Peter Smith

Publications, Lectures and Other Stuff

Modern Ireland and Literary Censorship

Nice article by Colm Tóibín from The New Yorker, ‘The Censor In Each Of Us’ (6 May 2014).

Tóibín traces the sometimes contradictory aspects of censorship in modern Ireland, focussing on the work of W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) and Lady Gregory (1852-1932). He notes that their play ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ (1902) had a far more nationalistic impact than they had perhaps intended — both Yeats and Gregory were cosmopolitan figures and belonged to the Protestant minority. Later, when they staged some of the work of John Millington Synge at the Abbey Theatre, the staging was criticized by prominent nationalists as being demeaning to Irish pride, and there were riots in 1907 when ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ was presented because of its unflattering portrayal of Irish life (Irish-Americans also hated it in the US). In these cases, Tóibín suggests that societies which are fragile may find the ambiguities of such plays difficult to deal with — vulnerable people crave heroes with whom they can identify, not characters with flaws and weaknesses. Irish patriots expected ‘Irish’ art to further and support their cause.

Yeats and Gregory won support from nationalists when they resisted British pressure to stage Shaw’s ‘The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet’ in 1910 — a defiance that indicated how weak the British authorities in Ireland actually were at that point.

The Easter Rising of 1916 was particularly hard for Gregory to come to terms with in terms of her mixed Irish-British identity, but Yeat’s poem honouring the executed nationalists as martyrs also presented practical difficulties for her, and Yeat’s agreed to delay publication. Then, in 1926, at the anniversary of the Rising, they decided to stage Sean O’Casey’s play ‘The Plough and the Stars’, again attracting the opprobrium of nationalists for its down-to-earth portrayal of Dubliners.

Then in 1929, after the Censorship of Publications Act became law, they found that the Irish government could be far more opposed to artistic freedom than the British had been, many great works of English-language literature being banned in Ireland until 1967 (Tóibín draws the parallel with Francoist Spain). Ireland remained fragile and fearful of the wider world. Indeed, many Irish writers found their works banned in their own country and some chose to emigrate for the sake of their own artistic freedom.

Tóibín ends by stressing the need to oppose censorship, including our own propensity to resist the challenge of new and different ideas.

The full article is here:

William Butler Yeats, 1908.

Head and shoulders profile of a dignified older woman with hair swept back and a slightly prominent nose. Underneath is the signature "Augusta Gregory".

Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory, c. 1913.

Images are from Wikipedia and are in the public domain.


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This entry was posted on May 8, 2014 by in History and tagged , , , , , .
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