The history of homosexuality in Ireland is finally getting an airing. It turns out queerness has been part of Irish culture for millenia.
Two peerless books have been published in the last fortnight, instant classics both. They mark a coming of age of Irish gay identity in two very important, but different respects.
Homosexuality In Irish History: Terrible Queer Creatures by Brian Lacey is that rare beast: an instantly indispensable tome. A simply written, thorough and thoughtful book, it is the salve to the wound that, I believe, every gay person experiences at some stage of their lives, especially when coming out. It happens when it first dawns on us that a part of our identity, our sexuality, marks us out as cuckoos in the nest. For the vast majority of us, having grown up in heterosexual households, when we realise we are different to our family, in one crucial aspect, our natural urge is to research who else is like us, and who else has been like us in the past. Before this book, in Ireland, that search was always bitty, frustrating, and tantalising. From now on, every Irish gay teenager will be able to find in this volume something that satisfies that need, and more. Lacy has not outed anyone, everyone named in his book has been in the public domain before. He has simply, but painstakingly, put it all together, and when he is unsure, or there is conflicting evidence about someone’s sexuality, he says so. As in much of the rest of history, women’s lives over the centuries have not been recorded for posterity, and so Irish lesbians of old are hard to track down and name; in the main because so much of queer history is sourced in sexual, and often criminal scandals, and lesbians, in the main, escaped such media and legal attention.
We learn that early Celts were reportedly “much keener on their own sex”. From early Brehon Law, we learn that one category of woman entitled to divorce her husband was “A woman who is cheated of bed-rites so that her husband prefers to lie with the servant boys when it is not necessary for him to do so.” It’s a delightfully non-judgmental and tactfully phrased law, and I love the fact that, logically, a man could defend himself in such proceedings by claiming that it was absolutely necessary for him to lie with his servant boy. Necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention.
Homosexuality towards the end of the last millennium in Ireland was seen as an imported English vice, and an 1881 scandal saw a savage witch-hunt against “a vile gang” in Dublin, “leagued together for the pursuit of unnatural depravity and vice”. The gay scene was alive and well, back then, it seems, as portrayed in a scurrilous publication of the time, subtitled “the recollections of a Mary Anne”. Missing, however, is reference to the Irish Catholic labourers’ “bachelor culture” of London, as documented in Houlbrook’s “Queer London”.
A motley crew is gathered here: various Irish policemen in the NYPD, the US Confederate Army General Cleburne. John Cardinal Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Somerville and Ross, Eva Gore-Booth, George Moore, Hugh Lane, Francis Joseph Bigger, Padraig Pearse, MacLiammóir and Edwards, Danny La Rue, Francis Bacon, Brendan Behan, Joni Crone, David Norris. The roll call goes on and on. Naturally, Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement get chapters of their own. The history ends with decriminalization in 1993.
Every library in Ireland should stock this, with great big arrows pointing to it, to direct all curious adolescent cuckoos, seeking information and context, to this superlative resource.
Our Lives, Out Loud, by Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, is no doubt going to open Volume II of a history of Irish homosexuality, a hundred years from now. It’s an extraordinary book: a deeply personal autobiography by two lovers, a fiercely intelligent political manifesto for community education and social change, a breathtaking challenge to the Catholic Church, and a meditation on love and relatedness.
As one might expect from two radical theologians and educators, accused by some feminists of giving religion “a good name”, they articulate a vision of the world that is infused with spirit, yet lacking in dogma or preachiness. Despite their respect for each other’s “otherness” and their avowed dedication to respect each other’s differences, it is quite remarkable that the voice they express in this book is so much in harmony, and so believable. One gets a sense of their different personalities, but this single male outsider knows just how different human beings can be, and what is endearing about this book is that they freely admit that they have been lucky to have found each other, to have knitted together so well, and marvel at the serendipity that has blessed their lives. One notable omission, however, is mention of sex itself: not that I would demand that these two dignified doctors share their bedtime secrets with us, but it is curious to me that the union of two minds, hearts and spirits can be so joyously celebrated, but that between two bodies is left to the imagination. This is Ireland, after all. Still.
Astonishing intellectual and emotional maturity is evident from this book. These women have thought through their lives and love for each other in a profound way. They forged their relationship, and their rich world-view, in the heady America of feminism, liberation theology, and gay liberation. Naturally, this radicalism was not welcome in certain circles back in Ireland: Ann Louise’s appointment as head of St Patrick’s Religious Department was vetoed by three archbishops in a row. Katherine’s many years in Trinity as a part-time but energetically creative tutor were not rewarded with a full-time position.
Katherine’s coming out letter to her parents, and the correspondence following it, is one of the most extraordinary series of letters to read; a model of deep, reflective thought and love between generations.
The starkness of the financial hardship they would face, were one of them to die living in Ireland, their marriage unrecognised (they made a commitment of ‘life partnership’ to each other in 1982), is graphically described, and the decision they made to challenge the tax laws is explained. The risk they take in doing so is extraordinary, however, on so many levels. They know that they have no option but to open their lives up to public scrutiny. But Ann Louise risks losing her job, by coming out like this, in the courts and in this book.
They are missionaries of a feminist spirituality, advocating that spiritual growth can rightfully happen outside the confines of religion. They quote David Hume: “a powerful imagination is required to turn ideas into living impression”. In this book, as in their lives, they demonstrate this imagination in action, it is the epitome of praxis.
Buy it. Read it. Be inspired.
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