Throwing light on Ireland's dark days of censorship


"THE censorship does not allow hospitals, still less children's hospitals, to be shelled or bombed in our press by either side whatever the facts may be." This was the warning from the Irish censor to the editor of the Jesuit publication Ricci Mission News about an article he published in April 1945 about Japanese attacks on hospitals with Irish missionaries.

Several months beforehand, Frank Aiken, the Minister responsible for a censorship regime probably unmatched for strictness outside the Hitler and Stalin dictatorships, personally mutilated photographs to be published in a Legion of Mary publication which showed a Vatican dignitary inspecting a Legion stall. The photographs had been submitted in advance to the censorship in Dublin Castle and Aiken had ripped out figures in Allied military uniform "to indicate the manner in which they `the photographs' could be passed for publication".

Unfortunately for the censor, the photographs had been on loan, so his staff had to try to repair the Minister's handiwork before sending them back.

After the Allied invasion of Normandy, Aiken let it be known that he was unhappy that much war news from British sources was being published in Irish newspapers but very little from the Germans. He instructed that where possible announcements from the Nazi Minister for Propaganda, Dr Goebbels, indicating "what the German people are thinking" should be given publicity where they were not doctored.

Aiken also ruled on what neutral Ireland could view in the cinemas. British and American, newsreels were closely watched, and only sanitised Irish editions got in. Even they ran into trouble.

As Aiken put it: "If a newsreel is shown in which one belligerent or the other is prominent, somebody may start to `booh' and somebody may start to cheer, and we do not want that sort of competition to start." Hence cuts had to be made in news reels showing children "Feeding elephants in London Zoo and old women playing bowls. Both groups carried gas masks and so could evoke sympathy with the British.

The film A Yank in the RAE had been running for a week in a packed Savoy cinema in 1941 when Aiken ordered it to be withdrawn. The storyline of Tyrone Power as an initially uncommitted American who converts to the Allied cause had, according to Aiken, led to him getting protest letters from "Old IRA men".

The crazy story of Irish wartime censorship is now told in full, 50 years after that period we primly had to call the "Emergency".

In Censorship in Ireland 1939-45, Donal O Drisceoil, delves into the records of the censor now in the Military and National Archives, and the book is likely to be the definitive study of the subject. The author also analyses the effect of censorship not just on the media but on Irish politics and society in those years when, as he puts it, "private communications ceased to exist in wartime Ireland".

Freedom to pass moral judgments would have been "positively dangerous" according to Aiken, who argued that if one section of the population was allowed to talk offensively about the morals of Germany "then we can be quite sure that others would try to express in even more offensive terms their detestation of British morality".

THE British Representative here, Sir John Maffey, privately agreed with this argument, while often irritated with aspects of neutrality. He believed the censorship helped to stifle the strong anti British sentiments which were still widespread a mere 20 years after the Black and Tans were on the rampage.

At the same time, thousands of neutral Irish had volunteered to serve in the British forces and many more thousands were glad of the chance to earn money in British munitions factories and escape from the economic misery they experienced at home. With the entry of the United States into the war, there was no doubt that the overwhelming sympathy of the Irish was for an Allied victory.

But the logic of the censorship could not allow any deviations from a moral as well as a military neutrality. As the chief censor, Thomas Coyne, put it: "We do not see this war as a clear cut moral issue, but rather what the belligerents themselves admit it to be no more than a struggle between the great powers which will be determined by the survival of the fittest." The pro Allied Irish Times under R.M. Smyllie as editor found this line hard to swallow and paid the price of frequent sanctions from the censor.

The editors of the national newspapers were called to a meeting with the censor and his staff a few weeks after war broke out in September 1939 to be reminded that neutrality was supported by the vast majority and of the importance of the press "keeping in step".

Smyllie especially was reported, as resenting the restrictions on expressions of opinion on the merits and defects of the belligerents.

"Am I to say that there is nothing to choose between both sides?" asked Smyllie. The censor replied: "As regards the war, yes. The next five years were to see almost nightly battles between Smyllie and the censors as he tried to outwit them. The other newspapers had their problems too and even de Valera's paper, the Irish Press, was denounced by former IRA hero, Dan Breen, in a letter which had itself to be stopped by the censor.

"Breen who was unashamedly pro Nazi, denounced the coverage of war news by the Irish Press from news agencies. "You outdo the British in their lies and are at times more red than Stalin. May God save Ireland from the trash you print. May God save the people and guide them away from the rotten pro British element that your paper panders to," Breen wrote.

Smyllie, in correspondence with the censor, described some of his staff as "troglodytic morons", moronic clodhoppers", "ignorant bosthoons" and "poor cawbogues" whose blue pencils were their "only claim to literacy".

Deputy editor, Alec Newman, was so frustrated with the censor that he wrote to Coyne after the paper was yet again ordered to submit all leading articles and editorial matter in advance: "I wish to God that I was unmarried and then I could go to England and dig drains like so many thousands of others. It would be a damn sight more honourable than trying to be a journalist under this contemptible system."

Frank Geary, editor of the Irish Independent, also let fly in a reply to a Coyne letter which had dealt with his many complaints about the censorship. "Your letter just means that what you say must always be right; that what you like, we must like; that what you dislike, we must dislike, that all regard for the interest and safety of this country is entirely vested in you, and you only, and that regulations or no regulations what you think must be the law. That is our censorship."

Even Catholic bishops did not escape the censor's blue pencil. Coyne boasted that "the devil will not be allowed to quote scripture in Ireland for the duration of the war". Bishop Fogarty of Killaloe was censored when he wrote about "these accursed bombers", referring to the deaths of three people in Borris, Co Carlow from German bombs.

The censor pointed out that he did not censor the pastoral letters themselves but only the publication of them in the newspapers.

AIKEN and the censor were determined to take a strong line when "atrocity" stories started to come in from German and Japanese occupied areas. They were influenced by the false propaganda about bloodthirsty "Huns" in the first World War, so instructions were given in 1942 to the press censors not to allow details of specific atrocities. Only general allegations in official statements or communique's would be considered for publication.

Even when the censorship was lifted in May 1945 and Ireland could see the films of the victims of Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps, people were still conditioned to see this as more British propaganda. One writer to a Kilkenny paper alleged that the British had used "starving Indians" to. impersonate the Belsen victims.

Aiken admitted in an interview in 1979 that "what was going on in the camps was pretty well known to us early on ... but the Russians were as bad. You have only to look at what happened in Katyn forest". This was where the graves of thousands of Polish officers murdered by the Soviet army on orders from Stalin were found.

The entry of "godless Russia - into the war on the Allied side in 1941 certainly weakened the "moral" argument against Irish neutrality. The one belligerent who could be criticised in the Irish media was the Soviet Union, a fact which was cited by Moscow when it vetoed Irish membership of the United Nations in 1945.

A dispatch to the UPA news agency by its Irish correspondent on the reactions in Ireland to the first reports from the liberated camps was itself censored. He wrote: "The reaction in Eire to the wireless broadcasts of scenes at Buchenwald internment camp is one of incredulity ... the people here find it difficult to believe that atrocities such as those alleged in radio broadcasts could have happened." The censorship had, in other words, done an excellent job.