The Women’s History Association of Ireland contributed towards my participation at the 32ndIrish Conference of Historians at University College Cork, April 26th-28th2018. This year’s conference theme was, ‘Sex, Sexuality and Reproduction: Historical Perspectives’. The conference included a broad range of panels covering topic’s such as: ‘eugenics and feminism’, ‘maternal bodies’ ‘infanticide, foundling hospital and social purity work’, ‘pornography’, ‘sex advice’, and ‘LGBT Irish history’, amongst many others. Renowned scholars in the field of sexuality and feminism: Ruth Mazo Karras, Sheila Rowbotham, Michael G. Cronin and Jeffrey Weeks provided four stimulating keynote lectures. Their lectures covered topics such as ‘The myth of masculine impunity: male adultery and repentance in the Middle Ages’, ‘Doing Sexual History’ and ‘Sex, class and hegemony in twentieth-century Ireland’.
Two particularly interesting papers were Judy Bolger’s ‘Breastfeeding in nineteenth-century Ireland’ and Rachel Bennett’s ‘Inmates of an entirely different class’: regulating the maternal body in the nineteenth-century Irish prison. Bolger’s paper sought to determine whether upper – and lower-class women in nineteenth century Ireland had similar or different breastfeeding experiences. Bolger concluded that upper-class Irish women were afforded flexibility in their mothering abilities as their decision to breastfeed was often based upon personal choices. While, lower-class, or poor Irish women’s innate ability to mother was often capitalised on through the employment of wet-nursing, this in turn, Bolger argued, meant that lower-class women’s decision to breastfeed was often for financial reasons, rather than maternal responsibility. Bennett’s paper explored what it was like to be pregnant, to have a baby and to be a new mother in a nineteenth-century Irish prison. Bennett concludes that the maternal body was a source of concern for the authorities but also a vehicle for resistance on the part of the prisoner as it could act as a barrier to discipline. These papers and the many others presented resonated quite strongly with current debates and events in Irish society today. In particular, Linda Connolly’s ‘Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland, 1970-2018’, and Ciara Molloy’s, ‘The Politics of Rape in 1980s Ireland’.
My paper, entitled; ‘The circumstances peculiar to organising gay people in the West are indeed a quare lot’: Gay and Lesbian Activism in 1980s Galway’ was presented on the third day of the conference as part of the panel, ‘Queering Irish History: revealing, persevering and sharing LGBT histories’. The paper focused on the hitherto ignored activities of provincial gay and lesbian activists in 1980s Galway. By focusing on Galway, my paper made two key arguments. Firstly, it sought to demonstrate the extent to which lesbian women were not passive agents in the efforts to improve the situation of Irish gay and lesbian citizens pre-1993 and decriminalisation of sexual activity between males. Rather, they were active agents in seeking to provide a social space for gay and lesbian individuals to meet others like themselves and become more confident in their sexuality. This, I argue, has been ignored in Irish historiography as an important form of resistance and activism, which contributed to the wider recognition and toleration of homosexuality in the latter period of the twentieth century in Ireland. Secondly, the paper sought to move the current narrative on Irish LGBT history outside of Dublin to include provincial regions where resistance and activities were taking place to challenge the discrimination of Ireland’s homosexual community. Only by broadening the current narrative, particularly to include the other forms and locations of resistance can we really begin to contextualise the dramatic transformation in attitudes towards LGBT citizens in Ireland in the recent years.
The conference provided a wonderful opportunity for scholars of sex, sexuality and reproduction, to meet and discuss topics which hitherto have been marginalised in Irish historiography. This conference may well mark a watershed moment in bringing greater attention to these issues and further contribute to the promotion of research/collaborations in these areas, and with it our understanding of Irish history. In particular, as a scholar of Irish Queer history, I was extremely pleased to be part of a panel which explored some of Ireland’s LGBT (hidden) history. In particular, topics such as gay fathers in Ireland, Ireland’s transgender community, gay and lesbian activism in Cork, and queer identities on Irish documentary film. Two documentaries shown at the conference, Outitude and A Different Country, offered viewers an insight into life as an LGBT citizen in twentieth century Ireland, discussing issues such as identity, homophobia, activism, and community. The study of Ireland’s LGBT history is still in its infancy, but this year’s conference has brought a wider attention to its significance and place in twentieth-century Irish historiography.
The Irish Committee of Historical Sciences, along with its many constituent societies, and the organising committee, in particular, Donal O’Driscoll deserve our appreciation and thanks for putting together such an important conference, which has given a voice to many hidden histories. I would also like to thank the Women’s History Association of Ireland for providing me with a bursary to attend this conference. The WHAI was strongly represented at the conference with a number of its members presenting papers.
Patrick James McDonagh
European University Institute, Florence