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Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in the film Carol. The book was banned in Ireland in 1959. Alamy Stock Photo

Reeling in the Queers Ireland's censorship - official and unofficial - of sex had a huge impact

Dr Páraic Kerrigan looks at how queer Irish culture has faced forms of forms of regulation and control over the last century.

IRELAND IS NO stranger to moral panics – especially when it comes to matters of sex and sexuality.

Some happened recently: Liveline had a lively debate about sex scenes in the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People in 2020. Others go back further: the 1978 RTE drama series The Spike was pulled from air after its fifth episode for daring to show a naked woman during a life drawing class. 

Over the course of the twentieth century, censorship, both by the Irish state and cultural censorship through more unofficial forms – such as pressure from unrepresentative minorities – attempted to suppress how LGBTQ lives appeared in Irish culture.

This had a huge impact. When it comes to queer culture in Ireland, morality campaigns along with formal structures of the Irish state served critical roles in how gender and sexual diversity could emerge in literature and culture.

“We don’t sell those kind of books”

In 1970, when Terri Blanche was 16, she began to realise that she was a lesbian, but she had nowhere to come out to. She sought some representation of herself in the culture around her and quickly discovered the existence of a book by Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, which promised her some form of lesbian representation.

After building up the courage to go into a book shop in Dublin, she asked the bookseller whether they had it in stock, only to be told, ‘we don’t sell those type of books’, shaming Terri for even daring to ask for a copy.

The Well of Loneliness was banned by the Censorship of Publications Board in 1929 for its portrayal of same-sex desire between women. It remained banned until 1967, and by the time Terri came to look for it in 1970, it had become a source of shame and stigma and was quietly censored by local bookshops.

Literature in the Irish state was frequently censored for any mention of same-sex attraction. In 1941, Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices was banned for the inclusion of a single line in relation to homosexuality. Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol (published at the time as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), had been on sale in Ireland for seven years until it was banned in 1959 for its explicit representation of a lesbian romance.

One of the more egregious examples of censorship around gay lives occurred in 1990, when the children’s book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin was banned in Ireland by the Censorship of Publications Board on the grounds of being ‘indecent or obscene’.

The book, which represented the banal domesticity of a young girl being raised by two gay men, was banned as it was considered a threat to the ‘family’. The decision faced staunch protests from the gay community who called the ban on representing two gay men living together and raising a child as a ‘fundamental attack on our right to live socially’.

Reactionary Resistance

Conservative gatekeepers and social reactionary groups have also been central to controlling the terms on which LGBTQ identities could emerge in Irish culture. When the National Gay Federation (NGF) sought to distribute Identity magazine, Ireland’s first gay and lesbian literary journal, through bookshops in 1981, some stores refused to do so because lesbian and gay people appeared on the cover.

In 1990, conservative right-wing group Family Solidarity threatened to take a legal route to ban community radio station Horizon Radio for broadcasting a series of lesbian and gay programming, which they accused of submitting ‘listeners of all ages, especially teenagers, to homosexual propaganda’.

Later, in 1993, the Health Promotion Unit of the Department of Health put together a series of advertisements to highlight the dangers of AIDS after almost 1,360 people were diagnosed as being HIV positive. Decision-makers in RTÉ were reluctant to broadcast the submitted advertisements, which were meant to air on National AIDS Day on 28 May, taking exception to ‘some of the language’ used about condoms and the over sexual representation of gay men.

Michael D Higgins, who was then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, warned in no uncertain terms that he was ‘prepared to order RTÉ to broadcast the campaign’. This intervention led to the Department of Health and RTÉ ‘amicably resolving the controversy’.

These are just some examples. Moral morality, state sanctioned ‘purity’ and the language of family values have striven time and time again to engineer or stoke reactionary concern around the existence of LGBTQ people in culture. While this was aided and abetted by the criminal laws in place at the time criminalising sex between men, the cultures of censorship in twentieth century Ireland provides insights into how gay LGBTQ existence was at odds with the state.

Additionally, LGBTQ lives were subjected to what might now be referred to as ‘cancel culture’ practices today, with varying cancellation attempts made by Family Solidarity and other right-wing groups to de-platform queer culture from the public realm.

The power of these conservative groups brings us back to Terri Blanche, who sought to buy The Well of Loneliness and find lesbian representation somewhere in the culture around her. How different might Terri’s coming-out have been had the forces of conservative Ireland not had their hand on the levers of power? Had she been able to buy The Well of Loneliness or Carol, she perhaps might have found positive affirmation to help her on her way.

Despite these initial obstacles however, Terri did eventually come out against the odds and became a prominent lesbian activist within the first Irish gay civil rights group, the IGRM. When she could not find resources around lesbianism in the bookshop all those years ago, she decided to become a resource herself for lesbians in Ireland, becoming a shining light for many to step out of the closet and affirm to them that they were lesbian, there was a community, and they would be just fine.

This article is based on a chapter in Páraic Kerrigan’s Reeling in the Queers, released on June 7 with New Island Press. Available to order online now and in all good bookshops. Dr Kerrigan is an assistant professor at University College Dublin. 

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