#PornWeek: Before we had censors, we had a Committee on Evil Literature

Founded by the Minister for Justice in 1926, the body asked members of the public to post them obscenity

#PornWeek: Before we had censors, we had a Committee on Evil Literature

A photo from a magazine submitted by the public to the committee members

All this week, both online and on air, Newstalk has been leading a national conversation about pornography. Perhaps one of the more surprising findings of the RED C research commissioned by Newstalk is that more than half of all Irish people think porn is something to be ashamed of.

Admittedly, 90 years ago, that figure would have been considerably higher, even if the ready availability of sexually explicit images and videos that dominate the online world could never have been anticipated. But in the earliest years of the Irish State the state of morality in play, with members of the public outraged that obscene and improper printed material could slip through the royal net and pollute the upstanding Irish with smut and wantonness.

Propelled by the public’s thirst for stricter censorship, Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins found a very Irish solution to a very Irish problem – he founded a committee. On February 12th, 1926, the members – three laymen, two clergymen – gathered for the first time as the members of the Committee on Evil Literature, a body tasked with weeding out the filth from the fine.

A small selection of the submitted letters and examples of evil literature sent in by the public 

Placing adverts in national newspapers, the Committee invited members of the public to send in examples of publications they deemed lewd or outrageous, with the ensuing report designed to shape the censorship laws of Ireland that are, in essence, still applicable today.

The files, now kept in the National Archives of Ireland, offer a curious insight into proper and decent Irishmen and Irishwomen of the 1920s. As well as members of the public, who sent in such diverse wickedness as chemist brochures filled with rubber teats manufactured for the top of baby bottles, the archives show how prolifically professional, vocational, and philanthropic organisations took to submitting.

The Boys Brigade, the Boy Scouts Association, the Catholic Headmasters Association, the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, the Catholic Writers Guild, Comhairle an Fhainne, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, the Irish Retail Newsagents Association, the Irish Vigilance Association and the Schoolmasters Association all answered the call. So too did the Young Men’s Christian Association, showing an early interest in cleaning up the Irish State and ensuring there was no prurient need to be unhappy.

National Archives of Ireland Keeper Tom Quinlan takes Newstalk's George Hook through the files

Although primarily text based, the Committee did receive images as well, plucked from the pages of society magazines and perceived as scandalous. Perhaps the finest example in the collection is a photograph of Dora Dubey, a well-respected American dancer who trained under the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. In the mid-20s, shortly after scandalising Canada by suing a man in Montreal for breaking off their engagement, Dubey found herself dancing on the stage of the Ballroom of Piccadilly in London, where a photo of her posing naked, albeit covering everything with a large feathered fan, made its way to the pages of a magazine. And to the Committee on Evil Literature, by way of a Jesuit priest who was the most prolific submitter nationwide.

It goes without saying that by contemporary standards, none of the materials found within the National Archive’s collection would raise an eyebrow, let alone trigger a full-blown moral panic. But when having a national conversation about pornography, it’s important to understand where we are a society, and how we got there. The Censorship of Publications Board first convened under legislation directly informed by the Committee on Evil Literature.

For decades, its capricious members have judged hundreds of books, including some of the finest novels ever written, to be obscene. Their meetings take place behind closed doors and their reasoning need not be announced to either the public or the authors of the offending material. And while considerably less prolific than it once was, the Censorship of Publications Board, at a member of the public’s request, banned a book as recently as 12 months ago.

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