Witty and wounded
MEMOIR:David Norris’s autobiography reflects his passionate engagement with the world – and his humour
A Kick Against the Pricks: The Autobiography By David Norris, Transworld Ireland, 391pp. £20
THE COURTROOM in the Four Courts where David Norris sought to have the Victorian laws against homosexuality declared unconstitutional in June 1980 was a lonely place. There were hardly any journalists in attendance and, while a few well-wishers came at the end, very few members of the public. As the State did not offer any evidence, its lawyers put their energy into cross-examination, at times attempting to suggest that some of the witnesses were gay themselves and thus could not be trusted or, indeed, could be easily intimidated. I will never forget the silence in the court when a priest, who offered a subtle reading of the scriptures on the matter of homosexuality, used the word “we” at one stage. The State’s representative pounced on him. “Did you say ‘we’, father? Did you say ‘we’?”
I believed that Norris could not win, and was not surprised when a majority of the judges of the Supreme Court, who later heard the appeal when Norris lost in the High Court, introduced evidence of their own in the majority judgment, evidence that had not been tested in court. (Norris eventually did win in the European Court of Human Rights, in 1988.) There seemed to me to be also a problem at the very root of the case: Norris could not really offer any evidence that he had actually suffered in a clear and obvious way as a result of the law. He had not lost his job – he was a lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin – or been arrested. He seemed to speak, indeed, with the untainted confidence of a person of privilege.
When he gave evidence that he had received advice from a psychiatrist in the 1960s that he should best go to live in France, I viewed the advice as pretty sensible. It was, I thought, where we should all go to get away from an unreformable Ireland that was filled with prejudice against us. Norris’s response to this, however, in his autobiography is almost comic, as well as oddly inspiring, in its innocence and its passion. “The solution outraged me, as I had been brought up by the Irish side of my family and felt thoroughly Irish. My ancestors on my mother’s side had been traced back to Aengus Óg in the second century, and I was well aware that the Danes, Normans, Cromwellians and English had tried to get us out for two thousand years and failed. I wasn’t going to leave just because I was gay.”