Ireland has a long history when it comes to films and cinema, but in the twentieth century the country had some notoriously conservative film censorship habits.
Some of the earliest films banned in Ireland were banned by the British authorities, who believed that they were propagandistic. A classic example is Ireland, A Nation, a 1914 film produced in the United States dealing with Irish history between the 1798 uprising and Robert Emmet’s doomed rebellion five years later. In the brilliant Cinema and Ireland, it’s noted that the film “had a remarkable run in Chicago, where it was shown for 20 consecutive weeks to huge crowds”. But whatever it did for Irish American hearts it was kept at arms length from the Irish public in its original cut.
Ironically, after independence, the once censored republican movement became the self-appointed censors. Launching attacks on Dublin cinemas which showed films that were too sympathetic to the British war effort in WWI. The Masterpiece Cinema, just off O’Connell Street, was actually bombed in 1925 for showing The Battle of Ypres. This republican censorship continued for decades. In 1963 a screening of Elizabeth is Queen was enough for youths to invade the Carton Cinema, where they jumped up on stage, sprayed the screen and part of the audience with fire extinguishers, threw a bottle of ink at the screen, slashed it and escaped out of a side exit.
The Irish state was not the only force at play in keeping certain films away in the public. Speaking in the Father Matthew Hall on Church Street in 1938, Aodh de Blacam stated that it was time the government stopped censoring films. Not because it was morally wrong but rather because they had failed totally in the task. For de Blacam, “Father Matthew’s great work for the Irish nation was to save the people from the terrible curse of drink…if he lived today he would find there was a more terrible curse rotting the moral fibre of the people – the evils of the cinema, the jazz dancing and cosmetics.” Father Matthew’s effigy now gazes down on the late night drunks and cinema queues of O’Connell Street.
No list of twentieth century must-see films is complete without a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but for Irish audiences this was an unknown pleasure. In February 1972, the Irish Independent ran a picture of a scene from the film, asking “can screening this be justified…is violence the real pornography?” Certainly, those in authority believed the violence was just too much for Irish eyes. Dave Fanning in his autobiography recalled that when in England as a youngster he “took advantage of the trip by going to see a few films such as Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange that were banned in Ireland back then. It’s easy to forget what a strange priest-riddled society we were – and in some ways still are.”
One solution to Ireland’s outdated film censorship regime was the approach of groups like the Dublin Film Institute. Being a private members club it could get around government censorship by not showing films to the general public. Some would ‘look on the bright side of life’ with censorship too. Progressive campaigns which stood for more secularisation in Irish society for example showed Life of Brian as a fundraiser when it failed to get past the censor. Today, with the internet and modern technology, the state couldn’t keep a film from us even if they wanted to – but imagine when Life of Brian, A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs were all kept from us. How times have changed.
You can listen to the audio of the piece here: