6th Feb 2013
It’s Complicated: The Changing Identity of Irish LGBT Writers
The history of LGBT writers in Ireland is one that’s often been ignored. Granted, we all know Oscar Wilde was gay and persecuted for it, and fans of the work of Brendan Behan will almost always nod to his sexuality in the first few minutes of conversation.
But even though these two playwrights, storytellers and poets both remain famous and are studied in universities across the world, the country’s other LGBT writers are all too often ignored.
This is not just because LGBT sexuality was until recently unmentionable and illegal in the Republic of Ireland. Homosexuality was only legalised in Ireland in 1993 (previously, it was punishable by a term ranging from ten years to life imprisonment, though in practice the law was rarely enforced).
The pervasive influence of the Roman Catholic Church meant that until recently the discussion of LGBT issues – let alone having a gay or lesbian child – was something that was hushed up.
Its modern writers – the ones born and raised here in the years between the Republic declaring its sovereignty and overthrowing British rule in 1921 and the late twentieth Century – were likely to have grown up feeling ashamed of their sexuality.
The pernicious influence the Church on Ireland’s LGBT community cannot be underestimated. This is hugely ironic, given that this is the same organisation that saw fit to protect those members of its clergy who were found to be routinely abusing the children in the care of Catholic orphanages and industrial schools.
That said, one of the first relationships to shock Irish society had nothing to do with Catholicism. It took place between two Anglo-Irish aristocrats, born when the country was still under British rule in the Eighteenth Century.
Lady Eleanor Butler and the Honourable Sarah Ponsonby, the so-called ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, met when Eleanor was 29 and Sarah was 13. The pair formed an attachment so strong that it scandalised society, and forced them to flee Ireland for Wales where they set up home at Plas Newydd in Llangollen.
Both women also wrote diaries, letters and poetry throughout their lives, and their work has been collected together by the Orlando Project (Cambridge Press) as an early example of “Writing A Shared Life”. Although not originally intended for public consumption, these early accounts of an LGBT relationship in a time and society that deemed them wholly inappropriate make fascinating reading.
Born 24 years after Sarah Ponsonby’s death, Oscar Wilde is Ireland’s most famous LGBT writer, not least because the charges bought against him in 1895 for “sodomy” and “gross indecency” (meaning all homosexual acts excluding penetrative sex) seems shocking by today’s standards. At the time though, men apparently were violently sick in the street when they read about the charges in the newspapers.
It is impossible not to be deeply moved when reading De Profundis, Wilde’s letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, which he wrote shortly before his release from prison in 1897. The letter not only reveals the author’s broken heart and spirit but also serves as one of the earliest accounts of an Irish gay writer describing the experience of being gay, and how he came to terms with it.
Like Wilde, the novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Bowen left Ireland before the end of British rule. Born in 1899, Bowen moved to the UK with her mother at the age of eight. By 1923 – two years after Ireland declared its sovereignty and began to reclaim itself from British rule – she was mixing with the very LGBT-friendly Bloomsbury Group.
Although she was said to be almost exclusively heterosexual, Bowen was immensely proud of both her sophistication, which allowed her to accept other people’s LGBT lifestyles, and how attractive other women and lesbians found her. Bisexual, lesbian and gay characters – as well as characters whose sexuality seems merely ambiguous – pepper her work.
For example, in The House in Paris, the character of Naomi appears to have a far more intimate relationship with her best friend Karen than she has with her fiancé Max. In at least three of Bowen’s other novels The Hotel, The Last September, and The Death of the Heart, women enjoy such intense attachments that, like the Ladies of Llangollen, the very least they can expect is to be suspected of lesbianism (not that the writer thought there was anything wrong with that).
By this point in history, Irish Republicanism had brought with it one of Ireland’s most humorous writers. Brendan Behan, an IRA man who began writing while interred in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison, is also well-known for his bisexuality and the gay characters he often wrote into his plays and fiction.
Confusingly for some modern readers, although one of Behan’s most famous plays The Quare Fellow is set in a prison, the “quare” of the title does not refer to queerness in terms of sexuality. It refers to the quality of oddness. The play’s one flamboyantly gay character is in fact referred to as the “other fellow”. Notably, the other fellow is often referred to by critics as “Wildean” in his exuberance.
In the days since The Quare Fellow was first performed, the advent of feminism, the steep decline in respect for the Catholic Church and the crucial work done by gay rights activists in Ireland, has meant that more and more Irish writers have felt able to come out of the closet in both their personal lives and careers.
Writers such as the novelists Keith Ridgway and Emma Donoghue, the poet Mary Dorcey and the journalists Nell McCafferty and Colm Toibin have been able to openly identify as LGBT in a way they never could have before.
Ireland today hosts a rich and hugely mixed writing community, one that is all the stronger for the LGBT writers that contributed to its past.
What are your feelings on Ireland’s LGBT writers? What has been your favourite piece from these authors, poets, and journalists?