Undead Letters: Ireland's Blasphemy Referendum

Hallam Roffey | 25 October 2018

British History | Irish History | Modern History | Political History

The Art Society Køge Bay: The director Jens Jørgen Thorsen debates the movie ‘Stille dager i Clichy’ in Munkebio, May 1, 1980. 

On 26 October Ireland will go to the polls not only to elect a President, but to vote in a long-awaited referendum on whether or not to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Irish constitution. The importance of cutting out Article 40.6.1, which reads ‘the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with the law’, is difficult to overstate.

Although the blasphemy law was finally repealed in the UK as recently as 2008, we tend to think of it as a quaint legal anachronism. The same might be thought in Ireland, where no one has been prosecuted under the law since 1855. So the question must be asked, why even bother with a referendum? As Senator Rónán Mullen has pointed out, the constitutional reference is largely symbolic and a referendum would be, he argues, of no public benefit and yet would cost over €3 million.

UK humanist organisations have rightly noted that the Irish law is frequently cited by other countries to justify keeping their own blasphemy laws, but the heart of the matter is that even long-dormant laws are always at risk of rearing their heads again, especially when it comes to blasphemy. The case of such laws in England during the 20th century illustrates this well.

As long ago as the late nineteenth century, English blasphemy law looked outdated. A public meeting was even been held at St. James’ Hall in May 1884 to demand the removal of blasphemy laws for being ‘obsolete enactments’ [1]. With the year 1921 seeing the last prison sentence for blasphemy, by 1949 the distinguished judge Lord Alfred Denning could declare the offence a ‘dead letter’ whilst Lord Goddard in 1951 was able to refer in passing to the ‘somewhat obsolete offence of blasphemy’ [2].

In 1957, C.E Ratcliffe observed in an article that, despite their redundancy, ‘the blasphemy laws, relics of the Bad Old Days, are still on the Statute Books’ [3]. In fact the statute law of blasphemy was repealed in the late 1960s but the common law offence of blasphemous libel (the instrument which was actually used to prosecute blasphemers in England) remained in place, despite it being recommended for abolition by a committee. Blasphemous libel, then, continued to exist in theory but was obsolete in practice – symbolic, more than anything.

Quite suddenly however, in 1976, blasphemy was revived. When Danish filmmaker Jens Jørgen Thorsen attempted to make a film in Britain about the supposed sex life of Jesus, Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association whipped up a press campaign and sought advice on how to initiate a prosecution, finding recourse in the dusty old law of blasphemous libel.

In the event Thorsen was refused entry to the country, but the episode had drawn attention to the fact that blasphemous material was being produced and that there were in fact courses of action available to prevent this in the seemingly archaic blasphemy laws. This became relevant the following year when Whitehouse did initiate a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against the magazine Gay News and its Editor Dennis Lemon for publishing a poem by James Kirkup entitled ‘The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name’, along with an illustration, that graphically described a Roman Centurion having sex with Jesus after his crucifixion.

After a dramatic and controversial trial at the Old Bailey in July 1977, the first blasphemy trial for 56 years, a jury found both the journal and Lemon guilty. The judge declared the poem ‘blasphemous upon its face’ and handed Lemon a nine month suspended sentence and a £500 fine. The verdict was upheld by the Court of Appeal and the Law Lords, though the prison sentence was later quashed.

A letter from the Home Office to the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in August 1977 summarised the situation well – ‘as to blasphemy and other religious offences, they are no longer, as we thought here in 1971, obsolete curiosities but a live issue’ [4].

Blasphemy had made a comeback and accusations of it subsequently increased. Hundreds of complaints were made about the blasphemy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979 and the DPP did actually consider bringing charges [5]. The Last Temptation of Christ was similarly declared blasphemous by numerous commentators with widespread calls for a prosecution.

Though no action was brought against these films, as a result of the controversy the short 1989 film Visions of Ecstasy, about the sexualised visions of Saint Teresa of Avila with the body of Jesus, was effectively banned by the British Board of Film Classification who refused to issue the video with a certificate because it was the Board’s view that a jury would find the production blasphemous. This was the first time the Board had censored a film for blasphemy.

Not only did this mean an official body in the UK had censored a film for adults on the grounds of blasphemy, but it also strengthened the case of those who were calling for a prosecution to be brought against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses in that same year. The end result of all this was that freedom of expression in Britain was left severely bruised.

What the English example shows, then, is even when it is thought an offence has been consigned to a legal wasteland, its very existence still represents the possibility of a revival. The only way to ensure blasphemy is banished to the history books for good is complete abolition of all laws, including ‘dead letter’ ones, wherever they are found, as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief has called for.

Historian David Nash’s claim in 2007 that blasphemy ‘is at the forefront of legal and philosophical dilemmas facing contemporary western governments’ still rings true [6]. Whilst the law in England was abolished in 2008 under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, the concept of blasphemy has continued to have resonance in the context of ongoing discussions about freedom of expression, religious freedom and multiculturalism, especially after the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015.

Malta, Norway, Iceland and Denmark have all recently repealed their blasphemy laws. A Bill to do the same is currently making its way through the legislature of Canada. At the same time, Imran Khan, the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, is pledging to export his country’s blasphemy laws to the rest of the world. In the face of this, Ireland may wish to bear history in mind when considering the views of Senator Mullen and others. Blasphemy remains, as it always has been, more than merely symbolic.

Hallam Roffey is in the first year of his WRoCAH-funded PhD in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research concerns freedom of expression, censorship and offensive / obscene material in modern Britain. 


[1] Justice, 10 May 1884, p.1.

[2] N. Walter, Blasphemy Ancient & Modern, p.61.

[3] The Word, November 1957, p.10.

[4] National Archives: D.P.P, 2/6231, Thørsen, Jens Jorgen, 1976-1977.

[5] National Archives: HO, 300/193, ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’, 1979-1980.

[6] D. Nash, Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History (oxford, 2007), p.1.