independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

When looney film censors ran our moral madhouse

There was an elegant symmetry to the announcement by my friend, the film censor John Kelleher, that he was no longer a censor at all, but a film classifier; he has thus brought to its historic conclusion a cultural process which was book-ended by two Brian Lenihans: for it was the present minister’s father who began the process of film-censorship liberalisation in the 1960s.

And as significant as the formal withdrawal of the State from the personal morality of its citizens has been the absence of any outcry about the tides of filth about to sweep over us. We have, it seems, finally grown up.

To be sure, this state didn’t invent censorship, but we were perhaps the only democratic society to turn it into a psychopathological art form.

Even after Brian Lenihan senior had liberalised the laws on films, the censor continued to ban large numbers of films outright: according to Kevin Rockett’s ‘Irish Film Censorship’ (a brilliant and indispensable guide to social mores from independence) as many as 36 in 1968 alone. These included ‘The Graduate’, which was reprieved on appeal, but only after 11 cuts.

One of these left the Irish audience with the impression that instead of going to bed, as they did in the uncut version, the young student (Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs Robinson (Ann Bancroft) go to a movie.

In essence, the film was reshaped to suit the perverse requirements of a crazed Catholic morality.

In all, it gives a certain piquancy to the civil rights campaign that was beginning in the North at the time, that here in the Republic, there were almost no artistic civil rights at all.

And this was in the post-Lenihan era: to visit earlier stages in the history of censorship in Ireland is to enter a dark night of farcical and demented prudery, which suggests some deep psychic wound within the Irish soul.

Indeed, Irish life throughout much of the 20th century and earlier resembles that of a patient suffering from a strange and perverse malady: it is certainly not amenable to any ordinary, rational explanations.

From the hysteria accompanying the Parnell split, through to the various Abbey riots, to the diseased cult surrounding Patrick Pearse, and to the elevation of the hunger-striker as paragon, Ireland exhibited the profound neurosis of a psychiatrically disturbed inhabitant of a county asylum.

Even with independence, illogic ruled.

So self-governing Ireland imposed tariffs with (effectively) its only trading partner, which – quite predictably – damaged the economy and increased poverty.

Tariffs were – naturally – raised against the Northern part of the island which the Free State purported to cherish so much. No rational analysis can explain this sort of behaviour. It is self-defeating dementia, dignified by the title “policy”.

Protecting the insane “norms” of this madhouse were the censors, whose job was to guard independent Ireland not merely from foreign filth, but even knowledge of its existence.

The archetypal sentinel of Ireland’s unique mores was James Montgomery.

He even cut all references to divorce from films, and if that subject was any way key to a plot, then the film was banned outright, as was every single mention of activities that were illegal in Ireland.

“Triangular relationships, illegitimacy, birth control, abortion, homosexuality and prostitution were some of the other themes,” reports Kevin Rockett, “which were banned and cut from films.”

Even ‘Gone with the Wind’, which had been carefully made to stay on the safe side of the stringent US Hays Code, in Ireland was nonetheless subjected to 14 cuts, and it was essentially rendered incomprehensible.

Moreover, Montgomery felt it his duty to protect the Catholic Church, whether through cutting a scene in which an Irish-American Catholic priest lies (Catholic doctrine, averred Montgomery, allowed no excuse for anyone to lie, especially a priest, so therefore it couldn’t happen) or banning ‘The Man in an Iron Mask’ because the negative representations of cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin were “anti- Catholic”.

And of news film of the monstrance containing the Host being raised during the Eucharistic Congress, Montgomery wrote “By order of the Archbishop, this must never be shown in a picture house.”

No statistic, no fact, no political manifesto, can convey the phantasmagorical realities of this unique island experiment in the creation of a distinct and superior Irish morality.

Indeed, bizarrely, like a Japanese soldier in the Philippine jungles, this autonomous morality still managed to live on, though in etiolated form, for decades.

As late as 1992, after a quite heroic sting-operation, Virgin Megastore in Dublin was prosecuted and fined for illegally selling a condom to an unmarried undercover garda officer.

The ambition to create a grotesque and deranged Eden of fully-clothed celibates, which had been part of an Irish political agenda since 1916, finally came to a symbolic end this week.

The State accepts that we must us all make our own choices in life, without government appointed officials to guide us.

And as a member of the newly renamed Film Classification Appeals Board, I’m delighted that you can no longer blame me for what you do after leaving the cinema.

But either way, I do hope you enjoy it.

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