Three decades of Pride
Dublin’s first gay-pride march took place in 1983. Today it’s a big festival torn between soul-searching and sponsor-hunting
The brutal killing of Declan Flynn, a young gay man, in Fairview Park in Dublin 30 years ago, outraged gay people in the city. Their response, which many refer to as the capital’s first gay-pride march, spawned three decades of marches, protests, celebrations and rallies.
It was another 10 years before homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland, and since then a slow creep of legislative, social, and cultural change has seen lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people emerge from the shadows, a demonised minority fighting for acceptance and equality.
Today Pride means many things. For activists it’s a show of strength, an opportunity to articulate the rights that still need to be fought for: full marriage equality; the freedom for teachers in Catholic schools to be open about their sexuality; and gender recognition of transgender people.
For attendees it can be a chance for a diverse community to bond and celebrate.
For the organisers it’s a tough gig that needs to be many things to many people.
Tonie Walsh, the LGBT activist and founder of the Irish Queer Archive, was grand marshal at the 2008 Dublin Pride parade. His earliest memory of Pride is at a demonstration in Dublin in 1980, a few days after Senator David Norris began his constitutional action to decriminalise homosexuality.
“The court case transfixed and informed Pride that year,” Walsh says. He was in a group of about 60 people who “ran around town on a Saturday afternoon”, handing out pink carnations and a four-page booklet about the Stonewall riots of 1969, sparked by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, in New York.
There were Pride events in 1981 when 2,000 balloons were released on St Stephen’s Green, and gay people who gathered for a picnic in Merrion Square were moved on by park attendants. “By 1983, coming on foot of the Declan Flynn Fairview Park march, it consolidated our angle to allow us to focus our righteous anger and energy into organising the first proper Pride march,” Walsh says.
“By 1985, I think, people had become exhausted. People were beginning to die from Aids-related illnesses and were getting ill. We were feeling burned out. People were emigrating. By 1985 the parade had shrunk.”
In 1987, lacking the resources for a march, activists hosted a kiss-in outside Leinster House. Also that year, they picketed the Vatican embassy, on Navan Road in Dublin, decorating the railings outside with condoms. “They were extraordinarily exciting,” Walsh says of the early events, “You can imagine what it was like. There was a sort of brazen quality to those public demos.”
Rooted in protest, Pride has grown into a huge public celebration. Brian Finnegan, editor of ‘Gay Community News’ , says Pride is evolving. “It’s interesting to see how it will grow as we become assimilated. The majority of people dancing last year weren’t dancing because they were politicised about being gay, they were dancing because it was a great party.”
Pride now walks a tightrope of commerce and community. Sponsors this year include 2FM and Nissan. “It’s very hard to match rallying cries with corporate brands,” Finnegan says. He mentions London Pride, which in his opinion has become just “another music festival” with an entry fee.
“Even though it’s evolving, I think [Dublin Pride is] vital,” Finnegan says. “It is a brilliant show of strength of a group of people who are the most vilified and marginalised in wider society.”
Dublin Pride Ltd has a voluntary board and one paid staff member who is financed through a Dublin City Council grant. Chris Proctor is chairwoman of Dublin Pride. “The biggest challenge is keeping everyone happy,” she says. This year the organisers spoke to 20 groups and the general public to gauge what kind of events were appealing.
“As an organisation we don’t have a political agenda at all,” Proctor says. “We don’t go out rallying, we don’t go out protesting, but we are a voice that comes together once a year. We are the second-largest festival on the island of Ireland.
“Thirty years ago Pride started because of a terrible murder in the community. I think that 30 years ago and 20 years ago it was a rally, it was a political protest, a big thing that happened once a year because we were fighting for rights . . . There will always be something to fight for, whether it’s gay or straight, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.”
Proctor emphasises the importance of Pride being a free event. “I hope it’s still here in 2023. I hope it’s still free. I hope it’s still a fun day.”
Keeping it free poses challenges. In the past couple of years the aftermath of the Dublin Pride parade, in which, traditionally, speakers from the community address the crowds, has moved from the amphitheatre at the civic offices on Wood Quay to the much larger site of Merrion Square.
The club promoter Buzz O’Neill (the recent attack on whom Ger Philpott refers to in his article, left) questions whether Pride can scale up without more corporate involvement.
“Production values that are associated with a big event haven’t stepped up to the mark where Merrion Square is concerned. All we have done is transferred what we did in Wood Quay to a bigger stage in a better area. At the same time you have to provide quality entertainment,” he says.
“Many major brands in this country are still absolutely terrified to align themselves with a gay event or product. And we need them . . . The horrible word is ‘commercialisation’. You can’t have one without the other. If you don’t have a paid event, you need major brands to come in and back it.”
Speaking about contemporary Pride events, Walsh says: “The very first parade in 1983 was called the Gay Rights Protest March. The word ‘pride’ didn’t even enter it. We were protesting our right to love our same-sex partners. Now it has become a party, which I think we all secretly hoped for but could never visualise.
“If I throw myself back 25 years, could I have visualised sailing down O’Connell Street on the Alternative Miss Ireland float with a bunch of fabulous drag queens? I would have said, ‘You’re nuts.’ ”
Pride Day is next Saturday; dublinpride.ie