The representation (or nonrepresentation) of bodies and sexuality in Irish culture is conditioned by the social power of the Catholic church. St. Paul's antifeminism and valorization of the spiritual over the physical were especially influential in Ireland, because the generally positive role played by the Catholic clergy in the national struggle against England gave them moral authority. . . . Penitential Catholicism intensified by residual Victorian prudery, however, is only part of the story. . . . Economic conditions resulting from [British] colonial exploitation and the Great Famine played a major part in producing late marriages, a high rate of celibacy, and a concomitant need to control the body and its desires in the Irish countryside. Unregulated eroticism was sacrificed to the need to pass on the meager landholding undivided to the chosen male heir: the survival of the family in perilous economic circumstances dictated sexual choice. When small farmers moved to the towns, they brought their ethic with them despite the fact that it was no longer economically relevant, and their sexual conservatism continued to be reinforced by the ideals of a celibate clergy.
In 1922 the establishment of an Irish nation transformed the politically rebellious but virginal Kathleen ni Houlihan, symbol of Ireland, into a homebound pious housewife. The conservative and petty-bourgeois government of the Free State enforced by law and later enshrined in the Constitution its version of Irish identity as Gaelic, Catholic, and sexually pure. The dominance of Catholicism in the South was reinforced by the colonial legacy of Partition, which reified the confessional division between North and South. Because... [continues]
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