Impure Thoughts: Sexuality, Catholicism and Literature in Twentieth-century Ireland, by Michael G Cronin, Manchester University Press, 256 pp, €70, ISBN: 978-0719086137
Every now and again a book appears and prompts you to ask why, given the immediacy of its topic, no one had ever done it before. That was my reaction on discovering that Michael G Cronin, a lecturer at NUI Maynooth and occasional contributor to this journal, had published a study, based on his doctoral thesis, dealing with the fascinating melding of sexuality, Catholicism and literature in the Ireland of the twentieth century.
The study begins, not surprisingly, with Joyce, and ends with Edna O’Brien and John McGahern. A rather broad interpretation of literature that incorporates Catholic encyclicals, agony aunt columns, psychology journals, publications of the Catholic Truth Society and novels means that this is in no way a traditional work of literary criticism. Such an ambitious remit means that Cronin’s focus is very much on the Bildungsroman genre, which may explain why he ruled out figures such as Walter Macken, John Broderick, Eilis Dillon, Thomas Kilroy, Brinsley MacNamara and Francis MacManus, all of whom have highly relevant things to say about Catholicism in twentieth century Ireland. But I am surprised that Brian Moore’s The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965), which does fit the criteria applied, failed to be included. Undoubtedly hard choices must be made when one is attempting to cover a canvas as far-reaching as the one assembled here. However, such choices need to be justified and that is not a convention that is always respected in Impure Thoughts. Notwithstanding some minor issues with the methodology employed therefore, I would like to state from the outset that my overall reaction to this study is overwhelmingly positive.
The introduction opens with a description of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man hearing a disturbed nun screeching “Jesus! O Jesus! Jesus!” as he passes by a special psychiatric unit run by a female religious order on his way to university. The fact that the woman in question is enclosed in an institution that is both religious and psychiatric “can serve as a parable for the prevailing conception of the history of sexuality in twentieth-century Ireland”, according to Cronin, who adds: “If the figure inside the walls embodies the dysfunctional fusion of religion and repression that has characterised Irish sexuality, the figure outside can stand for the relationship of Irish literature to that history”. He links the “unhinged nun” to the dark side of Irish Catholic culture that has been exposed by the various reports into sexual and physical abuse of children by, among others, priests and religious during the twentieth century. He is correct to note that “the relationship between Catholicism and Irish sexuality is profoundly vexed and troubling”, and in fairness to him, his analysis steers clear of any facile explanation of that relationship. He eschews placing all the blame at the door of the Catholic Church for promulgating an unhealthy attitude to sexuality, since society was also complicit in this approach, as becomes abundantly clear as the book progresses.
Cronin recognises the pioneering work carried out by the UCD sociologist Tom Inglis in assessing how the Catholic Church achieved what Inglis termed a “moral monopoly” in Ireland. He is less convinced by Diarmuid Ferriter’s Occasions of Sin, which adheres to “a rather narrow empiricism”. Ferriter is accused of disregarding “sexual discourse as a location of ideological struggle and a mode of power in itself”. Cronin’s own methodology seeks to draw on a wide range of disciplines, which do not always coalesce and seem to be employed at times solely in order to support the primary thesis of the book. Thus the Bildungsroman is presented as a genre that “negotiates both individual crises of sexual formation and the historical crises of modernisation. It has, moreover, the capacity to connect these crises in symbolically powerful ways”.
This may well be true, but rather than concentrating on one particular genre, which in itself would have provided more than adequate material for analysis, Cronin also feels the need to delve into statements made by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland, the writings contained in relationship advice columns, those produced by sex therapists, critical theorists, psychologists, and so on. By trying to wear so many different hats, the author inevitably spreads himself a bit thinly and the result can leave readers somewhat dissatisfied that their particular area of interest is not covered adequately. In fairness, Cronin is amazingly adroit across a broad range of disciplines and he could offer the argument that his chosen topic demanded a multidisciplinary approach. Sexuality in Ireland was viewed primarily as a moral problem for a long time, but as the twentieth century progressed and taboos that were heretofore associated with the sexual act began to wane, the legitimate aspiration to give and gain pleasure from sex came to be seen as important. This evolution is mapped as reasonably as could be expected by Cronin.
The chapter on Joyce contains as much discussion of Freud as of the major literary figure of the twentieth century. Inevitably the analysis revolves around the key moments which lead to Stephen’s decision to choose art over religion in the concluding pages of The Portrait. The choice of exile by the hero is explained in the following terms: “to serve the collective, he must first escape it. To be an artistic priest to his nation, he must first of all elevate himself above it, not debase himself to it”. Stephen’s sexual initiation is not dealt with in the detail one would imagine it warrants, nor are his overcoming of feelings of guilt and his emergence as a secular priest of literature. Instead, we are informed: “Combining the formation plot of the realist novel with the emergent psychoanalytical narrative of sexuality and subjectivity produced dividends aesthetically for Joyce.” The focus on the Bildungsroman aspect somewhat occludes the religious and sexual import of The Portrait rather than throwing new light on it.
Cronin then looks at sexuality, moral politics and the capitalist crisis that took place in Ireland between 1920 and 1940. It reveals the type of matters that preoccupied clerical and lay intellectuals in articles published in theological and popular journals that included: “censorship of literature and cinema, preventing access to birth control and information about it, a perceived rise in the numbers of births outside of marriage, and the dance halls”. John McGahern’s Memoir contains several amusing anecdotes about the priggish attitudes that a local entrepreneur, Patsy Conboy, encountered in Co Leitrim after he set up a dance hall there. The action set him on a collision course with the local clergy, who had misgivings about the moral danger it would pose to their young parishioners. Conboy’s advice to the father of numerous children that he put a cap on his oil well (that is use contraceptives) rather than following the foolish advice of priests did nothing to rehabilitate him in the eyes of the clerical and police authorities. At the same time it demonstrated that people were quite prepared to oppose the status quo when it conflicted with their business or personal affairs.
Discussion of sexuality by Catholic intellectuals between 1920 and 1940 reveals three main preoccupations: “a juridical discourse of criminality, legislation and regulation; a theological discourse of personal morality and sin; and a discourse of medicine and health”. None of the discourses was in any way unique to Irish Catholicism, “since they are each part of the modern ‘power-knowledge’ nexus, as Michel Foucault has termed it”. Inglis examined the extent to which the confessional served as an ideal way of controlling sexual activity among the Irish faithful and the idea of doing penance for any seeming immoral behaviour was very ingrained in Irish people. Interestingly, Cronin quotes Thomas Laqueur, who noted that “there was an equally strong concern with the relationship between sexuality and social order in the scientific discourse as there was in the political discourse”. Nor was Ireland’s attitude to sexual morality unique. In France, where so many of the male population were lost in the carnage of World War I, “propaganda” about birth control was outlawed.
The chapter that deals with Kate O’Brien and the erotics of liberal Catholic dissent is the most satisfactory one of the entire book. Cronin is wholly convincing in his description of the role O’Brien played in depicting taboo issues for her time such as sex outside marriage, homosexual relationships, intellectual engagement with, and questioning of one’s faith. The Land of Spices (1942) is a very warm account of the years spent by its heroine in a school run by a female religious order. Its banning, based on one line, “she saw her father and Etienne in the embrace of love”, provoked an animated debate in the Irish senate, but it was not overturned. Cronin observes: “O’Brien’s real challenge to the public morality discourses did not lie in the explicit depiction of sex in her novels but in her adherence to the idea that sexuality had inescapable moral consequences for the individual and for the social order”. An insightful discussion of Mary Lavelle, whose eponymous heroine goes to work as a “Miss” or tutor in Spain and enters into an irregular relationship with a married aristocrat, contains many revealing comments about how sin and shame are not automatically confined to sex. The raw passion of the bull ring can elicit the same reaction, as is apparent from Mary Lavelle’s response to one she attends in Spain. Cronin notes: “The references to ‘shame’ and ‘sin’ indicate the similarity between the bullfight and illicit sexual desire that O’Brien seeks to create.” The exposure of Kate O’Brien to a more enlightened European Catholicism meant that she saw beyond the simplistic and unquestioning presentation of sin in the Ireland of her time. She was sensitive to the sensual and aesthetic side of Catholic ritual and to “the potential empowerment and fulfilment which religious life offered to women”.
In a chapter on sex in marriage and how it interacted with Catholicism and modernisation between 1940 and 1965, the work of Ireland’s leading “agony aunt” of the period, Angela MacNamara, who wrote in The Sunday Press for several years from 1963, is considered in some detail. Cronin illustrates how MacNamara, rather than being a mouthpiece for traditional Catholic teaching, was quite innovative and daring when it came to discussing the joys of sex among married couples, for example: “Within marital sexuality, the pursuit of sexual pleasure was as important as the goal of reproduction since such pleasure contributed to the creation of intimacy, and it was intimacy, rather than duty or obligation, that provided the most effective means for maintaining stable and secure marriages.” We read how Catholic advice literature during this period was effectively “setting out a model of youthful formation and symbolically elaborating a modernising model of national development” rather than promulgating the reactionary and conservative discourse one might naturally associate with such writing. “Experience” rather than religious and moral authority became the criterion according to which people calibrated their behaviour in the sexual domain. So whereas Lenten pastorals issued by the Irish Catholic bishops during the 1950s still demonstrated an obsession with dancing, evil literature, drinking, Hollywood and ever-increasing secularisation, there was a subtle move towards the empowerment of the individual in the advice literature of the time: “The crucial difference between the two is not the objectives but the strategy, the transition from injunction to advice, and a conceptual realignment in the relationship between the individual and the society.”
Next dealt with are the rural novels of Maura Laverty and Patrick Kavanagh: the former was a real discovery for me. Best known as a cookery writer, radio broadcaster and playwright, she also has the distinction of having written the play on which the very influential 1960s television soap Tolka Row was based, and some important novels published during the 1940s. In Never No More (1942), “Laverty did not turn to the traditional romance in pursuit of this symbolic resolution; while the marital ideal is frequently described and illustrated in the novel, this is not a narrative of the young heroine’s journey towards marriage.” Both Laverty and Kavanagh’s rural novels “comment on, while also being aesthetically determined by, the contradictions and lacunae of this discourse on rural Ireland, marriage and modernity”. Delia’s Gran, in Never No More, looking at a picture of her late husband, notes that, “done in love and with the blessing of God on it, there’s no joy to come near it. It is being lifted right out of the world and into the next in the arms of the person you love more than yourself.” The grandmother is associated with sensual pleasure throughout the novel because of her cooking – for this reason, Maeve Binchy, in her introduction to the 1985 edition of the novel, dubbed Laverty a “food pornographer”. It is significant that Kavanagh features far less prominently than Laverty in this chapter. Cronin wonders if we should perhaps read Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn “as a portrait of the artist as a young farmer” and then justifies his juxtaposition of the two writers: “Despite their differences, both Laverty and Kavanagh were trying to find a way of narrating self-formation in which the individual and the collective could be aligned in less starkly oppositional terms than those delineated in Joyce and O’Brien’s versions of the form.”
Finally, sexuality, trauma and history are explored in Edna O’Brien and John McGahern’s 1960s novels. Cronin detects a different representation of sexual guilt and moral challenge in these novelists from what one encounters in Joyce’s Portrait and Kate O’Brien’s Mary Lavelle: “Above all, sexuality (in McGahern and O’Brien) is associated with trauma, grief and loss.” He argues that while Cait (The Country Girls) and Mahoney (The Dark) are academically gifted, “there is never any suggestion that they want to become writers or intellectuals”. To my mind, this is definitely true of Cait and less so of Mahoney, who, some suggest, may well find a future incarnation as a writer of pornography in the 1974 novel. The sexual experiences of Cait and Mahoney “return the young characters to a space of trauma and paralysis where the drive to action withers”, which is starkly different from the impact such experiences exert on Stephen and Mary Lavelle. Cait is immobilised by her “promiscuous” sexual history and her subsequent relationships all bear the mark of the less than wholesome initiation she received. Mahoney’s problems with self-abuse which ultimately lead to him breaking the promise he made to his mother that he would become a priest, bring him to a depressing impasse: “for young Mahoney sexuality reveals all alternatives and possibilities as passing illusions, transitory evasions of the ultimate reality which is death”. In this respect, it is significant how, in The Pornographer, McGahern compares an orgasm to the last gasp of a dying person. The hero of McGahern’s novel ends up accepting the futility of his existence: “He has no great expectations of either himself or his people, whose hopeless impotence is embodied by his father.” So the movement forward has in some ways been a regression in terms of the supposed enlightenment associated with the Bildungsroman genre.
The conclusion is not as probing as one might expect or desire, as Cronin demonstrates the continued presence of the Bildungsroman in contemporary Irish literature: “The utopian desire to imagine meaningful growth and fulfilment in the face of the traumatic legacy of the past is as evident in Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992), Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry (1999) or Anne Enright’s What are you Like? (2000) as they are in O’Brien’s and McGahern’s early work.” This being the case, and as with the aforementioned Brian Moore, would it not be advisable to inform readers why these writers only merit a passing reference in the conclusion? The same is true of the inclusion of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Nuala O’Faoláin’s Are You Somebody?, both published in 1996, “a seminal moment” according to Cronin. If these memoirs threw much needed light on the misery of “sectarian chauvinism and mindless Catholic piety” in post-independence Limerick city, as well as on rapid “social change in Ireland during the latter half of the century”, as Cronin claims to be the case, they should logically feature to a greater extent than the few pages that are devoted to them. Likewise, the book closes with a brief discussion of Colm O’Gorman’s powerful narrative of how one survivor of clerical sex abuse, found healing through articulating in the most graphic and moving terms his personal experience at the hands of the paedophile priest Fr Seán Fortune. Beyond Belief (2009), O’Gorman’s memoir, chronicles the obstacles erected by the Catholic Church to his revealing the crimes perpetrated on him in the Ferns diocese during the 1970s. The Ferns Report (2005) had already documented, in O’Gorman’s words, “horror stories involving the rape and abuse of over one hundred children, and these reflect only the victims that came forward. Each case is a tragedy, a shattered life and a testimony to lies and evasion at the highest level of the … Catholic Church”. While acknowledging the relevance of O’Gorman’s testimony to the exposure of what Cronin referred to in his introduction as the “profoundly vexed and troubling” relationship between sexuality and Catholicism in Ireland, I am not sure that the huge impact of the clerical abuse scandals on Irish Catholicism can be distilled down to a few pages, as is attempted here. There has already been a raft of books trying to untangle this complex issue and there will be many more to follow.
Once more, I think the difficulty lies in the extremely broad remit Cronin sets himself in this study. Attempting to cover a century as seismic as the last one has been in Ireland, particularly in the chosen realms of sexuality, Catholicism and literature, was an impossible task in many ways. It is to his immense credit that Michael Cronin manages to cover as much as he does in an engaging, scholarly style, backed up by impeccable research and obvious enthusiasm for his subject. There is a touch of Declan Kiberd about the brio and audacious manner in which he sets about his task, which is why I believe we will hear a lot more from this important new voice in Irish Studies criticism.
Eamon Maher is director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, where he also lectures in humanities. He is the editor of the Reimagining Ireland book series with Peter Lang Oxford. His latest book, co-edited with Eugene O’Brien, From Prosperity to Austerity: A socio-economic Critique of the Celtic Tiger and its Aftermath, will be published shortly by Manchester University Press.