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Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s was a very homogeneous and white society but there were a handful of groundbreaking bands that included both black and white musicians. This a work in progress.

In late 1963, black American singer Earl Jordan joined the Waterford showband group The Derek Joys. Jordan, who was born in Elmore, Alabama, had served with the U.S. Army before moving to England where he lived for five years.

The Derek Joys, 1964/5. Credit – Irishshowbands.com

Jordan left the The Derek Joys after about a year to join the newly formed Caroline Showband in December 1964. The band toured for two years together before Jordan made an exit. In the early 1970s, he sang on the Green Bullfrog album, joined the German group Les Humphries Singers and released two solo singles. Jordan returned to Dublin for a series of gigs in the 1978-79 on the back of two further solo singles.

The Caroline Showband, c. 1965/66. Credit – Irishshowbands.com

The Black Eagles, who formed in 1964, were made up of a group of teenagers from Crumlin who played soul, r&b and pop covers at local youth clubs. There are no audio recordings but a silent home video of the band from 1965 has made it online.

Vocalist Phil Lynott (1949-1986) was born in England, went to primary school in Manchester and moved Dublin to live with his maternal grandparents in Leighlin Road, Crumlin at the age of about eight. Phil’s father Cecil Parris, was from Georgetown, British Guiana in the Caribbean. The other members of the band were Alan Sinclair (lead guitar), Frankie Smyth (rhythm guitar), Danny Smith (bass) and Brian Downey (drums).

Phil later played with Skid Row (1967-68 line up) and fronted Thin Lizzy (1969–1983 line up).

The Black Eagles, c. 1965

Skid Row, c. 1967/68. Credit – Irishshowbands.com

Gene and the Gents formed in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh in early 1964. The band was made up of four local musicians (including guitarist Henry McCullough) who had all previously played in the Skyrockets. They signed up, as lead vocalist, TCD Law student Gene Chetty who had been born Durban, South Africa of Indian background. The band played together until 1969. Gene went onto form a group called The Flames and later played with The Lions. He returned to Ireland in 2006 to play a number of reunion gigs. A BBC radio interview can be heard here.

The Philosophers were a successful mid 1960s beat-group in Galway who added a brass section and played the showband circuit from the late 1960s onwards. Dave Cazabon, son of Trinidad parents who moved to Galway in the 1950s, joined the band as bass player in 1973. His brother Mike, who used the stage name Samba, became lead vocalist around 1974. The band released a number of singles as Samba and the Philosophers. When Mike left the band, his brother Gerry (d. 1996) took over as lead vocalist. A fourth brother Richard (d. 2010) played in a Galway Thin Lizzy cover band called White Ivy/Nightrider in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The Philosophers, mid 1970s.

Following Van Morrison’s departure from Them, band members Tim Armstrong, Kenny McDowell and Buddy Clark re-united in 1969 in Chicago as Truth. They drafted in local drummer Renaldo Smith (known as Reno Smith or Rene Smith) who had previously played with Baby Huey & the Babysitters. The band played together in Ireland for a couple of years before calling it a day. Reno Smith returned to Dublin in 1973 to join the band Chips who he played with for about a year. This article claims that he later played with with funk group Mother’s Finest, various house bands at Chicago blues and soul clubs including the Kingston Mines, and then relocated to Tucson, Arizona where he continued to play blues and R&B.

Chips in c. 1973. Credit – http://www.irish-showbands.com

In circa 1970, Dave Murphy joined a “progressive soul combo” from North Dublin called The Purple Pussycat, who based their sound on the US band Blood, Sweat & Tears. He sang and also played trombone. It was suggested that he was the “city’s second best-known black Irish musician after Phil Lynnott”. He later focused on singer-songwriting and ran a weekly folk music night in The Bailey, McDaid’s, The International and Banker’s throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

The Chicken Fisher Band was formed in 1978 by Martin ‘Chicken’ Fischer, born in London of Swiss parents, guitarist Dave Prim (d. 2018) from Kilkenny and drummer John Forbes of London-Jamaican heritage. In 1979, John Forbes joined soul funk rockers Stagalee who had started life in Tralee, County Kerry three years previously. Stagalee’s 1979 line-up featured Colin Tully (sax/keyboards), Honor Heffernan (vocals), Errol Walsh (guitar/vocals), James Delaney (keyboards) and Tommy Moore (bass/vocals). A contemporary newspaper article stated that John Forbes had recorded two albums with a German group called Black Symphony but I can’t find anymore information online.

Stagalee, 1979 line up. Credit – errolwalsh.com

Zebra, Ireland’s first reggae band, was formed in Dublin in early 1979 by Steve Rekab (guitarist), Bernard Rangel (percussion), Leo Mallon (drums), Brian Narty (bass), Norman Morrow (keyboards) and Pete Deane (vocals). This line up recorded the single Repression which was released on Terri Hooley’s ‘Good Vibrations’ label in July 1979. It featured Marion Woods and Niamh McGovern on backing vocals, was produced by music journalist Ross Fitzsimons and engineered by Johnny Byrne (d. 1997).

The band recorded their song Silent Partners for the compilation ‘Just for Kicks‘ which was released in December 1979. It features the band’s new drummer Mark Thyme who had replaced Leo Mallon (d. 1985). This song was re-released on All City records compilation album ‘Buntús Rince‘ in April 2019.

Bernard Rangel was born in Aden, South Yemen of Indian parents from Goa. He went to secondary school in Blackrock College and studied Economics, History and Psychology in Trinity College Dublin. Steve Rekab was born in Sierra Leone on the southwest coast of West Africa. Brian Nartey’s family background was Jamaican.

Zebra at 24 hour festival Dark Space, Project Arts Centre, Dublin on 16-17 February 1979. Photo – Tracey Clann. Credit – Irishrock.org

Am I missing any bands? Leave a comment or drop me an email.

Thanks to Francis K. (irish-showbands.com), Stan Erraught, Rock Roots and John Byrne for comments and info.

 

 

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Desert

Evening Herald, February 1987.

Last weekend, I had the honour of leading a walking tour for the MusicTown festival, exploring the musical heritage of Dublin’s northside. The tour brought us from George Desmond Hodnett (he of ‘Take her up to Monto’ fame) to the Asylum nightclub, and from the anti-jazz crusade to Christy Moore’s anthem for the striking Dunnes workers. One of the more unusual stops on the tour was the O’Connell Bridge. For me, the bootleggers of old were a necessary stop on the tour.

Something has truly entered the folk memory of a city when it begins appearing in fictional accounts of the place.  In Brian Leyden’s book Departures, published in 1992, we read of  a character heading “Over O’Connell Bridge in a head- bobbing current of pedestrians, past bootleg tape and pavement jewellery sellers. Leaping out into the stream of oncoming cars and green, leaning double-deckers at the intersections.” More recently, Rachael English included the bootleggers in her own novel, writing of how “He threaded his way along O’Connell Street, around the queue at the Savoy cinema, past the doughnut kiosk and over the bridge. He nodded at the man selling bootleg cassettes and gave a few coppers to a woman begging for change.”

Recollections of both buying and selling bootleg tapes on the bridge have made their way online in recent times. One seller recounted the manner in which Gardaí would occasionally raid the O’Connell Bridge, leading to frantic scenes:

Gardaí “raided” the Bridge, as if it were some dingy speakeasy, with the impish tactic of approaching from both ends simultaneously and removing their caps so they couldn’t be easily seen. Lads scarpered. Cases of precious C60s and C90 were lost to the evidence room of time. Unless some brave warrior stepped forward and took the fall. Getting arrested with your box meant it was your property and you could get it back. You might have 30 tapes in a case. 3 or 4 pounds a pop? What’s a brush with the law against that kind of cheddar?

Bootlegging on the bridge was at its height in the late 1980s, leading the Evening Herald to proclaim in 1987 that “the bootleg business in Dublin was never healthier than it is now. On O’Connell Bridge…Chris de Burgh, Bruce Sprinsteen, U2, Simple Minds et al line up in cassette cases for £3 and £4 a time.” Following Michael Jackson’s Pairc Ui Caoimh performance in 1988, sellers reported hundreds of copies selling on the bridge in days. At £7 for a two cassette set, it was a relatively expensive investment, when recordings of gigs could be famously poor quality. Still, there was a rush in the purchase and hope in the gamble. As Clinton Heylin notes in Bootleg! The Rise and Fall of the Street Recording Industry, “bootleg collectors the world over will remember their initial ‘hit’ – that first time they stumbled upon a stall or store selling albums you weren’t supposed to be able to buy.”

Mike Scott of the Waterboys was quoted in the press as saying he had no strong objections to bootleggers, and had even bought bootlegs of Waterboys gigs on the bridge. Taking to the stage at Dublin’s National Stadium, Morrissey introduced a new song by saying it was a gift to the bootleggers, as he had yet to record it. Other artists, in particular U2, were less jovial about it all.

The speed with which the recordings would appear on the bridge was remarkable. In a piece exploring the economics of it all, the Irish Press noted in 1991 that “During U2’s Joshua Tree tour, tapes of concerts in the United States of less than one week vintage were available in plentiful supply.” To an extent, Irish artists were generally not too bothered about live recordings of their gigs being sold, but bootlegged copies of studio albums were treated very differently. Gardaí seized more than 4,000 bootleg tapes in raids across the country in October 1992, at a time when the ‘industry’ was beginning to unravel.

By then, things were changing. The dominance of the CD, coupled with the arrival of music megastore Virgin beside the bridge,  didn’t help those flogging tapes on the bridge.  A former customer, in a brilliant memoir piece, recounted:

The last time I clearly remember them on the bridge they were selling the Nirvana at The Point Depot cassette from 1992 with Kurt’s own ‘Rock Star’ signature on the cover (another show I attended). It’s possible this was one of the last big sellers for the traders. Maybe with the increased uptake of CD or the Gardai cracking down on them this business seemed to gradually move into shops from then on but the emphasis was more on unreleased studio recordings.

These tapes remain as interesting mementos of magic nights, sometimes in Dublin venues that are no longer with us, like the SFX Hall or McGonagale’s. The homemade, DIY covers of many of the tapes make them something of a design curiosity too, and while more and more bands are now releasing official live recordings of their shows, these tapes offer a nostalgia that cannot be matched.

 

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Earl Gill plaque, Neary’s.

Dublin’s Palm Court Ballroom had it all, or certainly it had enough to terrify Cornelius Gallagher, one of those who reported to the Vigilance Committee and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. Visiting it in 1955, he wrote that:

 I went to the Mambo Club dance in Palm Court Ballroom last Monday night. Yes! The hall was packed: 100% Teddy Boys, and, I suppose, Teddy Girls. I don’t know if the girls have any particular name, though I could think of a few names which might suit!…The dancing was almost 100% jiving.

It’s likely that on the night Cornelius got himself all hot and bothered by the sight of young people enjoying themselves, Earl Gill was on the stage. By 1955, the Palm Court stage was firmly his.

At the exterior of Neary’s pub, a plaque honours the legendary trumpet-player and bandleader Earl Gill. It has clearly gone on something of an adventure, proclaiming that Gill performed in “this theatre” over many years. While I’m not sure just how it ended up where it has, it honours an figure of great importance in the social and entertainment history of the immediate area. Gill fronted the resident dance band of the Shelbourne Hotel for over four decades, as well as packing various bars and hotels across the inner-city.

Born in Dublin’s East Wall in October 1932, Gill came from good musical stock. His father was a popular pianist at the Queen’s Theatre, while his mother played the cello. His own intention was to follow his father as a pianist, however an accident at the tender age of 12 resulted in the loss of two fingers. Earl switched his musical attention to the trumpet, mastering the instrument by the age of 15, when he was performing almost nightly in the Olympia Theatre. In 1954, a young Gill was praised in the Herald as “one of the finest trumpeters in the country, combining a high degree of musical skill with a sparking style of presentation.” By then, Gill was performing at the Gresham on a regular basis, considered the finest dancing venue in the city.

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The young Earl Gill.

In the pre-Showband world, dance bands packed in the crowds. Eleanor O’Leary traces the rise of the dancehall scene in her study Youth and Popular Culture in 1950s Ireland, noting that Dublin had the pulling power to attract stars like Frankie Laine, Bill Hailey, Tommy Steele, Johnny Ray and Vic Lewis.

Even those who opposed it at first came to recognise its commercial pull, with the Herald writing:

We are in the throes of a transition. Ballroom proprietors who have long frowned on jive and its unconventional offshoots have now begun to accept it for what it is worth.

One Dublin establishment, the Palm Court, which is the babe of our luxury night spots, makes no secret of the fact that a new policy has been launched, to encourage rather than eradicate the modern trend. Here, bandleader Earl Gill, who blows a hotter trumpet than most musicians of his age, has been playing to packed houses.

When musical tastes changed, Gill was able to adopt. In 1965, the Earl Girl Showband, later the Hoedowners, tapped into the new emerging style of music that was popular. In an obituary piece for Gill, Dec Cluskey of popular band The Bachelors recalled that:

He was the first superstar single name showband leader. He bridged the gap between the classy, brass-led, big band style and the brash, showy style of the thousands of showbands trekking up and down the roads of Ireland every night of the week.

The band had a remarkable fourteen charting singles between 1966 and 1973, becoming one of Ireland’s leading showbands in the process. He returned to the Shelbourne in the aftermath of the break up of the band, and remained an active and touring musician until his retirement in 2012, always in demand and always respected. As a producer, he worked on a number of records for The Dubliners, with whom he formed a working relationship and friendship.

I’m not sure how his plaque ended up where it did, but I’m glad he has one.

 

Dublin, at her core, is a Georgian city. Despite this, she is home to a number of very impressive Victorian structures which we tend to take for granted. Personal favourites include the Georges Street Arcade, the Chapel Royal of Dublin Castle and the Commercial Union building on the corner of College Green and Grafton Street. An impressive sandstone building, it stands out in stark contrast to a lot of the Georgian architecture around it.

Most Dubs probably know it as the ‘Tourism Office’ now, or as the home of the Irish Whiskey Museum. Passing it recently, I noticed the coats of arms of two cities in the beautiful frontage of the building, showing Dublin and London. Dublin’s coat of arms depicts three burning castles, with an official city history noting “the flames symbolise zeal; here they represent the zeal of the citizens in the defence of Dublin.” Our rather unfortunate city motto, linking the obedience of citizens to happiness, doesn’t feature on College Green.

Alongside it is the coat of arms of London, consisting of a shield featuring the cross of St George, as well as an upright sword, symbol of the martyrdom of Saint Paul.

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Commercial Union Building, College Green.

In the Victorian capital, as Michael Barry notes, “the area around Dame Street and College Green became the commercial and financial heart of Victorian Dublin. Here, the buildings were of import and substance, usually with fine detailing and often a touch of fantasy.” Almost neighbouring the Commercial Union buildings, the old National Bank (now Abercrombie and Fitch) has a striking depicting of Érin herself over the building, alongside the patriotic symbols of a harp and an Irish wolfhound. Dublin’s economic fortunes were linked to London and the Empire, and while Érin stands tall and defiant, the Commercial Union building links the two capitals.

Dating from the 1880s, the Commercial Union Assurance Co. building is the work of Sir Thomas Newenham Deane, assisted by his son, Thomas Manly Deane. Born in Cork, Thomas Newenham Deane worked on a number of celebrated Dublin buildings, including the Trinity College Dublin Museum, Kildare Street Club (home to billiard playing monkeys) and the designs of the National Museum and National Library.

The building is best viewed from across the street, and standing at the gates of Trinity College Dublin you can really appreciate its scale and detail, including its copper-green turret. From the vantage point of Trinity College Dublin, this early twentieth century image captured the building bedecked for a royal occasion. The two city coat of arms can clearly be seen too, above a curious crowd gazing across at the university.

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Image Credit: Aviva Heritage.

The building today houses the James Fox Cigar and Whiskey Store, and some sources refer to the corner in times gone by as Fox’s Corner owing to this. With so much recent discussion and debate over the future of College Green, be sure to stop next time you’re passing through to appreciate some of its architectural gems you may have missed.

 

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 Freeman’s Journal, 21 May 1920.

In May 1920, East London dockers refused to load the SS Jolly George, a ship intended to carry arms to be used against the new Bolshevik state. Reflecting on the event years later, the communist activist Harry Pollitt remembered:

On May 15th, the munitions are unloaded back onto the dock side, and on the side of one case is a very familiar sticky-back, ‘Hands Off Russia!’ It is very small, but that day it was big enough to be read all over the world.

Certainly, the brave stand taken in London would have an impact internationally. The SS Jolly George sailed on without any armaments on board. The leaflets that littered the docklands of London made it clear; “no munitions must sail. No guns, aeroplanes, shells, bombs. Take no heed of cowardly politicians. With peace, Russia will light a beacon for the world.”

On 20 May, Dublin dockworkers followed the lead of their London equivalent. Refusing to handle British military equipment, Irish dockworkers introduced a new form of resistance into the country, which would quickly be adopted by railwaymen in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Writing in his memoir Forth The Banners Go, the trade unionist William O’Brien recounted the tale:

…a member of the dockers’ section of the Dublin No.1 Branch came to see me late one evening. He told me there were two vessels coming to Dublin with munitions to be used in the war here. One of the boars had arrived and was ready to be started discharing first thing on the following morning. He said that he might be one of the casual dockers, hoping to be picked for this job.

The man was a Citizen Army veteran of the Easter Rising, not particularly unusual in the docklands of Dublin. 1916 veterans included Tom Leahy, who had fought in the rebellion with the Irish Volunteers, but transferred to the ICA in the aftermath of the Rising. He recalled that throughout 1917 and 1918:

The work went on – making train wrecking tools, hand bombs, and everything that would be handy and useful when required. Several British naval vessels came to the dockyard for repairs – as our firm was on the Government list for such – and several raids were made on these vessels for arms when most of the crew were ashore.

When news of this proposed radical action was brought to O’Brien’s desk, he informed the visiting docker that he would raise it with Thomas Foran, General President of the union. The following day, the men standing around waiting to begin work were told that the work was not to start. The munitions strike had begun.

On hearing of the political action at the Dublin docks, the second ship was then diverted for Dun Laoghaire. Here, the military were on hand to unload its cargo, but when it arrived at Westland Row station, workers there refused to handle the goods. This, as Padraig Yeates notes in his masterful study of Dublin in the period,upped the temperature considerably. While the dockworkers were casual workers who could be reallocated elsewhere, the railwaymen were permanent employers and members of the separate National Union of Railwaymen.

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The Freeman’s Journal shows the goods which Dublin dockers refused to offload.

In Britain, large sections of the working class movement responded favourably to the actions of Dublin dockworkers, though there was no sympathetic action. From John Maclean, the Scottish socialist firebrand, came words of praise and hope; ” Irishmen now refuse to supply the Army of Occupation with the ammunition that may be used to kill themselves when off industrial duty. This is surely the most sensible thing Irishmen have ever done in their history of toil and trouble. Irish Labour may call an Irish General Strike to force the withdrawal of troops from Ireland.”

In the following days, the action taken at the docks and Dun Laoghaire would be replicated elsewhere. The Freeman’s Journal reported on 24 May that “Yesterday afternoon some men at Inchicore were ordered to take a train-load of wagons containing ‘goods’ from Amiens street to Thurles, from which place the ‘goods’ were to be distributed to three other centres. When it became known that the wagons contained munitions disembarked at Kingstown the men refused to work the train.”

To sections of the conservative press, the behaviour of dockers and railwaymen was scandalous. The ever reliable Punch illustrated news produced a sketch in a June 1920 edition showing an IRA gunman hiding behind a rural wall, joined by a railway worker, or “the blameless accomplice.”  The “Sinn Féin assassin” and the worker were conspiring hand in hand in the eyes of Punch. Still, the condemnation was nothing compared to The Irish Times at home, who believed that the workers involved were challenging “the fundamental security of the state and the fundamental rights of employers.”

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A brave stand that began on the docks of Dublin spread nationwide, largely thanks to the militancy of railway workers. From arms in storage, the strike was widened to include the carrying of men holding arms representing Crown Forces. One Irish Volunteer, also employed at Mallow train station, recounted being dismissed from his job in his statement to the Bureau of Military History, noting that “when eventually 19 men had been dismissed for the same reason, the O/C Mallow decided to take the stationmaster prisoner and to detain him for a time.” The strike has real potential to create such tensions in work forces across the country.

The munitions strike was an effective tactic, proven by the infuriated responses to it from the upper-echelons of the British military and political class. In Westminster,  Hamar Greenwood thundered that “no government can allow railways subsidised out of the pockets of the taxpayers to refuse to carry police and soldiers.” Likewise, in his Annals of an Active Life, Sir Nevil Macready, Commander in Chief of Crown Forces, acknowledged the tremendous difficulty the munitions strike created for the movement of men across the island.

Some £120,000 was subscribed to support men victimised for their participation in the strike, but in the absence of sympathetic strike action in Britain, and with increasingly vicious physical assaults on railwaymen, the Irish leadership felt increasingly vulnerable in the dispute, which eventually wound-down in December. In November, the Government began closing rail lines, including the Limerick to Waterford and Limerick to Tralee lines,as well as trains into Galway city, which certainly instigated a fear among the public that the Irish railway system could be shut down in its entirety.

The British approach to the crisis was to present the railwaymen as acting under duress. A bogus “order issued to railwaymen in Ireland and signed by the Ministry of War of the government of the Republic of Ireland” was produced, though dismissed outright by the report of the Irish Trade Union Congress, which insisted that “the railwaymen acted from the beginning of their own initiative, and were supported by the National Executive, by the Trade Union movement, and the country generally. They dictated their own policy independent of any instructions from any authority outside the Labour Movement.”

As both an industrial action and an example of mass civil disobedience, the munitions strike is a part of the story of revolutionary Ireland which is deserving of a place in this on-going Decade of Centenaries. Working class militancy across the island of Ireland, from the (largely Protestant and Unionist working class) Belfast Engineers Strike of 1919 to the Limerick Soviet, demonstrated the power of organised labour here clearly. In refusing to load or carry the weapons of war, both dockers and railwaymen demonstrated a unique form of opposition to the British occupation of Ireland.

In 1965, BBC journalist John Morgan was sent to Dublin to gather some idea of the attitudes of the Irish public to censorship. Standing outside a Dublin bookshop, he began his report by commenting on the types of books that did sell in Ireland. In the window behind him, we can see an ad for Dan Breen’s memoir My Fight For Irish Freedom, as well as other titles focused on the revolutionary period and Irish history more broadly.

On the streets, Morgan encountered a variety of opinions, but most of the public seemed broadly supportive of some degree of censorship of the printed word and screen. There were some voices of objection ,but in the words of one young man, “we’re not as liberal as the British, who are after all not a Christian race if one is to say that at present day.”

By the second half of the 1960s, censorship in Ireland was beginning to unravel, in no small part thanks to the efforts of some high profile victims of the Censorship of Publications Board to publicly challenge the body. This year, Dublin City Council and Dublin UNESCO City of Literature will celebrate Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls trilogy, a series of books which were banned upon release but are now recognised as Irish literary classics. As the very deserving chosen title for One City One Book, thousands of people across the city will engage with the work of an author whose work was shamefully dismissed as “a smear on Irish womanhood” at the time of publication.

Refusing to accept the banning of her works, O’Brien was central to the high profile foundation meeting of the Censorship Reform Society at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in December 1966, which received international attention. While living in London, she returned to Dublin, banned books in hand, to address the rally that included leading voices from the world of theatre, academia and literature. Of her arrival, the Irish Examiner noted:

Edna O’Brien, the Clare-born authoress, landed at Dublin Airport on Saturday night with five copies of her books. She left the airport holding only the dust jackets of her novels. The customs officials had confiscated the books.

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Evening Herald, 5 December 1966.

Few public meetings receive the level of attention that the launch of the Censorship Reform Society on 4 December 1966 did,but the sheer calibre of speaker at their launch explains the public interest. Among thirteen speakers, theatre director and actor Micheal Mac Liammoir, poet Brendan Kennelly and novelist James Plunkett addressed the meeting. The following day, the Irish Press reported that “twelve men and Edna O’Brien declared that the system branded authors as pornographers, obscene and indecent.”

Jim Fitzgerald, theatre and television producer, served as Chairman of the group and was a driving force behind the rally. Taking a similar line to other opponents of censorship in Irish life, including Sean O’Faolain of The Bell, he emphasised that the society were not against all censorship, as “the society was not being formed to challenge the bona fide aims of the Censorship Board where it concerned genuine pornography, but to lay the grounds for a system of appeal against a law which forbade the works of many true artists appearing on the bookshelves or bookshops and libraries in this country.”

Around a hundred people were turned away from the packed Gate Theatre, where the meeting began with actors T.P McKenna and Maureen Toral reading excerpts from Edna O’Brien’s latest work, which was then in legal limbo, having been seized by customs and other consideration by the Censorship of Publications Board. The Censorship Reform Society announced its intention to challenge the banning of O’Brien’s work in the courts, if the Board deemed the book unfit for Irish audiences.

Not all reporting on the meeting was friendly, Seamus Brady in the Irish Press was particularly scathing of O’Brien, while also suggesting a link between ‘corrupting publications’ and crime in other nations:

The National Council of Juvenile Court Judges in the United States,which is surely more entitled to speak on the subject, has come out sternly to blame corrupting publications as a major cause of the growth of sex and armed robbery crimes among juvenile delinquents. then we have Miss Edna O’Brien,who is becoming somewhat tiresome in her self-appointed role of acting as special advocate in pleasing the cause of our womanfolk. Well, whatever they may say in the free and exacting atmosphere of Britain about our censorship, we are certainly broadminded when it comes to affording public platforms for our cranks and critics. Miss O’Brien enjoys the freedom of the State-owned Radio Telefis Eireann for her views.

Frustratingly, the Censorship of Publications Board was not obliged to give any information on why books were banned. Less than a week after the Gate Theatre meeting, it was announced that O’Brien’s Casualties of Peace was the latest banned work, with the press reporting that “the ban is on grounds of indecency. A spokesman for the Board would give no further details.” With this being the case, the Censorship Reform Society called for “a system whereby a banned author could appeal to the courts”.

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1st UK edition of Causalities of Peace, banned by the Censorship of Publications Board (Image Credit: Ulysses Rare Books)

Living outside of Ireland, O’Brien perhaps felt more comfortable challenging censorship than other Irish writers, who were sometimes victimised in their professional lives when works fell foul of the Board. Most famously, the fallout from the banning of John McGahern’s The Dark has contributed, at least in part, to his removal from a teaching post. To be banned, it was joked, an honour for an Irish writer. Still, as O’Faolain noted, it could also bring feelings of great anger. On learning that his book Midsummer Night Madness was banned, he later noted that “outwardly I laughed at the news. In my heart I felt infuriated and humiliated.”

How important was the Censorship Reform Society in changing things? In truth, censorship was already in the process of collapse. Bruce Arnold recalled that the body was short lived:

Some of us started the Censorship Reform Society. Edna O’Brien spoke at the Gate Theatre on the inaugural night. We had seen Edna’s novels banned, along with a host of other works of literature, and we wanted to fight this.

As with most Irish ventures, few offered financial help. In any case, the society was overtaken by events; censorship began to crumble.

The Censorship Reform Society did succeed in bringing public scrutiny on the Censorship Publications Board. Judge Charles Conroy, chairman of the board,  found himself in the spotlight after the rally, telling one journalist from Trinity News that “our main aim is to keep filth out of this country.” The student journalist came away from it all wondering:

Is the judge himself qualified to be on the Censorship Board? In my hour’s conversation with him he did not appear to have anything more than superficial knowledge of literature. The main attribute of all the members of the Board was their common sense, rather than their knowledge of literature.

1967 brought real reform to Irish censorship law, as now prohibition orders made on the grounds of indecency would expire after a period of twelve years, though they could then be reexamined then. The immediate effect of the reform was the unbanning of thousands of works. Undoubtedly, the controversies around 1960s works like O’Brien’s and McGahern’s had played a pivotal role in this change. If nothing else, the December 1966 meeting was an unprecedented united front against censorship from right across the artistic community.

O’Brien very beautifully described Irish censorship as being rooted in a “fear of knowledge, a fear of communicating our desires, our secrets, our stream of consciousness”.  This year, Dublin will rightly honour her work, and her contribution to intellectual freedom in Irish life.

 

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Thomas Johnson, Secretary of the Irish Labour Party and drafter of the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.

The meeting of the First Dáil in Dublin’s Mansion House on 21 January 1919 was the realisation of Sinn Féin’s stunning electoral victory in the General Election of the previous month. For many of those in attendance,  it was a defining moment in their own political journey. The title of this post comes from the memoir of Máire Comerford, Cumann na mBán activist who watched it all from the gallery. She remembered listening to the speaker, as “we repeated the words of the Declaration after him, and felt we had burnt our boats now. There was no going back.”

Sweeping aside the old order of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the Sinn Féin electoral landslide was described beautifully by one contemporary observer as the “triumph of the young over the old.” Some of those who lost their seats had stepped aside graciously; in the words of one defeated Home Ruler, it was simply: “the passing away of a great movement, to be succeeded by another.”To the conservative British press, the result was horrifying, though the Daily Mail found some comfort in the fact that: “the victory of the Sinn Féiners, since they do not intend to come to Westminster, may indeed be regarded as a blessing.”

Sinn Féin’s election manifesto had been unambiguous about the question of Irish parliamentarians sitting in Westminster, pledging the party to: “withdrawing the Irish Representation from the British Parliament and…denying the right and opposing the will of the British Government or any other foreign Government to legislate for Ireland.” More ambiguous however was its commitment to: “making use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise.”

With 69 parliamentarians representing 73 constituencies, Sinn Féin could assert itself as the dominant force in Irish political life. Yet a century ago, it was a mere 27 elected representatives who gathered in Dublin’s Mansion House, reflecting the political turmoil of the day and the widespread suppression of prominent Sinn Féin voices.

Internationally, the gathering was front page news, with New York’s The Evening World telling their readers that: “probably no country except Ireland could present an episode as remarkable as the assembly of the Dáil Éireann (Gaelic for Irish Parliament) which was called to order in Dublin’s ancient Mansion House.” In London, the press reports noted that: “Dublin Castle has apparently decided to ignore the Dáil, as long as it is confined to talking.”

When the roll call of all elected Irish parliamentarians was read, 29 were ‘i lathair’ (present), many more ‘as lathair’ (not present), and others either ‘fé ghlas ag Gallaibh’ (jailed by the foreigner) or ‘ar díbirt ag Gallabih’ (deported by the foreigner). There was some laughter in the room when Unionist leader Edward Carson was recorded as ‘as lathair.’ Despite 29 being declared in attendance, there were 27 in reality.  Harry Boland and Michael Collins, while declared to be in the room, were both absent. It provided an alibi for other plans, and said something of the seditious nature of it all.

What took place at this gathering was deeply symbolic, and intended for the consumption of a global audience. As Europe was reeling from the fallout of World War One, and all eyes were focused on France and the peace conferences many hoped could bring permanent peace to the continent, a ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’ was read in the Mansion House in English, Irish and French.It explicitly stated that: “the permanent peace of Europe can never be secured by perpetuating military dominion for the profit of empire but only by establishing the control of government in every land upon the basis of the free will of a free people.” Sinn Féin sought to give Ireland a voice at this new table of European diplomacy, maintaining that while it was a new day, we were an old nation: “Ireland today reasserts her historic nationhood the more confidently before the new world emerging from the War.”

firstdail

Members of the First Dáil photographed on 21 January 1919.

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