Saints, censors and satire

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.

casablanca1In 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.

cowen-roll1But 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?

* * *

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

Image sources: Columbanus; Casablanca; Cowen (with thanks to the artist).

18 Responses to Saints, censors and satire

  1. Sean Jeating says:

    That’s it!
    Brilliant, Stan. Chapeau!

    Sidestep: John McGahern’s ‘Pornographer’ in German ‘mutated’ to ‘Der Liebhaber’ (The Lover). The publisher feared the original title would frighten potential readers off.

  2. Stan says:

    Sean: Ironically, the original title would probably have attracted more readers than it would have frightened off. Context is key: someone buying a book called “Pornographer” in a reputable main-street bookstore does not expect it to be pornographic, though they may reasonably imagine that it deals with the theme; someone buying a book called “Harmless and Innocent Material” in a sleazy bazaar behind a train station may well expect it to contain dubious thrills.

  3. PK says:

    Attention, sleaze-lovers. I am already thirty-two pages into writing Harmless And Innocent Material. A shame to let a great title like that go to waste. I expect to make some mega-bucks. Kick-backs to this blog in due course. (Note: this blog will also bear full legal responibility for the genesis of Harmless And Innocent Material once the “powers that be” come looking for me…)

  4. Stan says:

    PK: Now that is an exciting development. Will it be lavishly illustrated? Will you be borrowing my black marker again?

  5. PK says:

    No. It’s all red marker this time, Stan. I’ve decided to pre-empt the censors by censoring in advance everything even remotely risque. For instance, all conjunctions will be obscured by red marker. What is a conjunction, after all, but a filthy provocation to the eye, a demand that the frantic and sweaty intermingling of limbs and genitalia should proceed forthwith? Dirty, dirty things.

  6. Stan says:

    A wise plan, but you know, those conjunctions will only get excited if you run a red marker over them. It’s like the voyeurish thrill of the censor: I get to see it but nobody else does. Just be careful, PK. Your very soul could be at stake, and it’s not worth imperiling for the sake of mega-bucks or sleazy provocation.

  7. PK says:

    You’re right, Stan. You’re very, very right.

  8. I wonder if, at the height of the Celtic Tiger, this would have happened. I think the Government are a bit touchy right now. But, by God, how it’s backfired on them… But while the Gardai are chasing artists and broadcasters, I just heard news that services promised to Cystic Fibrosis sufferers last year are now being partially withdrawn. The woman telling this to Joe Duffy (I don’t normally listen to him, but I was driving and there was nothing else on) at one point exclaimed: “What the hell is wrong with this country?” It’s a good question…

  9. Stan says:

    DE: Yes, it is a good question. I doubt that this story, had it happened ten years ago, would have unfolded as it did. There was a lot less worry and paranoia in the air then.

  10. Claudia says:

    After everything I read, in the last few days, I didn’t think anyone could say anything new on the subject but your article is a splendid piece of writing. Thank you for reminding me of Saint Columbanus. Having attended, long ago, a Catholic College for Girls, I learned very young and very fast that, if I wanted to read interesting books, I only had to follow the list of writers censored by the Church. I’ve never had a dull moment since…

    When it came to art works, it would have been very hard for the Church to tell me what I could and couldn’t see as David is so gloriously and explicitly naked. No Roman Pope (to my knowledge) ever covered him with an handkerchief.

    In this present drama, I’m totally convinced that, if the accused artist had given to the outraged politician a male ornament as exquisite as the one Michaelangelo sculpted on David, all Ireland would have been encouraged to view it and to raise their glasses with the usual ‘Sláinte’.

    May the Irish, who saved our civilisation once, find pride again. None of the ladies everywhere in the world, ever believed that Mr.Cowen was a true representative of your male population. À votre santé, gentlemen!

  11. Stan says:

    Thank you for your kind words, interesting comments, and generous toast, Claudia! *raises mug*

    Given your experience of Church censorship, a further irony is that the early Irish Christian scribes were so all-embracing in their tastes. Compared to more orthodox Church officials they were very broad-minded about what they sought for their libraries – classic pagan Greek and Latin literature were included as enthusiastically as scripture and related Christian texts.

    This again is according to Cahill; as he wrote in How the Irish…, “It was not that the Irish were uncritical, just that they saw no value in self-imposed censorship.” He then selects a wonderful quote by Terence, the Latin poet and playwright: “I am human, nothing that is human is alien to me.” (Original here.) That wise remark applies to satirical nude paintings as much as it applies to the overreactions they provoke, but it seems to be a leap too far for some. Rather than finding pride again, I think that there is an excess of it in some quarters.

  12. Claudia says:

    You’re bringing back memories. I read Cahill a few years ago. It seems that, very possibly, Greek and Latin literature would have been lost without those monks. They were in Iona, weren’t they? Not sure…

    Although Aristotle has been debunked by V.I.P, (like Descartes and Bertrand Russell), I still like to think that ‘Man is a rational animal.’ Well….some men! It’s true that feminists changed the word to ‘human’ (not knowing that ‘homo’ is masculin!) But I never had any problem being part of ‘mankind’.
    That’s why, with Aristotle, I still have great hope for the people of Ireland.

    This will pass…And common sense will prevail! Sláinte!

  13. Suzy says:

    Applauds…great stuff Stan!

  14. Stan says:

    ‘It seems that, very possibly, Greek and Latin literature would have been lost without those monks.’

    Claudia: Yes, that’s Cahill’s contention. Ireland’s geographical position, and its monks’ humanist sensibilities and academic dedication, meant that the island could absorb and sustain much of Europe’s literary heritage while escaping the Barbarians’ activities. When Colmcille is excommunicated for taking up arms, he sails to Iona, which is when Ireland began exporting its monastic tradition.

    Man is an animal with the potential to be rational, I think. Some behave rationally much of the time, others hardly ever, and collectively we are not doing so well! Common sense will prevail, or we will not. We would do well to move beyond Aristotelian logic at this stage – Aristotle himself realised its limitations, or some of them at least.

    Suzy: Thank you, and welcome to Sentence first! You are either out of the country or up very late…

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