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The Dáil and the word 'fornication': a brief history

Before today, the words ‘fornicate’ or ‘fornication’ had only been used in six debates in the Dáíl’s 93-year history.

Dessie O'Malley believed it was fair for a society to try and stop its members from fornicating.
Dessie O'Malley believed it was fair for a society to try and stop its members from fornicating.
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING (it’s alright, we’re really not expecting you to wonder about this kind of thing) today marked just the seventh day in the history of the Dáil that the words ‘fornicate’ or ‘fornication’ have been uttered by a member.

It’s been 19 years since the last time a member mentioned it – and 27 years since it was mentioned in a family planning context.

July 4, 1974: Justice minister Patrick Cooney (FG) introduces the Control of Importation, Sale and Manufacture of Contraceptives Bill, in response to a Supreme Court ruling which said the 1935 laws against the sale of contraception did not stop a citizen from bringing them in from another country.

Bringing forward legislation to balance the state’s ban on the free sale of contraceptives with the rights of citizens to import them, Cooney proposes a compromise allowing contraception to be sold only on prescription from a doctor.

I do not accept that there is any such right because that implies a right to fornicate and in my opinion there is no such natural right. I am well satisfied that the principle of restricting contraceptives to married persons is the proper one.

Fianna Fáil’s Dessie O’Malley, in response, says it believes it is within the rights of a society to try and stop promiscuity.

In my view, in any ordered society the protection of morals through the deterrence of fornication and promiscuity is a legitimate legislative aim and a matter not of private but of public morality.

I respectfully agree with that expression of view and I feel that our duty as a Legislature is, so far as we can within the confines of our Constitution, as interpreted for us by the Supreme Court, to deter fornication and promiscuity, to promote public morality and to prevent, in so far as we can — there are, of course, clear limitations on the practicability of that — public immorality.

July 11, 1974: A week later, discussing the same legislation, the words are used some ten times. Labour’s Dr David Thornley feels it necessary to remind FG’s Oliver J Flanagan that it was not the case that “fornication, abortion, contraception and things like that never happened until recently”.

He goes on to discuss the circumstances in which he would find himself in as a Catholic if his brother was to sleep with someone before marrying her:

Let me get back to the question as to how the restriction on the sale of contraceptives to married people would be enforced. If, say, I had a young brother who was not married and this young brother was fornicating—to use a term employed by Deputy O’Malley with that wonderful Old Testament ring which he gave to the debate—I can assure Deputy Flanagan and also the Hierarchy and the plain people of Ireland that the first thing I would do would be to try to dissuade my younger brother from fornicating with his girl friend but if he had lost his religion or had become converted to, say, Judaism or Protestantism I would say to him to take precautions because it would be highly unfair to impregnate a single girl and consequently, to expose her to the consequences either of the production of an illegitimate child or to the horrific consequences, which are mentally unending, of an abortion.

He mentions that Dessie O’Malley’s reference to “fornication” makes him want to both laugh and cry.

Fianna Fáil’s David Andrews is of the opinion that while there is no “natural right” to fornicate, if someone wants to do so, the state should facilitate a system where they can avoid the risk of becoming a parent to an unwanted child.

Labour’s Barry Desmond is also  amused by O’Malley’s “preoccupation with fornication” and the apparent belief of some TDs that the following may occur if contraception was legalised:

…a rampant outbreak of fornication in the country, a growing and rocketing incidence of V.D., for example, that there would be a major breakdown of marital relations…

July 16, 1974: Wrapping up the debate on the legislation, Fine Gael’s Edward Collins says he doesn’t believe there is “any such right because that implies a right to fornicate and in my opinion there is no such natural right”. Nonetheless, he backs the bill.

February 14, 1985: 11 years on, Barry Desmond has become the minister for health and on Valentines Day 1985 introduces the Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Bill which slightly relaxes the sale of contraceptives by allowing chemists, hospitals and health boards to also provide them.

There is only one indirect reference to fornication: Fianna Fáil’s Dr Rory O’Hanlon recalls Paddy Cooney’s comments when the 1974 Bill was first introduced, and quotes the above sentence in doing so.

February 20, 1985: In later debates on the same bill, FG’s Alice Glenn says that if the point of the legislation is not to protect the family, then it must be “to prevent pregnancy from acts of adultery and fornication”.

Fianna Fáil’s Padraig ‘Pee’ Flynn – worried that the Bill is essentially a vote on allowing teenagers to buy condoms – also recalls Paddy Cooney’s speech, and offers the following remark:

The fashionable length of a lady’s skirt or width of a gent’s trousers might change but the right for young unmarried teenagers to fornicate is still unnatural and wrong.

November 9, 1993: Fine Gael are in opposition and are proposing legislation which would give the director of telecommunications a “watchdog function”. Dessie O’Malley, now a PD, is not enthused with the proposal and criticises it.

Labour’s Jim Kemmy is feeling philosophical, noting that there are “no infallible politicians”, recalling O’Malley’s original complaints about family planning:

In regard to family planning, Deputy O’Malley was totally opposed to it and said it was a licence to fornicate. Subsequently, he changed his mind on this matter. The Deputy is not infallible. He has no right to get into his pulpit and deliver homilies in this House about the action he took in regard to various matters when he was in power.

Read: TD: ‘Fornication most likely cause of unwanted pregnancies’

More: Mulherin: ‘We need a discussion around who, in this day and age, is having unprotected sex’

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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