Sex and Irish Literature

by John Boland

Irish Independent, 2011

When Eugene McCabe’s King of the Castle was premiered at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in 1964, a man in the audience became so incensed by an onstage sexual proposition that he shouted at the offending actor “You dirty bastard!”

His outburst was considered so quaint by visiting London critics that a reviewer from the Sunday Times mentioned it in his article the following weekend. Fifty-seven years earlier, audiences at the Abbey theatre’s premiere of The Playboy of the Western World found nothing quaint about the notion of a man killing his father or the mention of a woman’s undergarments, and they promptly rioted.

“Shall we be thus forever?” Patrick Kavanagh enquired in his 1944 poem, Memory of Brother Michael, which pondered the Irish compulsion for casting a backward look to a supposedly purer past, and in the first six decades of the last century it seemed that thus we would always be.

Contrary to popular misconception, James Joyce’s Ulysses was never banned in this country, but from its first publication in 1922 it was generally thought such a filthy book that getting one’s hands on a copy was never easy – even as late as 1967, my mother felt obliged to whisper as she ordered it from the Eblana bookshop in Grafton Street, and when she went to collect it a week later the shop assistant had considerately wrapped it in non-incriminating brown paper.

A mere few years earlier, Edna O’Brien and John McGahern were incurring the official ire of Irish censorship for daring to write about life as it really was, but they were among the last victims – and defiant survivors – of a baleful system that had flourished since we supposedly got our independence in the 1920s.

It is difficult now to comprehend the assault waged by successive governments for five decades on any manifestation of intellectualism in this country, especially if conducted through the medium of literature.

Needless to say, movies, which were regarded as products of foreign paganism and decadence, were routinely banned or butchered right up to the 1980s – Howard Hawks’s 1946 masterpiece, The Big Sleep, prohibited for its sexual and drug references; ShirleyMacLaine’s lesbian confession removed from William Wyler’s 1964 film, The Loudest Whisper, so that her subsequent suicide made no sense; the central and crucial love scene in Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 picture, Don’t Look Now, entirely gone.

Theatre, too, led to official outcries – not just the Playboy riots or the furore over prostitute Rosie Redmond in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in 1924, but such later controversies as the police intervention in the 1957 Pike theatre production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo and the denunciation of the cast and crew, who were treated in the media as if they were sex offenders.

But it’s what was done to literature in this period that was truly shameful. Indeed, the roll call of banned books amounted to a canon of modern literature, with Irish citizens not allowed to read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Huxley’s Brave New World, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Greene’s The Quiet American or Amis’s Lucky Jim.

That’s just a handful of books among thousands by distinguished foreign authors that were banned. But it was Irish writing on which the censorship board exacted particular vengeance, with the banning of five books each written by Frank O’Connor, Liam O’Flaherty, Austin Clarke and Edna O’Brien; three by Sean O’Casey, Samuel Beckett, Walter Macken and Brendan Behan; and two by Oliver St John Gogarty, Sean O’Faolain, Brian Moore and Kate O’Brien.

Indeed, Kate O’Brien’s 1941 novel, The Land of Spices, was banned after one eagled-eyed reader complained to the censorship board that a brief half- sentence midway through the book (“…she saw Etienne and her father in the embrace of love”) was a homosexual allusion.

Sex, of course, was always the principal offender, the prevailing puritan stance perfectly captured in Patrick Kavanagh’s 1955 poem, One Wet Summer, in which the poet, noting the temptation of women in light dresses and the risks to them too, praises the rain “for washing out the bank holiday with its moral risks”. This, he concedes, “is not a nice attitude but it is conditioned by circumstances/And by a childhood perverted by Christian moralists”.

And then it all changed. For Philip Larkin, “sexual intercourse began” in 1963, when the desire for sexual fulfilment moved from being “a shame that started at sixteen/And spread to everything” and became instead “a quite unlosable game”. It took Ireland a couple of more decades to catch up, but when its citizens finally stared down their moralistic masters, all barriers fell and unfettered bawdiness was fervently embraced.

You’ll find it at its most swaggering in RTE2 comedy shows, where you’ll encounter a degree of gleeful filth that’s not available on their BBC equivalents, but there’s a frankness to our literature and theatre, too, that would have been unimaginable a generation ago when mention on the Late Late Show of a woman’s sleep attire or lack of it sent bishops into paroxysms of righteous fury and filled the front pages of newspapers.

How quaint it all seems now, though it should be remembered that some of our greatest literature was bravely and defiantly created in the face of implacable forces that wished it suppressed. Perhaps it’s good both for the spirit and for the art to have something to rail against.

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