Behind the Emerald Curtain: Repression, Censorship and Church Privilege in Ireland

The following entry is from a speech I prepared on a historical debate on censorship in Ireland about a year ago.  


      The notion of censorship, has and will always polarise opinion among those who it affects the most, the public. We all like to think of ourselves as free.  Do we ever question just how free is free? And how much freedom can governments afford to provide? In the case of the Irish Free State, much has been made of the repressive censorship measures enforced upon a people who, to varying degrees, had viewed their position as emerging from seven centuries of repression and tyranny.  To understand why a newly formed nation would choose such repressive measures to deny its citizens complete freedom the decades preceding the establishment of the state need to be examined. 

    The latter years of the nineteenth century leading to early years of the twentieth witnessed Irish cultural nationalism basking in a glow of a newly found self-respect as they fully embraced traditional Irish customs, arts, sports and language.  This seemingly unstoppable upwelling of national self-confidence was viewed as an effective counter to the English music hall caricature of the slow-witted Irishman of easy sentiment.  With this self-respect followed an intoxicating sense of moral superiority which was legitimised in the various organs of the cultural awakening and reinforced the increasingly fashionable image of the former colonial master as being of questionable moral fibre in comparison with the incorruptible Irishman.  Separatist propaganda thrived on the contrasting morals of Britain and Ireland. Smutty papers…the dirty song, the suggestive film, the indecent revue were all English products exported to the land of Saints and Scholars.[1]  If the moral guardians of the Cultural Revolution were to be believed, not only were the British media barons who peddled their depraved wares corrupting young readers, they were also intent on promoting a ‘healthy Imperial outlook’.[2]  The battle was therefore, two-fold, for the soil and the soul.

     It should have come as no surprise that once the ancient enemy was dispelled from their midst, those who played their part in fighting the good fight would be permitted to continue with their charge in protecting the ‘haven of virtue surrounded by a sea of vice’.[3] This was as pressing as ever as Britain’s fetid shadow was still looming ever large.  As early as February 1922, with the ink not yet dry on the treaty, interested parties from the Irish Vigilance Association were showing their intensions by pressing for the establishment of a Government department to control the censorship of films in Ireland. [4] They evidently believed the new state should begin with a clean moral slate! 

     In a few years time, with the political tide seeming to be turning in a state that was not yet a decade old, W.T. Cosgrave, as the leader of the party of law and order, perhaps fearful of the uncertainty which political upheaval would bring attempted to solidify Irish moral supremacy and reinforce the bonds with the Catholic Church by enacting the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929.  The act was enforced on three grounds: if they were in a ‘general tendency indecent or obscene‘; if they devoted ‘an unduly large proportion of space to the publication of matter relating to crime’, and if they advocated ‘the unnatural prevention of conception or the procurement of abortion or miscarriage’.[5]  Designed to protect the public from immoral literature and effectively control the distribution of British newspapers and periodicals was met with an unsurprisingly fervent response from the Irish literati.  George Russell (AE) bewailed the tyranny of the majority, condemning ‘the shallow moralists’ who were trying to ‘defeat divine wisdom’, yet he conceded that those who enacted the Bill no doubt meant well.[6]

      Whether or not they meant well, the enactment of the Bill was well received by the majority, perhaps in keeping with the innate conservatism of the majority of the states inhabitants. Nevertheless, the act was to have a stifling effect on potential voices of dissent at a time when the state was gazing into the doorway of the unknown.  With the establishment of Fianna Fáil and the re-emergence of de Valera to the political scene there was a quite tangible feeling of apprehension over the direction the state was taking. Questions were raised as to where this new party would lead a state which was still raw from the wounds of the civil war.  With the probable threat of renewed hostilities and the potential for slipping back towards the anarchy of the previous decade could the Taoiseach afford to have literature of either an overtly political bent or that of subversion placed within reach of politicised men, providing them with an outlet for their dissent?  There was no way it could have been allowed. In this, perhaps the most fragile period in the life of the young state the preservation of the status quo was imperative beneath the shadow of the gunman.

     Once the switch had been made and de Valera was safely ensconced in came the fanfare of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress which for all intents and purposes was the public coronation of the new moral constabulary of Ireland.  Repression would have a powerful new agent. Gone were the glorious days of self-expression which identified Gaelic revival, to be replaced with a mantra of ‘thou shalt not’.  It was all part of a general process of a repressive programme of ‘Catholicization’ that became the primary element in the forging of an Irish identity, separate from the ever-present neighbour.  The existence of the twenty six counties suited conservative elements of the Catholic Church, as it facilitated the passing of clerical legislation far easier than if a thirty two county pluralist public had ever existed.[7] Zealous clerics and clerks who would seek to police the conscience of the nation were invited to bless libraries,[8] while justifying repressive censorship as being based on both natural and divine law![9] Conversely this strict ecclesiastical conservatism led to the banning of some Catholic periodicals across the border, by a Stormont government who lived with the fear of this very modern crusade permeating the Northern state.[10] 
     Many of the leading writers of the day were hit by sanctions almost unheard of previously on the island.  Leading lights such as Seán O’Faoláin (Bird Alone), Kate O’Brien (The Land of Spices)[11]and Brendan Behan (Borstal Boy), to name only a few, were censored for their art.  Perhaps more sinisterly, the Irish police in a manoeuvres more suited  to agents of the Gestapo paid a personal visit to Patrick Kavanagh over the content of his work The Great Hunger.[12]

      It was in the face of this unrestrained zeal that Yeats, once of facile nationalism,[13] lamented the now unwelcome bedfellows of the revolution:

“For the past hundred years Irish nationalism has had to fight against England, and that fight has helped fanaticism, for we had to welcome everything that gave Ireland emotional energy, and had little use for intelligence so far as the mass of people were concerned, for we had to hurl them against an alien power.  The basis of Irish nationalism has now shifted, and much that once helped is now injurious”.[14]

      Ireland’s governments continued to permit the spiritual authorities to persist uninhibited with their hunt for depraved literature. However, the intensity of the hunt would depend on the piousness of individual clerics.  Their unchecked crusade facilitated fanaticism which stifled creativity and contributed to a backward looking nation.  


     A very real evil for de Valera’s government was how to navigate the choppy waters of the first real test of the state’s neutrality during what was quaintly termed ‘the Emergency’.  It was not only the seditious materials contained within books and traditional theatre productions which posed a threat to the test of Ireland’s neutrality.  Now the growing popularity of cinema would need to be regulated. Certain sections of films and certainly current affairs issues came for close scrutiny by the censors under the Emergency Powers Act.  Censors were in no doubt that a ‘full ninety percent’ of films from England and America contained unwelcome war propaganda.[15] The material contained within these couldn’t be risked in theatres with ‘mixed audiences’ because of the Irishman’s ‘propensity for…shall we say…argument?[16]  And of course, there were historical precedents for such caution.  In the years before independence the revivalist publication the Gael recalled the impact of the Playboy of the Western World riots at the Abbey Theatre and urged its readers to inaugurate a campaign of ‘fierce, organised rioting against vile productions’ to clear the house and usher in an ‘era of decency’ in theatres and cinemas.[17] Obviously the authorities could not afford to take such a chance again.  As tensions were heightened around Europe, and especially along Anglo-Irish channels it was imperative that Ireland was seen as keeping her house and her neutrality in order, despite the neighbour’s objections.  This too had the unwelcome effect of cutting the Irish intelligentsia off from the wider world at a time when information was vital.


     One has a certain amount of internal conflict when it comes to weighing up the pros and cons relating to censorship and it would be harsh to issue a blanket condemnation, particularly when it was designed to steer the state safely through tremendously difficult periods when it was still in its infancy.  Yet, clerical led censorship which continued for decades is altogether harder to condone.  In many cases they church was given a free hand to ban what didn’t fit in with its narrow pious views.  The special position the Catholic Church was given in de Valera’s constitution virtually guaranteed that no questions would be asked.   From this position the agents of the church exerted tremendously poor judgement in that no attempt was made to discriminate between literature and pornography, a fact which was admitted to by a member of the church’s ranks![18] It is my view that such vigorous opposition to supposedly immoral literature did not save souls, rather it left a once thriving art on the life-support table.    

[1] B. Novic, Advanced Nationalist Propaganda and Moralistic Revolution, 1914-1918, in J. Augusteijn et al, The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (New York, 2002), p. 45.

[2] Ibid, p. 45.

[3] J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge, 1989),p. 158.

[4] Freemans Journal, 6 February, 1922.

[5] Censorship of Publications Act, 1929/Achtum Scrúdóireacht Fhoillseachán, 1929, ‟ Public Statutes of the Oireachtas/ Reachtanna Puiblí an Oireachtas (Dublin/ Baile Atha Cliath: Stationary Office/Oifig an tSoláThair D‟ Fhoillsigh, 1930) p. 123.

[6] J. Carlson, Banned In Ireland (London, 1990), p. 125.

[7] D. Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (London, 1996), p. 404.

[8] Irish Press, 14 March, 1938.

[9] Irish Independent, 25 February, 1956.

[10] Capuchin Annuals from the Holy Capuchin Orders were banned by the Stormont Government, with particular reference to the 1943 Annual which contained the report on ‘Orange Terror’.

[11] J. Ryan, Remembering How We Stood (Dublin, 1987), p.18.

[12] Ibid, p. 19.

[13] Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, p. 297.

[14] Ibid, p.297.

[15] The Bell, Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 108.

[16] Ibid, p.109.

[17] Gael, 12 February, 1916.

[18] Irish Independent, 25 October, 1967


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s