- 16 Jun 11
Gay rights campaigner, Joycean expert, curator of old Dublin, television personality, Lecturer in English, conversationalist supreme and all round scholar and a gent. How can one man be all this – and a thorn in the side of Ian Paisley too?! Declan Lynch finds out from David Norris.
David Norris blithely admits he’s a gasbag, terminally addicted to gossip, incapable of striking a match without discoursing on the state of the lumber industry. Ask him his favourite colour (green) and he gives a 15 minute reply, touching on the Tourist Industry, Irish-American relations and more.
He’s a dynamic, articulate, campaigner on a number of issues, cutting a swathe through the maw of bureaucracy, making a shameless nuisance of himself. His energy is daunting. David Norris will never run out of things to dislike, to correct in accordance with civilised values.
David Norris has been attached to T.C.D. all his working life. “There was a degree of originality in what I said, which thank god, was recognised in Trinity. What I was said unusual and they rewarded me with very high marks.”
Is security important to him?
“I’ve never been on the job market. I just kind of melted into one at Trinity. Paradoxically that gives me a kind of sympathy with the jobless. It’s a horrible situation to be so impotent, not to have a career, not to have an occupation, and not to have an income. I like security, but I’ve never allowed my scope of action to be limited because my security would be threatened. I’ve built a nest in this house. I’m very conventional in a lot of ways. It’s a nice home to share with Ezra, who is my friend.”
How did you meet Ezra?
“I saw him on Grafton Street and I thought he was an extraordinarily attractive man, beautiful expression, very handsome. I do that quite often. And I thought it would be marvellous if that man was gay, if I could meet him and become a friend of his. Later in the evening, I came down to the pub, very tired after working on political documents, and a friend said there were some people from the Middle East who wanted to discuss gay politics. And it was Ezra! That was ten years ago.”
Norris has phased himself out of the frontline for gay activism, but his campaign during the seventies was vital to the articulation of that movement’s claims.
“The word wasn’t in the dictionary. It was an unmentionable subject. It wasn’t mentioned as slang, it wasn’t mentioned in scientific or sociological terms. This partly came from the Church’s attitude in medieval times, which translated into law. The Latin phrase used was “the sin too horrible to be named a Christian”. There was a conspiracy of silence which was extremely effective up ‘till the last 14 years or so, when there occurred the gradual adoption of a concept into popular thought.
“There seems to be a very negative policy on the part of some of the papers, such as the Independent and the Herald. The Independent group are definitely more conservative and more antagonistic. I did a full-page interview, with pictures, which went as far as being put in metal, and was then taken out, and a filler put in”.
The radical mood of the late sixties helped to break the stringent moulds of a Catholic society. Student protest was loud and effective. Now, students are among the most conservative elements in these tight-fisted times. Norris agrees up to a point.
“Perhaps that is an understandable reaction during a recession. The really critical factor for a young person is a job. Nowadays there is a market pressure. Students don’t have this manoeverability they did have. The other thing is that it now reflects far more the reality of Ireland. That is a good thing in one way, but the danger is that you get a rather homogenous, bland mix.”
Norris’ appearance on the Late Late Show was significant in portraying a known gay rights activist as a witty, entertaining individual rather than the popular notion of a gay as being a miserable child-molesting faggot.
“This always surprises me, because on a personal level I get on well with people. Even in this locality, I use all the local shops, I get to know the people and I’m an inveterate gossip. I melted into this community. It does surprise me that people are suspicious or antagonistic. Apparently, on the Late Late Show, there were quite a lot of complimentary calls, but there was one from the staff at the Talbot Hotel in Wexford, who were disgusted! Why were they disgusted? I never did anything to them, but I have every intention of staying there at the next possible opportunity! One woman from Greystones rang up and said I was a well-known child molester! I would have thought now that people are aware that children are more at risk from heterosexual teachers.
“I’ve run for the Senate several times, and despite the supposedly enlightened attitude of Trinity graduates, I get a volume of abuse back every time I publish one of my manifestoes”, he elaborates. “People know my commitment to the Gay situation so I spend all my time writing about the environment, the Inner City, Northern Ireland, education; still people see this. They call me a one-issue candidate, but they are obsessive about this. This is still all that they see.
“Interestingly when I wrote around to all public representatives, North and South, I got two almost identical replies. One was from the Rev Dr Ian Paisley of the Bob Martin University – I always thought Bob Martin were pills for dogs with worms – and the other from a Dublin T.D., both demanding the death penalty for homosexuality! I thought that was rather curious.”
Norris’ exuberance is an excellent P.R. device, giving the seriousness of his views a persuasive levity.
“It can be intimidating to people” he reflects, “and I can, to a certain extent, understand people’s suspicion and antagonism. Ezra has said to me, “I’m glad that you’re gay, because if you weren’t, you’d be the most conservative person in Ireland”. And being placed by nature at something of an oblique angle to my own society, I have to constantly revise my own conservative views in other areas.
“If things are geared towards the family group, marriage, children, education, it’s very disturbing that people are apparently opting out, not having the same concerns, not getting married. I remember someone saying “it’s not fair, you’re opting out of the genetic pool”. It’s quite flattering in a way, because it was felt I was impoverishing the natural resources of the country, by not passing on little Norrises for posterity.”
Would you like to have children?
“I would in a sense. My life isn’t ruined by the absence of children because I have a child to a certain extent – on Christmas Day, myself and Ezra had a small, tiny, inch-long cat deposited on us, so I’ve gone through all this toilet training, nappy-changing, getting the bloody thing to speak! It was so frightened it couldn’t even miaow. So it talks to me in that language. It does involve a degree of responsibility. I can sympathise with people having to go home to feed the child, or change nappies.
“But I think one of the most beautiful human experiences must be having a child with someone you love”, he adds more seriously. “Because the child is then the physical expression of your union, your relationship, your love. That must be superb. Unless science advances remarkably, Ezra and I are not going to have children. I wouldn’t mind adopting children, if I had Ezra here full-time, if there was a family unit, if there was love and care and a start in life for some child who would be stuck in an institution. I don’t think Irish society is prepared for that yet.
“For example, there was an extraordinary level of hypocrisy in the Eileen Flynn case – here was someone who was prevented from marrying by the absence of any provision for divorce, and who could have married and been an apparently “respectable” member of society but for the inhumane elements in our society. So she was being penalised twice. There’s a highly dangerous thing in Irish society. I expressed concern to well educated friends of mine about both Nicky Kelly and Eileen Flynn, and on both counts – these were professional people, some of them connected with the law – they said, whatever the facts of the case, whatever the legal validity, these were the kind of people who deserved it.
“And that is an extraordinarily dangerous attitude for the educated middle-class to have – that you can subvert the law to get at elements in society you don’t like. Just this morning it was revealed that there is a higher incidence of abortion in the Dublin area than in England. So pagan England seems to be more restrained, and handling the issue better. We’re still exporting our problem to England.”
An odd mixture of the conservative and the radical, Norris is a practising member of the Church of Ireland.
“I do attend. Not very regularly but I do like it. I see myself as quite a religious person. I don’t feel it necessary to go to church every Sunday.
“Colleagues say you only go for the aesthetics of it. That’s not true. I believe in it. I don’t agonize about the existence or non-existence of God. Either God exists or he doesn’t. There’s no other possibility. If he exists, he’s old enough to be able to look after himself, so I don’t have to think about him. It always strikes me that when people on the far right wing, so-called Christians, get so worked up – Mrs Whitehouse and people like that – they’re really expressing their own insecurity. Because my God does not have to be defended”.
It often happens that the most virulent moral reactionaries have enough skeletons in the closet to stock a medical history museum. Norris picks up on this point in relation to Kincora.
“The Kincora affair said a lot about the Irish media. I thought it was disgracefully handled by all the media, even the Irish Times. Because their Northern reporter seemed to suggest that questions should be raised about the employment of homosexual people in certain key areas. That is an outrageous suggestion. The majority of people convicted in that case were married men, with children.
“These were people with a problem of sexual identification, whose major public identification and social commitment was to the heterosexual family, and yet when they were found with their fingers in the ham, they immediately became homosexuals and raised a load of issues about the employment of responsible citizens like myself, and I think it was utterly dishonest of every newspaper. It was seen as an oar to beat Paisley, and they exploited it as far as they could. That is a most dangerous attitude in the case of this squalid little scandal. There is no such as balance in the media.”
Norris is becoming weary of being identified as the Gay Rights man, which is understandable in the case of someone who is interested in everything under the sun. What, I wonder, is his favourite colour?
“Green. I have dark green on the hall door, and I have green in there. An aunt of mine had an old Wedgewood tea-set, in two shades of green, light green and dark green, and I put that in there, and all my Georgian friends said “oh how ghastly” – but I love it! I have natural bad taste.
“People say green is a very cold colour. It’s not a nationalistic green I like. Now that I’ve travelled abroad quite a bit I realise how succulently green Ireland is, and why Americans go on about the Emerald Isle. Ireland’s the only country which has a colour identification which is very interesting from an advertising point of view.
“It always makes me laugh that the English upper classes are so snobbish about the Irish and the Jews, who are naturally more aristocratic races, than the English, who are all mongrels. Every Irish person can tell you his seed, breed and generation back to Noah and so can the Jews.”
An intelligent answer to a stupid question. This reverses the usual equation, The boy shows promise. One of his ongoing preoccupations is the struggle to save Dublin city from its own self-destruction. Following Norman Mailer’s dictum, if the house across the road is uglier than the one you’re in, it is bound to have been built more recently.
“I discovered this street (North Great George’s Street) by accident, and immediately fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe that a street of this quality still existed in the middle of the city, and that there were people actually living in it, and beginning to restore houses. My next door neighbour, Harold Clarke, has restored his absolutely beautifully, and now other people are doing the same. And of course, they are quite practicable houses. I got this for less than the price of a suburban semi-detached house.
“I’m a political animal and I saw immediately that just two or three people individually restoring was going to get nowhere. We had to develop a coherent plan for the whole street. I approached local government, central authority and the European Commission about it, and we still are fighting this battle to save the street.
“This is the last intact street of its quality on the North side of the city. Every thing else is gone. Mountjoy Square is blitzed, Henrietta Street is in difficulties, Dorset Street is gone, Dominic Street is gone, Eccles Street is gone. It’s incredible the rape and pillage that has taken place over the last 20 years. This street is listed as an area of architectual amenity and historical importance. The local authority compulsorily acquired the bottom one-fifth of the street. On our four-fifths of the street not one single building has become derelict or been demolished.
“Money is actually available for “sending safe”. i.e. demolition – but money is not available for preservation. And yet, they have the almighty gall to send representatives to international architectural conferences to bleat in public about our heritage. The city of Dublin’s prime claim to fame is its architecture and they are killing the goose that lays the golden egg. I confidently predict we’re in trouble in relation to Tourism in the very near future. They don’t come to see the Central Bank, Liberty Hall and Bus-arse!”
Talk, as it inevitably will, switches to the subject of the imperishable Oliver J. Flagellation.
“He’s a very remarkable man”, Norris says. “I don’t agree with his views at all. I was at dinner in the Hague with the Dutch Liberal Party and one of them turned to me and said “we know an Irish politician with a very good reputation. He’s one very distinguished, this Great Irish Gentleman”. And I thought, is it de Valera? Lemass? “It’s Oliver J. Flanagan”. I found it very difficult to keep a straight face. He said he was a great European. The thing is, a lot of Oliver J’s naivetes come out in his use of language, whereas Europeans wouldn’t detect this.”
Norris’ most passionate hobby-horse at the moment is the case of Raoul Wallenberg, who was responsible for spiriting over 100,000 Jews to safety during the war, literally in front of the Gestapo’s nose. He was reported dead by the Russians on several occasions, but all the indications are that he is alive, in prison in Russia. Amnesty International don’t want to know. Everybody is singing dumb.
“Wallenberg salved the conscience of Europe”, Norris insists emotionally.
“America and Britain could easily have bombed the railway stations bringing prisoners to the camps but they didn’t want to know. It is incredible to imagine this noble, civilised, sensitive man being rewarded for his courage with life imprisonment. I intend making an absolute nuisance of myself at every opportunity about this outrage”.
For certain David Norris will never run out of things to dislike. There’s so much.