“Brazen and frank in sex matters, the BBC features semi-nudity, blue jokes in comedy shows, documentaries… of the unmarried mother.”
“Creative freedom” is not something one tends to associate with Ireland in the 20th century. Our nation was, for many years, under the metaphorical thumb of the Catholic Church: a large multinational organisation of rigid structure and principles, all based upon a text written thousands of years ago. In a place such a this, progress comes slowly. The increase in Irish secularism (although blasphemy is still against Irish law, though this is rarely enforced), allowing greater creative freedom, has seen the influence of the church on Irish society rapidly decrease. It can be argued as to the merit of this — some may feel that the diminishing respect for positive Catholic values such a charity is a social problem — but it is undoubtedly linked to the ideas and themes exposed to the Irish public through art, literature and visual mediums that have changed the way society functions, for better or for worse. The censorship of cinema, the art form with possibly the broadest mainstream appeal, has always been a worldwide issue that has drawn much discussion, but this is particularly so in Ireland: where the factors influencing and the resulting changes based upon censorship are all the more fascinating and unique.
When cinema first arrived in Ireland at the end of the 19th century, nationalism around the country was at a high. The importing and screening of foreign films (more specifically those produced in Britain) was perceived by organisations like The Gaelic League and the GAA as a serious threat to homegrown culture. These groups had been working to develop a distinctive Irish cultural identity through the cultivation of Gaelic sports, Irish music and dancing in communities around the country. Locations where Irish sports were dominant had become strong sources of republicanism, and the cinema was seen additionally as an unhealthy, inactive pastime. Nevertheless, cinema-going soon became tremendously popular with the public; the films screened a window to the wider, wealthier world- or at least a version of the world, as glamourised by Hollywood producers.
With this surge in popularity came further controversy over the effects of such a unique experience. As Liam O’Flaherty wrote in his novel “Mr Gilhooley” (1926), “There was an air of mystery about it. An air of romance and of remoteness from actual life. With the mind drugged by the spectacle on the screen…” In a socially acceptable space such a this, what perverted things would Irish adults find available to them, and what could be done to stop it? The first “film censorship” derived from those employed to attend to the safety of the cinema experience: the Health and Safety inspectors of the day who checked the film reels and projectors in order to prevent outbreak of fire. When it dawned upon “socially responsible” groups such as the Catholic Church that there may be even greater dangers in the content shown on screen than in the equipment used to project such images, action was soon taken to establish a controlling body for those films imported and shown.
In the first decade of the century, The Dublin Vigilance Committee led the campaign to have restrictions on various cultural imports put in place, with established Catholic bodies including the Catholic Young Men’s Association volunteering their support. The committees formed for the purpose of installing national censorship aimed for bans on certain British newspapers and magazines, as well as “suggestive postcards”. It wasn’t, in fact, until 1915 that the DVC publicly called for film censorship greater than the lenient current system (in place largely to oversee the screening of boxing matches). In a letter to the “Irish Catholic”, F.P. Carey proclaimed that as “immoral literature” had been vanquished, so too would the “immoral picture”. The campaign was immensely successful, and a film censorship system administered by the Dublin Corporation came into being in 1916.
Long before “the evils” of foreign cinema came to Irish shores, the Catholic Church had made great efforts to suppress the accessibility of “immoral” and otherwise problematic art. The banning of books was a very common occurrence: Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” was banned in Ireland in 1931 due to “references of sexual promiscuity”, and as late as 1962, Edna O’Brien’s novel “The Lonely Girl” was banned after Archbishop John Charles McQuaid complained to Justice Minister Charles Haughey about its content.
Films imported from the US and Britain brought with them much content, both explicitly shown and alluded to, that the Church was to find contradictory to their standards and values. While, obviously, the Church’s primary visible aim was to protect the Irish public from content which contradicted their principles, they also wished to defend the integrity of themselves as an organisation, and of their Biblical foundations. The censor, influenced as he was by senior Church officials, paid close scrutiny to films which adapted or represented Biblical texts “in a displeasing manner”. For example, Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson & Delilah drew criticism from religious groups for its fairly unorthodox erotic subtext.
As worldwide cinema attendance began to decline in the early 1950s, Hollywood took to producing impressive spectacles to lure audiences into the cinema once again. Biblical epics were an almost guaranteed success: with freely available source material, productions of immense scale, the necessary use of new technologies and the interest of Christian audiences all certainties. Those biblical films which, unlike Samson & Delilah, were purely loyal to the original text, were often given leeway in relation to imagery which would-in another context- have been considered provocative. In 1951, scenes from Quo Vadis? involving “graphic representations of lions attacking Christians in an arena, as well as a number of them being burned at the stake” were left uncut, as they could easily be justified within “masochistic Christian ideology.” Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, at least two clerical appointments to the censor’s Appeals Board were a requirement. Fortunately for the Church, the actual appointed Film Censors of this period (and for several years later) were almost all devout Catholics, and intervention by those on the Appeals Board was rarely needed.
The church, for the most part, had good intention in their interference with censorship, but those in positions of power undoubtedly had a level of elitist disdain for the general Irish population and their working class lifestyles, and saw them unfit to properly judge or appreciate any of the art available to them.
It was believed for decades, among those in positions of power in Ireland, that cinema was- as an “unhealthy mainstream pastime”- a far inferior art form to literature or the theatre. The arrival of European auteurist “art cinema” in Ireland in the 1960s should, in theory, have pleased the intellectually-inclined censors, with aesthetic a greater priority for the filmmakers than entertainment, and intelligent discussion of social issues not uncommon. However, this “art cinema” often contained- as a result of its maker’s innovative style- imagery and subject matter which surprised the Irish censors with its relative explicivity. Additionally, the lack of a coherent narrative in much auteurist cinema caused the censors to question whether an Irish audience would appreciate the film’s content appropriately, and not be corrupted by its vague moral standpoint. It is also highly debatable as to whether the Irish censors in office during this period were competent of judging such films, as- for example- Liam O’Hora stated in his report on L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) that he found the film “very difficult to make head or tale of.” He judged the film’s merit and suitability almost exclusively on its erotic elements, and made several cuts: cuts which undoubtedly affected the quality of the film.
Such was the outrage among the highly educated film experts who wished for such films to be screened uncut in ireland that Sunday Independent film critic Ciaran Carty launched a newspaper campaign in the late 1960s asking for the work of certain auteur filmmakers to be made exempt from censorship due to the artistic significance and importance of the films. In many countries- including Britain- membership based “cinema clubs” had become popular during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a facility for potentially controversial art films to be screened. However, those with the power to form such a group in Ireland feared angering the Department of Justice, and availability of immeasurably influential world cinema remained limited for many years.
“THE BBC is governed by ideas that are wholly alien to the ordinary [Irish] home… brazen and frank in sex matters… the station features semi-nudity, blue jokes in comedy shows, documentaries… of the unmarried mother. Films screened include, in detail, the sex activities of animals!” The Irish Television Committee’s 1956 report to government on the accessibility of the British national broadcaster to Irish television owners makes their stance on the issue abundantly clear. The level of content considered acceptable by supervising authorities in Britain differed hugely from that which was accepted as suitable viewing material for “the Irish family”, and the level of control to be maintained over what was broadcasted into people’s homes was uncertain to those who wished a tight grip to remain on all available films and programming.
Though members of the public could be monitored when entering public cinemas (to prevent children from seeing explicit films etc.), this was not the case in the private home, raising valid concerns that, in particular, young children would have access to previously inaccessible material which could prove quite harmful. We have learnt in recent years of the legitimate psychological damage access to violent film (as well as the more modern invention of video games) can cause young people. In this context, the Television Council were entirely justified in seeking the immediate help of the Irish Film Censor to prevent the broadcast of exceedingly controversial programmes into Irish homes.
A close liaison was soon formed between the Television Council and the Censor, with the latter acting as an advisor on any necessary cuts or changes to be made to films screened on television. With no more than one Irish TV channel in existence, the social reaction to any programme screened was immediately visible upon broadcast, and action was often taken by conservative groups to have punitive measures imposed against those responsible for airing controversial content.
The 1960s: a time of dramatic social change- including in the area of film censorship. What had been an “insular Catholic country” for centuries began to open itself to foreign influence, and this was facilitated primarily by the public availability of internationally-produced cultural export. Irish people attending the cinema would, were if not of course for the dominating hand of the Censor, have experienced previously unheard ideas, particularly in relation to taboo issues such as birth control, the broad independence of women in society and more liberal sexual activity. The traditional, conservative and restrictive structure of film censorship that had been in place was viewed by many to be dated, and demands were made for a new system to be initiated.
Liam O’Hora (Censor, 1956–1964) wrote in his 1960 annual report of the “stresses and strains” he was under following criticism in, amongst others, columns in The Irish Times and cinema trade periodicals. O’Hora argued that, while these publications pulled no punches in their rampant criticism of the Censor’s actions, “the Appeal board is never attacked”. In his final report to the Minister, O’Hora directly addressed the Sunday Independent’s accusations that he had “deliberately failed in his duty” due to his refusal to grant Limited Certificates, highlighting the irony of the paper’s stance considering their position, until quite recently at that time, of refusing to even review current films which they disapproved of morally.
The first “revolutionary change” which arrived came in the form of Limited Certification, but it would be 20 years before even this fully became a reality in Ireland. In December 1964, Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan expressed his support for Limited Certification and his sympathy with the film producers and distributors who struggled with “the current standards of censorship”.
As the time came for the censorship Appeal Board to be renewed in January 1965, Lenihan made significant changes to the Board by appointing an entirely new canvas of members. Among them were 43-year old Judge Conor Maguire (as Chairman; the previous Chairman, John T. O’Farrell, has been 78 years old and had served in the position for 35 years), William Coyne MD and ITGWU official John F. O’Carroll. This new Appeals Board soon made dramatic decisions which affected the role and activities of the film censor in Ireland tremendously.
However, then Censor Dr. Christopher Macken (1964–1972) resisted these attempts at progress, and continued to reject a great quantity of “morally subversive” films. Macken’s uncompromising attitude can be seen in his prioritising of content over context, which saw him treat mainstream entertainment films and European art films equally in his censoring.
The purpose of most cinema being to provide the audience with an escape from their lives into a fictional, on-screen world, it would seem obvious that glamourised depictions of sex and violence, matters in which the viewing audience would certainly have both a great deal of interest and perhaps a lack of personal experience, would be soon presented regularly in films. Of course, the role of the censor was to prevent the public from viewing such “sordid” material, and hence a clash of interests arose which has continued around the world to this day. Over the history of cinema, it has not been uncommon for considerably graphic imagery in the areas of sex and violence to appear in films with highly aesthetic, rather than commercially salacious, intent.
The Irish censors were, for several decades, indiscriminate in their judgement, and the artistic value of many fine works was damaged due to the cutting of “inappropriate” content. The context of any imagery or behavior featured in a film was rarely taken into account by the censor, and judgements were made based upon a very limited scope of judgement. It could be argued that general Irish audiences were, in fact, in no position to view any sexual material and suitably contextualise what they were seeing, and that the censors succeeded in protecting a relatively immature viewing public from cinema they would be incapable of understanding, appreciating and, in other words, not be traumatised by. This is undoubtedly a very patronising stance to take on the matter, and it could otherwise be said that censorship of any art or entertainment is a terrible breach of the freedom humanity should possess. It was only in the 1970s that the mildest, earliest “sex films” arrived in Ireland, but despite the new, post-1965 “liberal regime” of censors having increasingly lenient habits in relation to swearing, they remained intolerant to any sort of sex or nudity.
However, less salacious and more educational work like the 1967 German film “Helga” (Erich F. Bender), exploring the sexual repression of a young woman while reinforcing the importance of traditional, “respectable” marriage and childbirth, proved a major hit with Irish and British audiences, offering glimpses at what repressive Catholic Ireland denied. It had, however, been cut significantly by Christopher Macken to remove a section dealing with the still highly debated subject of abortion.
A glance at the apparently “explicit language” censored during the 1960s and 1970s in Ireland is outstandingly amusing; the most subtle, offhanded references to the name of Christ (eg. “Jeepers Creepers!” or “Jumper Jeepers!”) cut viciously for fears of blasphemy accusations. By the time legitimately strong and offensive language arrived in films, mostly in British independent films focused on working class families, the system had become liberalised enough for many allowances to be made.
In 2016, we may bemusedly study the work of censors past (work that is often rooted in a dated cultural time), but the Irish government continues to have an impact on the release of films to the public. In 2008, the Irish Film Censor’s Office was rebranded the Irish Film Classification Office. Cutting and banning are no longer the practices of the office, but rather the viewing and classification (under a G, PG, 12A, 15A, 16 or 18 rating) of new cinema releases. IFCO’s job is principally to protect children from unsuitable and harmful filmic material, but- in the age of the internet and total accessibility of information- restricting cinema is a more difficult task for the state than could have ever been imagined.
Today, filmmakers and the classification office are no longer the enemies they once were: they are colleagues, providing the public with an enjoyable, perspective-broadening cultural experience.