While writing this article, I discovered I knew next to nothing about the history of HIV and AIDS in Ireland, or the activists that fought unwaveringly through the worst years of the pandemic. There is a rich history of Irish HIV/AIDS activism, and it should be known and remembered alongside British and American stories.
At the onset of AIDS, Ireland’s attitude to sex was at best old-fashioned, and at worst dangerously ignorant. There was no mandatory sex education in schools, condoms were restricted to those who were married and had a prescription. Homosexuality was still criminalised, and would be as late as 1993. Between 1962 and 1972, 455 men were charged with “indecency with males” and “gross indecency” under a Victorian-era law.
While decriminalisation and a greater level of openness were achieved in other countries, Ireland lagged limply behind. With all of these elements combined, the outbreak of AIDS in Ireland seemed like a recipe for total disaster.
1982 saw the first reported case of AIDS in Ireland. As homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland at the time (and would be until as late as 1993), the government made no efforts to address the appearance of the virus.
The mainstream media, however, quickly found a scapegoat in the gay community. One article in the Nationalist and Leinster Times considered that it was homosexuality, not AIDS, that was the killer disease. A later piece in the Sunday World carried a comment that Irish hospitals should not be expected to take in ‘these kinds of people.’
It was left to the gay community of Ireland to respond to AIDS. Countering the media’s campaign of misinformation and hysteria, GHA (Gay Health Action) was founded in Trinity in January 1985. GHA were key to early HIV/AIDS activism in Ireland as they wrote and distributed 16,000 copies of the first, safe-sex pamphlet in May 1985.
GHA was volunteer-led, having only ever received one donation of £800 from the State -a grant which did not cover the costs of printing the pamphlet. Several hospitals refused to carry the GHA pamphlet because “it might have the effect of spreading the disease rather than containing it.” This level of homophobia in the medical sector indicates the uphill battle faced by organisations like GHA at the time.
Cairde, founded in 1985, was a confidential support service for those who had tested positive for HIV. Cairde was initially intended as a service for the gay community.
However, anticipating the need for support that was not being met by government-provided services, Cairde quickly expanded to include all people affected by HIV.
The government at this time could not be seen to publicly support a people that were criminalised under Irish law. Because of this, GHA were often left with one-way correspondence with the Department of Health, and relied on public donation and fundraising to keep services afloat.
What may be the most impressive part of the strength of AIDS advocacy in Ireland is that organised LGBTQ+ activism was in its infancy when the first cases hit the country. The Irish Gay Rights Movement was initially founded in Dublin in 1974, holding its first public demonstration in June 1974, almost two decades before decriminalisation.
By 1987, 590 people had tested positive for HIV in Ireland. It was only this year that the Health Education Bureau (HEB) finally delivered public information about AIDS.
Unlike the pamphlets circulated by GHA, the HEB’s short film, Casual Sex Spreads AIDS, provided no advice on safe sex activities, instead, it presented celibacy as the only legitimate choice.
As the government’s efforts remained lacking, the community sought further ways to fundraise. The inaugural Alternative Miss Ireland pageant was held in April 1987 to raise money for Cairde, given that the government refused to support the group.
The GHA disbanded in 1990, due to fatigue. In its absence, a Dublin branch of ACT UP was founded later that year.
ACT UP’s brand of activism involved direct action protests designed to grab public attention. ACT UP protested outside the Four Courts, Leinster House, and, dressed as bishops, held a public crucifixion of a five-foot tall condom outside the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.
Other activism came in the form of memorialising those lost to AIDS. The Irish Names Project, started in 1990, allowed people to gather and pay tribute to lost loved ones by creating a panel for the Quilt. The much-loved Mary Shannon was the custodian of the quilt until her passing, whereupon it is now safeguarded by ….
By the early 1990’s, the work of GHA and many other activists had started to pay off. Sexual-health clinics opened in Dublin and Cork, where previously there had been none.
The Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS) was established in Dublin in 1992, a year before decriminalisation. Restrictive condom laws were reformed and a programme of school-based sex education was in the works. The work of AIDS activists had brought Ireland through the crisis to a watershed moment where taboos were beginning to break down. The Catholic Church was losing influence and homosexuality was finally decriminalised in 1993. Faced with a conservative government and fear-mongering media, discriminatory laws and a lack of sex education, AIDS in Ireland could have been the perfect storm. Thanks to the considerable effort of groups like GHA and ACT UP, information around safe sex became available and the progress of the virus wasn’t as rampant as could have been.
Although we’ve come a long way as a country since then, much of the problems of the 1980’s still remain in Irish society. Sex education in Irish schools is still dire with many calls to reform the curriculum. The GMHS, which offers a vital service for over 12,000 people, has been shut since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the only statutory public health service for gay men, bisexual men, and men who have sex with men (gbMSM) and the trans community, the closure of the GMHS could have disastrous consequences for the sexual health of many Irish people according to activists.
Battles are still being fought by ACT UP who, after a long campaign, welcomed funding for an Irish PrEP programme in 2019.
But the biggest barrier against better health for people living with HIV and the eradication of new diagnoses still remains – stigma.
This Pride month (and always) we must keep demanding a sexual health centre in every county, keep battling stigma and helping those affected by HIV/AIDS to overcome trauma and ignorance, and honouring the legacies of those we lost too soon.