Sexual intercourse began in 1967

The Irish Eros edited by David Marcus, Gill & Macmillan, pounds 14.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Purely erotic writing does not come naturally to the modern Irish" wrote Vivian Mercier in 1962, in The Irish Comic Tradition. He felt impelled to add that readers might well regard that remark as the greatest understatement in his entire book. It wasn't a new perception. Elizabeth Bowen, in her introduction to the 1946 edition of Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas , had commented on the innate sexlessness of Irish literature. Even major writers (such as Flann O'Brien) either shied away from the topic, or approached it very gingerly. Catholic puritanism was largely to blame for this state of affairs, or non-affairs. The Irish Censorship Board ensured the suppression of everything it lumped together under the heading of "Evil Literature". Evil literature, as is well known, included most of the riches of mid- 20th-century Irish writing.

David Marcus reminds us in his introductory note to this anthology that, with the 1967 Censorship of Publications Bill, "thousands of books were automatically unbanned". Irish readers then experienced something "akin to multiple literary orgasm with virtually no foreplay." Along with other freedoms in the social sphere, in other words, exposure to sex on the page perhaps came too suddenly and went to the nation's head. Now, 30 years on, the time seems right to assess the partial secularisation and eroticisation of Irish society.

Hence The Irish Eros . It's a good idea, but there are two basic ways of tackling the subject and neither has recommended itself to David Marcus. It would make sense to confine selections to the period beginning in 1967, to show how things have altered in the field of fornication. On the other hand, you might cover the whole spectrum of Irish writing to indicate the subversive strain of sexuality which persisted in the face of the most rigorous repression. This anthology goes back to the 17th century, with one or two translations from the Irish, and it includes Thomas Moore and Richard Brinsley Sheridan; but these are just nods to comprehensiveness.

The emphasis falls strongly on the 20th-century and in particular, on recent writing. David Marcus has also - unwisely, I think - opted for completeness in all his choices; he insists on the whole poem or story, and this brings about a rather patchy look. The inclusion of excerpts would have made for a much more complex and richer book. As it is, you are struck even more forcibly than with most anthologies by the omissions.

There is nothing from Brian Kerriman's rip-roaring "The Midnight Court" of 1790 (of which, to cap it all, David Marcus is one of the translators), with its age-old woman's complaint: "How can I lie in a lukewarm bed/With all the thoughts that come into my head?" In the present century there's no MacNeice or Austin Clarke, no George Moore or William Trevor, no Mahon, Longley, Muldoon (although he gets in as a translator of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill), no McGuckian or 0'Searcaigh: and these are just the first names that spring to mind. John Montague is in, but not "The Siege of Mullingar", which surely puts its finger on what the anthology is about.

What you notice about the inclusions, even the most up-to-date, is the continuing intrusion of Catholicism into Irish life, whether it's treated as a force to be repudiated or merely taken for granted. Priests and nuns, though, are now allowed to assert their right to sexual fulfilment, along with everyone else, as in the stories by John McGahern and Honor Tracy. (The latter, too, alerts us to the fact that in Dublin you can't get up to anything without half your acquaintances spotting you at it). Ronan Sheehan's comic piece, "A Church and a Modern World", about a gauche young altar boy at a parish social desperately embracing chastity, shows how little has changed, in some respects, in the last 60-odd years. There's even an instance (in Kevin Casey's story) of an erring girl being denounced from the pulpit.

Many of the individual contributions here are cogent or illuminating or even mildly racy. But they don't add up to a denial of Vivian Mercier's observation. On the evidence presented, you have to conclude that the modern Irish still haven't got the hang of purely erotic writing.

Comments