Profile £30 (687pp) (free p&p) £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Occasions of Sin, By Diarmaid Ferriter

When the social reformer Josephine Butler paid a visit to Dublin in 1878, she appeared to be under the impression that the Irish nation was naturally more chaste and virtuous than others. This view would have gone down well with church and civic authorities, whose policy was to promote an idea of the Irish as spiritually well-endowed, and strongly resistant to "the tide of filth" seeping in from elsewhere.

We have to wait more than 60 years to get a truer assessment of the actual state of affairs prevailing in the 19th century and later. The Irish-born author and social commentator, Francis Hackett, writing in 1945, came out with a pertinent and witty observation: "About the problems of sex they pretend to be doves when in fact they are ostriches."

And there you have it. Diarmaid Ferriter's comprehensive study of "sex and society in Ireland" exposes a long history of denial and obfuscation. Heads in the sand, or heads in the clouds. It uncovers an atmosphere of fear and repression, with shocking instances of cruelty and backwardness.

Because a major source of information on sexual behaviour is court records, the book has more to do with sexual crime than erotic allure. This is not an account of the joys of sex, clandestine or not. Child abuse, rape, bestiality, infanticide, all these horrors, and more, create a sense of an irrepressible instinct seeking a desperate outlet in a climate of nearly total carnal ignorance.

Before the 1950s, whenever the subject of sex came up in Ireland, it produced a state of moral panic which held the bulk of the nation in its grip. What the resulting authoritarian plan of action boiled down to was the resolve that "boys and girls must be kept apart at all costs". The priest, of course, was well to the fore among the Irish anti-sex brigade ("unlawful" sex, that is; the activity was given a reluctant go-ahead within marriage, for procreative purposes only).

Considering all that has emeregd in the past 30-odd years concerning clerical licentiousness and abuse of vulnerable children, we may savour the irony contained in the image of the priest with one hand raised in po-faced benediction, while the other hand gets up to goodness-knows-what.

Ferriter is at pains to be fair to a bygone Irish way of life (not that different from other European peasant communities), to the role of the Catholic church (which is given some credit); even, God help us, to the egregious Archbishop McQuaid, thwarter par excellence of every life-enhancing instinct from his palace in Dublin throughout the middle years of the 20th century.

But, for all his dispassionate tone, he is as appalled as anyone by the sorry parade of perversities and misdemeanours under his scrutiny, along with anti-homosexual prejudice, anti-feminism, anti-everything else in line with a 21st-century liberal consciousness. It is all very sad and squalid.

Fortunately, the author has another resource besides the criminal records to help him breach the wall of silence surrounding sex in Ireland: the works of poets, novelists and memoirists.

Their take is enlightening, sometimes funny and never dispiriting. Frank O'Connor, Edna O'Brien, John McGahern, Dermot Healy and many others made a stand against the worst and most ludicrous aspects of the churchly taboo on sexual matters: the tirades against "foreign contamination", the complaints from the pulpit about "lipstick and legs", the priest prowling the streets of country towns at night swiping courting couples with his blackthorn stick.

We have to wonder how the church got away with it, but to help our understanding, Occasions of Sin shows the puritanical system evolving into a monolithic monstrosity. The book adds up to a tremendous feat of documentation which leaves no source of misery unprobed.

It analyses the flaws in the way the Irish saw themselves, and hoped that others would see them. It enables us to gauge the enormous distance between then and now. But by and large, we miss the stories of happy and defiant, or of ideologically impelled sinners.

Patricia Craig's memoir 'Asking for Trouble' is published by Blackstaff

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss