Exploring the double life a public park had for gay people in Ireland during darker times

When a piece of queer art caused a childhood memory to come flooding back, Han Tiernan reflected on the second lives public spaces had for gay people.

A man walks through a wooded area

Several years ago I was waiting in The George to go on one of Tonie Walsh’s walking tours during a Pride Festival. Before the tour, they were screening Caroline Campbell’s film, Our Love is History. At the beginning of one of the scenes, the camera scans through a park and stops on a young actor leaning against a set of railings, mobile phone in hand. He begins reading from the phone:

“Palmerston Park has a gentile charm about it, echoing the houses that surround it. The park’s large greens are curtained by shrubbery perfect for a fete de fumble… Coming from Palmerston Road, the central walkway continues… punctuating the expanse of the green lawns, inviting one to explore. Shadows roam, the hunt is on.”

As I watched, I began crying. I was filled with a sadness; a feeling of shame and remorse that came from a place I hadn’t realised existed within me.

I had grown up in that park. I hadn’t just played there, I’d learned to ride a bike there, and turned the maple tree into a pirate ship. I’d been an intrepid explorer through the laurel bushes and had scaled the railings of the duck pond. And after arguing with the boys because I didn’t want to play Princess Leia, we turned the swings into X-wing fighters. The park belonged to us, or so we thought.

By the time I was 12, the AIDS pandemic was in full swing. I’d seen the tombstone ads with the slogan, “Don’t Die of Ignorance” and the “AIDS Kills” leaflets that had come through the letterboxes of houses. But I didn’t think it was something that could affect me, so I didn’t pay it much attention. One day when we were playing in the park, one of the older kids told us that we better not enter it at night because there were “rent boys” and “gay men”. I wasn’t quite sure what this meant but I knew it was supposed to be something bad and even dangerous, so I heeded the warning.

By the time I was in The George watching the film, I was a long-standing, fully-fledged lesbian under no illusions about cruising culture and “rent boys” or even “gay men”. I assumed, although we never discussed it, that many of my gay friends had cruised. 

The text that the actor was reading was an account from Tonie about cruising in the park in the ’80s. I had come to know Tonie as a friend of many years and his words had a profound effect on me. All of a sudden those memories and emotions that had come flooding back became feelings of guilt. It had never before occurred to me that the people that were now my close friends were also the ones that I had been led to be frightened of as a child.

We all have a myriad of things that can trigger deep-seated emotions; people, places, smells, sounds. They catch us off guard and unsettle us. It’s a universal experience, but there are often triggers that colour the unique lived experiences of queer people. It could be being made to wear a dress or being given a GI Joe instead of a Barbie or simply strolling through a park. For most of us, we’re raised into a heteronormative society with reflexive expectations. In her show, Nanette, Hannah Gadsby describes asking her mother what she regrets. She responds; “The thing that I regret is that I raised you as if you were straight. I didn’t know any different. I’m so sorry.” Her words succinctly and eloquently sum up the societal divide that is at the root of these experiences.

For much of the straight community, city parks are spaces reserved for recreation; for joggers, dog walkers, elderly strollers and families. They are mini rural escapes etched into the urban sprawl. The concept that these spaces are also used for ‘deviant’ sexual acts is so abhorrent that the ‘deviants’ are perceived to be a danger to society. 

For the queer community, these spaces go far beyond that. They still hold the sanctity of the recreational family space and can even be a welcome alternative to the drink-laden pub and club scene. But that implied danger is often turned back on itself and the ‘deviant’ becomes the victim.

The most high profile example of this reversal was the 1982 murder of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park. Flynn was beaten to death by four men and one youth who were in the park with the sole intention to “rid the area of queers”, according to one of the attackers’ statements. The park was known as a popular cruising spot. Another statement declared, “A few of us had been queer-bashing for about six weeks and had battered 20 steamers.” Despite their guilty pleas, all four men were given suspended sentences. The verdict not only shocked the queer community but it garnered support from LGBTQ+ allies such as women’s rights groups and trade unions, resulting in a massive protest demonstration from Liberty Hall to Fairview Park on March 19, 1983.

Although he was only 12 at the time of the murder, ACT UP activist Noel Donnellon recalls, “A year or two after Declan Flynn’s murder I was visiting family near Fairview. We were walking past the park and I clearly remember not wanting to go into it because it felt like there was a darkness to it after the murder. 

“Most 12 year-olds probably wouldn’t have been aware of it, but the news was always on in our house and it had stuck with me. I have cruised in other parks and other cities but Fairview always felt unsafe. It wasn’t until the first Trans Pride in 2018 that I could bring myself to actually set foot in Fairview Park.”

As well as the obvious dangers posed by ‘queer bashers’, cruising incurs another danger by way of public promiscuity laws, many of which the act itself has played a role in creating. Despite the illegality, cruising has persisted for centuries. During the 1884 Dublin Castle Scandal, one of the witnesses testified about an encounter which took place in the Botanic Gardens between himself and two other men; Gustav Cornwall, the secretary of the General Post Office, and Martin Kirwan, the captain of the Dublin Fusiliers. 

The scandal was a complex and long-running case which began after William O’Brien, the Nationalist MP and editor of United Ireland newspaper published several articles accusing Cornwall and James Ellis French, Director of the Detective Department of the Royal Irish Constabulary, of being homosexual. As a result, Cornwall took a libel case against O’Brien. The verdict ruled in favour of O’Brien, declaring his accusations to be justified. Due to the implication of a number of other men during the testimonies and the publicity garnered by the case, the State began its own investigation. The ensuing trials accused Cornwall, French and Kirwan of solicitation and buggery as well as three gay brothel owners of buggery and “keeping disorderly rooms”.

The scandal had untold repercussions for the gay community in Dublin and throughout Ireland and the UK, the most significant of which was the passing of the 1885 Gross Indecency Act. The act made it easier to arrest homosexuals, often with little more evidence than mere allegations. It was the law under which Oscar Wilde was tried and the law which remained in place in Ireland until the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993.

Apart from the evident gratification that comes with most sexual encounters, there is undeniably an added allure from the excitement of getting caught that attracts people to engage in public sex, however, this has not always been the sole occupation of cruising. It has often been a necessity serving an array of desires such as gay men in unhappy marriages or bisexual men or those who simply fetishise sex with strangers. But as well as satisfying desires it served as a social outlet for men who didn’t want to or were unable to engage with the gay ‘scene’ and had nowhere else to go. As Tonie Walsh puts it, “We used these spaces because there was nowhere else to experience our own desires; the mechanisms didn’t exist.”

As LGBTQ+ rights have advanced, so too has the social acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. This, and the advent of online dating and hook-up apps such as Grindr, Scruff or Growlr, has led to the decline in cruising over recent decades, but it has never gone away. When asked why this might be, Stefan Fae, artist and co-founder of Spicebag sums it up best, “There’s something to be said for the dance of old-school cruising, beyond the hookup apps, that still holds a certain allure. The furtive signals, the approach, the consummation. I heard a story about how Micheál MacLiammóir, co-founder of Dublin’s Gate Theatre, used to ‘slip in for a quick one’ as part of his morning walk to work: a time-honoured tradition from one of our venerable, stately homos.”

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