Anthony Keating
Edge Hill University in Lancashire, UK | Published: 15 March, 2014
ISSUE 9 | Pages: 67-79 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2014 by Anthony Keating | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

The passage of the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act marked a significant development for the inclusion of Irish Catholic teaching into the Free State’s legal system. Notwithstanding this, many on the fundamentalist wing of Irish Catholicism felt let down by the scope of the Act. Censorship, under the Act, was limited to issues of sex, sexual morality, contraception and abortion and excluded attacks on the Catholic faith and the denial of God, all of which were viewed as blasphemy, and therefore the legitimate focus of censorship, by many of those who had lobbied for the extension of censorship. The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (CTSI) was in the vanguard of lobbying for the introduction of the 1929 Act and played the leading role in its policing. The CTSI was unstinting in its efforts to officially and surreptitiously extend censorship. This article traces the correspondence of the CTSI with politicians, the Catholic hierarchy and a leading print distributor, in order to demonstrate how the organization sought to extend literary censorship to encompass blasphemy, through the application of moral, economic and political pressure. A campaign that had at its heart the desire to control the actions and thoughts of the Irish people.

La aprobación de la Ley de Censura de Publicaciones en 1929 supuso un significativo paso hacia la inclusión de la enseñanza irlandesa católica en el sistema legal del Estado Libre. A pesar de ello, muchos miembros del ala fundamentalista del catolicismo irlandés se sintieron decepcionados por el alcance de dicha ley. De acuerdo con la ley la censura se limitaba a cuestiones de sexo, moralidad sexual, anticoncepción y aborto, excluyendo ataques a la fe católica y negación de Dios, considerados blasfemia, y en consecuencia objeto legítimo de censura, por parte de muchos de los que habían ejercido presión para la ampliación de la censura. La Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (CTSI) encabezaba la campaña por la introducción de la Ley de 1929 y jugó un papel destacado en su implementación. La CTSI no cejó en sus esfuerzos para extender la censura, tanto oficial como subrepticiamente. Este artículo detalla la correspondencia de la CTSI con políticos, la jerarquía católica y un importante distribuidor de prensa con el propósito de demostrar como, por medio de medidas de presión moral, económica y política, la organización intentó extender la censura literaria para que abarcara la blasfemia. Una campaña inspirada por el deseo de controlar la actividad y pensamiento del pueblo irlandés.

Blasfemia; cabildeo; Estado Libre de Irlanda; censura; catolicismo militante

The 1929 of Publications Act was the product of pressure from well organised Catholic lay organisations1 and the hierarchy2 of the Irish Catholic Church (Curtis 2010). The Catholic Church in Ireland was particularly authoritarian and pessimistic about the Irish people’s ability to play out what it viewed to be their religio-national mission, namely, to offer a Celtic-Catholic beacon of purity to a world otherwise sullied by sin (Keating 2012b). Ireland’s population was believed, by religio-nationalist ideologues, to have been partially corrupted by centuries of imperial domination and the temptations of modernity. It was reasoned therefore, that if Ireland was to achieve its potential of true Catholic nationhood, its people required an unquestioned faith in the spiritual and moral leadership of the Catholic Church and the riddance from Ireland of spiritual and intellectual contaminants from within and without its borders (Keating 2012b). The main source of these ‘contaminants’ came  in the shape of the cinema, for which censorship was legislated in the 1923 Censorship of  Films  (Rocket 2004) and the published word, which is focused upon here.

These ‘contaminants’ were described in warlike terms in the Catholic press of the day which warned: “Modern forces are not for but against the Church’s mission. Today the enemy is invisible and omnipresent. The Irish Catholic is like a soldier who has turned aside the sword but is attacked by a poisonous gas”. (Irish Monthly3 ,53,  1925: 350). Central to this ‘protection’ was the censorship of newspapers, periodicals and novels that were viewed as carriers of sexual immorality and blasphemy.These publications were viewed as insidious vehicles of sin and corruption that the vast majority of Ireland’s citizenry were too unsophisticated to resist. A concern alluded to by the Editor of the Catholic Bulletin, who observed, “the mind of England has been trained to criticise and think for itself; that of Ireland to believe and accept what it is taught” (Catholic Bulletin, 2,1928: 124).

The organisation in the vanguard of ensuring the protection of the Irish people from corruption carried in the printed word was the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (CTSI). The Society, which has its headquarters in Dublin, was organized at the meeting of the Maynooth-Union in 1899, with the stated purpose of diffusing “by means of cheap publications sound Catholic literature in popular form so as to give instruction and edification in a manner most likely to interest and attract the general reader”, and which would “create a taste for a pure and wholesome literature, and will also serve as an antidote against the poison of dangerous or immoral writings”.  It was then a proselytising organisation, with strong links to the Catholic hierarchy, which had an active interest in the published word.

The CTSI’s first President was Dr. Healy, Bishop of Clonfert and its first lay Honourable  Secretary was one John Rochford. The CTSI was overseen by a management committee made up of all the Irish hierarchy, a number of parish priests, a representative of the Jesuit Order and leading members of the Catholic laity, including a Papal Count, George Noble Plunkett, and the Papal Knight and leading physician Sir Francis Richard Cruise (The Tablet, 24.10.1903).

The CTSI’s publications were numbered in the millions each year. Between 1918 and 19494 records show they published 40 million units in Ireland, although this is thought to be a substantial underestimate (Hutton & Walsh 2011) and whilst in 1927 its core membership numbered little more than 6000 (Hutton & Walsh 2011), it had an extensive and nationwide activist core (Curtis 2010).  By the 1920s leadership of the CTS included leading figures from the Dominican and Jesuit orders and it enjoyed widespread support across the political spectrum, doubtless, in part out of conviction, but also out of the reality that not to support the organisation could lead to political suicide (Curtis 2010).

An examination of the role of the CTSI in promulgating and latterly attempting to extend censorship, in the years after 1929, highlights the tensions among the executive branch of the State. Articulate libertarians like Micheal O’Donovan (Frank O’Connor), George Russell (Æ), George Bernard Shaw and Seán O’ Faoláin and the views of influential and well connected Catholic pressure groups provide us with an insight into the way the Catholic Church and its lay organisations exerted their influence in Ireland for much of the next 60 years. This article will begin by contextualising the censorship debate and introduction of the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act before exploring the role of the CTSI in attempting, by stealth, to extend the Act to encompass blasphemy.

The Crusade for Censorship

In 1925, pressure was brought to bear on the Minister for Justice, Kevin O’Higgins, by the Catholic pressure group the Irish Vigilance Association of Ireland,5 the Christian Brothers and Catholic publications such as the Catholic Bulletin and Irish Monthly, to suppress the availability in the Free State of what these groups called ‘evil literature’. There had already been the introduction of strict film censorship legislation in 1923. O’Higgins was initially reluctant to act as he felt there was little popular support for this move. However, his mind was changed in 1926 following a meeting with a group of Catholic bishops and he established The Committee of Enquiry on Evil Literature (CEL) (Horgan 2001) which in December 1926 submitted a report that formed the basis of the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act.

The Committee, its report and the subsequent legislation, were driven by a core of Catholic fundamentalists and religio-nationalist activists in organisations such as the CTSI, the Irish Vigilance Association (aided by the Catholic Writers Guild), the Irish Retail and Newsagents Association and Catholic lay organisations, in particular the Knights of Saint Columbanus, an organisation that had a particular interest in censorship (O’Drisceoil 2005) and one that Tom Garvin has argued “became a considerable political force after independence…” (Cited in McCormack 2001: 524). Alongside these organisations, a plethora of Catholic publications, including The Standard and The Irish Catholic, exerted a profound influence on public and political opinion (Hutton & Walsh 2011).  The term ‘public opinion’ is used advisedly here, as the CTSI had spent much of the 1920s mobilising parish based cadres, who promoted Catholic literature and sought to extinguish the circulation of ‘inappropriate’ publications. This work was aided, from 1925 to 1927, with the appointment by the CTSI of a full time organising secretary. The CTSI campaign enjoyed remarkable success. For example by 1929 in Roscrea, County Tipperary, some 95% of Catholic households subscribed to Catholic journals (the figure had been virtually nil in 1925). This success was replicated across the country (Curtis 2010).

The tools for this campaign included moral pressure on individuals and threats against businesses that wouldn’t tow the line, and indeed on a number of occasions extended to robbery with violence.6 An example of the reach and tactics of the CTSI’s campaign is demonstrated in the case of a County Clare newsagent, a Mr Doherty, who refused the local CTSI branch request that he stop selling the Daily Express, on the grounds that “life in a country village like this is dull enough without being told what to read in one’s spare moments”. He was reported to the CTSI’s Dublin headquarters by the local group and headquarters in turn contacted the local parish priest to increase the pressure on him to conform (Curtis, 2010, 83). The power of moral pressure on Irish Catholics exerted by the Catholic Church cannot be overstated, at personal, organisational and political levels (Inglis, 1998). This power could be used to alienate people from their communities, ruin businesses and careers and even alter the course of elections (Curtis 2010; Keating 2002). To be seen as not supporting the campaign was to be ‘beyond the pale’, for the vast majority of Free State Ireland’s Catholics, some 98% of the population, there was little choice other than to support the campaign.

Consequently, during the passage of censorship legislation through the Oireachtas,7 few voices were raised during the Bill’s passage, however, a number of Amendments were made that altered the reporting mechanisms for publications as being ‘immoral’ and the scope of what constituted immorality under the Act (Curtis 2010).  The CTSI favoured the introduction of ‘Recognised Associations’, groups through whom all complaints must be channelled, a role they were keen on providing. This was overturned in favour of the right of any citizen to lodge a complaint.

The resulting legislation was clear in its scope in regard to issues concerning pornography, sexual immorality, sexuality, the reporting of court proceedings, advertising or promoting contraception and marital advice, and gave the Censorship Board the authority to ban those titles it found to contravene the Act from being imported or sold in the Free State. What the Act did not provide for, despite the desire of the CTSI, was to facilitate the banning of publications that  advocated atheism, challenged Catholic theology or brought the Catholic Church into disrepute, in other words to bolster existing provision under Irish law for the prosecution of blasphemy,8 an ambition key to those who drove the campaign to strengthen censorship and were frustrated by the scope of the Act  which “was not all a Catholic Country would desire”9 (Dublin Diocesan Archive (DDA), BP. Box 5).

Soon after the legislation was passed, the battle lines over influence and the use of the Act were drawn. The CTSI immediately began to put pressure on the Government for it to support a radical interpretation of the Act in furtherance of the CTSI’s own social and religious agendas.

In October 1929, soon after the passage of the Act, F. O’Reilly,10 the Executive Secretary of the Catholic Truth Society, lodged a complaint in a personal capacity to the Minister for Justice (the Censorship Board had not yet been ‘convened’11 ) against a book by Warwick Deeping entitled Ropers Row.12  Mr O’Reilly claimed that the book advocated birth control. The Minister rejected O’Reilly’s request that the book be censored, arguing that the book: “Whilst perhaps… treads on delicate ground could scarcely be called indecent or obscene, and the rhetorical question on page 394 in the light of the rest of the chapter could not be construed as an advocacy of contraception within the meaning of the Act” (National Archives of Ireland (NA.S2325).The offending section reads:

…Christopher Hazzard had opinions upon the conceiving and bearing of children, and they were of an opinion that were considered scandalous and decadent by the great majority of conversationalists in those years before the war….

…Does man leave nature alone?  Is not our civilization a perpetual interference with nature-so called?

How many births are desired or planned?

How many children are the mere products of casual lust?

When two people can afford to rear and educate one or two children decently, does it still remain their duty to have six or ten?

What is the number of mentally defective children, potentially tuberculous children, syphilitic children born in London yearly?… (393-394).


O’Reilly took exception to his response and lodged a direct appeal to the President of the Executive Council,13 W.T. Cosgrave;14 the correspondence on this issue makes for fascinating and illuminating reading. O’Reilly informed the President, in a threatening tone: “I do not intend to let the matter rest where it stands. I shall publish the correspondence with comments, unless you may be able to induce a change of heart and a change of attitude in the Department concerned” (NA. S2325).

In a hand written letter to the Secretary of his Department, Cosgrave noted the likelihood of a growing number of correspondences on the matter of censorship and the potential for negative press coverage. Referring to the Minister for Justice, James Fitzgerald –Kenney,15 President Cosgrave noted that “the Minister is in an impossible position” in trying to balance a realistic application of the Censorship Act against the “strong suppression” favoured “by such people as the Secretary of the Catholic Truth Society”. The President agreed that the book did not require suppression as its contents were “piffle” and it was  a “mealy mouthed” complaint (NA. S2325).

However, Cosgrave, did feel that the government could gain a political advantage by referring the book to the soon to be established Censorship of Publications Board even though he felt that it should not be banned. The President claimed that a reversion of the Minister for Justice’s original decision on the book by the Board would “do us good rather than no harm”. The President was clearly concerned to stop challenges to the scope of the Act “within a few months of its passing.” He went on “You must bear in mind the possibility for amending this being promoted from any one or more sources”.  Cosgrave clearly felt that he was trapped in a pincer movement between the CTSI’s desire to extend censorship and those who advocated a minimal interpretation, or even abolition, of the Act; all of whom were jockeying for position in support of their competing agendas.  Cosgrave’s sense of the gamesmanship involved even extended to speculation over Warwick Deeping’s intention in including the passage that had offended O’Reilly. He speculated, “as far as the material transgressing is concerned it may well be that the author had the Act in mind” (NA.S2325).16

The journey of the Censorship Bill through the Dáil had been a balancing act for the government between allaying the fears of more liberal minded members and giving the more fundamentalist groupings a sense that their concerns were being addressed. Cosgrave was clearly not ready to reopen this issue.

The threatening tone of O’Reilly’s letter was not lost on the President’s office. A memo dated the 6th November 1929 states:

In my opinion the tone of the second paragraph of Mr O’Reilly’s letter of the 25th Ultimo, addressed to the President, is most objectionable. It is obviously an endeavour to get what he wants done by means of threats. The whole practice by which he endeavours to make the President a court of appeal from the Minister for Justice in the matter of the Censorship of Publications Act is strongly to be deprecated. To give way in this instance is, in my opinion, simply to invite further trouble from this gentleman (NA.S2325).

This advice was not heeded. Cosgrave referred the matter back to Fitzgerald -Kenny who agreed to the President’s request to refer the book on to the Censorship Board. A civil servant noted that in relation to O’Reilly: “We are unfortunately in the position of having to tell him now that his tactics have succeeded in the present instance, this I am afraid, will only invite further trouble” (NA.S2325).

A letter was drafted that sought to limit the damage with a final paragraph which was never sent which concluded: “I have to add that in considering this matter the President has not been helped by the tone of the opening sentence of the second paragraph of your letter, which he feels is excusable only in the light of your obvious sincerity”. The civil servant who drafted it noted in a hand written footnote that “The President of course may not approve to the last paragraph of my letter” (NA.S2325).  He was right and it would seem that even this thinly worded rebuke was seen as too strong. The President had decided to simply send O’Reilly a copy of the Minister for Justice’s reply agreeing to the request.

On the 13th November 1929 the CTSI responded to this news by informing the President that they would let the matter rest as “He [President Cosgrave] has done all in this matter that we requested him to do” (NA.S2325).  The same civil servant who advised Cosgrave against this course of action noted, in his own hand, at the end of the reply that “the President should see this.” It would seem that he viewed the outcome as a warning for the future. This warning was to prove salutary, as there is ample evidence in the National Archives that the CTSI contacted the President after this date to persuade him to use his influence in supporting the suppression of books, doubtless emboldened by their success, when in the May of 1930  Deeping’s Ropers Row became one of the first thirteen books to be banned by the Censorship Board. This can hardly have been surprising from the time of its formation in early 1930 up until the mid 1950s, the CTSI and its allies the Knights of Saint Columbanus held a working majority on the Board (O’Drisceoil  2005).

O’Reilly and the CTSI were untiring in their efforts, placing pressure on individuals and companies to enforce the law as they felt it should be enforced despite, in their terms, the ‘shortcomings’ of  the  Act. In 1930 O’Reilly requested help from the Archbishop of Dublin with the development of a network of “volunteers” who would comb through the press to root out any publications which included material that contained:

(1)   Blasphemous utterances or writings.

(2)   Denials (direct or implied) of the Divinity of Christ.

(3)   Pleas for spiritualistic practices.

(4)   Attacks on the Catholic Church – its doctrines, its practices, its government.

(DDA. BP. Box 5).17

In essence, the CTSI was attempting to re-invigorate the laws in regard to prosecuting blasphemy, as by the mid 1920s the Common Law offence of blasphemy was largely redundant, having fallen out of use.18

Censorship was envisioned and campaigned for by the CTSI as a building block of what they hoped was a road to the establishment of a Catholic- compliant State, constituted democratically but directed doctrinally. In the June of 1925, the CTSI had submitted for publication in the Irish Catholic, an article which asserted, “our politics must be governed by religion.  Where politics and religion are in conflict religion is right and politics is wrong. Taking our religion from Rome, therefore, we take our politics too” (DDA. BP. Box 5). Cosgrave and all bar one of his cabinet, Ernest Blythe, were Catholic and doubtless O’Reilly felt that with the right amount of moral pressures that they could be persuaded to act in accordance with their Catholic loyalties.  The article was rejected by the editor but the CTSI continued to work tirelessly towards this goal.

Despite the removal of the ‘Recognised Association’ section from the Censorship Bill, the CTSI drove the work of the Censorship Board in the teeth of determined public non-engagement with the process. The Censorship Board complained in its first Annual Report that:

The failure of the general public to co-operate in making the Censorship a success is a matter of great regret to us….We regret to say with the exception of the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, which has furnished the majority of complaints received, little assistance has been obtained from those sources (Censorship Board Annual Report, 1931).

The Irish public were passive recipients, rather than active supporters of the pronouncements of the Censorship Board. O’Higgins, the Minister who had initially declined to extend censorship, had been correct in recognising the lack of public appetite. Those members of the public who could afford to do so, sought to import banned material surreptitiously (O’ Drisceoil 2005) whilst the vast majority put up with, rather than supported, censorship. Whilst commentators, including Robert Walsh, have asserted that “an increasingly pious set of public opinions on morality, sex and belief … had formed very quickly after the foundation of the Free State as if in a reaction to the anarchy of revolution and its aftermath” (Walsh, 1999: 4) the reality is more nuanced. Literary and wider cultural evidence suggests that the social mores described elsewhere as the persistence of Victorian puritanical values in the Free State (Valiulis 2009; Keating, in press.) were centred on a religious cohort who had to expend energy on enforcing their brand of sexual Puritanism on a less than universally predisposed populace;19 a populace who complied with, at least in public, rather than actively supported the moral agenda that censorship or its extension represented. A reality underscored by the evidence relating to the extraordinary efforts priests would have to put into policing their flocks to prevent ‘occasions of sin’, dancing and drinking and their reports of this activity to the hierarchy and police (Crowley & Kitchin 2008; Keating 2012a), the actual rates of sexual crime in the Free State (Keating 2012a), the real rates of illegitimacy   (Crowley & Kitchin 2008),  the evidence presented to the Carrigan Committee