Tracking a history of imaginary queer or gay men in modern Irish literature

From Behan and Broderick to Ridgway and Tóibín, gay fiction is marked by its diversity

When he became taoiseach in 2017 Leo Varadkar’s photograph was on the cover of Time magazine. The caption asserted: “Globalism has been good to Ireland. Prime Minister Varadkar wants to keep it that way”. Around the same time GCN published an op-ed headlined: “Varadkar will be as helpful to the gays as Margaret Thatcher was to women”.

The actual Leo Varadkar is a conventional centre-right politician subscribing to a neoliberal worldview. This means genuflecting to the idea of equality while advocating policies that entrench inequality, with all the human misery that entails.

The Time article described his coming-out in 2015 as “inspiring” and “brave”. And the headline clearly aligned a society being “open” to sexual difference with keeping your economy “open” to US multinationals. But neither Time nor GCN were that concerned with the real Leo Varadkar. Their interest was in a fantasy figure. The “gay man as political leader”.

The Time editors were encouraged. A world in which a Varadkar or a Pete Buttigieg aspire to political office is a world where global capitalism secures legitimacy for another while. Everything will change so everything can stay the same.

The GCN opinion-writers were disappointed. That disappointment was bred of a conviction that the “gay man as political leader” must, by definition, have progressive, egalitarian and even radical commitments. Some of us will find that view more appealing. That doesn’t make it any less delusional.

In my new book, Revolutionary Bodies, I track a history of imaginary queer or gay men in modern Irish literature. As with Leo Varadkar’s media image, diverse political ideas adhere to those fictional characters.

Brendan Behan and John Broderick had very different politics. The Dubliner was a socialist republican. The Athlone-man is more difficult to classify, his views an unstable hybrid of liberal and reactionary. As is still typical in Irish writing, Broderick’s novels excoriated the propertied middle-class while supporting a social order founded on private property. But still, in Borstal Boy, published in 1958, and in The Fugitives, published in 1962, they each produced a version of the same figure – the queer IRA gunman.

In Borstal Boy, young Brendan lightens the dread of his first night in a British prison by singing an Irish-language Jacobite ballad to his cell-mate. Typical of Behan’s sly wit, Charlie shares his name with the Bonnie Prince, to whom the song’s fierce longings were originally addressed. As that episode illuminates, in the novel Brendan’s deepening love for Charlie is inextricably interwoven with a rigorous reformulation of his republican and anti-imperialist commitments.

That love culminates in Brendan’s grief when he learns that Charlie drowned when his ship was torpedoed. As a victim of war, Charlie’s death reiterates the almost unbearable struggle, but also the necessity, to keep faith with the hope for a transformed world.

Behan wrote in a comic mode, while Broderick lurched towards Gothic melodrama when creating Hugh Ward. The novel’s other characters believe that Hugh’s republicanism is a sham, motivated by his perverse desire to manipulate and sexually possess a younger man. The narrative voice seems to agree.

Yet Broderick gives Hugh a lengthy monologue, perceptively analysing the hypocritical and oppressive condition of post-partition Ireland. This suggests that Hugh may be motivated by sincerely held political ideals. We can’t really decide though, which is essential to the novel’s odd power. Hugh is a political idealist and a cynical nihilist.

His queerness resides less in his desire for another man, than in his capacity to disturb and threaten. That ineffable threat he embodies seems indistinguishable from the utopian hopes he articulates. Not for the first time in literary history, a novel by a conservative writer captures a radical insight. Whatever threatens to undermine the social order – in contrast with any reformist politics to modify it – will invariably be frightening and unsettling.

By the new millennium the Irish literary gay man had become a lot more respectable. Tom Lennon’s When Love Comes to Town and Crazy Love and Jarlath Gregory’s Snapshots and GAAY are coming-out romances. (“Tom Lennon” was a pseudonym adopted by the now deceased writer). In the wake of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1993 their novels also represented a literary coming-out – the emergence into Irish fiction of the modern gay man as a central character. The early novels of Emma Donoghue, along with the poetry and fiction of Mary Dorcey, simultaneously introduced to Irish fiction their lesbian, and lesbian feminist, sisters.

This writing worked with inherited forms, such as the coming-of-age novel, the romance and the family or generational narrative. The novelists used these forms to depict, directly and frankly, the lives of modern Irish lesbians and gay men in fiction. From that time, Colm Tóibín’s novels are unusual in addressing the tragedy of Aids. Precisely but compassionately, The Blackwater Lightship, published in 1999, depicts Declan enduring the terrifying physiological and psychic debilitations, as well as the banal humiliations, of dying from that illness.

But the new Irish lesbian and gay fiction was not just depicting reality. It was also imaginatively confronting a political problem. Arguably, the political problem of the modern lesbian and gay, now LGBT+, movement since it emerged in the 1970s. That is the tension between incompatible objectives. One goal is recognition of lesbians and gay men as a rights-bearing minority within a reformed social order. The other goal is the revolutionary transformation of the capitalist social order to precipitate liberation, including sexual liberation, for all. The Irish novels strongly affirm the first objective, even while sometimes regretting the impossibility of the second.

Meanwhile, the insurrectionary queer body in Irish literature hadn’t exactly gone away. Keith Ridgway, Jamie O’Neill, Micheál Ó Conghaile and Barry McCrea write very different novels. But they share a fascination with outmoded or archaic forms and styles. These include Joycean modernism, quest tales and mythology, republican ballads and Irish-language love songs.

Their characters appear like modern gay men. But those characters' stories don't develop within the linear frame of coming-out or romance. Instead of a thematic of identity, these novels elaborate a poetics of the body. The body as a cluster of desires, pleasures and needs. The stories set our heroes adventuring – cruising, we might say – across the cityscape and landscape. In these novels, the wandering queer, like the wandering Jew, inhabits here and now, but also there and then. This queer time is Walter Benjamin's messianic time. The time of hope and of revolutionary possibility.
Dr. Michael G Cronin is Lecturer in English at Maynooth University and authior of Revolutionary Bodies: Homoeroticism and the Political Imagination in Irish Writing (Manchester University Press)

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