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No more books on Ireland's banned book list

Censorship Board bored as no one submits smut for review

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It’s the end of the world as we know it! Or at least, the end of book-banning craic in Ireland, which for some of the god-fearing citizens of that country possibly amounts to much the same thing.

Our story, reported in full in the Saturday’s Irish Times, begins back in 1930 when the newly-formed Irish State, reeling in shock at Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley’s satirical tilt at the foibles of the English upper classes, passed the Censorship of Publications Act.

This legislation set up both the Register of Prohibited Publications and the Censorship of Publications Board to determine what went on to the register of banned books. The board took one look at Huxley’s novel and promptly banned it.

Point Counter Point was thus the first of what would eventually amount to some 12,491 publications on the Irish register. These ranged from obviously difficult works, such as the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom or Alfred Jarry’s The Garden of Priapus, to rather more mainstream, even literary works, such as Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel or Faulkner’s Light in August.

In one case – that of Kate O’Brien’s Land of Spices (1941) – a single line of text appears to have sufficed for the work to receive a ban.

The first signs of a thaw set in with the 1967 Censorship of Publications Act, which meant that books deemed "indecent or obscene" would automatically have their prohibitions revoked after 12 years.

The last serious spate of book-banning in Ireland took place in 1998, when The Base Guide to London, along with a further 14 titles, received a ban. Published by a shoe company – Base shoes – in 1998, The Base Guide to London launched the company’s autumn/winter collection with a "no-bullshit, streetwise guidebook for urban youth", broken out into subheadings that included "drugs, sex, fetishism, trannies and counterfeit goods".

With no other books added to the ban list in the interim, once the Base Guide (and the other 1998 titles) fall off the list, the Irish war on obscenity will be virtually over, with, for the first time since its inception, not a single banned title remaining on the register.

So has the board become more broad-minded? Not according to Odran Flynn, a member of the five-person board since 2001. He suggests that the decline in banning owes rather more to a general falling off in the public’s appetite for complaining – at least as far as literature is concerned.

He told the Times: "In my time on the board, there has been only one book submitted [Guantanamo Jihad! by Niall de Souza], but it wasn’t banned. My own view is it reflects a change of society. The decline of the church’s influence over the last 20 years has had a major impact."

In other words, there is nothing to stop a return by the board to its glory days; in 1954, for instance, it issued some 1,034 prohibitions in just one year. But it is unlikely.

Nor is the board’s work completely at an end. The 12-year amnesty does not apply to periodicals, which must appeal a ban before it is lifted. There are still some 279 periodicals on the board's list, including some unlikely titles such as Startling Detective or True Detective Mysteries.

There are also some eight titles exempt from the 12-year amnesty, including publications by birth-control pioneer Dorothy Thurtle, which seem likely to remain prohibited under current legislation that prohibits publications deemed to "advocate or promote" the procurement of abortion. The Irish Times takes the view that such a change of heart may be a long time coming – but perhaps that is to reckon without the EU, which last week ruled that Irish abortion laws violated the rights of one of three women who sought terminations in Britain.

Clearly there is a long way to go before such a ruling brings significant change within the Republic itself – but it may represent a crack in long-cherished Irish presumptions, and that, together with the soon-to-be-empty banned book list may be a sign that change is coming. ®

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