IFI – Documentary – Festivals
As a major photographic exhibition featuring the work of Christopher Robson is launched by the National Library of Ireland, Stephen Moloney spoke to his partner of 35 years, Bill Foley, about how the images represent one man’s journey alongside a community’s. All images by Christopher.
Bill Foley emerges from his kitchen carrying a pint of beer for me and a glass of wine for himself, sets them down on his patio table and takes a seat. Sunlight breaks through mature bamboo as tall as the house, dappled light dances over his face. After days of unrelenting May showers, the weekend has brought reprieve and it feels appropriate to toast the fine weather outdoors. A robin bathes in a nearby flowerpot full of the week’s rainwater. Bill jumps up at the sight of it to close the back door, explaining that they have a habit of making their way inside the house for a peek, brazen as anything. I don’t blame them for wanting a look: the house is beautiful. A period redbrick, the ground floor is immaculate and homely. It was made for entertaining, laid out in an open plan and over a split-level; clearly designed with the considered flourish of an architect’s draftsmanship, by someone who likes to host a party.
It’s the house that Bill shared for most of his 35-year relationship with his late civil partner, Christopher Robson. Christopher, as well as being the architect responsible for the interior of the house, was a trade unionist, LGBTQ+ activist and photographer. He is also the subject of Living with Pride, a major photographic exhibition from the National Library of Ireland. Co-curated with the Library by Bill, the exhibition, which opened in the National Photographic Archive and online earlier this month, charts LGBTQ+ life during the ‘90s and early ’00s in Ireland and elsewhere.
By day, I work in communications and count the National Library among my clients. My job involves promoting its activities. When planning how we would support the Library around Living with Pride, I was quietly taken aback by myself, having never heard of Christopher Robson.
On reading Christopher’s obituary in The Irish Times, I felt more remiss in my ignorance, given his contribution to Irish gay life: he helped found the Dublin Lesbian and Gay Men’s Collectives, Gay Health Action – the first AIDS organisation in Ireland – and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network.
He played a key role in decriminalisation, the introduction of civil partnership and the enactment of State equality legislation. The garden Bill and I sit in hugs the perimeter of Ranelagh Gardens, a park Christopher saved from razing and redevelopment in the ‘80s.
To learn more about the man behind these accomplishments, I sought to hear Christopher’s story as told by Bill. Their narratives intertwined and inextricable, Bill’s impact on Christopher was profound.
Himself a lifelong activist, Bill has been campaigning since his late teens. He shows no sign of letting up. As recently as last summer he was volunteering with HIV Ireland, checking in men like myself for a rapid test at the weekly clinic; his presence as warmly familiar and kind as it is today. He speaks in a slow and measured way, thoughtful and generous, open-hearted and understated.
It was over cheese-cube hedgehogs and cheap wine at an Irish Gay Rights Movement social that the pair first met. While the choice of finger food in 1978 left much to be desired, the two hit it off instantly, the spark of attraction keenly felt. Bill’s opening gambit was to compliment Christopher’s shirt, teasing that he had only just eyed it up for himself in a trendy Grafton Street boutique, beaten to it by his imminent lover. Later in our conversation, Bill describes Christopher as being playfully, flirtatiously competitive throughout his life, even, or especially, with Bill. He got one-up before they even met.
The two connected over art, photography and dancing. Christopher lamented a lack of people who loved to move as much as he did, while Bill routinely travelled the country, demonstrating to the ordinary people of Ireland, in halls in places like Carlow and Waterford, how to get down to the newly imported sounds of disco. Christopher was often drafted in as the roadie.
Notwithstanding the arrival of those ecstatic sounds, the ‘70s and ‘80s were bleak, depressed socially, politically and economically. Although the litany of things to campaign around and protest over seemed endless, there were opportunities for joy, release and connection too.
As far as gay life was concerned, it wasn’t blanket misery. Paradoxically, Bill says, precisely because of homosexuality’s outright criminalisation, it was impossible for the authorities to enforce a prohibition on everything.
Often, a blind eye was turned. At one point, he recalls, there were more saunas than bars in Dublin, before quoting Christopher, who would often say, “because everything is forbidden, everything is allowed.” Conscious of prohibition, people found ways to skirt it.
Nonetheless, the scene was nascent. Only a handful of bars existed and invariably, the party would be taken back to a house after premises closed. Word would soon spread and everyone would show up, invited or not. “The scene was free and open in that sense, a leveller. You could meet anyone.” Bill, from a working class background in Walkinstown and council estate-raised, and Christopher, privately educated, fluent in Latin and Greek, and more than 20 years Bill’s senior exemplify this. “Apart from being gay, in that environment, there was no way I would have met Christopher.”
In Bill’s description of the night they first met, the pair showed gay defiance from the outset, walking home through Dublin holding hands, subjected to the requisite gawping and slurs as they did. An outward display of homoattraction ahead of its time. Coming out to oneself, and one’s family, friends and workplace was more than many could manage then. When it came to confronting the structural injustices of the day, few people would put themselves in a position of protest. Bill recalls a regular demonstration against the handling of the Charles Self murder by the Guards, for example, which would do well to garner more than ten people. “Going to a demo was way beyond what most people were able to step up for. It felt exposed.”
As the stakes got higher, particularly following the wellpublicised murders of Self and, later, Declan Flynn, as well as the urgency of the AIDS crisis after that, and growing noise around law reform, Bill and Christopher became more entrenched in their activism. However, the two weren’t travelling at the same pace.
Bill, who was 19 when he met Christopher, then 37, had more of youth’s bright-eyed radicalism, having “come in off the streets” as he puts it. He wonders aloud, if Christopher hadn’t met him, would he “have settled down with a nice middle-class boy and been involved in the dinner party set”, insulated from the issues of the day. But Christopher had met him, so Bill coaxed him along. “He wasn’t hugely comfortable shouting on the streets but he did it.” And, while they had attended one or two dinner parties together, their growing activist inclinations saw invitations dwindle. “Those conversations made people uncomfortable. We came to be regarded as peculiarities.”
But it would be some time before Christopher found his gay self and got into his stride. While Bill was involved in the setting up of the Dublin Gay Collective, a small group that agitated loudly for LGBT rights, Christopher was apprehensive about his own involvement, fearful that the radical grouping would put him in a professionally vulnerable position.
This was broadly illustrative of Christopher’s fraught coming out journey. “He had huge struggles around being gay,” Bill tells me. “He attended psychiatrists, he was depressed about it and on medications for a time.” Tied to Christopher’s struggle was a dominant stereotype of over-sexed gay men, resistant to or unable for long-term relationships. In finding Bill and, thus, realising he had agency over the kind of gay man he could be, he saw such reductive stereotypes for what they were – just that.
“I sometimes joke that I cured him of his depression. But, after struggling for so long, coming out and coming to terms with being gay was the cure. A whole range of things lifted.
He blossomed.” The two would laugh about how heteronormative they were in their monogamy, seeing themselves as aping a patriarchal system, when the overriding politics was one of sexual radicalism.
With some convincing, Christopher joined the Dublin Gay Collective. More than a group with whom to take to the streets, it offered him a forum to find answers to fundamental, existential questions about what it meant to be gay, and whether or not he could have happiness as a gay man. It brought resolution, raising his gay consciousness and allowing him to more fully embrace his activism. It set him on the campaigning path he is remembered for today.
Those in the Collective grew into themselves, and in their maturity and awareness of pressing liberation politics. More authentically himself, Christopher’s friendships with his fellow members deepened. “We partied all the time, the house was party central,” Bill says, gesturing toward it. It is easy to imagine the place as a smoky hideout, a way station for disparate but united activists to convene, imbibe and lift each other up after meetings and marches. It feels hallowed.
The photographs in Living with Pride have a contemporary air, their style speaking to today’s preference for less polished portrayals of life. They are grainy and unfiltered, ad hoc. Subjects are often disembodied, unposed – even the queens. Despite the fleeting nature of the pictures, meaningful connection is evident between subject and photographer. Christopher’s known affability, his renowned curiosity in anyone he met, reflects in beaming faces.
The trope that a good photographer sees the moment before it happens holds throughout, so too the notion that the essence of a thing can be singularly captured with a shutter click.
There are plenty of float-filled, banner-wielding crowd shots from marches in Dublin, Paris and New York, full of defiance or joy depending on the year and the occasion. The strongest images, though, are more fragmentary; records of little shared intimacies, individuals lost in their own selves. Steeped in atmosphere, photographs effervesce in their spectacle. You can hear them.
The value of these pictures extends beyond form, they inspire more than pre-iPhone nostalgia. Their concerns feel timely too. They feed into perennial, unsolvable debates about who and what we march for when we assemble; to what end the community is walking. Scenes depicted are striking for their lack of corporatisation, while the transition from protest to party is evident following law reform “[Decriminalisation] flicked a switch that turned them into parades.” They reveal how diverse the community has since become, along lines beyond sexuality alone. They highlight the preciousness of inter-generational dialogue, and ask us to consider what remains to be done.
The exhibition and the wider photographic collection do the important work of recording one man’s perspective of a specific moment in the trajectory of LGBTQ+ life in Ireland. Between the lines, though, Living with Pride is the story of one man’s personal journey to acceptance. It is impossible to divorce the turmoil that Christopher felt around his own sexuality with his treatment of his photographs – and we shouldn’t try. “This endless stream of celebration comes from a place of him not being happy about his sexuality for a long time.” That is powerful.
He felt strongly about recasting depictions of LGBTQ+ people. He did what he could to show autonomous beings mastering their own experience, against odds personal or otherwise, not beholden to stereotypes; in close embrace with themselves and each other, never mind the rest.
The exhibition title, as much as it is a remark or statement, is a lesson, a prospect, a vision. Living with Pride invites pause, asking what it means to live as such and how to do so. Forthright, unabashed and together is what it suggests or instructs, triggering a reminder of how radical a proposition that remains today.
Living with Pride: Photographs by Christopher Robson is open Monday-Friday, 10am-4pm at the National Photographic Archive, Meeting House Square, Temple Bar and online. For more information, to view the exhibition and for the most up-to-date programme of events, visit nli.ie.