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Irish Modernity and the Politics of Contraception, 1979–1993

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 3, Autumn/Fómhar, 2013
pp. 100-118 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0036

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In his seminal study Nationalism and Sexuality (1985) the cultural historian George Mosse argued that nationalism, “the most powerful ideology of modern times,” has had since its birth an intimate relationship with “respectability”— that is, the normative codes of public and private behavior, including sexual behavior, which also emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, Mosse argues that both nationalism and respectability were essentially middle-class movements that sought to enforce “correct” ideals of action for men and women, and so fed off each other. Both were also inherently modern ideologies, relying on emerging modernist notions of mass politics and the public sphere.1 Notwithstanding its obvious applicability to Irish contexts, Mosse’s innovative work, across a number of fields, has had sadly little impact on Irish Studies.

A number of recent studies of Irish history have discussed the great relevance of notions of sexual respectability in modern Irish national identity. More specifically, these works have looked at how the pious self image of a sexually pure postcolonial Catholic Ireland was imagined against its opposing counterpart, the decidedly heathen, sexually immoral, and oppressively colonial English nation.2 What has perhaps not been grasped, however, is that this vision of Ireland represents a historically discrete modernist phenomenon. Ireland’s version of a specifically Catholic-nationalist modernity, though never singular, static or monolithic, was a product of the nineteenth century; it was built upon modern notions of meritocracy and mass politics, and emerged in the aftermath of the Devotional Revolution. It was a modernity centered on relatively specific notions about land ownership, gender roles, public respectability, religious belief, attitudes toward “foreign” culture, and the role of the centralized state in enforcing these ideas. Conservative Irish Catholics, including the opponents of contraception who are the subject of this article, saw themselves as the defenders of a traditional social order. Yet much of what they considered traditional— sexual purity, public respectability, Irish piety in the face of alleged English impiety—drew on notions of a public sphere and of geographical and historical consciousness that could not have existed prior to modernity.3 The opponents of contraception were espousing a clearly modernist, if often belligerent and intolerant, set of ideologies. In this regard, they had much in common with the similarly modernist ideologues studied by George Mosse.

It has been well documented that contraception was being widely used in Ireland at least as early as the 1960s, if not earlier.4 Various legal loopholes were exploited to allow a veneer of respectability to be maintained, despite what was clearly happening privately. This veneer of public sexual morality was an Irish version of what Mosse identified in English, French, German, and Italian national sexual respectability. However, in the 1973 case of McGee vs. Attorney General, the Irish supreme court found, though not in a unanimous decision, that a citizen’s right to personal liberty as enshrined in Article 40.4.1 of Bunreacht na hÉireann invalidated the 1935 law banning the import, sale, or manufacture of contraceptives.5

Six years after the findings of the McGee case, slouching slowly toward the consitutional legal reforms made necessary by the court’s ruling, the Health Family Planning Act of 1979 was brought to the Dáil.6 The 1979 act sought to “secure the orderly organisation of family planning services.” It allowed for the supply of contraceptives to married persons only, by pharmacists and doctors only, and only with a medical prescription. By removing the legal loopholes that had previously existed and replacing them with these narrow restrictions, the new legislation actually made condoms less available, at least in major cities. This, inevitably, caused it to fall between two stools; it was too liberal for some and too conservative for others. Nonetheless, this was the first time that an Irish government had successfully legislated for a more “liberal” vision of sexual practice, provoking widespread public debate throughout the spring and summer of 1979. The themes of this debate were first established in the Dáil deliberations in February and March and two broad visions of Irish sexuality can be seen in the arguments put forward in those debates; one claimed to be liberal and inclusive, and...

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