5 mins


On February 6, 2024, the Institute of Historical Research, based in the School of Advanced Study in the University of London will host an online roundtable which will feature papers on Queer Irish History.

In many ways this is a very usual roundtable, Irish history is often featured in the university’s seminar series, in other ways, it is extraordinary to think that queer Irish history is now relatively mainstreamed at conferences, seminars, and workshops. But it wasn’t always like this. Much like Irish gender and women’s history, Irish queer history has had to fight its way towards recognition as a legitimate and valuable field of study. And, like women and gender history, much of the heavy lifting was, and remains, the work of activists as well as archivists and historians.

Irish Queer history has its origins in the desire of several LGBTQ+ activists to create stories and archives of our own histories. The Irish Queer Archive (IQA) is perhaps the best-known resource for our modern histories.

Collected by the great Tonie Walsh and other activists, it is now a major collection within the national collections at the National Library of Ireland (NLI). Perhaps it’s easy to forget now, in the years after we campaigned for and achieved the insertion of marriage equality into the Constitution, and in a society where, in theory if not always in practice, LGBTQ+ rights are enshrined in law, that for many years of its existence the IQA operated out of insecure spaces, an at-risk archive.

Accession negotiations eventually lead to a successful deposit of all the materials into the NLI in 2008. Now it’s one of the library’s largest collections, consulted by researchers, historians, academics and writers. Hopefully a next step would be to digitise the IQA to make it more universally accessible.

The 21st century has seen a flourishing of queer history publications, further archival collections, and oral histories. Orla Egan in Cork has done sterling work collecting and depositing the Cork LGBT Archive with the Digital Repository of Ireland. Christopher Robson’s collection of photos is in the NLI, as are the papers of Senator David Norris and writer Colm Tóibín. Activist and film maker Edmund Lynch recorded dozens of interviews with LGBTQ+ activists before he passed away in 2023, and these are and will be an invaluable resource. In Northern Ireland, materials on queer activism are on deposit in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), with more in the National Archives (UK). Activists north and south continue to add to all collections.

With all this archival material, and in the knowledge that much more remains to be uncovered, many professional historians are now devoting their expertise to queer histories.

There have been several very welcome publications in recent years from, to name but a few, Brian Lacey’s Terrible Queer Creatures: A History of Homosexuality in Ireland (2008), Sonja Tiernan’s study of Eva Gore Booth and her shared life with her partner Esther Roper, Eva Gore-Booth: An Image of Such Politics (2012), Páraic Kerrigan’s LGBTQ Visibility, Media and Sexuality in Ireland (2020), Patrick McDonagh’s Gay and Lesbian Activism in the Republic of Ireland 1973-93 (2021) and Mary McAuliffe and Harriet Wheelock’s The Diaries of Kathleen Lynn; A Life Revealed Through Personal Writing (2023).

As well as publications, there have been queer history documentaries, including the brilliant Outitude: The Irish Lesbian Community from Sonya Mulligan and Ger Moane in 2018. I was particularly delighted to be part of the recent documentary Croíthe Radacacha (Radical Hearts), which was based on my research on the queer Irish female revolutionary couples, funded by the BAI and broadcast on TG4 in December 2023. Archives, books, and documentaries are all adding to our developing sense of Ireland’s queer histories and its place in the national histories of this country. These developments continue with wonderful, and well-funded, projects such as Queer Northern Ireland: Sexuality before Liberation, led by academics Tom Hulme (QUB) and Leanne McCormick (Ulster University).

Dr Mary McAuliffe is a historian and lecturer at UCD Gender Studies and a member of the Board of the NXF.
Photo credit -Irish Queer Archive.

This project looks at LGBTQ+ life in Northern Ireland from the early 20th century until decimalisation in 1982. Having secured Irish Research Council funding, I will soon be holding a day-long symposium on the 50 years of LGBTI activism in the Republic (1973-2023), looking at what has happened in queer politics and activism since the first meeting of the Sexual Liberation Movement was held in Dublin in October 1973.

All this activity has led to a flourishing of Irish Queer Histories, but we cannot rest on our laurels. Much of this work is on 19th and 20th century lesbian and gay histories, with the majority on queer men. The reasons for this are many, including the fact that male histories are privileged over other histories, the archives are easy to access, especially as anxieties around homosexuality were public, gay male sex was criminalised, and there were a number of ‘celebrity’ trials – Oscar Wilde for instance. Women, generally, are more difficult to find in archives, and lesbians are often ‘doubly marginalised, doubly invisible’. Trans and Intersex histories and archives are even more invisible and marginalised, and much work needs to be done on collecting and analysing those histories. It is also important to take the long view of history- queer people existed in all periods of Irish history, and work in areas such as the early Christian, medieval, and early modern times are very necessary.

All of this is heartening, however, while there are individual modules on queer histories, it continues to be the case that there is no dedicated centre for sexualities, identities, or queer histories in any Irish University. There are centres for sports history, war history, gender history (to an extent), medical history and house history, so a dedicated Centre for Queer Histories would be a very welcome addition. For now, however, those of us invested in queer histories continue to research and talk about these histories.

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Welcome, dear reader, to the first issue of GCN for 2024.
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