Ireland's head-in-sand censorship

A few months ago, the Lord Mayor of Cork (my home city) announced that he was banning the use of the word “recession” on 17 June. It was a cute idea, put forward by Danish conceptual artists Superflex as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. It was not, of course, serious censorship. But it was really rather questionable: the stated aim of the project was to end the recession. By, er, not talking about it.

So far, so insufferably flaky. But not really censorship per se. No one was actually stopped from talking about the unprecedented crisis in which the Irish state finds itself.

Fast forward a few months and a few hundred miles up the country to Offaly, where a photographer has withdrawn a project from exhibition after local officials objected to the text accompanying the pictures.

The Sunday Independent reports that Carolina Gustavsson was asked to make edits to pictures documenting lives and attitudes in the area.

A council arts officer requested that Gustavsson change text describing one portrait sitter’s thoughts:

“Dave was listening to a documentary where an economist explored the roots of the problem and thinks it might be that Ireland is too small and too personal to keep the necessary discipline: ‘…like Paddy is a politician who knows Sean whose cousin Eamonn is a banker who knows Aengus who’s a solicitor… so cosy and corrupt. A change in the political system is badly needed and, to start with, an apology from the people responsible. Instead they continuously claim they did nothing wrong’.”

Sinead O’Reilly emailed Gustavsson, saying:

“It is Catherine, Dave and Irene and Jean and Conor which remain problematic. Can I suggest the following edits, which retain the message, just eliminates comments that can be read as offensive to the organisation which is both funding and hosting this exhibition. Yes, I agree that freedom of speech is important, and that the comments are nothing new, we hear them all the time, in fact they are typical of ranting you hear on the radio every day. I was expecting political content, but more insightful comments than merely suggesting that the organisation (funding your project) is corrupt.”

Now, apart from the fact that the quote seems to imply that the entire system is corrupt (which it is), rather than Offaly council or indeed the grant-awarding arm of the council, is it in any way appropriate for this email to be sent? Is there any point whatsoever in staging an exhibition about ordinary people and their opinions and then asking that the opinions be changed?

More importantly, what does this achieve?

Since the days of Charles Haughey, and before, realistically, Irish society has engaged in an astounding level of self-censorship to the point of self-delusion.

We were shocked by the detail of the Ryan Report into clerical abuse, but we all knew, all along, that it was going on. We know, deep down, that our political system is corrupt, but shouting too loudly about it is discouraged. We knew our economy was based on insane speculation and risk-taking, but we felt it better not to break the spell. No one wanted to admit the emperor was naked.

Grumbling in the pub is one thing, but write about people’s frustrations on a gallery wall, and well, really, that’s a bit much, an attitude confirmed in Sinead O’Reilly’s email.