The gay patriots who helped found the Irish State

Roger Casement likely to be among those Leo Varadkar was paying homage to in Dáil

Taoiseach issues formal apology to men criminalised prior to legal change in 1993 for their sexual orientation. Video: Oireachtas TV


In his book Vivid Faces about Ireland’s revolutionary generation, Prof Roy Foster suggested that they were radicals determined to find new ways of living which could involve unconventional sexual partnerships too.

It was “clearly true”, he said, that several were gay: “When you look at percentages of people involved in the nationalist movement, there would have to be a percentage of gay people there.

“It’s clear from Roger Casement and from others that there were people who were both homosexual and nationalist. No doubt there still are today,” he declared.

In the Dáil on Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar named no names when he referred in the Dáil to “gay patriots”. The evidence that some were gay is mostly circumstantial, but, with the benefit of hindsight, compelling.

There was no question of being openly gay 100 years ago at a time when homosexual activities were regarded as not only criminal but as deviant in the eyes of society.

‘Black Diaries’

The most famous, of course, is Casement, who was hanged for treason in August 1916. The evidence for Casement’s homosexuality is contained in the notorious “Black Diaries” which were circulated before and during his trial in 1916.

Casement kept two diaries while examining human rights abuses as a British civil servant in the Congo and among the Putumayo Indians in the Amazon. One was relatively uncontroversial; the “Black Diaries” contained often graphic accounts of his encounters with young gay men on his travels.

Many in Republican circles maintained that the diaries were forgeries, but an expert group, chaired by Bill McCormack of Goldsmiths College, University of London, concluded in 2002 that there was no doubt as to their authenticity.

The case for Patrick Pearse’s homosexuality is less clear-cut and is based on extracts from his poems and diaries. In one poem he writes: “There is a fragrance in your kiss/That I have not found yet/ In the kisses of women/Or in the honey of their bodies.”

In her 1977 biography The Triumph of Failure, Ruth Dudley Edwards first raised the possibility that Pearse was attracted towards many of his students in St Enda’s School, but she said he was not gay in the modern sense of that word. “Homosexuality was aberrant as to be almost beyond comprehension,” she concluded.

Lesbian couples

There were a number of prominent lesbian couples, most notably Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grenan. O’Farrell was the woman who carried the surrender notes to the rebel garrisons at the end of the Easter Rising. She was also famously airbrushed from the famous surrender photograph involving Pearse.

Grenan was one of the last of the rebels to leave the GPO in 1916. The pair are buried together in Glasnevin Cemetery with the inscription on their headstone “faithful comrade, lifelong friend”.

It was the subject of the poem by Jane Clarke entitled “In Glasnevin” which expresses regrets that they could never make their love public.

“I wish I could ask the faithful Julia and Elizabeth

were they grateful for the mercy

of sharing a grave, did they choose

those words to save them from shame,

did they have someone to tell

that though the words said so much,

they didn’t say enough”

Dr Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, who were in the Irish Citizen Army, were assumed at the time to be merely friends. They lived together for 30 years.

Both were from well off backgrounds and social radicals.Together they founded St Ultan’s Children’s Hospital in 1919. A campaign has started to have the new children’s hospital named after Dr Lynn.

Another prominent lesbian was Margaret Skinnider, the Scottish-born schoolteacher who was injured during the Rising in the Royal College of Surgeons. She was refused a military pension because the law was “applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense”.

According to her forthcoming biographer Dr Mary McAuliffe of UCD, women like Skinnider were inspired by feminist and nationalist politics to make radical personal choices.

“Rather than taking the expected route to marriage and motherhood, she, like several others, choose to spend her life with another woman,” declared McAuliffe.

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