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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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy (Fionnchu)
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica. … more
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"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 worlds of Irish sex, this book is groundbreaking in its scope and ambition. Diarmaid Ferriter covers such subjects as abortion, contraception, censorship, homosexuality, and the various hidden Irelands associated with sexual abuse—all in the context of a conservative official morality backed by the Catholic church. The breadth of this book and the richness of the material uncovered make it definitive in its field and a remarkable work of social history.
Diarmaid Ferriter is a professor of modern Irish history at University College, Dublin.