PEN was founded by novelist Catherine Amy Dawson Scott who envisaged a dinner club where well-known writers could meet socially. The first dinner was held at the prestigious Café Royal in London in October 1921 with 41 writers in attendance, including Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy and D.H. Lawrence.
Galsworthy became PEN’s first president and persuaded a reluctant George Bernard Shaw to join. Shaw complained about the irritation of the guinea a year fee and told him to take twenty guineas and make him a life member.
Lady Augusta Gregory, the dramatist, folklorist and translator, set up the first branch of Irish PEN. However Irish writers of the time proved solitary and wary of discussing their work and it wasn’t until 1934, under the auspices of Lord Longford, Sean O’Faolain and Bulmer Hobson that it began to thrive.
In June 1935 Irish PEN organised a dinner in the Royal Hibernian Hotel to celebrate the seventieth birthday of W.B. Yeats. As Yeats sat back to enjoy the glowing tributes paid by his contemporaries, the importance of the dinner was established and has continued ever since.
Irish PEN is affiliated to International PEN, a worldwide association of writers with over 140 branches in 90 countries. PEN stands for poets, playwrights, editors, essayists and novelists. The organisation exists to promote friendship, freedom of expression, international goodwill and intellectual co-operation between writers from a variety of mediums.
The International PEN Congress was twice held in Dublin in 1953 and in 1971.
Each year Irish PEN nominates an Irish writer for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Following his Nobel Award in 1995, Seamus Heaney was conferred with life membership of Irish PEN.
Meetings of Irish PEN were originally held in Roberts Café in Grafton Street, the office of Dublin Opinion magazine, and in a meeting room of the Royal Dublin Society.
Continuing the tradition, monthly meetings now take place in heart of Georgian Dublin at The United Arts Club, 3 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2. Established and new writers are welcome to come along to hear writers and those involved in publishing, media etc. discuss their work, get involved in debate about contemporary Irish writing, and afterwards relax and have a drink in the bar.
Irish PEN has campaigned and lobbied over the years on subjects such as censorship, the imposition of VAT on books, retention of Section 481 to safeguard our film industry and recently for the retention of the Writers and Artists Tax Exemption Scheme.
The History of the Irish PEN Charter
The Charter of International PEN has guided, unified, and inspired its members for the last 60 years. Its principles were implicit in the organisation’s founding in 1921. However, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which also celebrates its sixtieth anniversary, International PEN’s Charter was fired in the harsh realities of the Second World War. Approved at Congress in Copenhagen in 1948, International PEN’s Charter was 22 years in the making.
International PEN’s first president John Galsworthy wrote the first three articles of the Charter after the 1926 Congress in Berlin, where tensions arose among writers from west and east, and debate flared about the political versus nonpolitical nature of International PEN. Back in London, Galsworthy worked in the drawing room of PEN’s founder Catharine Amy Dawson Scott on a formal statement to ‘serve as a touchstone of PEN action.’ Galsworthy’s resolution passed easily at the 1927 Congress in Brussels, and these articles remain part of the International PEN Charter.
With the rise of Nazism in Germany, PEN and its principles were tested at the 1933 Congress in Dubrovnik. A few months before, books had been burned in bonfires across Germany. At the Congress, led by International PEN President H.G. Wells, the Assembly of Delegates confirmed the Galsworthy principles. The following day the Germans tried to prevent an exiled German Jewish writer from speaking. While some supported the Germans, the great majority rejected the German position and reaffirmed the principles they had just voted on. The German delegation walked out of the Congress and essentially out of PEN until after the Second World War.
At the first Congress after World War II in 1946 in Stockholm the American Center, backed by the English Centre, presented two resolutions. One urged PEN members ‘to champion the ideals of one humanity living at peace in one world.’ The other addressed censorship. Debate on the wording and scope of the resolution continued at the 1947 Zurich Congress, but eventually delegates agreed, and the resolution became the foundation of the fourth article of the International PEN Charter.
Finally at the 1948 Congress, the Assembly of Delegates approved the Charter of PEN in its entirety. Its principles continue to guide and unify the diverse 144 PEN Centres in 102 countries around the world.
Former International Secretary and Vice-President of International PEN
The PEN Charter
PEN affirms that:
1. Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.
2. In all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.
3. Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds, and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in one world.
4. PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible.
PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organised political and economic order renders a free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.