Review of John Gibney (ed), Gender and Sexuality in Ireland by Alice Mulhearn Williams

9781526736796John Gibney (ed), Gender and Sexuality in Ireland (Pen & Sword: 2020). ISBN: 9781526736796

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
― Oscar Wilde

In few other national histories are gender, sexuality and power so intimately entwined as in Ireland’s. As Paul Ryan suggests in his contribution to John Gibney’s edited collection, Gender and Sexuality in Ireland, Ireland has long been seen as the product of a “unique constellation of religious, familial and political influences” (p.120) that, together, have shaped a national sexual character defined by repression and guilt – and as many of the other essays in this volume illustrate – power.

Drawn from papers published in History Ireland, Gender and Sexuality in Ireland brings together a number of themes that have been at the core of women’s history in the past three decades, including illegitimacy, abortion, infanticide and prostitution, and approaches them through the lenses of gender and sexuality. As a subject of inquiry, sexuality can be a slippery term relating as much to human reproduction and social norms as to sensual pleasures and gender identity, yet as a subject that intersects issues of gender, class, culture and politics, it has the potential to be an invaluable lens through which to view Irish history. Gibney succeeds in proving this through this collection of insightful essays from historians including Maria Luddy, Cliona Rattigan, Mary Cullen and Mary O’Dowd that span from medieval Ireland to the 1983 referendum campaign.

As a book that highlights the underrepresented history of gender in Ireland, it appropriately opens with an essay from Mary Cullen exploring the reasons why historians have so often excluded the lives and experiences of women. In tracking the politics of women’s history since its emergence from the contemporary feminist movement in the 1960s, she addresses the various challenges faced by feminist historians, including how we approach ‘gender’, how we might build a more embracingly ‘human’ history, and how we challenge male privilege in a more meaningful way (p.1). Cullen’s call for a new integrated history sets the tone for a collection of essays that approaches issues of gender and sexuality through a number of fascinating avenues. Organised chronologically, the first chapter by Art Cosgrove focuses on marriage contracts in Medieval Ireland, and the differing influence of the church over their regulation (p.12). Moving to the sixteenth century, Brendan Scott offers an insightful essay into arranged marriage alliances in the Pale, and how individuals might use these tactical marriages to improve their financial and social positions, as well as the complications that could arise from such a tactic (p.21).

Mary O’Dowd’s chapter opens with a study of the women figures in Francis Wheatley’s painting of the Irish House of Commons in 1780, which deftly leads into an examination of how patriot politics came to facilitate women’s participation in political life. While a considerable amount of attention has been paid to women’s role in the consumer boycotts that precluded the American Revolution, far less has been written about similar movements in Ireland, making O’Dowd’s contribution an important corrective (p.29).

The next chapters give a deep insight into the reformatory and punitive institutions of the nineteenth century, with a contribution on prostitution in Ireland by Maria Luddy (p.44); a chapter by Paul Gray and Liam Kennedy on workhouses and illegitimacy in post-Famine Ireland (p.52), and one by Geraldine Curtin on the reformatories at Ballinasloe and Monaghan (p.59). Each offers insight into the various roles played by workhouses, female penitentiaries and reformatory schools in the lives of society’s poorest and most vulnerable women. While these institutions could serve as a safety net for the single mother in her battle for survival, as argued by Gray and Kennedy (p.58), Luddy shows how they could also offer the opportunity for medical attention and respite (p.51).

Chapters nine and ten take us to the controversy surrounding Irish revolutionary Roger Casement and the nefarious ‘Black diaries’, the authenticity of which Angus Mitchell puts into question with a thoughtful essay that combines forensic historical analysis with a discussion of disremembering and sexuality (p.65).

As the chapters enter the decades of the newly founded Irish Free State, they begin to grapple with the increasingly repressive moral influence of the Catholic Church and state over gender and sexuality. This is illustrated perfectly in Jim Smyth’s study of the Public Dance Halls Act, which shows how in the minds of the Carrigan Committee, dance halls were directly responsible for an alleged rise in illegitimacy, which in turn was to blame for the shameful moral state of the country (p.84). For historians of women in modern Ireland, these latter chapters are of particular interest, with essays on backstreet abortions and infanticide by Cliona Rattigan and the debate over the morality of women’s participation in athletics by Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh.

Importantly, among the studies detailing the repression of women’s rights, there are also those highlighting points of resistance. Diarmaid Ferriter offers a refreshing take on the private scepticism on the part of some civil servants and politicians in relation to the rising moral panic in the mid-twentieth century.  Meanwhile, Paul Ryan uses letters sent to the well-known agony aunt Angela Macnamara between 1963 and 1980 to reappraise the widely accepted view of Ireland as a sexually repressed nation (p119). As an anonymous channel through which ordinary people could share their domestic concerns, the letters received by Macnamara give a fascinating insight into the sexual education, relations and anxieties that Irish women encountered.

Despite the impressive variety of subjects addressed in the collection, there are inevitably gaps. As addressed by Gibney in his introduction, notable absences include studies exploring the institutions of twentieth-century Ireland, particularly its Magdalene laundries and Mother and baby homes; LGBT identities and experiences; and the women’s rights movement of the early twentieth century.

There are many reasons for historians to talk about sex in Ireland, but perhaps the biggest is that, as Oscar Wilde suggests, to talk about sex is to talk about power. As this collection shows, gender and sexuality offer a gateway through which to explore the objective and subjective; private and public; ‘pure’ and ‘illegitimate’, and critically, the times when these dichotomies are challenged. Through these essays, we can see how throughout Irish history, power, gender and sexuality have met, be it in the church regulations on affinity and consanguinity in medieval Ireland; in the smear campaign against Roger Casement, or the imposition of Catholic morality in the Irish Free State.

Alice Mulhearn Williams
is a PhD student in History at NUI Galway. She is currently researching the sensory history of the Magdalene laundries.