Many books promise sex on the front cover but which ones are really dirty? I’ve consulted the blacklist compiled by the Irish censors, who banned thousands of books for smut, swearing and shagging.
The moral effect of literary sex was so incendiary that the government oversaw a strict censorship regime to control it. In order to save the nation from mass perversion, the censors banned the greatest writers of the 20th century as well as sex manuals and pulp fiction. From 1930 to 1967, the harshest censorship system in the Anglophone world thrived in Ireland. So many literary greats were banned that the blacklist was nicknamed Everyman’s Guide to the Classics.
Rude books are a perfect saucy stocking-filler for anyone who loves mugs with smutty jokes or nudey fireman calendars
This is a top 10 list of the best banned literary filth, from classic novels to bestselling popular fiction. Rude books are a perfect saucy stocking-filler for anyone who loves mugs with smutty jokes or nudey fireman calendars.
Since starting Censored, a podcast about books banned in Ireland, I’ve read a lot of so-called dirty books from the blacklist. Too many were disappointingly tame, but others explore sex and gender identity in interesting ways. I’ve done you the favour of reading and rating them so you can enjoy the best smut over the festive season. Best of all, these naughty books can be read anywhere because the nice covers won’t give away your dirty secret. Granny will never know your filthy reading habits as you nibble Christmas chocolates. If you haven’t been able to get the ride this pandemic, at least you can read about it.
John Broderick: The Pilgrimage
Lilliput Press, 1961
It opens with Julia, respectably dressed as the dutiful, obedient wife of an invalid, offering tea to the local priest. But she is not wearing knickers as she is planning a quickie with her husband's nephew. Broderick also explores Dublin's underground gay scene and how queer men lived double lives. The pragmatic hypocrisy of the book's characters regarding faith and morality is wonderfully audacious. A short, punchy book that interrogates the lies around sexual identity in provincial Ireland.
Pamela Moore: Chocolates for Breakfast
Harper Perennial, 1956
Escape to sun-drenched Hollywood in a book about a troubled teenage girl searching for love and sex. The main character, Courtney, parties too hard but this is not an ode to hedonism. It's a classic coming-of-age novel featuring a teenage girl and should be read alongside The Catcher in the Rye, which was also banned in Ireland. Written when she was just 19 years old, Pamela Moore became an American literary sensation for this sensitive, candid book about the complications of sexual identity.
Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road
Vintage Classics, 1961
An unflinching, clear-eyed account of a man trapped by conventional masculinity. Frank and April are the epitome of young middle-class suburbia but he shags a co-worker to distract himself from marital disharmony. Sex for Yates is an opportunity to explore the inherent violence of gendered social roles. This challenging subject matter and a step-by-step description of a DIY abortion ensured his book was banned in Ireland.
Rona Jaffe: The Best of Everything
Penguin Modern Classics, 1958
Don Draper read it in Mad Men, but Irish people couldn't buy this banned book until the late 1960s. A tale of three hard-working single girls trying to make it in New York. This book has been very influential – there are echoes of it in the film Working Girl and the TV series Sex and the City. Jaffe explored abortion, sexual assault in the work place and obsessive love. It documents sex in a time when a condom was the 16th of an inch between a single woman and a "home for unwed mothers". If you've ever debated your love life with friends in a small rented apartment, this is the book for you.
JP Donleavy: The Ginger Man
Set in a damp, grotty and oppressive Dublin, this international bestseller is full of violence, sex and drinking. Donleavy wrote a book that was truly filthy and a case-study in toxic masculinity. It was so dirty the Irish censors banned it twice and a play based on the book was shut down by Archbishop McQuaid. The main character, feckless and revolting Sebastian Dangerfield, is so inexplicably charming that lots of lovely women shag him. Donleavy wanted to shock, referencing gay sex, sexual assault, contraception and mother and baby homes.
Kathleen Winsor: Forever Amber
The perfect gift for a fan of chicklit or bodice rippers. This book pioneered the bonkbuster, long romance novels by women for women that featured copious shagging. It is hard to believe it was banned in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand but light-hearted, guilt and consequence-free sex is very transgressive. The adventures of Amber, a brazen adventuress, in 17th-century England will brighten the grimmest January day.
Joseph Heller: Catch-22
War novels offer lots of opportunities for sex and Catch-22 doesn't disappoint. The first page suggests the then-scandalous possibility of gay love but frequent, explicit heterosexual encounters dominate the narrative. Men and women are trapped in surreal dilemmas so inventively explored that "catch-22" now means an inescapable situation created by mutually conflicting forces. Irish people probably used the catchphrase before they could legally buy the book.
Muriel Spark: The Bachelors
Laughing at sex is uplifting and Muriel Spark couldn't resist satirising the cosy lives of complacent London bachelors. A cast of disparate characters are slowly drawn into a complicated story of fraud, blackmail and attempted murder. Along the way there is a crisis pregnancy, a gay priest, an attempt to coerce an abortion and much angst over free love. An Irish journalist who likes sex but fears promiscuity will damn his soul is an entertaining portrait of Irish emigrant masculinity. Spark did not write explicit sex scenes but she did explore the dilemmas of sexual attraction in a witty, amusing fashion.
John McGahern: The Dark
Faber & Faber, 1965
Give the history buff in your life a copy of the book that changed Irish censorship forever. The scandal over The Dark led to McGahern losing his teaching job, when Archbishop McQuaid intervened to punish him. After this domestic cause celebre became international news, the government reduced the power of the censorship board in 1967. This is a powerful book that describes "the midnight horrors" of child sex abuse. Years before it became an acceptable topic for daytime radio, McGahern fearlessly exposed abusive adults, both clergy or parents.
Iris Murdoch: The Flight from the Enchanter
Vintage Classics, 1956
Murdoch's rich and inventive novel is saturated with sexual tension and issues that feel extraordinarily contemporary. Out of her experience of being Irish in England, Murdoch wrote about refugees and identity in Britain. The vulnerability of the refugee characters to bureaucratic and political machinations is heart-breaking. She also explored image-based sexual abuse, political activism and gaslighting. There were many reasons to ban it but the threesome involving identical twin brothers may have given the censors a coronary or two.
Dr Aoife Bhreatnach hosts Censored, a podcast about banned books