A new book shows how LGBT rights in Ireland were won not through EU rulings or state benevolence, but through generations of dedicated activism.

People take part in the annual Gay Pride Parade on 27 June 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Clodagh Kilcoyne / Getty Images)

How was the Republic of Ireland transformed from having been one of the most socially illiberal countries in Western Europe? Patrick MacDonagh’s new history of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Ireland between 1973 and 1993 establishes more recent developments in sexual and gender politics as the successors to three decades of grassroots struggle. While male homosexuality had been partially decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, followed by Scotland and Northern Ireland 1981 and 1982, the Republic of Ireland persisted with punitive and antiquated laws inherited from the British Empire until their eventual removal in 1993. This followed a 1988 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR).

Yet from the early 1970s, a gay rights movement had developed, its existence aided by the reluctance of the state to fully enforce its own laws. MacDonagh’s study tells of a collective endeavour, providing a detailed account of how activists navigated the long road to legal change and social acceptance. Central to his project is a determination to look beyond the capital city and battles waged in the courtroom to construct a narrative which encompasses the efforts of lesbian women, the struggles of provincial activists, efforts to gather political allies, the strategies used against the many opponents of gay rights, the function of social life as political resistance and the rhetorical language used by organisations in their attempts to bring about discursive change.

The Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM) was founded in 1974. Emerging from the ferment of civil rights, republican, student, and left-wing organisations of the era, the IGRM set out to address the multitude of ills that beset homosexual women and men living in the Republic of Ireland. In response to a lack of safe spaces, the IGRM prioritised creating a social centre in Dublin. Meanwhile, its spokespeople sought to educate the public by making their presence felt in the media, including high-profile television appearances and a sustained campaign of letter writing to newspapers. Underlying these initiatives was a determination to reinvent the image of homosexuals from that of sinful outsiders to conventional and unthreatening citizens—an ambitious project in a land dominated by oppressive religiosity. However, as MacDonagh’s account makes clear, the IGRM was beset with difficulties, not least that it struggled to reach and to appeal to lesbians. The organisation was destined to implode and collapse under the strain of internal conflicts in 1977.

There then follow a brace of chapters which explore different aspects of activist endeavour during the 1980s. This decade is usually understood as being a dispiriting time for progressive causes in the Republic of Ireland, where, in a similar fashion to comparable nations, major campaigning setbacks were accompanied and fuelled by a rejuvenated religious social conservatism. In 1980, the High Court rejected arguments for the decriminalisation of male homosexuality, instead reasserting the primacy of ‘Christian morality’ within the Irish State. Three years later, an appeal to the Supreme Court resulted in a similar judgment, following which all legal avenues to legislative change in Ireland were exhausted. MacDonagh’s revisionist take on the eighties contests a dominant narrative of stasis and despondency inspired by these legal defeats, instead exploring the movement’s multifaceted activities during the decade. His argument that success cannot be measured by political achievement alone is exemplified by his account of the ways in which the National Gay Federation (NGF) and Liberation for Irish Lesbians (LIL) worked to create safe spaces, provide information, foster networks, and validate identities.

His subsequent exploration of provincial activism in Cork and Galway shifts the focus to struggles beyond the capital city and the courtroom, in the process deploying some evocative source material which tells of the occasional pleasures as well as the pains of organising in more geographically peripheral places. He further demonstrates how activists were remarkably successful during the eighties in cultivating support from civil society organisations and trade unions. In 1987, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) explicitly supported the rights of lesbian and gay workers, a development which then led to the state adopting policies to prevent discrimination and protect rights within the civil service. MacDonagh notes that this sharply contrasted to the introduction of Section 28 in the United Kingdom. However, the subsequent chapter which treats with the efforts of Gay Health Action (GHA) to combat the AIDS crisis underscores the extent to which activists operated in a legally and culturally hostile environment in which knowledge of sexual health remained low, while the state continued to impose theological sexual norms.

Finally, attention turns to the penultimate push for decriminalisation following the 1988 ECHR ruling. MacDonagh provides a detailed account of the successful lobbying and publicity strategies deployed by the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN)—chiefly their determination to ensure that any new law introduced did not replicate the partial and equivocal 1967 Act in England and Wales. GLEN is shown to have been adept in convincing other groups and interests to adopt its language and arguments, presenting gay rights as basic human rights which were unjustly being denied to a minority, while its adoption of the discourse of equality was to have long lasting implications for progressive campaigns.

This and other chapters in the book might have been framed and scaffolded more clearly in order to lead the reader more effectively through a thicket of complex sources. MacDonagh assumes a level of prior knowledge on the part of readers about the intricacies of Irish politics in the 1980s and 1990s, and it could have been more succinctly explained why and how five years elapsed between the EHRC ruling and action being taken to change the law. It would have been useful to highlight at the outset that a change of government in late 1992 provided the catalyst for state action to resolve an issue that the minister responsible characterised as having been a ‘difficult political hot potato.’ While legal reform in Scotland and Northern Ireland in the early 1980s had been taken by the British State in the face of unfavourable public opinion, MacDonagh argues that the campaigning of activists in the Republic of Ireland over three decades had sufficiently influenced public opinion to make political change possible, something attested to by the apparently small level of organised opposition to the 1993 reform. He argues that activists had successfully changed attitudes by mobilising a shift in discourse, encouraging the language of the gay rights movement to be adopted by wider society.

Yet this account does not seem adequately contextualised in terms of the wider social and moral politics of Ireland in the 1980s. The extent to which public and not just elite attitudes had been liberalised seems mysterious. If there are faults with this book it is that it is that the doctoral gown is worn heavily, and that grand historical narrative is frequently clouded by the presence of an at times unnecessary accretion of detail which might better have been confined to footnotes. And although faithful to its activist sources, the book might also have benefited from more consistent integration and anchoring within their broader political and social context for the benefit of non-expert readers. Nonetheless, it is an important study which will be of value to those interested in the history of sexualities, political and social movements, and the contemporary history of Ireland.

Patrick McDonagh’s Gay and Lesbian Activism in the Republic of Ireland, 1973-93 is published by Bloosmbury.

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