THE ANNOUNCEMENT that the Irish Film Censor's Office (Ifco) has been renamed the Irish Film Classification Office marks a belated official acknowledgment of the long, slow relaxation of film (and, latterly, video) censorship which has taken place since liberalising measures were first introduced by the late minister for justice Brian Lenihan in the mid-1960s.
Prior to that, Ireland had one of the strictest regimes of film censorship in the western world. Classics of the cinema such as Gone With the Windand Casablancawere bowdlerised to meet the requirements of a prudish morality which treated all citizens of the State as children to be protected from any films considered to be "indecent, obscene or blasphemous or subversive of public morality".
The 1923 Censorship of Films Act, which has been amended to reflect the new dispensation, was one of the first pieces of significant legislation to be passed by the State. Some of the contributions to the Dáil debate on the passing of that Act offer an insight into the moral climate of the time. William Magennis TD, for example, declared: "Purity of mind and sanity of outlook upon life were long ago regarded as characteristic of our people. The loose views and the vile lowering of values that belong to other races and other peoples were being forced upon our people through the popularity of the cinematograph."
Attitudes towards freedom of expression have changed considerably since the passing of the Act. But, just as importantly, technological developments have overtaken the original purpose of the censor's office.
In a recent survey carried out on behalf of Ifco, parents were asked which types of screen media they believed could have the most potentially negative effect on children. Forty four per cent of respondents said the internet, 32 per cent chose video games, 17 per cent television, and 4 per cent DVDs, while only 2 per cent said cinema.
The results reflect the reality of a wired world where traditional gatekeepers such as the censor have little or no power to do anything more than advise and inform people.
In the hands of the current director of the office, John Kelleher, and his predecessor, Sheamus Smith, a regulatory system designed in different times for different purposes has been reshaped and redefined to meet the needs of a society which would be nearly unrecognisable to the framers of the original legislation.