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Love, lust and the Irish: Exploring intimate lives through Angela Macnamara’s problem page, 1963-1980

05 Apr 2011-Sexualities (SAGE Publications)-Vol. 14, Iss: 2, pp 218-234

Abstract: This article explores transformations within the intimate lives of married couples in Ireland between 1963 and 1980. I use data from the problem page of renowned agony aunt Angela Macnamara to chart evidence of a renegotiation of the traditional love/lust balance identified by Wouters (1998) which has, I argue, contributed to a greater democratization emerging within these relationships. The problem page reveals tensions between a declining traditional moral code espoused by Macnamara and a new language of sexual and marital fulfilment. This new language was increasingly heard on television chat shows and soap operas, in newspapers and magazines, in Ireland and abroad. It was the language of the women’s movement and intellectuals who challenged Catholic social teaching on pre-marital sex, contraception and divorce. This article gives a unique insight into the intersection of the private lives of the column and the broader structural changes which continued to shape those lives, including Macnamara’s, over...
Topics: Lust (56%), Irish (52%)

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Sexualities
14(2) 218–234
! The Author(s) 2011
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DOI: 10.1177/1363460710384644
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Article
Love, lust and the Irish:
Exploring intimate
lives through Angela
Macnamara’s problem
page, 1963–1980
Paul Ryan
National University of Ireland Maynooth, Republic of Ireland
Abstract
This article explores transformations within the intimate lives of married couples in
Ireland between 1963 and 1980. I use data from the problem page of renowned agony
aunt Angela Macnamara to chart evidence of a renegotiation of the traditional love/lust
balance identified by Wouters (1998) which has, I argue, contributed to a greater
democratization emerging within these relationships. The problem page reveals ten-
sions between a declining traditional moral code espoused by Macnamara and a new
language of sexual and marital fulfilment. This new language was increasingly heard on
television chat shows and soap operas, in newspapers and magazines, in Ireland and
abroad. It was the language of the women’s movement and intellectuals who challenged
Catholic social teaching on pre-marital sex, contraception and divorce. This article gives
a unique insight into the intersection of the private lives of the column and the broader
structural changes which continued to shape those lives, including Macnamara’s, over a
17-year period.
Keywords
democratization of personal life, intimate lives, Ireland, love/lust balance, Angela
Macnamara, Cas Wouters
Introduction
This article uses problem page data to analyse how men and women negotiated
their intimate relationships during 1963–1980. The understanding of what it was to
be a romantic, emotional and sexual person was changing during this period as
Corresponding author:
Dr Paul Ryan, Department of Sociology, Auxilia, NUI Maynooth, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Republic of Ireland
Email: paul.ryan@nuim.ie

Ireland moved slowly from a traditional, agrarian and insular past into a modern,
urban and more open future. The openness was fuelled, in part, by the foundation
of Telefı
´
sE
´
ireann (Irish Television Service) in 1961 but also by the greater avail-
ability of books, magazines and newspapers distributed throughout Ireland.
A relaxation in censorship law in 1964 and 1967 had enabled Irish people to under-
stand their romantic and sexual selves outside the language of the strict Catholic
teachings that had dominated their lives (Inglis, 1998: 21, 51). As new discourses of
sex, pleasure and romance filtered through the public sphere, people began to
develop new conventions and contest old wisdoms that governed the regulation
of lust and love within dating and marriage.
I explore how, women in particular, reconfigured and renegotiated a more sat-
isfying love/lust balance in their relationships. The emotionally cold and distant
husband was no longer acceptable to them. Neither were their unsatisfying sex
lives. The analysis reveals that the generation of women falling in love, dating
and marrying in the 1960s and 1970s expected more than their mothers did
they wanted affectionate husbands and a more reciprocal sexual relationship,
where sex was an expression of love, rather than a right or duty within marriage.
1
This democratization of personal life has been described by Giddens (1992: 184) as
‘less visible’ because it does not occur in the public sphere. It is through the use of
problem page data that a greater visibility and understanding can be brought to
this dimension of personal life.
I am exploring the relationship between these two overlapping understandings
of intimate life through the pages of Angela Macnamara’s problem page, using
both letters and replies to the column and interviews with her.
2
The column
reflected the tensions that existed within the prevailing gender regime, the influence
of Church teaching and an emerging popular broadcast media complete with
‘expert’ commentary.
Macnamara was the most famous agony aunt in Ireland during the 1960s and
1970s. Her column was published in The Sunday Press which, with a circulation of
400,000, was the biggest selling Sunday newspaper in the country.
3
Macnamara
received over 4000 letters a year, publishing a handful in the paper every week, but
replying privately to hundreds of letters every month. She made numerous radio
and television appearances throughout that time, was the subject of a television
documentary broadcast in 1975 and published her autobiography in 2003.
4
Her
career as an agony aunt began when, aged 32, she wrote a series of articles to The
Sunday Press on teenage dating. Such was the response that she was invited by the
editor to respond in what was to become a weekly column. Though with no rele-
vant counselling experience, this aspiring journalist and devout Catholic managed
to carve a unique niche for herself as an expert in the field of love, dating and
marriage. This was most unusual. How sexuality was discussed in Ireland in 1963
remained tightly controlled within a religious or medical discourse. The elevation
of a lay woman to such a prominent position, and the subject material of the
column were not initially welcomed by the Catholic Church or by some readers.
Macnamara was part of a new openness with which intimate relationships were
Ryan 219

discussed in the Irish public sphere but it became clear that once spoken about she
would struggle to keep this discussion within the Catholic context she so believed
in. The column would be abruptly discontinued in 1980 when Macnamara refused
her editor’s request to lessen the religious tone of her replies to reflect changes that
had taken place in the discussion of sexuality within the public sphere.
The article is based upon the analysis of 645 letters and replies published in the
Macnamara column. The letters, like all documents, are partial. They are repre-
sentative of a specific constituency of readers who believed and followed the teach-
ings of the Catholic Church. Wouters (2004: 156), following Zeegers (1994: 131)
identifies this group as trend followers. Compared to radicals or moderates who are
open to greater levels of sexual experimentation for trend followers there is little
exploration of sexuality where a desire for stability, predictability and observing
the sexual ‘do’s and don’ts’ remain paramount. The discussion of a wider canvas of
sexual desire encourages not emancipation, but great anxiety among trend fol-
lowers or traditionals who remain slow to adapt to a new sexual culture but who
eventually do. The letters were subject to an editorial censorship that excluded
letters about intimate sexual problems and homosexuality, especially during the
1960s. The column reflected the conservatism of the newspaper’s owners and ethos.
Letters were also edited by Macnamara to fill the available space in the column.
I was sensitive to what extent, documents like the problem page, claimed an
authoritative status (Atkinson and Coffey, 2004: 73) and the implications of this
on the relationship between their production (authorship) and consumption (read-
ership). When questioned, Macnamara often declared, after consultation with
‘experts’ (usually religious), that her reply was simply the ‘truth’. The publication
of letters that revealed sexual ignorance or supported the Catholic Church’s social
teaching on contraception, divorce and especially sex before marriage sparked
some speculation amongst Dublin’s liberal elite about the authenticity of the let-
ters. Following Tosh (2002: 98), the article does not rely exclusively on the letters.
The column is located within a body of literature that advised Catholics, including
Macnamara herself, on dating and marriage. They are compared and contrasted
with other articles in The Sunday Press and other problem pages of the era and are
understood and analysed in the light of interviews with Macnamara.
Understanding intimate relations and family life
I am using Wouters’ (1998, 2004) concept of the love/lust balance to explore this
shift in how men and women understood and acted upon this new regime govern-
ing their intimate lives. As traditionally defined, men were located at the lust end of
this spectrum while women, predictably, were found on the love side. It was part of
a broader process of what Wouters (1986) called an informalization process which
took place throughout the 20th century that would explain any movement on this
spectrum of love and lust. He charts the relaxation of manners, etiquette and
deference towards elders and authority figures, a process that accelerated in the
1960s. Discussion and practice of pre-martial sex, unmarried co-habitation,
220 Sexualities 14(2)

homosexuality and pornography were all part of this wider informalization.
This may have led to a more equal interdependence between the sexes, but this
shift from the external supervision of behaviour within social life to a more inter-
nalized one also brought with it an expectation of restraint and self-control.
Wouters (1998: 187) is interested in charting the move from a traditional lust bal-
ance to where women more openly discussed their need for a more satisfying
interplay between love, affection and sex in their relationships. Using data from
the Dutch women’s magazine Opzij, Wouters shows how women sought a more
satisfying love/lust balance leading to a ‘liberation’ in sexuality but which was
followed by a formalization of attitudes in the 1980s. Crucially, as Wouters
(1998: 190) admits, men’s reactions to these processes were not included because
no comparative magazine existed. Brinkgreve and Korzec (1979) was the first
empirical study into the process of informalization. Again, through the use of
the advice column in the Dutch women’s magazine, Magriet, they study the chang-
ing trends in advice and what they revealed about the power relationships between
men and women, parents and children. As the women’s movement progressed and
women became more financially independent of men, the balance of power with
men became more equal thus having the consequence for the intimate relationship
between the sexes. This greater equalization of the relationship between the sexes
has become a prominent element of work documenting the transformations within
family life and the intimate sphere.
Wouters’ (2004) work also allows us to place these changes within this love/lust
balance in Ireland within a broader international context. His comparative study of
manners books and advice columns charts the changing courtship regimes in the
Netherlands, England, Germany and the USA since 1890. The study illustrates
how women successfully moved themselves out of the private domain and into
the world of work and leisure unhindered by a system of chaperones. It shows
how policy decisions in individual countries in relation to divorce, welfare and
educational policy impacted upon the interrelationship between the sexes. It facil-
itates a greater understanding of how sexuality in Ireland slowly moved from a
context of reproduction to one of pleasure and self-expression when placed against
an international backdrop. Crucially, Wouters’ study goes some way to answering
the question: How different was Ireland in matters of emotions and sexual
intimacy?
There is a substantial legacy of research on the gendered Irish family (Arensberg
and Kimball, 1968; Brody, 1973; Humphreys, 1966; Messenger, 1969; Scheper-
Hughes, 1979). It reveals that the inability of both men and women to self-disclose
an emotional self within an intimate relationship led to high levels of dysfunction in
romantic, parenting and sexual encounters. It contributed to a now legendary
association between sex, shamefulness and the Irish. This research also charts
family change over a period of industrialization and urbanization: crucial processes
in the separation of the ‘feminized’ private sphere of emotionality from the ‘mas-
culine’ public sphere of rationality.
5
For Baggot (1965: 34–5) the processes were
already under way in Ireland. Recent economic development in Ireland had greatly
Ryan 221

increased the pressure on men to succeed in the world of work, masking their
‘inner-emptiness’ where their emotional lives never had the opportunity to develop.
It was Arensberg and Kimball’s (1968) study on Irish family life that has cast the
longest and most influential shadow over a generation of work in this field. Gender
roles were understood in the context of the part they played in the continuity of the
farming community in Co. Clare at that time. It was the needs of the rural economy
that dictated how men and women experienced sexuality with a requirement for
heirs and the needs of inheritance ranking far higher than the desires of the body or
heart. It was men who were deemed to have lower sexual standards and most likely
to lead girls astray. Discussion about sexuality was confined to the ‘laughter
and hearty guffaws with which references of near any kind to sexual intercourse,
sexual attraction and childbearing were greeted’ (1968: 199). Messenger (1969:
68–69) revealed that a common belief found amongst men was that a good
woman didn’t enjoy sex, while the ‘marriageable man ...is usually repressed to
an unbelievable degree’. The relationships between family members were also prob-
lematic with Messenger (1969: 78) speculating that the close mother–son relation-
ship contributed to a Freudian scenario where men avoided foreplay, the female
breast and frequently rejected women after sex. Scheper-Hughes’ (1979) study
paints an even more depressing picture. She revealed a community where love
was not a prerequisite to marriage and where men were ‘awkward with women,
troubled by sexuality’ (1979: 97). Married couples showed no outward affection for
each other, often not even using each other’s first name, with Scheper-Hughes
concluding that it was socialization that led to the ‘early orientation towards emo-
tional distance and ‘‘sexual flatness’’ (1979: 116). For the women Rohan spoke to
(1969: 69–74), there was little appetite or expectation of sexual satisfaction within
marriage. For men there was little hope that they could provide that satisfaction
with widespread ignorance of the female orgasm reported by men, although they
most often complained about their wives’ lack of interest in sex. Both sexes were
limited in their exploration of sex within marriage because of their inhibitions and a
sense of an internalized shamefulness.
Contemporary studies have also explored intimate life in this period. Hilliard
(2003) re-interviewed women from a previous study on urban family life in the mid
1970s focusing on long-term processes of change in the women’s lives and covering
areas such as their married sexual lives. The study revealed high levels of sexual
ignorance among married couples and a belief held by women that it was sinful for
them to refuse sex with their husbands. The views of men were not part of the remit
of her study. While the study of men’s public lives have documented their successes
in the political, economic and scientific worlds, scant regard has been paid to the
intimate worlds they inhabited. I have previously explored the areas of sexual
education, dating and relationships with gay men in this period (Ryan, 2003).
This revealed that their communicative competence around sexuality was seriously
impaired by their family upbringing and Catholic schooling, where they struggled
to balance the potential freedoms with which a more open, modernizing Ireland
brought, with the pull of tradition, family and community which held them back.
222 Sexualities 14(2)

Citations
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