Fabulism and Irish Censorship

Article excerpt

Abstract: The aim of the article is to analyse the effects of the introduction of Censorship legislation on Irish culture. The analysis focuses on the reasons behind the introduction of the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 and previous cases of literary ostracism. Then, it deals with anti-censorship journalism published in The Bell and the most controversial bannings, which increased the general awareness of the inadequacies of the Act and caused it to be lifted. Finally, the article examines the Act's impact on Irish letters, especially the rise of fabulist fiction and the techniques used by writers such as Eimar O'Duffy, Flann O'Brien, and Mervyn Wall to circumvent and ridicule the censorship laws. The emergence of satirical fantasy writing can be seen as a reaction to oppressive legislation. As publishing realistic novels became nearly impossible, Irish writers expanded their range of expression to include non-mimetic fiction.

Key Words: Censorship, satire, fabulism, Flann O'Brien, Mervyn Wall, Eimar O'Duffy.

The aim of this article is to explore the period in Irish cultural history before the country became the fast developing Celtic tiger of the European Union, that is the period between 1920s and 1960s. While nowadays the idea of cultural diversity is seen as beneficial to the uninhibited development of any country and pluralism is perceived as necessary for democracy, during the first decades of the existence of the Free State isolationism was encouraged to protect the fragile identity of the new state while the principles of censorship were written into the 1937 Constitution.

Though citizens were officially given the right to express freely their convictions and opinions, this right was qualified as follows:

   [t]he education of public opinion being,
   however, a matter of such grave import to the
   common good, the State shall endeavour to
   ensure that organs of public opinion, such as
   the radio, the press, the cinema, while
   preserving their rightful liberty of expression,
   including criticism of Government policy,
   shall not be used to undermine public order
   or morality or the authority of the State.
   The publication or utterance of blasphemous,
   seditious, or indecent matter is an offence
   which shall be punishable in accordance with
   law (Kelly 1980: 440).

This constitutional article, in fact, only consolidated the already existing law. Various acts regulated the private lives of Irish citizens, limiting the occasion for undesirable behaviour: the Intoxicating Liquor Acts of 1924 and 1927 reduced the number of public houses and their opening hours, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1935 prohibited the sale of contraceptives, and the Public Dance Hall Act of 1935 restricted the holding of public dances. Censorship of the cinema was introduced in 1923, of printed matter in 1929. Thus, the State interfered in many areas of broadly defined private life.

One of the most conspicuous cases of this interference was the introduction of censorship. The Censorship Board established by this legislation was to consist of five people: one representative of the Catholic Church, a lawyer, a medical man, and one representative from each of the two universities. Anyone could send a book for censorship, with the questionable passages underlined. If three censors wanted to ban the book, it was banned, and could not be sold in Eire. A book could be prohibited if it exploited violence, made open reference to sexuality, or unnatural methods of contraception or abortion. Though the board was to take into consideration the literary, scientific, or historic value of any questionable publication, censors often had no time to read each book and were often influenced by the marked passages or by the notoriety of authors like Boccaccio or Joyce. The malpractice caused by the physical impossibility of reading every single work of fiction or journal before reaching a verdict was disclosed by Lynn Doyle, after his resignation from the Board in 1937. …