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Courting has been replaced by dating, yet some traditions still remain


American parlance: Diane Keaton and Woody Allen on a ‘date’ in the film Annie Hall

American parlance: Diane Keaton and Woody Allen on a ‘date’ in the film Annie Hall

American parlance: Diane Keaton and Woody Allen on a ‘date’ in the film Annie Hall

January was once, almost officially, courtship month in Ireland. Back in the mists of time - the 1950s, when my older sister was a lass - there was an event called "the dress dance".

The "dress dance" was as crucial to Irish middle-class life as Mardi Gras is to Brazil. Turn back the pages of any social magazine - say, the Irish Tatler and Sketch - and you will be regaled by photographic visions of "the dress dance". Ladies in ballgowns and chaps in penguin suits seen at these formal revelries, always in January. It was considered terribly progressive when women started to wear strapless frocks, held up, it was said "by willpower".

Some of those attending these occasions were, admittedly, already married. Couples were encouraged to participate, and businesses and corporations thought it helped lift working morale to host a dress dance. But it was evidently a mating ritual, to which you might take a putative sweetheart, or you might meet one.

Then, the "dress dance" just tailed off and virtually disappeared. Was it the onset of the Swinging Sixties and the advent of the discotheque that put it out of fashion? Or was it the decline of Lenten practices? Like Mardi Gras itself, the whole point of the January mating rite was that February would bring Lenten austerity, and there would be no dancing, partying, feasting or drinking. Once Lent was weakened - by the Catholic church, keen to seem less stern - there was little point in such jollities.

After the ball was over, many a heart was broken, 'twas said.

Did "dating" replace the various figures of speech for courtship at around the same time? "Courting" (or more colloquially, "curtin'") was the name given to a couple who were "walking out". "Keeping company" was another phrase used, and sometimes with a disparaging overtone, as if it might be a dangerous pastime - although, come to think of it, maybe it is. (Where's the spice of life without a little danger?) When two people were acknowledged as boyfriend/girlfriend, another phrase used was "doing a line".

The phrase has fallen somewhat out of favour since "doing a line", in other societies, means putting cocaine up your nose.

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When did "dating", as such, appear? The notion of a "date" was in currency ever since the appearance of American films. But it must have been something slightly daring at one point, because stage comics would crack mildly naughty jokes which confused the Oriental fruit known as the date, with a romantic assignation.

There must have been a moment when "courtship" was replaced by "dating"; and when "being in a relationship" meant "spoken for" (which meant "an understanding").

I think dating is lovely and romantic and a great way to test attraction between two people. But mores always change, and where "courtship" automatically meant a prelude to marriage, "dating" may not mean any such thing. A date may lead to a relationship, but wedding bells are not necessarily envisaged at all.

Nowadays, the parents of young people who are "dating" know well that they mustn't make inquiries about the couple's intention. The modern protocol is that parents must not interfere: they'll be told if and when the time is right.

They all also know when the relationship breaks up - be it formalised or not - especially when son or daughter arrives back home to live with Ma and Pa again.

Sexual mores were, as usual, the agency of change. In times of courtship, the young couple might be "curtin'" (with intimacies variously described as "petting", "necking", and at the genteel end of the spectrum, "murmuring sweet nothings"), but they were not expected to be in a full sexual relationship. The agony aunts of the entire world issued dire warnings against such recklessness: not only for the risk of an unwanted baby, or a shotgun wedding, but the possibility that once a man "got his way" with a woman, she had thrown away her strongest card. "Treat 'em mean, and keep 'em keen!"

The rules of dating and relationships are bound to be much more fluid today because, basically, there are no rules imposed by any exterior authority. Respect for privacy is established as a human right so any individual over the age of 17 is free to set their own protocols in the pursuit of a date. A man can invite a woman, a woman can invite a man, people can invite same-sex others. It's a free-for-all. There's no "Miss Manners" (or "Mrs Morality") to say what should and should not be done.

The new emphasis, spread through the universities, of awareness of "consent" is partly the result of this free-for-all. Because there are no rules, new boundaries need to be signalled.

Still, I love the way that social mores change, and yet, traditional practices suddenly pop up again.

I was at a lunch party recently, when the ching of fork against glass was heard and we were told to hush for an announcement. A young man in his 30s at the table announced, with a becoming blush, that he and his betrothed had become engaged. They'd been living together for some time, and yet, this was a rite of passage met with applause all round, and the fiancée proudly displayed her diamond. Not only that, but he had gone down on one knee to propose.

And it had all started with a single date.

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