In the Republic of Ireland, blasphemy is required to be prohibited by Article 40.6.1.i. of the 1937 Constitution. The common law offence of blasphemous libel, applicable only to Christianity and last prosecuted in 1855, was ruled in 1999 to be incompatible with the Constitution’s guarantee of religious equality. The lacuna was filled in 2009 by a new offence of “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter”, against any religion. The continued existence of a blasphemy offence is controversial, with proponents of freedom of speech and freedom of religion arguing it should be removed. The government formed in 2016 has committed to holding a referendum on abolishing the constitutional offence.
The legal system of Ireland grew out of the common law system of English law. The common law offence of blasphemous libel applied only to Christianity. Spoken blasphemy was also an offence. Profanity was generally regarded by legal scholars as synonymous with blasphemy. In 1328, Adam Duff O’Toole was burned alive in Dublin for alleged heresy and blasphemy. Initially tried under canon law, he was handed over to the civil power as a repeat offender. He was a member of the O’Toole family which launched Gaelic raids on the Anglo-Norman Pale, and modern historians regard the charges as politically motivated. In later times, the penalty for a first offence of blasphemous libel was an unlimited fine and imprisonment; for a second offence it was banishment. The Anglican Church of Ireland was the established church from 1536 to 1871. Whether the crime could be committed against a denomination other than the established church was unclear; John Kelly suggested not.
Six bills to suppress “blasphemy and profaneness” were introduced in the Parliament of Ireland between 1697 and 1713, but none was passed into law. There was a prosecution in the Kingdom of Ireland for blasphemous libel in 1703: Thomas Emlyn, a Unitarian minister, was fined £1,000 and imprisoned for one year for denying the Divinity of Christ. He remained in debtor’s prison after his initial sentence until the fine was reduced to £70. Narcissus Marsh, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, began a prosecution against a Presbyterian minister in Drogheda, which was dropped by the Dublin Castle administration sympathetic to dissenters. Other incidents that century did not result in prosecutions. In 1713, Peter Browne, bishop of Cork and Ross preached that loyal toasts to “the glorious, pious, and immortal memory” of King William were blasphemous. The same year, a convocation of the Church of Ireland recommended prosecution of Robert Molesworth for “an indictable profanation of the holy scriptures”, after he had quoted Scripture in the course of an insult to their representatives at a viceregal levée. In 1756, Robert Clayton, Bishop of Clogher, questioned the Nicene Creed in a tract on religious tolerance; he was condemned by other bishops, but died before any prosecution for blasphemy was brought.
In 1852, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, John Syngean Bridgman, a Franciscan friar, was convicted in County Mayo after burning an Authorized King James Bible. He viewed it as a souperist work inferior to the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible. While the indictment described his actions as “in contempt of the Protestant religion”, Judge Thomas Langlois Lefroy advised the jury “it is not the version of the Scriptures which will warrant the commission of such an offence” but rather “a want of reverence to the Scriptures”. In 1855 at Kingstown, a Protestant Bible was burned on a bonfire of “irreligious” books organised by Vladimir Petcherine, a Redemptorist Catholic priest. He was acquitted of blasphemy after claiming he had not intended to burn any Bibles. The case, described by as David Lawton as banal and petty, was prosecuted by the Attorney-General for Ireland and the Solicitor-General for Ireland after a complaint from Methodist minister Robert Wallace.
Common law precedents persisted after the creation in 1922 of the Irish Free State, provided they were consistent with the 1922 Constitution, and later the current (1937) Constitution. The last British prosecution till 1977 was Bowman v Secular Society Limited in 1917. The Irish Law Reform Commission’s 1991 consultation paper on the crime of libel states, “if a case had arisen between Bowman in 1917 and 1937, it seems likely that an Irish court would have found the views in Bowman persuasive”.
The 1937 Constitution states “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law”. and “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.” The Constitution also guarantees certain rights “subject to public order and morality”, including citizens’ right “to express freely their convictions and opinions” and “[f]reedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion”.
In 1957, The Rose Tattoo was produced at the inaugural Dublin Theatre Festival. Alan Simpson, owner of the Pike Theatre Club, was prosecuted for “producing for gain an indecent and profane performance”, with obscenity later added to the charge. The play’s detractors were concerned by its sexual content rather than religion. The Law Reform Commission’s 1991 report comments “the equation of indecency and obscenity with profanity is probably misconceived
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. Although profane matter may sometimes be obscene or indecent, it is not necessarily so.”
Section 13 of the Defamation Act, 1961 prescribed penalties for blasphemous libel, but did not define the offence, which was presumed still to be the common-law offence. The new maximum penalties were seven years’ penal servitude, or two years’ imprisonment and a £500 fine. The only attempted prosecution since 1855 was in 1999, when John Corway brought a private prosecution against Independent Newspapers and Irish Independent editor Aengus Fanning for an editorial cartoon published during the 1995 divorce referendum, which depicted the government parties’ leaders snubbing a Catholic priest who was holding out a Communion wafer. The Supreme Court ruled that the 1937 Constitution had extinguished the common law offence, stating “It is difficult to see how the common law crime of blasphemy, related as it was to an established Church and an established religion could survive in … a Constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience, and the free profession and practice of religion.” It refused to allow the prosecution, stating “in the absence of any legislative definition of the constitutional offence of blasphemy, it is impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists … In the absence of legislation and in the present uncertain state of the law the Court could not see its way to authorising the institution of a criminal prosecution”.
The Law Reform Commission’s 1991 Report opined that “there is no place for the offence of blasphemous libel in a society which respects freedom of speech.” It said the Prohibition of Incitement to hatred Act 1989 provided an adequate protection for outrage against religious belief. However, since banning blasphemy is mandated by the Constitution, abolishing the offence would require a referendum. A referendum solely for that purpose “would rightly be seen as a time wasting and expensive exercise”. The Commission’s report, therefore, outlined criteria for a statutory definition of blasphemy which could serve until such time as Article 40.6.1.i might be changed as part of a broader Constitutional amendment. The 1996 report of the Oireachtas Constitution Review Group agreed that “The retention of the present constitutional offence of blasphemy is not appropriate.”
The Defamation Act 2009 (introduced as the Defamation Bill 2006) implemented many of the recommendations of the Commission’s 1991 report. Originally, it omitted reference to blasphemy, pending a review by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution. In March 2008, Brian Lenihan, then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, said:
The Joint Committee on the Constitution’s report on Article 40.6.1.i. was published in July 2008. The Committee had discussed the case of comedian Tommy Tiernan, whose stand-up routine on The Late Late Show parodied the Gospels, offending many viewers. The Bar Council of Ireland made a presentation to the Committee, pointing out that blasphemy and treason were the only crimes specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Neville Cox stated:
The Oireachtas Committee’s report concluded:
On 20 May 2009 at the Bill’s committee stage, section 36, dealing with blasphemy was introduced by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern as an amendment. Section 36 defines a new indictable offence of “Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter”, which carries a maximum fine of €25,000. The offence consists of uttering material “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, when the intent and result is “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”. A defence is permitted for work of “genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value”. “Religion” excludes profit-driven organisations or those using “oppressive psychological manipulation”. Upon conviction under section 36, a court warrant can authorise the Garda Síochána (police) to enter premises to search for and seize any copies of the blasphemous material.
Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland, convened the Council of State to discuss whether the Bill should be referred to the Supreme Court to test its Constitutionality; she decided not to do so. The bill became Law when McAleese signed it on 23 July 2009, and came into force on 1 January 2010.
The advocacy group Atheist Ireland responded to the enactment by announcing the formation of the “Church of Dermotology” (named after Dermot Ahern). On the date on which the law came into effect, it published a series of potentially blasphemous quotations on its website and vowed to challenge any resulting legal action.
After the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland suggested that the blasphemy provision of the Defamation Act 2009 should be applied to any media outlet reproducing cartoons depicting Muhammad as part of the “Je suis Charlie” campaign.
After the 2009 Act, Atheist Ireland said that it would be holding a series of public meetings to launch a campaign for secular constitutional reform. In March 2010, Ahern’s press officer said the minister might ask the cabinet to hold a referendum to remove the reference to blasphemy from the Constitution in autumn 2010, at the same time tentatively planned for a referendum on an amendment relating to children’s rights. Asked about this in the Dáil, Ahern did not offer any commitment, but said:
In the event, no referendums were held before the dissolution of the 30th Dáil in January 2011. Before the ensuing general election, Atheist Ireland asked parties “Do you believe that blasphemy should be a criminal offence?” Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, and the Workers’ Party said no, while Labour and the Green Party supported a referendum to remove the constitutional requirement. After the election, the Fine Gael–Labour coalition’s programme for government promised a Constitutional Convention to discuss potential amendments, including “Removing blasphemy from the Constitution”.
The Convention was established in December 2012, and received submissions on the blasphemy issue from various groups and individuals, mostly in favour of abolition. The Irish Council of Churches, a coalition of the main Christian churches in Ireland, described the provision as “largely obsolete”. The Convention considered the issue at its seventh plenary session on 2–3 November 2013. Several submitters were invited to make presentations at the meeting. There were expert presentations from university academics Neville Cox, Eoin O’Dell, and Maeve Cooke; the Knights of Saint Columbanus, the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, and an NUIG PhD student argued in favour of retention, while Atheist Ireland, the Humanist Association of Ireland, and the Irish Council of Civil Liberties argued for its removal. Convention members voted 61–38 against retaining the existing Constitutional prohibition of blasphemy; 53–38 in favour of replacing it with a prohibition of “incitement to religious hatred”; and 50–49 against having a statutory prohibition of blasphemy. If a statutory prohibition were used, members voted 81–11 in favour of a new provision rather than the 2009 act.
In October 2014, Minister of State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin gave the official government response to the Convention’s report on blasphemy, announcing that it had decided to hold a referendum on the issue. In January 2015, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said there would not be a referendum on the issue before the next general election, due by April 2016. He said that two referendums were already to be held in 2015, on marriage equality and reducing the age of candidacy for the presidency, and any more might distract voters from focusing on the issues.
After the election on 26 February, protracted negotiations led to a Fine Gael–independent government on 7 May with confidence and supply support from Fianna Fáil. The government programme published on 11 May includes a commitment to holding a referendum on blasphemy.
The Censorship of Films Act 1923 mandates the Chief Censor to prohibit a film or scene “unfit for general exhibition in public by reason of its being indecent, obscene or blasphemous”. A 1925 Amendment extended the power to ban advertisements for films. These powers are retained in the most recent legislation of 2008. The Censor (now called the Director of Film Classification) has wide discretion in interpreting the criteria: Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned by Frank Hall in 1980 for being blasphemous; when resubmitted in 1987 it was passed uncut by his successor Sheamus Smith. These Acts apply only to cinema films; the Video Recordings Act, 1989 does not include blasphemy as grounds for prohibition, but does include ‘incitement of religious hatred’ as grounds for censorship or an outright ban (refusal of certification).
The Censorship of Publications Acts (1929 and 1946) did not include blasphemy among possible grounds for banning, which were indecency, obscenity, promotion of “unnatural” contraception or abortion, and (in the case of periodicals) excessive focus on crime. In the debate on the 1946 Bill, Senator Louis O’Dea suggested adding blasphemy as a criterion
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The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland’s voluntary code of conduct requires advertising to “avoid causing offence on grounds of … religion” and not to “ridicule or exploit religious beliefs, symbols, rites or practices.” A 2005 Paddy Power poster, parodying Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper with Jesus and the apostles in a casino, was withdrawn for breaching the religion guidelines as well as “taste and decency”.