Politicians push to end Irish literary censorship

The threat of James Joyce's novel Ulysses being banned stopped bookshops from stocking it for many years. Picture: Getty
The threat of James Joyce's novel Ulysses being banned stopped bookshops from stocking it for many years. Picture: Getty
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They were responsible for making sure Ireland did not read books by James Joyce, Graham Greene, John Steinbeck and ­Aldous Huxley, but Ireland’s once-feared censorship board might have had its day.

The Censorship of Publications Board, set up in 1929, became notorious across the world for its repressive stance, which saw works by thousands of authors banned, including Irish writers Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien and Frank O’Connor.

At its peak, the board was described by poet and scholar Robert Graves as imposing “the fiercest literary censorship this side of the Iron Curtain”.

Now the curtain might be about to come down on the repressive body, as opposition party Fianna Fail has tabled a motion calling for the censorship board to be abolished.

Niall Collins, Fianna Fail justice spokesman, said: “The Censorship of Publications Board is an archaic, redundant body.”

Any member of the Irish public can refer a work of literature to the board, which has the authority to prohibit books or periodicals it deems “obscene”.

But the board currently has no members, meaning no decisions can be made even if a complaint is submitted.

Mr Collins said: “The fact that no new board members have been appointed since 2011 is a testament to the fact that the board has outlived its use, as the internet completely bypasses it.

“Such a level of inactivity indicates the board is essentially defunct; it is as dead as the parrot in Monty Python.”

Ireland’s censorship has become increasingly redundant in recent years. The sale of some pornographic magazines is still restricted; several mid-century crime magazines that have long since ceased publication are still technically banned, as was the UK version of the News of the World prior to its closure in 2011.

In June, Liam O’Flaherty’s novel The House of Gold was republished, marking the first time the book had been freely available in Ireland in more than 83 years, after being part of the censorship board’s first round of book bannings in 1930.

Eight books have been referred to the board since 2008, including current justice minister Alan Shatter’s debut novel, Laura, which was originally published in 1989 and reissued earlier this year.

The book was referred to the board after a complaint by a member of the public who claimed the novel’s contents were “obscene and contravened laws on procurement of an abortion or miscarriage”.

The board has not taken a decision about the book, but the incident saw responsibility for the board transfer from the Department of Justice to the Department of Arts and Heritage to avoid any conflict of interest.

Prior to Mr Shatter’s case, the censorship board’s most recent controversy involved the banning in 1999 of In Dublin magazine, on the grounds that its escort advertisements were “frequently indecent or obscene”.

No books are currently banned in Ireland on the grounds of indecency, but eight books continue to be censored for containing information and advice about abortions. Censored books include How to Drive Your Man Wild and The Complete Guide to Sex.