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Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Diarmaid Ferriter

"A groundbreaking analysis of sex in Ireland lays bare the devastating consequences of more than a century of oppression."--Guardian UK Occasions of Sin charts the Irish sexual experience during the twentieth century. In tackling the public and private … see full wiki

Author: Diarmaid Ferriter
Genre: Health, Mind & Body
Publisher: Profile Books
1 review about Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern...

The grim & prim permeate a solid, sober study

  • Jul 4, 2010
A leading historian takes the same approach that enlivened his "The Transformation of Ireland: 1900-2000" (2004; see my review): he intersperses anecdotes, data, analysis into a vast narrative panorama of slow but stunning social change in his native island.

This is a big book for a topic often stereotyped by his academic colleagues, and Ferriter carefully shows how the clergy and state were both warped by mores, pressure, fear, and ignorance to control men and women largely constrained by Irish Catholicism to suppress their urges. Marriage often was delayed in a rural economy where the eldest son waited to inherit the farm; other siblings were left often into a life of unwanted celibacy, if not emigration. How to police their temptations and curb their urges meant the Church and State had to censor the media, patrol the hedgerows, and terrorize the sinners who out of weakness as well as innocence found themselves abused, pregnant, manipulated, or trapped.

Ferriter investigates court records and police files as well as ecclesiastical and legal reports, so this tilts as he admits his study towards the darker sides of sexual expression rather than their joyful manifestations. Given the difficulty of testimony for the latter in much of 20c Irish documents, he takes us through the amassed data skillfully and with a bit of sympathy and a touch of wry humor in a narrative that needs it. He addresses a wider audience than his scholarly peers, so it's a readable study accessible to any diligent reader. He avoids jargon and theory, and he keeps his attention on the primary sources to show us how gradually the Irish society liberated itself by the 70s and 80s from the clerical and media power brokers.

The sex abuse scandals and the sad story of the Magdelene laundries, added to the fate of many single mothers and their children, darkens later chapters and merits the detail he gives to such controversies. The debates over abortion and contraception, divorce and homosexuality, pre-marital sex and sex education all enrich his book. What I would have wished more of: how the North of Ireland might (or might not) have differed from the Free State and Republic as to a more British-dominated ethos of sexuality.

As to the whole island, analysis was needed in greater depth of the current results of one-third of Irish women having babies without being married, the quite sudden (compared to the Anglo-American trend) lurch into a secular, eroticized, and commodified sexual culture that ties into the binge drinking and loutish behaviors widespread among many Irish people today, and the effects of so quick a turnaround to a non-Catholic, permissive, uninhibited and drug-tinged lifestyle that seems to have caught up many in its grasp in Celtic Tiger days.

However, these changes of course are so recent that perhaps future scholars will build upon Ferriter's pioneering work and explain this aspect in more detail. In the meantime, this work should satisfy anybody seeking to understand why for so long Ireland seemed to change little in its sexual customs, and how long Churches and State sought to channel basic desires into a basis for domination in the name of bettering the people and saving their souls.

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July 29, 2010
I studied human sexuality in college, so I'm really interested in these sociological studies in various countries. I'll definitely have to check this out. If you're interested in sex and society in other cultures, you should check out "Sweet and Sour" for Korea, "Opening Up" for China and "The Night is Young" for Mexico. Thanks for sharing this!
August 09, 2010
Appreciate these references, Devora. I hope they're more upbeat than the Irish!
August 09, 2010
My pleasure! And ha, it does sound like it. None of the books that I recommended refer much to religion at all, but rather, talk about their day-to-day lifestyle influences, as well as bring in factors like social class, local economy, education, etc.
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