Sarah J. Maas, Throne of Glass
To borrow from Austen’s "It is a truth universally acknowledged", books are dangerous things; they have the ability to awaken minds, challenge beliefs, and ignite revolutions. I’ve just finished reading, Fintan O’Toole’s ‘We Don’t Know Ourselves’ and it is fascinating to see that Ireland, even with its rich literary heritage, was no exception to fear of books, their ideas and their banning!
Irish culture and history from 1920 to 2000, was marked by political upheaval, cultural revival, and religious conservatism and it witnessed significant challenges arising from censorship of the arts and the powerful influence of religion on the state, which in turn shaped the country's artistic expression and intellectual freedom.
In the early 20th century, Ireland was struggling for independence from British rule, and the cultural and literary movements played a crucial role in the fight for national identity. Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats played pivotal roles in the creation of the Irish cultural revival in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their efforts, along with other prominent figures, sought to revive Irish literature, drama, and folklore, ultimately reinvigorating the nation's sense of cultural identity.
Lady Gregory, a writer and patron of the arts, was instrumental in establishing the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1904. She collaborated closely with Yeats in the formation of this theatre, which aimed to promote and produce Irish plays. Lady Gregory herself wrote several plays rooted in Irish mythology and folklore, often drawing inspiration from the stories and traditions of the local people in the West of Ireland.
W.B. Yeats, a renowned poet and playwright, shared Lady Gregory's vision of revitalizing Irish culture. He emphasized the importance of drawing from Irish mythology and folklore in his own work, infusing it with a sense of national identity. Yeats was a co-founder of the Irish Literary Revival movement and served as the driving force behind the publication of the "Celtic Twilight" anthology in 1893, which showcased traditional Irish stories and legends.
Together, Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats embraced the spirit of the Irish cultural revival, fostering a reconnection with Ireland's rich literary heritage. They sought to reclaim and celebrate the country's unique traditions, language, and folklore, which had been suppressed under British rule. Their efforts not only revitalized Irish literature but also inspired a renewed sense of national pride and cultural identity, laying the foundation for the flourishing of Irish arts and literature in the years to come.
However, the new state that emerged in 1922 carried the legacy of conservative Catholicism, which exerted a substantial influence over society and governance. The Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 granted the Irish government the power to prohibit the importation and sale of books deemed obscene or morally offensive and it was unapologetic it its aim to protect public morality and uphold Catholic values, with direct and explicit influence on society.
One of the most renowned literary works have fallen victim to censorship was James Joyce's masterpiece ‘Ulysses’, which faced significant controversy upon its publication in 1922 due to its explicit language and sexual content; the novel was banned in Ireland until 1933, despite achieving international acclaim, although it also caused much controversy and was censored elsewhere too, so perhaps we shouldn’t feel too bad about this!
Perhaps more shocking in a way was the banning of ‘The Country Girls’ by Edna O'Brien, published in 1960, 33 years after ‘Ulyssess’ was allowed in the country. The novel explores the lives of young Irish women and their struggles with sexuality and societal expectations; its frank depiction of female sexuality and the challenging of traditional gender roles led to the book being banned and criticized for its perceived immorality and obscenity until 1969.
Many of the texts that got into trouble, challenged the political and social landscape of the country. One such work was Brendan Behan's ‘Borstal Boy’, a semi-autobiographical novel exploring his experiences in a British reform school. It was banned in 1958 for its portrayal of homosexuality and perceived anti-British sentiment. John McGahern's ‘The Dark’ faced censorship in 1965 due to its frank depiction of sexuality and critique of the Catholic Church's influence on rural Irish society.
Undoubtedly censorship in Ireland has diminished massively in recent years, some books still cause controversy I.e. in 2016/2017, the novel "The Raped Little Runaway" by Jean Martin faced backlash and was the first booked to be banned in almost twenty years its graphic content; similarly and much more surprisingly, ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’ by Marita Conlon-McKenna was briefly challenged in 2019, almost twenty years after publication as discussions were had about whether it was “too dark” for National School children to read.
The banning of books in Ireland reflects a complex interplay between societal norms, political ideologies, and religious influence. While the censorship of literature has reduced over time, it is crucial to reflect on the value of intellectual freedom and the need for open dialogue. By acknowledging and understanding the history of banned books in Ireland, we can foster an environment that respects diverse perspectives and allows for the free exchange of ideas.
Here are some additional examples of books that have been banned either officially or by stealth since the foundation of the State:
- ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde:
Wilde's novel, published in 1890, faced censorship in Ireland due to its exploration of hedonism, homosexuality, and moral corruption. The book's themes and the perceived immorality of its characters led to its banning, as it challenged the conservative values of the time.
- ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall:
Published in 1928, this novel focused on lesbian relationships and the struggles of LGBTQ+ individuals. Its explicit content and portrayal of same-sex love resulted in its banning here for many years. The book played a significant role in the early LGBTQ+ rights movement.
- ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’ by D.H. Lawrence:
Lawrence's novel, published in 1928, caused a global controversy with its explicit sexual content and frank exploration of relationships. In Ireland, it faced censorship for several decades due to its perceived obscenity and challenges to traditional morality.
- ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger:
Salinger's iconic coming-of-age novel, published in 1951, was banned in Ireland for its use of profanity and its portrayal of adolescent rebellion. The book's themes and language were considered unsuitable for young readers and were deemed potentially corrupting.
- ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell:
Orwell's allegorical novella, published in 1945, uses farm animals to satirize the Soviet Union and totalitarianism. It was banned in Ireland due to concerns over its political content and its critical portrayal of communism. The Irish government at the time, influenced by its political climate and diplomatic relations, deemed the book subversive and potentially destabilizing.
- ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller:
This 1961 satirical novel critiques the bureaucracy and absurdity of war. It faced challenges in Ireland due to its irreverent and darkly humorous portrayal of war and its exploration of themes such as the dehumanizing effects of conflict. The book's explicit language and anti-war sentiment made it a target for censorship in conservative circles.
- ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote:
Capote's groundbreaking work of true crime, published in 1966, faced censorship in Ireland due to its violent content and graphic descriptions of murder. The book's realistic portrayal of a real-life crime shook readers and sparked debates about the boundaries of literary depiction.
- ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis:
Ellis's novel, published in 1991, faced censorship in Ireland and elsewhere for its extreme violence, explicit sexual content, and disturbing depiction of the protagonist's psychopathic behavior. The book prompted discussions about the responsibility of authors in portraying such disturbing subject matter.
- ‘Forever’ by Judy Blume:
Blume's young adult novel, published in 1975, was banned in Ireland for its explicit content and discussion of teenage sexuality. The book's frank portrayal of adolescent relationships and sexual experiences led to concerns about its suitability for young readers.
- ‘The Country Girls Trilogy’ by Edna O'Brien:
Apart from "The Country Girls," the other two books in O'Brien's trilogy, "The Lonely Girl" and "Girls in Their Married Bliss," were also banned in Ireland. The trilogy's exploration of female sexuality, marriage, and societal expectations faced criticism and censorship for its perceived immorality.
- ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley:
Huxley's dystopian classic, published in 1932, was initially banned in Ireland due to its controversial themes, including sexuality, drug use, and the dehumanization of society. The book's critique of totalitarianism and its unsettling vision of the future challenged societal norms.
Although not expressly banned, ‘The Satanic Verses’ by Salman Rushdie, published in 1988, faced not only banning but also a worldwide controversy due to its portrayal of religious figures and its alleged blasphemy against Islam. The book's publication led to death threats against Rushdie and caused immense controversy in Ireland and beyond.
These examples demonstrate the diverse range of books that were deemed to have controversial themes, explicit content, or challenged prevailing ideologies; their banning reflected concerns about political subversion, perceived immorality, and their potential to disrupt societal norms. By today’s norms, they seem almost innocent, subsumed into the ‘canon’ as recognition of their literary and artistic merit grew.
Huge societal and cultural shifts, led to their eventual unbanning as indeed did legistlative change, the Censorship of Publications Act, 1967, limited the period of prohibition orders on books to twelve years (although they could be banned again by the Board), allowing for the immediate sale of over 5,000 previously illegal books. In reality, strict censorship by the State is almost nonexistent now, reflecting a shift in societal attitudes towards the recognition of diverse beliefs and the importance of robust freedom of speech, aligning the country's legislation with principles of freedom of expression and promoting a more inclusive and tolerant society.
Ireland has made concerted efforts to modernise and promote itself as a forward-thinking, liberal democracy; it acknowledges the importance of allowing artists, authors, and creators the freedom to express their ideas and perspectives without unnecessary censorship and demonstrates a commitment to fostering a more vibrant and diverse cultural scene, where a wide range of voices and perspectives can be heard and celebrated.
As Potter Stewart (1915-1985) an American lawyer and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States said “Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself.”, so I suppose it is fitting that in 101 years of our State we no longer need to rely on it – we've come a long way!