History of Irish blasphemy law

If you plan to campaign against the new proposed Irish blasphemy law, here are some key points that it would be helpful to be familiar with.

Blasphemy was a common law offence under Irish law when the 1937 Constitution explicitly made it an offence punishable by law. The Defamation of Act of 1961 also made it a crime, but did not define what blasphemy was.

The 1996 Constitution Review Group called for the deletion of the crime of blasphemy from the Irish Constitution, along with other references to the Christian God, religion and religious oaths. Two other All-Party Committees have also called for the removal of religious references in the Constitution.

In 1999, the Supreme Court found the Irish law against blasphemy to be unenforceable, and the UK has since abolished its blasphemy law from which ours evolved. And the 2008 All-Party Committee on the Constitution repeated the call to remove the blasphemy reference from our Constitution.

Just last year, Ireland voted at the UN against an attempt by Islamic states to make ‘defamation of religion’ a crime. And yet now the Minister for Justice is seeking to revive this anachronistic medieval crime in modern Ireland.

History of Irish Blasphemy Law

Background to the Crime of Blasphemy
1937 – Dail Debate on Irish Constitution
1937 – Irish Constitution Outlaws Blasphemy
1961 – Dail Debate on Defamation Bill
1961 – Defamation Act Creates Blasphemy Law
1991 – Law Reform Commission Recommendation
1991 – Law Reform Commission Fallback Position
1996 – Constitution Review Group Report
1996 – Blasphemy Case High Court Ruling
1999 – Blasphemy Case Supreme Court Ruling
2003 – European Convention of Human Rights Act
2008 – UK Abolishes Blasphemy Law
2008 – All-Party Committee on Constitution
2008 – Ireland Opposes ‘Defaming Religion’ Crime
2009 – Defamation Bill Includes Blasphemy Crime
Campaign Against New Blasphemy Crime

Background to the Crime of Blasphemy

The crime of blasphemy appears several times in the Christian Bible and the related movie Life of Brian. In the Bible, some characters are stoned to death for blasphemy, and Jesus is condemned to death for the same offence. In Life of Brian, a character is stoned to death for telling his wife that a piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.

Under medieval canon law, the Catholic Church punished blasphemers by fining and flogging them, piercing their tongues and making them galley slaves. The English courts justified enforcing blasphemy laws on the grounds that Christianity was parcel of the laws of England, and therefore to reproach the Christian religion was to subvert the law.

In 1656, under English common law, Yorkshire Quaker James Naylor was convicted of blasphemy. He was flogged and imprisoned, his tongue was pierced with a red-hot poker, and his forehead was branded with the letter B.

In 1885, the burning of a Bible led to the last blasphemy prosecution in Ireland before the founding of the Free State. Prosecutions for blasphemy in Ireland effectively ceased when the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869.

In 1917, a legal case in Britain (Bowman v Secular Society Ltd) had an impact on how the common law against blasphemy should be interpreted. It was alleged that a bequest to the Secular Society Ltd was invalid, as the object of the company involved the denial of Christianity. The House of Lords decided that this object was not unlawful.

In 1921, Bradford man John Gott was the last person in Britain to be sent to prison for blasphemy when he published pamphlets satirising the Bible, in which he compared Jesus to a circus clown. Gott was sentenced to nine months hard labour and, being of ill health, he died shortly after his release.

1937 – Dail Debate on Irish Constitution

In May 1937 the Dail debated the proposed new Irish Constitution. Two TDs argued that it
was heretical and blasphemous, as it suggested that the Irish people had the authority to enact a constitution and elect rulers, whereas the reality was that all such authority derived from God. The President, Eamon de Valera, replied as follows:

“I want everybody to realise what this Constitution states about authority. In the Preamble, and in the Article that refers to that, there is a clear, unequivocal statement that authority comes from God. That is fundamental. It does not matter what view a group of Catholic theologians may take as to how it comes to the immediate rulers. What we have here is clear at any rate – that authority is from God. That is fundamental Catholic doctrine, and it is here. It is true doctrine.”

In June 1937, the debate continued. The opposition proposed deleting the explicit reference to blasphemy being an offence punishable by law. However, they were not arguing that blasphemy should not be an offence. They were arguing that it was already inherent in the right to free expression that you could not utter blasphemy, and so it was not necessary to include such a prohibition twice.

1937 – Irish Constitution Outlaws Blasphemy

In July 1937 the new Irish Constitution was passed. It contained various references to the Christian god and and to religion, including requirements to swear religious oaths in order to become President or a Judge. The three references most directly related to blasphemy are the Preamble, Article 40 on personal rights, and Article 44 on religion.

  • The Preamble begins with the words: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, we, the people of Eire, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ…”
  • Article 40.6.1 guarantees the right of citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions subject to public order and morality. It then restricts this right by saying that says that “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
  • Article 44.1 says that “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.” Note that this article does not enshrine the rights of citizens to worship this imagined character. Instead, it enshrines the rights of this imagined character to be worshipped.

1961 – Dail Debate on Defamation Bill

In July 1961 the Dail debated a Defamation Bill which included a reference to blasphemous libel. During the debate, Justice Minister Charles Haughey was questioned by Patrick McGilligan, a TD who was also a professor of constitutional law at UCD.

McGilligan: There is no definition anywhere of blasphemy in this Bill. Is there in any of the old Acts?
Haughey: Not so far as I am aware.
McGilligan: Where are we then? The offences take in various things, including blasphemous libel. What does it mean?
Haughey: Blasphemy is a common law term. It is defined by common law.
McGilligan: Has it anything to do with the established Church and does nonconformity come into it?
Haughey: No.
McGilligan: Is there a definition of it?
Haughey: Blasphemy is a common law offence. There is no statutory definition of it.
McGilligan: I understood the old common law definition was that blasphemy was subversion of the established religion. Surely, we are getting away from all that?
Haughey: It has nothing to do with the established religion.
McGilligan: What has it to do with?
Haughey: The common law concept of blasphemy.
McGilligan: Which was anything against the established religion.
Haughey: Not necessarily.
McGilligan: It was.
Haughey: Everybody knows what blasphemy is.
McGilligan: I should like to see that put into the definition section – blasphemy is what everybody knows it to be.

1961 – Defamation Act Creates Blasphemy Crime

Currently, Section 13 of the Defamation Act 1961 states the following: “Every person who composes, prints or publishes any blasphemous or obscene libel shall, on conviction thereof on indictment, be liable to a fine not exceeding five hundred pounds or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both fine and imprisonment or to penal servitude for a term not exceeding seven years.” In practice, this law has proved to be unenforceable as there is no definition of what blasphemy consists of.

1991 – Law Reform Commission Recommendation

In December 1991, the Law Reform Commission recommended deleting the reference to blasphemy from the Constitution on the grounds that there was no place for such an offence in a society which respects freedom of speech. The President of the Commission was Justice Ronan Keane, who was then a High Court Judge and later became Chief Justice of Ireland.

The Commission noted that the offence of blasphemy was not defined in Irish law, but that it could in theory consist of three possibilities:

  • It could mean any questioning of Christian doctrine, which is what it had been from earliest times until the 19th century. This would be totally incompatible with modern conditions, having originated in a period of religious intolerance. It might also be unconstitutional on the grounds of freedom of speech and religious equality.
  • It could mean an offensive and insulting attack on the Christian religion, which is what it was deemed to be in England. This might be unconstitutional on the grounds of religious equality.
  • It could mean neither of the above, but whatever the jury deemed it to be in any given case. This would mean that the offence lacked an objective basis.

For practical purposes, the Commission recommended that the reference to blasphemy in the Constitution should be deleted as part of a more extensive revision of provisions which, for one reason or another, were generally considered to be anachronistic or anomalous.

1991 – Law Reform Commission Fallback Position

The Law Reform Commission accepted that it might take some time to change the Constitution, and/or that the Government might not accept their recommendation to do so. For these reasons, they produced a secondary interim recommendation for revising the existing blasphemy law. They expressed three concerns about doing this:

  • That providing for a new and reformed offence of blasphemy might be regarded as simply encouraging the retention of a law which is anachronistic and anomalous.
  • That it would be difficult to acceptably define a religion in the context of a modern law of blasphemy.
  • That any legislation might contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, which require a law restricting freedom of expression to be formulated with sufficient precision to enable a citizen to regulate his conduct.

In this context, their secondary recommendation was that:

  • The common law offence of ‘blasphemous libel’ be replaced with a new offence of ‘publication of blasphemous matter’.
  • That ‘blasphemous matter’ be defined as matter the sole effect of which is likely to cause outrage to a substantial number of the adherents of any religion by virtue of its insulting content concerning matters held sacred by that religion.
  • That ‘religion’ be defined to include Christian and non-Christian religions
  • That ‘matters held sacred’ be defined so as to exclude criminal offences.
  • That the defendent knew he was likely to cause outrage
  • That causing such outrage was his sole intent.

This is reasonably close to the new crime being introduced by Dermot Ahern, with two important differences. One, the Law Reform Commission saw it as an interim fall-back measure, not as a primary recommendation. And two, Ahern’s proposed law merely says causing outrage must be intended, whereas this proposal says that causing outrage must be the sole intent.

1996 – Constitution Review Group Report

In May 1996 the Irish Constitution Review Group recommended that the reference to blasphemy be deleted from the Constitution, along with other religious references such as the references to God in the Preamble, the reference to the homage of public worship being due to the Christian God, and the requirement for Presidents and Judges to swear religious oaths.

The Review Group was chaired by TK Whitaker, and had fifteen members from the fields of law, administration, economics, education, political science and sociology.

With regard to freedom of expression, the Review Group recommended that Article 40.6.1 should be replaced by a new clause protecting the right of free speech which was modeled on Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. It said that the onus should be on the Government to show that restrictions on free speech were objectively necessary.

Between then and 2006 there were ten All-Party Oireachtas reports on aspects of the Constitution. These have been described as Progress Reports, and each has covered one section of the Constitution. The 1998 and 1999 reports recommended removing the requirements that the President and Judges swear a religious oath.

1996 – Blasphemy Case High Court Ruling

In November 1995, after the divorce referendum, the Sunday independent published a cartoon of a priest holding a chalice and communion host, with three politicians turning away from him. The caption was “Hello progress, goodbye Father.” This was a play on one of the slogans used by anti-divorce campaigners, “Hello divorce, goodbye daddy”.

Arising from this cartoon, Dublin man John Corway applied to the High Court for an order allowing him to take a blasphemy prosecution against the Sunday Independent. In October 1996, the High Court ruled that the cartoon did not provide a clear prima facie case for a blasphemy prosecution, and that, even if it had done so, the public interest would not be served by instituting a prosecution.

Justice Geoghegan considered the cases of Bowman v Secular Society Ltd 1917 and Regina v Lemon 1979. He concluded that while the causing of offence is a necessary ingredient of the modern crime of blasphemy, it must accompany an attack on some tenet or practice of the Christian religion to constitute blasphemy. He said it was no longer the law that any criticism of the Christian religion was blasphemous.

1999 – Blasphemy Case Supreme Court Ruling

In July 1999 the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by John Corway against the High Court’s decision that the Sunday Independent had not published a blasphemous cartoon. On the specific issue of the cartoon, the Supreme Court found that no jury would consider that an insult to the Blessed Sacrament existed or was intended.

On the more general issue of blasphemy, the Supreme Court found that, because there is no legal definition of blasphemy in Irish law, “it is impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists”.

The Supreme Court also said that, under the Irish Constitution, “the State is not placed in the position of an arbiter of religious truth”. In effect, the Supreme Court found that the common law crime of blasphemy was inconsistent with the religious equality provisions of the Constitution, and thus had not survived the enactment of the Constitution.

Part of the Supreme Court ruling read:

“From the wording of the Preamble to the Constitution it is clear that the Christian religion is one of the religions protected from insult by the Constitutional crime of blasphemy. But the Jewish religion would also appear to be protected as it seems quite clear that the purpose of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution was certainly not to weaken the position of the Jewish congregations in Ireland but to bring out the universal nature of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. What then is the position of the Muslim religion? Or the polytheistic religions such as Hinduism? Would the constitutional guarantees of equality before the law and of the free profession and practice of religion be respected if one citizen’s religion enjoyed constitutional protection from insult and another’s did not?”

2003 – European Convention of Human Rights Act

In 2003 the Oireachtas passed the European Convention of Human Rights Act. This obliges the courts to interpret statutes and laws in a manner compatible with the European Convention. If it is impossible to do this, the Irish law still prevails. However, The case law of the European Court of Human Rights establishes that a blasphemy clause is not a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

2008 – UK Abolishes Blasphemy Law

In May 2008 the United Kingdom abolished its laws against blasphemy, as part of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. It was from the British common law against blasphemy that the Irish common law against blasphemy evolved.

2008 – All-Party Committee on the Constitution

In July 2008 the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution recommended deleting the reference to blasphemy from the Constitution, on the grounds that a modern Constitution should not expressly prohibit blasphemy, and that the Supreme Court decision of 1999 had already rendered the offence a dead letter anyway.

The Committee suggested that, If there is a need to protect against religious offence or incitement, it is more appropriate that this be dealt by way of legislative intervention, with due regard to the fundamental right of free speech.

The Committee was chaired by Sean Ardagh and the vice-chair was Jim O’Keeffe. The members were TDs Thomas Byrne, Michael D’Arcy, Tom Hayes, Brendan Howlin, Michael Kennedy, Denis Naughten, Ned O’Keeffe, Mary O’Rourke and Michael Woods; and Senators Dan Boyle, Denis O’Donovan, Eugene Regan and Alex White.

2008 – Ireland Opposes ‘Defaming Religion’ Crime

In December 2008 in Durban, the United Nations discussed an Egyptian motion on “combating defamation of religion”. The motion was supported by Islamic states and opposed by European Union states. The motion was passed, but a later conference in Geneva removed references to “defamation of religion” from the final document.

Ireland voted with the other EU states that there should not be such a crime as “defamation of religion”. The Minister for Foreign affairs, Micheal martin, later explained why Ireland had taken this position. He told the Dail that:

“We believe that the concept of defamation of religion is not consistent with the promotion and protection of human rights. It can be used to justify arbitrary limitations on, or the denial of, freedom of expression. Indeed, Ireland considers that freedom of expression is a key and inherent element in the manifestation of freedom of thought and conscience and as such is complementary to freedom of religion or belief.”

He said that Ireland also supported a UN resolution on “Elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief.” He explained that there is a difference between “defamation of religion” and discrimination based on religious belief and incitement to hatred

2009 – Defamation Bill Proposes Blasphemy Crime

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice is currently discussing the Defamation Bill 2006. The purpose of this Bill is to “revise in part the law of defamation and to replace the Defamation Act 1961 with modern updated provisions taking into account the jurisprudence of our courts and the European Court of Human Rights”.

The 1961 Act includes the offence of blasphemy, as quoted above. The Minister for Justice is proposing to replace this reference with a new proposed offence, stating: “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.”

“Blasphemous matter” is defined as matter “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

Campaign Against The New Blasphemy Crime

Atheist Ireland will be organising public meetings this month at which we can organise active opposition to the blasphemy bill, and also widen the issue into the need for a secular Irish constitution.

If you want to help out, please leave a message here or visit the Atheist Ireland website. Together we can build an ethical and secular Ireland that we can be proud of.

Please also contact the Minister for Justice and the members of the Justice Committee discussing this Bill. These are:

Brendan Kenneally FF Chairman
Dinny McGinley FG Vice Chairman
Sean Connick FF Govt Convenor
Brian O’Shea Lab Opposition Convenor
Darragh O’Brien FF
Thomas Byrne FF
Jimmy Deenihan FG
Michael Mulcahy FF
Denis Naughten FG
Charlie Flanagan FG
Niall Collins FF
Pat Rabbitte Lab
Noel Tracey FF

Eugene Regan FG
Ivana Bacik Ind
Lisa McDonald FF
Denis O’Donovan FF

History of Irish blasphemy law

8 thoughts on “History of Irish blasphemy law

  1. I’m not an atheist (not sure WHAT I am!) but I’m damn sure that a blasphemy law in Ireland is a terrible, terrible idea. I’m flabbergasted that it’s even on the agenda. Any time the State has cosied up to the churches (any of them) it’s been detrimental to the people of Ireland. So can we stop doing it?

  2. Brief outline of the case law of the European Court of Human Rights regarding blasphemy
    The European Court of Human Rights held that blasphemy laws are compatable with the Convention in Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria (1994) where the Strasbourg-based Court felt that a violation of the right to freedom of expression (Art. 10) had to be balanced with the protection of the rights of others, in this case Article 9 regarding the right to respect for one’s religious feelings, and at ensuring religious peace.
    In the similar case of Wingrove v. United Kingdom (1996) blasphemy laws were found not to be a violation of freedom of expression under the Convention so long as there is a balance of proportionality between the manner in which the antireligious sentiment is expressed and the state’s penalties.

    The Strasbourg Court has, however made it clear that the right to freedom of expression even includes content which may offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population Handyside v. the United Kingdom (1976).

  3. “In May 2008 the United Kingdom abolished its laws against blasphemy, as part of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. It was from the British common law against blasphemy that the Irish common law against blasphemy evolved.”

    I was not aware of this, I thought they were still in the process.

    Well as a Christian i find that good news indeed. I am of the view that Christianity can cope with any amount of criticism of it and should welcome all comers who want to give their opinion of it. In that light it cannot be a threat to freedom. Islam however cannot cope with free speech and the abolition of these blaspheme laws mean it has more to lose than any other branch of society.

    On reflection I would treat it like King Solomon when confronted with two women arguing as to who owned a newborn baby. Solomon asked for a knife to cut it in two, a piece to be given to each woman. The fraud said nothing while the real mother protested and asked that the baby be allowed stay with the imposter. Solomon determined the rightful mother from her love toward her child. (now that i have thoroughly confirmed your horror of such a distasteful tome, I shall proceed)

    If no blaspheme law in this country means you blaspheme Christianity to kingdom come(that would be in order), curse it to high heaven and damn islam to low hell.

    In the end, freedom is at stake, freedom for you to be atheist and freedom for me to be christian.

    All the best,


  4. Blasphemy is a victimless crime!
    I am both outraged at the prospect of this Bill passing and excited at being part of the first atheist organisation in Ireland. It is high time we entered ‘the age of Reason’ as our old friend George Carlin used to say.

  5. Its great to actually find a person that knows what they are talking about; most often you find people that emblesh too much. I wish more people would read your well-authored post; I know I will certainly be looking for more of your work.

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