From the Archive: Burning Issues and Banning Books

Christine Bohan on sex, crime and loose morals – Issue no. 356 July/August 2014

Ireland has never had a great track record when it comes to censorship. From Monty Python’s Life of Brian to Baise-moi, from A Clockwork Orange to Natural Born Killers, many of Ireland’s film and book censors, especially in the first four decades after independence, used their role to enforce strict—and at times draconian—morals on the public. The role has changed a lot in recent decades: the film censor has been rebranded as a film classification office, which focuses more on what rating to give films than on whether they should be banned, while the Censorship of Publications Board now receives so few complaints that its very existence is being debated by the Dáil. Alan Shatter’s opus Laura has the dubious honour of being the only publication referred to the board in the last five years.

But the legacy of the harsh censorship regime remains in the list of 274 books and magazines that are still banned in the Republic of Ireland. Books can be banned for two different reasons: either for being indecent or obscene, or for advocating the procurement of abortion or miscarriage. The Censorship of Publications Board, made up of five people appointed by the Minister for Justice, is in charge of deciding whether a book or magazine can be banned or not, but it cannot act of its own accord: it has to receive a complaint before it can assess whether the publication should be added to the prohibited list.

Right now, there is a grand total of zero books banned for being indecent or obscene, but eight are banned for providing information about abortion. Three of these are explicitly about abortion: Abortion Internationally, Abortion: Our Struggle for Control and Abortion: Right or Wrong. Unexpectedly, four of the other five are sex guides. How to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed has been banned in Ireland since 1985 and The Complete Guide to Sex has been banned since 1990 because they appear to contain information about the procurement of abortion. Make it Happy: What Sex is All About, The Book of Love and the slightly more medical The Love Diseases have all been banned since the early 1980s.

The books banned under the abortion rule have fallen foul of a strange loophole. All eight were banned before the 1992 referendum that made it legal for information about abortion in other countries to be made available in the Republic, so technically they should be permissible. While, however, most books are unbanned twelve years after their first banning, the censorship legislation brought in a different rule for abortion, which means that the twelve-year rule does not apply. Because of this, all eight books will remain banned indefinitely until someone appeals them.

Far more magazines are banned but for much more varied reasons: 266 magazines are currently banned—a strange mixture of hard-core pornography, crime magazines from the 1950s and ’60s, and ones which inexplicably fell foul of the censor at the time (Broadway and Hollywood Movies, Eye: People and Pictures and Health and Efficiency magazines are all banned). Some of the bannings are unexpected: Hustler has been banned since 1981 and Playgirl since 1974. A large number of the banned titles are about crime, with many of them sounding somewhat quaint now. Amazing Detective Cases was banned in 1958, as was Detective Weekly, while Famous Crime Stories was banned in 1959. All fell foul of the censor for having ‘an unduly large proportion of space for the publication of matter related to crime’.

Meanwhile, Big Ones International (banned 1997), Man’s Conquest (1960), Romp (1981) and Scamp Magazine (1963) remain sadly unavailable on Irish shelves. Some magazines have managed to get around the ban by bringing out different versions: while magazines like Hustler are banned, spin-offs with similar titles can get around the prohibition. Others have started to fight back. In 2011 a distributor of porn publications successfully appealed against the banning of five magazines, which led to their being taken off the list. One of them, Razzle, had been prohibited since 1935.

Unlike the twelve-year ban on books, magazines remain banned indefinitely. And banning publications is not all in the distant past: In Dublin was banned by the Censorship of Publications Board in 1999 after a complaint about the explicit nature of the advertisements for massage parlours which populated its back pages. The Board banned the sale and distribution of the magazine for six months for being ‘unusually or frequently indecent or obscene’, in a move that caused a huge outcry over censorship and lack of accountability. The High Court lifted the ban when it was appealed and said that the publishers should have been given a chance to argue their case before the ban was introduced. At the other end of things, Playboy was unbanned in January 1996 (and quickly become the highest-selling men’s title in the country).

The Censorship of Publications Board, which now meets only when required, is due to meet for the first time since 2008 solely to deal with the complaint against former Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s Laura. ‘Morals have changed,’ said a spokesperson for the board. ‘What was considered obscene in the 1940s is very different to what is considered obscene today.’

by Christine Bohan

Based on an original article first published in and subsequently published in Books Ireland – issue no. 356, July/August 2014.

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