“Charlie Hebdo would not survive too long in a Dublin newsagent without being hauled before the beak for blasphemy, indecency and anything else they could think of.”
So writes Martyn Turner in the Irish Times, offering his reaction to the atrocity in Paris, as yet again religious fanatics commit the ultimate blasphemy, murdering out of fear that their all-powerful god might not actually be able to defend his or her self.
That attack saw Islamist gunmen storm the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murder twelve people for the crime of offending them. Or their god. Whichever was the more touchy.
Martyn Turner is my favourite Irish cartoonist by a country mile and he has been for as long as I can remember. Although it’s more than two decades ago now since the X Case, I can recall in vivid detail sitting in a restaurant in Cork, feeling sickened to my stomach, looking again and again at this cartoon on the front of the Irish Times and realising how perfectly Turner had encapsulated what I knew even then would be a defining moment in Irish history.
Turner has an unerring ability to see to the heart of a story and to capture its essence in gorgeous lines of pen and ink. He has nailed successive Taoisigh to the drawing board and skewered politicians of every stripe without fear or favour.
To my eye, Martyn Turner’s work shows a clear influence from the great Irish-American cartoonist Walt Kelly.
In 1941, Kelly created the comic strip “Pogo” and, using beautiful illustrations of funny animals, spent the rest of his life delivering sharp and biting social and political commentary in an America that was a cold climate for his liberal and humanist opinions. “Calling a man a pig is just plain rude,” Kelly said of cartooning. “Draw him as a pig. That’s how you really hurt the sonuvabitch.”
Kelly was among the very first to take on another Irish-American figure, Senator Joseph McCarthy – lampooning him as “Simple J Malarkey” – at a time when to do so was to risk more than just career.
Martyn Turner is spot-on to highlight Ireland’s ludicrous blasphemy laws – which date back not to Victorian times but to Dermot Ahern’s head-rush of 1999. Actually, whatever happened to all that lovely Sharia banking Dermot said he’d get us in return for introducing the EU’s most regressive blasphemy laws?
The Minister of State for Justice, the Labour Party’s Aodhán Ó Ríordán, has promised a referendum on blasphemy “in the second half of the year”. Which strikes me as a tad optimistic, given that we might not even have a Labour Party in the second half of the year.
I could be wrong, but I thought I detected something left unsaid in Turner’s comments about cartooning and freedom of speech.
Last April, the Irish Times carried a cartoon by Turner. (The context of the cartoon was a resurgence of Ireland’s seemingly-unkillable love of singing priests.) I liked the cartoon and I tried to find it on the Irish Times website but it was not there. Not to worry. I’m one of that dying breed of weirdo who buys a newspaper or two every day. So I took a bad photo and tweeted it. To my surprise, my tweet soon became (it seemed) the only available online copy of the cartoon.
.A day later, the Irish Times issued what could only be called a grovelling apology, saying Turner’s cartoon “took an unfortunate and unjustified side-swipe at all priests, suggesting that none of them can be trusted with children”.
That weekend, the Iona Institute’s Breda O’Brien wrote a car-crash of an Irish Times column defending singing priests. (She didn’t mention that most famous of singing priests, the Elvis impersonator Fr Tony Walsh. As I write this, Fr Tony is serving 123 years’ worth of concurrent sentences for child abuse. Read more here but be warned that you don’t want Fr Tony in your head for too long.)
Given that the Catholic Church in Ireland has had a very obvious and deadly-dangerous problem with mandatory reporting of allegations of sex abuse up to at least as recently as the events covered in the Cloyne Report of 2011, I honestly see nothing controversial at all in Turner’s cartoon. But, despite claiming that the work of columnists and contributors is “largely sacrosanct”, the Irish Times apologised for the “considerable offence… (and) the hurt caused by the cartoon whose use in that form, we acknowledge, reflected a regretable [sic] editorial lapse.”
God forbid that the easily-offended might get offended.
You’d wonder though, wouldn’t you? If the Irish Times can cave so easily to prissy Flanderses like the Iona Institute, what might happen if the likes of ISIS ever came a-calling?
Speaking of the easily-offended, one of Ireland’s leading Muslim clerics was straight out of the traps a day after the Charlie Hebdo murders to threaten legal action should anyone in the Irish media publish a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Dr Ali Selim, of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, later appeared on RTÉ’s Prime Time, doing a credible impression of a racist taxi-driver. “Blasphemy is not Irish,” he said. “Why do we import problems that are not Irish?”
Likening freedom of speech to water, Dr Selim made the bizarre point: “If you drink too much, you will end up in hospital.” With such tone-deafness, he may as well just apply for Iona membership altogether.
In Paris we saw champions of free speech pay the ultimate price. They died because they offended the easily-offended. The cowards who slaughtered twelve people are violent and damaged men willing to place their own deranged imaginings of the divine above the lives of others.
In their rage, they reject the most basic principles of civilisation. Civilisation’s only response can be more civilisation.
If a society believes in freedom of speech then that freedom applies to all, most especially to those we find offensive. Freedom’s only weapon can be more freedom.
“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand,” said Mark Twain. But if you believe in an all-powerful god, then for God’s sake have a little faith. He or she should be big enough to take a joke.
“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” – Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier (1967 – 2015), publisher, Charlie Hebdo.