Diarmaid Ferriter: We can’t let dark past define Irish social history

Contemporary emotion can cloud historical assessment and destroy nuance

David Norris: wrote earlier this week of the struggle for gay rights: “It wasn’t all grim . . . There was an awful lot of fun.”

David Norris: wrote earlier this week of the struggle for gay rights: “It wasn’t all grim . . . There was an awful lot of fun.”

 

In July 2007, the Gay Community News was guest edited by a group of gay teenagers who graced the cover with the headline “Out, Proud and Loaded”. At the same time, an older gay man, Tonie Walsh, one of the stalwarts of the gay rights movement, commented on the changing climate and paucity of role models in the 1980s in contrast to the early 21st century. Walsh had asked an 18 year old when he had “come out” and the answer he received was “Darling, I was never in!”

It is that sort of change, built on since, especially with the successful marriage-equality campaign, that allowed David Norris to write during the week to mark the State apology to those historically victimised by the criminalisation of male homosexuality about “a generation of young men released from the guilt and shame experienced by men of my generation”.

As one of the principal archivists of the gay rights movement in Ireland, Tonie Walsh has also done much to ensure that the history of the struggle is documented and preserved; Norris too, has nobly donated his archive to the National Library of Ireland. When I was researching a history of Irish sexuality Walsh was generous in allowing access to the Irish Queer Archive that was then uncataloged. It seemed to me essential to try to look at the story from the inside, especially given the dearth of public testimony from earlier decades about peoples’ experiences of homosexuality. The archive underlines not just the suffering of gay people who were criminalised, patholigised and humiliated but also their celebrations, their sophisticated and successful campaign for law reform, social change and education as well as their infighting, especially between those who prioritised law reform and those who wanted to concentrate more on creating social spaces for the LGBT community.

The archive underlines not just the suffering of gay people who were criminalised, patholigised and humiliated but also their celebrations

The campaign for reform was inevitably political, and like most political campaigns it involved disagreements over strategy, rival groupings and a strong social dimension which many, even during a period in which the law vilified them, found uplifting.

Lost perspective

I was glad to see David Norris being able to squeeze this observation into the analysis during the week: “It wasn’t all grim . . . There was an awful lot of fun.” We need to take cognisance of that in the interests of historical balance, not to diminish the suffering, but to remind ourselves that such has been the relentless and understandable focus on “dark chapters” of our history that we can lose perspective. I won’t pretend that I have always been able to achieve that balance, especially given that this newspaper’s Peter Crawley suggested this week I am a historian “who conveys such personal anger with the past that he seems ready to give it a head butt”.

To work on Irish social history over the last few decades has been to research during a time of extraordinary detailed revelations about a great range of suffering and the historian cannot stand completely outside of the environment in which they exist. But there is still an onus on us to remind of the need for context; as James Smith remarked in introducing his book Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries (2007), one of his challenges “was how to separate academic detachment from personal indignation. Moral outrage and academic detachment do not sit easily on the same page.”

Simplified apologies

That does not mean history writing needs to be sterile; in 1993, veteran historian of Ulster ATQ Stewart warned, “if you look at history, it is about humanity and emotions and some historians write as if it were not. Their view has become terribly narrow.” But we do need to be mindful of the extent to which contemporary emotion can cloud historical assessment. State apologies, such as the one issued this week, can be moving and powerfully symbolic – and mean a lot to those still here that were victimised in the past, the relatives of those maligned, and those who campaigned for change – but the apologies can also simplify.

In denouncing the sins of the forefathers, contemporary values can too easily be applied to laws and attitudes of decades previously and those affected by those laws are then unthinkingly labelled “heroes”, as they were this week, which might well be an inaccurate and shallow description we retrospectively place on a whole range of people, defining them far too narrowly.

The depiction of heroes and villains can then foster a historical narrative devoid of nuance. We are in danger of a reductionism that posits our history as just a history of what went wrong if its framing is propelled solely by anger. In the words of Anne Dolan, writing about the 1920s and 1930s in the recent Cambridge History of Ireland, “This is the history of a disappointment. At least that is the impression most of the historiography of Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s seems to leave.”

We were more complicated than that.

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