As the Irish film and TV industry enters a new decade of uncertainty, it is easy to succumb to nostalgia and remember fondly the days when going to the cinema and watching a movie seemed like something that could never be taken away from us. However, the real history of Irish cinema proves that it always came with its own set of difficulties. We look back at the complicated relationship between film and censorship in the Republic of Ireland.
There’s no point in hiding it: if, throughout its history, Ireland has been famous for many things, freedom of expression has not been one of them. Anything containing violence, sex, profanity or blasphemy had the potential to be considered obscene, which considerably reduced the amount and quality of art that Irish audiences were allowed to consume. As film became more and more popular and cinemas started to open everywhere in the country, the Film Censors’ Office (now the Irish Film Classification Office) took measures to prevent the Irish public from being corrupted by outside influences. In what ways did they try to do so? We take a look at the history of Irish censorship through the years.
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The 20s/ early 30s: the beginnings of Irish censorship
The history of Irish censorship begins with the 1923 Censorship of films act, which aimed to ban or cut films considered “indecent, obscene or blasphemous” or “contrary to or subversive to public morality”. The films that were banned at the time seem tame to us today: few of us would still believe that the classic 1932 Frankenstein could be dangerous to “nervous people” or believe that a Marx brothers comedy could encourage anarchic tendencies in the public. As a matter of fact, all of the films of this time are now easily accessible on DVD and carry a PG rating. This makes for quite a taking reflection of the kinds of mentality that characterised the beginnings of Irish censorship.
From the late 30s to the 40s: Irish censorship takes control of international cinema
As the Film Censors’ Office slowly finds its footing, this period of Irish cinema shows another key characteristic of the history of Irish censorship in cinema: not all films were simply banned. Some, like Casablanca for one of the most famous examples, were allowed to be shown… But only after some pretty heavy cuts. Initially banned during the war because of Ireland’s neutral stance at the time, it was finally allowed for release in 1945, with one notable exception. One of the key plot points of the film, an adulterous relationship between the protagonist and a married woman, was removed for morality reasons, essentially making the film’s plot incomprehensible. It wasn’t until the mid-70s that the film was allowed to be shown in its entirety again.
This period in cinema was characterised by film noir in America; but the very nature of the genre, with its crime, murder, sexual undertones and grey morality meant that the Irish public saw very few of the classics of the time. While the fact that Mildred Pierce or The Big Sleep were banned could be understandable considering they were about murders, other banned or cut films were more surprising: Gone With The Wind had to be cut because of a reference to birth control and even Disney’s Fantasia wasn’t considered innocent enough as it offered an explanation of the origin of life that was “entirely materialistic” and went against the teachings of the Bible.
A key film: Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin in 1968
The restrictions on films from outside the country led to a very limited film industry within the country itself. The Irish Free State had few resources to give to filmmakers and the arts, and indigenous Irish production remained a rarity. One of the rare films produced before the rise of first wave Irish filmmakers in the seventies was Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin, which set out to expose just how brainwashed and repressed Irish people were through a seemingly innocent series of interviews of children, priests, censors, anonymous women… Lennon was a journalist and was very well aware of what he was doing – and the Film Censors’ Office was not happy about it. The film thoroughly denounces the church and its restrictions on things as simple as dancing, as well as abuse of power from priests and educators. The documentary was prevented from being broadcast for over thirty years, and was eventually released on DVD in 2004. Even though it is far from the most well-known film in Irish cinema, it remains a key testament of the reality of the time and just how long Irish censorship could last.
Up until the 1980s: no sex, no drugs, no rock and roll, and certainly no blasphemy
After this turning point, indigenous filmmakers slowly started to rise and a real, albeit small, cinematic industry started to rise in Ireland. Alternative voices like women and defenders of the Irish language were heard more often, and the state started to truly realise just how much of a cultural asset cinema could be for the country. If Irish censorship didn’t stop, its victims were now films more commonly recognised for their violent or sexual nature: A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s ultraviolent tale of gang culture that wasn’t released for cinema audiences until 1999, and Woody Allen’s 1973 sex comedy Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, still both have an 18 rating nowadays. As always, religion was considered very serious business, and as a result the two Monty Python films Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life (initially released under an 18 rating) were banned due to Christians taking to the streets to protest their “ridiculing of the teachings of Jesus Christ”. Things were only slightly looking up: yes, many things were still taboo, but at least Mickey was no longer the number one public enemy.
Leading up to a new millenia: oh, the horror!
The 80s and 90s were defining decades when it came to horror movies – and Irish censorship institutions did everything they could to keep these blood splattered pieces of entertainment as far as possible from the people. Some of them didn’t really need an explanation, like the infamous Cannibal Holocaust, which was so well made for the time that director Ruggero Deodato had to go to court to prove no actor was killed during the shooting. What transpires in the banned films of the time is that Irish censorship now justified their choices more thoroughly and always put the “safety of the public” first. For example, Robert Rodriguez’ horror-comedy From Dusk Till Dawn was banned due to concerns that the film’s “gratuitous violence” would have a negative impact on young Irish people, while the famous crime film Natural Born Killers was removed from cinema after the possibility of “copycat” killings was brought up to the Film Censors.
Now: a life after Irish censorship?
The turn of the century was a key moment for Irish censorship. Only a few years before, Michael D. Higgins had recognised in a famous speech the importance of an Irish film industry and how much it could help the country’s economy and outside image. Irish cinema was no longer only aimed at Irish people: directors like Neil Jordan, Jim Sheridan or more recently Lenny Abrahamson or John Carney, showed (and for many of them, still show) that indigenous Irish production could have a positive international reception. Likewise, other countries took an interest in collaborating with the country by using their stories and their landscapes and studios: recent examples of international collaborations include the 2015 historical drama Brooklyn or Yorgos Lanthimos’ nine time Oscar nominated The Favourite.
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As a result of this new understanding of cinema, many previous bans were lifted, and nowadays, Irish censorship and what constitutes a taboo for the regulating institutions is no longer much different from other countries’ limitations. Nowadays, the idea of cutting a film because of a scene mentioning birth control or divorce seems completely ridiculous even to the most religiously observant of us. It is however worth noting that traces of this long history of Irish censorship remain even today: for example, few other countries have banned as many pornographic titles as Ireland currently does, and IFCO film ratings tend to be harsher than ratings given by neighbouring countries.
We hope that this overview of Irish censorship in cinema can give you an opportunity to reflect on how far the country has come, and on how lucky we are to be able to freely enjoy entertainment of any kind whenever we want to, even in the comfort of our own homes. Did you watch any of these banned films? Did any of them surprise you? What did you watch recently that could have been banned or heavily cut only a few decades ago? Let us know in the comments below!