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Up From Irish Purity

November 04, 1990|JACK MILES | Miles, The Times' book editor, is on leave until October, 1991

This year's Los Angeles Times Book Prize program honors two writers who, driven into exile, have seen their works banned and themselves reviled in their native countries. One is Czeslaw Milosz. The other is Edna O'Brien.

During the years of the Cold War, Ireland was counted, generally, as a part of the "Free World." It may come as a surprise, then, to some American readers to discover how severely freedom of speech has been restricted in that country. "Banned in Ireland: Censorship & the Irish Writer" (University of Georgia Press), is a collection of interviews done by Julia Carlson for Article 19, an international human-rights organization. The interviews--with Irish writers Benedict Kiely, John Broderick, John McGahern, Edna O'Brien, Lee Dunne, Maurice Leitch and Brian Moore--make grimly fascinating reading.

Starting in 1929, Carlson explains in her introduction, Ireland empowered a censorship board to examine material brought to its attention by customs officials or the public. Since Ireland had very little in the way of a domestic publishing industry, the link between the customs officials and the Censorship Board provided an effective choke point for the control of nearly every English-language book in print. And since the Censorship Board operated in virtual secrecy, most of the Irish public never knew that the works of Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Koestler and scores of others had all been stopped at the shore. Ireland didn't know what it was missing, and that's just the way much of the Irish leadership--clerical and lay--wanted it.

Old as a nation, 20th-Century Ireland was young and uncertain of herself as a political entity. She didn't know, yet, what she wanted to be, only what she didn't want to be: She didn't want to be England. Unfortunately, as two of the interviews explicitly suggest, the ideal of Irish purity became intertwined with that of sexual purity, with disastrous consequences for Irish readers.

Carlson quotes Eamon de Valera:

"That Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit; a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age."

The ideal Ireland, in short, was to be a land of pious peasants. Samuel Beckett singed the air with his counter-formulation: "Paradise peopled with virgins, and the earth with decorticated multiparas."

That kind of despair would come later, however. At the start, there was hope and indeed a concerted effort by Irish writers and intellectuals, including Beckett, to prevent the passage of the Censorship of Publications Act.

Shaw wrote at that time that if Ireland, "having broken England's grip of her . . . slops back into the Atlantic as a little grass patch in which a few million moral cowards are not allowed to call their souls their own by a handful of morbid Catholics, mad with heresyphobia, unnaturally combining with a handful of Calvinists mad with sexphobia . . . then the world will let 'these Irish' go their own way into insignificance without the smallest concern."

His words were prophetic. Commenting on the fact that the Act defined the word indecent as "calculated to incite sexual passion," Shaw asked, "By the way, what is to be done with the National Gallery under the Act?" He received his answer within a few years when all the nudes were removed from the gallery. As the years passed, the world did indeed let the Irish go their own way into insignificance. On the list of burning world questions, free speech in Ireland scarcely made the bottom quarter.

By 1960, Carlson says, most of Ireland's leading writers, the generation represented by those she had interviewed, all of them once banned in Ireland, published their work in Britain or America and let Ireland be damned, more often than not leaving the country altogether.

Fortunately, there were a few exceptions. Carlson honors Edna O'Brien as "one of the few writers of her generation to protest against censorship in Ireland. She spoke at public meetings and publicly brought her books into the country across the border from Northern Ireland." But the public outrage over her 1964 "Girls in Their Married Bliss" was exceeded in 1965 by the unprecedented furor over John McGahern's "The Dark." McGahern's story frames Ireland's own between then and now.

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