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  • "They Are Not Worthy of Themselves":The Tailor and Ansty Debates of 1942
  • Caleb Richardson (bio)

Ireland was unusually aware of censorship during the Second World War. In order to maintain neutrality, or the appearance of it, the government established a special office of censorship and imposed a series of strict regulations on the media.1 These regulations encompassed everything from practical matters to politics. Shipping news and weather reports were banned for the duration, and any mention of the thousands of Irish men and women serving with the Allies was censored, as was most editorial commentary on the war. Films and newsreels deemed to be biased were either banned or edited into incomprehensibility. Censors kept a careful watch on periodicals, and not just the usual radical suspects: during the Blitz, Irish Golf was warned about its references to the "new bunkers" being created on English courses.2 The period even had its own official euphemism: while most of the rest of Europe was at war, Ireland lived through "the Emergency."

But the most controversial censorship case of the period had nothing to do with protecting official secrets or with safeguarding neutrality. It was a debate in the Seanad in November and December 1942 provoked by the banning of three books: Halliday Sutherland's health primer Laws of Life, Kate O'Brien's novel The Land of [End Page 148] Spices, and Eric Cross's nonfiction work The Tailor and Ansty. These bans were the work of an entirely different set of censors, set up by the Censorship Act of 1929.3 Under the terms of the Censorship Act, a book could be banned for "indecency"—a term defined as "suggestive of, or inciting to sexual immorality or unnatural vice or likely in any other similar way to corrupt or deprave"—or if it advocated "the unnatural prevention of conception or the procurement of abortion or miscarriage."4 The Land of Spices and The Tailor and Ansty were thought to exhibit the first flaw, Laws of Life the second.

As a result of these bans, on 18 November 1942 Senator Sir John Keane5 moved "that, in the opinion of Seanad Eireann, the Censorship of Publications Board appointed by the Minister for Justice under the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929, has ceased to retain public confidence, and that steps should be taken by the Minister to reconstitute the board."6 For twelve hours, spread out over four days, senators painstakingly compared texts, performed close readings, argued about theme and implication, and discussed the role of literature in Irish society. It was as if the Catholic Truth Society and WAAMA (the Writers, Artists, Actors and Musicians Association) had accidentally booked the same meeting hall, for reasons that seemed to have nothing to do with the Emergency at all.7

At the same time it is hard to imagine the debate taking place without the Emergency as backdrop; the controversy illuminates a period in which the Irish were acutely aware that they were not being told the whole story. Although political censorship had little to do with literature directly—in theory, Emergency censors were primarily concerned with keeping Ireland neutral, whereas literary censors [End Page 149] were tasked with keeping it pure—the specter of the censor had never loomed quite so large. And it was hard not to draw parallels between the two systems. Despite Emergency censors' best efforts, few Irish were really "neutral" about the war. Thousands of Irish men and women joined British armed forces or worked for British war industries; a much smaller number were active in the Irish Republican Army's various ill-fated attempts to assist German spies. And even among the large number of Irish who supported the government's policy, neutrality did not mean apathy. The pubs were full of impassioned debate, even if the editorial pages were not. Understandably, some began to wonder about whether the "decency" that literary censors were defending was just as illusory as "neutrality."

But in a larger sense the debate could only have taken place in the Ireland that the Emergency created. In his famous 1943 Saint Patrick's Day speech to America, de Valera deliberately "turn[ed...


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