Sex in Our Strange World | The Island That Wouldn't Get Naked, Even in Bed

The sexual revolution transformed life and culture across the planet in the 1960s - except on the island of Inisheer

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Nov 21 2018, 1:30pm

Photo via Getty Images

In this column, Sex in Our Strange World, sex historian Dr. Kate Lister, of Leeds Trinity University, explores the ways in which people from around the globe approach love, sex, and marriage.


The poet Philip Larkin once wrote,

‘Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three/ (Which was rather late for me)/ between the end of the Chatterley ban/ and the Beatles’ first LP’

The sexual revolution may have taken its time, wading up the Humber Estuary to the banks of Hull, Larkin’s hometown, but at least it got there in the end. At about the same as the Hullians were taking their first tentative steps with sexual experimentation and beehive hairdos, cultural anthropologists John C. & Betty Messenger were researching the people living on the remote Aran Island of Inisheer, the most Easterly of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay.

"In the entire eight years the Messengers lived on the island, they did not hear one rude pun, cheeky song, bawdy limerick, or smutty innuendo"

The husband and wife team lived on the island, conducting ethnographic research between 1958 and 1966, and their findings revealed that not only had the sexual revolution not made it to the shores of Inisheer by 1963, it had not even bothered to call ahead to see if it could make reservations.

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Ireland's rugged, enchanting landscape has always been a draw for visitors. Photo: John Hinde

So shocking were their claims about the islanders that the Messengers renamed Inisheer ‘Inis Beag’ to protect their identity in the resulting publications. Quite what the point of this was when Messenger’s 1969 book, Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland, not only included the local landmarks, directions and a detailed history, but also a map of the island, is anyone’s guess, but there we go.

Today, Inisheer is home to 260 residents who make their living primarily from tourism, and preserving Irish culture and heritage, rather than from farming, fishing, and crafts as their predecessors did when the Messengers were taking notes. Although Inisheer has modernised (electricity has been available throughout the island since 1997), the numerous TripAdvisor reviews still praise the island as ‘a different world’; ‘mystical’, and ‘rugged’.

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Inisheer natives, stood in the rain. Photo via Alamy

You may have even visited Inisheer yourself, albeit very briefly, as the wreck of the Plassy, a steam trawler that washed up on Finnis Rock, features in the opening credits of Father Ted.

By 1963, the island had two television sets and many of the houses had radio, but despite the beginning of modernisation, Messenger described Inisheer as ‘one of the most sexually naïve of the world’s societies’.

Inisheer had been devoutly Catholic since it was settled by immigrants fleeing the Cromwellian incursion of the seventeenth century, but the levels of sexual repression reported in the 60s would be enough to make the Pontiff himself look like a member of Guns ‘n’ Roses.

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The Messengers' seminal text on Inisheer. Photo: Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland by John C. Messenger

The Messengers spoke to every one of the then 350 inhabitants and found that not only was sex education nonexistent, but only three mothers had given their daughters any kind of heads up as to what expect on the wedding night, with most preferring instead to ‘let nature take its course’.

The elders of the island claimed that there was no premarital or extramarital sex taking place, and in terms of sexual diversity, nothing beyond male masturbation and heterosexual intercourse was reported to be taking place. No oral, anal, or fingering was mentioned by any of the islanders surveyed, and many of them expressed shock and surprise at the idea of such a thing.

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Bright, lush Irish forestry and characteristically ornate, ancient buildings. Photo: John Hinde

There was no evidence of the female orgasm; instead, women treated sex as something to be endured. One middle-aged bachelor, who had a reputation for having sex with visiting female tourists, and so considered himself ‘wise in the ways of the world’, spoke to Messenger, and inquired as to why one woman he had sex with experienced ‘violent bodily convulsions’. On being told that his lover had orgasmed, he admitted to being completely unaware that women could climax at all.

The sex the islanders described was invariably initiated by the husband, and was brief, with no foreplay - which may explain why the women considered it something to be ‘endured’. It was always in the missionary position, under the sheets, and in their nightclothes.

Nudity was a source of intense shame and embarrassment to the islanders, to the point where pet dogs who licked their genitals were whipped until they learnt to do it outside

The women of the island also had ‘profound misgivings’ about menstruation and menopause, and asked Betty Messenger about those physiological processes far more than they asked about sex. Many young women had been profoundly traumatised by their first period – even more so when their mother couldn’t offer any explanation and refused to talk about it either.

The islanders believed that women could easily become mentally ill during the menopause. To avoid this, some women in their forties simply retired from public life altogether, and some even took to their beds and remained there until they died of old age.

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An excerpt on Inisheer, on their burial customs. Photo: Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland by John C. Messenger

Nudity was a source of intense shame and embarrassment to the islanders, to the point where in some homes, pet dogs who licked their genitals were whipped until they learnt to do it outside. Only infants were bathed once a week in the altogether. Children and adults washed their faces, hands, neck, feet and lower legs only.

Many islanders would only get dressed under the bedclothes. Some of the more ‘daring’ women claimed to have bathed in the rock pools on the island, but when pushed to elaborate it turned out this meant paddling ankle deep, whilst fully clothed, and in complete isolation.

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"Inisheer had been devoutly Catholic since it was settled by immigrants fleeing the Cromwellian incursion of the seventeenth century" Photo via Getty Images

So intense was the shame around nudity that not one of the island’s fishermen could swim, as they would never remove any of their clothing to learn. Instead, the fishermen joked that men who can’t swim make better sailors as they’re the most careful.

The island nurse, who came from the mainland, reported that very few people would come and see her when they were ill, as they couldn’t stand being physically examined or having to remove any clothing. The result being that by the time treatment was sought, in many cases, it was simply too late for anything to be done.

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"Messenger described Inisheer as ‘one of the most sexually naïve of the world’s societies’" Photo via Getty Images

The Inisheer of the 1960s had several pubs, two shops, a post office, and a ‘national school’, but no evidence whatsoever of the dirty joke. In the entire eight years the Messengers lived on the island, they did not hear one rude pun, cheeky song, bawdy limerick, or smutty innuendo of any description whatsoever.

All social events were segregated by gender, and even the dancing was restricted to rigid set dancing that many women refused to take part in because they may have to touch a man. This is not the case today.

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Modern-day Inisheer - still as craggy as ever. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

One of the reasons Inisheer experienced far less cultural changes to the rest of Ireland was its lack of a quay and resulting inaccessibility from the mainland. Those wishing to visit the island were forced to anchor off the coast and be met with canoes to take them ashore. But, none of this could last. Once ferry links, and television, and media from the mainland were in place, the sexual revolution finally landed in Inisheer.

Today, Inisheer is as beautiful and rugged as it has always been, but it is absolutely a modern place, and one that strives to preserve its heritage, traditions, and local customs. It is a place where you can soak up traditional Irish music, fine fare and food, while enjoying the craic, and raising a glass and a wry smile to the memory of a world gone by. I’m reliably informed that the locals will now even let visitors shower without their clothes on. Vive la Révolution, or as they say in Irish, fada an réabhlóid beo.

Dr Kate Lister is a sex historian, author and lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. She also runs the blog Whores of Yore. Keep up with her on Twitter.