This year, Ireland is reaching several major milestones. All across the island, Irish people are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin—perhaps the single most influential event in the history of the modern struggle for Irish national independence. Even many Americans long removed from their Irish roots feel stirred by the events of Easter Week. The occasion was romanticized for Stateside audiences by Liam Neeson, who starred as the controversial rebel leader Michael Collins in the 1996 movie of the same name. Also that year, the Irish Republican Army—or, more accurately, the Provisional IRA—called off a 17-month ceasefire with a vengeance, carrying out a massive bombing attack at Canary Wharf, one of London’s key financial districts. And back in Dublin, Playboy magazine hit the top shelves of newsagents for the first time after a 36-year ban.
The history of Playboy in Ireland is almost as complicated as the history of the Irish independence movement itself. I spent years living in Ireland leading up to the disbandment of the Provisional IRA. But it wasn’t until a recent visit that I learned that, thanks to intricate smuggling operations, Playboy had already been in circulation for a long time. According to one Irish republican activist, “If there was something that we were told was forbidden by the government, that was reason enough for us to get it.”
After learning about the IRA’s Playboy smuggling, I spoke to several Irish republicans about their activities, all of whom asked to remain anonymous. Details about smuggling routes and techniques are still largely off limits, but what’s certain is that the IRA covertly brought in all sorts of sexual contraband—from condoms and birth control pills to Playboy magazines, their covers replaced with those of more innocuous periodicals.
Of course, it seems ironic for an underground paramilitary organization whose members overwhelmingly self-identify as Roman Catholics, and whose mission is the defense of an ancient and deeply pious culture, to flagrantly violate prohibitions against sexual material. But this is just one of the many complexities inside a movement that can only be understood in the context of its history.
In response to the Easter Rising of 1916, when armed Irish rebels launched an insurrection throughout Dublin and took control of the General Post Office, British artillery and battleship guns rained heavy fire down on the Irish capital, forcing the rebels to surrender. The leaders were arrested and many were executed. The executions, however, had the opposite of the effect British authorities had hoped for. The reprisals generated popular sympathy for the republican cause. The surviving Irish rebels went underground and reorganized their forces. Their movement became known in the Irish language as Óglaigh na hÉireann (Irish Volunteers)—or the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
The first IRA guerrilla campaign lasted until 1921 when several rebel leaders, including the controversial Michael Collins, negotiated a treaty that partitioned the country into two parts. The treaty conceded six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties to direct British rule; the remaining 26 counties would be free to elect representatives to a Dublin-based government as an “Irish Free State” with Dominion status under the British Empire. The legitimacy and governing authority of the Dublin government and its successors have been a source of contention amongst Irish republicans ever since.
The 1921 Treaty led to bitter infighting amongst the IRA volunteers and ultimately to civil war, during which the Free State government implemented heavy-handed measures against the IRA and republican sympathizers with the aim of disrupting the growth of the movement. The measures included prohibitions on radical literature as well as censorship of civilian mail by government agents and the Free State Army.
Beyond measures explicitly targeting Irish republicans, the Free State, under pressure from prominent members of the clergy, also created the Committee on Evil Literature. The Committee comprised an English literature professor, two representatives from parliament and two representatives of the Clergy: one from the Church of Ireland (Protestant) and the other a Roman Catholic Priest. Later, in 1929, the Free State established the Censorship of Publications Board through the Censorship of Publications Act with the stated purpose of providing for the “prohibition of the sale and distribution of unwholesome literature and for that purpose to provide for the establishment of a censorship of books and periodical publications.”’
In 1939, the Irish Oireachtas (legislature) created additional censorship laws through the Emergency Powers Act, ostensibly in response to the outbreak of World War II. The act not only authorized an array of censorship measures, a year later it also introduced a policy of internment through which Irish citizens suspected of involvement with the IRA could be imprisoned without trial.
Some 200 censors were employed by Gardaí (Irish police), intelligence units who categorized correspondence using a Black List and a White List. Additional measures, such as Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, forbid publishing or airing statements or interviews with Irish republican activists and remained in effect until 1994.
In those days, Playboy was doing things that were more controversial than simply publishing photos of nude girls.
Additional acts were to follow that expanded the powers and scope of the Censorship Board, driven by a combination of anti-Communist hysteria and ultra-conservative Catholic clergymen. By the 1950s, over 160 books and periodicals were banned by the Censorship Board along with movies including the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931), Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and Humphrey Bogart’s noir classic The Big Sleep (1946). Altogether, nearly 300 magazines would be listed with the Register of Prohibited Publications—129 of which were added in the 1950s, including Playboy.
The debate over censorship in Ireland was complicated further by the fact that, just across the border in British controlled Northern Ireland, Playboy and other literature outlawed by authorities in Dublin remained perfectly legal. “In those days Playboy was doing things that were more controversial than simply publishing photos of nude girls,” says one Irish republican activist now in his late seventies. “People were very conservative then. Even the most progressive republicans were still very conservative when it came to things like that.” But as he tells it, some republican activists—as well as unaffiliated ordinary citizens—would occasionally cross the border into the Northern territories to acquire copies of the magazine.
Only partly joking, he adds, “Of course we were reading it for the articles. Where else were you going to find an uncensored interview with Malcolm X or Fidel Castro?”
These factors presented uniquely Irish intellectual and political difficulties. During the Cold War, many leading IRA members veered toward the internationalist politics of Marxism while other nationalists felt that the Marxist emphasis on social and economic issues detracted from the “national question” and the IRA’s primary mission of creating a sovereign, 32-county nation. In the late 1960s, surges in sectarian violence throughout Northern Ireland provoked another split within the republican movement. IRA members with Marxist sympathies became known as the Official IRA (OIRA) or simply the “Officials” while those who wanted to focus more energy on a nationalist political program formed the Provisional IRA.
You could sell a Playboy for as much as 20 Irish pounds back then. Sell enough of them and you could do some real damage.
Within the Irish nationalist community, the Provisional IRA, or “Provos” came to be viewed as a continuation of a movement for the modernization of Ireland against the archaic feudal institutions of British monarchism and colonialism, while simultaneously acting as a sort of self-defense organization for marginalized Catholic communities. Ultimately, the Provos synthesized much of the progressive program of the Officials while simultaneously seeking to expand its military operations. This required weapons. And weapons required cash.
As one former republican activist explained: “You could sell a Playboy in Limerick for as much as 20 Irish pounds back then. That was a lot of money. Sell enough of them and you could do some real damage.”
A lot about Ireland has changed since government censors banned Playboy in the 1950s. Within two years of the magazine being available at Irish newsagents, loyalists and republicans entered into a ceasefire that would later lead to a formal cessation of hostilities. Later, in 2005 the Provisional Irish Republican Army announced a permanent end to its armed campaign.
But in spite of significant moves towards peaceful resolutions to the Anglo-Irish conflict, many Irish people, both north and south of the border, still see Ireland as a divided nation and regard the British military presence on the island as a foreign occupation force. Although political violence has declined since the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger economy, Irish government censors have also evolved, moving much of their attention away from “evil literature” to focus on economic issues stemming from the banking and property crisis of 2008.
Questions over the role women in Irish society are also taking prominence in debates over Ireland’s future. Since before the famed Countess Markievicz joined the Irish struggle for national liberation a century ago, women have played pivotal roles in driving Ireland’s progressive political culture, but it might be premature to suggest Ireland is on the verge of a sexual revolution.
Last year, Dominque Jane, an L.A.-based model with deep Irish roots, became Playboy’s Miss August. She explains why she chose to risk controversy back home to pose for the magazine: “I wanted to show people you can do what you want and women’s bodies should be celebrated, not hidden. I mean, I don’t look like most of the girls who pose for Playboy. I’m not the voluptuous blonde; I’m the skinny red-headed Irish girl.”
In November, 2016 Dominique was again featured in Playboy, this time making the cover. But in spite of her success, she says she was still nervous about how her family in Dublin would react. “It was a big shock for my mom at first. I actually only told her after the shoot. [But] after I did the shoot, I could see my mom becoming more open and more liberal about other things.”
Today, Playboy is still available throughout all 32 counties in Ireland, north and south, after 36 years of being banned. But issues over civil liberties, public utilities, immigrants and other minorities in Ireland have yet to be resolved as people continue to challenge censorship and other taboos a century after Irish rebels declared their country “a nation once again.”