So far in GCN’s deep dive, Edmund Lynch, Mary Dorcey, and David Norris have been profiled for the roles they played in the SLM. Working alongside these trailblazers was Michaél Kerrigan, an LGBTQ+ activist, educator, and playwright.
Born in Derry in 1949, Kerrigan grew up an effeminate boy.
“I think we all realised from an early age really. I think my parents got an inkling… when they came home one day and I was wearing my grandmother’s wedding dress singing ‘Getting To Know You’ from The King and I. I think I was about nine or ten at the time… You know that you’re different or there’s something that’s not quite the same,” Kerrigan said in a 2015 interview with fellow SLM co-founder Edmund Lynch.
As an adult, Kerrigan moved out of Derry, shipping off to Dublin after receiving a scholarship to Trinity College.
“I’d never been here before and I was a wee Bogside man, you know. I was part of the Troubles. The Troubles started in 1968, and this was 1972. So I came to Trinity just after Bloody Sunday - a march I was on - and I lost my best friend, Jim Wray, who was shot in the back. We got separated at the march and unfortunately Jim got shot. So that was my background when I came to Trinity. In those days, Trinity was not a part of the national university, it was a Protestant university and all the rest of it. And there was me, a Catholic from the Bogside, coming down,” Kerrigan continued.
A year later, Kerrigan had ingrained himself with an underground group of LGBTQ+ activists on Trinity’s campus, comprised of himself, Ruth Riddick, Mary Dorcey, Margaret McWilliams, Irene Brady, Gerry McNamara, Hugo McManus, Peter Bradley, Edmund Lynch, and David Norris.
“The SLM was diverse and inclusive,” Kerrigan told the Project Arts Centre. “Topics for discussion were varied and included feminism, racism, colonialism, art, poetry, and literature. The message was ‘Only Connect’. That resonates with me to this very day. Unfortunately, a split occurred as certain members felt they wanted to solely concentrate on Gay Rights. They left and formed the Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM).
“I remember how sad the first meeting was after they left but we ploughed on and organised a famous Symposium in the Junior Common Room at Trinity and afterwards, the first gay disco in Ireland. It was in 21 Westland Row and wasn’t there a famous Irish queer born there who is now buried in Paris?!” Kerrigan added, referring, of course, to Oscar Wilde.
Speaking more on the the fractures he saw in the early days of the SLM, Kerrigan told Lynch: “I remember we were having all these debates and discussions about all these different things, feminism and socialism and Palestinian rights as well as gay rights. But I remember then more people came to the meetings, and I remember one night – I’m not sure whether it was you, Edmund, or Clem Clancy or David who said that we felt that we didn’t want to talk about these things anymore. We want to start an Irish gay rights movement, and we don’t want to be here in Trinity, which is fair enough.
“And I remember I was really sort of shocked and dismayed at the time, because I just knew – I had seen a split coming. I saw it coming. And that actually did happen. You did all leave, and you did go and do what they say on the tin and formed the Irish Gay Rights Movement, and left the SLM in Trinity, and the rest is history,” added Kerrigan.
Following his stint at Trinity College, Kerrigan moved to London, where he was part of a similar gay rights movement, which he says was made up of a significant number of Irish members.
“It was interesting, because we were a small group, but there were a lot of Irish people involved in the early gay rights movement in London,” Kerrigan said. “Colm Clifford, Jim Ennis, Michaél O’Dwyer, Peter Bradley, me, Terry Stewart, you know. It was a big percentage for a small group of Irish gay men involved in the early gay rights movement in London.”
While Kerrigan was an instrumental figure in the early gay rights movements in both Dublin and London, the same kind of liberation would not be fully realised in his home town of Derry, Northern Ireland, until 2020 when the country legalised same-sex marriage and held its first same-sex wedding ceremony.
“So here we are again, after all this time. I’m saying to myself, ‘My god! 50 years later and I’m still…’ I’m tired! You know, it’s a long haul,” Kerrigan said, speaking on Northern Ireland and the continued need to campaign for LGBTQ+ rights. “From 1973 to ’93, before we were legalised, it’s a long ould struggle and it does take its toll. And you do feel tired at times, worn out and worried. And when I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go again…Do I have to gird my loins again for battle? I mean am I going to be at it again for the rest of my life? For what?’ But I’m still okay. Still quite energised and still have a bit of energy about me. So we’ll see what happens.”
In addition to being a lifelong civil rights and socialist advocate, Michaél Kerrigan is also the author of Pits and Perverts, a play chronicling the lives of the gay men involved in the 1984 London Miners Strike.