In the space between Old and New: Irish girls, the body, and self
[Ed. note: This article is part one of a three-part series about the intersection of secular and religious culture in Ireland and the effect of those forces on Ireland’s young women.]
Some time ago I came across an Irish Times article entitled Working the Hooker Look. In the article, Alda Austin writes about her experience waiting outside an under-16’s disco for her youngest daughter. She describes what she sees as hundreds of girls spilling out onto the street “looking like soft-porn stars.” This has become an increasingly common sight in cities all around Ireland. In Dublin, women and young girls alike travel in large packs donning flawless made-up faces, ultra-straight glossy hair, bejewelled skimpy dresses and intimidatingly high heels—and this in a city that’s perpetually cold and damp and where navigating uneven, broken cobblestone streets is unavoidable.
Underneath the get-up, it’s easy to see that these women and girls all look different, but their coordinated sense of dress suggests that they’re all members of a common tribe. In my mind, it’s impossible to look that done-up without going to a lot of effort, and one doesn’t go to that kind of effort unless it’s somehow expected or required.
I’m originally from the United States but I’ve lived in Dublin, Ireland for the last eight years. In the time that I’ve been here, so much has changed. Modern Ireland has become more Westernized and, one might even go so far as to say, secularized. But like any nation, Ireland is a product of its history, and the Catholic Church is a big part of this in the way that it has fundamentally shaped cultural ideas about so many things. The development and subsequent direction of Irish media some fifty years ago was a critical turning point in the relationship between Irish society and the Church.
What was initially seen by both the Vatican and local Church authorities as a formal means of strengthening the collective Catholic purpose became something that would eventually threaten it. In particular, it was television that opened up the public realm to a new manner of seeing and thinking about the body and self that challenged Church discourse in ways that were unforeseen.
The Church’s role in constructing Irish national identity and a strong collective purpose separate from British interests was crucial in the time of independence. This foremost included ideas about sex and sexuality. As researcher and author Tom Inglis puts it, promoting self-denial and bodily repression through religious teachings was used to construct broader perceptions about sexuality and intimacy within Irish communities.
It’s almost as if modern Ireland has been left with two identities: one where highly embedded Catholic beliefs continue to infuse Irish society and one where consumer culture is king and mass media dominates. “Pornified” celebrity culture is undoubtedly rife here, set against the strict moral backdrop of Church values (or at least what is left of them). Irish culture is a peculiar amalgamation of the old and the new, leaving Irish girls to develop a sense of the body and self in the space between the two.
Tara McIntyre is a recent Master’s graduate in Sociology from University College Dublin (UCD). Her interests are in gender, media, and the body.