But the accepted history of any country is merely a kind of orthodoxy that hides all kinds of heresies, and in Ireland traditionally they have had to do with sex. For over a century or more, the saints and scholars image of Ireland has concealed the country’s vibrant sexual history, which so shocked the early Christian scribes when they started to set down the myths and legends of the ancient Celtic culture.
They must have become hot under the tonsure as they transcribed the texts of the Ulster Cycle, which contain the story of Queen Maeve and her husband, Ailill, Ireland’s first scandalous couple. The imperious Maeve was a hard woman to keep happy, so the queen of Connaught and her husband had what we would now call an open marriage.
“For I asked a harder wedding gift than any woman ever asked before from a man in Ireland,” she reminded Ailill one morning as they lay in bed, “the absence of meanness and jealousy and fear.” She tells her husband that she could not have married any man who was not as generous or as brave as she was, “because I thrive, myself, on all kinds of trouble.” She especially could not have had a jealous man for her husband.
“If I married a jealous man, that would be wrong, too,” she declares, because “I never had one man without another waiting in his shadow.”
Poor Ailill must have been an extremely tolerant man, even by the most liberal of modern open-marriage standards. We can get an idea of Maeve’s views on marital fidelity by her favorite way of a clinching a deal:
“And my friendly thighs on top of that,” she would declare, making an offer which no self-respecting man in Ireland could refuse. Her nickname was “Maeve of the friendly thighs.”
She boasted that it took 32 men to satisfy her, presumably one from every county in Ireland, and the sagas name many of her “husbands.” Her favorite lover was the Ulster hero Fergus Mac Roich, with whom she had two love children. Domestic tranquility was not the goal of the Maeve-Ailill household. We get a glimpse of the couple in the great epic, “The Tain,” in the middle of an argument over who has the most wealth and status. She is infuriated when she discovers that her husband possesses a bull bigger than anything she has in her herds. There is only one bigger and better — and the men of Ulster hold that. Maeve’s determination to outdo her husband leads her to invade Ulster, provoking a bloody war, as her army faces off against Cuchulainn, then the greatest of the Irish heroes. During the war, Maeve spends more time cavorting with Fergus than fighting on the battlefield. Eventually, even Ailill’s patience runs out. When he comes upon the pair splashing around naked in the river, Maeve is sitting on Fergus’s chest with her legs wrapped around him. He has Fergus speared to death, proving that even the most open of marriages has its limits.
What made the early Irish couples and the myths about them particularly scandalous to the Christian monks who wrote down their stories for the first time was the forwardness of the Irish women. They were definitely not the blushing colleens with whom Irish womanhood later became identified. But the colleen was a Victorian invention. More typical was Deirdre. Like Maeve, she did not sit around waiting to be asked to dance.
Deirdre was the most beautiful woman in Ireland — the Irish Helen. But the Ulster king, Conchobar Mac Nessa, wanted to keep her for himself, and saw to it that she was raised in a lonely and isolated spot, where her eyes would not light on any handsome young warriors. One day Deirdre’s foster father was skinning a calf in the snow, and spattered blood. A raven landed and began to drink it.
“I could desire a man who had those three colors there,” says the observant girl, “hair like the raven, cheeks like blood and his body like snow.” Her stepfather tells her that such a man is just around the corner, his name — Noisiu. Deirdre arranges to sneak out and take a peak. She walks past him.
“That is a fine heifer going by,” says Noisiu, taking a look.
“As well it might. The heifers grow big where there are no bulls,” she responds. Noisiu reminds her that she has the “bull of the province all to herself” — the king.
“Are you rejecting me?” she asks.
“I am,” he replies. Outraged, she rushed at him, grabbed him by the ears.
“Two ears of shame and mockery,” she cries, “if you don’t take me with you!” Noisiu’s pleas to be left alone are ignored.
“You will do it,” she tells him and binds him. He obeys. The couple is forced to flee to Alba (Scotland) by the angry king. But all the king’s attempts through force and trickery to get her back fail. The years pass. The king offers them a chance to return to Ireland, and guarantees their safety. They return, escorted by Noisiu’s brothers, only to be treacherously slaughtered. Deirdre is spared, and dragged before Conchobar. Desolate, she refuses to smile and goes on hunger strike. Her lament has become one of the most famous poems in Ireland, much imitated by subsequent poets. She sang, of her love for “the mighty warrior” and “his fitting, firm desire.” When the king tries to approach her, she bashes her head and against a rock and dies.
Conchobar’s treachery marks the beginning of a series of troubles for Ulster, which culminates in the invasion by Queen Maeve and the devastating war for the great bull. What is interesting about the portraits of women in the early Irish sagas is how differently they are depicted from the heroines of classical literature, such as Helen of Troy. Helen is the passive victim of men’s desire, carried off from one place to another, but Maeve and Deirdre are active protagonists in determining their own fate. They retain their power to shock prudes and puritans even to this day.
When we make the leap from myth to history (never a very great jump in the Irish tradition) we find couples every bit as scandalous as those of the sagas. Indeed, the whole history of Ireland was dramatically altered forever by the scandal of Diarmuid MacMurrough and his love for Dervogilla, the wife of King O Ruairic of Breifne. MacMurrough carried her off from the arms of her husband, who in revenge exiled him to Britain. There, he cut the deal that altered the course of Irish history. He invited the Normans into Ireland in return for their aid in restoring him to his kingdom. His passion for a married woman plunged Ireland into an 800-year cycle of attempted conquest and rebellion, from which it is only just beginning to emerge.
It was when the Irish struggle was reaching a political climax in the late 19th century that the next couple scandalous enough to change history emerged. Charles Stewart Parnell, the charismatic leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party was endeavoring to undo some of the damage that began with MacMurrough in 1169. In the 1885 elections, Parnell and his party running on a Home Rule ticket swept to success in every corner of Ireland, except the northeast. The British prime minister, William Gladstone, was forced to take notice. Though the Home Rule Bill was defeated in 1886, Parnell seemed powerfully positioned to continue the campaign. The following year, he triumphed over an attempt to discredit him and was hailed as “the uncrowned king of Ireland.” Shortly afterward, the scandal broke when a former member of Parnell’s party, Captain William O’Shea, filed divorce papers naming the party leader as a co-respondent. It emerged that for more than 10 years the captain’s wife, Kitty, and Parnell had been having an affair. Mrs. O’Shea had not concealed the fact from her husband — she had three children by the Irish leader.
The moral crusaders pounced on Parnell, and both his political allies and enemies savaged him. (Though Gladstone had the decency not to pass judgment on Parnell’s personal conduct.) The hierarchy of the Catholic church declared he was no longer fit to lead his party. Within a year, Parnell was dead, his party split, and the Home Rule cause shattered. The scandal, one of the greatest ever to shake Ireland, reverberated for decades. When James Joyce came to write “Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man,” he made an argument between Mr. Casey and Dante over Parnell the most scalding scene in the book. The hero, Stephen Dedalus, witnesses it.
” ‘Let him remember too,’ cried Mr. Casey, to her across the table, ‘the language with which the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him to his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.’ ” Joyce took his character’s words to heart. He made Parnell central to another powerful scene, in his short story “Ivy Day In The Committee Room.” The fate of Parnell became a symbol of Irish moral hypocrisy, which Joyce believed lay at the heart of the country’s piety.
A gross example of that hypocrisy made history in 1992 when the bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, was revealed to have had a long affair with a divorced woman, Annie Murphy, with whom he had a son. Murphy had come to Ireland after her marriage had broken up. Casey, a popular, outgoing bishop who one biographer said was “adored by priests and parishioners alike,” was a distant relation. She approached him for help and, according to the story, the two fell almost instantly in love.
Casey had served Mass during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Galway in 1979. He had made his name as an outspoken critic on social and political issues, including U.S. policy in Central America. When the scandal broke that a man who preached chastity and sexual purity was having an affair with a divorced woman, the Irish church reacted furiously. Casey was banished from his diocese and was barred from ever returning. But the reaction of the Irish people was more tolerant than that of the hierarchy. Casey had tasted the “forbidden fruit” of which he was trying to stop others from taking a bite. But people overlooked that and instead attacked the hypocrisy of the church. An opinion poll taken last year in Galway revealed that 74 percent of those asked thought he should be allowed back to Galway, either to retire or resume his post. Fifty-six percent believed he did not need to explain his past actions. Following the poll, an article in the Irish Examiner attacked Cardinal Desmond Connell, the archbishop of Dublin, who had criticized Casey for visiting Ireland to attend a funeral; it accused him of being more interested in “protecting the power and prestige of clerical institutions” than protecting parishioners.
“The superstition which led to the according of a supernatural prestige to the hierarchy has been largely undermined,” it said. The article pointed to the church’s coverup of pedophile priests and contrasted it with its harsh treatment of Bishop Casey.
The Irish reaction to scandal was becoming more nuanced, and also taking on something of a blas