Historical essay
Explicit: Censorship, Sexology, and Sexuality in Independent Ireland

Explicit: Censorship, Sexology, and Sexuality in Independent Ireland

When the Irish Free State created the Censorship of Publications Board in 1929, they were arguably asserting their independence.1 By taking control of information, and defining standards of morality and decency through banned literature, censorship was in fact a rejection of colonial rule. Much of the independent Irish identity hinged on a sense of moral superiority over Britain in particular, but also over other “Christian” countries. During World War II, censorship became a tool that parliamentary leaders like Eamon de Valera used to challenge their former colonial overlords (aka, the British).2

But on a more regular basis, censorship limited Irish access to sexual knowledge about topics like abortion, same-sex desire, and even adultery. This had a range of long-term consequences. Sociologist Tom Inglis has commented extensively on how poorly equipped 1990’s Irish teens were to deal with all aspects of sex and sexuality. So it is not surprising that an Irish doctor had to write to the Department of Justice seeking access to sexological texts that would have been widely available in most of the English-speaking world. What this implies for Ireland, and how it fits into the postcolonial development of independent Ireland, makes for some fascinating stories of the ways that the Irish grapple with sexuality.

When 26 counties of Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1922, they quickly got down to the business of retrofitting their government so that it looked different enough to be decidedly “Irish,” and yet retained enough of the British infrastructure not to fall apart at the seams. This meant that they did things like change the name of the police force and replace most of the regular policemen with hires who had fought on the Irish side of the War of Independence, but they still used the old barracks and basic command structure of the British constabulary system. Just about everything got a new coat of Irish paint, but most core components of governance looked very much like the British system.

Pearse Street Garda Station (James Stringer/Flickr)

After the existing structures were properly Gaelicized, the Free State could turn to creating new structures to promote and protect a sense of proper “Irishness.” In 1929, the Censorship Board was created to deal with the dangerous ideas (and books) circulating around the Atlantic world. Birth control and abortion were the primary targets of the Censorship Board, but the Board was also charged with preventing “obscene and indecent” literature from making its way into the hands of pure and innocent Irish citizens.

On 31 July, 1933, Dr. Francis C. Toner wrote a letter to Ireland’s Department of Justice. He was looking to import a few banned books. Toner had learned from a friend that some books could be obtained by medical practitioners subject to “the Ministers’ permission.”3 As a 27-year-old, freshly minted doctor recently hired on at Central Galway Hospital as a surgeon, Toner thought he could exercise his position of authority to get his hands on some key sexological texts — purely, we can only assume, for professional purposes. “I am desirous,” Toner wrote, “of obtaining the volumes, “Psychology of Sex” (H Ellis) and a copy of the book ‘Stallion.’”4

In 1933, Irish citizens like Toner were denied the pleasures of every sexual treatise from Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality to Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. New books were added every year to the growing register. In 1932 alone, 96 new titles were stamped by the Board of Censors for being unacceptable for their “general indecency.” Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex, a six-volume work that was pioneering in its discussion of same-sex desire and a range of sexual proclivities, was banned in February of 1931.

Cover page of Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Volume I (Wellcome Images/Flickr)

Undoubtedly the whole collection was objectionable, with such subjects covered as “Auto-Eroticism,” “The Sexual Impulse of Women,” and “Sexual Inversion.” Ellis’s study of same-sex desire, what he calls “Sexual Inversion,” is unusually sympathetic among early sexologists. Ellis contended that “sexual inversion,” like all aspects of human sexuality, was a natural phenomenon, found in nature among animals, and among humans. Further, he argued, sexual inverts were actually being damaged because society hated them for something that they could not change; criminalizing people for who they were, in his estimation, was wrong.

That Toner, a surgeon, wanted access to these studies is not unfathomable, but it certainly was a bit out of the ordinary. Still, the Department of Justice officials were reasonable. The six books were close enough to medical texts that they approved the request, issuing him a stamp approval to retrieve those books should they be detained by the postmaster, who was responsible for keeping the trash out of Ireland.

The request for Stallion, however, caused the minister to probe Toner a bit further.

[gblockquote]Permits for medical books are … issued to medical practitioners who require the books for the purposes of research or study. Before any permit can be granted to you in respect of the book “Stallion” further information would be required as to the special reasons for which you desire to possess this book.5[/gblockquote]

Marguerite Steen’s novel was definitely not a medical text. It’s about a family of horse breeders who talk in code about getting abortions when necessary, and in which the husband/father has an adulterous affair with some younger woman who loves him for his horses. That’s a terrible summary, but those are the plot points that earned it swift placement on the register of banned books in Ireland.

The Board of Censorship was a group of appointed individuals, headed by one Protestant clergyman and one Catholic priest, who spent all their time reading through letters from concerned citizens about this book they found in the library and that new publication they picked up at the bookstore. They almost never had to go out and identify books to ban on their own. There were plenty of Irish men and women who made it their personal mission to rid the bookshelves of filth.

Photo of shelves of books.
Trinity College library. (Livio Barcella/Flickr)

It was the Board’s job to verify that a book contained the offensive material, and then issue a regular report and register of the books. Sometimes those reports included specific notations on why a book was identified as indecent or obscene. Dr. Gladys M. Cox’s The Woman’s Book of Health, for example, was banned for advocating “the unnatural prevention of conception.” Steen’s book was noted as being simply, “in its general tendency, indecent.”

Toner responded to the inquest for more information.

[gblockquote]It is my intention to undertake, what I hope will prove a complete and exhaustive study of sexual abnormalities, both psychological & pathological. Now it is hardly necessary to point out that, from the very nature of the subject, opportunities for the study of actual clinical material are well nigh non-existent.[/gblockquote]

This first part of his response is delightfully cheeky. “Of course, sir, there are no sexual abnormals here in Ireland, so I can’t study them up close!” This plays perfectly into the narrative of sexual purity and morality that the Irish projected to the world, and, quite detrimentally, back onto themselves and their neighbors. Toner goes on to explain his impetus for getting a copy of Stallion.

[gblockquote]So it appears to be that the only alternative is the perusal of present day fiction of that nature written, from, a lay point of view by the non-technical writer, who, from the very fact that he writes about such subjects at all, must know his subject and must consequently have some time or another come in contact with such cases in real life. And since I have been given to understand that the book “Stallion” is of such a nature, I require to peruse it for the reason, as given above.6[/gblockquote]

All the archival evidence of Francis Toner’s existence are these few letters exchanged with the DOJ, a census record of him as a little boy living in the west of Ireland, and some news clippings from February 1945, when his medical license was revoked for “unlawfully obtaining illegal drugs” in England.7 We will never know if he embarked on his professed study of sexual abnormalities. If he did, there are no findings published under his name. It is just as likely that he was using his position as a doctor to procure these texts for his own reading pleasure, or on a friend’s behalf.

Photo of a newsclipping announcing Dr. Toner’s erasure from the registry of doctors. (Author/Royal College of Physicians of Ireland Archive)

Ultimately though, it didn’t matter what Toner wanted The Stallion for, because the Department of Justice didn’t buy his justification. He was denied the right to import the book. And while his credentials got him access to the Psychology of Sex, the average Irish citizen would never be able to openly buy or import the hefty six-volume collection. Which is not to suggest that copies of Volume 2 (Sexual Inversion) didn’t make their way into Irish hands. Undoubtedly the insatiable found a way. But most did not.

And that’s important. Part of the postcolonial mission was to define what and who counted as “Irish.” In effect, sexual knowledge was banned in Ireland. All of Freud’s works were banned; so too were all of the key sexological texts that were being produced by the leading minds in the field, like Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds. While Psychology of Sex isn’t the pleasure read that Stallion is, it is one of a handful of texts that helped twentieth-century same-sex desiring people find a language to understand themselves. For example, Ellis’s work is central to the self-discovery thread in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (a book that was also, of course, banned in Ireland).

The conversations about sexuality and identity that were so widespread by the mid-20th century in Britain and the United States did not happen in Ireland. There was never a Mattachine Society or a Wolfenden Report, because those initiatives were built, at least in part, on the work of sexology and psychology in the earlier part of the century. As a result, a gay rights movement didn’t really begin to take shape in Ireland until the late 1960s. Same-sex desiring men were still arrested and persecuted as elsewhere, but for the most part, when judges and newspaper reporters talked about sex crimes in Ireland, they discussed it in the language of sin and morality — there was a marked lack of a “type” of person (aka, a homosexual).

Censorship was grounded in the morality project of Irish independence. Sinfulness was regulated by the state, whether sin was in the ink of fiction or the friction of men hooking up in a public lavatory. Controlling and suppressing sin was central to the postcolonial project. By keeping tight hold on the reigns of sexual knowledge, the Irish state (and churches) could more easily dictate the boundaries of Irishness.


  1. Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, “Censorship as Freedom of Expression: The Tailor and Antsy Revisited,” Historical Reflections, 37, no. 2 (2011). Return to text.
  2. See, for example, Robert Cole, Propaganda, Censorship and Irish Neutrality in the Second World War (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006) and Donal Ó Drisceoil, Censorship in Ireland, 1939-1945: Neutrality, Politics, and Society (Cork: Cork University Press, 1996). Return to text.
  3. National Archives of Ireland, JUS 315-31, 31 Jul 1933, Letter from Francis C. Toner to Department of Justice. Return to text.
  4. National Archives of Ireland, JUS 315-31, 31 Jul 1933, Letter from Francis C. Toner to Department of Justice. Return to text.
  5. National Archives of Ireland, JUS 315-31, 2 Aug 1933, Letter from Department of Justice to Francis C. Toner. Return to text.
  6. National Archives of Ireland, JUS 315-31, 7 Aug 1933, Letter from Francis C. Toner to Department of Justice. Return to text.
  7. Those “illegal drugs” may have been abortifacients, as there were such products available in Britain at the time, or perhaps Dr. Toner went down some dark path of addiction. Sadly, we may never know. Return to text.

Averill Earls is the Executive Producer of the award-winning Dig: A History Podcast, and an Assistant Professor of History at St. Olaf College. She writes about same-sex desire in modern Ireland, with recent articles out in the Journal of the History of Sexuality (2019) and Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques (2020). Her forthcoming book, Love in the Lave: A Social Biography of Same-Sex Desire in Postcolonial Ireland is under contract with Temple University Press.