Thursday, February 11, 2010

Two film censors, a long-winded lady and the first Irish bandmeister

The newly-independent Irish state threw itself with heroic energy into banning anything that would undermine its leaders' sense of what the nation should be. That sense was very, very narrow, catholic, conservative, anti-sex and anti-cosmopolitan. My father wrote a very popular series, The Kennedys of Castleross, for Irish radio beginning in the 1950s, and there were certain subjects that simply could not be mentioned. Pregnancy, for instance, despite it's being a subject which which most Irish families were readily and frequently familiar. But on the radio, it was only to be broached by implication. E.g., "I've just been to see the doctor." "What did he say?" "Well ..." "You're not! You are? How wonderful!!!" Cue music.

In the first 70 years of the state, Ireland's censors banned 2,500 films and between 10,000 and 11,000 more were cut. (According to the critic Ciaran Carty, by 1961, Ireland's separate banned book list contained more than 10,000 titles, including works by Faulkner, Sartre, Thomas Mann, Hemingway and Steinbeck.) At the outset, the censors had no background in film. Martin Brennan, the third such, appointed in 1954, had had a "good war" during the independence campaign, became a doctor and went into politics. In office, he banned Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados and Laughton's Night of the Hunter, among many others. He banned Edward Dmytryk's adaptation of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, citing "theological implications which are far above the normal cinemagoer's ability to grasp." He also refused to permit depictions of the Eucharist, even in newsreels.

Dermot Breen, appointed in 1972, was a man of the cinema, having founded the Cork Internaitonal Film Festival. He banned Pasolini's Decameron, Ken Russell's The Devils, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Fellini's Roma. (To be fair, at the time many of these ran into censorship trouble elsewhere, including in the UK.) Like Brennan, his piety also found some film depictions of catholicism troubling, a sentiment that influenced his official actions. Yet Breen's period as censor was considered to be an improvement on those of his predecessors, and it probably was. It took until 1992 for a year to pass in which no film was cut or banned by the Irish state.

Maeve Brennan was scarcely known in Ireland until after her death in 1993. She had lived in the USA from the age of 17, when her father was appointed secretary of the Irish legation in Washington DC. After graduating from college, she moved to New York to become a librarian. But she crossed into journalism, first at Harper's Bazaar and then at the New Yorker, during the golden age of its great editor, William Shawn, who recruited her in 1949. Her non-fiction essays under the title "The Long-Winded Lady" are deft miniatures of city life where small details - how to eat broccoli in a restaurant, for instance - become slyly indexed to big questions, such as how to live. Her short stories, first collected in a volume entitled In And Out of Never-Never Land, similarly build from small observations and events - a child finding a book of damp matches, say - to dramatic and emphatic discoveries. Many of her stories were about Ireland, including Wexford where her parents were born and Dublin where she was raised, as well as about the Irish in America. She was beautiful, footloose, self-isolating, alcoholic and, ultimately and sadly, mad.

I've mentioned the Irish nazi thing a couple of times before, and said I'd return to it, this time just in passing. A small Dublin pleasure during the short Irish summer is to sit in St Stephen's Green park at lunchtime and listen to the Army No. 1 Band. The music is mellow and good-natured, and, as befits the representatives of a very small army, does not seem to prefigure a massive fire attack by squadrons of helicopter gunships. The first officer to command the Irish army school of music, through which the band was organized, was Wilhelm Fritz Brase, who had been a leading bandmaster in the imperial German army and the Berlin police. He was very effective, recruiting performers, giving recitals, getting involved in the early days of radio broadcasting and training enough musicians that he was able to create three further bands. (I wasn't able to find examples of Brase's own compositions, which included six fantasias on Irish themes, but I did uncover a recording that he conducted of German military music before he moved to Ireland, which is quite jolly, as well as his official arrangement of the Irish national anthem, performed by the Army band - don't forget to stand when you listen to it.)  The nazi party's overseas organization, the auslandsorganisation, invited him to be chairman of its Irish branch, but the army refused him permission to do so. Hitler did, however, confer on him the honorific title of Professor. Fritz Brase died in 1940. Whatever else he stood for, he did a great job on the Army band, for which I thank him.


  1. My father told me about that Irish radio, in the 1950's, he also told me that he didn't use to use that medicament called Viagra Online but now he is forced to do it because of the prostate cancer he suffered.