DR Aoife Bhreatnach is a self-declared ‘dirty-minded historian’ from Cork, who loves nothing better than to be curled up in her armchair with a good book and a cup of tea.
As an independent scholar and an academic, she is an expert in the fields of Irish social and cultural history, and her reading interests are wide-ranging and eclectic.
She’s currently sifting through a series of more than 12,000 books and other reading materials which were felled by the axe of the censor and completely banned from the bookshelves of Ireland in the past. She shares her fascinating insights through a podcast aptly named Censored, hosted by Acast and available across all streaming platforms.
Through the podcast, Aoife applies her razor sharp research into the blacklisted books, with each episode taking an unfettered plunge into the altogether more prudish and repressed cultural climate of Ireland from the 1930s onwards.
Her excavation through the dirt, in a quest to discover why some fine books of literary merit ended up on the smut pile, makes for one of the most humorous, entertaining and informative listening experiences on the current Irish podcast space.
There is an extensive blacklist to enjoy, including books by Edna O’Brien, John Mc Gahern, Margaret Mead, Syliva Plath, Christopher Isherwood, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Samuel Beckett, Kate O’Brien, and Frank O’Connor - and that’s just the top of the outrageous pile.
Indeed, the banned books list has been jokingly referred to as ‘The Everyman’s Guide to The Classics.’
A CLIMATE OF CENSORSHIP
Even a charming book set deep in the rural countryside of Gougane Barra West Cork - The Tailor and Ansty, by Eric Cross - was deemed too immoral to be let loose onto the reading public, and Aoife was hard- pressed to discover any rude bits in it.
“The climate of censorship in Ireland relaxed somewhat in the ’70s, but even into the ’90s the board reconvened in order to ban Madonna’s book Sex, which was a bit silly really given that it was already in the bookshops when it was banned, there were very few copies available for purchase to begin with, and also it was terribly expensive,” said Aoife.
Her odyssey through the literary list of corruption and moral decrepitude began when she was browsing through her own bookshelf.
“I came across my copy of The Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, and, realising that it was once banned, I began to read it through the eyes of the censor to see why. There were no official reports from the censor’s office on file to explain the exact reason why certain books got sent to the naughty step in the first place, so that piqued my curiosity to know more.
“I came up with a rating system, which I use in the podcast to determine what elements shocked the censors most and resulted in a book being banned.”
So with ‘censoship bingo’, as she refers to it, firmly in hand, and climbing onto high moral ground, Aoife set about reading some outrageous books to figure out why so many had been judged as scandalous and way too hot to handle.
A CORK CONNECTION
Through her podcast, she lays bare the facts of each particular case, and uncovers why some books were designated to the cold limbo of banishment instead of being embraced by the warm clasp of the reader.
”Well, in Behan’s case there was an implication of masturbation in the book, and also his attraction to fellow prisoner Charlie was probably construed as queer content,” explained Aoife.
Any mention of any kind of sex or sexual activity, body parts, graphic violence, menstruation, divorce, contraception, abortion, swearing, and of course pregnancy outside of marriage, would have all been seen as indecent, and not gotten past the beady eye of the censor.
Seán O’Faoláin is one example. He was an important Cork writer and his book Bird Alone was published in 1936 and banned the same year.
“It was his second book to be censored. I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed reading it. It’s pure Cork in every way, you can hear it in the dialogue of the characters, and I probably would not have discovered it had it not been for going through the banned reading list.
“The novel is written from the point of view of a young Corkman Corney Crone, who is on the brink of a love affair with a young lady. It’s about courting with sex thrown into the mix, which was definitely unpalatable to the censors.”
Aoife is often joined for a light-hearted informative chat with other academics on her podcast, and in the one about O’Faoláin there is a very interesting exchange with Dr Paul Delaney, from Trinity College, who has written a book about him entitled Literature, Inheritance And The 1930s.
If you want to know more abut O’Faoláin’s sometimes controversial views on Cork, check out the episode entitled ‘All Cork - O’ Faoláin- Bird Alone’, where the two discuss how it came about that he was one of the most eloquent voices in opposition to the censorship laws, and why he was so disgusted when Bird Alone, his love letter to his native city, was banned.
“From 1930 to the 1970s, Ireland had one of the most rigorous censorship laws in the Anglophone world” explains Aoife. The Censorship of Publications Act was set up in 1929, and even before that, in 1926, we had the ‘Committee on Evil Literature’.
Fr Devane, a priest from Limerick. went before that board with a compelling argument as to why the English Sunday newspapers should be banned.
At that time, literacy levels had hugely increased, more and more people were enjoying the Sunday newspapers, which had just started circulating in 1919. The sports coverage was hugely popular of course, but there were also reports of crimes, particularly sex crimes whose salacious details were being read and discussed.
Fr Devane, and other moral policemen like him objected to people being privy to that kind of information lest it should have a detrimental impact on their morals.
In other words, if one were to read about the crime, you might be more inclined to commit a similar one yourself.
This resulted in him organising a ritual burning of the newspapers as they came off the train in Limerick, and a campaign of intimidation towards the local newsagents ensued, with threats of boycott and harassment on the streets for anyone daring to defy the ban.
Selling banned books could also get you into trouble.
“In August, 1931, C. O’Keeffe, a bookseller on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork, was summoned for ‘Exposing a Prohibited book for sale’,” recalls Aoife. This was Cakes And Ale by Somerset Maughan.
In his defence, Mr O’Keeffe said that he didn’t even realise it had been banned.
Although there had been a report in The Irish Times, back in those days that newspaper was not very widely read in Cork, so in fairness it was easy to see how Mr O’Keeffe could have unwittingly sold a banned book.
“The burning question is, of course - who informed on O’Keeffe in the first place?” Aoife said.
She also gives recommendations for suitable beverages to enjoy while listening to the podcast.
These are based on drinks which are featured in each different book being discussed. Of course, when it comes to Irish authors, it is quite often a cup of tea, although the occasion does arise for a nip of something stronger.
A strong beverage of choice may well help get you through the shock of reading all that scandalous literature, as well as getting over the realisation that the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act is still on the statute books.