Throughout the history of Irish cinema, there have been various examples of outside interference in the industry which has resulted in films either being extensively edited, or banned completely. The most irritating of reasons for such censorship has been the presence of blasphemy laws within the Irish constitution, and with claims that Louis Theroux’s documentary My Scientology Movie has been banned in Ireland for that reason, I look at the history of films that have been censored as a result of blasphemy.
Before I go on, it must be said that the Irish Film Classification Office (IFCO) have said that the aforementioned film has not been banned in Ireland. According to the IFCO, the film, which was produced by Red Box Films and distributed by Altitude, was never submitted for classification in Ireland and, therefore, couldn’t be released.
With that said, the widely held assumption is that it was not submitted for classification for fear of an injunction or lawsuit from the Church of Scientology in Ireland, which is a real shame because I was really looking forward to seeing Tom Cruise’s cameo. However, there remain numerous examples of major films that have been banned in Ireland as a result of blasphemy.
The history of the blasphemy laws is quite a turbulent one. According to the IFCO’s guidelines, a film can be banned if the IFCO is of the opinion that it is likely to cause harm to children or contains obscene, indecent or blasphemous material. This was initially passed into law in 1923 with the Censorship of Films Act and still remains. As a result of this, in 1980, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in Ireland, as a result of containing blasphemous material, by then Director of Film Classification, Frank Hall. Thankfully, it was resubmitted and passed uncut by Hall’s successor, Sheamus Smith in 1987.
The story of Monty Python falling foul of Irish censorship did not stop there, their next feature Monty Python and the Meaning of Life was similarly prohibited from distribution for blasphemy in 1983, and it was not until 1990 that it was permitted to grace Irish cinemas.
While these are just two amongst many films that have been censored in Ireland in the past such as A Clockwork Orange (1971 – 2000), Ulysses (1967-2000), and Natural Born Killers (1994-Present), the two Monty Python pictures remain the only 2 films banned for blasphemy.
In the years that have passed, there have been numerous calls for the removal of blasphemy laws from the Irish Constitution. In fact, running up to the 2011 General Election, Atheist Ireland asked all parties: “Do you believe that blasphemy should be a criminal offence?” to which Fine Gael and Sinn Féin said no, while the Labour Party and Greens said they wanted it to go to a referendum.
However, despite a Constitutional Council in 2012 set up to address the issue of blasphemy in the constitution, and which heard arguments such as the Irish Council of Churches and Atheist Ireland regarding the issue, no referendum came about and, as of today, blasphemy remains within Bunreacht na hEireann.
The strangest thing about the blasphemy issue when it comes to Irish films is that it is not all that much of an issue in modern society. Since the enactment of the Constitution in 1937, only 2 films have been banned on religious grounds, and they were eventually re-released and uncut less than 10 years later. Even when it comes to My Scientology Movie, it is said that the blasphemy laws wouldn’t and couldn’t prevent its release. Dr. Neville Cox, associate Professor of Law in Trinity College Dublin, is reported in the Irish Times as saying: “there is an exception within the blasphemy laws for something that is of literary, political, artistic or scientific merit. There is no way a documentary could not fall under that”.
Blasphemy, as a legal constraint when it comes to film in the 21st century, is a red herring and it would be incredibly difficult for a film to be censored as a result of blasphemous material. The more likely reasoning for Louis Theroux’s documentary not being released in Ireland is that it was never going to be. Besides, if it wasn’t for the film getting praise at the Edinburgh and Tribeca Film Festivals, it may not have been given a theatrical release as Theroux had never done that before.
As for now, My Scientology Movie is not going to be released in Ireland but it is not for the reasons that many sections of the media are claiming. After all, the possible removal of blasphemy laws from the Constitution is in the programme of the current government so even if it is a problem, it shouldn’t be for long and we may well be able to witness Mr. Cruise’s greatest role by 2017 after all.