In this week’s blog post, I’m moving away from discussing literature and will instead talk about Ireland’s censorship laws, and how they’ve changed over the years. Today, Irish newspapers and authors are protected under Article 10 of the ECHR, and the rise of social media, combined with the decline of the power of the Catholic Church, allows the Irish public to freely talk on a variety of uncomfortable subjects. However, as recently as fifty years ago, it was very different.
Irish censorship/freedom of speech laws today
Free speech in Ireland is protected under the Irish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Today, Irish authors, journalists, and writers can publish their works and speak their minds on a variety of subjects, from something as comfortable as the weather to as controversial as the abortion debate. Criticism of the government, the Catholic Church, the Gardaí, and many other aspects of Irish society are widespread and published in national newspapers.
Irish censorship laws from 1929-1970s
In 1929, Ireland was still a very young country, with a government eager to boost public morality and establish a “haven of virtue”. The Church and State were more or less intertwined, and this was reflected in the laws that were passed. In 1929, the State Censorship Act was introduced, restricting or banning the publication of books that a committee decided:
- promoted crime;
- were “in general tendency indecent and obscene”;
- advocated the “unnatural prevention of conception or the procurement of abortion or miscarriage”.
The Irish Censorship of Publications Board was established to examine various publications and decide if they were suitable for the Irish public. This, combined with the Broadcasting Act in 1926, stifled opposition to the Irish government and created an obedient, suppressed society in Ireland. It was not until the 1970’s that the legislation was abolished, though the effect of the legislation lasted through the 1980’s and 90’s.
The effect the legislation had on Irish authors is stark. At that time, Irish authors had three options:
- Publish under the restrictions Ireland placed on written publications;
- Leave Ireland and wrote elsewhere;
- Give up writing altogether.
Many authors who had had their books banned by the ICOP Board also lost their jobs, and the respect of the community they lived in. John McGahern, author of Amongst Women, lost his job as a teacher as well as having his book banned. Kate O’Brien, author of The Land of Spices, moved to Spain in order to have her books published.
As well as Irish authors suffering, any opposition to the State was impossible to air freely. Due to the Censorship Act and the Wireless and Technology Act (later known as the Broadcasting Act) in 1926, discussion about Northern Ireland, dissent of the government, and discussion of family planning was impossible. I used to wonder how the Catholic Church maintained their influence on Irish society for so long, but it’s no surprise they did when you consider how restrictive the legislation was.
By the 1940s, Frank O’Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin were among many other Irish writers who had grown frustrated by the consistent banning of books that mentioned, however briefly, anything that fell outside Irish society’s comfort zone. In 1940, Seán Ó Faoláin founded The Bell, a literary magazine that set out to promote diversity and oppose censorship and politicians behind it. They invited other Irish authors who had also had their books banned to write for them, encouraging pieces that went against the Irish status quo. Many responded. Pieces in The Bell, in general, reflected its liberal, left-wing editors and were critical of the Church, censorship, and the repressive nature of the State. A notable piece by George Bernard Shaw in 1945 was fiercely critical of the restrictions the Catholic Church had placed on Irish society, and new authors such as Montague and Behan flourished as a result of being published in the magazine.
Writers featured in The Bell included:
- Patrick Kavanagh
- George Bernard Shaw
- Elizabeth Bowen
- John Montague
- Thomas Kinsella
My final thoughts on this issue are that although the influence the Catholic Church has in Ireland is crystal clear to see, we have come a long way in the past forty, thirty, even twenty years. To finish slightly off topic, I do hope that a day will come when the Church has little influence over Irish law, especially when the recent Church scandals are taken into account.