AIDS activist and former priest Bernárd Lynch donates archive to National Library of Ireland

The NLI has announced the acquisition of the invaluable archive of AIDS activist and former Catholic priest Bernárd Lynch.

The photograph shows Katherine McSharry of the National Library of Ireland and Bernárd Lynch sitting at a table in a library holding a piece of paper. They are both looking into the camera smiling.
Image: Marc O'Sullivan Photography

The National Library of Ireland (NLI) has today, November 29, 2022, marked the acquisition of the Fr Bernárd Lynch Collection.

The HIV/AIDS activist and former priest originally hails from Ennis, Co Clare. Following his ordination into the Catholic Church in 1971, he moved to New York and formed Dignity, an organisation which supported lesbian and gay Christians. 

Following the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, he became a dedicated activist, directly caring for and supporting many of those suffering from the virus.  

Throughout his time in New York, he successfully campaigned for the introduction of non-discriminatory legislation before moving to London where he continued his work in supporting people with HIV and AIDS.

The Fr Bernárd Lynch Collection spans more than 50 years, documenting his time in New York and London, comprising of letters, postcards, newspaper clippings and legal testimonies. 

Included in the collection are several letters from the 1980s from people in Ireland and the UK who were dealing with issues around sexuality and religion, some of whom were living with HIV/AIDS. There are also transcripts and a lie detector test result from Bernárd Lynch’s trial in New York, where he was falsely accused of sexual assault.

One of the most impactful personal inclusions in the collection is correspondence from Bernárd to his family in Clare when he came out as a gay man in the early 1980s and the responses from both his parents expressing their uncompromising support and love.

Speaking at an event to mark the acquisition, Bernárd Lynch said, “This year marks 40 years since the first AIDS case was diagnosed in Ireland. This anniversary is a time of reflection, allowing us to consider the effects which the epidemic had on the LGBTI+ community, and how – even still – there is a journey to travel before we arrive at a place of non-discrimination and acceptance. 

“I hope that my archive will be a useful reference point for researchers; for people looking for hope; and for people who want to remember and reflect on loss.”

He concluded, “It is an honour for me to bring my archive home to Ireland, and I cannot be more grateful to the National Library for their diligence and commitment to making this record accessible for generations to come.”

Speaking on behalf of the NLI, Acting Director Katherine McSharry said, “It is an incredible honour for the National Library of Ireland to receive the Fr Bernárd Lynch Collection, which offers us remarkable insight into a time – all too recent – when the LGBTI+ community were marginalised and discriminated against.” 

She continued, “The archive is a powerful reminder of those days and of the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the LGBTI+ community both in New York and Ireland… Fr Bernárd Lynch has made an indelible mark on the world while maintaining his Irish connections as a prominent member of our diaspora.”

Also speaking at the event, the founder of the Irish Queer Archive, Tonie Walsh, paid tribute to Lynch’s unrelenting dedication to his work saying, “…it takes a particular disposition to be an agent of change, calling out injustice and ignorance, naming what is so often very obvious yet unsaid. It’s the sort of urgent and necessary posturing that has martyred many down through the ages and provoked the displeased elite to vindictive and often dangerous attempts at silencing.”

He also acknowledged the importance of Bernárd’s collection in better understanding LGBTQ+ history, “I’m minded of how necessary it is to plug the absences in our collective memory (thinking here specifically of LGBTQ memory that is not bound by the traditional link of heredity common to other minorities).

“In observing the AIDS pandemic, a horror that has defined a generation of LGBT men and women, the people best served to memorialise that period are sadly dead. It falls to the survivors like you, Bernárd, to document and make sense of that time and more importantly to celebrate the bonds of friendship and community that have seen us through such moments of despair and adversity.”

Journalist Ursula Halligan also paid tribute to Lynch, recognising the significance his archive plays in remembering those who left Ireland in the ‘80s and ‘90s. 

“For years, thousands of LGBT+ people have to leave our island filled with shame about themselves. Too many died abroad and never got the chance to see their families again.” 

She continued, “Your decision to donate your archive, to the National Library of Ireland is a fitting and generous tribute to all of them. Thank you, Bernárd, for your courageous and spirit-filled life.” 

This latest acquisition complements a growing number of significant LGBTQ+ archives now housed by the NLI including the David Norris Collection, the Irish Queer Archive, and, most recently, the Kieran Rose Collection.

McSharry concluded by saying, “The National Library is committed to collecting and safeguarding Ireland’s many voices and diverse experiences. As Ireland’s memory-keeper, we are proud to add this archive to our extensive LGBTI+ collections, so that these stories can be shared and studied by all.”

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

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