I get both embarrassed and amused, in an hysterical sort of a way, reading back over the recent social history of poor Cathleen Ní Houlihan. Particularly when it touches on anything sexual. It is surprising that any of us were born at all, such was the misery caused at the mention that anyone might be enjoying a healthy sexual relationship with a partner. The impression was given that everyone who had sexual contact outside marriage was not only in a state of serious sin, but that they were some kind of social pariah, to be scorned and driven away from normal society. Even sex within marriage could be shaky. It really was a subject that could not be discussed in public at all without inviting legions of self-righteous men and women out on the streets proclaiming well-meaning but ill-informed opinion.
I remember the outrage and indignity caused by the students of UCG who proposed that the proceeds of their 1976 Rag Week would go towards establishing a family planning clinic in Galway.
The background to this brave attempt by students stemmed from the growing awareness in the 1970s that women generally were not getting a fair deal.* When it came to family planning it was really up to the woman to do something about it. Not too many men were keen on having a vasectomy. There was a feeling about that it was not a subject for polite conversation, despite being assured by the magazine Hibernia that vasectomy ‘is not the same as, nor anything like, castration’.
Despite evidence that families were getting smaller, the use of contraceptives was banned by law. Even literature about contraceptives was banned by the Censorship Board. But times they were a changin’, and in 1976 the Supreme Court over ruled the Censorship Board saying that the Irish Family Planning Association’s book Family Planning should be allowed wide circulation as it was ‘neither indecent nor obscene’.
Sensing a leak in the dam of imposed ignorance, the forces of self-proclaimed purity and sanctity rode into town. In June 1977 the Loreto Convent, Dublin, informed An Taoiseach Jack Lynch, that ‘all the nuns in the country would vote against Fianna Fáil in the next election’ if it legislated for contraceptives. Poor Jack. And he loved to canvass for votes in convents.
More ludicrously Mná na hÉireann accused the IFPA of ‘teaching masturbation and perversion to babies of five years with the help of lurid sex films’. And equally as tenacious, the Irish Family League replied that the decision of the availability of contraception was ‘ as critical for our people as was the decision on the treaty of 1921 or on neutrality in 1939’.**
Bravely Galway set up its own family planning clinic. No one would rent it a premises, so it initially operated a postal service only. Labour senator and UCG lecturer Michael D Higgins had supported Mary Robinson’s 1974 Family Planning Bill, which polarised Galway Corporation. Galway West Fine Gael TD Fintan Coogan Sr remarked: “It’s disgraceful - women without a ring on their fingers asking for contraceptives to be handed out!”
This newspaper reported that about a hundred ‘youngish people’ with men ‘sporting fine beards’ and ladies ‘looking friendly and idealistic’, attended the first public IFPA meeting. One young man was recognised in the crowd. A priest later called on his parents, warning them that their son ‘ was spreading VD all over Connacht’. Michael Dee blamed his failure to be elected to the Dail in 1977 on his liberal stand. He was shouted down at practically every public meeting he held, by the anti family planning lobby.
In his excellent Ambiguous Republic - Ireland in the 1970s, historian Diarmaid Ferriter*** tells us that during this period Irish womanhood may have been celebrated in genteel and patronising terms at the annual Rose of Tralee festival, but there was a robust challenge to well guarded male preserves at the same time. ‘The cover of Banshee, the journal of Irishwoman United, documented the invasion by woman of the Forty Foot all-male bathing area in Sandycove, Co Dublin, in 1976. Galway women had their own victory some years earlier when they invaded Blackrock swimming area in Salthill, where men imagined that it was for their use only. Banshee had proclaimed that ‘In Ireland private property means men’s property’.
The fearless and articulate Nell McCafferty, and others, protested against the pubs that would not serve women. Some would not serve women with pints of beer. A half one was OK.
Nell famously ordered 31 brandies and one pint for a group of women; and then refused to pay when she was not served the pint.
The cover of Wicca, another Irish feminist publication, declared defiantly and confidently in 1978:
I swear it to you
I swear on my common woman’s head
The common woman is as common
As a common loaf of bread...
And will rise.
Next week: More amazing revelations of the 1970s
NOTES: * In June 1978, Hot Press reported that the average male worker in the Republic earned £76.84 for 44.8 hours of work per week; while women earned £40.87 for 38.2 hours.
While a married woman could file a separate tax return, her income was still regarded as that of her husband. Although 16 per cent more girls than boys reached Leaving Cert stage, only just over one-third of those carried on to third-level (Ambiguous Republic - Ireland in the 1970s ).
** Women were right to be annoyed. Once again, as we have seen in the present dilemma about abortion, the Dáil was slow to legislate following the often quoted McGee case. In 1973 the Supreme Court established that marital privacy was protected under the Constitution, and that the law prohibiting the importation of contraceptives, even for private use by married persons, infringed that privacy and was thus unconstitutional.
*** Diarmaid Ferriter’s book, just published by Profile Books, now on sale at €42.90. Easons, however, is doing a special offer at €32.99.