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April 2010 Archive

A History of Sexuality in Ireland [4]: Man and the Saint.

22 April 2010, 08:22

Authentic manhood in modern Ireland has long been the concern of several self-appointed vanguards, each of them quite actively and provocatively promoting their own version of what constitutes "an Irishman". Apart from the current trend towards a form of economy-driven consumerist masculinity - the notion of the corporate warrior - each dominant discourse of manhood in the last century of Irish history has had, in some shape or form, a very strong guiding hand from the Catholic church, albeit sometimes cloaked in a veil of nationalism.

The ideology of the chaste, virtuous, newly-Independent Catholic Irishman was heavily promoted by both the Catholic church and nationalist movements, pushing a new man for a new nation state, a discourse of Irish manhood that had its roots in hagiography (the lives of the Saints) and the reclamation of an essential Irish purity. Through the medium of the church's pastoral role and its stronghold in schools, youth organisations, GAA clubs and parish management, and most specifically in the confessional, this discourse of authentic Irish manliness became ubiquitous. It was led by a young priesthood who acted as the chosen few, truly honoured, as Joseph Nugent puts it, to be 'carrying to every parish in Ireland the passionate rhetoric of sacred national regeneration now backed with the authority of their new priestly state.'
For the common man this doctrine of masculinity preached that sex was only ever for procreation and only ever in marriage. If saintliness could be embodied on earth it was to be found here in Catholic Ireland and achieved through a denial of sexual pleasures.

Thus the dominant form of masculinity was cast around celibacy. From the inception of the Free State, and in line with Eamonn DeValera’s active pursuit of a political and cultural autarky, 'twentieth-century Ireland', writes Marjorie Howes 'became famous for its determined and multi-faceted repression of sexuality.' Repressed sexuality for Irish people became 'an important, if somewhat confusing, marker of Irish national difference.' Sexual immorality was culturally encoded as a particularly British trait, something that the former oppressors partook of. For the upstanding Irishman his role model was that of his favourite saint, for Irishwomen it was the Blessed Virgin, or, as Gerardine Meaney puts it, 'simple handmaids of the lord.'

Celibate men helped to create a silence, awkwardness and embarrassment about sexuality and intimate emotional relationships. This does not mean that Irish men and women never had sexual pleasure. Rather, if they did, it was a transgressive act within a dominant discourse which induced shame about the body and unruly passions (Harry Ferguson)

By sacralising the discourse of Irish nationalism the clergy deeply inflected the trajectory of Irish manly development, all the while holding true to the League of Columba's published manifesto of realising 'the actualisation of the authentic Irishman.' This discourse was bound up in nationalist notions of both chaste Irish uniqueness and a spiritual purity reclaimed from the colonial oppressors. Catholicism, the popular argument went, was what everyone had been fighting for. Post-independence, the time was ripe for a new masculinity to come to prominence and the Catholic church was only too willing to oblige. As Nugent opinions;
Folding its hagiography into the discourse of manliness, the Church reshaped its heroes to fit the modern paradigm and disseminated representations of its remodelled saints through the various organs, from Papal Bull to parish pulpit, at its command.

The church had a rich, almost infinite, and very masculinist hagiography from which to draw upon, and could utilise the most modern technologies available at the time to create an attractive and consumer-friendly trend amongst its young male congregations. Just as young boys nowadays collect and exchange pokemon or footballer cards, back then they exchanged Saints Cards. Hagiography, in particular, carries the weighty authority of a story of origins, and, as Judith Butler observes: 'The story of origins is [...] a strategic tactic within a narrative that, by telling a single, authoritative account about an irrecoverable past, makes the constitution of the [Church] law appear as historical inevitability.' Irish masculinity could thus find historically unique and authentic origins in semi-fictional biographies of sixth-century saints.

Significant from the point of view of sexuality, was the celebrity-status that St. Columban achieved; an almost cult-like following that the church was hugely instrumental in promoting. For Columban, the earthly trials of life and the sins that plagued him within this mortal coil were, of course, the temptations of bodily pleasures. In early life, according to the Catholic sanctioned Lives of the Saints, 'the good looks and winning ways of the Irish girls were a snare to him.' In vain this sixth-century hero
tried to forget their bright eyes by toiling at grammar, rhetoric, and geometry, but found that at least syntax and the problems of Euclid were a less attractive study than pretty faces, and that the dry rules of rhetoric failed altogether before the winsome prattle of light- hearted maidens.

Columban eventually escaped the temptations of the pretty maidens by moving to France, where the girls were (apparently) not so pretty (and by literally stepping on the figure of his prostrate and begging Mother in the doorway as she beseeched him not to leave.)
St. Columban, it would seem, had already sought atonement for the sexual sins of the nation’s manhood. There was no need for the current generation to go repeating them, they could learn from his pleasured torment.

This was a simple formula for authentic Irish manhood that appealed to a broad and captive audience, one which called for a somewhat confusing combination of a virile yet chaste life. It ‘remembered’ a resolutely virtuous and pious manhood that had existed long before Ireland was colonised. It found its contemporary social authority in a disavowal of bodily pleasures that had been introduced by the perverted English colonisers. Formulating the essentialist Irishman of ‘before English rule’ by using role models such as St. Ignatius, St Xavier and St. Columba and rooting that Irish manhood in the ‘now’ of an Independent Ireland which was built on sexual censorship, Catholic dominance and cultural isolation thus engendered a uniquely Irish masculinity.

I can't help but wonder about the seriousness of the psychological hangover of Irish men following these role models. The 1990s saw Ireland dragged, kicking and screaming some might argue, to catch up with the rest of the Western World in terms of sexuality. And whilst that's all very well for those of us who were fortunate to be born after this cult of the Saint had died out in the late 1960s, what effects did it have on the men who were in their sexual prime while they were trying to live up to these role models?

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