Fifty years ago this month a major legal change heralded the beginning of the end of a shameful chapter in Irish cultural history when Ireland’s notorious publications censorship law was reformed.
The worst excesses of a vicious and stupid regime that had blighted Ireland’s reputation since independence were undone, and the subsequent trajectory was one of increasing liberalisation and progress.
Today, thankfully, Irish writers are celebrated and supported rather than ostracised and denigrated.
Film censorship had been introduced in 1923 and was exercised until 1940 by a censor who admitted that while he knew nothing about films, he knew the Ten Commandments!
His successors until the 1980s were little better, banning and cutting films according to zealous Catholic standards.
Catholic campaigners in the 1920s wanted a similar shutdown on the ‘evil literature’ that was seen to be contaminating holy Ireland.
In relation to censorship, as well as a range of other issues, independent Ireland’s early governments were keen to satisfy the extremely conservative demands of a highly organised ‘Catholic Action’ movement, supported by the hierarchy.
The 1929 Censorship of Publications Act empowered a board of five, appointed by the justice minister, to permanently ban a book or periodical if they considered it to be in its ‘general tendency indecent or obscene’, if it advocated or advertised contraception or abortion, or if it devoted excessive attention to crime.
All boards until at least the 1960s were dominated by Catholic activists, mainly members of the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland and the Knights of Columbanus.
The British popular press was a key target. Publications with low circulations in Ireland simply withdrew from the market, while large-selling titles like the News of the World were forced to produce special Irish editions, shorn of birth-control advertisements as well as the salacious court reports that underpinned their popularity.
The requirement to take the general tendency and overall merit of a book into account was ignored from the outset as the censors waged war on modern literature, prohibiting books that alluded to sex or sexuality in even the most innocuous or non-explicit way.
The mere suggestion of homosexuality, promiscuity, or prostitution was enough to ban a book. Most of the leading writers of modern fiction fell victim, leading cynics to dub the Irish Register of Prohibited Publications ‘The Everyman’s Guide to the Modern Classics’.
The register included ten Nobel laureates in literature: Anatole France, Sinclair Lewis, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Mikhail Sholokhov, Henrich Böll, and Samuel Beckett.
Shaw and Beckett were part of a long list of Irish writers who were especially targeted; it included James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Liam O’Flaherty, Sean Ó Faoláin, Frank O’Connor, Francis Stuart, Austin Clarke, George Moore, Kate O’Brien, Maura Laverty, Walter Macken, Edna O’Brien, Brendan Behan, Benedict Kiely, Brian Moore, and John McGahern.
They were ‘the best banned in the land’, as Brendan Behan joked after he joined the list in 1958 following the prohibition on Borstal Boy. But behind the jokes and ridicule, writers felt persecution, were denied a place in their country’s cultural life, and were in many cases denied a living here also.
While no Irish-language book was banned, this had less to do with the intrinsic purity of writing in the native language, and more to do with the pre-publication censorship exercised on such books by their main publisher, the semi-state An Gúm. Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners suggested in the 1960s that all banned books should be published as Gaeilge — a perfect incentive for the Irish people to learn their own language!
Eventually, Irish writers began to see a ban as an inverted badge of honour. Brian Moore remembered thinking ‘it meant I was OK’ when he joined the list with Wreath for a Redhead in 1952. According to Ben Kiely, a prohibition was ‘the only laurel wreath that Ireland was offering to writers in that particular period’.
By the 1960s, as Ireland was opening itself up to the wider world, culturally as well as economically, the censorship net became more porous — banned books began to be sold openly and reviewed and serialised in the press — while the system was increasingly subjected to ridicule and scorn.
The banning of Edna O’Brien’s first five novels and John McGahern’s The Dark, followed by his sacking from his teaching job, increased the pressure.
In 1967 justice minister Brian Lenihan brought forward a new Censorship of Publications Act. The permanent prohibition on books banned for indecency and obscenity was replaced by a 12-year ban, applied retrospectively.
This immediately released over 5,000 titles, and about 400 a year up to 1979. In the latter year also, coincidentally, the partial legalisation of contraception led to the lifting on the ban on birth-control information, followed by that on abortion information in 1992.