Research by Dr. Paul Ryan from the Dept of Sociology has described how a nation grappled with its emerging sexuality in the 1960s and 70s within the restrictive confines of a society still tethered to the rigid moral code of the Catholic Church. Dr. Ryan based his research on an “agony aunt” column written by Angela Macnamara from 1963 to 1980 in The Sunday Press which, he said, provides a clear barometer of attitudes to sex and intimacy at that time. Dr. Ryan found that the column played a key role in the transformation of Irish sexuality from the 1960s onwards with letters revealing a nation anxiously seeking guidance on intimate matters while simultaneously beginning to challenge the conservative Catholic status quo. He said the letters give an alternative story of Irish people’s lives in the 1960s and 70s.
“The letters are an incredible resource and paint an intimate picture of a people emerging from the cocoon of rigid religious fervour and examining their lives more closely. From the desire for more intimacy amongst couples to complaints about licentious behaviour from the more traditional readers, the columns gave a voice to the people of Ireland who had no-one else to turn to for enlightened answers”, he said, adding that the book also challenges a view of the Irish as being exceptionally emotionally and sexually repressed. Drawing on his own academic research and comparing and contrasting studies of sexuality in Britain and the United States, Dr. Ryan said that Irish attitudes were not so very different.
Angela Macnamara was a young mother when she began writing the column in 1963. Born in Rathgar to a middle class family she began her career with The Sunday Press by writing a series of articles on teenage dating. Such was the response that the editor invited her to reply to some of the letters.
Every week, she answered a selection of letters in her column and privately responded to hundreds more on a range of taboo topics that included homosexuality, marital relations and the sexual mores of the time. The advice dispensed was very much in line with the moral teaching of the Catholic Church in Ireland. However, as exposure to mass media increased and the influence of television grew, people began to question the official guardians of Irish chastity. The letters reflected this slowly evolving attitude to private matters and show a growing confidence on the part of the readers to make their own decisions about intimate matters. It was this exchange of views that gave the column an interactive quality with the discourse providing a catalyst for debate, change and modernization in Ireland.
Dr. Ryan has analysed hundreds of the letters Macnamara received, which numbered at least 4,000 each year. Drawing from this research and extensive interviews with men who read the column over the years, he has exposed as a myth the hitherto accepted notion of men being unable to communicate effectively about intimate concerns.
“The letters give us an alternative story of Irish men’s lives in the 1960s and 70s. Previously understood as cold, unemotional, patriarchal figures, I argue that men simultaneously showed a more romantic side in their relationships with often greater involvement in child rearing that has been recognized. Men at that time had an alternative understanding of romance – it was something done rather than spoken”.
Homosexuality, which caused much controversy and argument in Catholic Ireland, emerged as one of the topics that Macnamara’s column helped to demystify. Although she received letters on homosexuality in the early 1960s, it was not until 1966 that the first letter on the issue appeared. While her initial response was that gay men were ‘going through a phase’, over the years her tone changed and she became a much more compassionate voice for the homosexual community. Some letters featured in Macnamara’s column were from parents worried about their waning influence over their children while others dealt specifically with the frustrations of marital life. Indeed, Ireland may not have enjoyed the Swinging Sixties in all its glory but it seems clear from Dr. Ryan’s book that a quietly confident revolution was indeed underway.