Review of Patrick McDonagh’s Gay and Lesbian Activism in the Republic of Ireland, 1973-93

Patrick McDonagh, Gay and Lesbian Activism in the Republic of Ireland, 1973-93, (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021)

In 2015, the Republic of Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. Given that homosexual activity was only decriminalised in 1993, this seemed, along with the repeal of the eighth amendment in 2018, to signal a more equal and progressive society in a country where, for much of the twentieth century, individuals’ sexual and reproductive rights had been heavily restricted. Without doubt, activists played a key role in the outcomes of these referendums, and over the last decade, scholars have increasingly begun to address Irish activists’ experiences and campaigns around issues such as LGBT rights, contraception and abortion from the 1970s onwards. 

McDonagh’s important and elegantly-written monograph, Gay and Lesbian Activism in the Republic of Ireland, 1973-93, is a key contribution to our understanding of the work of gay and lesbian activists in the two decades prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland. The book is meticulously researched drawing on a range of archival sources such as the Irish Queer Archive, University College Cork (UCC), LGBT Archive, National Archives of Ireland, and a range of contemporary newspapers and gay community publications. The use of oral history interviews and testimonies from the key gay and lesbian activists involved in campaigning is a strength of this book and these illuminate the personal experiences of activists. 

The book broadly follows a chronological structure. Chapter 1 explores the period from 1973 to 1978. It sheds light on the existence of a gay subculture in early 1970s Ireland and highlights the prevalence of cottaging spaces across the country as well as pubs which provided a space for gay men and lesbian women to meet (although as McDonagh shows, several owners of such pubs were not always receptive to their premises being publicised as gay-friendly). The chapter also examines the beginning of the gay rights movement on the island of Ireland, beginning with a significant conference in November 1973 at the New University of Ulster, Coleraine, which included representatives from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. Following this, the Sexual Liberation Movement was formed at Trinity College Dublin. The first Irish gay rights organisation, the Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM), emerged in 1974 as a result of the combined efforts of activists both north and south of the border and with the support of British gay rights organisations. McDonagh goes on to highlight the key activities of the IGRM including their key campaigns and organisation of social events such as coffee meetings and discos as well as the confidential telephone line, Tel-a-Friend, set up in 1974. The male-dominated nature of the IGRM is discussed and McDonagh highlights the initiatives of lesbian women such as Joni Crone, Therese Blanche and Phil Carson, such as the creation of a dedicated women’s space in the Phoenix Club and a women’s only disco which began in 1975. The chapter also sheds light on the development of local groups such as the foundation of the Cork IGRM in 1976.

Chapter 2 examines the history of the Hirschfield Centre in 1980s Dublin which opened in 1979 and became the centre for the newly formed National Gay Federation (NGF). McDonagh shows how the Hirschfeld Centre had two intertwined objectives in providing a space for social activities but also a means to help fund the NGF’s political aims. The Hirschfield Centre played a central role in promoting a more visible gay community in 1980s Dublin with two of the most popular activities being the Flikkers disco and the Hirschfield Biograph, which ran film screenings. The chapter also outlines the activism of groups such as Parents Enquiry, established in 1982, to help support parents of gay children and promote love and acceptance. The chapter also assesses the contributions of Liberation for Irish Lesbians which was established in 1978 to provide a forum for the discussion of women’s issues and lesbians’ political ideas, as well as a social space. The chapter also highlights the tensions in the movement between gay men and lesbian women, for example, in 1982, when Joni Crone and Majella Breen proposed that the NGF should affiliate to the Women’s Right to Choose Campaign; while the ballot showed a slim majority in favour, the NGF Administrative Council refused to affiliate which was a significant disappointment for members of Liberation for Irish Lesbians. The chapter also explores the significance of the Fairview Park Protest March held in March 1983 in reaction to the murder of Declan Flynn.  

Chapter 3 investigates provincial activism in 1980s Cork and Galway, and particularly the Galway Lesbian and Gay Collective and the Cork IGRM and Cork Gay Collective. This chapter shows the important role that provincial activists played in the history of LGBT activism in Ireland. McDonagh provides a detailed overview of the key activities of these groups and the challenges facing provincial activists, such as lack of dedicated spaces to hold events. The chapter also sheds light on social events such as the Cork Women’s Fun Weekend and support initiatives such as the Cork Lesbian Line. Chapter 4 examines the broader gay rights movement of the 1980s and particularly the efforts of university groups in the period and how gay rights organisations forged alliances with other groups such as the trade union movement. Fundamentally, the chapter successfully provides a more nuanced account of gay rights in the 1980s, drawing focus away from the courtroom in the 1980s to other sites of gay activism. It argues that while there were significant setbacks in the period, there were also important gains made.

Chapter 5 focuses on the work of Gay Health Action during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.  The chapter highlights GHA’s educational strategies as well as their key work in providing counselling to people affected by AIDS. The chapter effectively shows how in the absence of any public health strategy from the Irish government, the GHA played a key role in responding to the epidemic and providing much-needed public health information. This work also helped to make gay activists more visible and change negative perceptions of gay and lesbian people. The final chapter explores the work of gay and lesbian activists in the period following the 1988 European Court of Human Rights Judgement, in particular their successful lobbying of the government leading up to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993. The chapter particularly focuses on the role of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) and sheds light on the conservative backlash that GLEN faced from groups such as Family Solidarity. Ultimately, the chapter emphasises that gay rights in Ireland were not fought for and won by one gay man (David Norris) but were the ‘collective endeavour of many, many individuals both inside and outside Dublin and Ireland’. 

This is an enormously important contribution to the historiography of activism, sexuality and LGBT rights in Ireland and a model of how this work should be done. In particular, I was really impressed to see that the book pays equal attention to the experiences of both gay men and lesbian women (the latter are often marginalised in the historiography) and devotes considerable space to the role of provincial groups. Moreover, the author was not afraid to shy away from assessing the tensions within the movement, thus producing a nuanced account of the activism of this period. While the author modestly writes in the introduction that the book does not represent the ‘definitive history of gay rights activism in the Republic of Ireland’, in my view, it will be the key work on this topic for a long time to come and hopefully an important springboard and model for further avenues of research in this area. 

Laura Kelly is senior lecturer in the history of health and medicine at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.