The PEN book…mightier than the sword?

The PEN book…mightier than the sword?
A Personal Perspective on Irish PEN

by J Anthony Gaughan (Kingdom Books, €15.00)

PEN was an international association of writers founded in London in 1921 – the initials stood for ‘Poets, Essayists and Novelists’, but in fact many kinds of writers are now members.

The club, as its members thought of it, was intended to promote intellectual co-operation and understanding among writers; to create a world community of writers that would emphasise the central role of literature in the development of world culture; and also, defend literature against the many threats to its survival which the modern world poses.

It was clear then and is clearer today that these broad aims would be regarded askance by many of the authoritarian figures that rule the world, or wish to rule the world.

This book recounts the experiences of our regular reviewer J. Anthony Gaughan (a priest of the Dublin Diocese) in his long years of membership and promotion of the society, working with its Irish club in Dublin.

In her afterword to the book, the current President of PEN International, Jennifer Clements, remarks that his history, with its collections of insider stories, is “a very valuable addition to PEN’s global story”.

“PEN was one of the world’s first non-government bodies advocating for human rights,” she continues. “We were the first world wide association of writers and the first organisation to point to freedom of expression and literature is inseparable – a principle we continue to champion today.” Initiated in 1921 by Lady Gregory, Irish PEN was in 1931 by Séan O’Faoláin and others.


Fr Gaughan joined PEN in January 1974, at the suggestion of his good friend and fellow-Kerry born author J. B. Keane. He has been active in it since then, and not just in PEN, but in many forms of literature.

One episode discussed here, which is bound to attract the notice of reporters, is Gerry Adams’ membership of PEN, and the controversy it aroused – there is an amusing account of the acerbic Hugh Leonard’s opposition to this which he debated on radio with the author, who seems to have had the best of it. Others however were conscious that it might be seen as an author exploiting PEN, rather than aiding universal freedom of expression. But perhaps is only when a society arouses debate like this that one can see it being effective.

But the book is filled with anecdotes which provide a sort of alternative history of the last century of Irish literature, or at least writing. These seems to be hardly an important figure on which some new side lights of great interest are not cast.

Though short and sweet, this is a most engaging book and celebrates a cause which everyone engaged in any kind of literary work should applaud”

Gaughan can at times be amusingly tart about some of them, which rather adds to the piquancy of the book. An evening listening to a discussion between Mary McAleese and Edna O’Brien in which the novelist was “full of affectation”. Miss O’Brien can look after herself, but it was lovely to see such figures less forceful such as Maurice Walsh and O.Z. Whitehead warmly remembered too.

But whatever about the controversy over Adams there war many other cause in which Irish PEN was involved across the world. Their activity on behalf of freedom of expression is to be admired – though there are are many ways in which such freedom can now be attacked thanks to social media.

Though short and sweet, this is a most engaging book and celebrates a cause which everyone engaged in any kind of literary work should applaud. Roll on PEN’s second century not out.


At the end Gaughan notes that the current chair is nudging the society in a new direction. “There is a new emphasis on initiatives to assist imprisoned writers”.

Here is something everyone can take part in. Even a letter to a prisoner, or to the head of the state that holds them, will remind the powers of the world that writers are the sort of people who have friends in their readers and admirers in all part of the world. They may be imprisoned, but their works are free; they and their creations are not forgotten.