Activist and former priest Bernárd Lynch opens up about the devastation of the AIDS crisis

Bernárd Lynch rose to prominence in New York during the AIDS crisis and was one of the first to bring HIV/AIDS to Irish national attention on the Late Late Show in 1987.

A picture of Bernárd Lynch at the launch for the acquisition at the National Library of Ireland.
Image: Marc O’Sullivan

The National Library is home to abundant literature and collections that recall the life of Ireland’s citizens and their diaspora. The newest collection to enhance this retelling of Irish life is that of Bernárd Lynch – a former priest and fierce HIV/AIDS activist. This collection is one-of-a-kind, spanning over 50 years and including some of the most personal items from Lynch’s belongings. Among these personal items are letters between himself and his parents around the time he came out as a gay man. Though the collection is compiled of submissions from one man, Bernárd Lynch took to a podium in the National Library of Ireland last Tuesday to convey his motivation to publish the material, saying: “I can still hear their words and the minds that formed them. I needed their words so that they could awaken in me their fierce courage.”

Bernárd Lynch spoke so eloquently about the voices of those affected by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, many of whom he helped while working with Dignity, a Catholic organisation in New York. He mentioned the voices of the Irish men and women who fell victim to the epidemic, saying that “They are what the archive is about. It’s not about me. The diaspora has come home. I’ve been privileged to bring them home.”

In an office upstairs, away from the hubbub of downstairs’ event, Bernárd Lynch told GCN about how he found Dignity, but first, how he came to realise he was gay. He had emigrated to America in his 20s, as he was sent there to undertake a master’s degree in psychology. To further his training, he was required to complete psychotherapy of his own.

He remembered how the native New Yorker who was counselling him could “could see through” him, and that “in therapy, I came to realise that my unhappiness, my frustration, my never being interested in girls in the way that my friends were, was due to the fact that I was homosexual. Of course, I was terribly distraught.”

Though his therapist reassured him he wasn’t alone, saying “this is New York post-69. There are gay knitting clubs, gay S&M clubs, gay theatre clubs – there’s gay everything. He said, ‘I’m sure there’s a gay Catholic group.’ So, what would an Irish Catholic boy look for except, you know, the gay Catholic club? So, I called up the Switchboard and they said ‘Yeah, there’s a group called Dignity.’”

His involvement with the organisation led him to meet a diverse group of gay men from all nationalities and backgrounds, a community that was devastated by the AIDS crisis. These people are the voices Lynch remembered in his speech at the NLI’s acquisition event earlier that day. In an emotional admission, he told the story of a dear friend, who he eventually lost to the disease. He said that “one of my best friends, Stuart, came down with the disease. I had gotten a phone call; I was at school at the time. He asked me to meet him in a gay bar.

“At the time, we used to run track together at Columbia University. And when I saw him, this beautiful young man who was brilliant and extraordinarily gifted. I could see he had Kaposi’s sarcoma. I was devastated. He said, ‘Bernárd, you know what’s wrong? I said ‘Yes,’ He asked me then ‘So do you believe in God?’ I can still feel the tears, and I said, ‘Stuart, I don’t know.’

“I stayed with him, he lived until he was 22. I suppose together, we came to the decision that we hoped there was something more. He held on to that hope. And I still hope. As I sat in there, if I didn’t have hope, I would have killed myself. Hope is the oxygen of justice; despair is the greatest enemy of justice.”

Bernárd Lynch continued the interview with a memory of one particular submission to the archive, cassette tapes. The tapes are one of many examples from the archive that convey the difficulties Lynch would run into, advocating for HIV/AIDS at a time when the issue was enshrined with such a heightened stigma. He recalled a time when a Catholic publication asked him to make a cassette tape to help those caring for people with AIDS.

He said that “it was an official request by the Catholic church. Would I, in light of my experience, talk about ministry? In the middle of it, I said in order to do ministry, we have to know where gay people are and gay is criminal here. How can gay people let us know where they are and ask for help? If it’s a criminal offence in our so-called ‘free state.’ I would say it was a matter of urgency to decriminalise gay sex – immediately. If you are serious about preventing HIV and AIDS.

“The tape was made, and within 24 hours it was taken off the shelves because I advocated.” Bernárd chuckled “I was lucky to have two copies.”

Along with cassette tapes, the collection is also comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, postcards and legal testimonies from his life. They paint a vivid picture of metaphysical events in our community’s history. The archive donated by Bernárd Lynch to the National Library of Ireland is undoubtedly a priceless vessel for education about LGBTQ+ history to the community’s younger generation. In tandem with remembering the voices of those lost to HIV/AIDS, the collection has a voice of its own. That voice is no longer going underrepresented, misconstrued, or forgotten about. It has made a home in the National Library of Ireland, where it will be remembered as a valued emblem for LGBTQ+ and Irish history forever.

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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