TERRIBLE QUEER CREATURES:
HOMOSEXUALITY IN IRISH HISTORY
By Brian Lacey
Dublin: Wordwell Books Ltd.
£25; 298 pages
The late Sean Ó Faoláin, the prolific Irish short story writer, once remarked that the definition of an Irish "queer" in the 1950s and ’60s was someone who preferred women to drink. But things have changed dramatically in the last three and a half decades since the first stirrings of gay liberation on the Emerald Isle.
Ireland, which — under the yoke of an austere and ultramontane Catholicism — used to be one of the most sexually repressed countries in Europe, today has one of its most vibrant, politically effective, and internationalist LGBT movements. Every major city has a skein of gay activist groups, and even the gardai — the Gaelic name for the Irish police — place recruiting ads in gay publications. Ireland’s parliament, the Dáil, is expected this year to pass a government-sponsored bill legalizing same-sex partnerships.
Just in time to give heartburn to the homophobic Ancient Order of Hibernians, which continues to ban gay contingents from Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, comes Brian Lacey’s new history of homosexuality in Ireland. "Terrible Queer Creatures" demonstrates rather convincingly that male same-sex relationships were respected and in some instances even honored in medieval Ireland.
St. Patrick himself may have had a relationship tinged with homoeroticism. Tirechan, a late seventh century cleric who wrote about St. Patrick, tells the story of a man Patrick visited and converted to Christianity, who had a son to whom Patrick took a strong liking. Tirechan wrote that "he gave him the name Benignus, because he took Patrick’s feet between his hands and would not sleep with his father and mother, but wept unless he would be allowed to sleep with Patrick." Patrick baptized the boy and made him his close lifelong companion, so much so that Benignus succeeded Patrick as bishop of Armagh.
Lacey notes that even in Ireland’s famous Book of Kells, a ninth century illuminated version of the four gospels, the illustrations showing men with limbs intertwined "are suggestive of sexual positions and activity." Bernard Mechan, the Catholic curator responsible for manuscripts at Dublin’s Trinity College, where the Book of Kells is now kept, is quoted, describing one of those illuminations: "The entwined arms of the two men facing each other within the second arch of the letter M seem… to be in such an attitude as to confirm the necessity for the prohibitions which were enacted in the Irish penitentials [a medieval codification of morals] against homosexual practices."
Lacey also details the role of the ollamh, or court poet to the Gaelic lords and chiefs. These "lover-poets" frequently shared their master’s bed, and Lacey quotes extensively from their homosensual poetry. The 16th century ollamh Eochaidh O hEoghusa [O'Hussey in English] was only 18 when he met the lord who would become his chief, Hugh McGuire, whom he addressed in one poem as "my darling spouse…the fine pure white breast, the pillow on which I rest, the refreshing of my mind."
Another scholar quoted by Lacey emphasizes how "Laoidh cumainn, literally ‘lay of friendship/affection,’ was the term occasionally used by the professional poets of the medieval bardic period for a praise poem for their chief and patron. The poet’s relationship with his chief was often defined in terms of physical affection, and there are numerous references to the poet and his patron sharing the same bed."
That same scholar added, "Public demonstrativeness of the lord’s affection was proof of the poet’s privileged position. Furthermore, physical affection between males was validated as a homosocial ordering of relations, within which the eroticization of male relations was articulated."
The respect for same-sex male relationships, which Lacey paints as characteristic of the pre-Christian era in Ireland and which carried over well into the Christian epoch, began to wane as the power of the Catholic Church grew. The first known homosexual purge in Ireland concerned the Order of Knights Templar, established in Ireland in the 1170s under the auspices of the English King Henry II.
The purge had its origins in the desire of the impoverished 14th century French King Philip le Bel (the Fair) to get his hands on the Templars’ wealth. Philip engineered the election of the bishop of Bordeaux to become Pope Clemence V on condition that he put an end to the Templars, and Clemence duly set up an inquisition in which allegations of homosexuality against the knights were in the foreground. "They were said to have included homosexual acts in their private rituals and to have insisted on sexual intercourse with new recruits," Lacey wrote. "It is an indication of the negative feelings against homosexuality in that period that this could be made as one of the principal charges against such a powerful institution."
The homosexual English King Edward II was ordered by Pope Clemence and pressured by the French monarch to seize the Templars’ extensive holdings in Ireland, and the Irish Knights Templar were arrested en masse in February 1308. The inquisition opened its trial of the Irish Templars in January 1310 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. While only a few of the Knights confessed to the charges of sodomy, the order was abolished and much of its property expropriated.
Another trial for sodomy which Lacey chronicles extensively is that following the indictment in 1631 of Mervyn Touchet, the second earl of Castlehaven, whose family, although English, owned and lived on some 200,000 acres in Ireland. The charges were brought by the earl’s son, Lord Audley, who feared that his father’s favorite, a servant named Henry Skipwith from County Cork on whom the earl lavished expensive gifts, would eventually inherit part of his father’s estate. The charges against the earl were considered so shocking that they were drawn up in Latin rather than in the customary English.
The earl’s wife testified that her husband preferred sexual relations with male prostitutes and male servants, and it was "claimed that the earl took the boys to bed with him along with his wife, watched while they had sexual intercourse with her, and then sodomized them." The earl denied all charges, but Skipwith admitted at trial that he "usually lay with the earl," and another male servant testified be had been sodomized. The earl was convicted on two counts of sodomy and beheaded in May 1631, even as he continued to profess his innocence. The tremendous publicity surrounding the Castlehaven affair helped spur passage by the Irish parliament of an act explicitly making "buggery" — quite broadly defined — a capital crime.
The Irish nationalist cause was not above using accusations of homosexuality to undermine British rule in Ireland, as in the so-called "Dublin Castle scandal" of 1884 (Dublin Castle was the seat of British authority in Ireland). An Irish nationalist member of the British Parliament from Cork, William O’Brien, a fanatic known as "Screaming William," who was also the editor of the nationalist newspaper United Ireland, accused a prominent British government official, Gustavus Cornwall, head of the General Post Office in Ireland, of being a homosexual.
Cornwall made the mistake repeated a decade later by another Irishman, Oscar Wilde, and sued O’Brien for libel, and the subsequent trial revealed the existence of an extensive gay sub-culture in Victorian Dublin. Three young men from the lower-middle-class, aged 21, 25, and 33, were reluctantly persuaded to give testimony against Cornwall, which detailed sexual trysts in the hothouse of the Botanical Gardens and elsewhere, and related Cornwall’s affairs with a series of soldiers. Cornwall was known as "the duchess" in the gay underworld.
The sensational trial, which lasted five days, was widely publicized, and ended with victory for O’Brien. Lacey relates, "Cheers and applause greeted the news outside [the court]. Crowds on the streets and from the windows of nearby buildings cheered O’Brien as he was taken in his coach back to his hotel [and] bands played outside the hotel and also outside the offices of the United Ireland newspaper. Similar scenes, which included bonfires, were reported throughout the country."
O’Brien’s victory unleashed violently homophobic newspaper tirades and set off a wave of anti-homosexual police activity. Cornwall, who had fled to his brother’s house in Scotland, was arrested and returned to Dublin to face charges of "buggery" and of corrupting young men, a number of other people were arrested, interrogated, or warned not to leave the country, and quite a few people fled in fear of what might happen.
Eight men were put on trial, including the proprietors of three male brothels, all located near military barracks. Among those convicted was the head of the Royal Irish Constabulary’s Detective Department, another victim of O’Brien’s accusations in his newspaper, who was sent to two years imprisonment at hard labor. At the trial of one of the men, the prosecutor remarked that the accused were "all musical," which became a euphemism for homosexual that persisted for decades. Nationalist newspapers had a field day tying homosexuality to the British administration and army.
One of the most useful aspects of Lacey’s book is his series of mini-portraits of the remarkable number of homosexual men and women who played important roles in the Celtic Renaissance at the turn of the 20th century and in the ultimately successful Irish republican movement of the same period.
Edward Martyn (1859-1923), the first president of Sinn Fein, the Irish republican movement’s political party, serving from 1904 to 1908, was a homosexual who was the son of a wealthy Catholic family from Tillyra Castle in County Galway. A pillar of the Celtic Renaissance, in 1899 Martyn co-founded, with the poet W.B. Yeats, what became Ireland’s famous national theater, the Abbey.
The hero of one of Martyn’s plays performed at the Abbey, "The Heather Field," was clearly homosexual and modeled on the homosexual writer and lawyer Standish James O’Grady (1846-1921), author of a series of influential books popularizing the ancient legends of Ireland.
Martyn was outed by his friend George Moore (1852-1933), a prolific novelist, critic, and polemicist, in his three-volume masterpiece "Hail and Farewell" (published between 1911 and 1914). Moore, who was attracted to the handsome young Yeats, later fell in love with the celebrated French painter Edouard Manet, who painted three portraits of him. Moore was influenced by the homosexual Oxford critic Walter Pater, and Moore’s 1879 work, "Flowers of Passion," already contained references to lesbianism. Moore’s 1887 novel, "A Mere Accident," also has a homosexual theme and its central character is again based on Martyn.
The Celtic Renaissance activist George Russell, who used the pseudonym Æ, was also admiringly portrayed in Moore’s "Hail and Farewell." A poet, dramatist, cooperative organizer, and editor of several influential magazines, Russell’s homosexuality was portrayed in Anthony Burgess’s 1980 novel "Earthly Powers."
One of the most famous leaders and martyrs of the 1916 Easter Rising, the poet, writer, lawyer and revolutionary Padraig (or Patrick) Pearse, was homosexual with a pronounced pedophile sensibility — though whether he ever acted upon it is open to question. His poem "Little Lad of the Tricks" is unmistakable in its implications, as when Pearse writes:
I forgive you, child
Of the soft red mouth:
I will not condemn anyone
For a sin not understood.
Raise your comely head
Till I kiss your mouth
If either of us is the better of that
I am the better of it.
Pearse, who was commander-in-chief of the Irish Volunteers militia and president of the provisional government at the time of the Easter Rising, was only 37 when he was executed by the British for his part in the rebellion, and is still celebrated in song by Irish nationalists today.
Another quite important republican leader who was homosexual was Eoin Duffy (1892-1944), a member of the Dáil who became chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army in 1922 and later the Commissioner of the Irish Republic’s gardai and first president of what is today one of Ireland’s two largest political parties, Fine Gael, had an affair in his youth with the famous Irish actor and flamboyant homosexual Micheal MacLiammoir, who founded and ran the Abbey Theater’s smaller twin, the Gate (which was why the two playhouses were jocularly known as "Sodom and Begorrah.")
In his chapter on lesbians, Lacey sketches the life of Kathleen Lynn (1874-1955), who was a captain in 1916 rebel and Socialist leader James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, and its medical director. During the Easter Rising, Lynn "was active at City Hall, and when the leader there — Sean Connolly — was killed, she and the bisexual Helena Moloney (an Abbey Theater actress) took over as the senior officers." Lynn met her life partner, Madeline Ffrench-Mullen, during her stint in the Army, and in 1919 the pair founded St. Ultan’s Children’s Hospital in Dublin, to which they devoted their lives.
The noted playwright, poet, and novelist Brendan Behan (1923-1964), who spent three years in a British reformatory — where he discovered his "Hellenism," as he himself put it — for a 1939 IRA bombing, was bisexual throughout his life. At the time of his death, he was working on an unfinished novel, called "The Catacombs" after its setting in a real-life drinking place of that name in a number of interconnected basements in Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Place that was a notorious homosexual hangout.
There are, of course, the obligatory chapters on Oscar Wilde and Sir Roger Casement, and one on American Irish queers that draws heavily on the work of pioneering gay American historians like Jonathan Ned Katz and George Chauncey. The chapter on gay liberation and the Irish gay rights movement brings this history up to date.
The title of "Terrible Queer Creatures" is taken from a line in James Joyce’s "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man": "Old man sat, listened, smoked spat. Then said — Ah, there must be terrible queer creatures at the end of the world."
Lacey, an archaeologist and author of numerous works on Irish history, writes that he has been collecting material for this book for three decades. Although his book is based almost entirely on secondary sources, Lacey displays an erudite and easy grasp of his wide-ranging material, and provides neat and informative syntheses of the disparate work of others.
In the gay Irish novelist Jamie O’Neill’s magnificent, best-selling 2001 novel "At Swim, Two Boys" — about a pair of lads before and during the Easter Rebellion — one characters said: "Help these boys build a nation their own. Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder the literature for words they can speak. And should you encounter an ancient tribe whose customs, however dimly, cast light on their hearts, tell them that tale, and you shall name the unspeakable names of your kind, and in that naming, in each such telling, they will falter a step to the light."
"Terrible Queer Creatures" fulfills that injunction admirably.
If you have trouble locating this book, which was published in Dublin, you may order it online directly from the publisher, Wordwell, at wordwellbooks.com/book.php?id=497