Confessions of an Irish censor: why Clark Gable, 'Casablanca' and Cliff got the chop

In their decades-long crusade to preserve Ireland's innocence, the country's notoriously strict film censors banned violent movies such as A Clockwork Orange, The Wild Bunch and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

However, it wasn't only violent cult classics that incurred the censors' wrath. Such seemingly inoffensive titles as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Brief Encounter, The Quiet Man and On the Waterfront were also banned or heavily censored. In all, about 11,000 films were cut and about 2,500 completely banned.

Dublin's censors sliced through celluloid with an almost zealous energy. Movie-goers watched Gone with the Wind blissfully unaware of the passionate clinches between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, which were deemed far too hot for the Irish screen. In one famous instance, censors in the staunchly Catholic country even cut footage of the Pope.

That era, however, is now formally drawing to a close, with the Irish authorities about to apply the scissors to the Censorship Office itself. It is to be renamed the Classification Office.

Today, no one bats an eyelid in Dublin at explicit movies. Just four hardcore pornographic films and one violent video game were banned during 2007.

"It's a totally different Ireland, and the changes down the years in screen censorship mirror precisely how radically Ireland has developed," says the current censor, John Kelleher. "The old moral guardian, restrictive kind of censorship is gone."

In the old days, the censor would solemnly set out his reasons for prohibiting all showings of films such as King Creole. "I have had much trouble, particularly from headmistresses of girls' schools," he explained, "regarding the antics of Elvis Presley with his most suggestive abdominal dancing."

Another censor, who banned 200 films in one year alone, was appalled by the amount of kissing. He protested that Hollywood depicted kissing "to the accompaniment of the most sensuous music, lavishing miles of celluloid on this unsanitary salute".

In the early days of Irish independence, the restrictive regime also cracked down on the theatre, references to extreme republican activities and, famously, authors ranging from James Joyce to Edna O'Brien.

The state's first film censor, James Montgomery, said: "I take the Ten Commandments as my code." He had a fixation with the perils of dancing: cutting or banning movies which featured "indecent dancing and the customs of the divorcing classes in England and America".

He once declared: "If I had my way I certainly would reject any film which shows the rumba." Even a sequence from Singing in the Rain was sent to the sin-bin for lingering on the limbs of one of Gene Kelly's partners.

Casablanca was banned during the Second World War because of sensitivities about Irish neutrality. After the war, it was permitted but with significant cuts that excised any reference to the romance between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. That was deemed to offend Irish Catholic morality.

Divorce, which was illegal in Ireland, was sternly frowned upon. In one instance, the censor resorted to active moralising, having the title of the light comedy I want a divorce changed to The Tragedy of Divorce.

Sexual affairs, homosexuality, birth control, abortion and prostitution had no chance. The version of The Graduate seen in Ireland was baffling. First it was banned altogether. But the censor then allowed it, leaving 11 sections on the cutting-room floor and removing all references to Dustin Hoffman's affair with Anne Bancroft. As John Kelleher put it: "The seduction scene is at the core of the film but the Irish audience, which was not allowed to see that scene, remained blissfully unaware they were having anything more than a nice cup of tea."

Even the word "virgin" was forbidden, and Montgomery once complained that a film "bulged" with babies. He said in a reproachful report: "It will dispel the cabbage myth from the child mind and bring a blush to the cheek of the unmarried young girl sitting holding hands with her embarrassed boyfriend in the darkest part of the cinema."

The Catholic church also used the practice to protect its image. A scene in On the Waterfront in which a priest buys Marlon Brando a drink was snipped since it was thought inappropriate for a priest to drink in public.

Depictions of lapsed or defrocked clerics were chopped. Swearing was routinely removed. The censor frankly admitted he was following instructions from on high: "By order of his Grace, the Archbishop of Dublin," he said down of one film, "this must never be shown." The Pope was cut from a 1937 newsreel because of acute sensitivity over representations of the sacraments.

One unlikely victim of the censor was Cliff Richard. The Irish public missed out on scenes in the 1959 movie Espresso Bongo in which Cliff was given a massage and later seduced.

The Irish government was initially cautious about easing restrictions, one prominent minister refusing to move on the issue. Ironically, that was the late Charles Haughey, who was later exposed as having an unorthodox sex life which would have shocked the censor rigid.

When relaxation came it affected movies and literature – a shift in the1960s removed thousands of books from the banned list. But the floodgates were not thrown open: even in the swinging 70s, 200 movies were banned.

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