Ireland’s Stonewall Era: Interview with LGBT Activist Kieran Rose

Kieran Rose is a decorated veteran hero of the Irish gay rights movement, and has continued to campaign and work as an LGBT advocate for over 50 years. Over those years, he has been accosted by police in Paris, interviewed by the late Gay Byrne in a then-groundbreaking interview on Irish television, spoken out against the murder of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park, marched in the resulting very first Dublin Pride in 1983, he ran for election, lobbied for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and campaigned for the introduction of civil partnership, which paved the way towards full marriage equality in 2015.

He is, in short, a pioneer of the progress seen today in Irish LGBT society, and while he quickly points out that there remains “so much more to be done”, the gratitude which he deserves, especially from the Irish gay & lesbian community, is by no means small.

So, when Kieran reached out to us at EILE Magazine with a batch of photos that date from the early 1980s, we knew that what we were looking at was a priceless visual insight into Irish LGBT history.

A Tragic Call to Action

Although there was an emerging gay rights movement in Ireland at the time, the catalyst for radical change emerged as a result of the shocking homophobic murder of Declan Flynn, a Dubliner who was killed in September 1982 by 4 men and one minor, who were all given suspended sentences by the judge, Mr Justice Paul Gannon. Outraged by such a lenient sentencing, Ireland witnessed its first mass demonstration in support of gay rights and in protest of homophobic violence. In March 1983, over 400 people marched from Dublin city centre to Fairview Park, where Flynn had been killed. Kieran Rose was one of the speakers at the protest when they arrived at Fairview Park.

Cathal Kerrigan speaking at the Fairview Park protest in March 1983

“We were all outraged,” Kieran explained, “because the judge was basically saying that the lives of gay men don’t matter that much; that you could be killed, and that the men who did it would be let off. The rest of society was equally outraged, including politicians and the women’s rights movement.

“The Fairview march was a very broad one; it had the Anti-Amendment Campaign, which was very active at the time; students’ unions; trade unions; and other women’s groups. I’d describe it as Ireland’s Stonewall, because it was a really pivotal moment when we fought back. It was hugely important that it went out to Fairview, as opposed to staying in the city centre, because it said that we won’t be intimidated, or killed, or driven out of public spaces.”

“It was an incredible time, because in 1980, the High Court basically said [during David Norris’ case to decriminalise homosexuality in Ireland] that gay men basically should be sent to prison, and that the law wasn’t contrary to our Constitution. The Supreme Court then supported that in 1983, so those were two pretty horrifying moments where the State was basically saying that they had the right to send us to gaol. The State was also effectively saying; if somebody kills you, it doesn’t bother us that much.”

The feeling of outrage continued within the Irish LGBT community, and its supporters, long enough to prompt the first Dublin Gay Pride parade in 1983, which marched through the city centre. It was supported by the same groups and organisations which were present at the Fairview Park protest, echoing a broad left coalition of trade unionist and feminist support for LGBT equality that had been noticed abroad at the time. Indeed, those who were involved with the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment in 2018 will quickly recognise the same solidarity between those groups, as the amendment was being campaigned for its introduction by conservative groups at the same time as the first Gay Pride in Dublin.

“The Anti-Amendment Campaign was ongoing at the time,” Kieran notes. “There was a Gays Against the Amendment group, and we were part of that campaign group in Cork, and the Dublin Lesbian & Gay Collective were involved amongst others, so the links were built up between lesbians and gay men, and other progressives.”

Leeside Liberation

While Dublin was catalysed by what happened in Fairview, efforts for gay & lesbian liberation in Cork were already ongoing, although the southern city certainly felt the effects from events in the capital.

Prior to Flynn’s tragic death, the emerging Cork Gay Collective was moving towards a significant presence in the city, one that would have a lasting effect Leeside through its involvement with the Quay Co-Op alongside other progressive organisations, but nationally too – the Collective served as a resource for all gay rights campaigners at the time, including Kieran Rose.

“It gave us confidence that we could do something”

In 1981, he and the Collective lobbied the Irish Congress of Trade Unions at Cork City Hall in support of gay & lesbian workers’ rights, which the ICTU officially supported the following year. In 1983, Rose produced a leaflet, Claiming an Identity, Gays at Work, for the Cork branch of the Local Government and Public Service Union, which according to the Cork LGBT Archive; “noted that while the unions had passed motions in support of gay rights, that there had been little practical progress in the implementation of these policies and that the situation of lesbian and gay men in Ireland remained appalling. The leaflet outlined the discrimination experienced by lesbians and gay men and called on the unions to renew their support for lesbian and gay workers.”

For Kieran, the Cork Gay Collective was hugely significant, and he is quick to acknowledge that every influential group is likely to have humble beginnings.

“For a lot of us, we didn’t have a whole lot of political or organising experience, so our first action of the Cork Gay Collective was to invite Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company to Cork from London via Dublin. It gave us confidence that we could do something, and it was an intervention into the city [by hosting their production]. The play, Blood Green, was open to the public, and got reviewed by the Cork Examiner and Irish Times. So, it was great fun.”

Youthful Energy

For Rose, that period in Irish LGBT history was highly important, but it certainly wasn’t lacking in good craic at the same time. From weekend trips with friends to relaxing in Paris after protesting, there are clearly moments when the fight for rights had plenty of causes for celebration along the way.

“Everything from pints after the meetings or the demos, or dinners and parties… I suppose there was a youthfulness aspect to it, because when you’re in your twenties, you’ve the energy and an interest in socialising. I think by now, I’ve had my ration of it all, but you can see [in the photos] that it wasn’t all marches and meetings, because that’s untrue.”

“I would’ve gone to West Cork for the weekend with [fellow Cork-based activist] Laurie Steel for the weekend or a week, and that kind of bonding between lesbians and between gay men was not only very important, but very political also. It’s important to show the political energy, but also the social energy.”

That youthful energy, and the balanced mix between social and political, allowed for what Kieran described as “a great air of celebration” in the first Dublin Pride marches, despite its roots in Declan Flynn’s death. “People looked delighted, I suppose, for the first time, to be taking to the streets and staking our claim in the capital city. It’s also in those moments of pride and delight in people’s faces, and that’s important; not to look back on that period in time and see it as one of unrelieved gloom.”

“We were oppressed,” Kieran recalls, “but we weren’t an entirely oppressed people. We were very confident, and determined, to create lives for ourselves in this country. We weren’t beaten down, and we were having fun doing it. I remember being in Paris at an ILGA conference and thinking, God – one minute, you’re being attacked by the police, the next, you’re having lovely wine and food at a gorgeous Parisian café. The life of a gay activist wasn’t always so bad!”

The Personal Is Still Political

Back in the Ireland of today, Kieran looks at more recent events in LGBT history, including the 2015 marriage equality referendum, as not only a noble continuation of the efforts made by his generation, but also a reflection of that same youthful, pioneering spirit. Athough there is much work to still be done, Rose feels confident that the Irish LGBT community and their interests are in good hands with the new generation.

“I think the LGBT rights movement here has progressed really well. Obviously the latest success in the marriage referendum involved thousands of often young LGBT people throughout the country, and it clearly wasn’t just in Dublin, Cork, and Galway – it was everywhere. Also, I think, previous to that with the Civil Partnership campaign, the number of people who publically registered as civil partners and then had their weddings celebrated, that was hugely important in my mind in leading in to changing people’s minds about marriage. That goes back to what I saw in the seventies and eighties; the personal is still political.”

“In some ways,” Kieran ponders, “that was very brave. Or, maybe that wasn’t brave at all, and young people couldn’t give two hoots. In that case, that would’ve been brilliant; that their self-esteem was so strong in what they demanded of society, by bringing their grannies and everyone else along to the wedding.”

Kieran Rose has graciously donated a substantial selection of photos from the 80s and 90s, depicting many key moments in the Irish LGBT rights movement, to EILE Magazine. All the photos are available by clicking here. Please credit Kieran Rose if posting images elsewhere.

About Scott De Buitléir

Scott De Buitléir is an author and poet from Dublin, Ireland. He is founder of EILE Magazine, a digital publication for the Irish LGBT community, and has published several works of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction. He lives in Cork with his partner.
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