What Reactions to ‘Normal People’ Adaptation Tell Us About Catholic Guilt

The TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People hit screens and international streaming this week and has been racking up seriously impressive reviews since. When a popular Irish radio show opened its phone lines to those with opinions about the show, however, it uncovered a nasty strain of Catholic guilt that runs deep in Irish culture and society.

Much of this guilt revolves around the perceived ‘sin’ of fornication, or premarital sex, something that Normal People does technically involve. The series, and its literary predecessor, follows the story of Marianne and Connell, and how their relationship (emotional and sexual) progresses throughout their early adulthood. Considering they begin a sexual relationship as non-married almost-adults, this comes as a major thorn in Catholic Ireland’s side, particularly as it appears on national television.

 

image via independent.ie

Having grown up in Ireland, I have always held an awareness of Ireland’s religious history and involvement, but for those of you that may not know, Ireland is a country that has long been influenced by the Catholic church. It is a lengthy and turbulent history and one that is still at play today. While the Magdalene laundries are over 20 years in the rear-view mirror, there is still a call for large-scale separation of church and state. This need for a step away from religious dogma could not be any more evident than in the problematic responses to a piece of popular media that depicts healthy, consensual sex that does not appeal to a biblical standard.

The Joe Duffy Liveline is an Irish radio institution and a place for the public to voice their opinions on topical issues. This week, the spotlight was on Normal People, and much of the general response was geared towards the “immoral” and “ungodly” depiction of two unmarried young people “jumping into bed together”.

Many speakers were outraged by this. One Irish man was appalled that RTÉ (the national broadcaster) was seemingly seeking to normalize sex between two single, young people, even going as far as to cite the supposed rampant sexual appetites of Ireland’s youth today as a cause for the current global pandemic.

 

 

Much of the discussion considered the ‘immoral’ act of premarital sex, and the effect this action may have on the ‘souls’ of those involved. At one point, the main female character, Marianne, was described as a “tease” for initiating the relations with Connell. These opinions hark back to an Ireland of the past, one that considered single mothers, and young pregnant women, or even those that were seen as ‘flirts’ as “fallen women”.

What this response fails to note is the tasteful, refreshing, and moving aspect of each sex scene between the show’s stars, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones.  The show’s second episode depicts the beginning of their sexual relationship, an early-adulthood situation that is handled beautifully and tactfully by the show. There is an open discussion of consent, representation of birth control methods, and portrayal of a healthy experience for both involved. It is an incredible feat that this is a piece of popular media that is allowed to exist in modern-day Ireland, as it would have been considered impossible just years prior, when abortion, gay marriage, and even divorce were both taboo and illegal in the country.

 

 

Amidst the sexist and archaic voices heard on the radio show, there were some refreshing takes from young people and other members of the public. One man praised the show for giving him the opportunity to discuss consent with his teenage son. A young Leaving Cert student – the same age as those in the first few episodes – said the show was an accurate depiction of navigating school, family, and young love. Personally, I loved both the book and its adaption. The story of Marianne and Connell is sad, beautiful, moving, and sexy. It is a breath of fresh air as a piece of incredible literature and television from a country that has long-stifled any move towards a more open, welcoming, and free representation in media.

Normal People is a triumph, both on-page, on-screen, and as a landmark production for a modern Ireland. Thankfully, while much of the conversation on the radio has been backward and regressive, Twitter had a whole other idea. I leave you with the hilarious takes of a louder, and more accepting, portion of the Irish people.

 

 

You can find Normal People on BBC, RTÉ, and Hulu.

featured image via independent.ie

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