The Other Voice - Art, Spirituality, and Psychology in Ireland

In 1936 my mother came over to Ireland on the Cunard Line from America. Everybody in America knew that Edward VIII, King of England, was having an affair with Mrs Wallace Simpson. It was all over the tabloid newspapers, with incriminating photographs of the pair. In Ireland, and indeed England, when my mother arrived in Dublin to study at Trinity College, nobody knew about it. It was a secret. The government had forbidden the Press to publish this news, it was considered dangerous to national security, and the Press obeyed. When my mother began to tell people at parties in Dublin, they thought she was off her head. Being a conscientious Catholic she asked a Jesuit priest whether it was libel, detraction or scandal to be spreading news that was common knowledge in America but completely unknown over here. 'I'm not quite sure which it is' he said, 'but it’s very interesting. Tell me more.'

There are moments in history when a people get the chance to reinvent their country. The government in charge can summon whomsoever they consider capable of such fundamental thought and together they work out how to organise the country, how the society is to be run. Such defining moments came in America with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, in France after their Revolution in 1798, in Russia after 1917, and in Ireland during the first quarter of the twentieth century, almost in parallel with the Russian experiment. We got our opportunity to define what we meant by human being, and to put that into practice in a restructured society. Unfortunately, the paradigm we came up with was so narrow and so pure that it left out a large number of our population and a vast proportion of our humanity.

Ireland in the Twentieth Century became a ‘Nanny State,’ if we accept that to mean a country where the government or its policies are overprotective, or interfere unduly with individual freedom and personal choice of its citizens. The first half of the twentieth century was a battle for the ‘soul’ of Ireland. This battle for the citadel became polarized into two camps, those defending a Gaelic Catholic nationalism and those promoting a cosmopolitan internationalism. Church and government rallied behind the first option. Doors were shut culturally and we remained imprisoned in a homemade straitjacket.

Both the Church and the government were obsessed by the constant threat to purity, from foreign, most especially English, influences. A moral panic swept through the newly formed Irish Free State in 1922. In 1927 the bishops issued a joint pastoral: 'The evil one is forever setting his snares for unwary feet. At the moment, his traps for the innocent are chiefly the dance-hall, the bad book, the indecent paper, the motion picture, the immodest fashion in female dress - all of which tend to destroy the characteristic virtues of our race.' The twentieth century with all its technological invention and cultural fashions was pitted against an almost racist view of Irish purity. John McGahern puts it succinctly: ‘When I was in my 20s it did occur to me that there was something perverted about an attitude that thought that killing somebody was a minor offence compared to kissing somebody.’

This ideology won a major victory in the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929. By 1943, over 2000 books had been banned. Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, Christopher Isherwood, Alberto Moravia, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre, Dylan Thomas, H.G.Wells, Emile Zola, give an alphabetical international sample. Irish authors banned included Liam O'Flaherty in the 1930s to Lee Dunne in the 1970s, Frank O'Connor, two Nobel prize winners, Beckett and Shaw, Austin Clarke, Edna and Kate O'Brien, and, of course, Joyce.

The 1937 De Valera Constitution of our 'free' state, expressed this philosophy in no uncertain terms. In a radio broadcast to the United States on 15 June that same year, De Valera called it 'the spiritual and cultural embodiment of the Irish people' and to mark its first anniversary in 1938, he reminded us, almost as in a sermon: 'As faith without good works is dead, so must we expect our Constitution to be if we are content to leave it merely as an idle statement of principles in which we profess belief but have not the will to put into practice.' Sean O'Faolain described De Valera's philosophy of life as 'something so dismal that beside it the Trappist Rule of Mount Melleray is a Babylonian orgy.' John Charles McQuaid who was Archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972 is seen by his biographer John Cooney as the ‘undisputed champion of Catholic supremacy,’ and he was ‘determined to reiterate the belief that Ireland was different from elsewhere when it came to sexual morality and practice.’

The decrying of moral laxity was not just an Irish phenomenon. All over Europe after The Great War there was a fear of degenerate moral behaviour. But, in Ireland, the new Republic was particularly single-minded and fanatical about establishing its own national dugout. Spirituality at that time was really a white, male, middle-class, Catholic morality. The unconscious was denied, psychology was repudiated and art was held in suspicion.

If we compare our experiment in trying to create a perfect society over the last 100 years with a similar one within more or less the same time-frame, Russia comes to mind. We began with the Easter rising in 1916, they began their revolution a year later. "Perestroika" (restructuring) and "glasnost" (openness) spelt the end of the Soviet Union. Our own sociological experiment was disintegrating at about the same time. All our most cherished institutions began to crumble. Now that we have again the opportunity, nearly one hundred years after we gained our freedom, to reformulate what it might mean to be a person living on this island in the twenty-first century, we should at least make sure that we don’t make the mistakes we made when we first set out on this project.

Topping that list of important lessons we should have learnt is our attitude towards art. We have to recognize that far from being a danger to our integrity, art is one of the most important ways of approaching the future with imagination and authenticity.

To trace the erroneous path we have travelled in this regard for quite some time, let me focus on one example. Attitudes towards cinema, the art-form invented in the twentieth century, provide an interesting litmus test, an indicator of attitude and intent.

During the course of the Dáil debate on the Censorship of Films Bill in the early 1920s, William Magennis, Professor of Metaphysics at University College Dublin, and Cumann na nGaedheal TD, expounded at some length on the evils of cinema: ‘Purity of mind and sanity of outlook upon life were long ago regarded as characteristic of our people. The loose views and the vile lowering of values that belong to other races and other peoples were being forced upon our people through the popularity of the cinematograph.’ Magennis was worried about the effect that cinema would have even on those chosen representatives who would guard the rest of us from obscenity. For him, cinema was equivalent to a deadly plague, what Ebola might represent for us today. He explained to his listeners in the Dáil the effect that exposure to cinema would have even on the censors. He asserted that the ordinary person did not have the defences or immunity which was required for viewing films. Only medical doctors, who had built up this immunity through their work in combating diseases would be capable of dealing with the pestilence of cinema and while his advice was not strictly followed, it is true that doctors (medical and psychiatric) have featured prominently among Ireland’s Official Film Censors, all of whom have been men.

 The first appointed censor, James Montgomery, set the tone for what came after him. Guided by theological certainty, he set a strict moral blueprint that lasted for half the Twentieth Century, and subsequent censors slotted seamlessly into Montgomery’s moral template.

For the most part, these censors tried to ‘re-edit’ Hollywood narrative cinema to fit an ideal notion of Irish society. However, even their sanitized version of the films contrasted sharply with the Ireland of the time. Cinema provided a dangerous alternative world of excitement and glamour which was absent elsewhere in Irish life for most cinemagoers. But just as the censors felt they had begun to get a grip on all the films entering this country they were faced with an even greater enemy which was the arrival of television. Every home in the country could have traitor in the sitting-room spewing out filth in all directions. The situation became impossible to supervise when the so-called ‘spill-over signals’ from British and Northern Ireland TV channels were available to 40% of the population by the end of the 1950s. And when ITV entered the lists in 1956, the opinion was that this channel was ‘governed by ideas that are wholly alien to the ordinary Irish home.’

The difficulty with ‘motion pictures’ was that they provided a moving image, in every sense of the words. Once actors and actresses began to move on the screen there was no stopping them. You couldn’t really censor these new films unless you banned them altogether. Once Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando or Brigit Bardot begin to move on the silver screen, before they even open their mouths, sexuality exuded and invaded every space around them. As Charles Laughton said so famously in 1935: ‘They cannot censor the glint in my eye.’

Movement meant dancing and the Irish censors had a particular aversion to suggestive dances. The can-can, the rhumba, the boogie-woogie, and the jitterbug were all cut from every film. There was even a documentary film about Fishing in Hawaii which had two shots of a hula dance removed for Irish viewers. And then, of course, there was Elvis Presley. Despite the view that Irish teenagers were different from the rest of the world, Rock around the Clock, as one of the first teen pics on the move, got Irish youth dancing and rioting in the cinema aisles exactly like teenagers all over the rest of the world. Screened in Sligo, for example, in November, 1956, extra Gardaí had to be drafted in to deal with ‘mass hysteria.’ Councillor J. Dolan of Sligo Corporation, described them as ‘hysterical nit-wits in drain-pipe trousers copying what they had seen across the channel.’ You see, it wasn’t us, it was the others who were forcing this epidemic upon us. Left to ourselves we would be an immobile paragon of purity.

‘Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone; let’s pretend that we’re together all alone.’ This is what the darkened cinema and the sumptuous upholstery into which we can sink allowed us to believe: we were together all alone with our matinee idols. Kevin Rockett, in his magnificent study of Irish Film Censorship, calls the Cinema an ‘engulfing aesthetic;’ you are sucked in and swallowed, hook line and sinker, and you love every minute of it.

Rather than adapt and use the medium of Cinema for their own ends, as was the case, for example, in the Soviet Union during its revolutionary period where cinema was placed centre-stage and gave rise to an artistically rich avant-garde tradition, Ireland simply tried to contain its threat. American movies became enemy number one: the Harlotry of Hollywood. As James Montgomery often said: ‘one of the greatest dangers of . . . films is not the Anglicisation of Ireland, but its Los Angelesation.’

Most ideologies behind political regimes of the twentieth century were opposed to modern art of every kind which they saw as decadent. Artists were trying to show us the new world we had just entered. Artists not only see this world but they shape it also, they provide the ways in which we see, hear, taste, touch, the otherwise chaotic world in which we live. Artists form the template of what we look at and what we see. Great artists are endowed with a cosmic sensitivity to the earthquake which had taken place below the surface and had blown away the gingham village we were trying to substitute for our planet floating in the void. It was only in the last quarter of the twentieth century that real news about how old the planet was, how vast the universe is, and how our human species eventually emerged, percolated through to a critical mass of the world’s population. Up until then we had been sheltered from the facts by the cultural protectionists who ran our lives. There were a few artists trying to show us a few home truths and trying to open our eyes and ears but they were treated as oddities or freaks of the entertainment circus.

Art which may seem unusual, bizarre, outrageous, obscene, even lunatic at the time of articulation, which may cause public uproar and official condemnation when it appears, can later reveal itself to be, not just genuine and valid expression of human being and behaviour, in the case of one particular person, but excavation of a reality which lies in the underbelly of the life of each one of us.

In Ireland, art as the 'other voice,' the alternative to the ‘party line,’ has been constant and assiduous in attempting to formulate a different, a wider, a less banal and more variegated identity than the one being prescribed for us by both Church and State. The message of the artists to us, since the beginning of this century, has been consistent, and has been repudiated or ignored by officialdom both in the church and in the state. And the message is this: the picture of humanity that you are painting, whether in its ideal form or in your perception of what it is actually like, is too narrow, too pessimistic, too 'other-worldly,' too unsubtle. You refuse to accept the blood-and-guts reality of what we are, the bodily, sexual, earthy amalgam that makes us who we are. We want to be human, fully human. If God doesn't want our humanity the way it is, the way he made it, then he doesn't want us at all. He wants something else. The job of the artist is to describe, to express that reality as it actually is. Artists have been doing that from the beginning of our history as an independent state and because they have been doing that, they have been condemned, banned, excommunicated by the official organs of the Church and State.

Throughout the twentieth century in Ireland we have been told the same thing in different ways, by innumerable artists. None of these are saying that there is no God, there is no Church, there is no Christianity. On the contrary, they are suggesting that if any of these realities want to have some effective contact with us and operate any kind of comprehensive salvation, they must begin taking seriously the partner with whom they are trying to have such a relationship. Spirituality is an adventure not an anaesthetic. Whereas the Church was vigorously defending the orthodoxy of Catholicism, artists were defending the orthodoxy of humanity.

A dialogue must happen. Much has to change, many anachronisms need to be discarded, many superstitions purified, many fears allayed. We are a different, more affluent, better educated population than ever before. Art of the future has no template, no guide, no intellectual categories; it feels its way forward. The artist pours out the feeling which almost bleeds through onto the canvas and there seeps its way into shape and form. What belongs to the spirit of the future must also be realized through feeling, we have to add this to the requirements. And in this idiom the artist is our most adequate guide.

Such art is spiritual work, the work of helping to create the future. The future is not something out there which we step into as into an already designed space. The future is ourselves as we choose to become. We are not necessarily determined by some inexorable flow of history. We can stop the world and redirect it, if we have sufficient understanding and imagination both to point out the better way and to make it compelling enough to accomplish. This vision of humanity and of the world is the artist's task. Others do not have the sensitivity, the authenticity, the flair for capturing such originality or such alternative possibilities. It is still possible for those of us who live on this island of Ireland in the second decade of the twenty-first century to shape our future within the limitations and constrictions which global membership imposes.

Art can provide an accurate and unflinching cardiograph of the present with a prognosis of possibilities for the future which politicians and leaders ignore at their peril. If we are to move forward towards a development which respects all the elements in the amalgam which we are, which we have become, which we hope to direct towards the most optimistic future, it is essential that we collaborate with scientists and artists who are the antennae, the diviners, the creators of at least one aspect of our future. They are our eyes, our ears, our imaginations.

About the author: 

Mark Patrick Hederman is abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, Ireland since 2009. He is a Benedictine monk, teacher, lecturer and writer. He was the former headmaster at Glenstal School and was later named academic dean.

Abbot Mark Patrick earned a doctorate degree from UCD in the philosophy of education. He has lectured in philosophy and literature outside Ireland, most notably in the United States and Nigeria.