What a shocker: no more books to ban

 

After 80 years of censorship from a board once internationally notorious for its prurience, the last remaining book to be banned in Ireland on the grounds of obscenity will have its prohibition lifted this year, writes John Byrne

NOT MUCH would appear to link Point Counter Point,Aldous Huxley’s satirical 1928 dynamiting of the foibles of the British intelligentsia, and The Base Guide to London,“an educational guide to surviving . . . the seedy side” of the English capital, from 1998. Separated by 70 years, a World War and radical changes in social mores, they may seem strange bedfellows, but these two titles represent the alpha and omega of book censorship by the State.

On May 9th, 1930, a year after the passing of the initial Censorship of Publications Act, Huxley’s novel became the act’s first casualty. Banned on the grounds that it was “indecent and obscene”, it earned the dubious historical honour of being recorded as the first entry in the first volume of the Register of Prohibited Publications. Sixty-eight years and 12,491 prohibitions later, The Base Guideremains the final entry in the register’s final volume.

In the 12 years since this last prohibition, the Censorship of Publications Board – at one time internationally notorious for its prurience and moral conservatism – has not banned a single title. It’s the longest such interval in the history of the State and a remarkable statistic for a body whose ceaseless opposition to “indecency”, “obscenity” and family planning saw it issue 1,034 prohibitions in one particularly zealous year (1954).

More importantly, as the decade’s end approaches, 80 years on from the censorship board’s first meeting, a landmark in the history of Irish censoriousness will have been reached. Under the terms of the 1967 Censorship of Publications Act, books deemed “indecent or obscene” have their prohibitions revoked after 12 years.

With The Base Guideremoved from the banned list along with 14 other titles likewise prohibited in 1998, the board’s long war against indecent and obscene books will, effectively, be over. For the first time since formal censorship began, not a single title banned on these grounds will remain on the register.

According to Odran Flynn, a member of the five-person board since 2001, the dramatic decline in prohibitions owes less to increased broad-mindedness on the part of the board and more to a disinclination on the part of the public to complain. “In my time on the board,” Flynn says, “there has been only one book submitted [ Guantanamo Jihad!by Niall de Souza], but it wasn’t banned. My own view is it reflects a change of society. The decline of the church’s influence over the last 20 years has had a major impact.”

With almost no material being submitted for review, board meetings have become infrequent. “In the early 2000s there would have been meetings every two months, because at that stage there was a campaign by a group of people who continuously wrote in complaining about magazines. But in the last four to five years we probably haven’t met more than three times. So basically there’s been no activity at all.”

The board’s base of operations and its archive have been transferred from their previous home on Hatch Street in Dublin to the headquarters of the Irish Film Classification Office, in Smithfield. “Given the level of activity, there was no point having a separate secretariat and separate offices and everything else,” says Flynn. “There was no justification for it.”

All of this is a far cry from the years between 1930 and 1957, when the board was at its most assiduous and divisive. During this period, when Knights of Colombanus members had a firm stranglehold on board proceedings, hundreds of titles were banned annually.

It was a time when the indefatigable William Magennis, senator and long-serving board chairman, could confidently tell the Seanad he and his vigilant colleagues were part of a “noble national work”, helping to shield the Irish people from “the corrupting and depraving influences” of publications being churned out ceaselessly by permissive foreign presses. These works, he warned, not only constituted a “bouleversement of the Christian ideal of life” but demonstrated that the battle over state censorship amounted to “a fight between Christianity on the one hand and the forces of paganism on the other”.

Though the board was technically required to consider “the general tenor” of a book, and its “literary, artistic, scientific or historic merit”, this requirement was routinely ignored. The tendency was, instead, to concentrate solely on those marked fragments that had been deemed obscene or indecent. A Manichean narrowness of focus effectively reduced the myriad worlds of the written word to two categories: books that were dirty and books that weren’t.

So censor-baiting titles like the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom or Alfred Jarry’s The Garden of Priapuscould sit side by side in the register with the likes of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angelor Faulkner’s Light in August.Pulp potboilers and modern classics, all lumped together and fatally condemned, regardless of intent or merit, by passages of underscored text. The practice reached its farcical nadir with Kate O’Brien’s Land of Spices(1941), banned on the basis of a single line.

While Ordan Flynn says it would surprise him greatly “if there were any books banned in the future”, the register will not, come December 31st, be entirely cleared of its backlog of prohibitions. There are, for instance, 279 periodicals still listed. Most date back over 50 years, and many, like Startling Detectiveor True Detective Mysteries, reflect the then contemporary purge on publications deemed unduly fixated on matters of crime. As periodicals remain banned until their prohibition is successfully appealed, the majority of these titles are likely to remain on the register indefinitely.

As far as books are concerned, eight lonely titles stand exempt from the 12-year amnesty that will shortly release The Base Guideet al. This group – which includes decades-old publications by such venerable figures as the birth-control pioneer Dorothy Thurtle – will remain prohibited under current legislation that prohibits publications deemed to “advocate or promote” the procurement of abortion, waiting with faint hope for the unlikely day when a qualified party might launch an appeal on their behalf.

So while the new year does not quite herald the dawn of a prohibition-free Ireland, the dozens of blank pages that follow 1998’s final entries in the register are unlikely to be filled, leaving a legacy of empty space that will in its own way speak volumes.

Banned books

My Fight for Birth Control by Margaret Sanger; banned 1931.

With a title as inflammatory as that, Sanger, an influential American birth-control activist and regular target of the board’s displeasure, may as well have stamped “Ban me!” on the cover.

The Base Guide to London by Base Shoes; banned 1998.

A small book, published by a shoe company, with sections on sex, counterfeit goods, trannies, violence, fetishism, drugs. Its introduction promises “the seedy side of the city. And its there for those who want it.” Except the Irish, it turned out

The Tailor and Antsy by Eric Cross; banned 1942.

Described by Gerard Whelan as a “luminous hymn to the real Ireland”, Cross’s compilation of stories told to him by a rural tailor, Timothy Buckley, proved too earthy for the board’s tastes. Buckley was forced, by several priests, to go on his knees and burn his copy of the book in his own fireplace.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene; banned 1951.

Alhough this was, perhaps, the most explicitly Catholic of the novels produced by one of the church’s most famous converts, it was insufficiently chaste for the board. Yet, a year later, Greene’s novel won the American Catholic Literary Award.

The Dark by John McGahern; banned 1965.

With its relatively frank descriptions of masturbation, and use of the word “f**k”, it was perhaps inevitable McGahern’s second novel would earn a ban. McGahern was dismised from his job as a primary-school teacher. The furore that followed would, at least partly, lead to an overhaul of censorship legislation in 1967.