‘Terrible queer creatures’: a history of homosexuality in Ireland

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

‘Terrible queer creatures’: a history of homosexuality in Ireland
Brian Lacey
(Wordwell Books, €25)
ISBN 9781905569236

With a title referencing James Joyce, this book takes one down a hundred avenues of Irish gay history and a greater number of characters. Whether their homosexuality is documented or the subject of reasoned speculation, Brian Lacey, a noted museum curator and archaeologist, has provided an exhaustive and entertaining look at the subject and its practitioners. As a gay man and thus a ‘critter’, he has recognised a great need in the market—one for the education of every new cohort of gay men and lesbians who, at their emergence from a heterosexual shell, have no history to hand, and certainly nothing local. The closest is now 40 years old. That was Montgomery Hyde’s great and abiding work, The other love. Unionist MP for North Belfast in the 1950s, Hyde was someone whose parliamentary career was destroyed because he led the campaign for homosexual law reform at Westminster. He gets honourable mention.
In this volume, which is a veritable gay Wikipedia but with depths and opinions that that encyclopaedia cannot permit, we gain a wide knowledge not just of homosexuality but—perhaps unintentionally—of Irish history. Although not claiming to be writing original research, Lacey, a scholar of that era, does in the book’s early chapters bring the reader to Gaelic Ireland—through a backdoor. Sexual life then seemed freer and unconventional, with poets and bards showing great susceptibility to powerful and handsome princes. Nothing new there, perhaps.
It is noteworthy that the best-known and most prominent homosexuals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Irish. I refer to Wilde and Casement, who had a number of things in common that I won’t go into but Brian Lacey does. Wilde attracts controversy to this day. In January 2009 a proposal to erect a plaque marking his stay in Worthing, where he wrote The importance of being Earnest, was vehemently opposed by several locals, one a historian, on the grounds that Oscar had abused a fourteen-year-old newspaper vendor, Alfonso Conway, during his visit.
Why have there been so many prominent (unfortunately often disgraced) Irish gays and lesbians, and so often unionist? Lacey cites the less-than-lovely MP for East Belfast, Edward de Cobain, jailed by virtue of the 1885 Labouchère amendment, even before Wilde. A good number of the 1916 rebels were same-sex lovers, particularly notable women like Madeleine ffrench-Mullan and Kathleen Lynn. Is this frequency part of our insular condition? The answer has still to be provided, but much evidence is now laid out. P. H. Pearse, whose picture adorns the book’s cover along with King Billy, certainly did not recognise that his florid appreciation of boys was sexual until friends drew it to his attention and told him to cool it.
Lacey quotes Elaine Sissons as dealing ‘in a marvellously intelligent way’ with the subject of Pearse’s ‘sublimated homosexuality’ and the ‘homoerotic tendencies’ in his work, setting these matters in the context of the Edwardian culture of his time:

‘In general, people do not have a difficulty with the knowledge that Pearse was a homosexual man who sublimated his erotic desire for the male body into his work, his writings and his politics. The question that dare not speak its name is whether or not Pearse was a paedophile.’

Of course, William III, prince of Orange, may not have been gay at all. Indeed, the accusation may be homophobic. Political enemies, then as now, exult in ascribing homosexuality to opponents. It is therefore worth quoting the king’s exchange with William Bentinck, earl of Portland, a previous favourite, who said in 1697 that ‘the kindness which your majesty has for a young man [William van Keppel, then 27 and just created earl of Albemarle], and the way in which you seem to authorise his liberties . . . make the world say things I am ashamed to hear’. This, Bentinck said, was ‘tarnishing a reputation which has never before been subject to such accusations’. The king sensibly replied, ‘It seems to me very extraordinary that it should be impossible to have esteem and regard for a young man without it being criminal’.
It is surely true that Roger Casement, had he not been gay, would not have been an Irish revolutionary. He would have married and had children and not had the time or inclination to break out of the British Empire. If so, the Irish Free State (which was probably going to happen somehow) would have turned out differently, probably less revolutionary, while the Rising would have differed in certain key aspects. So gays have made Irish history, speeding it up or slowing it down.
Other characters whose forgotten sexual stories Lacey recounts are Lord Castlereagh, Robert Stewart from Newtownards, who effected the Act of Union in 1800, and his bizarre suicide, and his contemporary, Percy Jocelyn, Lord Roden’s son, the disgraced bishop of Clogher. This book will intrigue popular readers but could also serve as a basis for further academic study. In any paperback version certain errors or inconsistencies in proper names might be corrected. The author is especially fortunate to be dealing with a subject that never seems to be out of the news, here or abroad.

Jeffrey Dudgeon is the author of Roger Casement: the Black Diaries with a study of his background, sexuality, and Irish political life (Belfast Press, 2002).

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