One hundred years ago this week, poet WB Yeats was basking in the afterglow of his Nobel Prize win. Head of government at the time WT Cosgrave declared the award well merited and an honour “which will enhance the reputation of our country in the domain of the arts”. Yeats responded that he saw the award as “part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State and I am very happy that it should be so.” By that stage Yeats was also a senator; as a senior and now internationally decorated artist, stitched into the establishment, he would later describe this as the phase of his life when he was a “smiling public man.”
He was not smiling, however, by the end that decade when it came to the domain of the arts, such was the nature of the censorship impulse. In reacting to the proceedings of the Committee on Evil Literature and the proposal to establish a censorship board, Yeats told the Manchester Guardian in 1928: “Our zealot’s idea of establishing the Kingdom of God upon Earth is to make Ireland an island of moral cowards”.
A few days after Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize, Cosgrave told the Dáil: “We are a free people now, entirely independent, and we are responsible for this country.” However exaggerated these sentiments were politically, they found robust expression culturally in the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act which, it was announced this week, is finally to be repealed. It is easy in the 21st century to construct a mocking narrative of such cultural priorities and their perceived excesses, but the legislation was in keeping with the international climate of moral panic in the 1920s.
The censorship question incorporated many other issues and was by no means an isolated Irish Free State phenomenon. Censorship in Ireland became centralised and severe, but it was not unique: Australia had one of the strictest censorship systems in the world in the 1920s.
Books were only one consideration. The Irish Catholic bishops had quite a list to recite in their 1927 pastoral: ‘The evil one is ever setting his snares for unwary feet’
The idea that the political chaos of the early 20th century had resulted in a moral crisis was shared on both sides of the Border and even those considered liberal in outlook lamented the decline. Just as the Committee on Evil Literature was appointed in 1926, this newspaper lamented that the Free State was “a more immoral country than it was fifteen years ago. Parents are losing the capacity to control their children. Extravagance in dress is almost universal... Fifteen years ago few women of the middle classes touched strong liquors, even in their own homes. Today, many of them take wine and whiskey in public places; and women and men drink with equal abandon in the dance halls of country towns and villages. Sexual immorality has increased.”
Books were only one consideration. The Irish Catholic bishops had quite a list to recite in their 1927 pastoral: “The evil one is ever setting his snares for unwary feet. At the moment, his traps for the innocent are chiefly the dance hall, the bad book, the indecent paper, the motion picture, the immodest fashion in female dress – all of which tend to destroy the virtues characteristic of our race.”
Those who railed against censorship were hardly representative. Likewise, constitutional drafting the following decade, which included the provision relating to women and their stated contribution to the common good through their life in the home, now due to be revisited in a referendum next year, was hardly at the centre of public discourse in humble homesteads nationwide.
The proposed wording was seen as “sinister and retrogressive” by the Women’s Graduate Association, but an amusing cartoon in Dublin Opinion Magazine in 1937 witnessed a harried mother in her apron preparing food in her cramped kitchen surrounded by at least 12 children while her husband sat apart on a bench, smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper. The mother says: “Will yiz shut up, all of yiz, while yer father’s explainin me position under the New Constitution!”
At the time of the publication of the Ryan report in 2009, the Irish Times described its contents as ‘the map of an Irish hell. It defines the contours of a dark hinterland of the State’
While there was widespread support for censorship, there was concern about how it might be applied: it did not need to be the type, suggested The Irish Times in 1926, that would “divert public attention from more urgent perils. The things that defile Ireland today come not from without, but from within”.
How true that was. One of the great ironies of the censorship crusade was that so much “evil” under Irish noses was ignored. At the time of the publication of the Ryan report in 2009, The Irish Times described its contents as “the map of an Irish hell. It defines the contours of a dark hinterland of the State.” The idea of “the evil one setting his snares for unwary feet” had been revealed to have a whole other meaning, as the “virtues characteristic of our race” were proven to be bogus indeed.