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

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders