sex and the midnight court
(Added June 2014)
Attitudes toward The Midnight Court
The Irish poet, scholar, columnist and general all-rounder, Alan Titley, wrote of the Midnight Court (showing at least a nodding acquaintance with some magazines that I had never heard of):
It might be ... that sex "sells" Cúirt an Mheán Oíche. ... It is Stud, Cosmopolitan, Hello and Nuts without the twenty-first century gloss. (Alan Titley in Ó Conchubhair:84)
It might indeed. Merriman's poem exudes it and decidedly refutes the late Oliver J. Flanagan (1920-1987), Fine Gael TD (MP) and general thick, who famously said that "there was no sex in Ireland before television." (Ferriter: 1) If so, there was a helluva lot of immaculate concepting going on.
Merriman showed it was otherwise with sufficient vividness that it was too much for the delicate sensibilities of De Valera's government. It banned Frank O'Connor's English translation in 1946 which was more than a bit dog-in-the-manger-ish of Dev since he himself had learned the poem by heart when he was jailed in Lincoln prison following the 1916 rising. He wasn't just defying his jailers or showing off to his men. The evidence shows that he had something more earthy and domestic in mind. Thusly did he write to wife Sinéad, an Irish teacher, from jail:
I'm getting the Cúirt an Mheán Oíche all off by heart. … If you read it I know you would like it. It is the nicest poem I have met in Irish. One of the principal pleasures I have in doing Irish poetry is to be able to read it with you when we are together.
Now, there's a mental picture to ponder— Dev and Sinéad poring over the dirty bits. But, then, an icy mountain can have a molten core.
And Dev and Merriman shared some traits. Dev was a Clareman by choice and no mean Gaeilgeoir in his own right (a Gaeilgeoir being a slightly pejorative term for a non-native Irish speaker who brings a bit too much earnestness to the use of the language). As in the case of Merriman, there has always been doubt as to whether his mother and father were married and his exotic name has become familiar to us only because he himself popularized it by becoming a part of the furniture of Irish history. To top it all off, he was a mathematics teacher, just as Merriman was.
From the little we know, the uncommonly named Merriman was not a hell-raiser or hedonist. As well as the Mathematics bit, he was diligent enough a farmer to win medals for his flax crop from the Royal Dublin Society. Not the typical background for a rebellious poet.
The idea boggles the mind but could it be possible that Merriman and De Valera were soulmates – two bastards, in the literal sense, whose conventional exterior concealed hidden depths? Such a realization, of course, makes the ferocious censorship of De Valera's governments all the more unforgivable.
If Dev could, at least in private, embrace lewdness on aesthetic (and maybe other) grounds, the same could not be said for some other Irish scholars. They were visibly ambivalent about Merriman's work. It's as if the poem, à la John Keats, was a well-crafted Ode on a Grecian Urn of Ordure. The vessel was exquisite; the contents stank.
Still, it's a cheap shot to anachronistically mock the Victorian sensibilities of these scholars. Their qualified acceptance of the salacious material may have taken some guts that is not demanded of our total embrace of it. They also had to face down the hostility of the likes of Trinity College Provost, John Pentland Mahaffy, "not so profound a scholar" (de Blacam: 209), who thought that it was impossible to find a text in Irish that was neither "religious, silly or indecent."
Examples of scholarly ambivalence included:
Censorship of the Midnight Court
Merriman’s poem is daring and explicit but that does not seem to have caused its author the type of grief that was visited on Irish authors in later years. In his introduction to the 1912 edition of the work, Piaras Béaslaí notes:
The poem at once attained popularity. Its freedom from stilted language and archaism, its welding of the spoken speech into musical lines made it appeal to the educated and illiterate alike. Many manuscript copies were made, many people memorized it.
Mr. Béaslaí quotes a certain Dr. P. W. Joyce writing in 1879:
Three years ago I met a man in Kilkee… who actually repeated for me, without the slightest hitch or hesitation, more than half—and if I had not stopped him, would have given me the whole of the Midnight Court.
Mr. Béaslaí continues:
It is a fact, however strange, that none of the daring passages in the ‘Cúirt’ drew down upon their author any general outcry or denunciation. His audacious handling of ideas most sacred to the Gael, such as the celibacy of the clergy, does not appear to have made him any enemies. Probably he was protected just as Rabelais was protected by his pose of jester. … His work was probably regarded by many as a kind of naughty joke, a piece of broad ‘risky’ farce, not to be taken seriously.
Piaras Béaslaí may be barking up the wrong tree here by anachronistically ascribing the sensibilities of his time to an earlier, less straitlaced age. The acceptance of the poem may not have been at all strange. It is highly questionable whether ideas such as celibacy of the clergy—and prudishness about matters sexual, in general—were in any way “sacred to the Gael”. There is a great deal of evidence that the conservatism in matters religious and sexual were products of the second half of the nineteenth century which continued long into the twentieth and were, in fact, not native nor natural to the race.
Blame, or credit, for its growth has been laid at the feet of imported French Jansenism but perhaps an even more important factor was the cataclysm of the Great Famine of the 1840s. That catastrophe produced two mutually reinforcing influences pushing the people towards such conservatism: the feeling that the indescribable horror of the famine was literally God-awful, a judgment of God on the country; and the fear of bringing large numbers of children into a crowded, unsustaining environment, an aversion that encouraged delaying marriage until much later in life and fostered premarital celibacy during the prolonged period of batchelorhood/spinsterhood.
In any case, in Merriman’s own time, it seems that his poem was not merely tolerated by the people but heartily embraced. Backward the country may have been but one is dubious of the progress, if progress it was, of the following century and a half when we recall that, in 1945, the censors banned for a while Frank O'Connor's translation of the poem. This was just the sort of narrow-mindedness that Merriman had anticipatorily parodied long before. It was thereby deliciously, if presumably unwittingly, self-referential in its foolishness and in what it showed us about themselves, to wit:
Sex and Society in 18th Century Ireland
When it was composed, there is widespread evidence that An Chúirt was wildly popular among the Irish-speaking population. It is natural to ask, therefore, whether these people had a different outlook on life and its proprieties than their post-Famine descendants. Was An Chúirt spawned from out of a lascivious lot?
It was often thought (including by myself in 1998) that sexual morality in Ireland changed with the Famine and "The Devotional Revolution" of 1850-1875 described by the University of Chicago professor, Emmet Larkin, in the mid 1970s (Larkin: 57ff.).
It is true that the Famine and other forces changed Irish religious practice in the second half of the 19th century. For over a hundred years, Irish Catholics became one of the most church-going people in the world with over 90% of the Catholic population attending Mass on a weekly basis.
At the time the Midnight Court was written, the population was markedly less observant, especially true in the areas where the Irish language and traditional culture were strongest. Regular Mass-going was estimated to be only in the 20%-range and orthodox Christian beliefs and practices were leavened with holdover pagan customs (including sexual charades at ostensibly inappropriate venues such as wakes).
In one of the seminal works on religion in pre-Famine Ireland, historian Seán Connolly noted that a "potentially misleading feature" of Irish sexual practices at the time was the fact that:
The majority of the population appears to have placed relatively little emphasis on reticence in sexual matters. The Gaelic literature of the period had a distinctly earthy and ribald strain. (Connolly: 191)
But it was all carry on. It was like the boasting talk of teenage boys that camouflages the reality of zero action. In truth, the one area where the traditional Irish-speaking population outshone all others (including other Catholic and, even more so, Protestant Irish communities) was in what would have been called the Christian virtue of chastity.
Illegitimate births and pregnant brides were fewer in Gaelic Ireland than in the rest of the country. And the sexually ribald communities in the west of Ireland whose folk poetry scholars would blush at and the Irish government would ban were, in fact, more clean living than a Victorian England where an uncovered foot was enough to bring on the vapors. For instance, a cleric in Wales asserted in 1847 that "the prevalence of fornication is not regarded as a vice, scarcely as a frailty, by the common people in Wales." (Connell: 85).
Not so for the "fallen" woman in traditional Ireland:
There was small tolerance for any woman's 'failure in chastity'. There could 'not be a more disgraceful event'; she forfeited 'for life her character and caste'; 'no respectable man would be seen courting her'. Her 'stain' was 'never forgotten'. (Connell: 52)
This one area where the Irish followed the dictates of their church most strictly was not particularly because the church said so. In other matters, the people showed that they could blithely ignore Mother Church when it suited them.
It just so happened that, in the matter of extramarital sex, the church diktats coincided with social dictates in complex areas such as land tenure and family imperatives. Sexual urges were satisfied to some extent by early marriage and probably otherwise policed, as they often are, by the female partner because of the fearsome consequences for both mother and child of out-of-wedlock pregnancy – a censoriousness that would have a long and tragic history in Irish society. The seed of this had not been originally planted by the church, however much it would be cultivated by it in later years.
So to answer the question posed above: The society out of which The Midnight Court emerged was very chaste although it had an agricultural ease about the whole affair:
de Tocqueville (1835): In Ireland where there are hardly any illegitimate children and where, therefore, morals are very chaste, women take less trouble to hide themselves than in any other country in the world, and men seem to have no repugnance to showing themselves almost naked. (Connolly: 192)
Edward Wakefield (1812) observed that the women of Sligo and Mayo, while strict in their sexual conduct, were 'easy and unreserved in their manners', willing to converse freely and sometimes indulge in double entendre which would call a blush to our town-bred ladies'. (id.)
After the Famine, a confluence of forces turned attitudes prim and grim. Generating forces included the psychological effects of the Famine, the tightened grip of a papal-centric Ultramontane church lead by Cardinal Cullen, the growth of a landowning agricultural sector, the bourgeoisification of the towns and the general spread of Victorian prudishness.
A new-found kind of medieval edifice complex required that towns be dominated by towering churches wherein smells and bells enveloped teeming gender-segregated congregations. If the physical separation wasn't obvious enough on its own, it was emphasized by the mandatory covering of female, and baring of male, heads. Which was a brilliant two-fer in the campaign against the Seven Deadly Sins since it simultaneously got at two of them. It was specifically meant to go after Lust (always number one) but it also hit at Pride since it made women cover the physical feature that they could most easily doll up while making affected men expose their pale baldy pates that were otherwise concealed from view from one end of the week to the other.
In short, the age of the Midnight Court was just about as conservative in practice as subsequent ages lasting into the late 20th century. But the atmosphere was certainly different as evidenced by the Midnight Court being popularly and enthusiastically embraced in the earlier era and banned by a native government in the later one.
In spite of the lamentations in The Midnight Court, there was a contemporary high rate of marriage, often at an early age. Later on, though emigration relieved a lot of pressures, those who stayed behind, particularly in rural Ireland, married late or not at all.
Oliver J. Flanagan was incorrect in saying there was no sex in Ireland before TV. But he was headed in the right direction since a major post-Famine problem was that there was not enough of it for the emotional health of many communities.
- Connell, K. H. 1996 (1968). Irish Peasant Society. Irish Academic Press.
- Connolly, S.J. 1982. Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland: 1780-1845. Gill and McMillan.
- Corkery, Daniel. 2012/1967 (1924). Hidden Ireland: A Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century. Gill and McMillan
- de Blacam, Aodh (née Hugh Blackham). 1970 (1934). A First Book of Irish Literature. The Talbot Press.
- Ferriter, Diarmaid. 2009. Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland. Profile Books Limited.
- Larkin, Emmet. 1976/1984. The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism. The Catholic University of America Press.
- Ó Conchubhair, Brian, ed. 2011. The Midnight Court/Cúirt an Mheán Oíche: A Critical Edition. Syracuse University Press.