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Before Normal People: A brief history of Irish TV sex controversies

Introducing The Tube: We’ll be taking a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of Ireland’s TV past every Wednesday evening.

DSC9090Jul-03-2019-1 Source: Normal People - Element Pictures

THE RECENT CONTROVERSY OVER the frank depictions of sex between the two lead characters in Normal People has provided something of a welcome distraction from you-know-what in recent weeks. 

It all played out as you’d expect, as Irish moral controversies go – condemnation from a cleric, and scores of people contacting RTÉ to voice their displeasure, including via Joe Duffy’s overworked switchboard. 

One Liveline caller went as far as to describe the lengthy scenes between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) as being akin to “something from a porno”. Asked by Duffy what one might expect to see in a porno, the caller admitted that she didn’t know as she’d never seen one. 

The whole affair harked back to a different time in Irish society. It’s difficult to recall the last time depictions of sex in an Irish-set drama provoked such a reaction. 

Love/Hate, if you’ll recall, prompted all manner of complaints – but perhaps the biggest controversy in its five year run was over Barry Keoghan’s character machine-gunning a cat to death in the opening scenes of season four back in 2013.

With that in mind, we thought we’d kick off this new once-weekly TV lookback article by taking a look at depictions of (and reactions to) sex on Irish television over the last six decades.  

If you have a strong opinion on Miley, Fidelma and the hay barn by all means feel free to jump straight to the comments section.

glenroe Miley, Fidelma and the hay barn. Source: Glenroe - RTÉ

It started on… 

For those of you still with us, the story of sex on Irish television is generally accepted to have begun in 1966 – not with a drama, but on the Late Late Show. 

You’ll probably have heard about what happened: Eileen Fox and her husband Richard unwittingly rocked the nation with one of their answers in a quiz item for married couples in what eventually became known as the Bishop and the Nightie Affair.

Gay Byrne, already four years into his stint as host of the long-running RTÉ show, asked the couple what colour nightwear Eileen had worn on her honeymoon. Richard said it had been transparent. Eileen replied that she hadn’t worn any. 

There was laughter from the crowd, and the show moved on. But the Bishop of Clonfert, Dr Thomas Ryan, was less than amused and phoned The Sunday Press to announce that he planned to denounce the item in a sermon the next day at Loughrea Cathedral.

The paper ran with the frontpage “Bishop slates TV act” and the country exploded into a frenzy of controversy.

The furore kept tongues wagging and newspaper columns filled for months. Reflecting on the incident years later Byrne observed that the reaction was “very very strong for a while – it wasn’t a joke”.

Source: dequinirishstudies/YouTube

The Late Late, of course, examined every aspect of Irish life with Byrne at the helm over the following decades, and – as you can see from the above – coverage of evolving attitudes to sex regularly featured.

The subject didn’t crop up with quite as much regularity in domestic dramas in the early decades of Irish TV, but then again – partly due to the expense of the production costs – there weren’t all that many domestic dramas to speak of.

Even the mention of contraception in RTÉ’s long-running series The Riordans led to criticism in the Oireachtas at one stage.

The local priest had had the temerity to counsel Maggie Riordan to use contraception after she was advised not to have another child. 

Some TDs reckoned the episode had crossed a line of decency, and voiced their outrage in the Dáil chamber. 

In 1978, the secondary-school set drama The Spike was condemned after a glimpse of naked flesh was seen.

While the nudity was in the context of a model posing for a portrait and not a sex scene, it didn’t lessen the furore. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie recently Irish Times film critic Donald Clarke recalled the fallout: 

“It was fascinating – I was very young at the time but old enough to remember it all happening. Spike was a TV series set in a Dublin school – a rough kitchen sink drama – and it trundled along fine and got respectable reviews and viewership. Until there was an episode with David Kelly playing an art teacher.

“The crucial difficulty was he had a life class and brought in a nude woman,” said Clarke.

“They didn’t show her fully frontally nude – she pressed her body to a frosted glass sheet through which she was viewed.”

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The series was ended prematurely as a result of the scandal:

The show was taken off air and questions were asked in the Dáil. People were phoning up the radio stations furiously.

spike The controversial scene from The Spike. Source: RTÉ

‘Homewrecker’

Fast-forward to the 80s and 90s – a time when Sunday night drama staple Glenroe regularly topped the TV ratings. 

People occasionally had sex in the County Wicklow set soap but for years only one male character, Dick Moran (husband to the long-suffering Mary, businessman, rogue), appeared to be particularly interested in pursuing it outside the confines of his marriage. 

That all changed at Christmas in 1997 when the hero of the show, Miley (husband to Biddy, farmer, harmless), had a literal roll in the hay with his wife’s cousin, Fidelma. 

Such was the outrage, according to Eunice MacMenamin, who played Fidelma, that viewers took to venting their ire at the actress in the street. 

“I got the odd thing in the street in Dublin, but it was much more common in the country. People would say to me that their parents were disgusted and wouldn’t watch the programme any more because I was a homewrecker.

I was very proud of what we did, it pushed a boundary in its own way. It showed that people have sex in the country too.

Airing its first episode in 1989, six years after Glenroe, Fair City took a grittier approach to sex in Ireland – tackling issues like rape and domestic violence. 

Viewers of the show from the 1990s might also recall a controversy over what was billed as the first depiction of a gay kiss in an Irish drama. 

As the media landscape widened and attitudes moved on, post-2000, most viewers barely raised an eyebrow at more explicit depictions of sex in critically acclaimed dramas like Pure Mule (threesomes!) and Love/Hate (everything!). 

Then again, there are a few more episodes of Normal People yet to air on RTÉ. Joe Duffy may yet have a decent reason for wanting to call in sick. 

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About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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