Thursday, December 20, 2018

Pussies, Poems and Prudes-In Defence of Sex in Old Ireland

I came across an article "The Island That Wouldn't Get Naked, Even in Bed" in Vice Magazine regarding sexuality on the Island of Inisheer during the 1960's. The piece got me thinking-it seems to me, whenever I read the likes of Vice, The Guardian or The New York Times (not to mind more right leaning media), the visions of Ireland that keep getting trotted out are so often old-fashioned, or even negative. The Anglo-sphere loves an auld article on the wayward, Catholic, violent or superstitious Gael. These stereotypes have been around for manys the century, and they keep getting regurgitated. Like all stereotypes there are elements of truth, but much of it is a manifestation, a fear, yet fascination, of the other and the unknown. There is a welsh proverb from the 18th century that says "an Irishman’s loves are three: violence, deception and poetry.”  Given Irish vernacular poetry was marginalised in the early 20th century, that leaves us with deception and violence, which is nowhere to start a defence of old Éireann! So, forgoing violence and deception, lets return to Irish poetry from days of yore, and try to get to grips with whats wrong with this picture.

Édouard Manet, La Nymphe surprise
The Vice article, written by one Dr. Kate Lister says "The sexual revolution transformed life and culture across the planet in the 1960s - except on the island of Inisheer." The piece comes replete with pictures of green fields, round towers and bibles. As a tonic to this stuffy, prude vision, I'd like to first site Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin's poem Cois Abhann dam im aonar (the last written manuscript version of which was collected a few miles from Inisheer in County Clare in the 1850's). This lyric is a piss-take of the Aisling form for which Eoghan was so well known. Like so many other Aisling's, Ireland appears in female form like a forlorn Helen of Troy, then the poet proceeds to solemnly and extensively extol her virtues. It is at this point though, that the poem diverges wildly from the norm, in crude translation the lady replies, "will you go away with your Helen of Troy, cut the shite, if its pussy you want, its right here." The poet continues "I opened her legs apart, got my lad ready for action-that jewel that Jesus gave me to coax the women." The lyric continues in that lively, boisterous vein. Incidentally, most Irish verse was meant to be sung-new ideas, themes and lyrics were attached to old melodies in a dynamic vibrant tradition.

Ar inse chonnaill aerach is gan aon neach 'nár gcuideachtain
is ea d'fhosclas a géaga ó chéile gan spás
Ansin do chuireas-sa mo chléireach i réim cheart chum imeartha,
's a tseoid do thug Mac Dé dom chum bréagadh na mbáb,
An tráth d'admhuigh a béal dom gur chlaochlaigh a huireasba,
Ach más í an phis a deir tú, tá sí anso.

from Geraldius Cambrensis, Topography of Ireland
In the 19th century travel book "Ireland's welcome to the stranger," the author, Asenath Nicholson, tells us that the people of Kerry had the custom of undressing any stranger that stayed in their home before going to bed. Dr. Lister's article in stark contrast says "Nudity was a source of intense shame and embarrassment to the islanders of Inisheer" in the 1960's. Geraldius Cambrensis, the 12th century Norman chronicler makes numerous mentions to the bare-arsed public nakedness of "the Irishry." The recently published book "Ireland 1517," contains the diary of 16th century Frenchman, Laurent Vital, who was a diplomat of the Hapsburg Court. Vital describes at length the breasts of the lady folk of Kinsale, having seen them on display (much to his delight and surprise) throughout the town. "Generally the men, women and young girls wear their shirts open to the waist. It is as common there to see or touch the breast of a girl or woman, as it is to touch her hand. There I saw all sorts of breast according to age." Vital proceeds to describe all the various breasts he saw in detail. On a side note, I remember reading, I can't recall where, that the pre christian Irish (instead of shaking hands) used to kiss or suck on nipples as a greeting!

I could be wrong, but I think a-lot of this more inward, stifled culture mentioned in the Vice article arose after the famine-when the church really got its hands on the country and our language switched from Irish to English. Both the Irish language and the Catholic Church were long associated with rebellion and contrariness in the British run state, but when the Catholic Church eventually became accepted by the powers that be, it spelled trouble for free love and its expression. To put a date on this assimilation of Catholicism by British Ireland a good line in the sand might be the "Irish Church Act of 1869," which dissolved the primacy of the protestant Church of Ireland as the official church of the country. The Church of Ireland (see the Church of England) had been the official church of the country up until that point, although the vast majority of the country was Catholic. It is around this time too that the English language starts to take primacy as the mode of communication for the majority of the populous.

Another tome of reference in this defence would have to be Brian Merriman's Cúirt An Mhéain Oíche. "The Midnight Court" is a bawdy and brilliant poem from the late 18th century, written just a few miles from the Isle of the Chaste, Inisheer. In this lyric a young Irish women laments to a fairy court (presided over by Aibheal-the Fairy Queen) the sorry state of masculinity in Ireland. Older Irish poetry took delight in describing people or things with as many words as possible in a long litany of description, there are some great examples of this in the poem too. The woman extols her own sexual virtues and wonders why she has failed to find a mate. An old Irish man takes the role of the defence, after he gives her a right lambasting, she replies with such gems as this (below is the rough English translation and below that the original Irish poem)....

Tie you head with a bandage round it!
Careful you don’t leave your senses
With the fear of welcoming, giving women,
That would spend the day catering to the needs of all
And would sate you again even after the ball.
Woe is me! I'd understand such Jealously
In a crafty, cracking, strong and strapping
Panting, pushing, pulsing, preening,
Roistering, romping, rollicking, riproaring,
Roving rogue-a fine tuned seeker,
Who'd give a steadfast stalwart, lively pounding,
Not in an ancient oldie, decrepit and hoary,
A useless idler, without limbs, nor use for them.

Is cengail do cheann le banda timpeall
Seachain I dtráth ná fág do chiall 
Le hEagla mná bheith fáilteach fial;
Dá gcaitheadh sí an lá le cách do riar
Bheadh tuilleadh is do sáith-se ar fail ina ndiadh 
Mo chumha is mo chrá ba bhreá san éad 
lúbaire láidir lánmhear léadmhar 
Shantach sháiteach shásta sheasmhach 
Ramsach ráflach rábach rabairneach,
Lascaire luaimneach, cuardaitheoir cuimseach,
Balcaire buan nó buailteoir bríomhar,
Ach seanduine seanda cranda creimneach, 
Fámaire fann is feam gan féile.

A recently discovered manuscript of The Midnight Court
The poem also deals with a-lot of what "The Island That Refuses to Get Naked" concerns itself with-sexual oppression and prudishness, but unlike the world portrayed in the article (where locals were mortified at a dog licking his balls) it grapples and extensively details solutions to these prudish problems. So going out on a limb for to make steadfast my defence! I'd like to site the 16th century poem Óchón A Mhúire Mhór, which finishes with the lines fóir mé os féidir leat, fóir mé le comhradh do chorp "save me if you can, save me with the conversations of our bodies."

Dr. Lister, in a light hearted way, quotes a poem of Philip Larkin at the beginning of her article "Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three." I think it can be taken as a given that sex was alive, and the Irish as well thanks to it, long before 1963, though the extent of the control that the powers that be had over it waxed and waned with the tide. Inisheer being Irish speaking, and on top of that an Island, perhaps made it easier to control. Once the Irish language became practically extinct on the mainland it may have pushed Inisheer to more moribund waters, leaving the priests firmly in control. Incidently, Inisheer is where Father Ted's opening sequence was filmed!

Ireland was an important resource for the Catholic Church and British imperialism. Unfortunately, the people, shrinking from the grasp of the colonial cohorts, ran willing into the arms of an enemy every bit as bad. Thanks be to God (whoever that may be) the church's power over the Irish is at the lowest ebb its ever been. Ireland's oppression by others and by itself was such that one of its most precious expressions and salves was lost-its language. Without that to express itself, it was left floundering in a sea of sharks-ripe for the picking, so to speak. I think the countries history of repression makes a-lot more sense if looked at from that perspective-language, colonialism, and religion. Also, prudishness and sexual repression is a problem that surely wasn't just to be found in Ireland, it was, I'd wager, a problem of the times, that corrupted and chastened from Arabia to Aragon and from New York to London. Thankfully those particular days of repression seem well behind us, though new stranger shores are looming ahead. We'd want to just keep vigilant that we don't get suckered again by such oppressive regimes. With the rise of the internet, globalism, and rampant free market capitalism fun times are sure to come!