Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, by Brian Lacey, Wordwell, 298 pp. ISBN: 978-190556236
Brian Lacey’s pioneering work attempts to provide an overview of the place of homosexuality in Irish history from some of the earliest written records to the late twentieth century. The topic is a fascinating one although, as the author admits, given the huge period of time surveyed, he has to rely upon secondary sources. It is also an area in which Irish research has the potential to interact usefully with studies undertaken in other parts of the Europe. The attempt to open up the history of sexuality could be seen as part of a wider attempt by historians – as attention shifted from the high politics and military history which fascinated the Victorians and their early twentieth century successors – to recreate popular mentalities and document areas such as the history of the family, of women, of children, peasants, apprentices, beggars, servants, ex-soldiers, peddlers and others who had hitherto been regarded as marginal – or at least largely silent – figures on the great historical highway. In this essay, while keeping Terrible Queer Creatures in view, I would like to draw attention to some additional items of evidence and to suggest potential lines of enquiry which they open up. As I hope to show, in addition to the story recounted in Brian Lacey’s valuable work, there are other stories and ways of looking at what happened. Much of what follows is new; whenever my narrative avails of that of Terrible Queer Creatures this is made explicit. All new material has been footnoted. I am conscious that, although Brian Lacey’s work includes a valuable chapter on Irishwomen who loved women, this essay is silent with regard to that subject. This was not a deliberate exclusion, and reflects rather the evidence with which I am familiar. This is an area in which there is obviously room for further research, which if we are lucky will add to the story.
As is well known, the noun homosexual was a nineteenth century medical coinage, with the result that the study of the subject has a particular ideological edge and raises issues such as the stability of sexual identity over time and indeed whether there can be said to be a subject to be studied in the absence of a noun to designate it. Although male-male genital acts are constant, the contexts in which they take place and meanings which attach to them can differ significantly, leaving us to wonder how to characterise those who engaged in such acts, but for whom definitions based on a fixed sexual persona would have seemed unfamiliar and perhaps bizarre. In attempting to arrive at answers, we are lucky in being able to turn to the work of two researchers, the historian Alan Bray and the classicist James Davidson, who have produced studies of notable subtlety and intellectual curiosity. Not only have both added to our knowledge of the place of homosexuality in Christian and pre-Christian Europe, and refined our questions and categories, but such is the haunting unfamiliarity of the world they have uncovered that it must be of interest far outside the field of minority sexual history. The issues raised in Bray’s The Friend and Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece relate not only to what it means to be “gay”, but what it means to be human.
Other guides have brought forward significant if partial insights. Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, written under the dark star of George Devereux and promoted by Michel Foucault, presented a bleak emotional landscape, in which acts rather than states were what mattered, and the key factor in appraising any particular physical transaction was who had taken the active and who the passive role. Other works, such as Richard Trexler’s Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas and Rudi Bleys’s The Geography of Perversion: Male-to-male Sexual Behaviour outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination 1750-1918, although peremptory and censorious in the judgments offered (Trexler), and written in post-structuralist academic mandarin (Bleys), documented the variety and pervasiveness of homosexual behaviour in the societies encountered by early European colonialists. William Naphy’s coded polemic against Christianity Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality brought together a huge amount of disparate information to argue that homosexuality was part of the deep history of mankind and to demonstrate its ubiquity from China to Peru. Michael Rocke’s overlong Forbidden Friendships; Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence documented, in greater detail than most people would wish to know, the – admittedly extraordinary – extent of male-male sex in fifteenth century Florence and other cities of the Mediterranean area.
By far the best known study of the subject is John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. This is a work whose high standing is suggested by the regularity with which it is cited, and its analysis made use of, in Terrible Queer Creatures. Boswell was a historian for whom the scruples of Alan Bray in interpreting Christian funeral monuments, or James Davidson’s patience in reading Greek myths, were alike foreign as, with pleasing enthusiasm, he found gay people and gay subcultures in every corner of history he looked into. Brian Lacey’s first use of Boswell may suggest something of the timbre of the latter’s thought. This occurs in the context of comments attributed to the Greek geographer Strabo (first century AD) that the Celts “considered it a dishonour to decline a homosexual liaison”, and his near contemporary the historian Diodorus Siculus that they were “absolutely addicted to homosexual intercourse”. It is in this context that Brian Lacey quotes Boswell’s summary of a view expressed in Aristotle’s Politics, that the public honour given to “gay sexuality among the barbarians, particularly the Celts, had the effect of reducing attachment to wealth.” As this quotation – to which many more in a similar vein could be added – may suggest, Boswell engaged in a gay variant of Whig history, as figures not utterly unlike the inhabitants of the late twentieth century gay scene were discovered in settings ranging from ancient Rome to the monasteries and schools of the middle ages. For all his energy and enviable linguistic skills, Boswell brought a cloth ear to the reading of other cultures, as he undertook a blithe transhistorical use of the adjective “gay”, unrestrained by any sense of the strangeness or otherness of the past.
Boswell is at his most exasperating in the imposition of “gay” categories upon pre-modern societies that in their arrangements were, unofficially but functionally, bisexual. One suspects that, as in later times in armies, navies and prisons, the unavailability of young women, because of tight parental controls and unbending moral codes, must have underlain styles of behaviour which John Boswell characterises as gay, but seem more like opportunistic homosexuality by the heterosexually inclined. Thus, to take one example, during the seventy years between 1432, when the Office of the Night (Ufficiali di notte) was created to police sodomy in Florence, and 1502, 17,000 men in a city of only 40,000 inhabitants were investigated for sodomy; 3,000 were convicted and thousands more confessed to gain pardon. Because of the detailed records left by the Office of the Night, it has been estimated that in the late fifteenth century as many as one in two Florentine men had come to the attention of the authorities for sodomy by the time they were thirty. Whatever we make of these astonishing figures, and the needs and practices that they point to, it seems clear that we are faced with something other than a “gay” subculture. They seem to represent something considerably more central. Michael Rocke suggests that, although less thoroughly documented, because there were no equivalents elsewhere to the much derided Office of the Night, patterns similar to those in Florence were to be found in cities from Venice to Valencia.
One possible approach is to interpret what took place in the nighttime streets of these fifteenth century cities in functionalist terms as a form of displaced heterosexuality, by young men who had limited outlets during the long decade which preceded matrimony. This may be only partly true, as within all-male frameworks habits and conventions were established, sentiments cultivated and needs fulfilled that must have given meaning to the relationships involved. Thus, to choose one example, the contacts between older and younger monks in the Christian monasteries of late antiquity might initially appear as predatory and, if read in the spirit of Michel Foucault, power-focused. That, however, is not the view of one of the best known historians of the era. As seen by Peter Brown, the heavy injunctions of the monastic authorities against intimate relations across age groups “betray more than the perils of unfulfilled sexual longings: they are testimony to the poignant need of village boys to draw around themselves a little of the personal warmth associated with the crowded families from which they had come. They longed to re-create, within the monastery, a world of “easy laughing and playing with boys”. They would slip each other little presents, would wear their bandanas at a tilt, would call each other “father” and “son”.1
The weight of the evidence suggests that, until comparatively recently, there existed anthropologically discrete homosexualities rather than a single homosexual state; in place of the monochrome gay landscape proposed by John Boswell, we find a range of responses to, and ways of handling, male desire for the bodies of other males. Of these the most familiar, because reported on with scandalised but fascinated frequency by travellers to southern Europe in the early modern period, involved encounters between older and younger men – characteristically individuals in their mid-twenties with those in their late teens – of the kind we have seen taking place under cover of darkness in Florence. No doubt there existed a minority of individuals who we would now call homosexuals – that is to say who were predominantly attracted to their own sex – who were to be found in the eddies of that great bisexual sea, weaving their way through the backstreets of Florence and other libidinous cities. While the specific orientation of such individuals must have been noticed by those who had sexual dealings with them, such nuances within the overall category of sodomy left few traces. The claim that such individuals must have existed is not completely hypothetical. In his autobiography Before Night Falls, the poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) portrayed the Cuba of his youth as a place of avid, bisexual, youthful desire that was in many ways similar to Florence and other early modern cities. While we may suspect, it cannot be proved that there was any continuity between the kinds of behaviour which drew the attention of the law officers of these cities and that chronicled by Arenas in his Caribbean outcrop of Mediterranean Europe. Although persecuted by the Castro regime, the writer, who would have been a homosexual in any setting, thrived within this pan-male milieu and bitterly regretted when, towards the end of his life, it faded to be replaced by the narrower satisfactions of a gay scene.
Like researchers in other areas, those who attempt to trace the history of sexual desire are limited by the extent of their sources. Where homosexuality is concerned, this can prove particularly restricting, as is evident in some accounts of nineteenth and twentieth century gay life, which read like scrapbooks compiled from a mélange of police court records and theatrical clippings. Any attempt to escape from a vision of gay history as extending from Oscar Wilde, via Roger Casement, to Edwards and Mac Liammoir quickly comes up against the circumstance that more commonplace lives have left so few traces. Homosexual relations were at once passionate, or at least urgent, and – because not embodied in family, property, and genealogy – at the same time inconsequential. Compared to the massive importance of courtship and marriage, the means by which the human community ensured its continuity, the homosexual story, no matter how interesting, is likely to appear peripheral. Even if we allow for its existence, the gay scene which John Boswell finds everywhere seems more like a generational space than anything we might call a community. It was what young men did before they got married. Like everyone else, the minority who we would now call homosexual must have experienced the pressure to wed, in a society which amused itself by drawing up Skellig Lists or engaged in other forms of mockery of the unwed. Many must have yielded to this pressure, or disappeared into the priesthood or other celibate corners of the old Christian world. It was dowries, marriage, and all the business associated with raising families – that huge buzz of activity – together with the transmission of property across the generations that created records and left a paper trail. Those who did not experience “the ancient civic urge to pile up wealth, to gather kinsmen and to beget descendants”2 stand to one side of this great story and seem difficult to discern. Their world, it seemed, was as fragile and transitory as the Florentine encounters monitored and repressed – but not excessively – by the Office of the Night.
For anyone curious about the human past, the situation outlined above can only have seemed discouraging. And then, as recently as 2003, just as we thought we understood why there were so few traces of same sex desire in the historical record, along came Alan Bray to tell us that we had been asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places. In The Friend, published in that year, he argued that emotionally intense and socially consequential male-male bonding had left numerous, but hitherto overlooked or misinterpreted, markers in the church rituals and ornaments, kinship arrangements, and narratives of pre-seventeenth century Europe. The world uncovered in The Friend, a place of deeply serious, lifelong commitments, endorsed in ceremonies which replicated some of the sacramental language of marriage and symbolised in the shared graves in which the partners lay after death, seemed about as different as it was possible to imagine from the transitory attachments of Michael Rocke’s young Florentines. While Bray’s analysis does not readily lend itself to summary, in his essay “Mr and Mr and Mrs and Mrs” in the London Review of Books of June 2007, James Davidson provided a cogent analysis of the issues raised, together with an overview of the current state of knowledge. In Davidson’s view, “For very long periods, formal amatory unions, conjugal, elective and indissoluble, between two members of the same sex were made in Europe, publicly recognised and consecrated in churches through Christian ritual.”3 Although Alan Bray does not quite put it this way, the suspicion must be that many of those who chose to live and end their lives in this manner were what we would call homosexuals.
These friendship-based, ritually endorsed arrangements, which were found throughout Byzantine and Western Europe, had as their context other devices for creating kinship, most notably sponsorship in baptism. It is true that we do not know what was the outcome of these semi-sacramental bondings, and whether the men who went to church together, or lay in one grave under the heraldic devices of a married couple, also shared their bodies. Such is the subtlety of The Friend that it seems crass on our part to enquire, although James Davidson points to a famous incident recorded by Montaigne, involving a group of Portuguese men who in the late sixteenth century gathered at the church San Giovanni a Porta Latina in Rome to be married, after which they went to bed together. Although such indicators are strong they are also exceptional, and we know of them almost by accident (the unfortunate Portuguese men were burned alive). The silence of the sources is not surprising, and is indeed what might be expected given the sexual reticence of traditional societies. It is not only in the ceremonies for creating brotherhood that we find a discreet veil drawn over what happens afterwards; it would be possible to point to parallel examples, from Europe and elsewhere, in which the huge fuss of courtship was followed by silence regarding the consequences of all that eloquence. As historians such as Johan Huizinga have reminded us, medieval and early modern Europe spoke a more symbolic, and in many ways more oblique, language than our own. If, however, we strain our ears – or in this case eyes – we may be able to discern the meanings encoded in the shared gravestone (now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum) from the Dominican church in Constantinople, under which Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe were buried together in 1391, or, Ireland being in question, in the inscriptions memorialising Diceul and Maelodran in Delgany, Ultan and Dubthach in Termonfechin and Diarmait and Mac Cois in Glendalough. If the language in which they are cast is read sympathetically, the unions chronicled by Alan Bray can be seen as providing a frame for handling the variousness and untidiness of human desire while, by drawing on some of the central values of Christianity, pointing to a good beyond the individuals concerned.
Brian Lacy has certainly cast a wide net in Terrible Queer Creatures and assembled an impressive amount of evidence regarding the varieties of same sex desire over the centuries. For the majority of readers the most fascinating section of the book is likely to the discussion of indicators of homoerotic feeling in early and medieval Ireland. The material drawn on, which for most of us is likely to be unfamiliar, covers a large swathe of Irish writing from the Confession of Saint Patrick, via the lives of the saints and the penitentials of the early Irish church, to secular literature extending from the Táin bó Cuailnge to bardic poetry. Male behaviour in old Ireland emerges from Brian Lacey’s account as, in some ways at least, similar to that found in other parts of Europe. The penitentials, with their listings of specific acts, bear out – as we might expect – the old cliché that there is nothing new under the sun or between the sheets. The opportunistic use of the bodies of others, based upon differences of age and power, which is familiar elsewhere, can be glimpsed in the Brehon Laws’ listing of grounds on which a woman might divorce her husband with restitution of her dowry. These included, “a woman who is cheated of bed-rites so that her husband prefers to lie with the servant boys when it is not necessary for him to do so”.
The opening section of Terrible Queer Creatures includes a discussion of responsiveness to male beauty in early and middle Irish literature. Among the epiphanies singled out is Godfraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh’s evocation of the young god Lugh:
His face, his hair, his body,
key of choosing,
like blood and bronze,
and lime for whiteness
is the triad.
As Brian Lacey argues, moments such as these attest to the cultural value set upon male beauty in the society in which they were current, not only by men and women participants in the narratives but also by the writers. This tremor of excitement carried through to the nineteenth century when, as early Irish literature began to be translated into English in significant quantities, some among those who reworked the tales proved responsive to the male body in its moments of excitement and repose. We may find this, or at least suspect we do, in TW Rolleston’s elegiac musings on “the warriors of Erin in their famous generations” who slumber in Clonmacnoise.
Many and many a son of Conn the Hundred-fighter
In the red earth lies at rest;
Many a blue eye of Clan Colman the turf covers,
Many a swan white breast.4
Rolleston, who was described by Yeats as “a country clergyman’s daughter’s dream of a perfect gentleman,”5 was an admirer of Walt Whitman; not only did he promote Whitman, whom he translated into German, but he also corresponded with the great man. (In late Victorian times, a heightened interest in the American poet was often an indicator of homosexuality. Others on whose mental maps Whitman figured included Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde, Standish James O’Grady, John Eglinton and Edward Dowden, the first professor of English in Trinity.) Although for Standish O’Grady, Carlyle and the King James Bible may have loomed larger as stylistic models than Whitman, a discernable throb of longing infuses his portrait of the youthful hero in his retelling of the Táin Bó Cuailnge. Until the 1960s the climax of the epic, the reluctant fight to the death between Cuculain and his friend and foster brother Ferdia, as retold in O’Grady’s magnificently ramshackle prose, was a set text in the Irish Intermediate Certificate examination.
The episode, which is entitled “A Sundered Friendship”, begins with an account of how Cuculain, abandoned and in distress, “called upon all the Red Branch by name, lamenting loud, Laoghaire the Victorious, and Celtcar son of Uither, Fergus Mac Leada, Fachtna Mac Mathuna and his foster-brethren, sons of the High King, and Conall Cearnach, dearest of all, and his voice penetrated the starry night; for he cried out as a woman cries when the man whom she loves has forsaken her.” When, at dawn, the hero encounters his challenger at the ford, “Ferdia looked upon Cuculain, and Cuculain looked upon Ferdia. Then Cuculain blushed, and his neck and face above his temples waxed fiery red, and then paler than the white flower of the thorn …” The high rhetorical exchange between challenger and opponent which follows is marked by the play of memory and affection against the imperatives of the situation in which the young men find themselves. Cuculain enjoins his friend to turn back, recalling that “Beneath the same rug we slept, and sat together at the feast, and side by side we went into the red battle … grieving when either got hurt.” Ferdia rejects the appeal, invoking his own authority within the military pairing they once constituted, and tells Cuculain, “Once indeed thou was obedient to me, and served me, and polished my armour, and tied up my spears submissive to my commands. Therefore, go back; add not thy blood to the bloody stream.” To this Cuculain responds, “Once indeed I was obedient to thee, because I was younger than thee. Therefore I was then a servant unto thee, but not now; and which of us twain shall die I know; and it is thou, O Ferdia.”
For one of O’Grady’s education and background, who was steeped in the Greek and Latin classics – as indeed for many of his readers – the relationship between Cuculain and Ferdia must have evoked memories of those great warrior-lovers of antiquity, Virgil’s Nisus and Euryalus and Achilles and Petroculus in the Iliad. As the episode reaches its climax these memories give way to the analogy of Achilles and Hector, as the fierce conflict between the two men takes on the physical intimacy of a sexual encounter, with Ferdia’s great sword making havoc in Cuculain’s unarmoured flesh and Cuculain’s Gae Bolga plunging into the body of his friend. Those qualities of intimacy and ferocity, which O’Grady brought to his retelling, were evident to his early readers, to judge by Ernest Wallcousins’s painting Cuchulainn Carries Ferdiad Across the River. This focuses on a moment of renewed gentleness after the battle, when the war-demons have passed out of Cuculain and he “lamented and moaned over Ferdia”.6 Were it not that its subject is death, the painting has all the tenderness of a lovers’ tryst.
Although our detour into late Victorian readings of the early Irish corpus has taken us some distance from Terrible Queer Creatures, it serves to bring out the long resonance of the material surveyed in the opening section of Brian Lacey’s work. Unfortunately, to judge by the results, it was not possible to uncover the same wealth of evidence for later periods so that, after a fascinating start, for many readers much of the remainder of the book is likely to prove somewhat disappointing. As with so much else in Irish history, the shift in the nature of the evidence occurs with the arrival of the English. The sense in the opening chapters that we are close to the heartbeat of the society, that if only we could manage to interpret its sometimes elusive utterances we would understand much, gives way to a narrative based upon elite experiences, as the focus shifts from Irish and Latin sources to the perspectives of the island’s new rulers. A chapter on “English Kings and Laws” (Edward II and all that) takes us at a quick gallop through the later middle ages and before long we have arrived, with a chapter devoted to each, at the beheading of the Earl of Castlehaven for sodomy in 1631 and the hanging of John Atherton, Anglican Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, for the same offence in 1640.
The prominence of both men was due to the fact that they were leading members of the New English stratum, who obtained land or preferment in Ireland following the military reversals and confiscations of the seventeenth century. Mervyn Touchet, the Second Earl of Castlehaven, was born in England in 1593, to a father who had fought for Elizabeth at Kinsale and obtained large grants of land in Ulster following the plantation. Atherton, a protégé of Lord Deputy Wentworth, was born in Somerset in 1598 and ordained in the Church of England in 1619. He moved to Ireland around 1629. The prosecution of both men could be seen as a playing out of English preoccupations – anti-Catholicism in the case of Castlehaven and Puritan hatred of the Caroline church in that of Atherton – in an Irish setting. The sense of distance from local experience, and indeed of geographical distance, which attaches to these events is reinforced in the chapters immediately following. These concern Prince William and his page (William III of Orange and Hans William Bentinck) and Percy Jocelyn, Bishop of Clogher and son of the Earl of Roden. The bishop caused considerable merriment and provided English cartoonists with an irresistible subject when he was caught with his trousers down in the company of a soldier in the back room of a public house in Westminster in July 1822. Following a short detour to Australia and the United States, a chapter on priests and higher education focuses on the innocent lives of John Henry Newman and his companion Ambrose St John and on the chaste but troubled years passed in Dublin by Gerald Manley Hopkins. By this stage we are well into the nineteenth century and, as part of a medicalisation of sexuality, the creation of homosexuality as a category. The narrative thereafter, with accounts of Hugh Lane, Edward Martyn, Roger Casement and Patrick Pearse, takes us almost to within living memory. As with so much gay history, political and literary figures loom large.
The story told by Brian Lacey, extending from King Richard II to “Sodom and Begorrah” (the Gate and Abbey Theatres) is an interesting one and told well. It is hard, however, to escape the feeling that much of the narrative is peripheral to the lives of ordinary people, with the result that it seems likely to leave the reader less than satisfied as an account of same-sex relations in Irish history. Faced with such a narrow focus one wonders – and I suspect Brian Lacey has done so too – whether there is any way of circumventing the elite bias of the evidence so that we can peer somewhat more deeply into Irish society. Going back to the beginning of the story, we have seen Aristotle commenting on the reputation of the Celts, almost as soon as they arrive on the historical scene, for publicly honouring male-male coupling (“society”, “intercourse”). Six hundred and fifty years later they still had the same reputation. As the church historian Eusebius noted, “Young Celtic men were very prone to having sex with other men, even marrying each other, and since ‘it is not possible that all the men in Gaul who make godless assaults on each other do so because they happen to be born under the same astrological configurations’ it must be their law or custom which was at fault.” 7 To jump from the continental Celts to the Gaels of Ireland is a connection of a kind few have wished to make since the reputation of Sir James Frazer and his Golden Bough began to fade. And yet such a leap may be justified, to judge by the Topographica Hibernica written by Giraldus Cambrensis. In this work of the 1180s we find a description of Irish same-sex marriage practice that seems to belong to the same world as that described by Aristotle and Eusebius:
Under the appearance of piety and peace, they come together in some holy place with the man with whom they are eager to be united. First they join in covenants of spiritual brotherhood. Then they carry each other three times around the church. Then going into the church, before the altar and in the presence of relics of the saints, many oaths are made. Finally with a celebration of the mass and the prayers of the priests, they are joined indissolubly as if by a betrothal.8
Cambrensis, as an apologist for the Anglo-Norman incursion into the island, was no friend of the native Irish; in portraying, in the passage quoted above in part, the local practice for making a spiritual brotherhood, he assumed a knowledge on the part of his readers of rites and procedures which were normative throughout Catholic Europe, before showing these as reversed by the bloodthirsty Irish, with the betrothal quickly ending in divorce. It seems significant that – unless I have missed a reference in his densely argued Cambrensis Eversus – although in his seventeenth century refutation of Cambrensis John Lynch contradicted his medieval opponent at every point, he had nothing to say regarding these Irish betrothals. It seems likely that Lynch was silent because as a priest he was familiar with the ceremony, or at least had heard of it. In Alan Bray’s reading, if Cambrensis’s distorting angle of vision is discarded, the Irish ceremony emerges as of a kind with that practised elsewhere and possessed the eucharistic significance which attached to the swearing of brotherhoods in other parts of Europe. In this vision the saints, whose relics are near the altar, and Christ in the eucharist, are witnesses who will testify to the fidelity of the brothers to their oath following the resurrection of the dead.
A similar complex of symbolic and religious ideas underlay the practice of burying two men, who had led lives of unusual closeness, in a shared grave under a single gravestone. In its secular dimension this was a practice which had a number of Irish resonances. In Irish tradition it mattered who you were buried with, so that the great lovers, although separated by harsh exigencies of family, wealth, or in the case of Úna Bhán a self-imposed vow, are, in a recurrent motif, reunited after death. In the lore which surrounded Úna Bhán, perhaps the most passionate of the great love songs, although Tomás Láidir Coisdeala and Úna Nic Diarmada are buried in separate parts of the churchyard “there grew an ash tree out of Una’s grave and another tree out of the grave of Costello, and they inclined towards one another, and they did not cease from growing until the two tops were met and bent upon one another in the middle of the graveyard.”9 That where a person was buried mattered is suggested by a cluster of legends and songs which remained current until the first half of the twentieth century. These tell of a dispute, which sometimes came to blows, between two families over where a married woman is to be buried – whether she is to lie with her husband’s family or in a separate graveyard with her birth family.
The story of Tomás Láidir and Úna Bhán says that who a person is buried with tells us something about who they love, while the local legends affirm that where you lie is important because it defines your kin. These stories belong to the same world of feeling as we find in The Friend and could be seen as casting an oblique but powerful light on it. They do not explain the sworn brotherhoods, but belong to a society which made such arrangements possible. The same could be said for other areas of old Irish life such as the importance of godparents, “gossips”, fosterage, and followers of the family. As late as the nineteenth century the intensity of the bond that linked foster brothers, and its ability to cross divisions of social class, was remembered and commented on. That these stories and items of evidence concern men, women and their families should not surprise for, as is increasingly being realised, in looking for homosexuality in the early modern period we may be looking for the wrong thing. Permanent and formalised male-male bonding was part of a continuum of kinship arrangements, of which the most significant was the marriage of a man and a woman. In the most radical application of this hypothesis, it was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as social relations, including marriage, were transformed, and the old sacramental sense of the body as embedded in society and hung with meanings began to weaken, that the homosexual as an identifiable type emerged.
Two decades before the appearance of The Friend, Alan Bray published Homosexuality in Renaissance England. This short and elegant work, which attracted the praise of Hugh Trevor Roper, argued that until the seventeenth century sodomy was not thought of as an individual disposition but as a sin, like blasphemy and murder, to which all men were liable. Its menace to all Christians was, however, accompanied by a certain vagueness of definition. It belonged to the domain of nameless horror and, while embracing particular acts, was a potential for sexual confusion and disorder within all men and women. The distanced quality of the sin, its lack of connection with daily, lived experience, was reflected in the scarcity of prosecutions and the astonishment of those who occasionally found themselves charged with sodomy that their own commonplace, and apparently familiar, acts should be connected with this mythical disorder. At the centre of Bray’s analysis was a lack of connection between the high rhetoric condemning sodomy and what took place among apprentices, servants and travellers in the crowded sleeping quarters of Elizabethan and Stuart England. It was only as a result of immense changes in how human beings viewed the world, ushered in during the seventeenth century and extending from the new philosophy and the growing prestige of empirical science to the rise of the novel, that the sodomite – a potential everyman – faded from view to be replaced by a figure who we would now call homosexual. At the core of the change was the emergence of an individualised sexual identity.
The major indicator, the empirical verification as it were, of the changes chronicled in Homosexuality in Renaissance England is to be found in the emergence in the early eighteenth century, apparently for the first time, of networks, milieus and locales in major metropolitan centres such as London and Amsterdam, which can be seen as forerunners of the contemporary urban gay scene. We know of these, and can infer something regarding their novelty and how disturbing they were felt to be, from the assault on them, and determination to send their inhabitants to the stocks or the gallows, undertaken not only by law officers but by voluntary societies for the suppression of vice. At the heart of the story are the notorious “molly houses” and “sodomites’ walks” of early eighteenth century London, whose history has been chronicled by researchers such as Richard Norton and Richard Davenport-Hines. Although the story of the molly houses is largely one of persecution, recounted by enemies who no doubt foisted their own preoccupations upon them, they seem at times uncannily like twentieth century gay meeting places. Even more startlingly the voices which speak out of them – when occasionally they can be heard – use a language of individual choice whose intonations we can still recognise. So different were they from anything said previously, that Alan Bray was led to comment that before the seventeenth century such claims to individual autonomy would have been unthinkable and incomprehensible if uttered.
One of the factors which made possible the emergence of sexual sub-cultures in early eighteenth century London and Amsterdam must have been density of population. When we turn to the only Irish city in which such a development might be envisaged, while indicators are few, they are not completely absent. In the chapter devoted to morals in Edward MacLysaght’s Irish Life in the Seventeenth Century it seems possible to discern the older conception of sodomy as an inclusive term for the sexually disordered. In a discussion of female prostitution MacLysaght quoted John Stevens’s account of Dublin in 1689: “The women were so suitable to the times that they rather enticed men to lewdness than carried the least face of modesty, in so much that every corner of the town might be said to be a public stew. In fine, Dublin seemed to be a seminary of vice, and academy of luxury, or rather a sink of corruption and living emblem of Sodom.” MacLysaght went on to quote the opinion of Mr Justice Clodpole in 1688 that “Dublin was but the lesser Sodom but pure of Irish”. He glossed this as meaning that it was not, in Clodpole’s opinion, an Irish town. 10
There is one piece of evidence to suggest that by the first quarter of the eighteenth century the “lesser Sodom” of the 1680s had taken on a more specific profile, as generalised accusations of dissoluteness gave way to specifics regarding persons and acts. This was accompanied by a shift from a vision of Dublin as a stew, in which men and women participated and which was coterminous with the city, to a view of Sodom as located in a particular place and confined to male actors. The evidence is to be found in a collection of single page prose broadsheets – companion of the broadsheet ballad and like ballads the most ephemeral of forms – printed in Dublin at dates between 1706 and 1727. Amid the last speeches and dying words attributed to an assortment of young men hanged at Saint Stephen’s Green and Kilmainham, mostly for crimes against property, which make up the collection, a somewhat more unusual item is to be found. This bears the title A Full and True Account of the Discovering a Hell-Fire Club in this City and taking the four following Persons in the Act of Sodomy late Tuesday Night, at the Boot in Stephen-street, (Viz.) Mr. Lummock of Backlane, Mr. Mulrony, P. Sampson and N. Gore, some of whom made their escape, and how the L – k attempted to cut his Throat. The broadsheet was printed in Dublin by A Ward and would seem to date from around 1726.
Like other criminal broadsheets, the True and Full Account gives every appearance of being local and circumstantial. It recounts how the four individuals named, having spent the previous Tuesday drinking and playing shuffle board in a house in Stephen’s Green, were observed committing sodomitical practices, but were “not discovered”. On the following night they met by agreement at the sign of the Boar in Stephens Street where, in addition to pronouncing toasts to the devil and other wicked healths, “they drank pretty heartily and had a fiddler with them till it was pretty late”. Their mirth was interrupted by the landlord who, happening to come in unexpectedly, found Lummock in the act of buggering another member of the company. When the astonished publican realised what was going on he summoned the Watch, who apprehended Lummock and his companions and carried them off to the Black Dog. In a chilling detail, which suggests something of the horrors that awaited those convicted of sodomy, the broadsheet recounts that following his arrest Lummock attempted to cut his throat but was prevented. It adds that he had a past record and had previously used “his own apprentice in a very unhumane and most abominable manner”. It goes on to opine that “there are great numbers in this city who go on in their wicked practices undiscovered” and hopes that they will soon be brought to justice and suffer the same fate as the English sodomites lately executed at Tyburn.11
Could it be that, via this unhappy history, it is possible to discern the outlines of an early eighteenth century Dublin gay milieu? Although with its array of circumstantial evidence, the Full and True Account purports to be self-verifying, it is not without problems. The most obvious question is why, given that molly houses were fashioned to cater for a particular clientele, Lummock and his companions would have risked their lives in a place in which they had not previously established they would be welcome. It may be that the hope expressed in the broadsheet that Lummock and his friends would suffer the same fate as those recently executed at Tyburn provides a clue as to origin of the publication. In addition to producing local material, eighteenth century Dublin printers reprinted London criminal broadsheets. The collection in question material contains one such item, reprinted by the Dublin printer George Faulkner, which tells of the conviction of group of men for sodomy following their trial in London from April 20th to 23rd, 1726. The Full and True Account seems to draw upon elements of the Faulkner broadsheet, raising the possibility that the printer Ward concocted the Dublin event to produce a sensational item that would sell.
Even if the narrative in the True and Full Account accurately reflects something that took place one evening in 1726 in a public house in Stephens Street, its bearing on Irish experience may be limited. As Mr. Justice Clodpole observed in 1688, in conceding that Dublin was a lesser Sodom, the city was “pure of Irish”. Forty years later the country remained substantially Irish-speaking and it is far from clear that the majority, still immersed in Gaelic culture, would have found themselves at home in the company of Mr Lummock and his friends. While the evidence is fragmentary, it suggests that for country people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Dublin was associated with infectious diseases and invested with a sense of menace and estrangement. This is not surprising. Eric Hobsbawn has argued that throughout pre-industrial Europe the lower classes of major metropolitan centres – among which Dublin, dominated by the administrative apparatus of court and castle, together with its parliament, university, law courts, cathedrals, great landlord houses and packed tenements, can surely be included – had a parasitic relationship with the country people whose business brought them there. Whereas Cork and Galway were essentially market centres, which were seen by country people almost as extensions of the countryside, Dublin was too large and variegated to be experienced in these terms. Its dense physical and social fabric appears to have struck country visitors as alien and menacing and accordingly the stories which had the city as their focus differed significantly from the more benign adventures which befell visitors to Cork and Galway. Above all the city was perceived as a snare in which the unwary might be robbed while the careless might lose their virtue and the dissipated their health in its slums and brothels.
If we are to find homosexuality among the early modern Irish, it seems we must look outside Dublin. The indicators are, at first sight, not promising. Although the eccentricities of the Irish were noted, homosexuality did not – to the best of my knowledge – feature in the strongly negative discursive tradition, extending from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, whereby English and Anglo-Irish writers expressed themselves, frequently in tones of monotonous vituperation, on the faults of the native Irish. The latter were, to judge by James Anthony Froude’s The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, regarded as extravagantly heterosexual and a danger to the daughters of the new possessing class. In the “Irish Ideas” section of his history Froude portrayed a social stratum, characterised as “sons and grandsons of the old families, who had been dispossessed under the Act of Settlement”. As portrayed by him, these young gentlemen were intent on using their bodies to reverse the confiscations of the seventeenth century, being “in the habit of recovering equivalents for the lands of which they considered themselves to have been robbed, or of making their fortunes on easy terms, by carrying off young girls of good condition to the mountains, ravishing them with the most exquisite brutality, and then compelling them to go through a form of marriage …”12 To all appearances it is not among such Gaelic notables, or their high-spirited followers, or the keening women who at the end praised their actions, that we may expect to find traces of homosexuality.
Gaelic society conveys an impression of considerable male vitality. While such a claim is impressionistic, and of its nature open to challenge, the signs are everywhere. It can be seen in the exultant pleasure of young men in faction fighting, their delight in courage and in the display of their skills, and the frequently arbitrary, almost inconsequential, nature of the disputes which pitted one group against another. At a more peaceful level it can be seen in the popularity of football, hurling and wrestling, and the endless songs in both Irish and English praising outstanding sportsmen. It is present in the regular accounts, in the fictions of that society, of abductions, runaway marriages, and other stratagems by which young men attempted to circumvent the prohibitions placed by girls’ parents. It can be inferred from the well attested pleasure audiences took in listening to Fiannaíocht, a cycle of heroic tales which celebrated contest and the hunt, and which women were formally excluded from narrating. Reflecting on the persistence of Ossianic lays – a form of sung Fiannaíocht – in three of the four Irish provinces until the nineteenth century, Breandán Ó Madagáin attributed its popularity to “the listeners’ familiarity in their own lives with much of the material of the lays: life outdoors, heroic feats, martial exploits, evoked immediate response from rural folk, familiar with the rigours of sea-fishing or hunting, with a keen interest in physical and athletic feats, and whose own faction fighting often re-enacted all too realistically some of the bloody encounters of the lays. The sense of reality and immediacy were the basis of an additional culture-perpetuating function suggested by Séamas Fenton’s recollections of his youth in Kerry in the last [ie nineteenth] century, when “the Ossianic lays were ever quoted by the ancients in urging the youth to deeds of manliness and heroism … ”13
Until the Great Famine travellers’ reports speak of the Irish-speaking districts as pervaded by song. While we cannot make a direct transfer from the world of the songs to daily experience, to gain currency the songs must have reflected popular values and aspirations. The immense body of Irish love songs were driven by desire and orientated remorselessly towards marriage. Although the male voices we hear in these songs are intent on seduction – or at least persuading the girl to go somewhere they will be out of the reach of prying eyes – the songs insist that from a girl’s point of view sexual activity outside marriage is deeply unwise. They are filled with a sense of the precariousness of the position of young unmarried women; although the boy invariably wants the girl to open the door, their import is that it would be prudent for her to keep it closed. Although the occasions on which we can hear the voices of abandoned girls – Máire Áine Ní Dhonnchadha singing Dónall Óg, or Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin’s haunting rendering of Is Fada an Lá come to mind – include some of the best loved songs in the tradition, and are filled with tenderness and compassion, they assume as their context an implacable judgment on those who give their bodies outside marriage.14 These controls seem to have worked, at least in the sense that anyone who strayed was placed on the margin of society. As the Bishop of Ossory assured Alexis de Tocqueville in a conversation of July 1835, “Twenty years in the confessional have made me aware that misconduct of girls is very rare, and that of married women almost unknown. Public opinion, one might almost say, goes too far in this direction. A woman suspected is lost for life.”15 It should be added that nineteenth century Ireland, and no doubt earlier, seems to have been sexually demarcated in work and social arrangements; the number of places or occasions on which a young man might expect to meet a young woman were limited.
Given these constraints, the question arises of how “buachaillí óga ’n ghleann”16 (the young lads of the glen) – a group that strikes one as having its own agenda – responded? If the enquiry is whether they may have had recourse to male-male sex, it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to answer definitively. Print came late to the Irish language; most reflections about the world in Irish were either written in manuscripts designed for reading aloud, or are to be found in an orally transmitted corpus of tales, legends, proverbs and songs. In such a setting it seems unlikely that any explicit references to homoeroticism could get past the censorship of collective reception. As Roman Jakobson has argued, while a written work may initially be condemned, only for its merits to be to be discovered generations later, this is not possible in the case of orally transmitted works. “A writer,” Jakobson argues, “may create in opposition to his milieu, but in folklore such an intention is inconceivable.”17
While the above is disappointing, there are a few indicators which may point us in a more promising direction. One of the most fascinating sections of Terrible Queer Creatures is the discussion of a group of poems composed by Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa, chief poet to the Maguire lords of Fermanagh, at the end of the sixteenth and early years of the seventeenth centuries. The poems are examined in the light of a lecture, subsequently published, delivered in Dublin by the distinguished scholar James Carney in 1958. The lecture, whose subject was the Irish bardic poet, focused on Ó hEoghusa’s relationship with his Maguire patrons. As Brian Lacey points out, “Carney’s publication has intrigued many people. What exactly was he trying to say? According to him, Ó hEoghusa was the poet who most clearly exemplified the remarkable relationship between the poet as ‘wife or lover’ and his chieftain.” It was in the spirit suggested by this phrase that Ó hEoghusa praised the young Hugh Maguire (“that fair soft hand that took my love”), expressed jealousy when Hugh acted the “harlot” and rival poets made a “pillow” of him, and expressed anguish when separated from his patron (“my misery of mind is the measure of my love for his slim gentle body and the time I spent with him …I have no regret that I am beguiled like the women of Ireland – I part not from effeminacy, o bright coloured garnered ear of corn.”)
James Carney was careful to suggest that the concept of the “lover poet”, who insists on his right to share his lord’s bed and is widowed after his death, was a traditional conceit. This is surely, as Carney himself seems to have hinted, an argument with limited purchase. It is true that writing in Irish is a storehouse of standard formulae, tropes and themes; however these devices – including the image of the poet as wedded to the chief – can only have persisted if they had a meaning for the poet, his patron, and the wider audience for whom the poems were performed. Ó hEoghusa’s works are moreover – a quality echoed in James Clarence Mangan’s riveting translation of O’Hussey’s Ode to the Maguire – poems of considerable personal urgency. That urgency seems to have been reinforced by the background against which they were written, as the very survival of the world that gave Ó hEoghusa his raison d’être was called into question by mounting English military pressure on the tiny Irish kingdoms.
A certain diffidence is called for, as I have no familiarity with the Ó hEoghusa group of poems other than the discussion in Terrible Queer Creatures and Mangan’s extraordinary translation. It seems to me nonetheless that Brian Lacey’s speculation that the poet, and the group of men he addressed as his lovers, may have been homosexual, or even that one was the “boyfriend” of the other, is almost certainly misplaced. Ó hEoghusa can be thought of as playing with received ideas from within his culture but, as the poet-chieftain relationship was a central axis within Gaelic society, his dealings with them were not merely playful and they evidently possessed weight and meaning for him. It may be that these ideas, which involve one man entering, and subordinating himself to, the force field of another’s masculinity, were related to the poet assuming the female role of bestower of praise. Their meaning is at once charged and elusive.
Moving forward in time, and at a very different social level to Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa and his circle, it is occasionally possible to discern suggestive imaginings expressed through the language of legend and song. Among the supernatural creatures who inhabited the darkened Irish countryside was the Púca, a solitary horse-like creature of great strength, occasionally helpful but equally likely to be mischievous, associated with caves, gullies and remote rocky places. Unlike the members of the fairy host, who interacted with the vulnerable – women at childbirth, young children, the sickly and the disturbed – the Púca’s most frequent dealings were with males in rude good health. A widespread legend tells how he offers a young man out walking at night a ride on his back. Once the young man has mounted, the Púca takes him on a comfortless gallop through thorns, briars and across rivers, as the encounter develops into a struggle for dominance between the pair. The story concludes with the young man covered in sweat, exhausted but triumphant, having spent the night riding the creature which he has finally subdued.
It would no doubt be over-interpreting to impose a sexual meaning on this robust nighttime encounter. Other areas of the tradition have also needed shielding against misinterpretation. The present writer recalls, sometime in the 1960s, attending a concert by Seán Ó Riada and Ceoltóirí Chualann in the Great Hall of UCD. At one point Ó Riada introduced a piece called if I remember correctly, An Buachaill Caol Dubh (the slim, dark youth), explaining to nervous laughter that, appearances to the contrary, this was not a gay song and that the young man addressed so tenderly was a metaphor for the beer in the drinker’s glass. This, of course, was an accurate gloss; An Buachaill Caol Dubh is a drinking and not a love song. Metaphor, however, reveals what is conceivable, in this case that the pleasurable object which is to be consumed can be conceived of as the body of an attractive youth. The setting itself had an erotic dimension, as the male voices we hear in Irish love songs are frequently intent on persuading the girl to accompany them either to the green wood or the ale house. The transformation of beer into a young man’s body thus took place in a setting appropriate to such imaginings.
Some idea of how the combative, slightly predatory cast of mind underlying the Púca legends and the drinking song might show itself in daily experience is suggested by an episode in William Carleton’s The Poor Scholar. This takes place when the hero of the tale, a “mild” and “gentle” youth, “fair and interesting to look upon”, has travelled south from his native Ulster in search of a classical education. As the author explains, it was the practice of such wanderers, once they had found a suitable school in Munster, to lodge in the homes of fellow students. At the end of his first day at the school, two young men disagree sharply over whose house the poor scholar will spend the night in. This was a scene of a kind Carleton was at his most accomplished in depicting, as the two antagonists exchange a mounting cascade of semi-ritual insults before finally coming to blows. At one point one of the pair demands, “Let him say whether he’s able to fight me like a man or not. That’s the chat.” To this an onlooker comments derisively, “Don’t we know the white hen’s in you. Didn’t Barney Murtagh cow you at the black-pool, on Thursday last, whin we wor bathin’?” This is followed by a challenge by the young man’s rival for him to peel off and fight. The challenger is confident in his victory, asserting, “I’ll make the dacent strange boy walk home wid me over your body – that is, if he’d not be afraid to dirty his feet.” 18
What took place between the young men when swimming at the black-pool is not clear, though it seems that the masculinity of one has been impugned as – in place of the male self-image of challenger to the horse-like Púca – he has been consigned to the female realm of cows and hens. Throughout the altercation the poor scholar stands by, passive and virginal, the unmoving object of the young men’s enthusiastic attentions. As in the many orally transmitted legends concerning poor scholars, the virginity of Carleton’s hero is communicated rather than stated. It is most clearly implied in the almost feminine delicacy of his appearance. He is addressed as “a bouchal dhas” and is described as “the bouchal dhas oge” with a “mild, clear countenance”19. If what takes place is not a scene of sexual rivalry it is easy to imagine that in different circumstances it could readily become so.
The quarrel in The Poor Scholar is essentially over sleeping arrangements. In Homosexuality in Renaissance England it was the close and unstructured sleeping arrangements of Elizabethan and Stuart times that facilitated sexual contact between men. Comparable conditions continued in Ireland until well into the nineteenth century. This was a world in which a fiddler, who provided music for a farmer’s family, was told “you had better sleep with Rody” (one of the sons of the house), while at the end of an evening of story-telling and talk a wandering old soldier departs to spend the night in the barn with the young men of the house.20 Travelling linen hacklers and beetlers were also associated with the pleasures of sociability, with, in the words of the song, “ól is aiteas, spóirt agus imirt, / Agus cead a dhul a chodladh le mac fhir a’ tí” (drink and merriment, sport and recreation/ And free to go asleep with the son of the house21). These arrangements were reflected at the level of popular speech. In his diary entry for April 16th, 1832, the Kilkenny-based schoolteacher and merchant Amhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin listed a number of expressions relating to having an itch. These included “Meanadh leapan i tochas id ucht” (An itch in the breast means that you will have a companion in bed22.) An itch implies something to be appeased, while the noun chaomhnaí, although applicable to both sexes, is translated in Dineen’s Dictionary as companion, attendant, friend, protector, suggesting that the itcher’s bedmate may be a fellow male.
These habits persisted. They can be glimpsed in the figure of Rev Francis Sylvester Mahony (Father Prout), the “bookish scholarly flâneur, loitering through life by preference in continental cities” who, when visited in Paris by William Allingham, had a “young Paddy from Cork” sleeping in the corner of his apartment.23 TP O’Connor recalled Frank Hugh O’Donnell, who had been a fellow student with him in the Queen’s College in Galway, as a self-confident adventurer. His young contemporary, he wrote, “had a handsome but very provocative physique and manner. A great athlete with a powerful frame, he rather provoked criticism by the manner in which he pushed out his chest.” O’Connor went on to tell how O’Donnell “followed me to London, and, after the manner of Irishmen, who are usually good to each other, I gave him a share of my bed and my two small rooms … ”24
The groups that shared their sleeping quarters could also be surprisingly explicit, and frequent, in statements noting and responding to male beauty. These could range from the note of brisk reassurance which marked Charles Gavan Duffy’s first meeting with John Blake Dillon (“frank and manly in bearing”) to the slight, but revealing, frisson of fear in the response of the lonely William Allingham to a gypsy he saw at Lymington fair (“gypsy young man lithe and tall, wonderful handsome animal, a black panther – and about as trustworthy”)25. Sentiments of this kind find their way into Thomas Francis Meagher’s account of his part in the rising of 1848. As Meagher discovered, leading a revolution was more demanding than speech-making and, as the student lawyer was no Garibaldi, his reminiscences are marked by a sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer flood of events, which he found impossible to control or direct. His sense of relief is thus palpable when he sees “a tall, robust, gallant-looking fellow, mounted on a strong black horse, coming at full speed towards us.” It is immediately evident that the newcomer, the future Fenian chief John O’Mahony, is a born leader. What is striking is the degree to which Meagher’s response to this “true leader for the generous, passionate, intrepid peasantry of the South” has its focus in the young man’s body. This radiates reassurance:
His broad, square frame; his frank, gay fearless look; the warm forcible, headlong earnestness of his manner; the quickness and elasticity of his movements, the rapid glances of his full clear eye; the proud bearing of his head; everything about him, struck us with a brilliant and exciting effect, as he threw himself from the saddle, and, tossing the bridle on one arm, hastened to meet and welcome us.26
To underline the obvious, in a world of shared agricultural labour and the rough and tumble of group sport, or the shared intensities of college life, it was possible for young men to be physically intimate with each other in a completely non-sexual way. It was equally possible for them to notice, and even admire, each other’s bodies, while remaining sexually indifferent. As Richard Davenport-Hines has wisely observed, “Some men are ravenous for other men’s bodies, feeling an insatiable need to possess or be consumed; some men feel sexual curiosity about other men’s bodies; some men take other men’s bodies as an occasional casual pleasure that is almost autoerotic; some men admire the grace and power of the male form without erotic stirrings …”27 Thus the fact that men slept together does not mean that anything happened under cover of darkness; while in the majority of cases such shared arrangements must have passed off uneventfully, they nonetheless created a setting for the curious, the opportunistic, or the frustrated.
The seventeenth century Irish were unimpressed by their conquerors, finding “the dull, plodding, plunderer, Shaun Bui” deficient in physical attractiveness and mental resource. As students a generation ago preparing to sit the Leaving Certificate examination learned – without perhaps fully understanding – Ireland’s subjection by England was conceived of by poets such as Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin and Piaras Mac Gearailt as a violent and disagreeable bedding. In a vision of immense resonance the feminised victim, imagined as a creature of almost ethereal loveliness, was seen as separated from her true spouse and reduced to the condition of camp follower of the usurping Yellow John. It is tempting to see the accusation of homosexuality against the English in Ireland as a footnote to this cluster of sexualised imagery, and as validating the view that “the cold-hearted Sassenagh, Shaun Bui” was an unfit bed mate for the “fragrant” and “golden haired” Erin.28 There was no doubt considerable opportunism in the levelling of this charge, and it is important not to overstate the significance of an accusation which was at best a detail within a much longer charge sheet. While intermittent, it nonetheless surfaced with sufficient consistency to suggest that this may have been a commonplace in the Irish perception of the English.
The themes we have touched on find expression via an underlying contrast between native high spirits, aggression and physical grace and the (imputed) deficient masculinity of the new ruling class. We can glimpse something of the forces at play in the fantastical life of the nineteenth century Ballinascreen sportsman Hudy McGuigan. This figure, who combined the role of local entertainer with elements of Faust, Don Quixote, Baron Munchausen and Fionn Mac Cumhail, attained a local fame in the early decades of the century as an athlete and for his extraordinary rapport with animals, daring and skill as a horseman, and a variety of extraordinary feats including, on one famous occasion, an attempt to fly. One of the most striking aspects of Hugh Harkin’s mock-heroic biography of McGuigan, a work at once ironic – for Hudy’s slightly crazy virtues are clearly no longer functional – and deeply admiring, is his hero’s ease in his own body and delight in the exercise of physical prowess and skill. He is “a young man of the finest form and dimensions”, possessed of “manly beauty … fine liniments and proportions … [and] extraordinary muscular power” that is “deeply gratifying to the eye of every beholder.”29 John O’Donovan, who met the aging Hudy when he travelled through Derry in 1834, described the Draperstown of that time as a strongly Irish-speaking district where “the children play, think and box in Irish”.30 Harkin, for his part, was careful to locate Hudy historically, tracing the declining fortunes of the McGuigan family to “the melancholy extinction of the feudal power in Ulster, during the ruthless reign of the red haired woman”, when “mildew passed across the face of the nation … the O’s and Mac’s were the marked objects of vengeful rapacity, and the chief of the sept M’Guigan fell a victim to his own unbending patriotism”. In this perspective Hudy might be seen as the embodiment of an archaic Gaelic maleness, having as its focus a cluster of values and practices including family and hereditary, aggression and intense game-centred competitiveness, tricks of skill and cudgel fighting, ability to control animals, love of fame, fluency in bestowing praise and pleasure in its receipt, and an unproblematic delight in male beauty.
Hugh Harkin’s evident admiration for his subject is linked to the manner in which he stands for “the tenaciously preserved manners, customs, morals, and matters of still deeper vitality [belonging] to our own country”. Hudy’s defense of the old Gaelic world is not confined to its heroic aspect and also embraced the spiritual, touching on some of the deepest values of the peasant class to which he belonged. Although an accomplished sportsman, whose company is courted by local landowners, he keeps his distance and emerges at times as explicitly and articulately hostile to their values. This is particularly in evidence when, having performed one of his spectacular feats (he leaps naked over Lord O’N – ’s pavilion), Hudy addresses the gentry with “bland courtesy”. When, however, one of their number, Lord C – n, tries to patronise him, this gives way to verbal aggression, as he administers a stylish tongue-lashing to his interlocutor for his lack of charity to the poor. What Hudy says directly to Lord C – ’s face is elsewhere articulated indirectly in nineteenth century Irish writing – as in the scene involving the Major and the half-starved mowers in Carleton’s The Poor Scholar – or after the gentry have left the stage. Hudy can state his mind with unusual clarity, because he is a privileged figure on account of his skills and because he can look after himself in a fight with the gentry’s underlings.
Hudy McGuigan embodies qualities which were present in old Irish society, but which filtered through the mind of a “quarter clift” – one who while not insane is not wholly sane either – have been carried to an unusual degree of intensity. If he had not acted out qualities of which that society approved it is difficult to believe that he would have become a local hero, or would have entered the oral tradition of County Derry as the protagonist of legends that were still told in the twentieth century. Hugh Harkin’s take on him is, stylistically speaking, mock-heroic, but it is mockery of a most unusual kind in that the biographer regards his subject as a genuine hero. In a revealing formulation, Hudy is placed in opposition to the “degeneracy” of the present age, which has ceased to aim at “vigour either of body or mind” and aspires to “nothing beyond ignoble ease or slothful effeminacy”.
The story’s critique of effeminacy becomes explicit when, during the course of a dance, Hudy calls for the fiddlers to play Maggy Pickins and commences a song written to the air. His performance is interrupted by “an officious namby-pamby young gentleman, with rich golden curls floating about his ears, and dressed in the extreme of fashion” who objects, “you may not be aware of the nature of the request you have made – I have heard songs to that tune which contain very objectionable matter, being interspersed not only with double-entendres, but coarse, vulgar, undisguised obscenity.” Hudy responds to this provocation with withering scorn, in a performance which combines mock politeness with aggression, before going on to sing eight verses of the song. The latter is not bereft of sexual politics, being a satire at the expense of a proud farmer’s daughter, who has the pick of young men to choose from, but is in no hurry to marry:
Norah Murphy, up the glen,
Hates – naboclish – all the men,
She cocks a saucy cap – but then
Whistle o’er the lave o’t.
Nora had a sweetheart thrue,
Sthrappin’ Rory Oge M’Heugh,
But Nora’s tongue was glib, and – whew!
Whistle ye the lave o’t.
It may be that Hugh Harkin was able to celebrate Hudy McGuigan in such unambiguous terms because his hero was already an outdated figure, who stood in an innocent relationship to the ensemble of values and customs which governed his life. Although not lacking in sophistication, Hudy is a child with a man’s body, who seems to have been bereft of an adult sexuality. It is thus striking that the most tender relationship he enters into in the tale – apart from that with his mother and his mare Sheela – should be with “a young man from the South of Ireland”. This stranger is a traditional figure, who has travelled north in search of Latin and Greek in a local and “justly celebrated classical seminary”. Hudy’s relationship with the youthful classicist in some ways replicates, while reversing, the relationship he possesses with the animal kingdom. Among Hudy’s “powers” is “influence over cows and bulls, as well as dogs and horses; the last two tribes being long known as passive slaves to his will”. The young stranger for his part, in addition to being well built, of “bold port and active habits”, has “an eye to fascinate, to threaten, or command – a smile to win the heart of all beholders, and a brow whose frown ensured submission”. The pair are drawn to each other – with feelings on Hudy’s side which approach “adoration” – through a shared passion for “all the sports of the peasantry”. Although the young man goes by the name Richard Keating, “in our hero’s phrase he was distinguished by the more familiar and endearing title of ‘Dick darling’.” Hudy “loved Keating – he really could not tell why; although we are inclined to opine, that it was because he had found a master spirit that could draw him out and mould him to its purposes … Thus, he loved him because he loved him; and, though he had a kindness for many, yet his affection, his strong, deep, deep concentrated affection, like woman’s first love …. was reserved for one alone.”
Hugh Harkin was a generation younger than his subject and, although he may have met Hudy, he is unlikely to have witnessed many of the feats on which he reported. He must have been, in part at least, dependent on what he heard, so that while at times his style borders on the baroque, his narrative had its basis in the plain speech of the oral tradition of County Derry of the pre-famine period. Harkin’s account of his hero’s relationship with the young Corkman represents unfamiliar territory and marks, in its hints of psychological complexity, a break with the legendary. How it might have developed is unclear, for the narrative breaks off at this point or, if completed, does not appear to have survived. The concluding episode remains thus a tantalising fragment.
Hudy’s dispute with the “namby-pamby young gentleman” is a complaint about anglicisation in the guise of comments regarding the effects of education and the acquisition of standard English. In Hudy’s view schooling is deracinating and inauthentic. It is in this spirit that he enquires of his opponent, in terms heavy with sarcasm, “What school are ye at, aroon? Faix I see ye have got some useful larnin’, an’ dacent too! Augh, it’s yerself’s the apt scholar; yer master has raison to be proud of ye!”31 As is well known, mass primary education delivered in English, even in districts which were predominantly Irish speaking, was among the most far-reaching changes introduced by the British administration in nineteenth century Ireland. Schooling was widely availed of and its benefits appreciated by generations of Irish parents, while the cultural transformation that was part of the process seems to have been accepted as inevitable. It is occasionally possible to detect, however, alongside the mixture of passivity and realism which marked the dealings of Irish society with the Victorian educational system, a note of muffled resentment at what was being done. The Donegal tradition-bearer Hugh Dorian was intensely aware of ideological dimension of the new arrangements and of their lack of consonance with the habits and sympathies of the society into which the schoolmaster was intruded. In his reminiscences Dorian recalled one such figure:
The poor easily imposed-upon people were led to believe that the new teacher was possessed of every superior qualification. In his deportment he was ladylike, aimed at refinement, spoke nothing but English of the hardest coin and soundest metal, changed his Irish surname into an English [one] having a similarity of meaning; dressed himself in garb, half cleric, half lay, wore and took great care to expose to the best advantage a large white breast of linen platted into many folds to the style in fashion with only a few of the aristocratic then, and so careful was he of himself and his outfit that his polished boots needed no brush from Sunday to Sunday.
The link which Hugh Dorian perceived between effeminacy and anglicisation, and which he insisted on so emphatically in the case of the ladylike new teacher, was not because of the young man’s ethnic origin, but because his heart was in the business. Others whose motives were purely mercenary, and who had signed up to aspects of the Victorian project without actually believing in what they were doing escaped the imputation of effeminacy and continued to be seen as bearers of a robust native maleness. Among the most divisive and unpopular in the nineteenth century countryside were “Irish teachers” – Irish speakers who had converted to Protestantism and been engaged by evangelical societies to forward the work of conversion. In Dorian’s account of a number of such figures, the fact that their principal interest was eating and drinking emerges as a point in their favour. Some, he noted, “were dashing young blades but change coat as they might, they could not change the accent and manners of Clare and Kerry boys, fond of dancing music and games…” Dorian’s judgment on “these jovial fellows” was echoed by his neighbours, who commented, “damn his body! and a fine young man he is, pity his belly deceived him” and “would it not be a nice thing for him to ‘list in the so’jers.” 32
In 1889, when he embarked on his reminiscences, Hugh Dorian was an obscure clerk whose work was not destined to be published during his own lifetime. Perceptions of the kind that linked him and the eccentric Hudy McGuigan were to be found at more respectable levels in Irish society. They surface for example in the letter of December 1884 from Archbishop Croke of Cashel, accepting the role of patron of the Gaelic Athletic Association. His letter, known as the Charter of the GAA, declared that:
If we continue travelling for the next score years in the same direction that we have been doing for some time past, condemning the sports that were practised by our forefathers, effacing our national features as if we were ashamed of them, and putting on, with England’s stuffs and broadcloths, her masher habits and such other effeminate follies as she may recommend, we had better at once, and publicly, adjure our nationality, clap our hands for joy at the sight of the Union Jack and place “England’s bloody red” exultantly above the green.33
The link between the homosexual and the foreign was made with particular force in a work already mentioned, John Lynch’s Cambrensis Eversus, published in Latin in St Malo in 1662. This was a sustained attack on the truthfulness and accuracy of the writings on Ireland of Norman-Welsh topographer Giraldus Cambrensis. Lynch’s attempt “to refute, in detail, the calumnies of Cambrensis against my countrymen”, thus undermining his claim to be considered an authority on Ireland, was undertaken in exile following the victory of Cromwell’s armies in the 1650s. His polemic gained a particular edge as he saw Cambrensis as the source of a malevolent discursive tradition, to which the long-standing charge of Irish barbarism could be traced; his opponent, in Lynch’s view, was one whose fantastical accusations had not only escaped scrutiny, but had been repeated and embellished by “a herd of scribblers”. Among the charges Lynch was intent on rebutting was the claim that the Irish, plunged into “sensualism and unnatural crimes”, were given to bestiality, incest and adultery. It was in this context that the topic of sodomy came into view. In what was to become a familiar line of argument, Lynch argued that these “disorders” had not hitherto existed in Ireland and had been “introduced with the foreign luxury of the conquerors”. Evidence for Irish ignorance was to be found in the fact that no law existed against them before the buggery law, passed by the overwhelmingly English-dominated Dublin parliament of 1634. Lynch went on to link this law with the disgraced Bishop Atherton. “A novel crime,” he argued, “and unheard of hitherto in Ireland, was that unnatural lust, not the growth of our soil, but an exotic first imported here by John Atherton, Anglican Protestant Bishop of Waterford.” In an elegant piece of irony he noted that such was the zeal of the bishop for “repressing lust”, he had been responsible for the “law which made sodomy a capital crime; but he was himself caught in the snare which he had laid for others. He was the first person committed of having violated his own law, and was executed for the offence.”34
It seems unlikely that an argument with such potential for embarrassing one’s enemies ceased to be availed of once pioneered by John Lynch. If so its traces have largely vanished from view in the period between Cambrensis Eversus and the late nineteenth century. While interest in the topic did not disappear, it seems to have found its chief focus in those whose mannerisms and oddities proclaimed them as unfit for marriage. Among these was Jacky Barrett, a late eighteenth century fellow of Trinity College Dublin, whose “coenobitical habits” and general eccentricity earned him a place in the folklore of the city. Jacky was famed for his reclusiveness, never venturing beyond the walls of the College except “to dine with a gentleman of the Irish Bar, to whom he was much attached, but always on the express condition that there should be no ladies present.”35 Effeminacy, the most unmistakable if not invariably the most accurate of markers, was particularly commented on. Among late eighteenth century notables, we hear of Lord Miltoun “of effeminate memory”, who “in his earlier days [was] much attracted to balls and card parties, the only intercourse he was ever supposed to hold with the ladies, to whom he served as a constant butt for ridicule”. Another such figure was the narcissistic Talbot Edgeworth, who spent all his money on clothes and wished only to be looked at. It was reported of him that, “With regard to the female world his common phrase was ‘They may look and die.’ In short he justly became the contempt of the men and the jest of the women.” 36
During the late nineteenth century struggle for land reform, when relations between the local Irish leadership and the Dublin Castle administration were particularly fraught, the accusation of effeminacy/sodomy was wielded with partisan zeal by leading figures of the Irish parliamentary party. In Terrible Queer Creatures Brian Lacey devotes a chapter to the best known of these episodes, the Dublin Castle scandal of the mid-1880s. This was precipitated by charges made by Tim Healy in William O’Brien’s newspaper United Irishman against County Inspector James Ellis French of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Gustavus Cornwall, Secretary of the General Post Office. Although both men sued the newspaper, French backed off, aware that O’Brien and Healy had information from within the force that he was sexually involved with young police officers. Cornwall, whose nerves were stronger, pressed on with his libel action, which he lost. The criminal trial which followed, in which he was charged with buggery and conspiracy to corrupt young men, revealed, in addition to the existence of three male brothels in the city, a network of sexual connections, linking senior figures in the British administration in Dublin with an assortment of considerably more socially modest figures. (Two of the brothels were in the city centre, in Great Ship Street and Golden Lane, while the third was located behind a shop owned by a Quaker businessman on the Lower Rathmines Road. All were close to military barracks.) One aspect of the milieu which the trial brought to light and which particularly struck contemporaries was its cross-class basis. It was, as described by William O’Brien, “a criminal confederacy, which … included men of all ranks, classes, professions and outlawries, from aristocrats of the highest fashion to outcasts of the most loathsome dens”.37 In Dublin, as elsewhere in Europe at the same time, sexual desire fulfilled its familiar role of eroding boundaries, bringing men of different religions, ethnic backgrounds, and social classes briefly together.
O’Brien fought his corner with the ferocity of a man who had everything to lose. His newspaper, which was the main Parnellite organ during a bitter struggle with the coercionist regime of Lord Lieutenant Spencer, was immensely popular. As a contemporary recalled, “Lord Spencer struck with the Coercion Act and Mr. O’Brien with his pen, and thus Mr. O’Brien advanced to be one of the most powerful and popular figures in the country. Every word of his articles was read with feverish interest and with an immediate response.”38 His assault on Cornwall and his associates was thus a form of public pedagogy, which can only have reinforced a complex of associations linking homosexuality with the foreign and the depraved. O’Brien’s courtroom victory was greeted with bands and bonfires, with local newspapers united in condemning the activities and tastes of the defeated party. In a trope which would not have seemed out of place in Cambrensis Eversus, the delinquents were described by the Dublin Evening Telegraph, one of the city’s leading newspapers, as “contaminating the running stream of Irish moral purity by stirring up the sink of pollution implanted by foreign hands”.
Brian Lacey finds the treatment meted out to the Dublin Castle officials distasteful, characterising their chief tormentor, William O’Brien, as a “right-wing Irishman” and quoting without dissent an assessment of him as a “pure fanatic”. This seems unfair to O’Brien, whose biography reveals him to have been a liberal and civilised man. Although in the 1880s he found himself engaged in a bitter struggle with Irish landlordism, once victory was assured he wished to see former landlords retain a role in society as gentlemen farmers, while as founder of the All For Ireland League he sought to minimise differences between nationalism and unionism, arguing that a Protestant ascendancy should not be replaced by a Catholic one. He may, moreover, have been more relaxed in his sexual views than might be inferred from his denunciations of Cornwall and French. It is suggestive that his Jewish wife, Sophie, was the sister of André Raffalovich who, in 1892 replaced Oscar Wilde as lover and patron of the young poet John Gray. There is evidence that O’Brien’s chief associate, Tim Healy, was privately offhand to the point of being blasé regarding the moral aspects of the affair.39 This disposition seems to have persisted, with The Irish Times in January 1910 characterising O’Brien and Healy as “eloquent advocates of political and religious toleration”.40 It is not, of course, possible to read across directly from political and religious to sexual toleration, and it is probably the case that whatever reservations both men felt were put to one side during the course of a fierce struggle, in which Cornwall acted as a surrogate for Spencer.
O’Brien and Healy’s assault on what they presented as a homosexual clique linked to Dublin Castle may be seen as a piece of opportunism by men who were prepared to use any weapon that came to hand. When writing in United Ireland in June 1884, O’Brien evoked the familiar shades of Irish violence to argue that, compared to the unsurpassed dreadfulness of French and Cornwell, the misdeeds of the Moonlighters and Invincibles were “comparatively venial”, he was making a political rather than a moral point. It was in the same spirit, and as part of a larger politico-legal indictment that, writing anonymously in United Ireland, Healy suggested that Spencer, having “shielded criminals, rewarded scoundrels, and hung innocent men”, should be raised a step in the peerage, “with the appropriate title of Duke of Sodom and Gomorrah.”41
The rhetorical habits evident in the Dublin Castle affair resurfaced later in the decade, when Arthur James Balfour was appointed by his uncle, the prime minister Lord Salisbury, as Chief Secretary for Ireland. As a student in Cambridge Balfour had been something of a fop, notable for his fondness for velvet and blue china, and had earned the nicknames “Miss Balfour” and “Pretty Fanny”. He brought his mannerisms with him into the House of Commons, where he was described by one opponent as having a “limp bearing and a limp voice” and as having a neck as “long, narrow, and as thin as that of a delicate girl”. Irish parliamentarians were unlikely to pass by the temptation represented by this languid and epicene figure, whose appointment they greeted with “mocking laughter” and whom they derided as a “scented popinjay”, a “palsied masher”, “Tiger Lily”, “Clara”, and “Niminy Piminy”. This assessment proved to be ill-judged as Balfour, who in the view of his biographer shared his uncle’s disdain for the Irish, proved a tough and unbending opponent. William O’Brien soon found himself in jail, while the Chief Secretary was quickly re-christened “Bloody Balfour”. 42
The attacks on Cornwall and French were part of a larger political strategy, while the insults directed at Balfour have about them an air of routine play-acting. In neither case does one form the impression that those directing the attacks had any deep involvement in the sexual dimension of the dispute. This was not so in the case with another prominent Irishman, TP O’Connor, the editor of the Weekly Sun and nationalist member of parliament for Liverpool’s Scotland Division, where from 1885 to his death in 1929 he received the support of the city’s large Irish population. O’Connor emerges in his memoirs, written late in life, as a practised observer of the political scene and, to judge by his sketches of contemporaries, reflective and insightful in assessing the character of others. As a newspaper editor he was nothing if not eclectic, combining a diet of international news and Westminster politics with metropolitan scandals, spectacular deaths, the proceedings of the divorce courts, theatre news, sport and items of interest to women readers. Although this formula proved commercially successful, its worldliness was sufficiently offensive to the Irish Irelander DP Moran for him to ban O’Connor’s publications from his home. There was certainly a notable absence of religious material in his newspapers, while his religious views have been characterised as vague.43 As the representative of a working class constituency, he positioned himself on the radical, but non-socialist, wing of Westminster politics.
O’Connor was a cultivated man, who read in the original in French and German. The interests of the editor, which were reflected in the literary pages of the Weekly Sun, sat oddly alongside the “bright and genial personal gossip” which made up the remainder of the newspaper. As a reader O’Connor was ill at ease with developments in French literature in the wake of Baudelaire and what he saw as the infiltration of a French spirit into writing in English in the 1890s. With regard to Ireland he shared the widespread desire for a literature which would be hospitable to local realities and with which the Irish common reader could feel at ease. Such a literature, the Sun believed, should recall “the genius and virility of the ancient Celtic literature” and “must look for its models and inspiration to the work which appealed to the nation in its youthful vigour”. 44 Although the editor of the Sun was evidently well disposed to WB Yeats, his dealings with the poet were marked by a recurrent note of mild disappointment, and it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that where Yeats was concerned O’Connor was missing the point. His cultural politics were perhaps most clearly signalled by the enthusiasm with which he greeted Max Nordau’s Degeneration following its publication 1892. This was a stern polemic against unwholesomeness in life and art, with huge swathes of late nineteenth century culture, extending from Whitman and the Pre-Raphaelites to Wagner, Nietzsche and Ibsen, rebuked for their enervation, nervous exhaustion and egotism. In O’Connor’s view these strictures against fin-de-siècle decadence were thoroughly justified.
Oscar Wilde figured prominently among Nordau’s targets, with the doctrines of art for art’s sake and of life imitating art deplored for what the pioneer Zionist author perceived as an arrogant and self-indulgent irrationalism. Nordau’s strictures against Wilde’s “hysterical longing to make a sensation” and “malevolent mania for contradiction” were accompanied by the broadest of hints regarding his sexuality, presented in terms of admiration for immorality, sin and crime.45 This was an assessment which was shared by O’Connor who, in the years leading up to Wilde’s trial, took a keen if negative interest in the work of his fellow countryman. Salome, whose felicities he was quick to claim came from a stock of exotic goods pioneered by Huysmans, was experienced as a particular provocation. In his view, any reader familiar with Wilde’s master would be able to construct one of the catalogues of exotica which littered the play “with his eyes shut; the chrysolites, the beryls, the chrysoprases, the rubies, the fans made of parrot-feathers from the King of the Indies, the rolls of ostrich plumes from the King of Numidia, the crystals which women are not allowed to see, and into which even young men may not look until after they have been whipped with rods, and the other remarkable things which no decadent hero’s wardrobe is complete without.” O’Connor’s critique was not confined to stylistics, as the transition from the world of letters to the contemporary scene was made with unembarrassed ease. Commenting in terms which suggest it was the new visibility of homosexuality which troubled him, O’Connor maintained that “everyone with any knowledge of life, not to say of books, knows that [the ‘decadent spirit’] is no new thing, that decadents we have always had with us, only they have not generally been known by so fine a name, and have not ventured to flaunt themselves in public. Of late they have been having a little run in the open.” The editor of the Sun was undeceived by appeals to aesthetic criteria; for all such “poetry of putrefaction we have one simple, brutal, colloquial word – rot!” In O’Connor’s overwrought vision, Yeats seems to figure in the unfamiliar role of antithesis of Wilde and his coterie. Although the work so far of the young poet was “richer in promise than in performance”, it was nonetheless marked by a “vigour and originality, which is quite refreshing in these degenerate days”.
As is clear from Richard Ellmann’s biography, pressure on Wilde increased with the publication of Robert Hitchens’s roman à clef The Green Carnation in September 1894. In this most transparent of works, Wilde featured as the aesthete Mr. Esmà Amarinth and Lord Alfred Douglas as his slavish imitator Lord Reggie. Not only did the novel deepen public suspicion of Wilde, but, more dangerously, added to the escalating burden of grievance felt by Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury. O’Connor did not let the occasion pass without comment, remarking of the principal character, Amarinth, that this was “a name which veils but thinly the personality of a conspicuous authority on arts and letters, the cultivator of that green carnation, idolised by women, and slavishly copied by a band of effeminate boys, with whom to be imitative is to be original”. Given the regularity with which Wilde was derided in the Weekly Sun, there can have been few who did not guess who was intended.
O’Connor’s goading of Wilde was of a different order to his fellow parliamentarians’ attacks on the effeminate grandees of Dublin Castle. As a young woman, Wilde’s mother had been one of the more flamboyant of the patriotic poets associated with The Nation, while his father was a distinguished Irish folklorist. The anomalies resulting from this background, and the intensity of O’Connor’s desire to embarrass, were brought into revealing and amusing focus by the publication of a poem entitled “The Shamrock” in the Weekly Sun of August 5th, 1894. Although the poem was attributed to Oscar Wilde, it was certainly an unusual production from the pen of the author of The Decay of Lying and The Importance of Being Ernest. The first of six verses reads:
The spreading rose is fair to view,
And rich the modest violet’s hue,
Or queenly tulip filled with dew,
And sweet the lily’s fragrance;
But there’s a flower more dear to me
That grows not on a branch or tree,
But in the grass plays merrily
And of its leaves there are but three,
’Tis Ireland’s native shamrock.
As these lines may suggest, “The Shamrock” was an adroit, but deeply conventional – indeed almost formulaic – piece of nationalist verse. In its rehearsal of familiar themes – old Ireland, exile, religion, dreams of home, the desire for freedom – it was a production of a kind which could be found in a host of Irish newspapers throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. As O’Connor must surely have realised, if the topic was not one on which he had a blind spot, the poem could not possibly have been by Wilde. A little more than a month later the newspaper announced, under the heading, “Is a Plagiarism. What Saith Mr. Oscar Wilde”, that the poem had appeared thirteen years earlier in the Cork Weekly Herald and had been written by a blind lady from that city. The penny, however, still had not dropped as this piece of information was followed by the observation – made in the obvious expectation that no reasonable explanation was possible – “No comment of ours is necessary. All that remains is for Mr. Oscar Wilde to favour us with one or two words of elucidation.”
A week later, amid indications of widespread interest in the poem’s authorship, the Star somewhat shamefacedly admitted that, as Wilde did not claim to be the writer, the question of plagiarism did not arise. This was accompanied by a letter from the author of the poem, Helena Callanaghan of the Cork Blind Asylum, in which she outlined its somewhat tangled bibliographical history. This involved a network of newspapers in Ireland and throughout the Irish diaspora. “The Shamrock” was originally published, without its author’s permission, in the Cork Herald and subsequently appeared in the Sydney Freeman and later the New Orleans Morning Star. It resurfaced in Cork in 1888, when it was published by the Cork Examiner, bearing for the first time the name of Oscar Wilde. In September 1894 it was carried, again with Wilde’s name, not only by O’Connor’s London-based Sun but also by the New York Sun, which, in spite of its shared name, was a quite separate newspaper. As Miss Callanaghan explained, at the time of the misattribution in 1888, “Some friends of mine asked me to contradict it, but I came to the conclusion that Mr. Wilde’s indignation at having such a very commonplace style of verses attributed to him, would render it unnecessary.” Wilde’s own response, which came in the form of a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, struck a different note. He wrote:
About a month ago Mr. T. P. O’Connor published in the Sunday Sun some doggerel verses entitled ‘The Shamrock’ and had the amusing impertinence to append my name to them as their author. As for some years past all kinds of scurrilous personal attacks have been made upon me in Mr. O’Connor’s newspapers, I determined to take no notice at all of the incident. Enraged, however, at my courteous silence, Mr. O’Connor returns to the charge this week. He now solemnly accuses me of plagiarising the poem he had the vulgarity to attribute to me. This seems to me to pass beyond even those bounds of coarse humour and coarse malice that are, by the contempt of all, conceded to the ordinary journalist, and it is really very distressing to find so low a standard of ethics in a Sunday newspaper.
Compared to the self-deprecating Helena Callanaghan, Wilde’s comments on this comedy of errors strike one as humourless and self-important. It seems possible to see them as coming from the pen of a man who felt himself under pressure. While O’Connor would not have known it, at this period Wilde’s personal life, trapped as he was between Alfred Douglas and his terrible father, was swinging out of control. Although the Sun claimed that the scurrilous attacks he attributed to it were “mythical”, this was untrue. As studies of Wilde record, in the first half of the 1890s he was under regular attack in the press, as mockery of his aestheticism functioned as a coded criticism of his homosexuality. To judge by the terms in which he lashed back at one of his tormentors, Wilde was obviously rattled. In its lack of balance and self-knowledge the letter to the Pall Mall Gazette suggests something of the frame of mind which, in February of the following year, led him to react so disastrously to Queensberry’s famous insult.
Faced with the contradiction between the persona evoked in its extended commentary on Wilde and “the spirit of pure and exalted patriotism” which marked the poem which it attributed to him, the Sun initially took refuge in the hypothesis that it was a product of the author’s “forgotten and generous youth”. “The Shamrock”, the newspaper announced, had come as “a revelation” to it. In the words of the reader who first drew the poem to their attention, “Oscar Wilde may be a flaneur and a cynic, but it is quite evident from this poem that deep down in his heart he has kept the fire of patriotism burning with something of a white purity.” Faced with the disavowal in the Pall Mall Gazette, this hypothesis had to be abandoned. Wilde, the Sun concluded, was “the degenerate descendant” of a patriotic family. This point was underlined when the newspaper reprinted an exultant poem addressed to Ireland, which it noted “we owe to the genius of Lady Wilde, mother of the apostle of aestheticism.”46
Reading between the lines it seems possible to discern a half-explicit hint that, if Wilde had been prepared to avow an unambiguous patriotism, his homosexuality might have been overlooked. His Irishness was, however, of a gentler and more fluid kind than the robust political identity espoused by the editor of the Sun. During his time in prison his mother, Lady Francesca Wilde, died. At the time of her death Wilde heard the bean sidhe, the Irish death messenger, and saw her fetch. Wilde, who was born in Westland Row and educated in Portora and Trinity College, did not belong to that section of society in which such death beliefs were current. He had, however, a special channel into the popular culture through his father, Sir William, who was one of nineteenth century Ireland’s most distinguished folklorists, and via his mother, who after her husband’s death edited his papers with slapdash enthusiasm. Although Sir William’s cast of mind was scientific, he was far from disengaged in his approach to the imaginings of old Ireland. As his wife recalled, “his intense love for the old customs, the old legends, and the old songs, in the language of the people amongst whom he passed his boyhood, was almost pathetic in its tenderness …”47 Their son’s knowledge of the bean sidhe and the fetch beliefs can only have been transmitted by his parents. His ability to hear one, and to see the other, while in his cell in Reading Jail, could be seen as Wilde, in extremis, falling back on a core layer of his identity.
It may be worth adding as a footnote that, although O’Connor recoiled at Wilde’s parading of his homosexuality, he seems to have been familiar with older forms of male friendship. We can glimpse the intensity to which such relationships could be experienced in his portrait of a friend and schoolfellow, who in the second half of the 1870s was his predecessor as nationalist MP for Galway City. (O’Connor was member for Galway before moving to Liverpool. While he was careful not to name the individual, he can only have been Michael Francis Ward. O’Connor was nominated for Galway when, in the general election of 1880, Ward, who was the sitting MP, having been “seized with desire for debauchery which he could not – or would not – conquer,”48 had disappeared and could not be found.) O’Connor writes of his young contemporary as someone with whom he had “one of those close and romantic friendships which sometimes arise between boys brought up in the same school. I shall be mistaken for a lady novelist, with a sheik for her hero, when I try to describe this strange personality.” In addition to a familiar combination of politics and financial improvidence, Ward’s career included two marriages, a liaison with a prostitute, alternations between dissipation and severe piety, and a fierce falling out with the church authorities, before his death in the colonies at the age of thirty-five. Although O’Connor’s portrait is psychologically acute, there was obviously something in the character of his rakish and unbalanced contemporary that he found elusive. His feelings towards this doomed individual are perhaps most aptly suggested by his description of his appearance. O’Connor wrote, “He had a strikingly handsome face, with features and colouring as delicate as those of a baby girl; a tiny nose, a cupid mouth; the colour was so high that people always suspected in him consumptive tendencies, and in this they proved to be right. The eyes gave some indication of the feverish temperament underneath this almost feminine beauty.” In a striking insight O’Connor wrote that in spite of “his fiery sensuality … this life of so called pleasure was to him quite joyless”. To this he added, “Fundamentally, he hated women …”49
O’Connor seems to have been attracted – or was at least responsive to – doomed young men. His first employment after graduating was as a journalist in Dublin. Among his fellow reporters was one “splendid sinner” who, although he had “ruined his health and career alike by weak dissipation”, he regarded with “a boy’s ‘intense admiration’”. O’Connor’s account of this individual echoes the disapproving tenderness he brought to his description of Michael Francis Ward:
He was a singularly handsome fellow, with features of almost Greek regularity, fine blue eyes, a beautiful beard carefully kept, a slight and graceful figure, and he was singularly well dressed. But the face, though young, was deeply lined and there was a look of constant and peevish despondency upon it. I don’t know which I considered the greater mark of distinction at that time – the well-made coat, the white waistcoat, the light brown overcoat, or the look of suffering, of mental and physical decay that had come from Jude’s music-hall – at that epoch Dublin’s one wild, fascinating, and destructive temple of pleasure and vice. 50
To the best knowledge of the present writer, there are no accounts of young women in O’Connor’s writings which match in level of detail or sympathy his portraits of Ward and the nameless Dublin journalist. It is true that he provided his biographer, Hamilton Fyfe, with an account of how, at the age of eighteen, he fell helplessly in love with an unnamed Galway girl. The pair met secretly for as long as he stayed in the city. It was in this context that O’Connor made the strange remark, “Here was the awful impasse that confronted me – salvation to be gained by the denial of that which meant all that was tender and sweet in life.” Fyfe took this avowal at face value, commenting, “He had been taught by the priests in Athlone to believe that God was honoured when men trampled on their natures, repelled their instincts and impulses.” In spite of this gloss, one cannot help thinking there was something unreal in the dilemma – Fyfe characterised it an “early perversion of his mind” 51 – by which O’Connor claimed to have been confronted. Coming as he did from a Scottish Protestant background, his biographer may have been less than well informed regarding the teaching of mid-nineteenth century Irish priests. In fact, unless his instructors were eccentric to the point of being heterodox, like young men in other parts of Catholic Europe, he is likely to have been told that if his intentions were honourable, and his partner willing, he could hope for happiness within the framework of Christian marriage. While O’Connor’s bleak and pessimistic comment sits ill with the experience of an eighteen-year-old who has fallen in love for the first time, in its counterpointing of innate desire and the requirements of the law, it fits the experience of a Victorian male who desired other men. It could be compared with the utterances of a number of O’Connor’s contemporaries – AE Houseman and Roger Casement come to mind – who expressed their sense of inner contradiction in comparable terms. In one reading therefore, a puzzling passage in Fyfe’s book makes sense if we assume that O’Connor told his biographer the truth about his feelings as a young man, but obfuscated by relocating them within a heterosexual context.
When O’Connor eventually married in his late thirties, the marriage was unsuccessful. He was described by his wife as “a congenital bachelor”, who “loved men, and clubs, and political meetings, and speeches, and public dinners, and dining in the House of Commons, and long conferences”.52 Although as a politician O’Connor could give as good as he got, he was by inclination a tolerant man, whose portraits of his contemporaries – with the exception of particularly ruthless members of the landlord class and their judicial and political servants – were balanced and unpolemical. His animus against Wilde was out of character, leading one to wonder whether there was something in the overstated persona of his fellow countryman that he recognised and found disturbing.
The concerns which animated O’Connor in his polemic against Wilde continued to be expressed with muted force into the twentieth century. We can glimpse them in the passage in Joyce’s Stephen Hero in which the Jesuit president of the Royal University warns Stephen Dedalus, “Estheticism often begins well only to end in the vilest abominations …” Given the president’s lack of enthusiasm for “these modern pessimistic writers”, it is unlikely he would have been an admirer of the Scylla and Charybdis episode in Ulysses, in which it is possible to discern, along with much else – including Stephen’s speculation about what name Achilles had when he was among the women – a distinct homosexual subtext. The main business of the episode is the outlining to the group of literati gathered in the National Library of Stephen’s theory regarding Hamlet. Stephen’s account of the play, with its evocation of the young Shakespeare coupling in a Warwickshire cornfield with the older Ann Hathaway, is heavy with his own private obsessions. A different note is sounded when the library’s assistant director, Best – characterised by Stephen as “a blond ephebe. Tame essence of Wilde”– touches on the “love that dare not speak its name”, citing Wilde’s homoerotic reading of the Sonnets and expressing the hope that Stephen will cast his theory in the form of a Platonic dialogue, similar to those written by Wilde.
This strand in the discussion is reinforced by Buck Mulligan who, in keeping with his own rhetorical and overstated masculinity, is given to accusing other men of homosexuality. Victims of Mulligan’s mockery range from John Eglinton, who has let slip his lack of experience of women (“John Eglinton, my jo, John. / Why won’t you wed a wife?”), to Shakespeare and Professor Dowden. During the exchange regarding the play Mulligan “amorously” recounts how he asked the Professor “what he thought of the charge of pederasty brought against the bard. He lifted his hands and said: All we can say is that life ran very high in those days. Lovely!” Mulligan’s insinuations link up with one of the novel’s main themes, the convergence of Bloom and Stephen, when he tells the company how he saw “the sheeny” at the entrance to the library eyeing the backside of a nude female statue. Bloom’s interest leads him to jump to the conclusion, “I fear me he is Greeker than the Greeks.” Mulligan has also picked up on Bloom’s interest in Stephen, which he also misinterprets and, in a conflation of his underlying anti-Semitism with the homophobia displayed in the National Library scene, warns his friend, “Did you see his eye? He looked upon you to lust after you … thou art in peril. Get thee a breechpad.” Joyce’s own attitude in these matters seems to have been relaxed for, while the logic of Ulysses demanded that he allow Mulligan to mock the vulnerable, he adopted an attitude of wry tolerance to the vagaries of his friend George Sax:
There is a young gallant named Sax
Who is prone to hayfever attacks
For the prime of the year
To Cupid so dear
Stretches maidens – and men – on their backs.53
An unwelcome footnote to all of this is provided by a scene in Anthony Burgess’s novel Earthly Powers, in which one of the participants in the National Library discussion, the poet George Russell, is portrayed as seducing a willing but underage schoolboy at the same time as his fellow writers are debating Hamlet. Burgess contrived a Joycean endorsement of sorts, by having his narrator tell the exiled author at a meeting in Paris in the 1920s what took place between him and Russell in Dublin on that famous day in 1904. Although Brian Lacey does not discuss Ulysses, he includes the episode from Earthly Powers in his account of homosexuality among the early twentieth century Irish writers. He seems disposed to accept Burgess’s fiction as fact, on the grounds that “it seems very unlikely that such an eminent author would have completely falsely attributed to [Russell] such a trait unless he had strong grounds for doing so”. This seems questionable and, as there is no reason to credit the seduction scene, other than the irresponsible inventiveness of the elderly Burgess, and as the meeting between his narrator and Joyce never took place, the whole episode is plainly contrived. The dead cannot object, but as Russell was a mild and benevolent man – Patrick Kavanagh described him as saintly – it would be a pity if the English author’s strange fantasy were accepted as part of the historical record.
In My Brother’s Keeper Stanislaus Joyce provided portraits of a number of James’s fellow students. Among these was Arthur Cleary, characterised as “one of those creatures who the Jesuits use with ill-concealed disfavour.” Stanislaus recalled Cleary “blandly” informing the university’s Literary and Historical Society, “though we [the Irish] may sometimes, occasionally, overstep the mark in convivial drinking [humorous coughing and laughter], we are totally free from a more desolating vice [a moment of silent self-approval and then applause].”54 In later life Cleary, who became a university lecturer, was unusual for his friendliness towards the young, though it was remarked that he seemed ill at ease with female students. In an article in Studies in 1922 he wrote of Wilde, whom he saw as an ally in disrupting the “prosperous and complacent stupidity of Victorian England”, with surprising sympathy. Reflecting on these tiny hints the thought comes that, although Stanislaus Joyce took Cleary’s strange remark as an incitement to collective self-congratulation, it may have had more private meaning and the young man may have been signalling his preoccupations through the language of university debate.
Something of what Wilde meant to Cleary can be glimpsed in his comment, “It must have been a sense of this underlying falsehood in so much popular truth that led Wilde to attack platitude with the weapon of paradox, a weapon which was to gain him before his fall the intellectual supremacy which I, for one, am old enough to remember.” 55 Wilde figured in the infamous debate in the Irish Senate in November-December 1942 on the workings of the Censorship Board. This was provoked by the banning of a number of works of obvious merit, including Kate O’Brien’s novel The Land of Spices and Eric Cross’s lively, and intermittently bawdy, folklore collection The Tailor and Ansty. During the debate the chief defender of literary censorship was the Chairman of the Censorship Board, Professor William Magennis, who brought a mixture of coercive piety and populist enthusiasm to his assault on the “low, vulgar, obscene, blasphemous” Tailor and Ansty and “the sodomy book” (The Land of Spices). The Professor’s interventions were so littered with the noun “sodomy” as to lead his chief opponent, Sir John Keane, to comment, in one of the debate’s rare moments of gentleness, “I hate that word.” It was against this background that Magennis remarked ominously, “Some of us are old enough to remember the awful tragedy of Oscar Wilde who suffered penal servitude from the judgment of a British court.”56 Although he was Professor of Metaphysics in University College Dublin, Magennis strikes one as considerably less intelligent than Cleary. His naïve understanding of literature and coercive majoritarianism nonetheless commanded overwhelming support among his Senate colleagues – extending from Patrick Pearse’s sister Margaret to Desmond FitzGerald, who had been in the General Post Office with Pearse – thus cruelly underscoring the limited vision of some of the founders of the Irish state.
The eruption of Brendan Behan onto the local scene in the 1950s could be seen as the re-emergence of certain comic, festive and potentially disorderly elements in Irish life that had gone underground in the long clericalist century from Archbishop Cullen to Archbishop McQuaid. It may be that the sheer weight of surrounding respectability, and the help of alcohol, brought a certain overstatement to Behan’s enactment of this role. It is as a priapic jester figure that we encounter him, lightly disguised as Barney Berry, in JP Dunleavy’s The Ginger Man. The setting is bohemian Dublin late at night, which may account for Behan’s /Berry’s confidence in telling one and all, “I loved the British prisons. And you lovely women. That fine builds of ye. I’d love to do you all and your younger brothers.”57 At about the same time as this scene was taking place Behan, in more serious mood, used Wilde, together with the deep cover of the Irish language, to rehearse his concerns as a Catholic who was attracted to men as well as to women. In a poem of August 1949 Wilde figures as an exemplary figure, who points a way out of a dilemma, by combining the pleasures of the body with deathbed repentance:
Dá aoibhne bealach an pheachaidh
is mairg bás gan beannacht.
Mo ghraidhin thú, a Oscair,
bhí sé agat gach bealach.58
By the late nineteenth century, as English popular culture made inroads through literacy, anglicisation, and the new phenomenon of the popular press, denunciation of the (perhaps illusory) menace of effeminacy was overtaken by a larger and more urgent polemic against the complex of moral dangers England was seen to represent.59 In a discourse which lingered well into the second half of the twentieth century, England was seen as an embodiment of the trivial, the vulgar and the immoral. At its sharpest, and arguably least reflective, this language of denunciation presented England as a source of sexual threat and as a danger to the purity of the Irish young. As the recoil of a traditional society from some of the more disturbing aspects of the early twentieth century city linked up with the older Irish critique of imperialism, everything from the double entendres of Dublin’s music halls and the frivolities of the penny press, to the city’s extensive brothel district could be seen as evidence of England’s penetration of Ireland. As is well known, the first decade of Irish independence was marked by a hard-edged Catholic activism, whose achievements included the introduction of literary censorship and the ending of divorce. The first indicator of things to come was the closing down of the brothel district – the famous “kips” of Joyce’s Ulysses – in the area around Malborough Street. This was first essayed by a crowd led by a Franciscan from Merchant’s Quay and later undertaken more systematically by activists of the Legion of Mary, with the support of the police of the new state. Those who closed down this squalid and exploitative place would no doubt have argued – and, had they known of it, found supporting evidence in the presence of Privates Carr and Compton in the Nighttown episode of Ulysses – that the brothel quarter had existed to serve the soldiers of the now departed British Army. While these developments are well documented, what is perhaps less well known is that the 1920s drive for moral purity coincided with a clampdown on homosexual behaviour. As Austin Clarke recalled:
While Mr. de Valera’s republican army and the new regiments of Mr. Cosgrave’s Provisional Government were jeering one another on the streets of Dublin and the Civil War was imminent, the suppressors of vice were already active. Despatch riders patrolled the city lane-ways at night time in search of skirt lifters. Led by a friar, devoted bands closed down the brothel district by means which were not strictly legal but had the secret approval of the new Government. In a few years there were several serious outbreaks of what used to be called unnatural vice. Latrines were razed and the unfortunate touchers of Dublin were rounded up. In some cases ferocious sentences of five to seven years in prison were given by our new judges. 60
As was their way, the prostitutes scattered to other parts of the city, with the result that harlots’ cries familiar from the pages of Ulysses could be heard as late as the 1930s along the banks of the Royal Canal. What became of the “touchers”, and the network of habits, codes and associations that must have been a significant element in their lives, is less clear.
In its nineteenth century aspect, the extended, negative Irish commentary on effeminacy, and forms of behaviour associated with it, could be seen as a riposte to the Victorian commonplace which located subject peoples, including the Irish, within the domain of the childish, the feminine and the irrational. As a discourse rooted in Irish perceptions of England and the English, it tells us little about the actualities of behaviour in Ireland. Speaking in Waterford in June 1816, O’Connell’s associate Richard Lalor Shiel, himself in his early twenties, referred with revealing casualness to the “grossness and sensuality in which young men are often so deeply plunged.”61 If, scanning that now remote society, we wish to know whether dealings of men with men constituted part of that “grossness and sensuality”, the conclusion must be that, while it is possible to discern the outlines of a sexually based grammar, we do not know enough to allow us to go beyond these indicators. It was, I would guess, in an attempt to circumvent the limits of the available evidence that Brian Lacey devoted a chapter to the experiences of Irish emigrants and deportees in the United States and Australia. The outcome, in what is basically a discussion of bisexual behaviour by heterosexual men, is mixed. At the head of the chapter the author quotes from the evidence of an unfortunate boy who was raped in a US East Coast penitentiary somewhere around the year 1824 (“Was the crime ever committed on you? Yes, Sir! By whom? Pat, an Irishman.”) In the 1840s Gladstone, as head of the Colonial Office, was sufficiently disturbed by accounts of misbehaviour in the Australian penal colonies to commission an enquiry. In 1847 the House of Commons was told that investigators had found that in the penitentiary on Norfolk Island “it was the English who turned to sodomy; the Irish Catholic prisoners abjured it”. This abstemiousness does not seem to have been shared by their compatriots in the United States. Brian Lacey suggests, citing George Chauncey’s 1995 history Gay New York; the making of the gay male world, 1890-1940, that early twentieth century working class men from African-American, Irish and Italian neighborhoods were more likely to cross sexual boundaries than their Jewish contemporaries and were recorded as doing so in sufficient numbers to leave a mark on the record. In one view, what these men did in the enlarged New York setting, must have been in some way familiar to them and repeated behaviour acceptable to older brothers, fathers and uncles.
One of the arguments deployed by Giraldus Cambrensis in justifying the Anglo-Norman invasion was to point as evidence of Irish backwardness to various arts and skills which, it was claimed, had not existed in the island before the arrival of the English. Among John Lynch’s strategies in countering this oft repeated trope was to cite relevant nouns from older Irish texts, as proof that the phenomenon in question was known long before the twelfth century. It was thus an elegant reversal for him to argue that Bishop Atherton’s crime was unknown before the coming of the English and that, “So far were the Irish from having their hearts polluted with thoughts of these crimes, that they never even heard the names of the degraded objects of unnatural lust.”62 Homoerotic acts are specified in considerable detail in the penitentials of the early Irish church and, as they are unlikely to have ceased in the intervening centuries, Lynch may have meant no more than that Irish law took no account of them before the parliament of 1634. As a priest of the Diocese of Tuam, it is difficult to believe that he did not hear of such acts whispered to him in the confessional. If so he would have been told of them in Connaught Irish, raising the possibility that it is at the level of dialect that their meaning is to be found.
A lifetime ago the present writer passed an evening in the company of a left-wing Greek bookseller. At one point, when the conversation turned to the topic of languages, my companion mentioned a dictionary of a dialect called Galliardan, published some years previously. This, he said, was an argot associated with the homosexual sub-world of Athens and the port of Piraeus. As explained to me, it was chiefly noun-centered, with an elaborate vocabulary for sexual roles. These nouns for types of men, related to age, which was discriminated fairly precisely, and preference for active or passive sexual roles. There were even subtleties of nomenclature, such as one who appeared to be active, but was in fact passive. As is often the way with speakers of a standard language who cross the border into dialect, my bookseller friend laughed as he recited these outrageous nouns. In an explanation which was highly suggestive regarding origins, he went on to say that, while the basis of Galliardan was Greek, it combined elements of Turkish, Arabic and Italian. In his summary the argot seemed to amount to a set of signposts, a comprehensive epithetic labeling of individuals on the basis of the acts they engaged in. Those who insisted on such distinctions must have done so because they were important to them. Here, as elsewhere throughout this essay, we seem to glimpse an earlier world which long preceded John Boswell’s monolithic gay identity.
At one point in his discussion of Irish emigrant experience, Brian Lacey draws on a US study of the homosexual milieu which was to be found towards the end of the end of the First World War around the Naval Training Station at Newport, Rhode Island. We know of this because it was investigated in considerable detail by the US naval authorities, with evidence taken from many of its inhabitants.63 What emerged to view was a world not unlike that which can be perceived through the lens of Galliardan, a place which, although less florid in vocabulary, insisted on the same demarcations as the users of the Athens-Piraeus argot. Among those to be encountered in Newport was a type known as a “pogue”; this, is, of course, a transcription of the Irish verb/noun “póg”, meaning to kiss or a kiss, though applied in the US to a quite different action. The adoption of an Irish word into the sexual vocabulary of the sailors, servants and drifters from New York who congregated at Newport is a fascinating hint though, like so much else we have encountered, its meaning is uncertain; in one reading it suggests that young, unmarried Irish men – or at least some of them – inhabited a world similar to that we have encountered in Florence, Cuba and Athens-Piraeus.
In Catholic moral teaching homosexual acts are considered to be contrary to God’s will, because incompatible with the natural law, which can be known by reason and is inscribed in every human heart. The late Alan Bray, himself a convert to Catholicism, wondered whether the past he had uncovered might lead to “a resolution of the conflict between homosexual people and the Christian church today? Could that common space they find themselves occupying in the past mark out a space they might with integrity occupy today?”64 Although Bray touched on the issue with characteristic tentativeness, his questions serve to underline a lack of connection between the teaching and lived Christian experience over long periods. It will be interesting to see whether, as the implications of The Friend are assessed and, as seems inevitable, the volume of archaeologisable evidence increases, knowledge of a world of sworn brotherhoods embedded within a context dense with Christian meanings, will lead to any re-examination of the teaching.
One person who seems unlikely to be swayed is the English philosopher and cultural critic Roger Scruton. Over the past two decades hostility to overt homosexuality has figured as a recurrent strand within his thinking, most notably in his essay of 1991 Sexual Morality and the Liberal Consensus. Scruton’s views in this area have affinities with Catholic natural law-based arguments. In spite of these resemblances, to judge by his writings, he is not a Christian, although for cultural reasons he seems to be a member of the Church of England. Scruton’s most fundamental point is that when a man reaches out to, and enters a relationship with, a woman he crosses a boundary to encounter an other, a person who differs from him, but is complementary, in body and disposition. There is thus a possibility for surprise, growth and wonder in their meeting that is absent from the homosexual meeting of like with like. This is clearly a point of some weight, although Roger Scruton might have been led to reflect on whether it amounts to a full account of things by the example of Sir William Neville – one of the two knights we encountered buried together in Constantinople – who died in October 1391, within days of the death of his companion Sir John Clanvowe. As the chronicle for the fourteenth century compiled by the monks of Westminster Abbey recorded, such was Neville’s affection for Clanvowe, “such [was his] inconsolable sorrow, that he never took food again and two days afterwards breathed his last.”65 A second strand in Scruton’s thinking is less impressive. This consists of a desire – apparently keenly felt – to be able to speak of homosexual lives with a degree of scorn that has become increasingly unacceptable in public discourse. The grounds on which this desire is justified are anything but persuasive, and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the verbal drubbing he wishes to administer is a contemporary equivalent to the pillory in which frequenters of the molly houses were placed two hundred years ago.
Scruton’s self-presentation is as a follower of Edmund Burke. This dimension in his thought makes itself felt in his eloquent defence of the physical fabric, private affections, public rituals and social cohesion of an older England. More surprisingly the influence of Burke is evident in his admission – unusual in a thinker on the English right – that, “The English were not a criminal people. Nevertheless, they committed crimes, and the worst of these was against the Irish.”66 Where homosexuality is concerned Scruton’s arguments are of a somewhat abstract and non-historical kind; it is striking that as a Burkean he should show so little interest in the long history of the subject and be so lacking in curiosity regarding the niche which was found for the homoerotic in so many societies and at such different times. This is certainly an area in which his mentor is unlikely to provide much by way of support. Among those closest to Edmund Burke was William Burke, possibly a distant relation, with whom he had ties as “intimate as brothers”. As characterised by Burke’s Victorian biographer, Edmund looked on William in terms which would not seem out of place in the pages of The Friend, as “one who had tenderly loved, highly valued, and continually lived with in a union not to be expressed, quite since their boyish years”. In Burke’s own words, writing in 1771, “Looking back to the course of my life I remember no one considerable benefit in the whole of it which I did not, mediately, or immediately, derive from William Burke.”67 In April 1780, following the deaths of two men, William Smith, a coachman, and Theodosius Reade, a plasterer, at the hands of the mob, Burke called in the House of Commons for the abolition of the punishment of placing convicted sodomites in the pillory. We cannot connect Burke’s willingness to incur unpopularity by taking up this cause with his personal history, but neither can we discount the possibility of a connection.
In Hail and Farewell George Moore imagined the dream novel he might have written, if he had bothered to learn Irish, which had surrounded him in his youth. In a few evocative pages he imagines how this would have drawn upon “stories of the country”, heard in the company of huntsmen as he lay waiting for the ducks to come in from the marshes. Among his companions was the poacher Carmody, about whom people told strange stories. It was said of this predatory figure that he had a following of young women, who he induced to follow him into the woods. A boy in the village heard knocking on the door at night and, as he lay awake quaking with fear, heard his young sister tell Carmody it was too late to let him in. Looking into the poacher’s pale eyes Moore wondered whether, as the woodranger alleged, “he used to entice boys into the woods, and when he had led them far enough, turn upon them savagely, beating them, leaving them for dead”. Moore’s account of the poacher – a liminal, transgressive figure – is heavy with an air of sexual menace. It is not perhaps the story we might have wished to encounter, though one can hardly doubt that the writer’s sensitive antennae picked up something by the shores of Lough Carra. Looking back on the stories he heard, Moore regretted “that I did not put them into my note-book at the time, for if I had I should be able now to write a book original in every line.” 68
Reflecting on this strange tale, the thought comes that there must have been other stories, perhaps more passionate and humane, which contained the key to a lost world of feeling and experience. If these stories are to be recovered, and the world to which they belonged reconstituted, it can only be by peering, as it were, through the cracks in Irish cultural history. While we do not know what we will find, it seems likely to be stranger and more remote than anything we might imagine. What seems certain is that we will find little by searching for homosexuality as a discrete entity, and that we should look to the larger society in whose context affections were felt and activities, whether brutal or refined, took place.
Bibliographical information is provided in the footnotes below for all material which does not feature in Brian Lacey’s Terrible Queer Creatures. Quotations which have not been footnoted are from Terrible Queer Creatures.
1. P .Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, ( London, 1988), p. 246
2. ibid. p. 303.
3. J. Davidson ‘Mr and Mr and Mrs and Mrs’, London Review of Books, 2 June 2007, p. 13.
4. B. Kennelly ed. The Penguin Book of Irish Verse, (Penguin Books, 1970), p. 286.
6. S. O’Grady, In the Gates of the North, (Dublin and London, ND), pp. 134-147.
7. Davidson, (2007), p.16; J. Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece, (London, 2007), p. 56.
8. A. Bray, The Friend, (Chicago and London, 2003), p. 23.
9. D. Hyde, Abhráin Grádh Chúige Connacht: Love Songs of Connacht, (Shannon, 1969), pp.58-9.
10. E. MacLysaght, Irish Life in the Seventeenth Century, (Cork, 1939), pp. 58-9.
11. A Full and True Account of the Discovering a Hell-Fire Club in this City and taking the four following Persons in the Act of Sodomy late Tuesday Night, at the Boot in Stephen-street, (Viz.) Mr. Lummock of Backlane, Mr. Mulrony, P. Sampson and N. Gore, some of whom made their escape, and how the L – k attempted to cut his Throat. (Dublin, circa 1726).
12. J. A. Froude, The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, (London, 1886), Vol. 1, p. 450, 464.
13. B. Ó Madagáin, ‘Functions of Irish Song’, Béaloideas: The Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society, 1985, p. 191.
14. See Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin’s commentary on ‘Is Fada an Lá’ in her A Hidden Ulster: People, Songs and Traditions of Oriel, (Dublin, 2003), pp. 159-163.
15. E. Larkin ed. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey in Ireland, (Washington, 1990), p. 64.
16. Ní Uallacháin, (2003), p. 204.
17. R. Jakobson, ‘On Russian Fairy Tales’, Selected Writings, (The Hague and Paris, 1966), Vol. 4, p. 89.
18. W. Carleton, Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, The Works of William Carleton, (New York, 1970), p. 1130, 1084, 1099.
19. ibid. Vol. 2, p. 1087, 1030.
20. ibid. Vol. 2, p. 870; W. Carleton, Redmond Count O’Hanlon, (Dublin, 1886), p.24.
21. Ní Uallacháin, (2003), p.71.
22. T. de Bhaldraithe ed., Cín Lae Amhlaoibh, (Dublin, 1973), p. 98; T. de Bhaldraithe, translator, The Diary of Humphrey O’Sullivan. (Dublin and Cork, 1979), p. 118.
23. C. Kent, ed. The Works of Father Prout, (London, ND.), xxiv; W. Allingham, A Diary 1824-1889, (Penguin Books, London, 1985), p.77.
24. T. P. O’Connor, Memoirs of an Old Parliamentarian, (London, 1929), Vol. 1, pp. 68-9.
25. C. Gavan Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, (New York, 1898), Vol.1, p. 59; Allingham, (1895), p. 83.
26. A. Griffith ed., Meagher of the Sword, (Dublin, ND), p.224.
27. R. Davenport-Hines, Sex, Death and Punishment: Attitudes to sex and sexuality in Britain since the Renaissance, (London, 1991), p.106.
28. J. J. Ó Ríordáin ed., A Tragic Troubadour: Life and Collected Works of the Folklorist, Poet and Translator Edward Walsh, (Duhallow, 2005), pp. 605-7.
29. H. Harkin, The Life and Adventures of Hudy McGuigan, (Ballinascreen Historical Society, Draperstown, 1993, ), p. 54, 56.
30. J. O’Donovan, John O’Donovan’s Letters from County Londonderry in 1834, ed. G. Mawhinney, (Balinascreen Historical Society, Draperstown, 1992), p. 96.
31. Harkin, (1993), p, 2-3, 6, 37, 126,128, 35, 138-40,127.
32. H. Dorian, The Outer Edge of Ulster. A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth Century Donegal, (Dublin, 2000), p. 181, 206.
33. Quoted in M. Tierney, Croke of Cashel, (Dublin, 1976), p.21.
34. J. Lynch, Cambrensis Eversus, Edited with translation and notes by Rev. Matthew Kelly, (Dublin, 1848-1851), Vol. 1, p. 96, 103; Vol. 2, p. 147-9
35. “ ‘Jacky’ Barrett of Trinity College”, The Irish Packet, October 1903, p. 16.
36. The Spirit of Irish Wit, (London, 1811), p. 71, 228.
37. Quoted in N. McKenna, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, (London, 2004), p. 108.
38. O’Connor, (1929), Vol. 1, p. 142.
39. F. Callanan, T. M. Healy, (Cork, 1996), pp. 91-2.
40. The Irish Times assessment is quoted in M. O’Riordan, “Did Redmondism Reconquer West Cork in 1916”, Irish Political Review, July, 2009, p. 13.
41. Callanan, (1996), p. 92.
42. O’Connor, (129), Vol. 1, p. 317; Vol. 2, p. 125-7; P. Brandon, Eminent Edwardians, (Penguin Books, 1981), p. 67.
43. P. Maume, D .P. Moran, (Dundalk, 1995), p.15.
44. The Weekly Sun, 1 January 1893; 4 November, 1894.
45. M. Nordau, Degeneration, (Nebraska, 1993), pp. 319-20.
46. The Weekly Sun, 12 March 1893; 16 December 1894; 30 September, 1894; 5 August 1894; 16 September, 1894; 21 September, 1894; 30 September, 1894.
47. Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, Vol.4, Fourth Series, Part 1, 1876, p.112.
48. H. Fyfe, T. P. O’Connor, (London, 1934), pp. 69-70.
49. O’Connor, (1929), Vol. 1, p. 20-27.
50. Fyfe, (1934), p. 38.
51. ibid. p. 120.
52. ibid. p. 126.
53. J. Joyce, Stephen Hero, (New York, 1963), p. 96; J. Joyce, Ulysses, (London, 1960), p. 254, 259, 276, 262, 257, 279; R. Ellmann, James Joyce, ( Oxford, 1965), p. 408
54. S. Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper, (New York, 1969), p. 113.
55. A. Cleary, ‘The Philosophy of Sanity’, Studies, December, 1922, p. 571, 572.
56. Senate Debates, Vol. 27, 18 November, 2, 3 December 1942.
57. J. P. Dunleavy, The Ginger Man, (Penguin Books, 1979), p.164.
58. B. Ó Beachain, ‘Do Sheán Ó Súilleabháin’, Comhar, April 1964, p. 22
59. In offering these generalisations I am relying on Philip O’Leary, The Prose Literature of the Gaelic Revival 1881-1921: Ideology and Innovation (Pennsylvenia, 1994) and Tom Garvin, Nationalist Revolutionaries in Ireland, (Dublin, 1987).
60. A. Clarke, Twice Round the Black Church, ( Dublin, 1990), p. 162
61. C. M. O’Keefe, Life and Times of Daniel O’Connell, (Dublin, 1872), Vol.2, p.146.
62. Lynch, (1848-1851), Vol.2, p. 149.
63. G. Chauncey, Jr. ‘Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era’ in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. M. Duberman, M. Vicinus, and G. Chauncey, Jr., eds., (New York, Penguin, 1989), pp 294-317
64. Bray, (2003), p. 6.
65. ibid. p. 19
66. R. Scruton, England: An Elegy, (London and New York, 2006), p. 252.
67. J. Morley, Edmund Burke, (Belfast, 1993), p. 34.
68. G. Moore, Hail and Farewell, (Gerrards Cross, Bucks. and Washington, 1985), pp. 72-5.
Brian Earls is a former diplomat. His published work focuses on the relationship between oral tradition and printed literature, principally in the nineteenth century.