Sunday, March 26, 2017


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Links under cartoons are to online originals in NLI

There was an intense preoccupation with the question of censorship in the course of the first ten years of the Irish Free State's existence, 1922-32. This happens also to be the period covered by the wonderful collection of cartoons by Gordon Brewster hosted by the National Library of Ireland (NLI). The cartoons are specific to that period and some of them reflect this preoccupation with censorship. Of these some will surely also resonate with the modern reader.

In any event, they introduce us to a very interesting period when the new state was attempting to establish both a political and cultural identity for itself.

I have referred before to the belief of many, if not most, of the Irish revolutionaries that when we got rid of the English they would take with them all our social evils and we would then be able to construct and live in a fully moral society.

Well, we know that's not how it turned out, but the illusion was there, and after the British left the focus switched to stemming the flow of evil literature and films flooding back into the new state from "pagan England".

The caption on the above cartoon tells us that by May 1928:
"President Cosgrave at the Cumann na nGaedheal Convention, announced that a Bill to deal with the evil literature peril would probably be brought before the Oireachtas within the next few months".

The censorship question was hotly contested, which probably explains why it was only relatively late in the decade that the relevant legislation began to emerge.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me first establish my credentials for this exercise in the first place.

I have both played, and been a victim of, the Irish censorship régime, albeit during a later period.

In 1961 I had my copy of Lady Chatterley confiscated by the Customs in Dún Laoghaire, but some few years later I got my revenge by extracting from the system two certificates to import banned books. You can see the main one above and the list of requested titles, all of which were banned at the time, may surprise you.

Of course, there is seldom a supply without a corresponding demand. Brewster is here stressing the complicity of the reading public, although looking at the personalities involved it seems to apply as much to the theatre as to the world of modern dirty novels. But more of that later.

We are fortunate that Brewster sometimes sketched out ideas for new cartoons on the back of old ones and this is his original idea for the filth cartoon shown alongside the final outcome.

I have wondered who the guys on the balcony are. I'd hasard a guess that the two little guys may be the Shields brothers (William and Arthur), the guy top left Lennox Robinson and the guy top right W B Yeats. If I'm right then all these guys would have been involved in (fighting) censorship in one form or another.

In any event, the campaign against evil literature got off to an early start and the Irish League of Decency were very active on all fronts.

At one stage there appears to have even been the prospect of serious official censorship of journalists. But you have to remember that there was always an undercurrent of censorship in a society dominated by an ultra-conservative Roman Catholic Church.

Yeats refuses O'Casey's Silver Tassie

While there was no official theatre censorship in the Irish Free State, it turned out that there was more than one way to skin a cat.

Directors, producers, theatre proprietors, actors and even audiences (not to mention those who had never been at a play in their life) exerted influence over ultimate content, though objections were as often over perceived insults to Irish nationhood as they were to moral impropriety.

While the Plough and the Stars just about survived in somewhat modified form and despite disruption during the performance, O'Casey's next play, The Silver Tassie, was completely blocked from the Abbey by W B Yeats himself.

Alan Simpson's arrest at the Pike Theatre in 1957

The principal (or only?) attempt by the State to officially censor the stage involved Alan Simpson's staging of Tennessee Williams's Rose Tattoo at the Pike Theatre in 1957.

The run was effectively shut down when the police arrested Simpson and the State subjected him to a year long pre-trial hearing before he was acquitted/vindicated. He had been accused of "presenting for gain an indecent and profane performance" despite a fair number of model citizens, including a Jesuit priest, attesting to the acceptability of the script.

Simpson was even held to be advocating an unnatural form of birth control. This arose from a scene where a packet of contraceptives falls out of a seducer's pocket in the middle of a seduction scene. The seductee is horrified and sends the guy packing. A seriously moral piece of acting you might think.

In fact there was no actual contraceptive exposed on the stage though many people afterwards swore they'd seen one. It reminded me of the Late Late controversy over the Bishop and the Nightie, where there was neither bishop nor nightie involved on the night of the offence.

For a more extensive treatment of the anomalous absence of theatre censorship in Ireland, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, see Joan FitzPatrick Dean's essay in the South Carolina Review.

Meanwhile, back to Brewster, who on 18 September 1930 celebrated the lifting of press censorship in Spain. The caption reads:
"The censorship of the press in Spain ended yesterday and the newspapers published to-day will be the first to appear unfettered by restrictions for seven years"

But it took a full two decades after Brewster's death for significant liberalisation of the book censorship régime to be legislated in Ireland with the Censorship of Publications Act 1967.

I'll finish with this evocative cartoon from the early stages of the censorship campaign as it is a good illustration of the prevailing conservative attitude regarding "dirty books" right own to my own time. The caption reads:
"At the Catholic Truth Conference, Judge O'Brien K.C. denounced the plague of immoral literature from abroad."

But before I go I'd just like to add a footnote on Brewster's fine art output. I have mentioned elsewhere that I have only been able to trace one piece. For the rest nobody knows where any surviving pieces might be. What we do know for sure is that some of his own fine art output was destroyed by fire - first, in the burning of the RHA by the British in 1916 and, second, in the farewell bonfire after his death.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the National Library of Ireland for conserving and digitising this wonderful collection of almost 500 of Gordon Brewster's original cartoons and for their forbearance in letting me use them in this series of blog posts.

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