In November 1911, the Irish Vigilance Association was born in Dublin.

Part of a crusade against “evil literature”, which conservative Christian voices believed was poisoning the minds of Ireland’s young, the Vigilance Association would make its presence felt on the streets of the capital and other Irish cities, harassing newsagents and others who sold publications they believed to be immoral. On more than one occasion, seized magazines and newspapers were burnt in the street.

One priest in the movement, Father R.S. Devane of Limerick, recalled the need for such action: “Certain measures had to be resorted to to show that people were behind the movement … There are only two alternatives in stamping out an evil: law or terrorism, and we had to fall back on terrorism.”

Much has been written on Ireland’s long and interesting history of literary censorship, but it has focused on state censorship post-independence, and the ludicrous power of the Censorship of Publications Board, an unaccountable institution that deemed such writers as Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien, John McGahern and Nora Hoult to be smut-peddlers.

Yet the Irish Vigilance Association forms an interesting pre-independence chapter of the story, and some of its guiding lights would be instrumental in convincing newly independent Ireland to adopt a harsh censorship regime.

The language of the IVA was fundamentally rooted in a distrust of all things English. The first special committee meeting decided to call on Dublin newsagents, asking them to display posters “calling upon all Irishmen not to allow themselves become the dupes of an immoral English campaign; not to allow themselves to be depraved by pernicious English publications, or not to defile their Irish homes or scandalise the young by introducing to them papers containing details of divorce suits or other scandals”.

The IVA blitzed the regional press, proclaiming a “now practically national crusade” against evil literature to be in effect.

Beyond Easons and newspaper vendors, the IVA heaped pressure onto young Dublin newsboys, insisting that “many newsboys have promised not to sell such newspapers in future”. In truth, Dublin newsboys had more important things on their mind in 1911 than whether the newspapers they sold contained reference to matters sexually immoral.

Only months before the IVA was formed, the boys were entangled in a vicious industrial dispute with Dublin newspaper publishers, during which they had clashed with the Dublin Metropolitan Police on more than one occasion. In his memoir On Another Man’s Wound, Ernie O’Malley recalled a year when “Mounted police were charging quick-witted urchins who scattered and lured the attackers into narrow by-lanes. There the boys used stones and pieces of brick with accuracy and rapidity.”

The IVA was closely aligned with the Dominican Order, whose newspaper, the Irish Rosary, positioned itself as standing in opposition to newspapers “that fill their columns, issue after issue, with vile, filthy, immoral matter, unfit to be read by our Irish men and women … and which sully by their presence the sanctity and purity of our Irish homes”.

While there was condemnation of immoral material in newspapers, there was no condemnation of those who broke the law as part of the great moral crusade. At Limerick, a train delivering newspapers was intercepted and its contents removed by a hostile crowd, who proceeded to burn the offending English magazines.

The great enthusiasm for censorship was driven largely by organised Catholic action groups, though there was Protestant support from some quarters. Lord Aberdeen, the Irish lord lieutenant, was an enthusiastic supporter of the IVA’s campaign.

This atmosphere of censorship, where state and church worked hand in glove, terrified Dublin publishers. Maunsel & Roberts, the publishers of Joyce’s masterpiece Dubliners, changed their tune on publishing the book against the backdrop of the thriving vigilance movement, telling him that “the book’s implications were anti-Irish and therefore out of keeping with [their] aims as an Irish publisher”.

The printer, fearful of prosecution and condemnation, destroyed the sheets of a book now considered perhaps the finest short-story collection in the English language.

The crusade gave some religious voices the confidence to call for a general “cleaning up” of the streets. The Reverend Thomas Maher, speaking in Gloucester Street in the heart of what was then Dublin’s Monto district, welcomed the patrols that were stamping out evil literature, and wondered if there could be a similar crackdown on prostitution, which had witnessed “the streets of our city becoming the theatre of wickedness, and our public thoroughfares becoming the luring ground to sin”.

The focus on the IVA soon shifted from the written word to the cinema. In 1915, demonstrators marched through Dublin behind banners that proclaimed “picture films = sewage” and “we want a film censor for Ireland”.

Packed meetings were held in the Mansion House, on one occasion presided over by the lord mayor. It was reported that the Round Room was “well filled, and the audience represented all classes of citizens, and included a big attendance of Catholic clergymen”.

Some IVA campaigners were particularly enthusiastic in their efforts to keep the cinema clean, with one activist ending up in Mountjoy prison for frequent disruption and vandalism in city cinemas.

Ultimately, the IVA succeeded in some of its mission. In 1926, the Irish state appointed the Committee on Evil Literature to explore whether there was a need for increased print censorship in Ireland.

This body, comprised of five men (two of whom were clergymen) unsurprisingly advocated for more censorship. The Censorship of Publications Board that followed took its job seriously, banning 1,600 books in its first thirteen years in existence.

Donal Fallon’s exhibition Evil Literature runs in Pearse Street Library until the end of May.

Donal Fallon is a historian, writer and broadcaster based in Dublin. His work has appeared in History Ireland, Spiked, Jacobin and other outlets. He is editor of the Dublin history blog Come Here To Me...

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