Blasphemy and Ireland: Everything you need to know
Blasphemy? What is it?
âImpious or profane speaking of God or sacred thingsââ as banned by the second of the Ten Commandments and the Irish Constitution under Article 40.6.1.i. The Article bans âthe publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matterâ, offences âwhich shall be punishable in accordance with lawâ.
Yes. The Article was enacted by the people on July 1st, 1937. It has been in operation since December 29th, 1937.
. . . Really?
Well, not really. The 1961 Defamation Act prescribed maximum penalties of seven yearsâ penal servitude for blasphemous libel or two yearsâ imprisonment and a 500 poun d fine. But it still did not define the offence.
Not one. In fact there were no prosecutions for blasphemy in Ireland during the 140 years between 1855 and 1995.
What happened in 1855?
In DÃºn Laoghaire, which was then Kingstown, a Protestant Bible was burned by Redemptorist priest Fr Vladimir Pecherin, who was from Ukraine and then chaplin at the Mater hospital in Dublin. He was charged following a complaint from Methodist minister Rev Robert Wallace. The case was thrown out when Fr Pecherin claimed he had not intended to include a Bible (even a Protestant one) in his bonfire of bad books.
Ah yes. A Dublin Bus experience. None for 140 years then three come along at once. All brought by Catholic John Conway, who claimed an editorial in Hot Press magazine, as well as cartoons by Martyn Turner in The Irish Times and Wendy Shea in the Irish Independent, were blasphemous.
Mr Conway said he had âsuffered offence and outrage by reason of the insult, ridicule and contempt shown towards the sacrament of the Eucharist as a result of the publication of the matter complained of herein and I am aware of other persons having also so suffered.â
By coincidence, of course, this happened during the bitterly fought divorce referendum campaign of that year.
The case was thrown out by the High Court and then by the Supreme Court, after Mr Conway appealed it there.
Followed by. . .
Nothing, as usual where blasphemy in Ireland is concerned.
When was the last successful action for blasphemy in Ire land?
That is not at all clear, but in 1703 Unitarian minister Thomas Emlyn was fined Â£1,000 and imprisoned for a year in Dublin when he denied the divinity of Christ.
You mean there hasnât been a successful action on blasphemy in Ireland in 315 years?
So it would appear.
In 2008 the joint Oireachtas committee on the Constitutionâs report on Article 40.6.1.i. was published. It said the reference to blasphemy in the Constitution was really âa dead letterâ since the 1995 Supreme Court finding in the Conway case, and it felt âthat in a modern Constitution, blasphemy is not a phenomenon against which there should be an express constitutional prohibitionâ. It even discussed a parody of the Gospels by comedian To mmy Tiernan on the Late Late Show that year, but was not for turning.
So that was that then?
Not just yet. It was 2008, the country was banjaxed and could not afford a referendum.
Then minister for justice Dermot Ahern brought in a law âto remove the possibility of prison sentences and private prosecutions for blasphemy, currently provided for in Irish lawâ, as he wrote in this newspaper in May 2009. âThe only credible alternative to this move is a blasphemy referendum, which I consider, in the current circumstances, a costly and unwarranted diversion,â he said.
Really? A law with no consequences. Y ou cannot be serious?
I am and he was. Dermot Ahern introduced a law which prevented prosecutions for blasphemy but also complied with the Constitution. The Defamation Act 2009 introduced a new offence of âpublication or utterance of blasphemous matterâ which carried a maximum fine of â¬25,000.
What happened then?
Nothing. No prosecutions since. None. Nada. Same old, same old . . .
But Stephen Fry?
Ah yes, Mr Fry. That was in 2015 when he lambasted a God he does not believe exists on Gay Byrneâs The Meaning of Life on RTÃ One. This was a slow-burner, seemingly. Almost two years later, in 2017, a man complained to gardaÃ at Ennis, Co Clare, about the programme. Not that he himsel f was offended, like.
GardaÃ searched high and low, but two days later, were unable to find âa substantial number of outraged peopleâ to bring an action over the issue and nothing happened. Fry himself later said he was contacted by the man who had complained, who told him he had done so to show how the law on blasphemy in Ireland was really an ass. Stephen Fry thought this a âwonderfully Irish solutionâ to the problem of outdated legislation.
Part of the programme for Government agreed in May 2016 was that a referendum would be held to remove the blasphemy provision from the Constitution, which will take place on Friday, October 26th next, the same day as the presidential election.