THE FACT OF THE MATTER
I was a young Catholic boy on the verge of, as was said then, manhood when I discovered the word ‘taut’ hooked to a flimsy item of underclothing in one of the James Bond thrillers the Uncle Harry had given my father. And then there was the time I got my hands on the illicit A Man With A Maid, brought back from London on the Mail Boat by a pal. Banned in Ireland in the decades of my formative years, a grey and listless landscape, church-ridden and oppressive.
I mention this because of the ongoing news that Republican presidential hopeful Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis continues on his ‘crusade’ banning books from school and county libraries. Books deemed unfit for purpose. There is nothing new in this and such draconian moves are not the prerogative of the Sunshine state alone. Other Red states are busy ‘burning’ books. On the website of many US public schools, a list of books nominated for removal from libraries down the decades is a revealing artifact: a map of cultural anxieties and a portrait of books as enduring flash points. The challenges range from endearing and silly to sinister. Some preoccupations remain engrained in the American psyche: race and history, profanity and sex.
Roald Dahl (“vulgar, unethical”) is a frequent offender. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, was challenged recently “for irreligiosity” and “introduction to pornography”. Other nominations are more idiosyncratic: not long ago, Little Red Riding Hood was side-eyed for “violence”.
Across the water, they’re on to Roald Dahl too, where Puffin Books have toyed with updating his works, editing anything that might offend. All this might seem like something straight out of Kurt Vonnegut’s Fahrenheit 451 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in all its dystopian horror. Publishers, however, have always ‘altered’ children’s books. The Grimm brothers tidied up their folktales before they wrote them down, while Victorian adapters of Grimm altered them again, eliminating blood and gore, adding picnics and happy endings.
In the 1902 first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the line “Don’t go into Mr McGregor’s garden. Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie” was illustrated by a picture of said pie — raised, egg-glazed, nicely browned — being served to Mr McGregor’s fine fists.
In the decades following the enactment of the 1929 Censorship Act, in the newly formed Irish Free State, censorship became almost a rite of passage for Irish authors. Writers including Joyce, Kate O’Brien, Beckett, and John McGahern — I recall furtively reading a banned copy of McGahern’s The Dark in my teenage years — were to have works censored under this, in hindsight repressive, legislation. Among other books banned during my late teen years were JD Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye, Behan’s Borstal Boy and The Country Girls by Enda O’Brien.
I recall my LATE father telling me of Eric Cross’s book The Tailor and Ansty, about the life of the Irish tailor and storyteller Timothy Buckley and his wife Anastasia (Ansty) and the subsequent “political debate and outrage” it provoked in 1942. Just a decade ago, 2012, there were still a whopping 274 books and magazines banned in Ireland.
What got books and magazines banned in Ireland back in the days of my formative years? Sex and abortions, apparently. The word ‘pregnant’ was not allowed in print until 1960. Until then it was always published as “she is expecting a happy event”.
Today, the Irish Censorship of Publications Board can ban books for being indecent or obscene. Similarly, films, advertisements, newspapers and magazines, terrorism and pornography. Unbelievably, the British edition of Rupert Murdoch’s News Of The World was still, theoretically, banned here when it ceased publication in July 2011.
In 2019, a year after the repeal of the 8th Amendment, several publications on abortion were unbanned.
However, just recently library staff have been issued guidelines on how to deal with protesters targeting and sometimes removing LGBTQ+ books aimed at children and young people. Conservatives are not the only censors. The right and the left want to ban books that don’t suit them. Liberals in Ireland are waging war against writers and publishers who don’t agree with their ideas.
Morals have changed. Our standards have become exponentially more lenient. But not everyone is on the same page. There are those who would argue that, with all this transformative change, we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. That is a legitimate and ongoing debate. And one we are, thankfully, allowed deliberate on.