The photographer Spencer Tunick last week photographed thousands of naked Irishmen and women in Cork and Dublin. Not so long ago, the only people who would have turned up for such a shoot would have been (a) foam-flecked, crucifix-bearing crones denouncing as immoral even the possibility of naked flesh appearing in public, and (b) the garda vice squad. But this time, there was nothing -- just hundreds of people taking their clothes off and being natural about it.
In 1980, in one of my first ever newspaper columns, I described going to a naturist beach in France. It caused some consternation in the 'Irish Times', where I then worked. The deputy editor, the delightful Bruce Williamson, asked me was I sure that I was prepared to admit in public that I had been naked with strangers on a beach. I said, of course. "There will," he declared with stentorian relish, "be some consternation about this, my lad. Nudity is not a subject dear to the Irish Catholic breast."
Indeed. Nudity was not a subject dear to the Irish Catholic breast. I got a shedload of letters accusing me of being a pervert and an exhibitionist, but I also got a polite note from some Irish naturists. I was, they said, the first Irish person ever to admit in an Irish newspaper to baring all in a naturist resort. Could we meet? Of course. We did so in a house in Dundrum, all of us clothed; we who like bare skin are not compulsively incontinent about such matters. But the naturists were so nervous that they introduced themselves by their first names only. They felt that social and professional ridicule, or even ruin, would certainly befall them if it was widely known that they liked to spend their time with others, naked in the sun and sea.
We're not talking about S&M bondage sessions or necrophilia here, just nudity.
Moreover, I gathered from their names -- Douglas, Heather, Neville -- that they were Protestants. Were there any Catholics in the group? No, absolutely not. And not because of any prejudice on their part, but simply because no Irish Catholic would dream of appearing naked in public.
Indeed, the very mention of public nudity would invoke slightly hysterical whinnies of pseudo-sophisticated laughter from most people, with predictable jokes about beach balls. There was, to be sure, occasional nudity in the Dublin theatre, but not much, and then it was invariably male. The actress Olivia Treacy even boasted that she had played Lady Chatterley on stage without any nudity at all. But nakedness is central to the portrayal of Lady Chatterley's character. Chatterley with unflaunted genitals is like portraying the Dalai Lama as a sergeant in the Marines, or Hannibal Lecter as a birdwatcher. Only in Ireland would such undignified prudishness actually become cause for boastfulness.
It wasn't even a question of full nudity; there was an annual fashion parade in Dublin for the latest female underwear, and the models were invariably brought in from England, because no Irish girl would be seen in public in knickers and bra.
And when some "feminists" decided that it was time to end the all-male nude monopoly at the Forty Foot in Dublin, they did not do so naked, but in swimsuits.
Only in Ireland would equality at a nudist bathing place mean that only the women were clothed. So, given the widespread neurosis about the human body, it was hardly surprising that naked "female" dummies in Dublin shop windows were draped with sheets, no doubt to prevent a tumult of tumescence amongst passing males.
Prudishness, priggishness, prissiness and preciousness were the staples of Irish life. The ghastly and irrational trinity of craven inhibition, carnal terror and unthinking taboo were elevated to an ethical status: the ubiquitous, shrieking, bigoted black-clad crone became society's self-appointed moral guardian. She was everywhere, at every anti-contraception rally, and every ban-something-or-other protest with her tricolour, her cross and her beads.
So what happened that allowed thousands of Irish people to gather naked in front of the camera without any protesters, prurience or police? How could Irish newspapers freely publish photographs of the event without airbrushing their genitals or pubic hair? This was a revolution. When did the change happen? What transformed so many people, who not long before might have spent half-an-hour struggling under a towel to get in and out of their swimwear on a beach, into such free and easy public nudists?
I just wish I knew. And interestingly enough, the Irish nudes were of all ages. It is not just the young who do not have any inhibition about being openly naked, but also the not-so-young, and even the older. Which means that the latter have shed their fears and their inhibitions in the course of their middle age -- truly the mark of a cultural watershed.
Finally, Irish people seem to realise that nakedness is not just for the shapely and beautiful, and that visible pudenda do not necessarily signal a come-hither sexual agenda, but can merely be an expression of personal freedom.
Which is fine. But what in the name of God happened to the crone?