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Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland


Edited by Jennifer Redmond, Sonja Tiernan, Sandra McAvoy & Mary McAuliffe


Sallins (Co. Kildare): Irish Academic Press, 2015

Paperback. xvii+190 p. ISBN 978-0716532842. €24.99


Reviewed by Sylvie Mikowski

Université de Reims


This collection of essays is based on the Women's History Association of Ireland's 2011 conference and all its contributors are either historians, cultural historians or social studies scholars from Britain and Ireland. The volume is a new development in the history of Irish women which began to be regarded with serious interest only twenty years ago, at a time when Irish society was growing more and more secularised and the tenets of the Irish Catholic nationalist state were being thoroughly revised and re-assessed. The recent success of the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage must not eclipse the appalling revelations which were made over the last twenty years about such institutions as the Magdalene Laundries or the Mother-and-baby homes. The first were nothing but prisons the purpose of which was to relegate and lock up women whose sexuality deviated one way or another from the single pattern judged acceptable by the state; the ghastly discoveries of forgotten mass graves in the Mother-and-baby homes showed the extent of the indifference and cruelty engendered by the rigid control of women's bodies enforced by the Irish state with the support of the Catholic clergy. The role of Irish state institutions in the regulation and control of individuals' intimate lives, such as orphanages, industrial schools, borstals, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, Mother-and-baby homes, etc, is an exemplary illustration of Foucault's theories in Surveiller et Punir, in which he shows that sexual categories are discursive constructions which underpin the  control and power the state exerts over the citizens. As one of the contributors in this volume summarises it, “the 'policing' of bodies in a sexual context created a society that saw private sexual behaviours become in some ways an issue between government and citizens whilst being shrouded in silence and shame” [80].

This collection of essays particularly interrogates how gender identity was constructed in Ireland and a single, normative pattern of sexual behaviour was imposed through law and repression, over a period of time which extends from the first part of the nineteenth century to nowadays, and is therefore a valuable addition to previous explorations of the history of sexuality and gender by Maria Luddy, Diarmaid Ferriter, Tom Inglis and many others. The great originality of the chapters is to look for the traces of such control and repression in the most remote, hidden, unexpected or marginal areas of human affairs. Chapter 1 for example examines the convicts' sexual behaviour in a Tasmanian prison where Irish and British female criminals were transported in the first half of the nineteenth century. There, as author Bláthnaid Nolan puts it, “despite the methods of surveillance, control, and punishment [...], there is evidence of overt sexuality both heterosexual and homosexual within the female factories”[17]. Nolan finds evidence that lesbianism may have been a form of rebellion rather than a natural sexual orientation. During the second half of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth, female ”deviancy”, such as homosexuality, prostitution or alcoholism were at the same time denied or silenced and criminalised. Historian Conor Reidy has thus examined the nineteenth-century records of the State Inebriate Reformatory for Ireland, where prostitutes and alcoholics were more or less incarcerated for some time before being released again without any real support in matters of health or material resources likely to relieve their condition. As Reidy puts it, “in somewhat of a contradiction, women were seen as dangerous and vulnerable, corrupting and corruptible” [57], hence the need to pay closer attention to their behaviour than to men's. What's more, whatever petty crime a woman may have committed, such as theft or larceny, she would most of the time have been indicted for prostitution, as if any crime committed by a woman was necessarily linked to her sexual activity. The records examined by Reidy mostly highlight the great poverty and insecurity experienced by many lower-class women born in what would be known today as dysfunctional homes. Rather than being considered as victims and therefore helped and supported, these women were treated like criminals and as such spent their time in and out of asylums and similar institutions where no cure or treatment whatsoever was offered to them.

Another remote, unfamiliar territory the authors of the essays have decided to delve into is that of Irish female emigration. After the famine and until late into the 1950s, the proportion of women among Irish emigrants was one of the highest in Europe for a number of reasons: first, in the wake of the 1845 Famine, marriage had become difficult on account of the new reluctance to split the lands and of the high levels of unemployment; what's more, decades later in post-independence Ireland, unmarried women had practically no legal existence, being barred from jobs once they were married, and having to depend either on a husband or a father financially; additionally, divorce had been banned by the new Constitution. The notion that emigrating single Irish women had to fend for themselves among strangers excited the highest fears among the Catholic clergy and most of the population, arousing a kind of moral panic, as they were supposedly in danger of being contaminated by modern, sinful sexual behaviours. As a result, religious orders of all kinds were eager to propagate the image of what was to be considered as “a good character”. Despite the economic disaster engendered by the nationalist government's protectionist policies, the press was full of exhortations to girls to stay in Ireland, as Jennifer Redmond puts it, “to avoid temptations and the pitfalls of life abroad” [77]. England was especially designated as the land of all potential evils, where “modesty and virtue may be exposed to great dangers” [78]. As a matter of fact, rather than risking their virtue, a lot of Irish women, as Redmond argues, may simply have been rejecting the role-model that was imposed upon them by rule of law, that of a stay-at-home mother of a large family, with no rights of her own and no financial independence. In order to continue to exert control over female migrants' bodies, the church organised the surveillance of young Irish women through such organisations as “The Catholic Girls' Society”, or “The Moral Welfare Committee”, and could rely on the successive Irish governments to collaborate in this project.

Moral panic seems also an apt phrase to describe reactions to the introduction of sex education in schools in the late 1990s. Even though the programme was introduced with the utmost cautionary measures, giving parents the possibility to make their children opt out of the programme for instance, the study of letters sent to various newspapers and other media following its introduction evidences the reluctance of a portion of the population and what Elizabeth Kiely calls “competing discourses around the child, the family, the school and the nation” [110]. As can be expected, the first, more conservative type of discourse was based upon the traditional image of childhood innocence, supported “patriarchal familism”, and presented Ireland as a morally superior nation, whereas the other, more progressive type of discourse was able to contemplate the possible benefits of the programme, for instance in the fight against child abuse. However, in the end, and even if the programme was not withdrawn, it remained limited to the propagation of a normative model of “dominant constructions of sexuality” [121].

Again, if Ireland was the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage by referendum, it had to come a very long way to achieve this image of sexual liberalism, as shown by the two last chapters of the volume, one recording the abortion debate, the other discussing the legal history of intersex in Ireland. What Mary Muldowney wants to prove in her chapter about pro-choice activism in Ireland is that according to her findings, “Irish political leaders have been considerably less compassionate than the voters in their response to women with crisis pregnancies” [127]. The last chapter of the volume, which discusses the legal status of intersex in Ireland, is another example of the effort undertaken by all its contributors to explore the most hidden, overlooked aspects of the history of sexuality in that country, taking Michel Foucault's writings as a reference, and showing how attitudes towards private conducts changed through time, as new concerns on the part of the state were arising, creating the urge to exert renewed forms of power and control over the citizens.

Besides its theoretical coherence and its innovative subject, the volume provides a most valuable example of historical research based on the patient and minute perusal of records, registers, correspondence and legal documents, thus exemplifying the primary importance of what Carlo Ginsburg has called “the trace” in matters of history writing, avoiding all conjectures or sweeping reconstructions, or any kind of militant rhetoric, leaving facts speak for themselves and showing that power being “nowhere and everywhere” as Foucault would have it, it is imperative to identify its ways and means through the often overlooked clues and details of the past.



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