Echoes of the past from the Archives
In 1968, an article in The Irish Catholic headlined “Beware the new morality”, dealing with sexually liberal legislation in Denmark, caught the attention of a visiting Danish journalist, Erik Christiansen. Later, by over laying it to the Register of Prohibited Publications, he made it the centrepiece of an article on Irish censorship for a Danish literary magazine.
In December, this led to blaring headlines in many Copenhagen newspapers: “Danske boger frodt i Ireland” – Danish books banned in Ireland.
Christiansen published a long list of names, headed by Karen Blixen, the distinguished author of Out of Africa and other books, whose name was often mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize.
This caught the attention of the Irish embassy in Copenhagen. The chargé d’affaires, C.P. Fogarty, wrote at once to the papers to point out that the author was quite mistaken. The books he listed were not banned in Ireland at all.
Certainly, some of the titles had been banned in the 1930s, but the Irish censor-ship’s operations had been reformed. Karen Blixen was not “frodt” in Ireland in 1968.
The article had implied that the censorship was directed by Catholic values. However, the diplomat pointed out that it banned only obscene books of the kind banned in many countries, and books that advocated certain means of birth control and abortion. It had never dealt with political or philosophical books.
C.P. Fogarty added: “The impression created by the articles in your newspaper that the Irish authorities have recently engaged in a massive banning of works by world-famous authors is simply not so.
“On the contrary, the Irish censorship law has been liberalised to a great extent in recent years.”
The list of banned books dates from 1961 and did not allow for the fact that, after 12 years, books became unbanned automatically. Most of the books listed were of no literary merit.
“The reputable and well-known writers mentioned in your newspaper, such as Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Somerset Maugham, Seán O’Casey etc. are not now banned in Ireland. Of the five Danish authors named, the works (two books) of only one, Sven Hassel, is, in fact, banned.” (Hassel has since been accused of being a Nazi collaborator.)
But it takes more than a factual letter from an Irish diplomat to set right misconceptions about aspects of Irish culture.
In Denmark censorship of free speech was forbidden by the constitution of 1848. However, “as in many other democratic countries” – in the words of Chargé d’Affaires Fogarty in his letter about censorship in Ireland – other kinds of legal constraints were put in place. It was these that changed in 1968, leading to The Irish Catholic article. In 1969, the following year, a new film censorship law was passed in Denmark. This meant that the National Board of Film Censorship must approve all films publicly shown to children aged under 12 and 16. Film censorship for adults ceased. This had the curious effect of making The Happy Hooker available to children, but not Star Wars – the violence of which dismayed the censor who thought it would frighten children.
The internet in Denmark is now censored by the police, but without any of the judicial or statutory controls that governed the Irish censorship of publications.
The “new morality”, which had so concerned The Irish Catholic in 1968, today takes very different forms, but thanks to the internet has now advanced into areas beyond the control of any moralist.