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