ANYWHERE else in Europe, Jacqui Power's business initiative would have been greeted as a winning combination of entrepreneurial eccentricity and social awareness. But in Ireland, where a heated debate has been raging as to whether sexual habits are a matter for politicians, priests or private morality, to open a condom shop is to find yourself as much the subject of controversy as praise.
Condompower, or the Condomerie as it is also known in Dublin, stocks more than 200 types of condoms and related products. The shelves are stacked with glow willies, passion packs, cocktail flavours and ribbed 'Rough Riders'. The manufacturers of a joke brand called Enormex claim their product has been tried and tested on African bull elephants.
When one woman heard that the shop was going to open last autumn she wrote to the Irish Times saying she would rather her son died of Aids than wear a condom. This attitude only strengthened Ms Power's determination to set up the shop; a determination that has seen her through Ireland's legal and moral minefield and enabled her to press ahead with the project while the rest of the country grappled with its conscience during the abortion referendum in November last year.
'If there was ever an argument to educate people about condoms this (the referendum) is it,' said Ms Power, 33, at the opening three days before people were due to cast their votes. 'The day my children start secondary school, the condoms go in their lunch box.'
There is nothing in Ms Power's background to suggest that her indifference to the authority of the Catholic church would express itself with such public candour. One of 10 children, she grew up in Dublin's suburbs and married an Italian when she was 16. For a while, she worked in a fast- food shop that her husband had opened in the city but gave that up in search of something more rewarding than 'standing behind a deep-fat frier'. During the seven years between conceiving the idea and opening the shop she had two children.
She knew that a condom shop could plug a potentially lucrative gap in the market: as far back as the Seventies, her brother-in-law and his friends had sold contraband condoms in Dublin nightclubs.
At the time, contraception in the Republic was legal only for married couples, and then only when prescribed by a doctor. In 1979, the law changed, permitting pharmacists to sell condoms. Although this made them more readily available, it did little to encourage people - especially young women - to buy them. There were two reasons. First, many pharmacists simply refused to stock them. Second, in Ireland's villages and close-knit neighbourhoods, buying condoms was a sure way to start tongues wagging.
'You couldn't buy condoms at home because the pharmacist knew everybody and would almost certainly have told everybody. It was all very embarrassing and more often than not people would just wait for someone with a bit more guts to come back from Dublin,' says a 24-year-old customer from Co Clare.
In July last year, the law changed again, allowing all retail outlets - but not vending machines - to sell condoms. Within months Condompower was up and running.
With the main legal obstacles out of the way, Ms Power still had conservative opinion to deal with. Twenty landlords rejected her application for a lease when they realised what she would be selling. One said he would have liked to lease her premises but felt he could not because there were two clergy outfitters on his block who would certainly object.
She finally found premises in the former office of the Hare Krishnas, ideally located among the student cafes in Dublin's bohemian district of Temple Bar.
Until last night, it was illegal to sell condoms to single people under the age of 17 and to advertise contraception in Ireland. The Condomerie's number is not in the Dublin telephone directory. When Ms Power complained she was told that there were many peculiar requests for entries and the line had to be drawn somewhere.
Ms Power believes that the problems she faced typified the Irish establishment's reluctance to acknowledge any sexual behaviour not sanctioned by the church. She said the country was 'burying its head in the sand when it comes to Aids and unwanted pregnancies. The government should be launching awareness campaigns but they won't even put sex education in schools,' she said.
Rita Birtenshaw, chief executive of the Dublin Well Woman Centre, agrees. 'There is a tendency both in the government and in the church to take the view that if you don't tell young people about sex then they won't have it. In 1993 that type of approach is doomed to failure.'
Official figures seem to bear this out. The number of girls under the age of 16 who had children increased by 12 per cent between 1990 and 1991, according to the Irish Central Statistics Office. Figures from the Irish Family Planning Association also show that more than 4,000 women leave Ireland every year to have
Ireland has very few Aids cases compared with other EC countries. Nevertheless, Ministry of Health statistics reveal that the number of people who died from Aids in the country last year doubled, rising from 21 in 1991 to 42 in 1992.
Ms Power feared that these figures would continue to rise. 'I think we have to go beyond the morality issue and address it as one of public health,' she says.
If sales at Condompower are anything to go by, then the public would seem to be right behind her.
The shop has been selling between 6,000 and 7,000 condoms a week despite having been largely dependent on word-of-mouth publicity. The customers - men and women visit the shop in equal numbers - are mostly young people in their teens and
Ms Power even claims to have had two priests come in to buy studded condoms. While others raise their eyebrows, she says she was not in the least surprised: 'If Bishop Casey had come to see me before he went to see Annie Murphy he might still be in a job and the church might not be in so much trouble.'
It is a wonder, making comments like this, that Ms Power has not been picketed or leafleted by religious fundamentalists. A woman, in Dublin, having a laugh at the church's expense against a backdrop of luminous prophylactics. As you enter the shop, a painted slogan on the front wall says it all: 'Condompower - A Sign of the Times'.
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