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Banned books in Trinity College

This post was written by Assumpta Guilfoyle and Louise Kavanagh, both in Collection Management, TCD Library.

On preparing an exhibition on banned books, we knew a certain amount about censorship in Ireland. After a bit more research on the topic it became clear that the banning system failed our now-renowned Irish writers, and denied the Irish public the right to read the very best of literature. The Censorship Board did not set out to ban so many books, but they ended up doing just that. We kept reminding ourselves that it was the 1920s, a Catholic country that was trying to revive its national identity, it was a complex time both at home and abroad. Benedict Kiely, banned, said a prohibition was ‘the only laurel wreath that Ireland was offering to writers in that particular period’.

The misjudged bannings had a devastating effect on writers’ livelihoods and lives. Many left Ireland never to return.  We chose a wide selection of well-known writers for the exhibit to showcase the extent of the bannings, such as Liam O’Flaherty, Austin Clarke, Edna O’Brien, John McGahern, Lee Dunne, Brian Moore, James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Aldous Huxley, Brendan Behan, Kate O’Brien, Walter Macken, Graham Greene. Think of your favourite 20th century writers, and they were probably banned. But the fight-back did come from writers critical of the system and the public, who increasingly, through newspapers like The Irish Times, questioned why these established writers were being banned. The reform movement gathered pace and successive Acts meant most of these works were “unbanned”.

Assumpta tells: “In 1974 when I started work as a Library Assistant in Trinity, Ireland was changing. I was a “country girl” coming to Dublin from Kilkenny to live and work. One of the many aspects of my job was being in charge of the banned books. Previously, one had to be either 25 years old or married. Attitudes had become more liberal when they appointed me, an innocent and naïve 18 year old. Every two months I would receive a list from Iris Oifigiuil (Ireland’s official state gazette) of banned books. Being a copyright library we would have already received many of these “sex books” that a member of the public had complained about to the Censorship Board. I would cross-check the list against our catalogue and these books were then processed by giving them a banned book number, a card typed with book details and filed. These books were supressed from our catalogue and were not available to readers. My next task was to cut the individual titles from the Iris Oifigiuil list and stick them onto the Stripdex strips for filing in the metal Stripdex catalogue. The books were stored in a locked cupboard in the Berkeley Library. As you can see, this was a very labour-intensive process pre-computers compared to my work today.”

From the late 1990s onwards fewer and fewer books were being banned. None have been banned in Trinity since the 17th August 2011.

We would recommend a book called Censorship: the Irish experience by Michael Adams, 1968, and the internet was also a great source of information to us on the topic. The exhibition on banned books is currently on display in the Ussher Library Orientation Space.