Diarmaid Ferriter: We should not minimise the censoring of Lee Dunne

Like John McGahan he refused to link sexuality to shame

Lee Dunne: Almost all of his  1970s novels were  banned in Ireland. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Lee Dunne: Almost all of his 1970s novels were banned in Ireland. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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Irish author Lee Dunne, who died earlier this week, came to prominence after the publication of his book Goodbye to the Hill, published in 1965, an account of teenage sexual awakening in working class Dublin.

It caused a stir with its frank depiction of lust and a sexuality that seemed at odds with the idea of cowering obedience to Catholic stricture: “in the privacy of a cinema with only a thousand people in it they forget exactly what it was the priest has said and they remember only that they want to touch and be touched and to get as much out of it as they can”.

Although Dunne’s book was not banned, and the stage version of it became one of Ireland’s longest running plays, the film version of it – Paddy – was banned in 1970 and was not issued with a certificate by the Irish film censor until August 2006.

A measure of the changed times was that at that stage the film was given a 12A rating by the censor John Kelleher who noted: “By today’s standards, there is nothing shocking in it. It is charmingly old-fashioned. But you have to remember it was banned in a different era, a very different time.”

Almost all Dunne’s 1970s novels were also banned in Ireland; what he called the “cabbie books . . . about a team of randy cab drivers in England that were more interested in getting laid than in making money on the cab”. The banning of them did not affect him as deeply; he acknowledged himself they were rubbish; written to order “in 10 days each because the money was good”.

Farcical

With the passage of time there was a tendency to euphemise or make light of the censoriousness of that era. The same year that Dunne’s first book was published, John McGahern’s second novel The Dark was banned, and he lost his teaching job as a result. His writing sins were compounded by his marrying of divorced Finnish theatre director Annikki Laaksi in a registry office.

Later in life, McGahern preferred to highlight some of the humorous or farcical aspects of the furore. He liked to tell the story of the encounter he had with Dave Kelleher, the general secretary of the Into who, fortified with whiskey, told him: “If it was just the auld book, maybe – maybe – we might have been able to do something for you, but with marrying this foreign woman you have turned yourself into a hopeless case entirely . . . and what anyway entered your head to go and marry this foreign woman when there are hundreds of thousands of Irish girls going around with their tongues out for a husband?”

But in truth, it was a horrible episode and McGahern was “ashamed that our own independent country was making a fool of itself yet again”. He was publicly humiliated in his own land for writing about his own people and in particular, of physical and sexual abuse – familial, societal and clerical – and the torment of the confused teenager with sexual longings and an obsession with confession and damnation, torn between the possibility of a religious vocation or the lay alternative of “the world, the flesh and the devil”.

Sense of sin

McGahern harboured no hatred of religion – “The Catholic Church in its origins is such a beautiful and great vision of truth and is big enough to contain us all” – but he did resent that the Church had surrounded sexuality with such a sense of sin, shame and fear. Lee Dunne felt likewise; interviewed by Julia Carlson in 1987 about censorship Dunne insisted the censorship mentality stemmed from “shame relating to sex, guilt relating to sex, fear relating to sex. Censorship was engendered in us on a personal level – ‘Don’t let people know your business’”.

Even in the year Dunne was interviewed, Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, originally banned in Ireland in 1972 was re-banned, as according to Dunne, “to openly admit that sex is wonderful and that it can be joyous and beautiful and affirming is really regarded with a great degree of suspicion, distaste and repugnance”. As for the church, as Dunne saw it, “it’s about control rather than love”.

We have had no shortage of vindications of that assertion in recent decades; the level of control and lack of love in the historic treatment of perceived transgressors that has been laid bare is almost overwhelming.

As the playwright John Millington Synge, born 150 years ago today, was to discover, to even allude to the flesh – his play The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 included the line, “It’s Pegeen I’m seeking only, and what’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts [underwear] itself” – could generate menacing outrage that in the words of W B Yeats from the Abbey stage in response, would “mar very greatly . . . the reputation of the country for fair play”.

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