Sex Chat, Pregnancy And Religion, The Complications Of Being A 20-Something Woman In Ireland Today

Ireland has some of the best educated women in Europe, and some of the most restrictive abortion laws. We ask 20-something women in Ireland how they reconcile a very conservative society with the modern world...

The reality of being a 20-something girl growing up in Ireland

by Alix O'Neill |
Published on

So, it’s St Patrick’s Day, which means, Irish or not, plenty of us will be sinking a pint of Guinness in honour of the occasion – around 60,000 people lined the streets in Birmingham on Sunday for the city’s annual parade.

And why wouldn’t we celebrate? After all, it takes less time to fly to Dublin from London than it does to get to Blackpool, and the Irish sure as hell know how to have a good time.

But it’s difficult to forget that Ireland has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in Europe, and a largely conservative society where the Catholic church remains highly influential, which means the experience of twentysomething women in Ireland is always going to differ from young women in the UK.

I understand this constrast better than most – I’m from Northern Ireland, but I hold an Irish passport and consider London my adopted home.

So I decided to speak to some twentysomething women from around Ireland to find out how they reconcile life in a modern life in a country that boasts some of the best educated women in Europe (according to a Eurostat survey, 57.9 per cent of Irish women aged 30 to 34 have a third-level education, compared with the EU average of 39.9 per cent), but where abortion is still illegal and you couldn’t buy condoms without a prescription until 1985.

For starters, we’re more likely to still live at home than our British counterparts

Four out of 10 young people in Ireland still live with their parents, while Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of young adults living at home in the UK.

In many ways, the Irish are more like the Italians than the British. There’s a huge emphasis on family and hospitality, and the affectionately parodied Irish Mammy is pretty much like the Italian Mama. She’ll ply you with food, always has the electric blanket on for you after a night out, and generally creates such a cosseting environment you’ll never want to leave.

It’s fairly standard for young Irish people to live at home right through university and even beyond. I know several women who have no intention of moving in with their boyfriends until they get married. It’s nothing to do with religious beliefs; they simply know they’re on to a good thing.

‘I moved back home after uni, initially to do my masters,’ says 29-year-old Christine, from Co Wicklow. ‘I’ve only just moved out four years later. I loved living with my mum. She gave me my space, but when I had a heavy night out, she made the best fry-ups and wrapped me up in the special quilt reserved for hangovers. Who’d want to leave that?’

I loved living with my mum. She gave me my space, but when I had a heavy night out, she made the best fry-ups and wrapped me up in the special quilt reserved for hangovers.

** SATC-style over sharing at brunch isn’t a thing**

It’s not that Irish women aren’t having sex – it’s hard to find anyone under 30 who’s saving themselves for marriage these days – but attitudes towards casual sex on the Emerald Isle aren’t massively liberal either.

‘I’ve slept with quite a few people,’ says Faye, 25, from Cork, ‘but it’s not something I’m keen to broadcast. Sadly, the “slut” label still tends to be applied to a woman who’s had more than a handful of partners.’

It’s not just how many people you’ve slept with, it’s talking about sex, full stop. If I go out for dinner with girlfriends in London, we’ll have rimming and self-love covered off before the starters arrive, but in Ireland, explicit sex chat is generally off the menu.

‘I was visiting a friend in London, who’d recently moved over from Dublin,’ says 27-year-old Nicola. ‘We went out for brunch with some of her English friends and this one girl was regaling the whole table with a pretty graphic blowjob story.

‘Nobody batted an eyelid that the waiter was serving us our coffees at the time. I’m no prude and if I’d been drinking it probably wouldn’t have embarrassed me that much, but blowjob chat before midday is a bit full on.’

Our sex education was more about theology than biology

As for sex ed, most of my mates recall only the biological basics being covered at school.

‘It was definitely minimal and heavily weighted around the teachings of the Church, rather than an education that would help you to make enlightened (and guilt-free) decisions about sex,’ Dubliner Maeve, 29, explains.

The idea was that God was always there when you had sex. So for years, I thought sex was basically a threesome with some bearded man co-ordinating.

The lack of proper sex education has worrying implications for Ireland’s teenagers. According to a 2011 UNICEF report, 21% of Irish teens admitted to watching pronography to teach themselves about sex, while more than a third believed it was accurate and educational.

Dani, 26, also from Dublin, remembers getting a book from her parents when she was 11, to explain the birds and the bees. ‘The thing that stood out most was this pyramid diagram. You had a man and a woman at the bottom, and God at the top. The idea was that God was always there when you had sex. So for years, I thought sex was basically a threesome with some bearded man co-ordinating.’

…and abortion is still a dirty word

‘When I was in first year at school, there was a rumour that a girl a few years ahead of us was pregnant,’ recalls Galway girl Ciara, 27. ‘I remember everyone being really shocked and appalled. We don’t know whether she had an abortion or kept it, but she disappeared and never came back.’

One friend told me how she was shown an anti-abortion video at school that featured graphic scenes of dismembered babies discarded in bins.

I’m a big fan of all things Irish (being kinda Irish and all) but there’s no way round it: the country’s abortion policies suck. Abortion is illegal, except if there is a clear threat to the mother’s life (the same applies in Northern Ireland).

If you’re a victim of rape or incest? You’ll just have to join the estimated 5,000 Irish women forced to travel abroad each year to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Ireland has a very vocal pro-choice lobby, and social media has been instrumental in galvanising support, but an ultra-conservative right, backed by the Church, makes it difficult for any real progress to be made.

Beware crossing the Irish pro-lifer – when prime minster Enda Kenny pushed through a bill introducing limited abortion into Ireland for the first time, he received death threats, plastic foetuses and even letters written in blood.

More disturbingly, one friend told me how she was shown an anti-abortion video at school that featured graphic scenes of dismembered babies discarded in bins.

We know how to party and we’ll probably get the first round in

The Craic is king in Ireland, and pretty much everything revolves around the pursuit of banter. And what facilitates banter? Booze. Sure, there’s an alcohol culture here in the UK, but nobody can drink like the Irish. Being able to hold your liquor is a matter of national pride. Also, we’re way more polite about drinking than the British.

‘An Irish person always gets their round in,’ says Emma, 23, from Dublin. ‘It was a real culture shock when I first moved to the UK. I’d buy everyone a drink and they’d be appreciative, but would rarely get me back. Though I think it’s more our excessive generosity than my mates’ stinginess. I’d insist on someone not paying me back for something even if I’m broke. It’s just the Irish way.’

In fact, the Irish way extends far beyond the pub – Ireland is number 4 in the 2014 World Giving Index, an annual report ranking over 130 countries according to how charitable they are. Ireland is a nation of benefactors.

No country’s perfect, as anyone who’s watched the debate around abortion in Ireland play out over the last few years will attest to. But today 50 million people around the world will be celebrating St Patrick’s Day – from the streets of Manhattan to the outer reaches of Nepal (where you’ll find the world’s highest Irish pub).

And the one thing every woman I spoke to had in common? They couldn’t speak highly enough of their home country. And let’s face it, when Kimye choose your country as their honeymoon destination, you know you’re doing something right.

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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