To mark Bloomsday 2021 (16 June), the annual commemoration of James Joyce’s Ulysses, we consider the lives of some of the country’s most beloved pariahs: its banned authors.
It is worth noting from the outset that Joyce is not part of this cohort. Despite understandable supposition to the contrary, none of his published works were banned in Ireland. Ulysses was first (partially) published in serialised form in the American periodical, The Little Review, between 1918 and 1920. The Review was subsequently successfully prosecuted for obscenity in 1921, and the publication of Ulysses as a novel (in 1922) was prohibited in the US until a second case, orchestrated by the novel’s publisher Random House, overturned the decision in 1934.
The publication or sale of Ulysses was also banned in the United Kingdom (the ban remained in place until 1936). Ireland’s approach was different: the book was simply kept out of the country. It was neither imported nor printed here and thus was not widely available in the country until the 1960s. The 1967 cinema adaptation of Ulysses starring Milo O’Shea was banned by the Irish film censor, however, and was not officially released until February 2001.
The Censorship of Publications Board
The product of the ‘Committee on Evil Literature’ (established by minister for justice Kevin O’Higgins in 1926), Ireland’s Censorship of Publications Board came into being in 1929 with the power to ban any publication it deemed obscene or morally corrupting. Informed by the catholic church, the board’s first chairman was Patrick Joseph Boylan, priest and biblical scholar. Other notable board members included William Magennis (joined 1934), a devout member of the Knights of St Columbanus, who famously described Joyce's Ulysses as ‘moral filth’ and was described by Frank O'Connor as ‘a windbag with a nasty streak of malice’ (see Magennis DIB entry for references). Magennis would serve many terms, including three as chair. To the censorship board, the even vaguely sexual was considered filthy and any allusion to birth control was forbidden.
Among the first tranche of banned books were Aldous Huxley’s Point counter point and Radclyffe Hall’s The well of loneliness, both published in 1928, and books on sex and marriage by Marie Stopes including Married love (1918). Other major figures to have works banned by the censorship board over the years include: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D. H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Mann.
The banned classics of Irish literature
Among the earliest Irish writers to fall foul of the censor was Kate O’Brien whose Mary Lavelle (1936) and The land of spices (1941) were both banned on publication. Mary Lavelle depicted an adulterous relationship between a young Irish girl and a married Spanish man (as well as a declaration of love for the girl from an older Irish lesbian). It was also banned in Spain. The land of spices, a study of the difficulties encountered in the vocation of a nun, Mère Helen Archer, head of an Irish convent, in parallel with the coming of age of one of her pupils, Anna Murphy, was banned because of one line: ‘She saw Etienne and her father, in the embrace of love.’ The second Censorship of Publications Act (1946) extended the boards remit to censor content related to crime (violent or otherwise), but an appeals process was also introduced. At the urging of friends O’Brien successfully appealed the overzealous banning of The land of spices.
The very first appeal put to the board in 1946 was for Frank O’Connor’s English language translation of Brian Merriman’s much-loved Irish language work, The midnight court (published 1945). The appeal was dismissed without a hearing, despite O’Connor pointing out that everything dubbed ‘obscene’ in his translation by the censor’s appeared in the original Irish. It has been suggested that this particular ban was less about the material and more about the translator personally: O’Connor was an outspoken critic of the censorship board. Four more of O’Connor’s books were banned: the novel Dutch interior (1940), Kings, lords and commons: Irish poems from the seventh century to the nineteenth (1959), and the short story collections The common chord (1947) and Travellers samples (1951). The latter collection features one of his best loved short stories ‘First confession’, which later generations of Irish schoolchildren would come to know well.
O’Connor had also come to the defence of his friends Eric Cross and Tim Buckley when they fell foul of the censors in 1942. Published under Cross’s name, The Tailor and Ansty (1942) records his colourful conversations with Buckley, a retired tailor and seanchaí, and his wife Anastasia (1872–1947). It was favourably reviewed upon publication but was banned shortly thereafter by the censorship board as being ‘in its general tendency indecent’. This presumably referred to the subject’s uninhibited references to animal reproduction. With the liberalisation of the Irish censorship law, The Tailor and Ansty was the first book to have its ban lifted, and it was produced for stage for the 1968 Dublin theatre festival.
In the late 1940s Ben Kiely, who was raised in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, and had a largely positive relationship with catholicism for much of his early life and career (he was introduced to the work of James Joyce by a Christian brother at secondary school), would also find some of his books prohibited. Kiely had spent a year in the Jesuit novitiate in Emo Park, Co. Laois, but was confined to hospital for eighteen months with a tubercular lesion of the spine during which time he lost his sense of vocation, though he would work for a few years for the Standard, a catholic weekly in Dublin, and contribute to various catholic journals including the Capuchin Annual. His second novel, In a harbour green (1949), was banned for its depiction of a young woman's sexual involvement with two men (in Britain, however, it was taken up by the Catholic Book Club). His 1952 novel Honey seems bitter, a first-person narrative of neurotic obsession involving murder, emotional voyeurism and sexual infidelity, was next to be banned, followed by There was an ancient house (1955), which gave a largely respectful, and semi-autobiographical, account of the preliminary year of two quite different novitiates. The ban on the latter novel was imposed, as was often the case, for non-specified reasons, but it is assumed that its inclusion of a reference to a character having an abortion was the chief cause.
The 1950s and 1960s saw a rollcall of young Irish talent unable to publish in the land of their birth. (Irish-American writer J. P. Donleavy (1926–2017), had the distinction of having his rollicking Dublin-based novel The ginger man (1955) censored for obscenity in both the land of his birth, the US, and that of his parents, Ireland). Brendan Behan’s masterpiece, Borstal boy (1958), also his last completed work, was banned for unspecified reasons until 1970. In 1960, the young novelist Edna O’Brien (b. 1930) saw her debut novel Country girls banned in Ireland, suffered attacks from catholic clergy for her ‘smear on Irish womanhood’, and was disowned by her own scandal-averse mother. (O’Brien’s book contain no explicit content but alluded to lesbian awakening, a nun possibly having an affair with a gardener and a few other suggested mildly sexual incidents). Five more of her books would be banned in Ireland before the 1960s concluded.
In 1961, writer John Broderick had his first novel, The pilgrimage, banned in Ireland because of frank descriptions of adultery and references to homosexuality. Broderick was wilfully provocative and outspoken on censorship and, as he had other income sources, could afford to be banned. Not so his distant relative John McGahern, whose heartfelt and heart-breaking 1965 novel The dark depicts the experiences of an abused young man, who considers the priesthood but is deterred by guilt over his adolescent sexual fantasies and contact with a clerical relative who displays sexually ambiguous behaviour. It was swiftly banned and McGahern subsequently lost his teaching position at Scoil Eoin Baiste, Clontarf, Dublin (later Belgrove School) at the behest of the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who also pressurised the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) into refusing to take up McGahern’s case.
Mentions should also go to Liam O’Flaherty, best known as a short story writer, whose The House of Gold (1929) was the first of five novels to be banned for minor affronts to the censor’s sense of decency; Sean O’Faolain, whose first story collection Midsummer Night Madness (1932) was banned as was Bird alone (1936), which expressed his disappointment at the direction Ireland had taken post-revolution with its narrow catholic morality; and celebrated poet Austin Clarke, whose three published novels were banned by the Publications Board: The bright temptation (1932), The singing men at Cashel (1936) and The sun dances at Easter (1952).
Turning the page
The next Censorship of Publications Act (1967), sponsored by then minister for justice Brian Lenihan, limited prohibition orders on books to twelve years, though books could subsequently be re-banned. The result was that some 5,000 previously banned books became legally available to the Irish public for the first time. The 1967 act is still in force today, guiding the work of the current board, though only one book has been banned since 1998, for containing graphic descriptions of child abuse.
Since its inception in 1929, the Censorship of Publications Board has banned around 12,500 books and magazines, including the work of a number of Nobel laureates.
The Censored podcast from historian Aoife Bhreatnach http://censored.ie/ considers a different banned book in each episode, from literary classics to ‘low-brow smut’. Her recent episode ‘Fecundshite’ on Ulysses delves into the book’s censorship history: http://censored.ie/joyce-ulysses/
Department of Justice, ‘Banned books’: http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/banned-books