Absurdity of blasphemy law revived by Ahern
WE ARE awful eejits really. How could anyone possibly believe that the Department of Justice is seriously planning to revive the crime of blasphemy for the 21st century?
A little more awareness of the historical context might have prompted a simple question: what year is this? 2009. And what happened a hundred years ago in 1909? Three Irish people made a deliberate feck of the blasphemy laws, exposed the idiocy of trying to enforce them and delivered a fatal blow to the intellectual assumptions on which they are based.
We should have realised that a man as cultured as Dermot Ahern would come up with a novel and provocative way to commemorate this glorious centenary.
The three Irish people in question were Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats and Augusta Gregory. A hundred years ago this month, Shaw’s little play The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet was refused a licence for performance by the English censors.
This was exactly what Shaw had intended. He wrote a rather mild piece with a sprinkling of offensiveness just sufficient to provoke the wrath of the authorities. This includes a shot of blasphemy when the anti-hero preaches a sermon on God’s mysterious ways. The purpose is revealed when another character interjects: “Speak more respectful Blanco – more reverent.”
The stupid censor fell into Shaw’s trap, allowing the great controversialist to appear before a parliamentary select committee and announce: “I think that the danger of crippling thought, the danger of obstructing the formation of the public mind by specially suppressing such representations is far greater than any real danger there is from such representations”.
He also presented the committee with a written statement on censorship with a request that it be read into the record. The committee, in a gesture beyond satire, cleared the room, discussed the statement and decided that it should be suppressed.
That statement is, in fact, one of the great rebukes to the thought-control mechanisms behind blasphemy laws: “I am not an ordinary playwright in general practice. I am a specialist in immoral and heretical plays. My reputation has been gained by my persistent struggle to force the public to reconsider its morals.
“In particular, I regard much current morality as to economic and sexual relations as disastrously wrong; and I regard certain doctrines of the Christian religion as understood in England today with abhorrence. I write plays with the deliberate object of converting the nation to my opinions in these matters . . . ”
Shaw’s point was that he had not merely a right, but as he saw it a duty, to challenge accepted morality and to blaspheme against official religious doctrines.
And in one of the great founding statements of the importance of independent thought in the independent Ireland that was beginning to emerge, Yeats and Gregory took the bold decision to invite Shaw to submit Blanco Posnet to the Abbey.
They chose this whole issue of the idiotic anti-blasphemy laws as the one on which they would take a stand, not just for artistic and intellectual independence within Ireland but for Ireland’s intellectual freedom from England.
This was not just a grand gesture. Though Shaw and Gregory in particular enjoyed the sport of making fun of the authorities, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Aberdeen, had the power to revoke the Abbey’s patent and close it down.
He threatened to use “every power the law gave him” to stop the play. This included the threat of fines that would bankrupt the Abbey’s precarious finances. Gregory and Yeats publicly declared that to yield on this issue would be to compromise the independence of thought that would be needed in a free Ireland: “We must not by accepting the English censor’s ruling, give away anything of the liberty of the Irish theatre of the future”. The theatre, Gregory argued, “must have some respect for our audience and not treat them as babies”.
Gregory faced down the threats, and the play opened at the Abbey in August 1909. It played to packed houses. (“It is a pity,” reflected the ever-practical Gregory afterwards, “that we had not thought in time of putting up our prices.”)
The only complaint from audiences was that the play was so mild that it was hard to understand what all the fuss was about. Dublin Castle, its bluff successfully called, slunk away in humiliation. The idea that Irish people didn’t have to be treated as babies, though often forgotten after independence, was established.
How brilliant of Dermot Ahern to mark this important event in Irish intellectual life by reminding us of the absurdity of blasphemy laws.
Does he really think that it should be a crime to offend members of the Jedi church (from census returns that includes 70,000 people in Australia; 50,000 in New Zealand; 390,000 in the UK) by saying that a light sabre makes you look like a dork? Of course not.
With one satiric touch he has honoured the memory of Shaw, Yeats and Gregory and reminded us that blasphemy laws exist to protect, not religions, but bigots.
For his next trick, he will mark the Darwin bicentenary by threatening to make creationism compulsory.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times