Tuesday 19 March 2019

From polygamy and orgies to the Late, Late 'scandals'

History shows the Irish to be a highly sexed lot, finds KIM BIELENBERG...


History shows the Irish to be a highly sexed lot, finds KIM BIELENBERG

Attitudes to sex, according to some historical accounts, are free and easy. Women in Celtic Ireland could dispense with their husbands so long as they remembered to walk out on February 1.

Under the Brehon laws, "the husband who, through listlessness, does not go to his wife in her bed must pay a fine."

Households could become a little crowded. Men could have three partners a principal wife, a concubine and a mistress. Polygamy was particularly popular among the upper classes.

There were a number of different types of marital pairing, including a type of sexual relationship where the husband and wife lived under separate roofs and "soldier's marriage", a temporary sexual relationship or one-night stand.


Observers remark that the Irish are a highly-sexed lot. Sexual horseplay on festive occasions is popular.

Wakes were a good deal more steamy than they are today. The event could turn into an orgy. Rampant group sex was disguised as a fertility rite to ensure the renewal of life.

The rebel queen Grace O'Malley was renowned as a sexual predator. She liked to go to bed with the owners of castles. She would soon dump the fellow and then take over the castle before moving on to another man.


Tourists in Dublin are struck by the lewd language of the natives. Irish writer Brian Merriman produces his bawdy poem, The Midnight Court, which describes how a middle-aged bachelor is kidnapped by a female fairy.

The man is hauled before the Queen and charged with failing to bring fulfilment to lusty young Irish women.


Ireland's most significant political sex scandal is uncovered when Charles Stewart Parnell is exposed as the lover of a married woman, Kitty O'Shea (now immortalised in a multi-national chain of pubs). The scandal leads to the Irish parliamentary leader's downfall.

A collective sense of guilt about the lost leader may explain a subsequent reluctance to pry into the bedroom secrets of politicians.


As the ballad goes, "Take me up to Monto, Monto, Monto...Langer-ooh to you". Victorian prudery may have been in its element but hordes of middle and upper-class Dublin men spent their leisure hours in Monto, the city's red light district.

By the turn of the century, up to 1,600 Dublin women are working as ladies of the night in Monto. In the more expensive brothels, customers including the visiting royal King Edward VII are entertained in plush Georgian parlours and served wine.


James Joyce's Ulysses published, featuring the sexual reflections of Molly Bloom. The English director of public prosecutions, Sir Archibald Bodkin, bans the book after reading only 42 of its 732 pages, and admitting he could not make "head or tail" of it.

He says there is "a great deal more than mere vulgarity or coarseness, there is a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity". Remarkably it manages to escape the censor in Ireland. Dozens of other Irish novelists are not so lucky.

In Dublin, "clicking" is one of the most popular forms of courtship. Women would stroll in pairs through the centre of the city at night, hoping to meet young men. The Phoenix Park was one of the most popular spots for romantic trysts.


The Censorship of Films Act takes much of the fun out of a visit to the cinema. For almost half a century, as soon as movie goers began to see a bit of action, the censor shouts "cut". Between 1924 and 1977, the censor was particularly nimble with the scissors, banning a total of 3,000 films, and cutting a further 8,000 movies. The State's second censor Richard Hayes was outraged by the "lascivious dancing" in Fred Astaire musicals. "Appalling, simply appalling. And such vulgarity," he says.


Contraceptives are banned. Catholic bishops condemn modern dancing and "immodest" fashions in female dress. Irish dancing at the crossroads is considered just about prim enough to be acceptable.


The poet Patrick Kavanagh alludes to the "British" practice of masturbation in his poem The Great Hunger. As a result he receives a visit by officers from the garda vice squad. More than 20 years later, the novelist John McGahern was fired from his teaching post for mentioning the same subject in a novel.


Canon McCarthy of Maynooth produces a two-volume work giving answers to questions about sexual matters from readers of the Irish Ecclesiastical Record. He warns that kissing is fraught with danger and "will often be at least venially sinful". The danger is that it will arouse "venereal pleasure". He warns that the use of internal vaginal tampons is "morally suspect" and "can easily be a grave source of temptation".


RTE Television goes on air, an event that was alleged to have opened the floodgates to lust. It was the Dail TD Oliver J Flanagan who famously suggested soon afterwards: "Sex never came to Ireland until Telefis Eireann went on air."


A woman on The Late Late Show admits, during a Mr and Mrs style quiz, that she did not wear anything in bed on her wedding night. The audience laughs. After angry objections from the Bishop of Galway, Gay Byrne is condemned, not for the last time, for bringing "filth" into Irish homes.

After the bishop and the nightie affair, things will never be the same again. As casual sex becomes more common, a new generation is just as likely to take its cue from the Beatles as from the bishops.


Feminist protestors, including Mary Kenny and Nell McCafferty, travel from Belfast to Dublin laden with illegal condoms, spermicides and other contraceptives. They throw inflated condoms at hapless customs men and wave them about for the cameras on arrival at Connolly Station.

According to official statistics, 26,000 Irish women were already taking the contraceptive pill as a "cycle regulator". As one wag put it, "TDs would have passed a law against that, but they thought a cycle regulator was something you used to keep your bike oiled."


Restrictions of the sale of contraceptives are lifted by the family planning bill.


Bishop of Galway Eamonn Casey flees the country after it is revealed that he had sex with Annie Murphy and fathered a child. The church's authority on issues of sexual morality is gravely undermined.


Voters in a referendum finally give the go-ahead for divorce, ignoring the slogan, "Hello Divorce, Goodbye Daddy". As chatshow hosts fall over themselves to discuss oral sex openly on the radio, it is no surprise when the ban on Playboy, in force since 1959, is lifted. Publishers succeed in by-passing censorship restrictions and the top shelves of newsagents are invaded by countless other porn titles.


An Ann Summers sex shop opens on O'Connell Street opposite the GPO. Lap-dancing clubs open in the city.

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