IRISH JUDICIAL STUDIES JOURNAL
 Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 1 16
A brief history of blasphemy in Britain and Ireland
Blasphemy consists of the attribution to God of that which is not of God, such as malice or
. Claiming that there is no God or that religion is pointless is not blasphemy. Cannon
of the Catholic Church, in discussing blasphemy holds that blasphemy shall be punished
by the local bishop. Irish practitioners have defined blasphemy as “spoken or written words of insult
to God or His Saints or sacred things.”
The earliest and most famous eyewitness account of
condemnation for alleged blasphemy is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew
‘blasphemous’ statement, a positive answer to the question, “are you the Christ?” The very last
person given a jail sentence in England for blasphemy, and the last person officially prosecuted,
was the ironically named John Gott
. A freethinker, atheist and socialist, his 1921 offence was
indeed mild by today’s standards; as emerges from the judgment of Lord Trevethin upholding
the sentence of four months
It does not require a person of strong religious feelings to be outraged by a
description of Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem "like a circus clown on the back of
two donkeys". There are other passages in the pamphlets equally offensive to
anyone in sympathy with the Christian religion, whether he be a strong Christian,
or a lukewarm Christian, or merely a person sympathizing with their ideals. Such a
person might be provoked to a breach of the peace.
In reality, whatever the definition, the crime of blasphemy has been treated as the mockery of
the Christian religion.
The earliest recorded case is that of John Taylor from Surrey
. He proclaimed in 1676 that he
was “A King’s son” and “younger brother to Christ” and that religion was “a cheat”. He was
thought to be mad but the overseers of Bedlam proclaimed him sane. Hale J presided over his
trial and proclaimed that Christianity was “parcel of the laws of England” and that to reproach
that religion “is to speak in subversion of the law.” The convict was pilloried in three different
places holding a warrant stating that his punishment was for “blasphemous words tending to
the subversion of all government.”
A precise definition of blasphemy is difficult to come by. Although we may know it when it is seen, it is
nonetheless difficult to describe. Interestingly, Canon Law does not define the offence of blasphe my but it
does state the punishment in Canon 1369 P.A. Ó’Síocháin SC defines blasphemy as “To speak or write
offensively about God or religion, as to deny the existence of God, or to bring God or religion into contempt,
ridicule, or to bring God or religion into contempt, ridicule, or disbelief, is blas phemy.” The Criminal Law of
Ireland, at page 215, 3rd ed 1952. This definition was not updated in any of the subsequent five editions.
This is pre-Vatican 2. Since Vatican 2, the canon law does not define what is meant by the ter m
‘blasphemy’. The only reference to blasphemy is in Canon 1369 which states that, “ A person is to be
punished with a just penalty, who, at a public event or assembly, or in a published writing, or by otherwise
using the means of social communication, utters blasphemy, or gravely harms public morals, or rails at or
excites hatred of or contempt for religion or the Church”.
O’Higgins, P. Blasphemy in Irish Law, 23 Mod. Law Rev. 166 (1960) fn. 82 at p. 166. Canon 2323 did not
specifically define the concept of blasphemy, describing instead as “Persons who commit blasphemy or perjure
themselves outside of court, are to be punished at the discretion of the Ordinary, especially if they are clerics.” The
quotation itself is taken from P. O’Higgins who wrote on the topic of blasphemy.
R v Gott (1922) 16 Cr. App. R. 87
Taylor’s Case, (1676) 1 Vent 293.