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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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William J. Brennan Appointed to U.S. Supreme Court

william-brennanWilliam Joseph Brennan, Jr., American judge, is named an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States through a recess appointment by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on October 15, 1956, shortly before the 1956 presidential election. He serves from 1956 until July 20, 1990. As the seventh longest-serving justice in Supreme Court history, he is known for being a leader of the Court’s liberal wing.

Brennan is born in Newark, New Jersey to Irish immigrants, originally from County Roscommon, on April 25, 1906. He attends public schools in Newark, graduating from Barringer High School in 1924. He then attends the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduates cum laude with a degree in economics in 1928. He graduates from Harvard Law School near the top of his class in 1931 and is a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.

Brennan enters private practice in New Jersey and serves in the United States Army during World War II. He is appointed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey in 1951. After his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court by Eisenhower in 1956, he wins Senate confirmation the following year.

On the Supreme Court, Brennan is known for his outspoken progressive views, including opposition to the death penalty and support for abortion rights. He authors several landmark case opinions, including Baker v. Carr, establishing the “one person, one vote” principle, and New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which requires “actual malice” in libel suits brought by public officials. Due to his ability to shape a wide variety of opinions and “bargain” for votes in many cases, he is considered to be among the Court’s most influential members. Justice Antonin Scalia calls Brennan “probably the most influential Justice of the [20th] century.”

Brennan holds the post on the Court until his retirement on July 20, 1990 after suffering a stroke. He is succeeded by Justice David Souter. Brennan then teaches at Georgetown University Law Center until 1994. He dies in Arlington County, Virginia on July 24, 1997 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

With 1,360 opinions, he is second only to William O. Douglas in number of opinions written while a Supreme Court justice. On November 30, 1993, President Bill Clinton presents Brennan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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The Censorship of Publications Act

The Censorship of Publications Act is passed on July 16, 1929. The laws enacted by the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929 are introduced in an era of political isolationism and cultural and economic protectionism. Ireland’s culture is very moral and religious. Catholicism, the religion of 93% of the population, is the fundamental philosophy behind the censorship laws.

A main aim of the new legislation is to prevent the introduction of unwholesome foreign influences like materialism, consumerism and immorality from abroad. Specifically, this means works that are considered to be indecent or obscene, newspapers whose content relies too much on crime, and works that promote the “unnatural” prevention of conception or that advocate abortion. Irish writers who are found offensive are officially regarded as agents of decadence and social disintegration who are striking at the roots of family life and moral decency. For example, Father P.J. Gannon thinks that the Act is “but a simple measure of moral hygiene, forced upon the Irish public by a veritable spate of filth never surpassed.” He thinks that all literature must provide “noble ground for noble emotion.” President Éamon de Valera feels that the arts in Ireland are to be encouraged when they observe the “holiest traditions,” but should be censored when they fail to live up to this ideal.

Although the new laws are typical of censorship laws in many other countries in the 1920s and 1930s, they are implemented with an eagerness which gradually alienates and embitters many Irish writers. It causes some writers to leave the country. The author Mervyn Wall explains that during the 1930s there is “a general intolerant attitude to writing, painting and sculpture. These were thought dangerous, likely to corrupt faith and morals…One encountered frequently among ordinary people bitter hostility to writers…Obscurantism had settled on the country like a fog, so of course anyone who had eyes to see and the heart to feel, was rebellious.”

The Academy of Letters established by William Butler Yeats attempts to fight censorship with solidarity among writers, but it achieves little in this field. The fight against literary censorship is fought mainly by isolated figures. Seán Ó Faoláin, perhaps the most vociferous critic of the censorship laws, writes, “Our Censorship…tries to keep the mind in a state of perpetual adolescence in the midst of all the influences that must, in spite of it, pour in from the adult world.”

Among the first thirteen books to be banned, announced in the Iris Oifigúil in May 1930, are Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall and several books on sex and marriage by Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes. Surprisingly, none of James Joyce‘s writings are ever banned by the Board, while copies of his works are burned by the British Customs, and Ulysses is banned in the United States for several years.


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Ireland Approves Same-Sex Marriage by Popular Vote

Ireland becomes the first nation in the world to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote on May 23, 2015, sweeping aside the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church in a resounding victory for the gay rights movement and placing the country at the vanguard of social change.

With the final ballots counted, the vote is 62.1% in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, and 37.9% opposed. The turnout is large with more than 60% of the 3.2 million eligible voters casting ballots. Only one of the 43 districts, Roscommon-South Leitrim, votes the measure down.

With early vote counts suggesting a comfortable victory, crowds begin to fill the courtyard of Dublin Castle, a government complex that was once the center of British rule. By late morning, the leader of the opposition, David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, concedes the outcome on Twitter: “Congratulations to the Yes side. Well done.”

Cheers break out among the crowd of supporters in the courtyard of Dublin Castle when Returning Officer Riona Ni Fhlanghaile announces in the evening that the ballot has passed.

In recent history a vote such as this would have been unthinkable. Ireland decriminalizes homosexuality only in 1993, the church dominates the education system, and abortion remains illegal except when a mother’s life is at risk. But the influence of the church has waned amid scandals in recent years, while attitudes, particularly among the young, have shifted.

“Today Ireland made history,” Taoiseach Enda Kenny says at a news conference, adding that “in the privacy of the ballot box, the people made a public statement.” He also adds, “This decision makes every citizen equal and I believe it will strengthen the institution of marriage.”

Alex White, the government’s Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, says, “This didn’t change Ireland — it confirmed the change. We can no longer be regarded as the authoritarian state we once might have been perceived to be. This marks the true separation of church and state.”

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, says, “There are two Irelands, the elite Ireland and the hidden Ireland. And today the hidden Ireland spoke.”

Nick O’Connell, who is from a rural area in County Kilkenny, cradles a celebratory drink in a Dublin pub. He says he had been too afraid to come out as gay until his mid-20s. “Today I’m thinking of all those young people over the years who were bullied and committed suicide because of their sexuality. This vote was for them, too.” He adds, “This is different from other countries because it was the people who gave it to us, not a legislature.”


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Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland Approved

eighth-amendmentThe Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, which introduces a constitutional ban on abortion by recognizing a right to life of an unborn child, is approved by referendum on September 7, 1983 and signed into law on October 7 of the same year. It is often referred to as the Irish Pro-Life Amendment.

The amendment is adopted during the Fine GaelLabour Party coalition government led by Garret FitzGerald but is drafted and first suggested by the previous Fianna Fáil government of Charles Haughey. The amendment is supported by Fianna Fáil and some of Fine Gael, and is generally opposed by the political left. Most of those opposed to the amendment, however, insist that they are not in favour of legalising abortion. The Roman Catholic hierarchy supports the amendment, but it is opposed by the other mainstream churches. After an acrimonious referendum campaign, the amendment is passed by 67% voting in favour to 33% voting against.

Under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861, abortion is already illegal in Ireland. However, anti-abortion campaigners fear the possibility of a judicial ruling in favour of allowing abortion. In McGee v. Attorney General (1973), the Supreme Court of Ireland had ruled against provisions of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935 prohibiting the sale and importation of contraception on the grounds that the reference in Article 41 to the “imprescriptable rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law” of the family conferred upon spouses a broad right to privacy in marital affairs. In the same year, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on similar grounds in Roe v. Wade to find a right to an abortion grounded on privacy.

The Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) is founded in 1981 to campaign against a ruling in in Ireland similar to Roe. Prior to the 1981 general election, PLAC lobbies the major Irish political parties – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Labour Party – to urge the introduction of a Bill to allow the amendment to the constitution to prevent the Irish Supreme Court so interpreting the constitution as giving a right to abortion. The leaders of the three parties – respectively Charles Haughey, Garret FitzGerald, and Frank Cluskey – agree although there is little consultation with any of their parties’ ordinary members. All three parties are in government over the following eighteen months but it is only in late 1982, just before the collapse of a Fianna Fáil minority government, that a proposed wording for the amendment is produced.

The referendum is supported by PLAC, Fianna Fáil, some members of Fine Gael, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy and opposed by various groups under the umbrella name of the Anti-Amendment Campaign (AAC), including Labour senator, and future President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, feminist campaigners, and trade unions.

There is currently a campaign for repeal of the Eighth Amendment in Ireland. This is led by both a coalition of human rights and pro-choice groups and has widespread support from a number of legal academics and members of the medical profession. In the run up to the 2016 general election, a number of parties commit to a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment and a group of feminist law academics publish model legislation to show what a post-Eighth Amendment abortion law could look like. In June 2016, Minister for Health Simon Harris states his support for a referendum on repealing the 8th.

On July 27, 2016, the government appoints Supreme Court judge Mary Laffoy as chair of a Citizens’ Assembly to consider a number of topics, including the Eighth Amendment.