The Passing of a Giant |

6 mins

The Passing of a Giant

Ireland’s Rainbow Society has lost one of its ‘founding brothers and sisters’. Edmund Lynch, who died recently at the age of 76, leaves behind an extraordinary, rich legacy as a civil rights activist and LGBTQ+ archivist. Tonie Walsh remembers a great man.

A Dubliner, Edmund joined RTÉ as a sound technician in 1969 and remained there until his retirement. As an Irish member of the UK-based Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), Edmund Lynch participated in Ireland’s first conference on human sexuality held at the New University of Coleraine on October 3, 1973. One of the conference objectives advocated legal change in contraception, divorce, abortion and homosexuality.

While at Coleraine, Edmund met Margaret McWilliam (a member of Sappho) and Peter Bradley. Bradley was participating as a delegate of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the first organisation in the Republic to come out publicly in support of lesbian and gay rights. The Coleraine conference also featured participants from the newly established Gay Liberation Society (Belfast), some of whom would become lifelong political associates of Edmund.

Shortly after the conference, Peter Bradley called a meeting at Trinity College, Dublin, with the aim of advancing many of the issues discussed at Coleraine. Five people, among them Margaret McWilliam, Michael Kerrigan and Hugo MacManus, turned up at the first meting to establish a politically intersectional group called the Sexual Liberation Movement (SLM). Within a few weeks, they were joined by Mary Dorcey and her lover, Irene, Joni Crone, Gerry McNamara, Fergus Martin and Edmund. David Norris, then an English language lecturer at the college, credits Edmund for introducing him to the group.

SLM, although short-lived, would go on to score some significant successes that have been detailed recently in these pages; notably Ireland’s first island-wide symposium on homosexuality (February ’74) and the first Pride demo (June ’74), by which stage both Edmund and David had moved on to help co-found the Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM).

“I’m a very good organiser,” Ed would often say to those who weren’t already aware of his administrative talents and gargantuan capacity for hard work. All of this he put to the benefit of IGRM as it expanded its services to include a community centre - The Phoenix Centre - at Dublin’s Parnell Square.

The genesis of the Irish Queer Archive can be traced back to here, when Edmund oversaw the development of a gay research group and press clippings service. Incidentally, all of those surviving press clippings are now housed at the National Library of Ireland.

When IGRM imploded in 1977 due to political infighting and personality clashes, Edmund and David, now joined by trade union activist Bernard Keogh, Tony O’Shea, Brian Murray and others, set about establishing the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, with the single aim of mounting a constitutional challenge to Ireland’s anti-gay laws. A year later, a much expanded group went hunting for a new premises in an undeveloped part of Dublin’s city centre behind the Central Bank.

Late 1978 was spent transforming a three-story warehouse at 10 Fownes St into a new, full-time community centre - the Hirschfeld Centre - and the headquarters of a brand new organisation called the National Gay Federation (NGF now known as NXF).

It was at the Hirschfeld Centre that I first met Edmund, some six months after it opened on St Patrick’s Day, 1979. By this stage, CHLR was one of the founding groups of the International Gay Association and through NGF had agreed to run IGA’s information secretariat from the Hirschfeld Centre. IGA (a fledging global NGO with considerable ambition) and NGF needed enormous amounts of expertise and energy, something that Edmund was adept at delivering. Ed was also good at pulling strokes. Witness the set pieces of the 1978 National Song Contest, discarded in some RTÉ loading bay, finding new purpose as décor at Flikkers, the dance club in the Hirschfeld Centre.

Within a few months, I was working with Ed and his team on both international and domestic gay issues. This was at a time when there really were so few proud and out LGBTQ+ people and even fewer who were prepared to give of themselves so generously to build the necessary structures of queer liberation that we’d set our minds to. For a 19 year-old as I was then, it was exciting and hugely empowering to be a part of that process, discovering the language of liberation and identity, seeding so many lifelong friendships.

Edmund’s flair for publishing is evident from the many publications produced by NGF (NXF) since 1979, beginning with In Touch newsletter. I credit Edmund with giving me my first paid writing assignment for the newly established Out magazine that he helped co-found in 1984. He gave me a double page spread to interview Prof Mary McAleese, then a high profile educator and legal eagle who’d also joined the board of CHLR.

Out magazine was a labour of love for Edmund and an enormously risky undertaking, even if partially bankrolled by NGF. It’s impossible to overstate how socially and economically hostile the climate was at the time, especially for a niche community publishing project with extraordinary high standards. Not unlike GCN’s early pioneering years, there were many moments when it felt close to collapse. It was ultimately undone by homophobic workers at the Carlow and Leinster Times who refused to print the penultimate issue after taking exception to a safer sex ad.

In its four-year history, Out laid claim to some of the best queer writing, design and photography that Ireland had to offer. Among its high profile contributors were authors Frank McGuinness, Nuala Ó Faoláin, Edmund White and Nell McCafferty. It remains a benchmark in Irish queer publishing, in no small part due to Edmund’s imaginative vision and tenacity and the people he drew around him.

Edmund had many layers. His tenacity for hard graft was self-evident, as was his generous and hospitable nature. But he never suffered fools and he could be pugnacious and obtuse to those he felt had crossed him. In over 40 years of friendship and work, we had some vicious rows, both socially inconsequential and massively ideological.

Ed’s veneer of stubbornness masked a shy man at heart but was also a necessary armour for a gay working class man from Drimnagh who really never cared much for what other people thought of him and was utterly unafraid of telling people off (to the point of even jeopardising some friendships along the way).

He mellowed as he got older, not least after meeting his future husband Martin and from being exposed to a new generation of activists and archivists who energised and propelled him into pastures anew.

Forever an archivist and conscious that some of his peers were much older and more frail than he was, he began recording oral histories about a decade ago. It became over time Edmund’s great life project, all the while recovering from a stroke that would have felled many half his age. Hiring a film crew and a space to shoot the interviews was both time consuming and expensive, yet Edmund persevered; doggedly entreating individuals to sit for an interview and then arranging transcriptions of the finished edits.

Several of these interviews remain the only significant filmed interview in existence of some of our older LGBTQ+ activists. They are already proving to be an invaluable archival resource and to date remain the most extensive LGBTQ+ oral history project in Ireland.

A selection of the early interviews became the TV programme, A Different Country. It premiered on RTÉ during Dublin Pride, 2017, having won best documentary at the GAZE film festival the previous year.

In a political career spanning half a century, defined by considerable personal bravery, activism and leadership, there were a few missteps. Ed’s involvement in the rancorous IGRM split of 1977 contributed to an unnecessary duplication of resources, considerable lost opportunities and some very public, petty bickering between the elder leaders of IGRM and NGF. A really nasty saga that lasted almost five years, it was unedifying and unnecessary, as was the hugely controversial manner of the Hirschfeld Centre’s sale in 1999. Even after all this time, the disposal of The Hirschfeld Centre remains a festering sore for many.

All the same, Edmund’s imaginative vision, exuberant energy and political generosity have touched many and run like a rich seam through 50 years of queer activism in Ireland. For that, I salute you Ed, one of our ‘founding brothers and sisters’, and will miss our sparkly conversations and plotting. Thank you.

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