After declaring independence from British rule, the Irish Free State commenced over 100 years of mercilessly persecuting queer men. To mark a Decade of Centenaries, Oisin Kenny explores the harmful legacy of policing same-sex relationships in Ireland.
Between 1900 and 1920, an estimated 18 queer men were arrested in Dublin due to the criminalisation of homosexuality. However, following Ireland’s declaration of Independence, this number spiked to 390 from 1924 to 1962.
The sudden increase in arrests speaks volumes to the fragility of a newly formed Irish Free State, struggling out from beneath British colonial rule. Those in power latched onto incarceration as a way to hide away anyone perceived as threatening the integrity of a precarious national image- a tactic that’s still prevalent in the present day.
“In the Irish Free State, conservative Catholicism informed a growing desire to create a ‘pure’ and masculine nation, free of homosexuality -a sin that Irish nationalists had long associated with the influence of English degeneracy. Arrests and prosecutions rocketed, and life for gay men suddenly became much harder,” Queen’s University Belfast lecturer Dr Tom Hulme states.
Although the criminalisation of homosexuality was believed to be a holdover from colonial rule, the emerging Free State upheld this law with a jarring ferocity. The South’s aggressive approach to policing queer men stands in stark contrast to Northern authorities’ “veil of secrecy” at the time. Hulme goes on to note, “By no means was homosexuality a desirable trait, but it was thought better to turn a blind eye or only pursue the most scandalous cases of men who outraged public decency.”
These diverging tactics can be further understood after flashing forward to 1982 when Northern Ireland abolished laws criminalising sex between men, however a higher age of consent than heterosexual couples would be retained. It took another 11 years before the Republic of Ireland decriminalised homosexuality by enacting the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act in 1993.
Ireland’s reluctance to relinquish these laws could be seen as growing out from a social and political landscape built upon a sacred belief in reforming ‘social issues’. Instead of a jail sentence, a large majority of people were incarcerated in institutions such as the Magdalene Laundries, industrial schools, Mother and Baby Homes, and psychiatric hospitals, where they would be educated on what those in power deemed acceptable behaviour.
Embedded into the foundations of the Irish Free State, these institutions became central to mass producing a so-called national ideal, disciplining unruly boys into upstanding men and restricting women to docile roles. As historian of sexuality and modern Ireland, Dr Averill Earls, writes in Solicitor Brown and His Boy: Love, Sex, and Scandal in Twentieth-Century Ireland, “The anxieties of the “pure” independent Irish state played out on the bodies of women, and its hopes were meted out on the young men.”
According to Earls’ research, between 1924 and 1964, 11 percent of GBT+ men and boys arrested for sexual activity were aged 17 to 21. Among these many court cases, there was the life of 17 year-old British army deserter Leslie Price, arrested and interrogated over his relationship with 41 year-old State Solicitor for Co Kildare, Ronald Brown.
Price was sentenced to six months in juvenile prison for a relationship with a different man, whereas the courts acquitted Brown. Similar to many others, their testimonies illustrate a youth population struggling economically to survive a developing Irish Free State, the legal systems’ cruel policing of same-sex relationships, and the extent to which those in power protected their own.
Between 1922 and 1960, when there was a sharp spike in same-sex prosecutions, the legal system tended to seek out a higher sentence for older queer men by gaining confirmation of a sexual relationship. In numerous cases, the Gardai could be seen as intimidating a confession out of the younger men and boys to achieve this. Their methods were inflicted usually on those with stronger allegiances to their lovers, for example Price only spoke about having sex with Brown after his third interrogation.
Intensive interrogation sessions were only one of the means by which the Garda persecuted same-sex relationships at the time. Hulme further addresses other tactics utilised by police, “Agent provocateurs loitered in known homosexual haunts, like public toilets on St Stephen’s Green, and also set up spying stings to catch men in the act. Court and police reports show that the so-called ‘pretty police’ went far beyond their remit, and would often make the first move rather than wait to be approached.”
“Morally repugnant policing like this continued well into the 1970’s and 1980’s, and sometimes persisted past decriminalisation, both North and South,” Hulme continued.
Although policing same-sex relationships took on many insidious forms, the legal system seemed to actively work towards exonerating Brown by turning Price into a scapegoat. As quoted in Earls’ paper, Circuit Court judge Cahir Davitt stated at the time, “[Brown] was a solicitor of some 20 years standing, a servant of the High Court, a person who had served his country, participating in the national struggle. . . [Price] had a bad record.”
The term ‘national struggle’ stands out amongst Davitt’s defence of Brown’s character because it carries the Irish Free State’s fears over the potential scandal his conviction might bring. While Price gets thrown into disrepute for seeking shelter, food, and financial support from older men, Brown’s position of power ensured his safety.
Although those in power tried to establish distance between Price and Brown, Earls can still find traces of their bond when looking into the case, “It’s so hard not to feel the pain, the humiliation. Based on what I read in the testimonies, I read this not just as a fling. There’s real affection here, there’s something deeper. I wonder what happened after they disappeared from the Garda’s watchful gaze, beyond Irish shores.”
There are many queer men whose life and stories are yet to be told because the cases recorded show only those who were arrested, and usually through a Dublin-centric perspective. These testimonies may offer a glimpse into a larger queer history but it’s one seeped in criminality, danger, and stigma.
“This is like a black hole for queer history in Ireland. So the court records are often where we have to go first. I am hoping people will seek out other places where a less fraught history is contained. What is happening behind the doors of Dublin that we are not seeing, where are those personal papers, those love stories,” Earls expressed.
Despite a high number of arrests and detainments, convictions were relatively low, as shown between 1928 to 1929 where there were 86 prosecutions and 78 convictions. Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College, Brendan Kelly, comments, “The fact that homosexual acts were illegal in Ireland until 1993, and homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness until 1973, meant that psychiatrists were sometimes called to court to give evidence. This undoubtedly had an impact on perceptions of queer desires and, indeed, perceptions of mental illness.”
“As far as I can see, psychiatrists in such cases tended to say they were ‘treating’ the person with psychological therapy, mostly in order to avoid a conviction,” Kelly concluded.
Due to limited resources and discriminatory legal practices, the everyday lives of queer people in the Irish Free State came to be viewed through institutions, stigma, and vague notes. Leading up to decriminalisation in Ireland, court cases involving sexual relations between older men and younger men were weaponised to justify the continuation of criminalising same-sex relationships.
Author of Gay and Lesbian Activism in the Republic of Ireland, 1973-93, Dr Patrick McDonagh, spoke on how these laws affected LGBTQ+ people in the lead up to decriminalisation, “There was a conflation between homosexuality and pedophilia. If you look at the Government’s case in their defence against [David] Norris, they submitted statistics between 1979 to 1987.”
“I believe those laws fed into many individuals undergoing ‘conversion therapy’. I think those laws factored into that, and much broader research is needed into the extent to which conversion therapy took place in Ireland as not just a result of the laws but also wider societal attitudes,” McDonagh continued.
Speaking on the queer rights movement towards decriminalisation, McDonagh goes on to recount that LGBTQ+ people in Ireland looked towards Poland as a leading example of a Catholic country which successfully decriminalised same-sex relationships. However, he goes on to state, “Who would have thought back in 1990 that in 2021, Trans people in Poland would look to Ireland as a beacon of hope.”
Speaking on the importance of knowing what came before, McDonagh shared, “It shows where we come from and where we don’t want to go back to. [...] There’s much broader stories about how an oppressed community came together and supported each other when the establishment refused to do so.”
Along these lines, Hulme further adds, “It is worth knowing that there have been people that were like us in the past, even if their own experience of sexuality and gender was shaped by the specific times in which they lived. As a gay man, better understanding these ‘queer ancestors’ makes me feel more connected to the city in which I live, and more determined to improve the lives of LGBT people today.”
Throughout the years, criminalisation of samesex relationships has shaped many queer people’s understanding and engagement with their community in countless ways. Hulme notes, “Personal advert columns in the Belfast Telegraph - for ‘musical’ and ‘affectionate’ men ‘looking for a chum’ - were common until the 1960’s. After the rise of an international gay rights movement in the 1970’s, specialist publications like Gay News or Northern Ireland’s own Gay Star provided an advert service that did not require the use of euphemistic codewords.”
Addressing the restrictions criminalisation enforced upon queer rights movements in Ireland during the ‘80s and ‘90s, McDonagh said, “We often forget that the wider impact of those laws on the efforts of gay and lesbian organisations to provide services for the community that were desperately needed but the State refused to implement. So the likes of Tele-A-Friend, the struggles to get any funding to run these organisations or even the struggles to advertise were a direct result of the laws.”
“It made things much harder for the gay and lesbian organisations to survive. The situation would have been considerably worse in Ireland but for the fact they were willing to do this voluntarily. They deserve a lot of our admiration,” McDonagh concludes.
Although those convicted of consensual same-sex relationships received a formal State apology in 2018, there are many who believe this did not go far enough to compensate for this law’s harmful legacy. Amid the 2021 Decade of Centenaries, there are many queer people who still experience harm and isolation due to political inaction, institutional harm, and a glaring lack of resources.
Despite the Irish Free State defining itself by aggressive policing, political anxieties, and a social environment drowning in shame, queer people still found ways to connect with one another. On August 29, all those years ago, under intensive police questioning, Price summarised his relationship with the State Solicitor as, “Mr Brown was very good to me.” His words speak to those little, groundbreaking moments of kindness which push back against a world that can feel so overwhelmingly cruel at times.
Images courtesy of National Library of Ireland - The Commons.
Decade of Centenaries - Criminalisation - Harmful Legacies