Encountering John McGahern in the Censors’ Basement

26 Upper Pembroke St

The house in Pembroke Street, Dublin, that housed the Censorship of Publications Board, with their store of banned books in the basement. This is the text of a piece I contributed to Sunday Miscellany on 25 January, 2015. You can listen to it as a podcast on the RTE Radio site:

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/programmes/2015/0125/675161-sunday-miscellany-sunday-25-january-2015/?clipid=1788089

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I first encountered, and fell in love with, John McGahern in a Georgian basement in Dublin in the mid-Sixties. It would probably have qualified as the seediest basement in Dublin at the time. But let me assure you that my infatuation with McGahern was purely literary.

 

When I signed up for a job in the Civil Service as an 18-year-old, I was allocated to the Department of Justice, and posted to an office upstairs in a house in Pembroke Street. On the Ground Floor of that building was the office of the Censorship Board, and in the Basement, behind locked doors and barred windows, was the store of books that had been banned.

 

By the 1960’s the banning of books in Ireland had reached its zenith. Thousands of books were banned as ‘indecent or obscene’. Many classics of world literature were unavailable in bookshop or public library. The list included, for example, ‘Brave New World’, and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ – which has been studied in our schools for many years now.

 

This Basement fascinated me, this vault into which the obscenity and iniquity and blasphemy of Ireland was collected, and kept under lock and key, like a silo of chemical weapons, for fear they might escape and contaminate the public. The catalogue of banned books was itself a formidable volume, hundreds of pages in tiny print.

 

I took an occasional ramble down to the Basement, but always found the door securely locked. My fascination had to be satisfied, however, and so I befriended the man who held the key to this underworld, a jovial old Dubliner called Charlie. When trust and brotherhood were established, I was soon able to express a casual interest in seeing the Censors’ Basement. No problem. Charlie agreed to give me a guided tour on our lunch break the following day.

 

It was a climactic moment for me as the heavy door creaked open and, obeying a furtive nod from Charlie, I entered Satan’s den. But, after that, it was all anti-climax. The rooms were crammed with books, mostly stacked on the floor, although there were some steel shelves with titles displayed library style. It was as if an original intent towards order had been abandoned to chaos, overwhelmed by the scale of the operation.

 

Charlie was the only source of order here. He seemed to know what books were in each bundle. He picked some up fondly and passed them to me for inspection. He seemed to have an intimate relationship with each volume, probably a result of having followed it from its original indictment, to its trial by the Board, to its eventual conviction and incarceration. I asked him if he had read many of the books. He shook his head. Reading dirty books was not for him. But he had no problem letting me borrow some.

 

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