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.”
David Norris was born in the Belgian Congo, where his father worked, in 1944. His father died when he was six, by which time his mother, whose health was also frail, had taken him and his brother to live in Dublin. She would die when Norris was 21. Although the family lived comfortably, they did not have much money. The opening chapter of his autobiography, with portraits of many odd and interesting relatives, including Bram Stoker, is one of the best in the book. “Our family has been coming down in the world since 1169 AD,” he writes.
Besides his own history, Norris in the early chapters provides a fascinating history of the gay liberation movement in Ireland, the splits, the debates, the sheer bravery of the early leaders and supporters. He writes also with moving candour about his first meeting, in 1975, with Ezra Yitzhak, the man who would become the love of his life. His evocation of the city of Jerusalem, where he went often to visit his lover, even when their affair ceased to be sexual, is beautifully written.
Norris emerges in these pages as a figure who feels a passionate engagement with the world and is in possession of great moral seriousness. He is also very funny. I wished I had seen North Great George’s Street, where he lives, in the old days, before Norris’s zeal caused it to be restored, when a club there ejected patrons at 3am who then devoted themselves, as Norris writes, to “making indecent remarks through the letter-boxes, and puking on the cats”.
He takes us through the many campaigns he has run, not only for gay rights and the rights of cats in Georgian streets but also for the placing of James Joyce’s work at the centre of Irish life, the ending of violence in Northern Ireland, the renewal of the inner city of Dublin and the establishment of a foreign and domestic policy based on ethical principles and human rights.
When he was elected to the Senate in 1987, his aunt, who lived to be old, said: “Oh dear, I suppose that means you’ll be late for dinner. I have never understood why you want to mix with those appalling people.” Like most aunts in life, as indeed in literature, she spoke the truth.
Since 1990 it has been clear that running for president of Ireland is like taking a wicked dog for a walk. As Brian Lenihan discovered first, and as Adi Roche and (for a few days) Mary McAleese discovered seven years later, and as David Norris, Dana Rosemary Scallan and Seán Gallagher found out last year, unless you are very careful or very lucky, the dog you are walking, in the belief somehow that you are doing it a service, will turn and begin snarling at you. Indeed the dog may bite and bite hard. In his chapters about his campaign for the presidency, it is apparent that David Norris, as he began his campaign for a nomination, believed the dog was sweet and tame, a fair-minded little pet, and was shocked and unprepared when the beast turned vicious.
It might be easy to feel that he should blame himself (as perhaps he should blame himself for a scheme to put gates at the entrance to North Great George’s Street), but his account here of what happened is too interesting for that. Norris registers with shocked innocence, perplexed indignation and some wit his fall from being the favourite in the race for president of Ireland to having to ask his friends for shelter. There is a hurt immediacy in his tone that makes these chapters riveting reading for people who like good writing, and important evidence for students of Irish politics.
There is also something wonderful about his generosity throughout the book, which emerges here again: “In retrospect, the whole thing has shaken out beautifully, because we have got a superb president: an honourable man who will put his neck on the line for the marginalised and the vulnerable. And I’m where I should be also, on the back benches of Seanad Éireann, saying things that nobody else in this country is prepared to say.”
A Kick Against the Pricks is more than the account of an interesting life well lived. Norris’s vision is too optimistic and moral to allow himself to tell, in tones both witty and wounded, merely what his life has been like. He wishes to speak up for the idea of a life led by conscience, a life that made a difference to the world, almost as way of suggesting how others who wish to make a difference might proceed, and what they should expect.
He did not go to France, as his psychiatrist in the 1960s had suggested. His autobiography is not only a justification for staying in Ireland, walking the dog of public life here with grace and persistence, but also a way of suggesting and evoking what a lone voice can do by remaining fearless and dutiful, by speaking up again and again, by learning to fail better, by losing neither a sense of humour nor a sense of purpose nor the skill, displayed with relish in this book, of taking real pleasure from life.
Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is published by Viking