W hen James Montgomery, the first film censor of the Irish Free State, took up his position, he felt comfortable in proclaiming that he knew little of the cinema but “took the Ten Commandments as his guide”.
Certainly, Ireland’s historic relationship with the big screen has been complex. While a rigidly controlled industry, cinema attendance in Ireland was consistently among the highest in Europe for much of the twentieth century, and the city of Dublin alone was home to a staggering 60 cinemas in the mid-1950s.
It is easy to dwell on Ireland’s long history of censorship, but perhaps it is more worthwhile to highlight those who bravely opposed it in all fields of life. Writers like Seán Ó Faoláin and Peadar O’Donnell, both veterans of the Irish revolution, demanded press freedom in their periodical The Bell, which serialised excerpts from banned books and proclaimed that “the censor, like the law, is always an ass”.
Demanding freedom for the written word was a noble battle to fight, but so was the campaign against cinema censorship. The Censorship of Films Act (1923) empowered the censor to keep films that were “indecent, obscene or blasphemous” from the Irish public.
As Ruth Barton notes in her masterful history of Irish cinema, film censorship in Ireland was “not just a question of a repressive government imposing rigorous restrictions on a vulnerable public”. Catholic lay organisations, like the League of Decency, were responsible for much of the impetus to ban and restrict films too.
Under the Censorship of Films Act, only films shown to the general public needed to be submitted to the censor, creating a loophole that allowed private film clubs to thrive. From this emerged the Irish Film Theatre (IFT) at Earlsfort Terrace in 1977. The IFT did not set out merely to bring banned films to the Irish public, but also to champion world cinema and art cinema which was not viewed as commercially viable by mainstream picture houses. The foundation of the IFT was made possible thanks to an Arts Council loan.
As Ciarán Benson has noted, “The Arts Council, under the leadership of Colm O’Briain, was a particularly energetic and exciting body at that time. It was a time when older categories of ‘fine’ art were being jostled by newer ones seeking recognition. Film was one of these upstarts.”
There was an appetite for what the IFT wished to do, and the club could boast of 500 members paying the £3 annual membership fee a week before ever opening its doors. A year after opening, it was reported to have a membership of 6,500. To put these numbers in context, the IFT operated out of a single-screen, 240-seat cinema.
Films shown included Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (which was widely banned upon its release in 1975) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. When the latter was first screened in New York City in October 1972, the Village Voice reported of “vomiting by well-dressed wives” appalled by its sexual violence.
Sometimes, the banned films were themselves Irish efforts. Take American director Joseph Strick’s 1967 masterpiece Ulysses, an Academy Award-nominated adaptation of James Joyce’s 1922 modernist work. Filmed in Dublin, it included an all-star cast, with Milo O’Shea playing the role of Leopold Bloom, while Barbara Jefford took on the difficult role of Molly Bloom, to whom fell some of the lines international censors found most disagreeable.
The film had been widely condemned upon release, and in New Zealand was shown only to gender-segregated audiences. Contrary to popular belief, the book itself was never formally banned in Ireland (though widely condemned), which made the banning of Strick’s film upon release all the more ludicrous.
Given that Joyce himself had been instrumental in establishing Dublin’s first commercial cinema, The Volta on Mary Street, his work being banned from the big screen had its own irony. Ulysses was only unbanned in 2000, giving it the rather dubious honour of being the longest banned film in the history of the Irish state. The banning of films like Ulysses convinced many of the need for the IFT and institutions like it.
Predictably, private film clubs attracted the ire of groups like the League of Decency. The president of the League, Leslie Quelch, proclaimed Ireland to be “the last bastion of Christianity in Western Europe”, maintaining that “there are powers trying to destroy the moral fibre of this country”.
Its members monitored the press, television, pictures, cinemas and even art galleries, and with a membership of some 7,000 people in 1978, it was an organisation of considerable influence. In the words of one member, they were “a Christian army – though we don’t carry guns”. A cinema beyond state control was a nightmare to those who believed they knew what was best for the Irish public.
The beginning of the end for the IFT came in November 1982, when it was reported that the cinema would open its doors to the public at normal cinema prices, owing to a decline in its membership. It was reported that “the move is also a reaction to accusations that the IFT operation was elitist and that its films should be open to the public”.
In changing the structure of the cinema, films were now subject to censorship. By 1984, it was being reported that the cinema was losing £1,000 a week. It closed in May of that year.
While a short-lived institution, it played a very important part in the history of cinema in this city, and is the forerunner of the Irish Film Institute and the Lighthouse Cinema, which continue to bring the best of international cinema to the people of Dublin. The site of the IFT is today occupied by The Sugar Club, an arts and entertainment venue which continues to host film screenings on occasion.