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The Vacuum Issue 5 spacer Issue 5
Dirty Foreign Books
by Robbie Meredith
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Recently I discovered that I'm not quite as tolerant as I like to believe. This realisation occurred when I found myself using the phrase 'Why don't you go back to your own country?', with semi-serious intent, for the first time ever.
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This common mantra of strands of bovine Unionism and crabbed Republicanism became, for a brief period, mine also. I was reviewing a book about Northern Ireland by a writer from the United States, who had lived here for a year in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement. The text was imperialist in tone, claiming to 'know the score' about Northern Ireland but offering only cliché and arrogance; the kind of book which you end up shouting at.
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I didn't have to search too hard for a pithy put-down to conclude my review. Easy and clear, 'why don't you go back to your own country?' encapsulates prejudice, contempt and nationalistic insecurity which is immediate, striking. Hence its value in local phraseology, employed to suggest packing the Paddies off back over the border, or the Brits across the Irish Sea. I had, in some way, committed to the same agenda, but look, it was a really crap book.
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Books, in fact, provide some of the best examples of this ignominious protectionist tendency in Irish history, North and South. Every country, of course, practices various forms of censorship - one of the best ways to get through a bad night at a bad play in Belfast in the eighties was to try to work out which actor might be providing the voice of Gerry Adams for the local news. Less contentiously, Customs and Excise regulations, as well as prohibiting the illegal import of fuel, drugs, meat and pigs swill (among other things), prevent various types of hard core porn, including material using children and animals, from legally entering Northern Ireland.
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The related desire to prevent obscene material corrupting citizens of the newly formed Free State, however, gave official sanction to an altogether more squalid form of cultural censorship. The origins of the matter were, at least, explicable. The newly formed state, post-partition, needed to construct an identity for itself which would reflect what were perceived to be the dominant ideologies of its people - Nationalism, Catholicism, conservatism - and demarcate it from utilitarian 'gone to the dogs' Britain. Therefore, in 1926, responding to complaints from some god-fearing citizens about the dirty and blasphemous books which good Irish kiddies might end up reading, Kevin O'Higgins, the authoritarian Justice minister, set up a (splendidly named) Committee on Evil Literature, whose role was to recommend a solution to the problem.
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This group, which comprised three laymen (and they were men; a woman's perceived delicacy couldn't be exposed to the debate) and two clergymen - one Roman Catholic, one Church of Ireland - subsequently held a series of private meetings to decide what the state should do. They also reviewed some of the evidence presented by 'concerned citizens'. Mostly, the material they reviewed was regarded as prototypically blasphemous or sexually explicit, but there was wide variation in content. Certain medical detail, even the mention of piles, for instance, was regarded by some as obscene. The Committee recommended that the problem could best be tackled by a government body and, thus, the Censorship of Publications Board came into being through a 1929 Act.
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O'Higgins was assassinated before the Board was officially formed, and would later be eulogised by W.B. Yeats in one of his late apocalyptic ramblings. There is a conspiracy theory, started today by me, which holds that O'Higgins was gunned down by a Freudian psychoanalyst, who foresaw that his hero would become one of the first authors whose work was banned.
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The Board had the power to ban the sale and distribution, for twelve years, of any text which they considered to be indecent. However, the definition of indecency - 'construed asŠ suggestive of or inciting to sexual immorality or unnatural vice or likely in any other similar way to corrupt or deprave' - was sufficiently wide to ensure that just about anything beyond the Lord's Prayer was at risk of proscription.
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And so it proved. I recently spoke to an Irish writer who grew up in rural Ireland in the 1950s. He mentioned that, when trying to decide which novel to read next, he would select one from the Register of Prohibited Publications, available, with occasional difficulty, for public consultation, and set about trying to find a copy of his chosen book. He had plenty of options with regard to titles. Think of any great twentieth century writer, and they've probably been banned in Ireland at some point - Nabokov, Orwell, Sartre, Iris Murdoch, William Faulkner, J.D. Salinger, Doris Lessing...
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Customs officials were empowered to search luggage for any books which might be remotely dodgy, confiscate them and send them to the Board for consideration. It was this which led John Boyd, the recently deceased Belfast playwright, to smuggle a copy of Joyce's Ulysses into Ireland in a box marked 'Sanitary Towels', gambling, correctly, that a pious Customs officer wouldn't want to pry into matters menstrual. Ironically, Ulysses was never actually officially banned (although hearsay hostility made it a very difficult book to buy in Ireland for a long time) but Joseph Strick's 1968 film of the novel was censored.
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Of course, it wasn't just those 'bloody dirty foreigners' who suffered. Irish authors like Joyce, in fact, bore the brunt of the Board's activities. Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices was banned for a one line hint of homosexual activity (in more recent times Jenny lives with Eric and Martin met the same fate), John McGahern's The Dark because it dared to suggest that teenagers masturbated, Edna O'Brien's Country Girls novels because they hinted that women enjoyed sex. These are only a few examples, and in some cases the writer was also personally afflicted - McGahern, for instance, lost his job as a primary school teacher after The Dark was banned in 1965.
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During the Board's lifetime thousands of books have been prohibited, yet, despite the social revolution which has taken place in Irish society in recent years, this anachronism still exists, comprised of five people (currently two women and three men) who are responsible to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Of course, their work is fairly limited and uncontroversial nowadays, aside from an episode a couple of years back when In Dublin, a magazine, was banned for six months as a result of complaints made by a family who objected to the ads for escort services in the mag's back pages.
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Best, however, if we in the North don't get too smug about the pious philistinism exhibited above. After all, we have a fine record of decrying, on a cross-community basis, a number of 'foreign' additions to our culture, from the Brook Clinic to exhibitions by Gilbert & George to line dancing (which, I grant you, is difficult to defend). This has led to the inverse phenomenon of the 'I'm here to defy the protest' Belfast audience - the well meaning and, usually, well heeled who turn up at controversial events to annoy the Free P protestors, and so that they can feel like Rosa Parks for a few hours.
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Next item on the disputed agenda will undoubtedly be David Hare's play The Blue Room, so get those placards ready. I'm with the protestors on this one, however. London gets Nicole Kidman in the nude; we get Tracy Shaw from Corrie, whose spindly arse 'decorates' just about every lad mag in Britain at present. Definitely a case for a demonstration. Ban Tracy.
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