Remembering the legacy of veteran Irish LGBTQ+ activist John Ryan

As a leading member of the IGRM and co-founder of Hermes magazine, John Ryan left an indelible mark on the Irish LGBTQ+ community.

The image shows a portrait of John Ryan. The photo is a head and shoulders crop. In the image he is standing slightly tilted to the right as if leaning on something. He is wearing a beige overcoat with a light blue shirt and navy and white patterned tie.
Image: @@JohnRya13149069 via X

The former deputy director general of DG Santé, John F Ryan, passed away aged 65 on February 6, 2024, following a short illness. Following his untimely death, his former colleague and friend Joseph Healy recalls the legacy he left on Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community.

John Ryan died in February. His obituaries in the Irish Times and elsewhere mentioned his prominent role in the European Commission and how he had contributed hugely to health issues in the EU, where he finished up being responsible for forming many health policies, including the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines across Europe.  

What none of the plaudits mentioned was his role in the early movement for LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland. 

The obituaries included many comments from organisations thanking John for his openness, inclusiveness, and his willingness always to listen. This struck a real chord with me, for John was a natural campaigner and dedicated to bringing about change. 

In 1979, as two young gay men in their early 20s, John and I set about publishing Ireland’s first publicly sold gay magazine, Hermes, which ran for three editions (now in the National Library of Ireland). 

John had been a leading voice in the IGRM (Irish Gay Rights Movement), the national organisation founded in 1974 which established the Phoenix Clubs in Dublin and Cork and ran the Tel-A-Friend helpline.


Up to 1979, the only publications for LGBTQ+ people in Ireland were the in-house magazines of the IGRM and the NGF (National Gay Federation), but John and I wanted an independent magazine available to all. 

We managed to get it stocked by Eason, and it was even reviewed by Hibernia magazine, which gave it a positive review. 

John and I spent several nights trying to sell the magazine outside the then queer watering holes of Rice’s and Bartley Dunnes in Dublin, to be told by the owner of the latter that we were not welcome because it was “not a bar for homosexuals but a bar for theatricals!”

The late 70s and early 80s were a dark time for queer people in Ireland when the power of the Church was dominant and before decriminalisation. 

As a young graduate of UCD, John Ryan was among a very small group of LGBTQ+ people who came out then, and he remained always steadfast and courageous in the face of homophobia and prejudice. 

Apart from running the magazine, John and I also assisted a group of students at UCD who were trying to establish the university’s first gay and lesbian group – as it was then termed – against the hostility of the college authorities, who refused to recognise it. 

We were only in our mid-twenties ourselves but could see the huge need that existed for queer students to have somewhere to meet away from the commercial gay scene. The campaign failed, but a few years later the first student LGBTQ+ group was established at UCD, John’s old university. 

John and I both emigrated from Ireland in 1983; John went to Brussels to serve in the European Commission, and I went to the UK to become a squatter and activist in London. 

John spent the rest of his life living in Luxemburg and returned to Ireland after his retirement last year, only to die a short time later. 

Many of the veterans of the early struggle for queer rights in Ireland have been written out of the narrative, and John Ryan is one of them. At a time when few were prepared to put their heads above the parapet, he was one of the few who did, and he deserves to be remembered.

© 2024 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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