Aoife Bhreatnach tells the story of banned books in her podcast series. She tells Kim Bielenberg about developing a sixth sense for smut
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach has spent the past year getting inside the prudish and outraged mind of the Irish book censor for her podcast series.
Over the past century, thousands of books were banned in what was one of the most draconian censorship regimes in Europe as our moral guardians fought to rid the country of any hint of smut.
They ranged from literary novels such as Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, Country Girls by Edna O’Brien and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller to pulp fiction and Madonna’s book of explicit photos, Sex, which was banned as late as November 1992.
Books were outlawed by a notoriously secretive Censorship Board that did not tend to set out its reasons in detail. In her podcast series, Censored, Bhreatnach tells the story of how these books ended up on the banned list.
From the time of the introduction of the Censorship of Publications Act in 1929, it did not take much to incur the wrath of the censor. Earlier, the whole system had been advocated by a government-sponsored body, the Committee on Evil Literature.
The Censorship Board could have a book taken off the shelves if it was found to be “indecent or obscene”, or advocated abortion or contraception. It was a simple box-ticking exercise.
“Indecent” was defined in legislation as “suggestive of, or inciting to, sexual immorality or unnatural vice or likely in any other similar way to corrupt or deprave”.
As she painstakingly leafed through banned books, Bhreatnach was able to gauge what set the censor’s pulse racing. Because the board did not set out its reasons clearly, the podcaster has to work it out.
“I developed my own censor’s bingo,” says the historian. “They were looking out for anything like swearing, feminism, divorce, abortion, queer content, masturbation and any kind of sex acts.”
She came up with the idea for the Censored podcast when she looked at her bookshelves and noticed Borstal Boy, Brendan Behan’s prison memoir, and remembered that it had been a banned book.
“I suddenly asked myself why it was banned and started to reread it. I began to see it differently and noticed the queer subtext, where Behan is attracted to a fellow prisoner, Charlie.”
The book describes tender moments between the pair in a washroom, and there is also an oblique reference to masturbation early on.
“It’s implied in the book, but if you start looking for something that might be considered dangerous content and take a conservative stance in your mind, it is quite obvious,” she says.
In the early years of censorship, even indirect references to sexuality could result in a book being banned, and there were only occasional bouts of controversy.
One of the podcast episodes tells the story of the ban of The Tailor and Ansty, Eric Cross’s 1942 book of folklore about a real couple, the tailor Timothy Buckley and his wife Anastasia.
The book would hardly raise an eyebrow now, but in the Seanad, one of the censors, Professor William MacGennis, described the book as a “low, vulgar, blasphemous work”.
As he put it: “This sex-ridden, sex-besotted tailor speaks of no subject whatsoever without spewing the foulness of his mind concerning sexual relations.”
Surprisingly, one of the most controversial passages is a discussion between the tailor and Ansty about a married woman who couldn’t tell the difference between a bull and a cow.
“The senate debates show that the objectors thought it was crass and unrepresentative of the true soul of the Irish country person,” Bhreathnach says.
The draconian regime imposed by a board of five people left bookshop shelves bare of such classics as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as well as books by the Limerick novelist Kate O’Brien.
Censorship did not just hit literary classics. Bhreatnach also pays attention to the bonkbusters, bodice-rippers and cheap hard-boiled crime novels that were kept away from the Irish public.
Thousands of novels were targeted in the 1950s, as Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid led a campaign against pulp fiction.
“This made a huge difference to Irish culture in ways that are difficult to quantify,” Bhreatnach says.
While bonkbusters and bodice-rippers came into their own in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the first to fall foul of the censor was Forever Amber, a global bestseller penned by Kathleen Winsor in the 1940s.
“It seems very tame now, but it was the first bodice-ripper and the beginning for the romantic historical fiction genre,” Bhreatnach says.
As the historian puts it in her podcast, “the story of a beautiful young woman, who shamelessly shagged, married and then discarded men, was extremely popular among women”.
That made the book set in 17th century England a clear candidate for the Irish banned list, and it also created controversy in the United States. The Irish censors may have taken their cue from the attorney general in Massachusetts, who described the book as “properly indecent”. He listed 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 “illegitimate pregnancies, seven abortions, 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men, and 49 miscellaneous objectionable passages”.
Often books that were hugely popular among women were considered particular threatening.
The fact that a book was banned did not mean the supposedly God-fearing Irish public did not read it. Bhreatnach has been told of Irish women who passed around Forever Amber, or hid it under their pillow.
The threshold for finding yourself on the banned list through most of the State’s history was low, and a book did not necessarily have to have much explicit detail.
Catcher in the Rye, the ultimate story of teenage American angst, was banned in 1951, and there was really more talk about sex in the book than any explicit action.
The Catholic World newspaper complained about the “excessive use of amateur swearing and coarse language” in the novel.
A letter writer to the paper even highlighted 237 instances of “Goddamn”, 58 “bastards” and 31 “Chrissakes”.
But Bhreatnach and a guest on the podcast also suggest that the mood of political subversion, mental breakdown, hints of homosexuality and an episode involving a sex worker would have riled the Irish censor.
Norah Hoult, an Irish author whose work was popular in the 1930s, has the distinction of being one of the most banned writers. According to Bhreatnach, up to a dozen of her books were banned, and one of her books was described by the censor in the Seanad as “revolting”.
“She attracted a lot of ire and in the end she died in poverty,” says the podcaster. “Most of her books are now out of print.”
From the 1960s onwards, censorship was becoming more controversial and authors such as Edna O’Brien were willing to kick up a stink.
In the 1960s, the Fianna Fáil minister Brian Lenihan eased some of the restrictions, but there were still many outlawed books.
In the following decade, Irish readers were in theory denied The Joy of Sex, Dr Alex Comfort’s manual, which is now mainly remembered for the hairiness of the man in the illustrations.
The book which sets out an occasionally baffling array of sexual positions was banned in 1974, and again in 1987.
It is not just the hairiness of a male partner that has dated poorly. In the instructions for the “traditional upright position”, the female partner is advised to stand on two telephone directories.
It is suggested that couples adopt the position against a wall or tree, but not against a door, presumably in case it flies open.
As Bhreatnach shows in one of the podcast episodes, in the 1980s the press and RTÉ were willing to discuss censorship, and there were objections to the ban imposed on The Joy of Sex by the Irish Writers Union. The book was on sale at family planning clinics, and when the ban was renewed, it quickly sold out.
By the time the censors banned Madonna’s Sex in 1992, the floodgates of nudity had opened.
According to Bhreatnach, it was the hype surrounding the book and the singer’s notoriety that probably caused it to be targeted by the censor. In one photo, a masked Madonna is photographed in leather gear with cuffs, sucking her middle finger while her other hand is between her legs.
Bhreatnach found the book repellent rather than hot or thrilling and says on the podcast: “It promises more than it delivers.”
Within a couple of years, the internet arrived in Ireland and any Canute-like attempt to stop the tide of filth was futile. The Committee of Evil Literature was probably turning indignantly in its grave.