Fifty Shades of Sligo: Normal People poses a challenge for Irish tourism

Promoting Ireland as a tourism destination used to be straightforward – just showcase the bucolic landscape and put a slogan on the end – but that was before Normal People turned a chunk of the Atlantic coast into Fifty Shades of Sligo.

The television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel features beautiful shots of Sligo’s beaches and mountains, plus Trinity College Dublin, but there is also sex. Lots of sex.

Some vocal critics call it porn. Others say the explicit scenes are sensitively handled but still make them squirm.

For the marketing people at Tourism Ireland this has created a delicate challenge: tap the international acclaim for the series and book, but keep the carnality bottled up.

The agency has created a behind-the-scenes film about the TV series but was “selective” in its use of clips, Brendan Griffin, the tourism minister, told Dáil Éireann, the lower house of parliament, this week.

“Tourism Ireland has been very active online in promoting Ireland and imagery from Ireland. Very recently, that imagery included Sligo and some of the cinematography in Normal People, which was partly filmed there,” he said.

“They had to be selective with the cinematography as not everything is suitable for worldwide distribution from a tourism perspective.” The aim was to entice visitors after coronavirus restrictions ease, said Griffin. “Sligo always looks fantastic on screen.”

Frankie Feighan, a TD (MP) for the Sligo–Leitrim constituency, responded with his own plug for the region. “With regard to Normal People, my father comes from Tubbercurry where much of it was filmed, and I like to think we are all normal people down there.”

The tone was wry.

Ireland is a different country to the one where clerics and politicians fulminated against fornication and said there was no sex until television – a reference to a 1966 Late Late Show episode in which a quiz contestant revealed she didn’t wear a nightie on her wedding night. The ensuing furore became known as the “bishop and the nightie” incident.

Half a century later, Ireland has greeted the novel and TV adaptation of Normal People – which is showing on RTÉ, BBC and the streaming service Hulu – with similar rapture to that shown in the UK and US.

There is pride in Rooney, the author, and Lenny Abrahamson, the director, for turning the story of the relationship between sixth-form and then university students Marianne and Connell into a cultural touchstone.

Tourism Ireland teamed up with the production company Element Pictures to make the short behind-the-scenes film. It includes clips of Ben Bulben, Sligo’s flat-topped rock formation, Trinity’s front square, chaste encounters between the two main characters, and commentary.

Daisy Edgar-Jones, who plays Marianne, says: “One of my favourite places to film would probably have been Sligo. It was just the most jaw-dropping entrance to any place I’ve ever experienced. When you see Ben Bulben in the distance, it’s just immense.”

Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland, said the film showcased Ireland’s beauty and homegrown talent. “While we may not be able to travel just now, this film will inspire people for their future visit.”

Some of the squeamishness over the sex scenes has been playful, with viewers dubbing the adaptation Fifty Shades of Sligo.

Shane Ross, the transport minister, noted that the romance between Marianne and Connell starts with a kiss filmed in Knockmore House in Enniskerry, his childhood home. “I think my parents would be absolutely mortified by what’s going on in their house, which was a haven of morality,” he told the Irish Independent. “I think it’s great myself.”

However some people were appalled – RTÉ received dozens of complaints. A caller to RTÉ radio’s Liveline programme last week said the TV adaptation was “porno”. Another said it promoted fornication.

The widely reported comments prompted mockery – and an apparent surge in viewership. After the Liveline broadcast RTÉ reported a “highly unusual” level of streaming of Normal People on the RTÉ Player app.

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