Wednesday 19 June 2019

God Almighty! Are we going to lift the blasphemy ban?

From burning bibles to the 'Life of Brian', blasphemy has a colourful history in Ireland. Now we're about to vote on the issue

Taboo: Life of Brian was banned in Ireland in 1980
Taboo: Life of Brian was banned in Ireland in 1980
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In the Monty Python biblical comedy, the Life of Brian, a Jewish official passes a sentence on a defendant who has been accused of blasphemy: "You have been found guilty by the elders of the town of uttering the name of Our Lord - and so as a blasphemer you are to be stoned to death!"

The inclusion of blasphemy - defined as material that is "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion" - in Irish law now seems like an archaic relic of a bygone age.

Next Friday, in a low-profile referendum, voters will be asked to change Article 40.6.1 of the constitution. The current article states: "The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law."

The referendum proposal is to remove the word "blasphemous" from the constitution, clearing the way for the Oireachtas to change the law so that blasphemy is no longer a crime.

Of course, the Life of Brian was itself banned in Ireland in 1980 for blasphemy by the censor Frank Hall. It may have been outlawed in cinemas, but that did not stop eager students watching it on videos, or buying the soundtrack.

Fr Brian D'Arcy was among those appalled by the film and warned: "Anybody who buys this and finds it funny must have something wrong with their mentality."

The Censorship of Films Act 1923 allows a ban on a film "unfit for general exhibition in public by reason of its being indecent, obscene or blasphemous".

That is a separate piece of legislation to the broader offence of blasphemy on the Irish statute books. If the blasphemy law is changed, it will mark the end of an offence with a history that stretches back hundreds of years - from the 14th century right up until 2017 when a complaint was reportedly made against Stephen Fry, the English writer and comedian.

Last year, it was reported that gardaí had launched an investigation after a TV viewer claimed comments made by Fry on Gay Byrne's The Meaning of Life programme were blasphemous.

During the programme, Fry was questioned about what he might say to God when he turned up at the pearly gates. He had a ready response for the Almighty: "How dare you create a world in which there is such misery? It's not our fault. It's not right. It's utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?"

It was later reported that gardaí had decided not to proceed with a blasphemy investigation against Stephen Fry after they failed to find a large group of people who were outraged by his comments. Although he was spared prosecution, Fry is now part of a blaspheming tradition that goes right back to 1328, and the highly flammable Irishman Adam Duff O'Toole. He was burned at the stake for heresy and blasphemy after being "possessed by some wicked spirit of error".

He got on the wrong side of the law for claiming that Holy Scripture was "but a fable", and that the Virgin Mary "a woman of dissolute life". Holinshed's chronicles recorded: "For such assertions he was burnt in Hogging greene, beside Dublin." The last person to be convicted of blasphemy in Ireland was a Franciscan friar, John Syngean Bridgman, after he burned a copy of the King James version of the Bible. It seems that the priest preferred the Catholic, Douay-Rheims version.

The last major prosecution for blasphemy took place in Dún Laoghaire, then known as Kingstown, in 1855, when a Redemptorist priest Vladimir Petcherine appeared to order the burning of a bible by mistake.

According to an account of the incident in The Spectator, Petcherine had "exhorted the people of Kingstown to abandon and bring to him books of an immoral tendency".

After two barrow loads of book were put on a fire, he was accused of causing the Bible to be "contemptuously burnt, to the high displeasure of Almighty God".

After hearing from witnesses, the court accepted that the burning was unintentional, and the bungling book burner Father Petcherine was acquitted. As The Spectator reported, "This announcement was received with the most vociferous applause, which was taken up by the crowds assembled outside."

The ban on blasphemy was included in the 1937 Constitution after independence, but nobody has been successfully prosecuted in the history of the State. In one case in 1995, John Corway, a carpenter from Harold's Cross, took a private prosecution against the Sunday Independent.

He took exception to a cartoon by Wendy Shea, which made fun of the anti-divorce slogan "Hello divorce.. Bye bye Daddy."

The cartoon consisted of a stout figure of a priest in a surplice and a stole holding the Communion host in his right hand and a chalice in his left. Above the cartoon were the words, "Hello, Progress - Bye Bye Father?"

The carpenter claimed he had suffered "offence and outrage" as a result of the cartoon, but the courts refused a prosecution. As voters go to the polls to remove the constitutional ban on profane pronouncements, the age of the blasphemy ban is finally coming to an end.

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