This post has little directly to do with the English language, except that it uses it, and that it’s about the freedom of expression. If you came for grammar and English usage, you will find some further down, or in your preferred category on the right-hand side.
Most Irish writers and artists — i.e. most of the country — are well aware of the state’s history of censorship, be it the banning of books, the cutting of films, or the more generalised self-censorship that accompanied our passage from paganism through earthy Christianity to a starker form of Catholicism. Lately the repressive spirit pounced on a couple of nude portraits of the Taoiseach (head of government) Brian Cowen, which were briefly and unofficially hung in the National Gallery and the Royal Hibernian Academy. It is not my aim to recount the story, since it has been done well and exhaustively elsewhere; for background on the “Cowengate” (or “picturegate”) farce, you will find links at the end of this post, or go here if you use Twitter. However, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to some historical matters – because they interest me, and because I’m not on Twitter. [Edit: I am now.]
Saint Columbanus (540–615), an Irish missionary, wrote letters to popes in which he expressed devotion, offered constructive criticism, and made light-hearted jokes about the popes’ names. In How the Irish Saved Civilization, historian Thomas Cahill writes that “to Columbanus, the pope was one of the brothers, a father abbot worthy of respect, by all means — but also in need, like any man, of an occasional jab in the ribs.” According to Cahill, the popes did not deign to respond to Columbanus’s jabs. In the same era, the scribe who added Ireland’s early vernacular masterpiece Táin Bó Cúailnge to the Book of Leinster took the trouble to register his distaste – but he still wrote the epic down, and his personal feelings about it were but a footnote.
Skip to late March 2009, when the Irish Taoiseach received a jab in the ribs in the form of the aforementioned nude portraits. Rather than maintain an inscrutable silence, or express disapproval and carry on with more important matters, the government reacted so vigorously that the curious little incident quickly reached Father Ted levels of absurdity, and was reported as far afield as the New York Times and the China Daily. There was intimidation, a criminal investigation, confiscation of art, and a grovelling apology by the state broadcaster for daring to report the news. It is instructive to compare this attitude with that of the dutiful Christian scribes, who overcame their aesthetic qualms for the general good, and with Columbanus, whose saintliness accommodated a healthy irreverence for authority.
In 2007 the Irish Times reported the popularity of Casablanca among most of the major political parties in Ireland — with the exceptions of Fianna Fail and the Green Party (both currently in government). I would not read too much into this, but it is worth considering that Casablanca was initially banned in Ireland, for political reasons, then cut for puritanical reasons; neither news of war nor implications of adultery were tolerated in neutral, prudish Ireland. A comedy called I Want a Divorce was renamed The Tragedy of Divorce. There’s a tragedy there all right, but it has nothing to do with divorce.
My beloved Ireland and its misguided moral guardians! Ireland, whose censors banned works by James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Austin Clarke, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Faolain, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Oliver St John Gogarty, Walter Macken, John McGahern, and J P Donleavy, among others. Ireland, whose cultural nannies banned or cut films by Eisenstein, Fellini, Ford, Hitchcock, Bergman, Ophuls, Polanski, Welles, Antonioni, and Kubrick, among others. C. S. Lewis said that “those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” More recently, John McGahern wrote that the Censorship Board was regarded as a joke and that the banned books worth reading “could easily be found”.
Just as easily found, nowadays, is evidence of public displeasure and disgust with the way Ireland is being run. Dissent and satire are democratic imperatives and will keep the government on the back foot for a while. But the best form of defence is attack, and who better to attack than a teacher who paints pictures? The repressive urge, which the government made sharply manifest, reveals deep insecurity about what other people are or are not capable of processing with good sense, judgement and intelligence — including the government’s behaviour.
But whatever the government’s reasons for its actions, the nature of censorship has changed drastically. Nothing on the internet ever quite disappears, and sometimes a shush begets a shout. Efforts to clamp down on discomfiting material result not in frustrated acquiescence but in renewed assaults on the self-importance that lies behind knee-jerk censorial action. Already there are t-shirts, a photoshop extravaganza, and a forthcoming exhibition, to name just a few spin-offs in the immediate wake of the fiasco.
In short, the Irish online community had a field day. Political criticism and satire are in evident good health in Ireland. While the original paintings struck me as fond, if unflattering, some of the subsequent material, both visual and textual, has been merciless, even cruel — but with good reason. If Irish citizens stood back and indulged the government’s precious fragility, what would we swallow next? And if a pope can withstand the satire of a saint, what hope is there for a government that cannot endure a gentle caricature?
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A small sample of related blog and media coverage: Eoin O’Dell, Suzy Byrne, Tuppenceworth, Bock, Damien Mulley, Alexia Golez, Twenty Major, Caricatures Ireland, Irish Times, The Tribune, The Guardian, The Times, the Ray D’Arcy Show (mp3), and the aggregated reports on IrishBlogs.ie.