LGBT historical accounts often focus primarily, or even exclusively, on activities in a political or cultural capital, be that New York, London or, in the Irish case, Dublin. This capital-centric approach obscures and ignores the dynamic history of activism in other centres. Cork, for example, has a rich history of LGBT activism and community development. Many of the ‘firsts’ of Irish LGBT activism happened in Cork – the first National Gay Conference was held in Cork in 1981, the first Irish AIDS leaflet was produced in Cork in 1985, UCC (University College Cork) was the first NUI (National University of Ireland) college to recognise a LGBT student society in 1989, the first Irish Lesbian and Gay film festival was organised in Cork in 1991 and the first Irish LGBT float in a Patrick’s Day Parade took place in Cork in 1992 (winning a prize for the best new entry that year!).
The first Irish National Gay Conference was held in Cork from 15-17 May 1981. It brought together lesbian and gay activists from across Ireland, as well as a number of other British and American activists. The basic aim of the conference was “to fulfill an accepted need for a general assessment of the progress of the gay movement in Ireland to date and to consider fresh initiatives for the future.” (1981 National Gay Conference Report)
It is important to note that in the 1980s this community identified itself primarily as lesbian and gay. There was very little acknowledgment of, or respect for, the bisexual and transgender communities. While bisexual and transgender people often engaged with, and socialised within, the lesbian and gay communities, their identities were often not explicitly acknowledged or respected.
Over 200 people attended the 1981 National Gay Conference in Cork and workshops were held on a wide range of topics, giving a sense of the incredible range of interests associated with gay and lesbian activism in Ireland at the time:
- Gay Identity
- Gays and Partition
- Gay Archives
- Gays and Religion
- Young Gays
- Gays and the Left
- Women’s Workshops
- Structures for Development
- Gay Rights / Human Rights
- Gays in the Media
- Gays and the Medical Profession
- Gays and the Law
- Gays in Isolation
- Gay Activism
- Gays and the Women’s Movement
- Gays and the Trade Union Movement
- Disabled Gays
- Gays in Education
Forty-nine motions were passed by the conference, emerging from the discussions at the workshops. Importantly, these set out the priorities and agenda for activism in the coming decades. For example motion (f) from the Gays and the Law Workshop demanded “That the law be changed to recognise gay relationships.” (1981 National Gay Conference Report). We can recognise this significant motion as a precursor to the later campaign for Marriage Equality; in 2015 the Irish people voted in favour of Marriage Equality for same-sex couples. The campaign did not emerge in a vacuum, but rather it built on decades of activism by LGBT community organisations and individuals throughout Ireland, who had long fought against discrimination to demand equality and respect.
While Irish LGBT activists kept up to date with developments in gay rights movements internationally, it was important to develop an indigenous Irish queer politics and to formulate policies and priorities that fit the specificity of the legal, social, economic and political situation in Ireland. Kieran Rose comments that the motions passed at the Cork conference “set the agenda for the lesbian and gay movement for more than a decade…The conference made a significant contribution to the development of an indigenous theory and practice of lesbian and gay politics in Ireland.” (Kieran Rose, Diverse Communities, 1994)
Writing in In Touch newsletter in 1981 T. McC commented that “The Cork Conference will, I feel, become to the gay rights movement in Ireland what Stonewall is to the gay liberation movement worldwide.” (In Touch June/July 1981)
One of my favourite items in the 1981 conference collection is the ticket for the Gala Ball. It was held in Connolly Hall, a large city centre building that housed a trade union (SIPTU). For many people the Saturday night Gala Ball was as significant as the conference itself: “It was a wonderful night of fun. It was a unique experience to see hundreds of mixed couples dancing together in a public building. For us this dance was as politically important as the rest of the conference and it certainly was a night to remember for anyone who had attended.” (1981 National Gay Conference Report)
These items are all part of the Cork LGBT Archive which was established to preserve and share the history of the LGBT community in Cork. At the core of the Cork LGBT Archive is the Arthur Leahy collection, a private collection gathered since the 1970s and, until recently, stored in the damp basement of a home in Cork. A digital archive has been also been developed.
Further information about the Cork LGBT community and its history can be found in the book Queer Republic of Cork: Cork’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Communities, 1970s-1990s (published in December 2016 with funding from the Cork City Council). This book traces the history and development of Cork’s LGBT community from the 1970s – 1990s and aims to expand the narrative of Irish LGBT history.
Orla Egan is completing a PhD in Digital Arts and Humanities in University College Cork where she is a part-time lecturer / tutor in Digital Arts and Humanities, Women’s Studies and Applied Social Studies. Orla has been been actively involved with the Cork LGBT community since the 1980s, organising various events including the first ever Irish LGBT float in a Patrick’s Day Parade in Cork in 1992. She has published a number of articles on the history of the Lesbian community in Cork and is currently working on developing the Cork LGBT Digital Archive. Orla tweets from @OrlaEgan1