Category Archives: Interview

A Dublin Bloom | An Interview With Dermot Bolger

This article was originally published on HeadStuff on July 19th, 2018.

Dermot Bolger is a stalwart of the Irish literary scene, having written numerous novels and plays since the mid-1980s. These include his recent successes Tanglewood, a microscopic look at the Irish property boom of 00s, and The Lonely Sea and Sky, a coming of age novel set against the backdrop of World War II. He is known to indigenous readers as a champion of working-class narratives, but the subject matter of his fiction is far-reaching and touches off many facets of Irish life. It is unsurprising then that he would choose to concern himself with Joyce‘s Ulysses, a sprawling narrative that interrogates the contradictions of life in Dublin in the early 20thcentury.

Humble Beginnings?

In between paltry sups of tea, Bolger details the complicated history of his fated adaptation. “I was approached by Greg Doran, who is now the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to do a production of it,” he says. However, changes in Irish copyright law would affect his work while it was still in its infancy. Originally, the copyright on works lapsed 50 years post the author’s death. This means that when Bolger began to pen the show, Joyce’s writings were in the public domain. This was in the early 1990s.

The script that Bolger had written found life as a rehearsed reading in the United States. The once-off production was staged to an audience of 1300 people. However, when it came to stage the piece in Ireland, it was clear that they would have to contend with new state laws: “It quickly became apparent that the European Union was going to change its copyright laws, it was going to harmonise [them]. It was going to take the German model of 70 years … So [Ulysses] was going to come back into copyright.”

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

That author was not sure a theatre would commit to a project if its legal status became uncertain. Despite this, he found a work-around to ensure his project found a certain life: “The day before the copyright reverted to [Joyce’s estate], I actually did a reading of it. I got a number of my friends to do it in the Project Arts Centre. We did it at ten past nine in the morning because we figured ‘no solicitor would get here in time.’ We tried to get two men and a dog, but we couldn’t get a dog so we just did it with the two men, and we read it.”

This story is suitably Joycean, as the author himself also had to contend with innumerable laws to get his works published. Ulysses was banned in United States – copies of it were burned by the New York Postal Authority – and although contemporary audiences consider it Ireland’s national text, it would not be openly available in the country until the 1960s, 40 years after its initial publication.

Eventually, Bolger got in contact with Andy Arnold, artistic director of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, and together the pair revived the production in 2012. With the text out of copyright once more, they were able to transform it into a full-blown play.

Metempsychosis: A Question of Adaptation

“—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.”

This is how Leopold Bloom, the unlikely hero of Ulysses, explains a cumbersome and philosophically-charged word to his wife, Molly. This is when we meet our protagonist, and from here we follow his journey through Dublin on June 16th, 1904. Despite its reputation as a mostly-inaccessible text, the narrative of Ulysses, at its very heart, is simple: Leopold, an Irish Jew of Hungarian descent, wanders through the capital on the day his wife is to have an affair. What proves to be a challenge for some, though, is the scrupulous digging required to appreciate the novel to its fullest. Although simple at its core, the book is buried beneath several layers of irony, shifts narrative styles between chapters, and through dialogue, Joyce has sprinkled his book with meditations on art, literature, nationalism, love, sex, and smut.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Indeed, the very idea of transmigration is central to text: it is based on Homer’s Odyssey, with each hour in the book corresponding to a year in the life of Odysseus, Homer’s quintessential hero. Others have attempted a certain kind of transmigration before: In 1967, American film director Joseph Strick adapted the book for the screen. The resulting production, although occasionally showing promise, quickly devolves into a highlight reel with wordy narrations. Critic Pauline Kael famously said of it, “[Ulysses is] an act of homage in the form of readings … plus slides.” Does Bolger feel he has streamlined the text enough for theatregoers, without isolating the scholars?

“The Abbey version is different from the Tron version,” he says. “And this version is quite different from the Abbey version of last year [the current production enjoyed a successful run in October of 2017]. There’s still the emotional essence of the book. Because the book is 18 episodes, a dazzling array of linguistic styles, covering 265,000 words, you have to figure out what to cut.”

For Bolger it became of matter of focusing on what sections best flesh out the characters, to provide them with the depth for which the novel is most famous: “In the Tron version there was a whole section in the newspaper offices, as there is in the book. A week into rehearsals, I said to Graham [McLaren, director of the Abbey version], ‘the newspaper offices isn’t really telling us anything.’ I mean, we see how Bloom’s contemporaries relate to Bloom and everything else, but nothing that we haven’t been told elsewhere.” The scene is question is the Aeolus episode, in which Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s insert character, miss meeting each other for the first of many times.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Bolger continues: “It began as the play of the book, and now it’s almost the play of the play. Novels give you a lot of scope, because generally novels aren’t read in one sitting and you’re able to have subplots. I just had to figure out the emotional journey of Bloom, and of [his marriage to Molly], what made their marriage. In the end I had to go into the areas of the book that most engaged my intellectual curiosity, but also most engaged my empathy.”

What makes the current run at the Abbey unique is the use of puppets. Some of the characters made famous in the novel are portrayed here by grotesque, uncanny caricatures of human figures. Rudy Bloom, the deceased son of Leopold and Molly, appears as a small, blue, Tolkien-esque figure, with accentuated facial features and dark, beady eyes.

The same act of transformation is seen in characters who appear in the Cyclops episode of the book: Joyce used this piece to criticise the atavistic and animalistic nature of staunch nationalism. In this section, Bloom enters Barney Kiernan’s pub only to be chastised by a man known only as ‘the Citizen’, a Republican and anti-Semite. In the Abbey version, he is gaunt and menacing. By choosing to depict him in such grotesque terms, Bolger and McLaren have only emphasised Joyce’s original critique: that atavistic nationalism is inherently malformed.

The puppets are also used to emphasise the more comedic aspects of the book. When adapting the Circe episode, in which Bloom and Dedalus experience physical manifestations of their greatest fears, characters from earlier in the text appear again, only this time as body puppets worn by the actors. The bawdy and acerbic dialogue is punctuated by slapstick comedy, as the performers milk as much humour out the situation as possible: this includes Brian Burroughs as a masturbating Buck Mulligan, and Faoileann Cunningham as a flirty and accusatory Gerty McDowell.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

On the humour found in the book, Bolger says: “Nora Barnacle [Joyce’s partner], who believed Joyce should have stuck to the singing, used to complain that he’d keep her awake at night laughing at what he wrote. The fun thing about Ulysses is that the most theatrical bits of it – like Nighttown [the ‘Circe’ chapter] – are actually very theatrical. There’s a lot of subtle humour going on there, there’s really a lot of very Dublin humour that has gone past you before you actually realise that it’s a joke, and the humour is very contemporary. It’s something you could imagine two fellas sitting at the counter in this bar saying.”

Another departure from the book is in how Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is handled: In the novel the entirety of the last chapter, titled ‘Penelope’, is dedicated to Molly’s rambling stream of consciousness. She meditates on life with her husband and recounts the events of the day from her perspective. In the Abbey production, her speech is spliced into sections and introduced to the narrative at intermittent points. It therefore centres the narrative, and the staging that Bolger and McLaren have created reflects this: Molly, played with great delicacy by Janet Moran, spends the majority of the play in her bed in the middle of the stage. The audience, and indeed the action of the day, is centred around her, and her interruptions offer the perfect, almost grounded counterpoint to Bloom’s highfalutin musings.

“Molly’s monologue is the most theatrical part of the book,” Bolger says. “It unbalances any show because basically you would have to have everything else in the book in Act One, and Molly in Act Two.” Bolger chose to present Molly’s piece in this way to give his production a more streamlined, dreamlike quality: “When Molly is awake, and Molly is having a monologue, and Bloom is asleep, and Bloom is reliving his day in dreams, you can have that strange, fractured narrative quality that dreams have. Like, you and I could be in this pub in a dream and be on a bus two seconds later in the same dream.”

“By having Molly in the foreground, I could then begin to dig into the emotional heart of the journey of this man who has lost his son at 11 days old and has not fully recovered from that.”

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

A Question of Relevance

Despite ambivalence from many readers, Ulysses continues to entertain into the 21st Century. The annual ‘Bloomsday’ festival, set every year on 16th June, attracts tourists from across the world. Fans mimic their favourite sections from the book, and map Bloom’s journey through the city minute by minute. How is it that a book so seemingly of its time, with dated reflections on the Irish psyche and the nation’s place in the world, be so appealing to contemporary readers?

Another example of transmigration it seems: “I read Ulysses for the first time at the age of 14,” Bolger says, “on the impression that it was a dirty, scandalous book. And when you’re 14, it’s not. Then I read it when I was 24, and when I began to adapt it, when I began to read it seriously, Bloom was still a year or two older than me. Then, each time it was done, I had a different relationship to Bloom, because now I envy his relative youth. I turn 60 next year.”

He continues: “It’s like an appreciation of whisky, or any great work of literature: You respond differently to it at 20 as you do at 30, as you do at 40, because you’re bringing your life experience. Some years ago, I lost my wife, and now I understand the undercurrent of grief running through Ulysses in a way that doesn’t have a direct connection, but my life experience [is there] now that I return to it.”

The theme of loss is ever-present in Ulysses. It is what eventually brings Bloom in contact with the young, bookish Dedalus. The protagonist Bloom finds a son-surrogate in the young Stephen, who is looking for a paternal figure himself in the fallout of his mother’s passing.

Bolger also finds something relatable in the character of Leopold Bloom, who is played in the Abbey production by actor David Pearse. “[Bloomsday], this alternative national day, is in honour of a Hungarian Jew, who, even in the funeral cortege to Glasnevin Cemetery [as seen in the ‘Hades’ episode], you know is an outsider.”

Bolger feels that if Joyce had chosen to make Bloom either Catholic or Protestant, that that would have come with significant baggage, denoting the character with many presuppositions based on Irish history: “He doesn’t have that same easy familiarity. If he had been Catholic, we would have had many preconceptions about his politics. If he had been Protestant, then he becomes part of the same lost, vanished ascendency class of Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu … Who wrote out of the sense that their own power was fading away. Because he was Jewish, he didn’t have any power. And because he is an outsider, he is observant of everything … He’s present, but he’s also excluded.”

In a passage near the book’s closing, Dedalus and Bloom, having squandered money in a brothel, end the night by going to a cabman’s shelter. They discuss politics, and Bloom, having been persecuted for his outsider status for the duration of the books, quips “a revolution must come on the due instalments plan.” Indeed, the same forces that oppressed Bloom and Dedalus – forces of religion, sectarianism, and oppressive attitudes towards sexuality, art, writing – have been unravelled in recent years not by divine intervention, but by slow, calculated manoeuvres by grassroots movements. Social change has come through the long, arduous work of the everyman.

We hint at this in conversation. Bolger smiles: “Yes, I think Bloom would sit very comfortably in the Dublin of 2018.”

Ulysses runs until the 21st of July. Tickets can be purchased through the Abbey Theatre website.


Featured Image: Ulysses by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

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Dancing in the Margins: How Inclusive Are Dublin’s LGBTQ+ Spaces?

This article was originally published on June 6th 2017, on the Dublin Inquirer‘s website.

In its early days, the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar hosted a few different nights.

The centre – which had opened in 1979 in what was then an underdeveloped neighbourhood – was a three-storey knocked-back warehouse with a small black-box nightclub. It had a dance floor, mirrors and mineral bar at the end of the upstairs area.

The weekend disco was called “Flikkers”, named after the Dutch word for “faggot”. It was one of the only nights for LGBTQ+-identifying individuals in the country, and soon became grounds for experimentation, liberation, and conversation between people who otherwise may not have found each other.

Thursday nights were designated “women’s nights”, but that was hotly contested by its male patrons, says Izzy Kamikaze, the LGBTQ+ activist and occasional DJ.

Thursday “wasn’t a particularly high-demand night”, she says. It would attract 20 or 30 people in a given week.

“I often went on a Saturday night [too] and there could be a couple of hundred men and maybe two or three women,” she says. “If you were looking to cop off” – she laughs – “then it certainly wasn’t the right environment.”

Indeed, some feel that even decades later Dublin’s clubbing scene, that staple of queer identity, remains focused on cis gay men, with other members of the community pushed to the margins.

Spaces

Tonie Walsh, co-founder of the magazine, GCN, and current curator of the Irish Queer Archive, says that the Hirschfeld Centre had its pluses, though.

“Despite its flaws – and we’d be silly to imagine it as a perfect nirvana – it created a space for a generation of Irish lesbians and men to imagine and embrace new identities,” he said.

As he sees it, the conversation should focus less on attendance figures, and more on how those who used the centre’s various spaces felt in coming together to build a community.

It was “a home from home for young lesbians and gay men who […] had been devalued, expunged from family and community lives […] to build a positive, holistic attitude to their lives,” he says.

Outside of the centre, there were other attempts to establish nights for women: every Saturday, the proprietors at J.J. Smyth’s on Aungier Street offered an upstairs space to LGBTQ+ women.

“There was no dance floor, [only] a sticky carpet, and a portable sound system. Most of the dyke-scene stuff was like that,” says Kamikaze. Eventually, this scene withered away.

More Public

As LGBTQ+ people have become more prominent in the public sphere, some in the community have become more introspective.

Speakers and writers are challenging omissions in present-day LGBTQ+ campaigning, to create an intersectional dialogue between sexuality and issues of race, class, and gender.

Take Anne Mulhall’s depiction of the Yes Equality campaign in 2015, as focused on white middle-class gay men.

“The failure to address migrant communities or to include LGBT migrants and people of colour in the Yes Equality campaign compounded the alienation, marginalisation and exclusion that are the experience of minority communities in a white nation,” wrote Mulhall, a lecturer at University College Dublin.

Some feel the same about Dublin’s clubbing scene, that this staple of queer identity remains focused on cis gay men.

“It’s like every area of life: trans people are not catered to meaningfully,” says Gordon Grehan, the operations manager of Transgender Equality Network (TENI).

He sees more education and awareness as necessary. “Often the people in the L, G, B parts of the community are lacking in knowledge,” he says.

Clubbing in the nineties was an important part of Grehan’s life and his gay identity, and being able to meet other gay men in a pre-internet age was exciting.

“I don’t think there is something like that for trans people, but I do think there are spaces that are very inclusive,” he said.

But Grehan questions whether the answer to this is a nightclub just for trans individuals. “Is that a bit othering?” he asks.

“What are we saying, that trans people need something that others don’t? Everywhere should be trans inclusive is where I’d be coming from, and that there would be certain spaces that are majority trans or trans-only spaces, but I don’t know if a club should be one of those spaces,” he says.

Some promoters have made an effort to create inclusive LGBTQ+ club nights. Cormac Cashman, who is behind the weekly events “PrHomo” and “Mother” held out of The Hub in Temple Bar, says he has made great efforts to make his spaces inclusive.

This includes a gender-neutral bathroom policy. “Trans inclusivity is vital on the LGBTQ scene. We’re a community,” he says, by email.

“Honestly I don’t know why people get so worked up over bathrooms. Why the fuck should anyone care who is in the next cubicle to them?” he says.

Emily Scanlan has also worked to address the omissions present in Dublin’s LGBTQ+ community.

She has, in her career as a club promoter, organised nights for queer-identifying women such as “Cake,” and “Crush”. She set up the latter after the end of the lesbian-and-bi night K.I.S.S, which was around for about 10 years then weaned out.

“And at that stage there were absolutely no lesbian or bi nights whatever, and so I set up Crush with GCN, and that was really successful,” she said.

These days, she runs “Spinster” once a month out of Sycamore Street near Dame Lane. It’s mostly marketed to queer women but she strives to make it as inclusive as possible, she says.

“It’s not a ‘gay’ night, I never said that anywhere, I want it to be really inclusive […] There are a lot of lesbian and bi women at it, of course, but it’s very open. It’s the kind of place anyone can come to and have fun. I feel it’s the most inclusive thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

It is harder to run a commercially viable club night for a smaller and more marginalised group of people, though. “I don’t know if [Spinster] would work every week,” says Scanlan.”[It is] a hobby for me. I have a full-time job.”

Grehan echoes Scanlan’s sentiments: “In the trans community, the cohort of people who are interested in going out every week or every month is much, much smaller, so I don’t think you could create a club around that.”

The Rise and Role of Drag

One of the mainstays of LGBTQ+ club nights in Dublin are performances by charismatic drag queens. It’s a draw.

Drag queens grace the dance-floors of “PrHomo” and “Mother”. The George has also hosted a drag-themed bingo night every Sunday for 20 years. It was a platform for performers such as Shirley Temple Bar and Veda.

But as drag has become more mainstream, some have begun to cast a critical eye on the stereotypes and the ideas of femininity that it can spread – and have asked whether in some forms, it can alienate groups in the LGBTQ+ community.

For some, drag has served as a way to explore gender identity.

“As I started to perform, I suddenly realised that, just by putting on a frock and a wig and clown make-up, that I was challenging the norms and stereotypes of gender,” said Noel Sutton, who has performed in drag regularly since the nineties.

When you perform outside of the rigid stereotypes inscribed onto you, “you become a magnet for people who feel different”, says Sutton, who is also the manager of Dublin’s LGBTQ+ film festival GAZE.

But that’s changed a bit as drag has moved from the margins.

Says Grehan: “Some trans women have a problem with drag queens in terms of creating an idea of femininity that isn’t real. That causes confusion around what it means to be a trans woman, or to be a woman.”

There’s a move in drag towards being as glamorous as possible, or to be as passing as this incredible attractive cis woman, he says.

“But that holds up an idealised version of how women should look, and particularly trans women, which is reductive and unhelpful.”

To some, it’s unsurprising that as drag has gone mainstream with RuPaul’s Drag Race – in a particular form, and with a particular attitude – there are questions raised about the potential dilution of drag.

“The judging on that show has given the impression that only a certain presentation of drag is worthy – and this is a hyper-feminine, padded and contoured version,” said Declan Buckley, known for his drag persona Shirley Temple Bar.

But while there are many who take to the stage without considering the political currency of drag, who simply want to entertain, there are many others “who are challenging the norms and the stereotypes,” he said, by email.

Sutton says that the idea that some would cater their personalities to fit an established ideal is disappointing. “I never set out to look like anyone when I dress up,” he said.

For Buckley, however, the idea that someone can “do drag wrong” is counterintuitive. But it’s a conversation worth having, he says.

“While the visual aspect of drag – through exposure and over-familiarity – may have lost some of its capacity to be impactful, the performative aspect still allows us to do what we have always done: poke fun, raise questions, rally the troops and entertain,” he says.

It is not just sections of the trans community that have come to challenge contemporary drag. Some queer and feminist critics have also criticised such performances, in particular what is presented, and indeed mimicked from, RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In this critique, drag is often seen as an outlet through which cisgender gay men can express a certain kind of misogyny: with gendered slurs and harmful stereotypes of women as ditsy, promiscuous or dangerous.

Club promoters in Dublin may be isolating some of the LGBTQ+ community by supporting drag acts that spread these ideas.

“I think there is something very challenging for trans women in that this is a cisgender man performing and being able to take the layers off and live [his] life and not have people take that second look at [him],” Grehan says.

“Really thoughtful and good drag is aware of that, and aware of the binary and what they’re doing,” he says.

From Criminal To Campaigner: An Interview With Senator David Norris

This article was originally published in the University Observer in March 2017. It was later published online.

 

David Monaghan speaks to Senator David Norris as he receives UCD LGBTQ+’s Foy-Zappone Award.

 

IN JUNE 1993, homosexuality was decriminalised within Irish law as a result of the Criminal Fraud (Sexual Offences) Bill. A century-old law that saw LGBTQ+ people thrown into prisons, beaten, tortured and analysed as sexual pariahs had finally been overruled, and many felt they could now begin the long journey to feeling like they were welcomed in Irish society.

The progenitor from which the momentum for decriminalisation came was David Norris, a former Joycean academic-cum-Senator, who kick-started the movement in the late 1970s. It is because of his efforts that many are no longer considered criminals in their home country, and why successive generations of LGBTQ+ individuals are now unaware of the threat those handcuffs held.

In February 2017, nearly 24 years since his efforts to increase the rights of sexual minorities in the country resulted in decriminalisation, David Norris has been honoured by UCD’s LGBTQ+ society. He recently received the annual ‘Foy-Zappone Award’, a prize reserved for anyone seen to do remarkable work within the field of LGBTQ+ rights advancement. It is named for Dr. Lydia Foy and Katherine Zappone TD, the inaugural recipients of the prestigious award, and Norris is the fourth person to be honoured since its inception in 2014.

 

David Norris and long-time friend Mary Robinson. Source: senatordavidnorris.ie

David Norris and long-time friend Mary Robinson. Photo credit: senatordavidnorris.ie

Known for his jovial attitude, before the prize-giving began, Norris joked with society members and recounted various anecdotes from his career as a political activist: “I was once approached by a man who was worried his dog was gay,” he quipped.

The event began with a short screening of an RTÉ recording from 1975, featuring Norris being interviewed by the late Áine O’Connor – possibly the first time an openly gay man had been seen on Irish television – as the somewhat younger but still recognisable activist is asked upfront if he is sick. “When they approached me,” says Norris, addressing the audience that had formed to hear him speak, “they said, ‘well, we’ll have your back to the camera and disguise your voice,’ and I said, ‘well then I’m not doing it,’ because the whole point in being on television […] was to disprove the idea that we’re monsters.”

“If they had me sat there like the Elephant Man, back to the camera, in shadow, using a disguised voice, of course people would think I’m a fucking monster.”

Of course, RTÉ suggesting something like this was symptomatic of the time: many gay people were simply too afraid to be vocal about their sexuality in public for fear of violent backlash, or in extreme cases, incarceration. Norris, however, never shied away from discussing his sexuality, and he took his first baby steps towards campaigning for equal rights in 1969, as he informed the audience: “There was an advertisement on the back page of the Observer newspaper and it said ‘Homosexual? […] Send address on envelope to The Campaign for Homosexual Equality, 28-something street, Manchester.’ And I sent off my ten bob […] and became a member.”

“IF THEY HAD ME SAT THERE LIKE THE ELEPHANT MAN, BACK TO THE CAMERA, IN SHADOW, USING A DISGUISED VOICE, OF COURSE PEOPLE WOULD THINK I’M A FUCKING MONSTER.”

In the very early 1970s, Norris’s activism became more overt, shifting from the personal sphere to the public. Seeing the Troubles unfold in Northern Ireland, Norris was involved in the formation of the ‘Southern Ireland Civil Rights Association’, which was established to show solidarity with oppressed Catholics north of the border.

Although a member of the Church of Ireland, he felt Roman Catholics were being treated with contempt, but he became incensed when fellow campaigners suggested Presbyterians were more tolerant in the Republic, prompting Norris to stand up and say, as he recalls now: “‘You think you don’t discriminate but you do. I am ‘homosexual’’ – that’s the way we said it in those days, as if we were a species of rare butterfly – and I eventually persuaded them to include reform of the criminal law as part of their agenda, and that was the first time in Ireland that any group had committed itself to law reform.”

 

Aine

David Norris speaking to Áine O’Connor on RTÉ television in 1975, as chairman of the Irish Gay Rights Movement.

Despite this initial success there soon followed a brief hiatus in Norris’s overt campaigning until 1973. He explained to the audience that a conference was held in Trinity College at this time on the broad topic of sexuality, but as the event progressed it became increasingly apparent that most of the attendees were interested in the more specific and much more taboo subject of homosexuality. Norris continues: “Then they started another conference in 1973 that I went to, and they had various people from England coming over, [such as] the editor of Sappho, a lesbian magazine, and we had our own people, like Hugo McManus.”

Out of this sprung the Sexual Liberation Movement, of which David Norris was a member. Disappointed with the direction the group was taking, he led the first split and formed what became known as the Irish Gay Rights Movement. The first event was held by IGRM on the grounds of Trinity College. Norris, expecting a meagre 20 or so interested patrons, was shocked to find that, in fact, 250 people had shown up. “That set my little nose wriggling,” Norris jokes, “and I thought, ‘oh, there’s money to be made in this’.”

“I AM ‘HOMOSEXUAL’’ – THAT’S THE WAY WE SAID IT IN THOSE DAYS, AS IF WE WERE A SPECIES OF RARE BUTTERFLY”

The IGRM then began regularly holding discotheques. Later, Norris helped found the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar, Dublin, which became a social hub for an oppressed and overlooked minority for many years after its inception. Norris recalls: “On the night it opened – St. Patrick’s Day, 1979 […] 450 people turned up! This surging, seething mob outside [was] trying to push the doors in […] I noticed that the floorboards were deflected, because of people dancing […] So I stopped the music and made the announcement […] and got hissed and booed, and then somebody said, ‘c’mon now lads, at least somebody gives a shit about our welfare.’”

Norris and company began work on fixing the issue and the Hirschfeld Centre was up and running again weeks later. Although he enjoyed working at the Centre, Norris admits that he knew little of the music that was played at the venue: “This led to me interrogating Freddie Mercury over his membership card and whether it was up to date – and I did the same to Elton John! I hadn’t a clue who they were!”

The Hirschfeld Centre, although successful, was targeted numerous times. Norris informed the audience of one such occasion: “I was in the office on the top floor […] and I could see sparks [coming from the roof]. When I got up I found a bomb […] Someone had put […] two milk churns full of explosives, one on each side of a barrel of petrol, and they had poured petrol on the roof and thrown up firelighters […] the idea was to heat up the roof, and that would explode the milk churns, blow the lid off the barrel of petrol, blow the roof off, and send flaming streaks of petrol down to the discotheque, where about 300 people would have been burnt to death.”

“THIS LED TO ME INTERROGATING FREDDIE MERCURY OVER HIS MEMBERSHIP CARD AND WHETHER IT WAS UP TO DATE – AND I DID THE SAME TO ELTON JOHN! I HADN’T A CLUE WHO THEY WERE!”

Horrified, Norris entered fight or flight mode and used fire extinguishers he had carried with him to put out the firelighters. It was a narrow escape. The Hirschfeld Centre eventually burned down in 1987: “I was in bed about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning,” Norris recalls, “and I was called down as a key holder […] and I ascertained that nobody had been injured, the archive was rescued, and the insurance was in place [and] I sat back to enjoy the fire.”

The Irish Gay Rights Movement, which had been founded by Norris, was about to experience another major split, as he explained to the audience at the award ceremony: “I was pushing for political change and public agitation – and this was a very, very frightened community at this stage, we really were threatened by the criminal law […] and a lot of people didn’t want [public agitation]. They wanted [us] to keep our heads down, and to be quiet, and to have discos, and meet somebody to go to bed with […] all these perfectly natural human things, but they wanted to cut out the political things.”

 

iqa

Image via The Irish Queer Archive.

David Norris then moved on to form the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, which aimed to change the status of male same-sex activity in Irish law, then illegal. In 1983, Norris took this challenge to the High Court, and later the Supreme Court – where he was represented by former President Mary Robinson – and it was rejected both times.

The case was then brought before the European Court of Human Rights by Norris and Robinson, the latter of whom had made the submission, where it was found that Ireland’s anti-gay law breached the European Convention on Human Rights. “We won by one vote,” Norris reflects. “And there were about twenty judges, so it was very narrow. The Irish judge, of course, [voted] against us.” This ruling paved the way for decriminalisation by the Irish government in June 1993.

With such a vast, long-standing and notable career in campaigning for the advancement of gay rights, it is unsurprising that Norris would be selected as the next recipient of the Foy-Zappone award. Speaking to OTwo after a long talk, and a round of questions, he is quick to inform that receiving such accolades always comes as a surprise: “I’m surprised people remember these things, because my policy is to go straight on to the next thing and keep forging ahead, and I don’t look back very much, so it’s lovely.”

“I NOTICED THAT THE FLOORBOARDS WERE DEFLECTED, BECAUSE OF PEOPLE DANCING […] SO I STOPPED THE MUSIC AND MADE THE ANNOUNCEMENT […] AND GOT HISSED AND BOOED, AND THEN SOMEBODY SAID, ‘C’MON NOW LADS, AT LEAST SOMEBODY GIVES A SHIT ABOUT OUR WELFARE.’”

The audience that had come to hear Norris speak and receive the award was comprised mostly of people in their twenties. “A lot of young people don’t realise it was a criminal offense, which surprises me,” Norris admits.

Senator Norris made headlines in 2013 when it was announced that he had developed cancer on his liver, and he had to undergo a transplant in late 2014 as a result. A month before receiving the Foy-Zappone Award, he signed off from his duties at Leinster House for a time, citing a chest infection. “I couldn’t breathe,” Norris explains, “I couldn’t do anything, and I was put straight into hospital […] Then they found I had a very severe form of diabetes […] But my energy levels, physically, are not what they used to be.”

Has Norris’s physical health impacted on his work in the Seanad? “I used to speak on absolutely everything,” he says. “But now I’m much more targeted. I select the issues on which I could make an impact, and I speak on those. For example: Alice Mary Higgins [Senator for the Civil Engagement group] put down a thing on the Canadian Trade Agreement, and I did my research on it and made a really passionate speech, and my speech led to Fianna Fáil abstaining, and the government were defeated […] which was good, but some of the other issues that are going around I just leave them.”

 

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Image via LetsMakeHistory.ie.

One issue that Norris has spoken about is the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, which currently prohibits women from attaining legal abortions in Ireland. “I think [the eighth amendment] is dreadful,” he says. “I don’t understand how somebody outside a relationship, with no connection to the people involved, can presume in their arrogance to tell a fourteen-year-old girl who has been raped by a neighbour, that she has to keep the child. I think there should be choice: if women keep the child in those situations, or in terms of fatal foetal abnormality, or rape, or incest, then that’s wonderful and I admire them for it, but I definitely think they should have the choice.”

In 2011, Senator Norris entered the race to become the ninth President of Ireland, a position hotly contested by six other candidates. Support initially fell in his favour, with Stephen Fry even tweeting that Ireland “couldn’t have a more intelligent, passionate, knowledgeable, witty or committed President” than the famed Senator.

However, it was revealed in July of that year that Norris, over a decade previously, had used notepaper with the Oireachtas letterhead to send a letter to the Israeli High Court. He asked for clemency in the trial of his former partner, left-wing activist Ezra Nawi, who was convicted of statutory rape. Norris withdrew from the race later that same month, but re-entered in September when it seemed support was moving in his favour again. Norris eventually lost to Labour Party candidate Michael D. Higgins.

“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN FAIRLY LOQUACIOUS, SO THAT DIDN’T REALLY CONCERN ME AT ALL, AND I NEVER FELT IT WAS A BURDEN. THERE WAS OFTEN QUITE A LOT OF FUN INVOLVED IN IT, AND I WAS QUITE IRREVERENT IN THE INTERVIEWS I GAVE.”

Reflecting on this period, Norris calls it a “destructive and homophobic experience.” He elaborates: “RTÉ put out jokes that [said] ‘David Norris would like it up the Áras’ […] If they had said that kind of thing about women, they would have been burnt to the ground. They said I advocated parents having sex with their own children – I mean, crazy, crazy stuff […] And then also the Israeli Government were involved in releasing information which only they had about the case Ezra [Nawi] was involved in, which was actually a honey-trap by the Israeli police.”

Norris continues: “my whole campaign team — bar three people — buggered off and left me. Not one of them officially resigned. I learned it on the Nine O’Clock News […] that the principle PR woman […] no longer worked for Norris campaign. It was devastating – the utter scandalous disloyalty.” Despite losing after an embittering and dramatic race, Norris feels that our current President, Michael D. Higgins has done a stellar job. “I do think we have an excellent President […] He’s a little academic [and] if you tune into his speeches, if you’re tuned into his wave-length, they are brilliant.”

 

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Flikkers Dance Club in the Hirschfeld Centre 1985/6. (Photo: Tonie Walsh).

The Senator has seen huge political and social changes in his lifetime, particularly in the area of LGBTQ+ rights. Having been born into a state in which he was considered a criminal, Norris now lives in a country where he need not live in fear of incarceration simply because of who he is, where anti-discrimination laws exist in LGBTQ+ individuals’ favour in areas of employment, the provision of goods and services, and speech, and where he can not only adopt children, but also marry the partner of his choice. And this is to say nothing of the Gender Recognition Bill, which allows Ireland’s trans citizens to change gender on legal forms without interference from doctors or psychologists.

“I rarely thought about [the changes that were possible],” Norris explains. “I had a series of defined targets at each stage. The first one was knocking out the criminal law, and then building on the social and human rights legislations. So I was usually targeting an immediate object, and planning and strategizing for that, rather than looking beyond that, at the next thing, because that would have been a waste of time.”

When asked if he ever felt a burden of responsibility in being one of the first openly-gay public figures in Ireland, Norris responds with a firm and decisive “no,” adding: “I’ve always been fairly loquacious, so that didn’t really concern me at all, and I never felt it was a burden. There was often quite a lot of fun involved in it, and I was quite irreverent in the interviews I gave.”

Setting the Record Straight | Great Anger at the ‘RTÉ Recognition 4 Repeal’ Protest

This article originally appeared on the HeadStuff website on March 14th, 2017.

On March 8th, an estimated 10,000 people partook in a march in Dublin to protest Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which positions the life of the unborn as equal to that of its mother. This restricts abortion access for Irish women and forces many to travel to the UK in order to avail of the country’s more progressive abortion laws. According to the website of the Irish Family Planning Association, approximately 166,951 women traveled to the UK between 1980 and 2015 in order to make use of this legislation. The mental and physical toll of this journey, coupled with the stigma many face upon a return to their native country, has been a subject of great anger for campaigners since the Eighth Amendment’s implementation in the October of 1983.

Although the march attracted a lot of media attention both at home and abroad, appearing on CNN and Buzzfeed, Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ, instead focused its news report last Wednesday on the worldwide significance of International Women’s Day, neglecting to mention the implications of such a movement in Ireland. They did not reference attendance figures, the Eighth Amendment, and also dedicated equal time during the broadcast to the rise in stamp prices.

“We set this up basically because we shut down the city twice last Wednesday, there were marches all over the country, we had solidarity come in from all over the world, and [there wasn’t]a peep from RTÉ. We decided to bring the story to their doorstep.”

This angered activists Eva Griffin, Sadhbh Ní Bhroin and Síofra Dempsey, who together organised a protest outside RTÉ studios on Monday, March 13th, in order to hold the broadcaster to account for its blatant misrepresentation of the march. Speaking at the protest, Ní Bhroin outlined the reasons for organising such an event: “We set this up basically because we shut down the city twice last Wednesday, there were marches all over the country, we had solidarity come in from all over the world, and [there wasn’t]a peep from RTÉ. We decided to bring the story to their doorstep.”

RTÉ 4 Repeal - HeadStuff.org

Echoing Ní Bhroin’s comments was co-organiser Eva Griffin: “After the strike and march on Wednesday, I saw a lot of people […] complaining online about the RTÉ coverage, which consisted of […] ten seconds of the strike, which they actually bought from another source, used as a segue into a story on the gender pay gap, which is obviously important, but they skipped over the biggest story in Ireland at the time.”

Also at the event was Síofra Dempsey: “The purpose […] is to make it clear to RTÉ, and to the state, that they can’t ignore the issue of Repeal the 8th. It’s something they want to sweep under the rug and pretend isn’t happening, and by not reporting [on the march], RTÉ are directly colluding with the state in covering up, so we want to make that impossible for them in organising a protest.”

Griffin set up the Facebook page ‘RTE Recognition 4 Repeal’ late last week, and overnight it attracted hundreds of interested participants. This was down to support from the Strike for Repeal movement, Trinity for Choice, UCD for Choice, ROSA, Amnesty Ireland’s Colm O’Gorman, and People Before Profit.

Griffin continues: “The Facebook group blew up. Between attending and interested, there was over 1000 people.” The protest on the day attracted approximately 90 participants who joined together in chants of “Hey hey RTÉ / Put the strike on our TV,” and “Enda, Enda / We want a referendum.”

The protest began at 4:30pm outside RTÉ’s side entrance at Nutley Lane, and eventually moved to Stillorgan Road where it continued until 6:30pm. It attracted attention from the Pro-Life Campaign and Liberal.ie’s Cora Sherlock, who is a noted Pro-Life advocate.

RTÉ 4 Repeal - HeadStuff.org

In attendance at the protest was MA student Aisling Fulcher, who noted the broadcaster’s hypocrisy in claiming to be non-biased: “They obviously show a centre-right leaning [in not reporting the march], and if they say it’s their responsibility to provide fair and equal coverage, they should do that. They should do [their]job.”

“[It’s important] that there’s more inclusion and intersectionality. With trans people and non-binary people, it’s a discussion that affects us too. Abortion is always talked about as a woman’s issue, but it also affects non-binary people and trans men, and there are added traumas they might have to go through as well”

Representing Non-Binary+ Ireland at the protest was Kay Cairns, who spoke about a neglected minority in debates surrounding the Eighth Amendment: “[It’s important] that there’s more inclusion and intersectionality. With trans people and non-binary people, it’s a discussion that affects us too. Abortion is always talked about as a woman’s issue, but it also affects non-binary people and trans men, and there are added traumas they might have to go through as well – such as being misgendered at an abortion clinic, or having terms used to describe our bodies that we might not use ourselves.”

“I say it’s important for trans and non-binary people to be included in these marches, but I do see the value in highlighting how much it is a women’s issue as well, because it’s a symptom of the systematic oppression of women. When legislators are making laws like the Eighth Amendment, they’re not thinking about trans or non-binary people, of course, so I do think it’s important we put women at the centre of that, but it is also important to talk about the trans and non-binary people that it affects.” Cairns led the crowd in a chant of ‘Trans for Repeal / Trans for Repeal.’

RTÉ sent out two cameramen at different times during the protest in order to record the event. Despite this, the event did not receive mention on either the Six One News or Nine O’Clock News that evening despite interest. Instead the event was mentioned in the ‘News in Brief’ section of RTÉ’s website. On this, Ní Bhroin stated: “It was a challenge for them to prove us wrong and give the movement some coverage but they didn’t step up. Normally I love being right but this time [I] was bitter.”

Featured Image by Louise Flanagan

A New Miracle Drug: Campaigning for the Introduction of PrEP in Ireland

Note: This article was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXIII, No. 6. It was later published online.

With HIV figures increasing both at home and abroad, David Monaghan looks at the student-led ‘UCD for PrEP’ campaign and how effective the drug is in combating the disease.

 

RISING figures of HIV in Ireland have encouraged student activists to campaign for help in minimising its continued spread. ‘UCD for PrEP’ is a student-led initiative that aims to lobby the Students’ Union to take a proactive stance on introducing the drug ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis,’ or ‘PrEP’ for short. According to the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug is reported to reduce the risk of contracting HIV by up to 90% when taken daily.

PrEP is intended for people who are at high risk of contracting HIV. This includes individuals whose current partner is HIV-positive, as well intravenous drug users. It is a preventative measure that is readily available in some countries across the globe, and has been recommended by the World Health Organisation since 2015. It has been approved for usage by those at risk of contracting HIV in the United States, where depending on income it can be obtained for free, and France, where it was approved in November 2015 and introduced the following January.

However, the drug is not readily available in Ireland despite increasing concerns about rising HIV figures. According to Newstalk, 513 people were diagnosed HIV-positive in the country last year, a startling increase of 5.8% from previous recorded figures. Numerous factors have been suggested to explain such a jump in numbers: a failing sexual education system; dating apps like Tinder or Grindr; disconnect between LGBTQ+ individuals and the history of the virus. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that immediate action must be taken to combat the spread of disease.

“513 PEOPLE WERE DIAGNOSED HIV POSITIVE IN THE COUNTRY LAST YEAR, A STARTLING INCREASE OF 5.8% FROM PREVIOUS RECORDED FIGURES”

Finn McLysaght helped establish the ‘UCD for PrEP’ campaign with fellow activists. “There is a need [for PrEP]” they said. “HIV has reached a crisis point. There’s a new diagnosis every 18 hours.” The campaign was inspired by the work of ACT UP Dublin, a non-partisan group dedicated to using direct action against increasing HIV figures. “[It’s] a coalition to campaign for the introduction of PrEP and PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis],” McLysaght continued.

In Ireland the drug does not fall under the HSE’s Drugs Payment Scheme, and trials are ongoing to establish its effectiveness. “It would cost hundreds for a thirty day supply,” McLysaght says. “Most people don’t even know about it. I think only 51 people availed of it last year.”

The current actions of the HSE echo the debate surrounding the introduction of PrEP in the United Kingdom last year. According to the BBC, a trial was established to see how effective the drug would be in preventing HIV transmissions. The trial finished early when it became obvious that PrEP worked successfully.

“IT IS CLEAR THAT IMMEDIATE ACTION MUST BE TAKEN TO COMBAT THE SPREAD OF DISEASE”

Despite this, in 2016, the NHS decided not to fund the drug and said it was the responsibility of local councils to deal with its distribution. This was successfully challenged by the National AIDS Trust in the UK’s High Court.

McLysaght has met with Students’ Union Welfare Officer, Róisín Ní Mhara, and last week a motion relating to PrEP was passed by the SU council. The motion will see the Students’ Union campaign for the licensing of PrEP at the Dublin Pride Parade in 2017. Speaking to the Observer before the council meeting, Ní Mhara said: “My own personal belief is that, if you need it, absolutely you should take it. If you feel you need it and you warrant it in your life, who am I to say it’s not suitable for you to take?”

UCD Students’ Union currently has a plethora of information on sexual health on its webpage. How will the introduction of PrEP augment this current campaign? Ní Mhara continues: “I’m not sure how we’re going to slot it in just yet…because the drug itself isn’t licensed for use in Ireland [but] I would like to sign it into sexual health week somehow.”

“HIV HAS REACHED A CRISIS POINT. THERE’S A NEW DIAGNOSIS EVERY 18 HOURS”

Although the campaign is external to UCD LGBTQ+ society, the committee is still very much dedicated to campaigning for its licensing and usage. Philip Weldon, LGBTQ+ society’s auditor, states: “we took a vote last Monday [23rd], the first committee meeting of semester two, and we all voted in favour to support [the drug], by making the campaign visible at our own events. For example, simply things like stickers. We’re more than happy to display it on our own materials at coffee mornings and other events.”

At present, the campaign has not been met with opposition at any level. PrEP is known to create minor side effects, such as nausea and diarrhoea, but these are known to pass after a few days. “There are side effects,” McLysaght says, “but that’s part of the territory of taking any medication. They’re pretty minimal.”

With HIV diagnoses increasing, a trend that has not been curbed in recent years, it is becoming increasingly obvious that direct action must be taken to stop its escalation. Trials have shown that PrEP is effective in combating HIV, and so necessary measures are needed to see its licensing both at home and abroad.

Bridging A Gap, Finding Our Voice: An Interview With Activist Tonie Walsh

This article originally appeared in the University Observer Vol. XXIII, Issue IV. It later appeared online.

In honour of World AIDS Day on December 1st, David Monaghan sits down with activist, archivist, and journalist Tonie Walsh, whose work in the LGBTQ+ community spans over 30 years.

TONIE WALSH has been involved in LGBTQ+ activism since the early 1980s, and has been a prominent figure in developments made within and outside of the community since that time. He was foundational in the evolution of the Hirschfeld Centre, a Dublin-based meeting place for Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community, and the National LGBT Federation (NXF), a non-governmental collective designed for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights. Alongside Catherine Glendon, he also became one of the founding editors of GCN, Ireland’s foremost LGBTQ+ publication.

Walsh’s interest in activism was inspired and spurred on by his familial ties: “I grew up in a feminist household,” he says. “I come from three generations of feminism. My great-grandmother was the founding secretary and manager of the Gate Theatre. She campaigned for women’s franchise in 1910… Her husband, Hector Hughes, helped set up the Socialist Party of Ireland [in 1918], and would have been a contemporary of James Connolly and Jim Larkin.”

Dissatisfied with the lack of momentum of the early Labour movement in Ireland, Hughes eventually moved to London and became a Labour Party MP for Aberdeen North, a seat he held until his death in 1970. “Politics ran…through every vein of my family,” explains Walsh.

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Tonie Walsh speaking as the grand marshall of Dublin’s 25th Pride Parade. Photo credit: Paula Geraghty via indymedia

There has been a history of activism in Walsh’s family, and he has had, in turn, a front row seat to the dramatic, chaotic, emotional and sometimes frustrating narrative of LGBTQ+ progression within the state. He is keen to inform that, like most, he arrived from a place of misunderstanding and confusion surrounding his sexuality. “I came out when I was 19 [in 1979]. I was studying the History of Art and French in UCD… I arrived [to the college] expecting a hot bed of radicalism and I was instantly dissuaded of that… It just seemed like it was coming out of a grim decade. There was no gay presence on campus – Gaysoc [precursor to UCD’s modern LGBTQ+ society] had been founded two years previous — winter 1976 — and it had made some noise before I arrived – but during fresher’s week, it wasn’t staffed.” Indeed, at this time the Gaysoc stand was staffed by Student Union’s Welfare Officer, Brighid Ruane, due to the homophobic environment of the campus.

I GREW UP IN A FEMINIST HOUSEHOLD,’ HE SAYS. ‘I COME FROM THREE GENERATIONS OF FEMINISM.”

During this period, Walsh was dating a French woman who would later come out as lesbian: “the blind leading the blind,” he jokes. Discovering the Hirschfeld Centre, which had opened in March 1979, became the trigger for his eventual coming out: “I had been having sex with boys all throughout high school, but I just wasn’t ‘out’… I actually did a personal ad – like the Grindr of its day – and this guy came over to my granny’s house in Rathgar. We had a bit of a snog and a fumble, and then he says, ‘do you want to go into this club?”

The club in question was the aforementioned Hirschfeld Centre, which was named for Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish-German sexologist who became one of the earliest proponents of LGBTQ+ rights in the Weimar Republic.

The club became the epicentre for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland, and sported a dance floor, a women’s group, a youth group, counselling services, and a queer cinema club. “I thought it was going to be full of freaks,” says Walsh. “[But] I arrived in the middle of a slow set. It was all just so ordinary and fabulous.”

Within six months, Walsh experienced a complete political transformation. “The lesbian and gay movement was about five years old at that stage… and the [National LGBT Federation] was a part of this second wave of activism, and it hugely appealed to young kids like me at the time.”

Despite this emerging ‘second wave,’ very few LGBTQ+ people had the strength to stand up and speak out, as Walsh elaborates: “Ireland felt like a much smaller world, for a start, and it was! Very few people were living in [Dublin] city centre, the city was derelict, [and] at this time of nascent queer liberation, very few were [fearless] enough to stand up and be counted.” Only a handful of vocal pro-gay activists emerged in this period, including Senator David Norris, and future Presidents of Ireland Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, who with their combined efforts in the 1970s established the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, which sought to decriminalise homosexuality in the Republic of Ireland.

While some gay people and their allies were vocal at this time, trans rights as we know them today simply did not exist. Walsh elaborates: “back in 1979… trans identity just didn’t enter our lexicon or our conversations at the time. There was a national transvestite group running from the Hirschfeld centre, but trans identity and the concerns of our trans brothers and sisters just weren’t getting a look in.”

Walsh’s decade-long involvement in the Hirschfeld Centre would later inspire his work on the Irish Queer Archive. The IQA was established in 1997 and is a collection of historical material from Ireland’s queer past, including magazines, posters, pictures, badges and other such ephemera, with a view to providing insight into the social, political and cultural development of LGBTQ+ communities in Ireland. Walsh’s direct involvement with the movement during the decades in question provided him with tangible links to such an expansive history. “We have the administrative records of all the major lesbian and gay groups in Ireland since 1974,” he says.

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The Hirschfield Centre in the 1980s. Photo credit: Seán Gilmartin via IQA

Indeed, the archive contains material from the Alternative Miss Ireland contest, the GAZE Film Festival, the Sexual Liberation Movement, the National LGBT Federation, Gay Health Action, GLEN, Dublin LGBT Pride, GCN, and more. Although it contains such a vast collection of material, very little of the IQA’s material has been digitised: “most of it is still in storage in Whitehall somewhere,” Walsh explains.

He continues: “it’s inaccessible [to all but a few, such as] bona fide historians [like] Diarmaid Ferriter… You’ll see us a few of us making noise next year, people like Mary McCauliffe and Katherine O’Donnell from Women’s Studies in UCD, myself, Elizabeth Kirwan who manages the National Photographic Archive – these are people who came together to help find a home for the archive and were responsible for its transferral [to the National Library of Ireland] in 2008. We have to make it accessible [so] people can begin the process of rebuilding, of fitting all the blocks into place that go towards building this historical structure… We only have an incomplete picture of where we are now.”

GAY LIBERATION IS THE STORY OF SURVIVAL AND HOPE… IT’S THE STORY OF PEOPLE, IN SOME CASES, LIVING SHITTY, MISERABLE LIVES, AND BEING ABLE TO RISE ABOUT THE SHITTINESS OF THEIR SOCIAL AND CULTURAL ENVIRONMENT, AND FIND A WAY TO BETTER THEMSELVES, AND BETTER THEIR WORLD FOR THEMSELVES AND OTHER PEOPLE”

The key to promoting LGBTQ+ awareness, Walsh claims, is to be out and vocal: “the way to be a persuader of gay liberation is to be able to stand up on TV, in the media, in the newspapers, [be] out in the streets and say, ‘this is me, this is who we are, we are your brothers and your sisters, your sons and your daughters.” This is the attitude he carried with him into his journalism career in the 1980s. He is one of the founders of GCN,the longest-running LGBTQ+ publication in Ireland, and his beginnings in the field came as a staff writer for Out, Ireland’s first commercial queer magazine, which was established in 1983.

Out folded eventually, owing to a lack of funding: “gay businesses refused to advertise in the gay press, that’s how oppressive and repressive the situation was.” A decision made by the Carlow and Leinster Times, who printed the publication, also pushed the magazine into folding: they refused to publish the penultimate issue as it featured a safer sex ad of two silhouetted men embracing. This was largely because sex between men was illegal at the time.

“There was nothing expressly pornographic about the image, but given the taboo around homosexuality and anything to do with intercourse, the fucking printers had a conniption and refused to print it. You can imagine, our brothers were dying horrible, shabby deaths, and we have a culture where condoms were still illegal, and the government [did not] engage with the reality of what was happening at the time – the Dáil first began to have conversations about AIDS five years after the first people began to die of it.”

Indeed, the first AIDS-related deaths in Ireland were reported as early as 1985, but Leinster House only had its first conversation about the crisis in 1990. “All the time people were dying. There was hysteria in Ireland [among] very worried homosexual and heterosexual people.”

Conversations about the AIDS crisis occur frequently today, but very rarely are they in the context of the European or indeed Irish experiences. Such narratives are made invisible, undoubtedly contributing to the rise of HIV in contemporary Ireland – in 2015 it was reported that there had been a jump of 25% in such diagnoses, with young people being most affected.

The work Walsh strives to do in compiling and documenting indigenous LGBTQ+ history is vitally important to understanding the current problems such communities face: “gay liberation is the story of survival and hope,” says Walsh. “It’s the story of people, in some cases, living shitty, miserable lives, and being able to rise above the shittiness of their social and cultural environment, and find a way to better themselves, and better their world for themselves and other people.”

Walsh continues: “the history of [LGBTQ+] liberation is about how we coped with awful situations: people being beaten up, people being murdered and having [no help], people being kicked out of Garda stations when they went to complain about being set upon by a group of marauding, homophobic thugs in Phoenix Park or somewhere. [It’s about] young guys who were brutally murdered, like Declan Flynn or Charles Self, the RTÉ designer who was stabbed almost 30 times in his own home, and how his murder still remains unsolved because at the time the Gardaí just simply didn’t look hard enough or look in the right places. Dreadful stories of oppression and repression, but out of it there are stories of how we survived, and I think that’s important when we come to look at the problem in our midst right now with rising levels of STIs.”

Between Wednesday November 30th and Thursday December 1st, in honour of World AIDS Day, the Media Studies department in Maynooth University will host ‘AIDS in Irish Media: Art and Activism’ for the second year in a row. On the last day of the event Walsh will launch his new project, the Dublin AIDS Memorial, which runs parallel to his work at the IQA in addressing the gaps left by the erasure of LGBTQ+ narratives in Irish society.

Walsh describes how such an erasure stemmed from blatant ignorance: “I had just turned 25 when people my age started falling ill and dying of AIDS… I stopped counting the number of people I lost at 43… When you went to visit your friends you were expected to put on rubber gloves and masks.”

GAY BUSINESSES REFUSED TO ADVERTISE IN THE GAY PRESS, THAT’S HOW OPPRESSIVE AND REPRESSIVE THE SITUATION WAS

He continues: “the culture of engagement was just infused with hysteria and fear, and massive amounts of ignorance underpinning that fear.” A group of gay men came together in May 1985 to form Gay Health Action. It was the first group in the country to develop a tactical response to the unfolding crisis. Walsh was involved in its early development but had to step back due to other commitments.

“The GHA was responsible for producing the first leaflet on AIDS in Ireland,” he explains. “[They] got a small wedge of cash from the Department of Health, and then went for a reprint. Now remember this was the only [available leaflet on AIDS], the Department of Health hadn’t even produced information at this point, and remember that HIV was a death sentence at the time. The Department of Health balked at producing extra cash [for reprints] because the advice from the Attorney General was that, if they funded a leaflet that talked about male-on-male intercourse, it would be seen to be encouraging criminal activity.”

Tonie Walsh revealed his own HIV status in a Facebook post on December 1st2015, to commemorate World AIDS Day. In the image he holds a sign that reads, “I’m not proud to be HIV positive, but neither am I ashamed.” He joins fellow activist and friend Rory O’Neill (drag queen Panti Bliss) and former Mr. Gay Ireland Robbie Lawlor in the increasing list of notable Irish personalities who have publicly described living with HIV, in order to help alleviate the lingering stigma of the 1980s.

“I spent what felt like a lifetime… protecting myself, and those around me, and trying to survive when so many of my best friends and lovers did not. I became positive just at the point when I could benefit from the latest developments in antiretrovirals… but I felt fraudulent that I’d become infected and was able to survive. It’s a twisted way of thinking, but unless you’ve been in a situation where you’ve lost a lot of friends and lovers, it’s difficult, and that’s why I want us to begin the process of reconciliation of that period, and that means allowing the stories of the survivors [to be heard].”

I STOPPED COUNTING THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE I LOST AT 43… WHEN YOU WENT TO VISIT YOUR FRIENDS YOU WERE EXPECTED TO PUT ON RUBBER GLOVES AND MASKS.

Walsh continues: “Rory [O’Neill] was one of the first people I told… I became positive ten years ago. I was actually raped.” Rape can have long-lasting physical and psychological effects, with self-blame and guilt acting as two of the most common. Walsh experienced such patterns himself: “I was hugely ashamed… Lesbian Line were doing a mental health weekend in Outhouse a couple of months ago… and they asked me to talk, and I thought, ‘I’m going to talk about the corrosive effect of guilt.’ This feeds into my rational for an AIDS memorial. Guilt, if it’s left unchecked, can hugely damage people. I have lots of scars: I’ve been attacked, knifed [across the face], I have scars on my head… And I’ve found myself in some very weird situations. My first relationship with a man was very abusive.”

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Cover of the first issue of Gay Community News (GCN). Founded by Tonie Walsh and Catherine Glendon.

Walsh’s consultant in St. James’s Hospital encouraged him to seek counselling. Instead he chose to talk about it in his own way: “I just sort of blabber at everyone, and that sort of normalises it. There’s a difference between secrets and privacy… Secrets corrode. I was angry… because I was not in control. It’s the classic victimhood that rape victims and abuse victims actually display.”

Sexual and emotional violence affects every community, and LGBTQ+ communities are no exception. In a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States in 2010, it was revealed that lesbian, gay and bisexual people experience such violence at similar rates to their heterosexual counterparts. The problems for LGBTQ+ peoples are intensified by outside bigotry: a 2016 BuzzFeed article titled ‘This Is What Domestic Violence Is Like When You’re LGBT,’ explains that many LGBTQ+ abuse victims live in fear of being ‘outed’ by their partners, and that many hotlines are not equipped to deal with LGBTQ+ specific abuse. “I want to talk about something that’s not talked about enough,” says Walsh, “and that’s abuse in same-sex relationships.”

Walsh hopes the Irish government will fund his AIDS Memorial project and give voice to countless numbers of LGBTQ+ citizens who died during the crisis. To date there is only one AIDS memorial in display in Ireland: a monument on Buckingham Street in Dublin 1. “That [area] was ravaged by heroin addiction and, consequently AIDS,” Walsh explains, “but to the best of my knowledge it’s the only one in the country.”

‘AIDS and Irish Media: Art and Activism’ will take place on November 30th and December 1st in Maynooth University’s symposium. Tonie Walsh will launch the Irish AIDS Memorial project on the latter date at 3:30pm. The Irish Queer Archives Facebook page can be accessed athttps://www.facebook.com/IQAadvisorygroup/

If you were affected by any of the issues highlighted in this article you can reach out to the following:

LGBT Helpline

T: 1890 929 539 | W: www.lgbt.ie

TENI Helpline (Transgender Support)                                                                                                      

T: 085 147 7166 | W: www.teni.ie

Samaritans

T: 1850 60 90 90 | W: www.samaritans.ie

HIV Ireland

T: +353 (0)1 873 3799 | W: www.hivireland.ie

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

T: 01 661 4911 | E: info@rcc.ie | W: www.drcc.ie/

Aware (Depression)

T: 1890 303 302 | W: www.aware.ie | E: wecanhelp@aware.ie

Pieta House (Self-Harm/Suicide Support)

T: 01-6010000 | W: www.pieta.ie | E: mary@pieta.ie

Alcoholics Anonymous

W: www.alcoholicsanonymous.ie

Mental Health Ireland

W: www.mentalhealthireland.ie