Every St. Patrick’s Day for the past 20-odd years, the old debate would be renewed. Should gays be banned from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade? (Note: New York City has finally relented, and so has Boston.) The Church—which has had more than their share of their own gay problems—the Ancient Order of Hibernians and other like-minded organizations banded together, thought back fondly on their 19th century prejudices, and shouted an authoritarian “NYET!” There were all kinds of excuses (“Gays can march, but they can’t do so under a banner”), but everyone knews the real reason. The one word answer was “prejudice.”
It’s ironic that this bigotry towards gays should have remained so prevalent in current times, since Ireland’s history has been enriched, yesterday and today, by its gay members. And you don’t have to look too hard either for great examples—two of the sixteen men executed by the British in 1916 were most likely gay—Sir Roger Casement (definitely) and Padraig Pearse (probably latently). Oscar Wilde was hounded to his grave because he flaunted Victorian law and convention. (Ironically, both Casement and Wilde would be pursued and prosecuted, Inspector Javert-style, by Sir Edward Carson, the less than patriotic Orange bigot.)
Two of Ireland’s most well-known writers, Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, have more than their occupation and city of birth in common—both were bisexual. People forget that Wilde, one of the great flamboyant characters of all time, had a wife and fathered two children before his tragic fall. Behan’s image of ex-IRA man, saloon-loving iconoclast, contrasts almost violently with his affection for young boys, revealed first by Ulick O’Connor in his Behan biography, Brendan. Despite having a devoted wife and fathering a child, Behan’s homosexuality, which first blossomed when he was serving time in a British borstal for young boys, frightened and disturbed him until his premature death in 1964.
Micheál Mac Liammóir, who along with his lover Hilton Edwards, founded the Gate Theatre in 1928. (The famous Dublin line about what separated the Gate and Abbey Theatres—“It’s the difference between Sodom and Begorra”—may also have referred to Mac Liammóir’s sexual preference.) He was known for his openly gay and flamboyant lifestyle. His film works included Iago in Orson Welles’s Othello, the narrator of Tom Jones, and the part of Sweet Alice in John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter. On stage his one-man show about Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Oscar, was critically acclaimed. He claimed to have had a homosexual relationship with General Eoin O’Duffy, one-time head of the Garda Síochána, the Irish police force. He died in 1978.
Thomas MacGreevy was a poet, critic, and a friend to both Joyce and Beckett in Paris. He was also director of National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. In his book, “Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist”, Anthony Cronin wrote “It might be accurate to say that his [Beckett’s] relationship with MacGreevy had, though it was not sexual, an element of the homo-erotic in it, as indeed some of Beckett’s later relationships were to have.” MacGreevy died in 1967.
In recent years other Irish writers have come out and declared their homosexuality, most prominently novelist Colm Tóibín and Nuala O’Faolain, who wrote about her relationship with Nell McCafferty in Are You Somebody? But there was a legal fight ahead that would shock, nudge, then shove Ireland into the 21st century.
Twenty-First Century? This Way
“We were the most conservative revolutionaries in history.”
Those are the words of Kevin O’Higgins, one of the architects of the modern Irish state and one of the most controversial figures in Irish history. What he might have been talking about is that after 700 years of occupation and a bloody six-year revolution the Irish adopted most British laws verbatim. Revolution is supposed to be for change. Apparently for the Irish, just a change in administrator was needed because the British laws were, well, swell.
So The Offenses Against the Person Act 1861 (in the vernacular, the anti-buggery act) and The Criminal Law of Amendment of 1885 (the gross indecency act)—laws written by the English—remained on the law books of the Republic of Ireland up until the 1980s.
Enter David Norris. Norris is an Irish Senator and a Joyce scholar. He is also openly gay. He challenged the law in the Irish Supreme Court and lost. He then brought his case to the European Court of Human Rights (basically suing his own country in Norris v. Ireland) and finally in 1988 won. Finally, in 1993 both laws were repealed.
So, finally, on gay rights at least, Ireland was brought into the light of the 20th century. Then, in May of 2015, it led the way into the 21st century, when Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by a public vote.
Dublin every June has its own Gay Pride Parade and many of the partiers end up at The George, Dublin’s foremost gay bar on South Great Georges Street, to continue the celebration.
Brendan Behan wrote a poem about the death of Oscar Wilde in which he said “No Pernod to brace him/Only holy water.” You just know that if Oscar Wilde were around today he’d be sipping his Pernod Absinthe, straight, at the bar of The George. And I think Brendan might join him.
* Dermot McEvoy was born in Dublin in 1950 and immigrated to New York City four years later. He is a graduate of Hunter College and has worked in the publishing industry for his whole career. He is the author of "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising," "Terrible Angel," "Our Lady of Greenwich Village," and "The Little Green Book of Irish Wisdom." He lives in Greenwich Village, New York.