MICHAEL WOLSEY: Gay Ireland is part of the mainstream and very, very welcome
ON the day of the big Pride parade I was in Dublin for a play at the Abbey. Michel Tremblay’s The Unmanageable Sisters was written in French and set in Canada, but Deirdre Kinahan has skilfully transplanted it to the Ballymun of 1974.
It is a dark comedy which manages to wring plenty of laughs out of a social situation that was far from funny.
This was the year a coalition government attempted to legalise contraception. It was only intended for married couples and the Bill specifically stated that it would be “unlawful for an unmarried person to purchase a contraceptive”.
It was presented to the Dáil by Patrick Cooney, the Minister for Justice (not Health … Justice!) who rejected the notion that single people had a right to access contraception.
“I do not accept that there is any such right because that implies a right to fornicate and in my opinion there is no such natural right,” he told TDs, who, for the most part, did not find this utterance surprising or offensive.
As it turned out, nobody got the chance to legally use contraception because the Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, voted against his own government and the Bill never became law.
Divorce was also illegal in the Ireland of 1974 as was abortion, although at that stage it had not been banned in the Constitution. Homosexual acts between men – adult, consenting men – were illegal. The law, which did not apply to women, was rarely enforced but the threat hung over all gay men and forced them to live in secrecy and fear.
This, then, was the land of The Unmanageable Sisters, which featured a large group of women who had gathered in a neighbour’s flat.
If they disapproved of the restrictive society they lived in, nobody said so. Far from it. An unmarried mother was condemned, a middle-aged woman was shamed just because she had been seen in a night club, and mild criticism of a bishop was dismissed as if it were the deepest heresy.
A younger woman, who was expecting a baby outside marriage, decided she would go to England for an abortion rather than face the wrath of these harridans. She had never been beyond Dublin and was frightened about the journey, but not as fearful as she was of her neighbours.
Because the Abbey had teamed The Unmanageable Sisters in a double bill with a Roddy Doyle play, it finished early in the evening. I went out into a city still awash with Pride revellers. The sun and the revellers were glowing.
Rainbow flags and banners were everywhere and everyone seemed joyful. I’m pretty sure that not all the flag wavers and banner carriers were gay – but it was impossible to tell because they were all mixing and happy and nobody was being excluded.
The contrast with 1974 Ireland was stark and it was clear that, for all its faults, we have shaped a very much better country.
Among those marching were more than 600 civil and public service employees from government departments, the Garda and PSNI, the Prison Service, the Courts Service, RTE and the National Museum.
I read next day that some people had broken away from the main Pride parade and staged a protest at the presence of these groups and the fact that some commercial companies had also joined the celebrations.
They seemed unhappy that Pride was becoming mainstream. They should not be.
In the Ireland of 1974, the consensus was one of exclusion. It closed its doors not just on those whose sexuality did not conform but on anyone who dared to be different.
Today it is difficult to say what ‘different’ means. We have a gay Taoiseach with Indian roots, a gay family minister whose background is American and Italian, and a gay MEP who was the Rose of Tralee.
The police, who might once have arrested homosexual men, are now marching in the Pride parade and the successors of the civil servants who framed the ridiculous 1974 contraception Bill, are carrying rainbow banners.
So yes, gay Ireland, you are part of the mainstream. And you are very, very welcome.