versions shown up the road on UTV.

But even today, not everything goes. Last year, Channel 6 announced a new Friday night soft-porn slot. But when some of the station's backers objected (reportedly including Senator Feargal Quinn and the Barry's Tea dynasty), the "erotica" schedule was scrapped.

As one wit observed: "Like teenagers in a video store, Channel 6 had pawed the DVD box, but chickened out before getting to the counter."

How The Irish Have Sex starts tonight at 9pm on TV3.

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