Frank O’Connor: Gamekeeper turned poacher

Frank O’Connor, who lends his name to the world’s richest prize for a short story collection at this week’s Cork International Short Story Festival, was an eloquent critic of the censorship that blighted independent Ireland’s cultural landscape.

Frank O’Connor: Gamekeeper turned poacher

His literary career, which lasted from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s, coincided with the heyday of the notorious Censorship of Publications Board which waged war on modern literature. The Register of Prohibited Publications eventually numbered over 12,000 books, and contained the works of 10 Nobel laureates, including our own Samuel Beckett and George Bernard Shaw.

Curiously, for a writer associated with the fight for freedom of expression, O’Connor’s first encounter with censorship was as a censor. In the first days of the Civil War in early July 1922 a team of anti-Treaty IRA censors, including a young O’Connor (then still known as Michael O’Donovan), moved into the offices of the Cork Examiner. Their job was to slant this pro-Treaty paper’s content to favour the republican cause. The Examiner, the only nationalist daily published outside Dublin, was a key prize in the propaganda war.

O’Connor’s stint as a censor lasted just seven weeks — in the second week of August 1922 the Free State army captured Cork city from the IRA, which destroyed the plant and machinery of both the Examiner and the unionist daily, the Cork Constitution, as it beat its retreat.

The Irish Free State that emerged from the Civil War was an inhospitable place for writers like O’Connor. Legislation was shaped and implemented by the Catholic Church and allied groups who regarded most modern literature with suspicion, and they targeted the works of contemporary Irish writers with particular relish. Laws provided for the banning of publications deemed indecent or obscene or which “advocated” contraception or abortion

O’Connor had five books banned by the censorship board: the novel Dutch Interior (1940), his translations from Irish, Midnight Court (1946) and Kings, Lords and Commons (1961), and the short story collections The Common Chord (1947) and Travellers Samples (1951. The censorship represented, O’Connor said, “the determination to get at sex by hook or by crook. Sex is bad, books encourage sex, babies deter it, so keep the books out and give them lots of babies...”

The ban on his translation of Brian Merriman’s Midnight Court — the original Irish text and other translations were freely available — seems to have been a targeting of the translator rather than the text.

The activities of the censorship board bore out O’Connor’s contention that “the censorship of literature has never resulted in anything but absurdity”. Irish censorship, he wrote, was “obviously not intended to protect the Irish people against evil literature, but to destroy the character and prospects of Irish writers in their own country”.

Young Michael O’Donovan, the censor, was an irrelevant historical accident, a by-product of a messy short war in which he was on the losing side. The mature Frank O’Connor was a highly effective combatant in a drawn-out culture war in which he was eventually on the winning side.

He died in 1966 and the reform of the censorship laws the following year marked the beginning of the end of a dark chapter in Irish cultural history. O’Connor played his part in creating an Ireland that now, at least, despite its shortcomings, honours him and our other great writers, rather than insults them, and us, with ugly repression.

Donal Ó Drisceoil lectures in history at UCC. His history of censorship in 20th-century Ireland will be published next year.

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