seamus dubhghaill

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


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Execution of John Atherton, Anglican Bishop of Waterford & Lismore

john-atherton-execution-pamphletJohn Atherton, Anglican Bishop of Waterford and Lismore in the Church of Ireland, is executed on December 5, 1640, on a charge of immorality.

Atherton is born in 1598 in Somerset, England. He studies at Oxford University and joins the ranks of the Anglican clergy. In 1634 he becomes Bishop of Waterford and Lismore in the Church of Ireland. In 1640 he is accused of buggery with a man, John Childe, his steward and tithe proctor. They are tried under a law that Atherton himself had helped to institute. They are both condemned to death, and Atherton is executed in St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Reportedly, he confesses to the crime immediately before his execution, although he had proclaimed his innocence before that.

More recently, some historical evidence has been developed that shows Atherton might have been a victim of a conspiracy to discredit him and his patrons. This is attributable to Atherton’s status as an astute lawyer, who seeks to recover lost land for the relatively weak Protestant Church of Ireland during the 1630s. Unfortunately for Atherton, this alienates him from large landowners, who then allegedly use his sexuality to discredit him.

English Puritan, Congregationalist and Independent activists, as well as English and Scottish Presbyterian activists, contemporaneously campaign to abolish Episcopacy (bishops) within the embattled Church of England, Church of Scotland and Church of Ireland, notionally expediting the political interest in Atherton’s downfall.

Posthumous accusations of sexual wrongdoing also include allegations of “incest” with his sister-in-law, and infanticide of the resultant child, as well as zoophilia with cattle. However, these allegations begin to be circulated several months after his death in an anonymous pamphlet, and may have been intended to further discredit the bishop’s campaign to restore the finances of the Church of Ireland.

(Pictured: Anonymous pamphlet of the hangings of John Atherton and John Childe, 1641)

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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.