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The Irish For: How has censorship affected Irish language books?

The banning of Irish language books was less frequent even though the authors produced writing which dealt with provocative themes.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

This is the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

TODAY IS THE beginning of Banned Books week in America, an annual event led by the American Library Association that draws attention to those great works of literature which have been banned previously, as well as those which are still unavailable to readers by the decision of a committee somewhere.

The event is not without its critics, many focusing on the flexible interpretation of the word “banned”. There are also accusations of political bias too, with an alleged emphasis on books objected to by religious conservative groups over those rejected because of political correctness.

Either way, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the power of great storytelling is confirmed by the continued attempts of the powerful to control it. In particular, it is a good opportunity to consider the history of book censorship in Ireland, and how the Irish language fits into it.

1967 was a great year for scholarship in Ireland. Not only was it the year that Donogh O’Malley’s plan for universal free secondary school education came into fruition, it was also the year that his cabinet colleague Brian Lenihan Sr changed the censorship laws.

Perpetual banning orders were replaced with a 12-year restriction, leading to the immediate release of hundreds of previously unavailable books.

Prior to this, the Committee on Evil Literature was one of the busiest offices in the new Free State, setting the bar suitably high for the Censorship of Publications Board that would take over its duties in 1929. They had a wide range of interests but the priorities for the committee were restricting gratuitous sexual content, explicit or implied homosexuality and anything that promoted contraception or abortion.

The pen is mightier than the sword

One of the first novels banned was The House of Gold by Aran Islander Liam Ó Flaithearta; works by Seán Ó Faoláin (Bird Alone) and Brendan Behan (Borstal Boy) would also be disapproved in the years to come.

Banning of Irish language books was less frequent, however. The authors mentioned above also produced Irish language writing which dealt with similarly provocative themes (especially Behan’s An Giall, significantly altered in translation as The Hostage), but did not run afoul of the censor’s red pen.

In 1966, the Michael Caine movie Alfie got an unprecedented “suitable for viewing for persons 21 years of age or older” rating due to its treatment of abortion, but Máiréad Ní Ghráda’s An Triail in 1964 was not subject to any such restrictions.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this phenomenon was the banning of the English translation of Brian Merriman’s Cúirt An Mheán Oíche while the Irish version was available.

Why was this? After all, there’s evidence to suggest that writers from Ireland were singled out for strict treatment (compared to their English and American neighbours) due to their local notoriety.

It has been suggested that an inability of the censorship officials to read Irish may have been the reason, but this seems unlikely to me; having good spoken and written Irish was a significant advantage for both recruitment and advancement in the civil service at the time.

My theory is that it reflects the interests and blind spots of the external individuals in public life who petitioned the censorship board and the Minister.

Is treise an pean ná an claíomh – The pen is mightier than the sword is. 

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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