- Asking Angela:Discourses about Sexuality in an Irish Problem Page, 1963-1980
The manner in which irish people spoke about sexuality changed dramatically between 1963 and 1980. This period coincided with a profound social and economic liberalization that challenged a dominant narrative of Irish society as Catholic, rural, and conservative.1 The establishment of Radio Telifís Éireann (RTÉ, the Irish Television Service) in 1961 provided a new forum for intellectuals and activists of new social movements emerging in Ireland to challenge this Catholic social thinking, offering viewers an alternative discourse with which to interpret their lives.2 The problem page or advice column of Angela Macnamara contributed in an important way to this challenge, presenting Irish readers with a modern approach to sexuality and, specifically, to homosexuality. The column reflected the rise and fall of expert voices on the subject of homosexuality and Macnamara's struggle to locate the discussion within a religious as well as a medical context. Ultimately, the letters sent to her and her responses to them demonstrate how in an era of high modernity the distinction between expert and lay audiences had been diminished, indeed, how some letter writers challenged Macnamara's authority as an expert and framed new understandings of their sexuality drawn from a range of new and conflicting voices.3 [End Page 317]
Born into an upper-middle-class Dublin home in 1931, Angela Macnamara became the most renowned "agony aunt," or advice columnist, in Irish society.4 She studied at a commercial college before taking an administrative post in a Dublin hospital, although she longed to pursue a career in journalism. She married at the age of twenty-two and had four children in the following six years. Macnamara started writing articles on the subject of family life, parenting, and young motherhood for Catholic magazines like the Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart in 1960-61. She also gave talks in schools about the difficulties facing teenagers in an Ireland where the religious mores governing social and political life began to be challenged.
In 1963, when Macnamara was thirty-two, the biggest-selling Sunday newspaper in the land, the Sunday Press, accepted a series of her articles on teenage dating for publication.5 They generated a huge public response, and Macnamara was invited by the editor to respond to readers' questions, effectively launching her career as an agony aunt. Her column received more than four thousand letters a year and was published weekly from 1963 to 1980. Such was the popularity of the column that hundreds of letters arrived merely addressed to "Angela Macnamara, Dublin." She wrote articles for a range of other publications and was a regular contributor to radio and television programs, including the hugely popular Irish television chat show, The Late Late Show.
The success of Macnamara's problem page lay in her having carved a unique niche for herself as a lay sexual expert in the public sphere. The column became her pulpit from which she dispensed advice to readers on sex, sinfulness, and restitution. Even lacking any relevant professional training, she successfully positioned herself as someone skilled in both the religious and medical discourses of the day, and she mediated this expert knowledge to those who sought her advice. As a young married mother she empathized with many of her letter writers. Ordinary readers of the Sunday Press had the opportunity to ask questions, seek forgiveness, or question the traditional Catholic dogma that had governed the understanding of homosexuality in the past. At the same time, Macnamara was and still is a devout Catholic. [End Page 318] Her advice was strongly influenced by the Catholic discourse governing sexuality that emanated from the Vatican and was dispensed downward through bishops, priests, religious orders, and lay organizations. She used papal encyclicals like Humanae vitae (1968) and Persona humana (1975), widely distributed in Ireland, as roadmaps for the faithful as they danced, dated, and fell in love in an increasingly secular Ireland.6 Her advice columns reveal that, rather than being imposed from above, these encyclicals were contested and negotiated by Irish Catholics—including Macnamara herself. For gay men this negotiation was carried out within the...