Culture Shock: Disgraceful, disgusting, disreputable: it’s high time to ban the censorship board

Frank O’Connor: said the real aim of censorship was to “destroy the character and prospects of Irish writers in their own country”. Photograph: Irish Examiner

Frank O’Connor: said the real aim of censorship was to “destroy the character and prospects of Irish writers in their own country”. Photograph: Irish Examiner


How many places are there on the Censorship of Publications Board? Five. How many of these places are vacant? Five. How many places are there on the Censorship of Publications Appeals Board? Also five. How many are vacant? Five.

Neither of these statutory bodies is functioning. The main board has been an empty shell since November 2011, the appeals board since February 2012. So a few more questions: has Ireland drowned under a tide of filth? No. Have the nation’s morals, so famously pure and innocent, been corrupted? Well, perhaps – but not because of dirty books.

In spite of considerable competition for the title, the Censorship of Publications Board, established in 1929, is the most disreputable quango in the history of the State. Its sole real achievement has been to bring shame and ridicule on Ireland. It is, happily, more or less defunct. All that remains is to kill it off. Last week Niall Collins of Fianna Fáil introduced a Bill to abolish it. Passing it would mark the belated end of a disgraceful era in Irish cultural policy.

So far as we know just one book has been referred to the dormant board this year: the Minister for Justice’s own mildly racy novel, Laura. This complaint, presumably an intentional absurdity, prompted Alan Shatter to transfer the censorship board from his department to Jimmy Deenihan’s Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

But the Government has not committed itself to the obvious step of abolition. In March Shatter advertised for expressions of interest from those wishing to fill the vacancies for (unpaid) smut hounds. As of last week he had received 36 applications to serve on the main board and 33 to serve on the appeals board. (One wonders who these people are. How would you feel if your son or daughter told you: “When I grow up I want to read dirty books and stop other people reading them”?)

Filling these positions and thereby re-establishing the censorship board would be zombie politics. The board does nothing much these days except give amusement to a very small number of cranks.

So far this century seven books have been referred to the board by members of the public. (One of the many absurdities of the process is that the complainants have a right to remain anonymous – a right that has been upheld by the Information Commissioner.) Not a single book has been banned. In the same period 34 “periodical publications”, mostly magazines, have been referred to the board. Nine were banned, all in 2003. So for the past decade no publication has been prohibited.

Yet it’s not quite true to say that the censorship process has no effect. It retains a vestigial power in one specific area: publications about abortion. The current register of banned publications contains no books prohibited on the old and notorious grounds that they are “in general tendency indecent or obscene”. But it does still contain books banned on the grounds that “they advocate the procurement of abortion or miscarriage or the use of any method, treatment or appliance for the purpose of such procurement”.

These include books that are clearly works of political advocacy, such as Abortion: Our Struggle for Control, published by the the National Abortion Campaign in London in 1983. (A high proportion of the books still banned are works on abortion published in the period immediately before and after the constitutional referendum on abortion in 1983.) So the only effect of censorship legislation is to underpin the idea that one side in perhaps the most contentious ethical debate in contemporary Ireland is illegitimate.

It could be argued that a board of such minimal consequence is not worth bothering with. In the age of Amazon and internet access, pretending to ban books is as quaint as knitting contraceptives. But it is worth making a fuss, because it provides the opportunity for an official apology for the way the State allowed a few busybody philistines to inflict their dirty-minded ignorance on many of our best artists.

There was nothing funny or quaint about censorship. It was cruel and demeaning. Beginning with Liam O’Flaherty’s The House of Gold, in 1929, serious works of literature by Irish writers from Bernard Shaw to Kate O’Brien to John McGahern were systematically banned. The brunt of censorship was borne not by pornographers but by artists: one study found that 70 per cent of books banned for indecency or obscenity in the 1930s had been reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement.

Irish writers were specifically targeted, so that none of them could make a living from the sale of their books in Ireland. As Frank O’Connor pointed out, the real aim of the censorship was to “destroy the character and prospects of Irish writers in their own country”. As for Irish readers, they were reduced, as Samuel Beckett – banned, of course – put it, to being fed, like Irish pigs, on the “sugarbeet pulp” of romances and cowboy novels.

This cultural vandalism is still a stain on the State. The censorship board shouldn’t be allowed to expire with a whimper. It should be incinerated sacrificially, with an official apology for its miserable existence.

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