Entertainment Books

Friday 19 July 2019

'Smut for the English': an age of censorship

Banned Books Week reminds us of days when even TV was dubbed a tool of the Antichrist, writes Damian Corless

Banned: Seán Ó Faoláin fell foul of the censors in 1932
Banned: Seán Ó Faoláin fell foul of the censors in 1932

Banned Books Week kicks off tomorrow around the globe, with the exception of those lands where the event is banned. Ireland, like most liberal democracies, is caught in a tizzy where old certainties, taboos and safeguards are being overwhelmed by a tsunami of stuff from cyberspace that we don't like, trust or even understand.

Banned Books Week, a celebration of the freedom to read, aims to redirect our attention from this worrisome First World problem to its opposite number, the suppression of choice.

When it started in the US in 1982, Banned Books Week was almost all about books. As America's religious right found its voice, bookshops, schools and public libraries were pressured to remove titles on grounds of morality and ideology. The information superhighway transformed reading habits, so next Wednesday, and one Wednesday each year is now Banned Websites Awareness Day. Scores of state firewalls and Channel 4's recent alarming Dispatches exposé on Facebook's Irish filtering operation will draw scrutiny.

Modern Ireland likes to beat itself up about its past deeply unhealthy fixation on sex. The good news from the American Association of School Librarians, which runs Banned Books Week, is that we are not alone (if that can be called good news).

Religion, race, politics and evolution all feature, but almost every 'challenged' publication on their current hotlist is under fire for alleged sexual promiscuity or for challenging the old certainties that there are just two genders and one proper sexual orientation, hetero.

"It was just sex," observed the much-banned Irish author Benedict Kiely, adding: "The chairman of the Censorship Board said that Frank O'Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin couldn't write novels. All they did was write short stories and pad them out with smut for the English market."

"Stupid," was John McGahern's verdict on state censorship. McGahern was sacked from teaching after his novel The Dark was banned in 1965. "Censorship is self-defeating. Most forbidden things are attractive by definition, so it has its own inbuilt self-destruction in it," he argued.

"Ireland was a young insecure state without any traditions, without any manners, and there was this notion that to be Irish was good. There was fanaticism and a lot of emotion, but there wasn't any clear idea except what you were against - sexuality and the English."

The self-appointed body Catholic Truth Society carried out freelance swoops of public libraries and bookshops. Persecuted author Frank O'Connor described one surreal encounter: "One day during my time as a librarian, a young man complained about an indecent book. I asked what was indecent about it? He said there was a dirty word in it, on page 164. Obviously page 164 had printed itself indelibly on his brain. I read the page and asked 'Which word?' He said 'That word' and pointed to the word 'navel'.

"I felt sorry for him and wanted to ask whether he couldn't find some young girl to walk out with, but I decided it might be dangerous." In other words it might be dangerous if the young man attempted to inflict his State-approved understanding of the sex act on any unfortunate female.

O'Connor told that tale in 1962, just as the Catholic Truth Society conceded defeat in its bid to keep TV out of Ireland. One pamphlet describing TV as the tool of 'the Antichrist' told how: "A baby was born in a taxi en route to the hospital, because the mother couldn't tear herself away from her favourite programme."

The footsoldiers took their lead from the top. Founded as an arm of government, Radio Éireann in its early years banned adverts for women's cosmetics like blusher and lipstick, lest the mere mention inflame listeners. In 1943, with battalions of US troops posted in the North, many took advantage of a porous border to spend their leave in Dublin. The level of recorded STDs more than doubled in a year, prompting quiet calls for a discreet public information health campaign. It was shot down as a matter not fit for discussion.

The ultimate dulling effect of State censorship can be a capitulation to self-censorship. Much-banned Mervyn Wall recalled: "The words 'birth control' never appeared in any newspaper. It was thought indecent even by the editor of a newspaper to mention it."

Under strict censorship laws, the term all but vanished. One of the final references before editors began heavily self-censoring was a TD's condemnation of 'birth control houses', meaning small family homes being built in the new suburbs to rehouse families from crumbling tenements. The objection against these small, clean, modern units was that their lack of space for raising large broods forced parents into practicing unnatural family planning methods.

The word 'condom' all but vanished from Irish newspapers until 1964, and only then because Vatican II raised the subject. When it did appear two years earlier in 1962, it was in the sports pages where - by accident or mischievous design - hurler Joe Condon appeared in an Irish Independent headline as Joe Condom. Ditto, tampons were unmentionables until the late 1970s after the Catholic bishops fulminated that the product could "harmfully stimulate young girls at an impressionable age".

From the distance of decades this is funny stuff. Countless incidents that have come down to us seem so comical that it's easy to laugh off the dead hand of censorship as just a childish phase this country was going through. All the more so when it's set alongside the obscenities of the industrial schools, the slave-labour laundries and institutionalised child abuse.

But when Big Brother surveillance was a fact of daily life, it was no laughing matter. The censorship imposed by church and state gagged debate on who we were, who we wanted to be and where we might want to go. It made plain saying unsayable. Frank O'Connor declared "Irish censorship is an insult to Irish intelligence".

If Banned Books Week has no more impact here than to remind us of our own recent past, that's enough in itself.

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top