On March 19, thirty five years ago, Ireland held its first ever gay rights protest.
The previous September, a gay man – Declan Flynn – had been kicked to death in Fairview Park, Dublin, by a gang of youths, who’d been ‘enjoying’ an evening of queer-bashing.
They were given a suspended sentence for manslaughter in March 1983. The judge in the case – Sean Gannon – stated that while what they had done could never be construed as murder, it wasn’t quite okay to brutally kill gay people. Thus the suspended sentence.
The culprits held a victory bonfire close to the Park to celebrate their release.
The gay community quite reasonably saw red. Despite still being criminals (until 1993) a protest march against the leniency of the sentence, took place between Liberty Hall and Fairview Park on Saturday 19th March 1983. It was attended by over five hundred people – from gay groups to feminist groups to trade union groups. This was the first large scale protest for lesbian and gay rights in Ireland.
The murder of Flynn and the subsequent protest march have become defining moments in Irish LGBT history – Ireland’s version of Stonewall in a sense. (Poignantly, the footbridge near where Flynn was murdered was festooned with rainbow ribbons and balloons on May 23rd 2015 – the day after Ireland voted to legalise same sex marriage.)
On March 19 2018, to mark the anniversary of the march, Dublin Pride held a memorial in Fairview Park, near the spot where the murder happened. Members of the community who had organised the protest spoke about their involvement in this breathtaking act of bravery in 1983. They spoke of their fear and apprehension in the run-up to the protest, and the hostility they felt from the spectators as they moved through the streets.
One speaker observed that thanks to the very justified worry of the participants, that it was the only LGBT+ march, that ever started on time; and that once it had begun, it moved with speed. There was a genuine fear that they might be stoned en-route.
This was a time after all, when gay male sexuality was a crime. When lesbians would invariably lose custody of their children in any child custody case, regardless of circumstance. When the police used the (still unsolved) murder of gay RTE set designer Charles Self in September 1982, to gather a database of the names of gay men, for the purposes of harassment and intimidation. When gay men who had been convicted for ‘cruising’ would have their names and addresses printed in the papers resulting in them losing their jobs, and being ostracized from their families. Where emigration was the most sensible option for any gay person.
It was very moving to hear the accounts of those brave people (one of whom I used to work with when I moved to Dublin in 1996 – although I had no notion of her involvement in the LGBT+ rights struggle at that time) described the atmosphere in Ireland in 1983 – a time when reports of a ‘cancer’ that was killing gay men in huge numbers in New York and London were trickling through to Ireland. How the toxic aftermath of that bleak era are still felt to this day – in 1983, the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution criminalising women for having an abortion was introduced. That amendment is still in place.
It was wonderful to see how things have changed for the better in this country. It would have been unfathomable, thirty five years ago to imagine a gay Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), marching in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade with his male partner, in New York, in 2018.
It also brought to mind the terror I felt in 1996, when as a bolshie youth I attended my first gay pride march in Dublin – it had grown to about 1500 participants by that stage, but it was nothing like the huge festival it is today.
Standing among the assembled crowd in Fairview Park today, watching the sea of rainbow flags fluttering in the breeze felt powerful. The minute’s silence to remember Declan Flynn (a man described by the speakers, as being kind and gentle and good) brought a tear to my eye. Things are so much better now. But it’s wise not to forget.
RIP Declan Flynn.
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