In September 1954, my parents went to Edinburgh on their honeymoon. There is a picture of them taken in Princes Street Gardens, in front of the view of the Castle, my mother is wearing her white fun fur jacket, my father is wearing a big smile; they look full of their moment and altogether content. No one knows why they went to Edinburgh, they just wanted to, and after that they went to Lourdes. My mother prayed at the grotto where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette, and her prayers must have been answered, because two Enrights went out there, but three Enrights came back.
In fact, my mother carried more than this, as yet undeclared, baby through Irish customs. My father told her to take the suitcase and said nothing (he is a great man for saying nothing), so she stood in all innocence in front of the customs man while he checked the contents. In among the clothes and the souvenir bottles of holy water were a couple of paperback books.
‘Aha!’ said the customs man and he looked at her. Whatever he saw in my mother’s lovely face, he slapped the case shut and waved them through.
She had been used, on her own honeymoon, as a books mule.
It reminded her, she says, of crossing the border after visiting relatives in Northern Ireland as a child. Her mother had risked a contraband packet of tea, which the customs man found at first touch.
‘How well I put my hand on it!’ he said, though he let them keep it: a poor widow and her daughter, who would grow up so honest she was uneasy when I made personal calls on the office phone.
When Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy was banned in 1958, it was said that a man in a pub asked him how much the book weighed, then offered to bring two thousand copies across the border instead of his usual smuggled butter. We might have called it the Black North, for being dark with Protestants, but when I was a child in the 1960s, Ulster was the place British sweets came from: Spangles, Buttons and, most notably, Opal Fruits. It was across this border that the feminists of ‘the condom train’ staged a mass importation of illegal contraceptives in May 1971. When they arrived from Belfast into Connolly Station, the customs men ‘were mortified’, Mary Kenny, one of the participants, remembered, ‘and quickly conceded they could not arrest all of us, and let us through’.
Michael Adams writes in his 1968 guide to Irish censorship that the officials who examined parcels of posted books in their office in Parnell Square sometimes took them home to be read at greater leisure. This arrangement had the advantage that a man could ‘ask his wife for an opinion in a particularly doubtful case’. The role of the customs in censorship was one which ‘just grew’. In addition to regular staff, vigilantes were maintained at postal depots and ports by the Knights of Saint Columbanus, a semi-secret Catholic organisation often compared to the Freemasons, some of whose members would, I imagine, have been at my parents’ wedding.
One of my father’s honeymoon books was a Penguin paperback copy of The Golden Ass by Apuleius.
‘What is it anyway?’ said my mother recently, when I found it on the shelf.
‘It’s just a bit rough,’ says my father. ‘Like Horace.’
In fact the book was not banned, it was not even on the Vatican’s Index Librorum. My father knew all this – but who could say what the customs man knew? He knew it contained smut. And he was right.
My father is the son of a small farmer in Co. Clare, who was educated at St Flannan’s, the diocesan school in Ennis. The school copied the British public school model by being vicious, freezing and interested in the classics. Levels of difficulty were added by the fact that it was run by priests and that every subject was taught through the medium of Irish. My father survived by keeping his head down. It is possible he was groomed for the priesthood, but he had no interest in the priesthood. He translated happily from Greek into Irish – from a dead language into one that wasn’t feeling too well – and in the summer he went home to help with the hay.
In the late 1940s, he came up to Dublin to take a much coveted job in the civil service, and the books he bought there – just a couple every year – are still on the shelf. They are all paperbacks. Wilde’s Salome, Shaw’s Man and Superman were bought in 1949. These were followed by Dante, The Greeks by Kitto, Spinoza by Stuart Hampshire, Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist, all the way to Sophocles and Rousseau in 1953. A very European selection.
Also on the shelf is Three to Get Married, by Bishop Sheen. I thought this was about a ménage à trois, but the third turned out to be God. He crops up again in Bringing Your Child to God by Xavier Lefebvre. I asked my mother if this was hers and she said, ‘Well it didn’t work very well, if it was,’ though some of my siblings are Catholic enough, I think.
Rabelais, Maurois and Balzac appeared after a trip to Paris in 1951 which my father undertook on his bicycle. I am not sure this trip was a complete success – all that remains of it the story of his first encounter with an Englishman on English soil. Fresh off the boat train in Euston, he approached a man who looked like the stereotype of a city gent for being impeccable – pinstriped suit, furled umbrella, bowler hat – and asked if he knew the time. The man took his watch out of his fob pocket, and looked at it, and said that he did. Then he put the watch back. My father said: ‘So. Could you tell me what it is?’
‘No,’ said the man, and he shook out his newspaper, leaving my father to walk away.
John McGahern went to London in 1954 to work for a few months on the building sites: ‘When I walked off the boat at Holyhead to the waiting London train – and thought of Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, all the great English writers I had read and studied – I felt awe, as if I was stepping onto sacred ground.’ Ireland’s painful separation from England was not, in the early days of independence, a separation from the England of high culture and classical scholarship. Yeats and Synge showed much disdain for the world of commerce, however, and the noble or savage Irish peasant was always to be distinguished from the British working classes who were, in any case, in decline. This was evidenced by their use of contraception, according to Oliver St John Gogarty, who said, during the 1929 Séanad debate on the Censorship of Publications Act that ‘the English government has practically told the unemployed that they should not cumber the earth.’ The Act would help the Irish poor avoid this fate by banning information about contraception and abortion from the country, and this ban would remain in effect until the 1990s.
The move towards censorship was part of a wider international shift, but it started, in Ireland, as a move against English newspapers (in 1920s Ireland, more than 130,000 copies of the News of the World were being sold every Sunday). It was for this purpose that the Irish Vigilance Association was set up by the Dominicans in 1911. As their organ, the Irish Rosary, put it, ‘happily, the evil publications against which the fight is being waged are not the product of Irish brains nor the output of Irish hands. They are foreign to every ideal and aspiration of the clean-minded Celt.’
Censorship was a measure to protect the ordinary public from foreign, corrupting material. As it turned out, particular ire would be saved for Irish writers: when you are trying to keep ‘indecent’ and ‘obscene’ material from entering the country, it is a great betrayal to discover it bubbling up from within.
Sir John Keane, who was the chief opponent of the bill both then and when it was amended in 1946, agreed with Gogarty that books should be exempt on the grounds that very few people ever read them. The Act instructs the board to take into consideration, not just the literary merit but also the class of reader which may reasonably be expected to read each book. So, as the writer Lee Dunne would point out fifty years later, ‘A book that is clean at five pounds is dirty at fifty pence.’
Members of the Catholic Truth Society, established to assist the uneducated by disseminating ‘good cheap Catholic literature’, sought out and underlined offensive passages to make the board’s work easier. The furious energy of right-wing Catholic organisations was not to be doubted. In 1990, Julia Carlson wrote in her book Banned in Ireland that supplies in libraries and bookshops dwindled until the books available to the Irish reader consisted of religious works and those that celebrated Irish culture and Irish life. John McGahern took a different view: ‘Most banned books,’ he said, ‘weren’t worth reading and those that were could easily be come by.’ It clearly depended where you lived and how strong your motivation was. As Dermot Foley put it, the stock in trade of Irish libraries, particularly in rural areas, was ‘an Irish stew of imported westerns, sloppy romances, blood-and-murders bearing the nihil obstat of 52 vigilantes’. Virtually no serious contemporary fiction was on the shelves.
Foley, the county librarian in Ennis, remembered a time when those who objected to censorship felt not just isolated but terrorised. The whole business was one long test of character. McGahern praises a Mrs McCarthy, the librarian in his local town of Ballinamore, ‘an unusual woman for her time’ who placed his first book, The Barracks, under the counter in 1963 and lent it to anyone who requested it (the library committee was more enthusiastic than the Censorship Board in this instance: McGahern’s local town was the only place where his first book was banned). It was the librarians of the Longford-Westmeath libraries who, in the early 1960s, kept John Broderick’s novels in circulation. ‘My name is Brendan Behan, I’m the latest of the banned,’ Behan sang in 1958:
Although we’re small in numbers we’re the best banned in the land,
We’re read at wakes an weddin’s and in every parish hall,
And under library counters sure you’ll have no trouble at all.
In the 1930s, my grandmother, on my mother’s side, was lent a copy of Ulysses by the librarian in Phibsboro, Mrs Doody, ‘a most upstanding woman’ according to my mother, who provided a discreet service for keen readers of good character. Ulysses was never actually banned in Ireland, though a pre-independence customs exclusion order lingered until the early 1930s. My mother remembers seeing the book, hidden under my granny’s eiderdown – a thing, as I remember it, of utterly faded green silk. A constant reader herself, she did not allow me to read the book until I turned 18. It seems to me that if you want to rear a writer – and I think some part of my mother wanted to do just that – this is one way to go about it.
In the 1940s, opposition to censorship was centred in the Bell, a periodical edited by Sean O’Faolain, and in the pages of the Irish Times. Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices was banned in 1941, on the basis of the single sentence: ‘She saw Etienne and her father in the embrace of love.’ She was the only Irish writer to appeal the board’s decision – a fact that showed either collective hopelessness or collective pride – and she was successful. (That the father’s homosexuality is central to the plot was not a problem, the fact that she had spelled it out for the reader was.) Writers like Michael McLaverty and Mary Lavin avoided censorship completely, perhaps, in Lavin’s case, for being more interested in money than sex: a subject that was, by the lights of Irish idealism, only slightly less taboo. The Censorship Board was at its busiest in the late 1950s, when the Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid took a close and personal interest in its affairs. In the early 1960s his actions provoked a wave of controversy, which began with the banning of The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien in 1960 and culminated with the sacking of John McGahern from his job as a primary school teacher in 1965, after the publication of his second novel, The Dark.
If the writers of the 1950s had played safe with commerce, the urgency of the 1960s in Ireland, as elsewhere, was to do not just with sex, but with the shocking idea that writers might write not just about their country but, more selfishly, about themselves. McGahern’s early work was not just a quarrel with Ireland; it was a very personal quarrel with his father and the content of that quarrel was also sexual. Almost unthinkably, for 1965, McGahern wrote not just about sex: he wrote about how his father had used him, between the flea-infested sheets of his childhood bed.
Edna O’Brien’s erstwhile neighbours might have burned copies of The Country Girls in the churchyard, but up in Dublin everyone who was a reader read it without a qualm. The McGahern affair was a much more unpleasant business. When McGahern lost his job, outrage in the liberal press was not echoed by callers to the radio shows or by the leadership of his union, who betrayed him without blinking: ‘The order for my dismissal had come from the archbishop.’ McGahern said that when he first came up to Dublin he thought the Censorship Board was a joke, but he wasn’t laughing all the way to London when he left the country in 1965.
These controversies apart, it is possible that the cloud that hung over public discourse for so many years got into writers’ bones, too. Brian Moore was angry at the fact that his father, who was a well read man, had been ‘brainwashed into the notion that people such as Belloc and Chesterton were the greatest English writers of their day’. When he went to Dublin after the war everyone was talking about Flann O’Brien, not Joyce. ‘Now I love Flann O’Brien’s work so it’s not that I am putting him down. But Joyce was a major Irish writer, whom no one knew.’ He clearly didn’t meet my grandmother, but even if he had, she could no more discuss Ulysses than she could step over the threshold of a public house.
The result of censorship was not so much ignorance as intellectual bad faith. In an atmosphere of uncertainty and doublespeak, McGahern found ‘it was safe to attack a book as rubbish but quite dangerous to say you actually liked a book and admired it. You often found that people were attacking people like Lawrence, and they hadn’t read him at all.’ There was the available sense that troublesome writers were probably no good. When the token Protestant on the board resigned in 1949, saying his colleagues ignored the merit clause, the board denied the accusation and pointed out that, in any case, ‘very few works of real merit have come before us.’ Controversy over individual books provoked urgent talk of literary values: the term ‘realism’ was used, as ever, as a blunt instrument in the morality wars. ‘It is unreal,’ the conservative Irish Independent said of The Dark, ‘unreal in its characters, unreal in its concentration of problems within a tiny group, unreal especially in its picture of provincial Ireland today.’
‘One gets very confused, you know, by accusations,’ says Edna O’Brien.
During the decades of censorship, it was much easier to talk about ‘Ireland’ than it was to talk about sex, or about the actions of individuals like John Charles McQuaid. The great success of writers abroad fostered a further defensiveness. The country, isolated by its neutral stance during the war, had isolated itself from its own literature, which was published in the UK and the US but not at home. The native publishing industry failed to thrive and Irish writers were accused of selling ‘Ireland’ abroad – for money, no less. ‘By the time I got round to the distinction,’ said Benedict Kiely, ‘you’d be damned nearly ashamed if you weren’t banned.’ But honour and shame were still the emotions associated with publication.
John Broderick was the author of many banned books. His first, The Pilgrimage, published in 1961, is about a woman who is married to a rich and crippled gay man. She has affairs with his nephew and with his bisexual servant, and all of these men are linked to a ‘ring’ of young homosexuals, one of whom commits suicide. The pilgrimage of the title is a planned trip to Lourdes, which the three main characters undertake at the end of the book. It is absurd to think this novel would have made it into the Irish bookshops but, like other writers, Broderick said that he wrote it ‘in perfect ignorance of the Censorship Board’. That it might be banned never occurred to him. Writing is described by many banned writers as a kind of freedom, at least the first book out – after that, we can only describe it as a kind of impulse.
Broderick didn’t expunge the shame of his homosexuality by writing about homosexuals and publishing those books abroad. If anything, publication made his life more contradictory and difficult. It was at the time of his greatest success that he was at his worst in the local bars of Athlone. His courage was met with silence. ‘Nobody belonging to me – my mother, my uncles, my cousins, anyone belonging to me – they never mentioned any of my books to me, ever.’
The figure of the writer was often remarked on in Ireland, falling out of bars, or into churches, they were afforded privacy and respect in their notoriety. My mother saw Walter Macken, with three ‘obscene and indecent’ books to his name, going every morning to half-eight Mass in Phibsboro Church. Broderick was another daily communicant, and he considered becoming a priest after his mother died. McGahern, as a child, promised his dying mother that he would become a priest, and breaking that promise caused him great anguish. When he chose to teach instead he took comfort from the fact that this ‘was sometimes called the second priesthood’, and decided his real ‘secret vocation’ was to write.
It is always ‘hard work’, he says, ‘to bend young minds from their animal instincts and interest them in combinations of words and numbers and histories’. The boys whose ‘animal instincts’ challenged him in this way were eight years old. McGahern had good reason to despise the Catholic Church, but he also tried to beat them at their own game. ‘The writer is feared here because … he’s one of the only uncompromised moral authorities,’ he said. His job as a writer was to forge a morality that was tougher, altogether better than the one priests were able to provide, but the truth he reveals can seem priestly enough, for being about men’s brutality and women’s patience, and the ‘animal nature’ that is most apparent in physical violence and the sexual act.
McGahern whose subject matter might be considered low, took a very high view. The Dark describes adolescent masturbation in close detail, from its great frequency to the texture of the wet sock. It also describes the boy’s abject shame in the confessional. In his account of the book’s banning, McGahern starts with a peculiar innocence. ‘I somehow never thought that it could have anything to do with me or my life,’ he says of the Censorship Board, though he knew at the same time. ‘If you were a writer you half-expected it.’ And of the public controversy: ‘Now that I was in the middle of it I found it childish and unpleasant, and I was a little ashamed that our own independent country was making a fool of itself yet again.’ McGahern held himself aloof, not just from his detractors, but also from those who were on his side: ‘they were very much more interested in attracting light to themselves than in the moral issue.’ The whole fracas was an invasion of the privacy he found on the printed page: ‘it brought something prurient into it, which for me has nothing to do with whether a work is good or bad.’ Like other censored writers, McGahern suffers doubts about the quality of his work. ‘I wondered privately if the novel had been written less quickly and with more care that they might not have noticed.’ To which we must ask: ‘might not have noticed what?’
Since that single sentence in Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices, there was a sense that you could say what you liked, so long as you didn’t spell it out. The option was given to the reader to understand something or not, and the reader often took up the offer by doing both at the same time. The thing that is not spelled out in The Dark is the abuse the boy suffers at the hands of his father, who touches his son’s belly and thighs at night. ‘You like that. It’s good for you,’ he says, while his voice breathes ‘jerkily’ to the rhythm of the stroking hand. The reality of what is happening might escape the notice of someone who was very sexually naive (my aunts, for example) as indeed it escaped me when I read the book in my teenage years, but there is no escaping the sense of loathing that the boy feels, and the pervasive horror of the scene.
As for the speed with which it was written: in 1960, McGahern was published in X magazine with parts of a novel he called The End or the Beginning of Love, on the basis of which the novel was accepted by Faber and Faber. This, for any starting writer, should have been a cause of greatest celebration, but McGahern did an extraordinary thing. He ‘saw that the novel was too flawed’ and refused to show it to them, offering to write a different book instead. This was published as The Barracks, after which he returned to the first, abandoned work, incorporating some of it into The Dark.
The picture is of someone who could not get out of writing this book, no matter what his doubts or hesitancies. The material about the father is painful and, as we read later in his Memoir, autobiographical, and though he would not dignify the terrible consequences of publication with his interest, McGahern admits that he didn’t write anything for three or four years afterwards. This next book is about a schoolteacher who is fired for marrying a non-Catholic, and the fact that the next, published in 1979, was called The Pornographer seems to say it all.
The sexual abuse McGahern suffered at the hands of his father was never, so far as I recall, discussed in the public domain. He only ever talked about his sentences. It was as though the content of the work couldn’t matter to one whose concerns were so overwhelmingly aesthetic. The result was some very fine sentences indeed.
The distinctive thing about Irish censorship is that it had such a contrary effect. Coetzee writes of the books that never reached the page under censorship in South Africa, and the Stasi killed talent, it almost seems, into the next generation. Irish writers describe censorship as ridiculous; not just the censor but his rabble are foolish. ‘You have disgraced yourself again,’ Yeats’s line to the rioters protesting against O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey is quoted over and again. And though writers reached for the image of themselves as outside and outcast, they also described themselves, one way or another, as being above.
In 1967 the slow dismantling of the censorship system began. No Irish writer was banned after Lee Dunne in 1976, though books by Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Angela Carter were banned in the 1980s, which is strange, because that’s when I read them all. In 1979 information about contraception became legal, though you couldn’t legally buy condoms without a prescription until 1985. Ten years later, it became legal to publish information about abortion services in other countries, though abortion is illegal in Ireland. There was a residual feeling in the 1990s that Irish writers are a great deal of trouble to their critics, who were busy with larger thoughts about literature or Ireland, and that it was painful and difficult trying to second guess which one of them would fuck off and die and which would win the next big prize, but that has shifted considerably in the last fifteen years. Very few modern Irish writers bother about sex. Which is nice too, in a way. The Irish readership is still the most tactful and silent and watchful in the English-speaking world.