Female sexuality. For so long demonised as a thing to be distrusted and repressed, crushed and vilified, is having a cultural moment.

Big vagina energy is pulsating throughout Ireland as the medieval symbol of Sile Na Gig has re-emerged as a loud and proud emblem of female fortitude in the face of adversity. The old hag head clutching her enlarged vulva, no question of labiaplasty. No shame.

Something is going on here collectively. Can you feel it? It coincides, not accidentally I imagine, as Nora Barnacle’s wild and experimental sexual relationship with James Joyce gets the full treatment from internationally acclaimed Irish writer Nuala O’Connor in her latest book Nora.

Writing for the Paris Review this week, O’Connor wrote:

“The fact is no one should be able to read the intimate words that anyone writes to their partner – those outpourings are composed for two people: the lover and the loved”.

Nuala O’Connor, The Paris Review

In this book, O’Connor imagines what Barnacle wrote to elicit those ‘dirty letters’ that only remain from Joyce’s side. The focus is on Barnacle’s sexuality. “They were Roman Catholic, yes, and both suffered the quashing of sexuality that the clergy excelled at, but privately, many Irish people were more pagan and earthy in their customs and their thought processes than they let on,” she writes.

O’Connor reveals in the article she wrote some saucy letters herself, to her boyfriend as a teenager, only for them to end up in the hands of his mother after he emigrated. Crimson. Stephen Joyce has never been on board with the publication of his grandfather’s letters, as well you can imagine, but maybe they’ll help us, as a country, heal a wound. There’s so much sexual trauma on our little island. It feels like we’re beginning to reclaim our agency over our bodies, and our minds.

On the global stage, it’s no accident Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion came out as the main talking point from The Grammys with their sexually graphic WAP performance. Conservative American author Candace Owens was quick to dismiss the appearance as vulgar and a sign of degenerative culture.

It reminded me of a tribal dance, a cultural moment when two women from ‘wrong side of the tracks’ declared to the world they were not ashamed of their sexuality or their uncouth way of describing their sexual preferences. I imagine James Joyce would have secretly approved, if not publicly. Like Post Malone. Nora Barnacle would certainly have understood where they’re coming from. We’re moving into more sexually liberated times, where the two key words emerging are Consent and Respect.

Sile Na Gig is back. What does it mean exactly? No-one knows for sure. A warning against lust? (We know who came up with that one). A pagan goddess? A fertility figure? Protection against evil?  In its modern re-incarnation, it’s a positive symbol of female power, freed from religious dogma and humiliation. Female sexuality has broken free from the shackles. We’re tapping back into our pagan roots. No more shame surrounding the vagina. We’re in charge now. 

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