essays on Church, State and Culture in ireland
(Added June 2014)
Pictured above, ghostily hovering over Merriman's Loch Gréine, are symbols and leaders of the Three Estates (State, Church and Arts) who duked it out in the censorship and culture wars in Ireland.
The harp is the official emblem of Ireland and metonymically stands for the Irish State. Ditto for the crozier and the Church. The collusion between the two as police forces of morality was all too embracing and intimate.
Éamon de Valera (lower right) memorized The Midnight court in the Irish original to share with his wife yet his government banned Frank O'Connor's (upper right) translation. In Ireland, this authorial rite of passage was known "honourable dishonour" since writers who were not banned were nobodies. It was a simple proposition, really: If they're going to ban every serious bit of literature, your work is not a serious bit of lit until it's banned.
After Brian O'Nolan's (or Flann O'Brien's) novel Hard Times was published:
He now began to nourish the hope that this new book would be banned in Ireland. … There were, indeed, so many [books banned] that to be censored was considered something of a mark of distinction. … Nearly every professional Irish author had had a book banned and O'Nolan's gleeful anticipation of the prospect makes it clear that he was anxious to join the club. (Cronin: 213-4)
John Charles McQuaid (upper left) was the autocratic and creepy Archbishop of Dublin from 1940 through 1972 who built up a huge collection of "sexology" writings that was "a unique collection in Ireland". He made no direct intervention in the Midnight Court controversy but was known as the "banner in chief" whose only complaint about censorship in Ireland was that it was too lax compared to what prevailed in England (Ouch!). The value of the Ouch factor was rather diminished by the fact that John Charles (or JC, as he might have thought himself) was constantly bitching and moaning about the flood of filth from England. As for the literati, O'Connor and fellow writer, Seán Ó Faoláin, were patronizingly dismissed as "the Artistics". (Cooney: passim)
It is jaw-dropping to read that JC managed to get harmonica player Larry Adler banned from Dublin's Theatre Royal -- a harmonica player! It puts the whole issue in some perspective, however, when we find that the reason given was that the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) had blacklisted Adler as a Communist. (Cooney: 243)
And when the power structure in America find something morally repugnant, they don't pussyfoot about.
Anyone violating the federal Comstock Law by distributing or promoting an “obscene, lewd, and lascivious book, pamphlet, …” was subject to ten years imprisonment. It was not just a theoretical threat lying dormant on the statute books. Many of those involved in the production of condemned books and magazines were jailed. Which is a whole different kettle of fish to being feted as a bigshot in McDaid's Pub in Dublin by reason of having a book banned.
In 1959, Mildred (black) and Richard (white) Loving were given the choice of a year in jail or exile from Virginia for the crime of marrying each other. Their conviction was overturned by the most aptly named Supreme Court decision of all time – Loving vs. Virginia which invalidated so-called miscenegation statutes in 17 seventeen states
We are also reminded that it was regarded as too titillating for public consumption for Hollywood depictions of marital bedrooms to show only a single bed. And the odyssey, as it were, of Joyce's Ulysses through the censorship laws of most of the English-speaking world is evidence that Ireland was far from unique in having a censorship police as does the fact that there are still moral busybodies in the United States and elsewhere trying to have works of literature removed from libraries and schools. (Birmingham: passim)
In other words, there are would-be vigilante busybodies under every bed, as it were, all over the place. The first two essays below are what the academics might call case studies of the impact of such attitudes in Ireland on the history of The Midnight Court and of the Anglo Concertina in Irish Traditional Music.
If sex and violence were taken out of literature, there wouldn't be much left. The morality police seem to give violence a pass but sex is the big no-no. It's OK to have people viciously offing each other but not lovingly boffing each other. A lot of literature, at least the half that deals with love, therefore becomes suspect. The Midnight Court fell into this category.
Dancing is the handmaiden of sex. It was intolerable that such carry-on would be allowed away from the gimlet eyes of the local priests. Church and state colluded to ban private house and crossroad dances in the mid-1930s. In the process, they came close to killing off the concertina which was particularly associated with such venues. Were it not for a few persistent souls in Co. Clare, the instrument would likely have passed out of traditional usage – much to our loss and to the perpetrators' shame.
The third essay covers a different topic entirely. It's about a satirical novel in Irish from 1941 titled An Beal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) by Brian O Nuallain writing under the pseudonym, Myles na gCopaleen (Myles of the Little Horses). Even though there are English translations of the book available, for some reason they do not include an interesting cartoonish map in the front of the Irish original.
This map is, therefore, unavailable in print or on-line (as far as I know) to all but the relatively few people with access to the Irish-language version of the novel (or an even more obscure Irish-language commentary on the novel from 1986). I am performing the public service of publishing the map on the Internet along with a considerable amount of contextual background on the important book in which it appears.
- Birmingham, Kevin. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses. 2014.
- Cooney, John. John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland. 1999.