An Irish fighter who ‘was out on the streets and insisting on his right to be gay’

Extraordinary Emigrants: Colm Ó Clúbhán made his home among the London-Irish LGBTQ+ diaspora

Colm Ó Clúbhán. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien, courtesy of Sheila Clifford

Colm Ó Clúbhán. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien, courtesy of Sheila Clifford

 

In the 1970s, Railton Road in Brixton, south London, became a nexus of radical art and activism. During that decade, a series of properties on and around Railton Road were squatted to form communal living arrangements and foster progressive politics. The Railton Road squats, as the historian Matt Cook notes, had “a large and enduring Irish contingent”, with many Irish gay migrants drawn to the community. Among them was Colm Ó Clúbhán, an Irish playwright and author of short stories whose recently rediscovered work highlighted forgotten corners of the Irish emigrant experience.

Born in Dublin in 1954, Ó Clúbhán emigrated to London in 1973. His father, Sigerson Clifford, was also a writer. Sigerson Clifford is perhaps best remembered for The Boys of Barr na Sráide, a poem about coming of age during the Irish revolution and the plight of childhood friends destined to “toil in foreign soil”.

In London, Ó Clúbhán continued a family tradition of writing on migrant themes. His younger sister Sheila Clifford remembers visits to his home in Brixton, where he loved to feed and entertain friends. He was, she recalls, “always kind, generous, very supportive and witty, the type of guy who would light up the room when he came in”. Ó Clúbhán, she remembered, “was definitely a man ahead of his time”.

Friends of Colm Ó Clúbhán recall that he was split between his love of Ireland – he loved to listen to Irish conversation – and his sense of belonging in London because he was gay

The recent rediscovery of his work began when the literary scholar Ed Madden came across a reference to Ó Clúbhán’s writing while working with an archive of 1980s Irish LGBTQ+ periodicals.

Like Ó Clúbhán’s native Dublin, where vital and pioneering LGBTQ+ spaces such as the Hirschfeld Centre existed within the atmosphere of a homophobic society, London in the 1970s and 1980s provided no straightforward utopia. The historian Daryl Leeworthy writes that London “may have seemed like nirvana compared with circumstances at home” for young Irish gay men like Ó Clúbhán, “but it was by no means a hotspot of liberty and free expression”.

The Railton Road squats did offer one site of sanctuary for Ó Clúbhán and provided space for his creative expression. The Brixton Faeries, a gay theatre troupe, emerged from Railton Road. Ó Clúbhán was an important member of the group, which also included fellow Irish residents of Railton Road such as Terry Stewart of Belfast and Jim Ennis of Mayo. Together they navigated politics, relationships and the challenges of being Irish emigrants in London during the 1970s and 1980s.

Friends of Rio Rita’s: a poster for Irish Gay Theatre Group’s staging of Colm Ó Clúbhán’s play. Courtesy of Jim MacSweeney, its designer
Friends of Rio Rita’s: a poster for Irish Gay Theatre Group’s staging of Colm Ó Clúbhán’s play. Courtesy of Jim MacSweeney, its designer

After several years teaching English in Barcelona, Ó Clúbhán returned to London in the mid-1980s and continued his writing, winning the Hennessy Award in 1986 for his short story The Flood. Writing a profile of Ó Clúbhán for Out magazine following his award, Eamon Somers described him as a writer particularly interested in “the problems and contradictions of being Irish and gay and living in London”.

Derek Evans and Mary Evans Young, friends of Ó Clúbhán, similarly recall that he was “always split between his love of Ireland – and loved to listen to Irish conversation – and his sense of belonging in London because he was gay – which didn’t stop him selling papers, fundraising and demonstrating during the Troubles”.

Emigration and sexuality were placed under the thematic microscope in Ó Clúbhán’s 1985 play Friends of Rio Rita’s. The play is set in a London flat shared by two Irish gay men, Finbarr and Mick. Jim MacSweeney, Ó Clúbhán’s friend and fellow member of the Irish Gay Theatre Group, played the role of Mick in the first performances of the play.

While many of Ó Clúbhán’s characters reflected his own identity as an Irish emigrant and the political currents of republicanism and gay liberation, he also illuminated further marginalised worlds of the Irish abroad. One character in his play Reasons for Staying, performed in 1986, is an Irish woman who first travelled to England seeking an abortion. Ed Madden notes that the play “offers a necessary revision of the Irish migration narrative” through its placement of gay men’s stories and the lives of women who left Ireland in search of abortion care alongside conventional narratives of Irish migration.

‘His ashes will be scattered in the Irish Sea, somewhere between Ireland and England, which is where he feels he belongs,’ his friend Stephen Gee wrote in his obituary of Ó Clúbhán

In March 1989, Ó Clúbhán died with an Aids-related illness. An obituary by his friend Stephen Gee appeared in the London LGBTQ+ press. Gee described Ó Clúbhán’s funeral at the London Lighthouse, a well-known HIV/Aids centre and hospice, as a “defiant and rude celebration of his life”. “His ashes will be scattered in the Irish Sea, somewhere between Ireland and England,” he wrote, “which is where he feels he belongs.”

A further tribute to Ó Clúbhán can be found in the opening scenes of the 1991 film Strip Jack Naked, directed by Ron Peck. In the film, Peck memorialised Ó Clúbhán, who had worked with the director on an earlier film, as both a creative collaborator and an outspoken activist. Peck’s voiceover describes how Ó Clúbhán was “a fighter… He was out on the streets and insisting on his right to be gay. He wasn’t going to be discreet about it.”

Long remembered by those who knew him as a dynamic artist and activist of the London-Irish LGBTQ+ diaspora, Ó Clúbhán’s plays have recently been staged once more. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, Ó Clúbhán’s work reached new audiences through readings and performances in both Dublin and London.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world

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