Gay community recalls dark days before decriminalisation

UK moves to pardon gay men prompts calls to examine how they were treated in State

It was well after midnight when Tonie Walsh was woken by the ringing phone. On the line was a panicked friend. He had been out in Dublin and decided to continue the night by taking a male companion back to a city centre hotel.

The receptionist was suspicious and after booking the two men into a room, alerted gardaí who arrived and caught them together. It was 1986 and homosexual acts would not be legal for another seven years.

Walsh, a well-known gay rights activist in Dublin, was often relied on for advice in the gay community.

“He came to me because I was an activist and because I was a friend. He was looking for legal advice. I went out and met him and told him the situation. I think I gave him the name of a solicitor,” he says.


Gardaí didn’t take the matter any further but the incident stuck in Walsh’s mind as an example of the fear felt by Ireland’s homosexual community in the face of the law.

“You were a sexual outlaw at the time. People were conditioned into a state of fear by the existence of the law,” he says. “It’s impossible to quantify how many were affected and how many left the country because of it.”

Opportune time

Following the introduction of legislation in the UK that will pardon those convicted of homosexual offences, Walsh and others say now is an opportune time to examine how the gay community were treated by the law here.

Many people assume that the authorities took a benign attitude towards enforcing Ireland’s anti-homosexual laws and that, unlike in the UK where vice squads set up sting operations to catch homosexuals, gardaí preferred to pretend they didn’t exist.

"Absolutely untrue," says Senator David Norris who in the early 1980s began his legal fight to have the laws struck down.

“I don’t know if the guards would actually proposition people but they would go to cruising spots saying they had had a complaint. I doubt very much if many of those complaints were real.

“Burgh Quay was a very popular spot because it was close to the station. And it was a very easy mark because if a guard wanted extra points for promotion he could knock up a few arrests there easily.”

19th century laws

Solid statistics are hard to come by. Homosexual activity between men was forbidden by two 19th century laws which were carried over post-independence.

These acts were used to prosecute consensual and non-consensual activity, so it is difficult to ascertain how many prosecutions related to sexual acts involving willing and overage participants.

However, there is evidence that such behaviour was regularly prosecuted from the early days of the State. In 1930, the then Garda commissioner Eoin O’Duffy told a Dáil committee there were 86 prosecutions for homosexual offences for 1928/29 and that homosexual activity “is a form of depravity that is spreading with malign vigour”.

In 1979, the Dáil heard there had been 44 prosecutions for homosexual acts in the past three years.

Press reports offer some insight but as journalist Michael Viney wrote in The Irish Times in 1968, there was an unwritten understanding among reporters at the time that most "indecent" cases would not be reported.

This seems to have been partly down to concerns about offending public sensibilities and partly because naming homosexuals in the press could affect their lives far more than any sentence imposed by the court.

“I rarely if ever saw them reported in newspapers,” says Tom O’Malley a barrister and legal academic. “Generally speaking, they were dealt with fairly anonymously when they came before the courts. And generally the charge would have been phrased as ‘contrary to section such and such of a certain Act’, and therefore it wouldn’t have been necessarily clear to people watching or listening as to what the precise offence was.”

Court archives provide a fuller picture. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter detailed many of the cases in his book Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland.

In 1927, a Kildare businessman was convicted of “attempting to procure an act of gross indecency” after a detective noticed he was staring at him in a public toilet. The detective arranged to meet him the following week when they went to another public toilet and the man took out his penis. The detective revealed his identity and arrested the man who was sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour.

In 1954, an elderly man was prosecuted for propositioning a bricklayer who had agreed to shield him as he relieved himself in a side street. The prosecution was later dropped.

According to Ferriter, between 1940 and 1978 an average of 13 men a year were jailed for homosexual offences. Between 1962 and 1972, there were 455 convictions.

Courts’ attitude

“The courts’ attitude was one of derision and contempt,” says Norris. “I remember on many occasions seeing people caught in those circumstances being subject to the most ignorant and personal questions by the judge.

“It was definitely viewed as a perversion and as an entertainment source for the ordinary decent criminals in court. These people were held up to ridicule. They were taken stage by stage through the sexual activities they engaged in and asked if they enjoyed it and all this kind of stuff.”

O’Malley disagrees and believes the courts were concerned for the most part with the public nuisance aspect of men using “cruising spots” rather than any moral issues.

“The essence of it was that it was a public indecency offence more than anything else where people might initially have been charged with soliciting in public places, public toilets, that type of thing.”

Prison sentences were rare, particularly in the second half of the century.

“I think for most part sentences were non-custodial,” O’Malley says. “Maybe for persistent offenders there might have been a custodial sentence but I think that probably in many cases the person would get the Probation Act or a fine or some other non-custodial penalty.”

This was the case in the remarkable 1969 prosecution of 20 men for gross indecency in Tullow, Co Carlow. According to documents later unearthed by a local man who was a child at the time, the case became part of local folklore. The researcher has requested not to be named as some of his family are not aware he is gay.

A few years ago, he decided to look into the case because he remembered how it helped form his view of himself in his teens when he realised he was gay.

“My take on it was that a zealous guard saw two lads going down a lane and his curiosity was aroused,” the man says. “He probably found them in a compromising situation. With the embarrassment of the situation they said, ‘well, we’re not the only ones at it’. And they started blurting out names.”

Ruined lives

Although there were no jail sentences, the case effectively ruined the lives of some of the men, especially those who were married.

“They were the lowest forms of life. There was real bad feeling in the town. Nobody would talk to them. I suppose at the time it was a huge shame in the town,” he says.

“I can actually remember that newspaper coming into the house and my father putting it on top of the press so none of us would see it.”

Film-maker and long-time LGBT campaigner Edmund Lynch has mixed recollections of the relationship between gardaí and the gay community.

“The guards would go up trawling around cruising spots,” he says. “There would have been some gardaí that acted on their own initiative. But the main attitude was ‘what you don’t see doesn’t hurt you’. A lot of them would say, ‘Go on home, don’t let me catch you here again’.”

Another gay man recalls being caught in a romantic embrace with a man in a parked car. “The guard asked what we were doing. I told him, ‘I’m in breach of section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, guard. He just looked at me and said, ‘Pull up your trousers and go home’.”

By the early 1980s prosecutions of gay men began to drop off, partly thanks to Norris, who started assisting in the defence of arrested men.

"I started going down to the court with Garrett Sheehan [a solicitor and now an Appeal Court judge] and he was simply wonderful.

“Up to then, the guards got away with it because anyone who was found in those circumstances was deeply ashamed and would plead guilty and hope everything would go away.

Reversible eyeballs

“And then we started defending and after that we never lost a single case. On one occasion I remember Garrett showing, without saying the guards were lying, that in order for him to have seen what he alleged he’d seen he would have needed reversible eyeballs.

“The gardaí just gave up. Because we had been so successful in fighting these charges, they found it to be useless to bring them.”

The prosecutions stopped but the indirect consequences of the law continued to be felt until 1993 when the government finally repealed the relevant Acts.

“When HIV hit in the 1980s the State was very slow in responding because LGBT people were still criminals,” says Brian Sheehan of GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network).

“So at the time of the greatest health crisis for gay men the response of the State was terrible because of the criminalisation of gay men.”

It also was often cited as an excuse in so-called “gay bashings” including the killing of Declan Flynn in Fairview in 1982.

“The law gave an excuse to people to discriminate,” says Walsh.

To Brian Sheehan, who supports calls for an Irish pardon, the law was “a huge weapon, a cudgel”.

“It ensured lesbian and gay people never raised their head and became visible. The consequences of that are still felt by some people today who never got the chance to be who they were.”