Pioneering campaigner for LGBT rights in 1980s Ireland

Don Donnelly made it his life’s work to gain acceptance for Ireland’s gay community

Don Donnelly: ‘He was a very good leader... A marginalised community needs people they can follow. He was one such’

Don Donnelly: ‘He was a very good leader... A marginalised community needs people they can follow. He was one such’

 

Don Donnelly
Born : January 25th 1955
Died: May 19th 2021

Don Donnelly, who has died aged 66, played a key role in building supports for members of Ireland’s gay community at a time when they were largely unseen by the rest of society, and frequently living in fear.

Ultimately, his life’s work, along with the efforts of many others, transformed the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and won for them a level of acceptance and equality that a generation hitherto seemed impossible.

A physically large man with an ebullient personality, he had the capacity to motivate others while also achieving, and maintaining, unity between disparate and sometimes fractious activist groups.

“He was a very good leader,” according to fellow campaigner Kieran Rose. “He inspired and we were encouraged by him. A marginalised community needs people they can follow. He was one such.”

Donnelly was born in Dublin in January 1955 and grew up in modest circumstances in Páirc Mhuire, a local authority housing scheme in Newbridge, Co Kildare. His parents, John and Rosealeen Donnelly, lived initially in what he later described as “one room in an old, damp house in a brownstone on the edge of the Curragh”.

With self-deprecating humour, he said that after Christy Moore and Donal Lunny, he was “the third most famous person in Newbridge... or infamous”.

Comparatively well off

Although poverty was widespread within the community around him as a child, he told Edmund Lynch, in a 2013 interview for an LGBT+ oral history project, that his family was comparatively well off.

“Poverty was partly not so much lack of work but it was not unusual, in a three-bedroomed council house, to [have] families of six, eight, 12 or 14 people because people had no concept at all of birth control... I was lucky [because my family] was just a family of three so we were relatively well off,” he said.

He was the eldest of three children. His father was a shift worker and his mother, who was plagued by ill-health, spent long and regular periods in hospital. Around the age of nine or 10, Donnelly said he began to feel that he was different but it was not until he was 12 or 13 that he was able to articulate what the difference was.

In his interview with Lynch, he said that while studying literature at school, the writers Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain helped clarify in his own mind matters of his sexuality to the point where he could come out to his parents.

“I was able to go to my father and tell him that I thought I was gay and that I was pretty sure it was the case,” he said in the interview. “He in turn asked me was I happy, relatively, or was I concerned? And I said no, ‘I am not concerned and I’m not worried.’ And he said fine, just remember, ‘don’t make all the boys cry.’ He was a very calm and relaxed man. And that was my father and the extent to which he would react. So whether his son was coming out to him, or the Korean war had just broken out, he wasn’t phased easily by anything.”

After attending the Patrician Secondary School in Newbridge he qualified as a chartered accountant. He worked variously as accounts and financial controller at Irish Ropes and Hanlon Foods, as well as in Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Turkey.

Shop steward

In an unusual segue in later life, lean times saw him take a job as a cashier in Tesco in Newbridge, where he became shop steward in Mandate and was elected chairman of the Tesco European Works Council.

But his lasting achievements relate to his activism for gay rights.

In the 1980s when homosexuality remained criminalised, he set up Tel-a-Friend, a phone-based support for gay people, many of them frightened and dealing with their sexuality alone. At the time, publications would not take advertisements using the word “gay” or “homosexual”, so Donnelly and his associates made stickers which they put up in public telephone boxes.

In 1988, he was a founder, with Charles Kerrigan, Suzy Byrne, Kieran Rose and Christopher Robson, of Glen, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, a coalition that spearheaded the campaign for gay rights in Ireland.

The following year, he gave a breakthrough soapbox address on The Late Late Show, arguing on prime time television for gay rights.

In the 1989 general election he stood as a Glen candidate in the Dublin constituency of then taoiseach Charles Haughey. He received 141 first-preference votes, plus one transfer.

Despite this electoral rebuff, the campaign for gay rights had gained momentum and it led to an invitation to meet then president Mary Robinson in Áras an Uachtaráin, a not-insignificant sign of growing acceptance.

For all his innovating, Donnelly was a gradualist, supporting civil partnership ahead of full marriage equality for gay people.

“He felt that by changing things one little bit at a time, people would see that the sky had not fallen in,” says his husband Garreth O’Mahony. “You had to bring the people with you because they were frightened of change.”

“It was a very long, slow slog,” recalls long-time friend Jon Taaffe. “We were very gratified by the marriage equality referendum. We never thought we would see gay marriage in our lifetime. We thought civil union would be the height of it.

‘Extremely proud’

“He was extremely proud of what had been achieved... he achieved a great deal in making life much more bearable for a lot of lonely and isolated LGBT people.”

He was blessed by having accepting parents – so much so that they worked with the Irish branch of Parents Enquiry, a support group for parents of gay children. This involved them going to schools and community groups giving talks.

Donnelly died of a heart attack but for much of his life he coped with the highs and lows of bipolar disorder.

“He would have always mentioned that he was bipolar if he thought it could help someone,” says O’Mahony. “It’s a hidden disease and nobody wanted to talk about it, so he would. It was something that he had very much under control.”

Fond of GAA football, swimming, country walks and cinema, Donnelly was also an accomplished chef and host. At one stage, he ran a guest house, Dublin’s first openly gay guest house, and also embarked on an ultimately unsuccessful investment in a bar in Spain.

Friends remember Don Donnelly as a joyous man, whose company was treasured and who was the source of much laughter.

Predeceased by his father, he is survived by his husband Garreth, his mother Rosealeen, brother Aidan, sister Gaye, his wider family and in-laws, and a wide circle of friends.