By Richard Ammon
We arrived in Gay Ireland via Cork on a late afternoon entering the city along the Lee River lined with warehouses, dockyards, and a power plant that give way to an older city downtown with its modern opera house, Victorian office buildings and countless cozy pubs.
Arriving at Roman House B&B there was little question that we were in a gay B&B; with red plaid carpeting and a hall poster of Joan Crawford, Roman House B&B is a playful mix of kitsch and comfort. Owned by Richard and Kevin for six years the place danced with lighthearted colors on the walls, in the bed sheets and bedspreads. The furniture was casual and a de rigeur relief of a Romanesque male nude hung on the wall of our room. Located just a block from the river our rainbow room was also furnished with that universal ‘instrumentali sexualis’—a condom with lubricant and a brochure about safe sex.
After a chat with Richard about places to eat we strolled along trendy Paul Street with its hearty restaurants and cafes (as well as an Internet shop) and made our way to the gay Taboo bar for a drink and a chat. It’s located on a narrow lane off the main Patrick Street. Inside is an easy ambience, not ‘decorated’ but not dark and brooding; casual, cheerfully lit, with a bulletin board full of photos of local friends from the Pride event in August. (The next bash was an End-of-Summer costume party a week later.) Taboo also offers karaoke every Wednesday night. Sitting around little bar tables were friends in pairs and small groups gossiping, laughing or pondering serious issues with furrowed brows.
I struck up a conversation with one patron, a hotel manager named Colm who was originally from Kilkenny. He easily slipped into conversation and seemed eager to explain the easy life that lesbigays have in Cork. Colm thought that Cork was easy going and more accepting than Dublin perhaps because it has only half the population (about 400.000) and gay people tend to know each other more. Also, Cork is mostly a working class city with few pretensions and seemingly devoid of the “body fascism and fashion fascism” found among the gay urban trendy crowds of Dublin (somewhat) or London (definitely).
His accuracy may be debatable, but Colm was more assured when I asked him about the present influence of the Catholic Church. For years, I had believed the cliché that Ireland was a sexually uptight country living tightly within the puritan grip of religious Roman dogma. Colm, however, described how the Church has squandered its once powerful influence especially in the past twenty years.
“Before any of the present scandal about abusive priests and children there was a major scandal in which a Catholic bishop had affair with a woman which resulted in a child. Although the affair lasted only a week, years afterward, having moved to Canada, she wrote a book about the liaison dangereux partly out of anger. Her son had sought reconciliation with his father but was instead shunned by him.”
The book had a devastating effect, which of course she intended. In today’s secular world the Church, at best, is described as having only a modest influence on the culture. Coincidentally, a week after our talk the results of a national poll on Catholic church attendance was published on the front page of the Irish Times: fewer than 45% of Catholics attend services regularly on any given Sunday. There was no mention of how many Protestants attended Church of Ireland services regularly.
Colm has lived and worked in Cork for three years. He said he never had any doubts or fears of police or homophobic bullies. “People are very tolerant here; a strong attitude of live and let live. “Colm seemed satisfied with his present circumstances as a professional and as a gay man. Not currently with a partner, he is more interested in having good friends and a secure job than having a mate, although he is not turning a blind eye to a handsome white knight who might come riding through.
Cork is Ireland’s second largest city. (Belfast is bigger than Cork but it is in British controlled Northern Ireland.) It has a powerful history of independent thinking and willful thinkers. Michael Collins, the first ‘chief’ of the new Irish Free State is a big hero for many here. Unfortunately (depending on whom you ask) just after he signed the historic Easter Sunday agreement to partition Ireland in 1922 he was gunned down as he toured this area. Many local Black and Tan party roughnecks were vehemently opposed to independence, insisting that all of Ireland be free of British control.
Rural Gay Farmers
Over breakfast at Roman House B&B the next morning we chatted with another male couple—Tom and Mark– who lived near Limerick (about 50 miles away) and were in Cork for a few days holiday. Not surprisingly, since these were not ‘city guys’, the talk was devoid of gay references at first.
They were farmers with about a hundred acres and fifty beef cattle out in the green rural flatlands of the county. We talked about the skyrocketing real estate prices in Ireland and about families who purchased property with lifetime mortgages of several hundred thousand Euros. (1 Euro = 1.23 US$) These buyers don’t expect to pay off the loan in their lifetimes; the plan is to have their children carry the mortgage and hopefully pay it off. Even rural farmland, Tom said, was going for about a pricey thousand Euros an acre.
Tom said Ireland’s economy was very keyed to the USA economy especially regarding the three C’s: Coca-Cola, computers and chemicals. Ireland offers foreign companies a significantly lower rate of tax so many USA companies take advantage of this—including Pfizer who manufactures most of its Viagra here.
Hesitantly but nevertheless curious, I asked about living as gay people in a rural environment. It was obvious from the drop in casual chattiness that they were not at ease on this subject. Mark especially was reticent and offered little comment about their private or social life. Tom was a little more forthcoming with some details. They had been together for three years. Gay ‘life’ is non-existent in such Irish hamlets as theirs. A few scattered friends on occasion make for socializing. But because Ireland is such a small country, it is common for rural gays to drive for a couple of hours and be in a city where there are friends, clubs, bars, discos or saunas for letting down their guard for a day or two.Their hesitancy in sharing these few bits of Irish queer farm life disinclined me from further pursuit.
Later, after Tom and Mark had finished breakfast and left, our host Richard commented that even under the cover of a ‘big’ city like Cork it was unlikely that the rural guys ‘indulge’ in the gay scene other than fringe spectators having a few beers and enjoying the music. “It’s very different ‘out there’. You just don’t want the neighbors to know. And a lot of these guys have never been into the scene so they are not really comfortable when they do come here. But they like to go. It’s like a show for them. Tony and Mike have been here several times this year.”
Richard continued, “clubs and pubs in Cork have theme nights like ‘fetish’ night or costume night or karaoke night. But these country guys are unlikely to participate; it would be too wild for them. They’d feel uncomfortable taking part but they like to watch and see the city queers be a little crazy.”
Gay Life in Cork
Richard and his 19-year partner James have operated Roman House guesthouse for six years. Before Cork, where they were raised, they lived in Dublin for four years then Amsterdam for ten years so their view and experience stretches further than provincial Ireland. Having sown a few wild oats in the big cities, they felt it was time to set a calmer pace and build a financial base for their retirement. Both men are in their forties. Having made Roman House a viable business, they plan to sell it next year and move to Brighton, England where Richard will again take up his brushes and pencils to continue his artwork. He feels he is not living at his best potential frying breakfast sausage and flipping eggs. Looking at his paintings hung around the dining room, I agreed.
Their life here in Cork has been fairly comfortable and without discrimination. Cork is big enough to support a reasonable number of gay venues, organizations and many circles of friends. This year, 2002, has seen the city’s first Pride Festival that lasted over a summer weekend and featured parties, shows and performances—but no parade. In addition to gay events, the city hosts events such as the annual jazz festival, which brings a lot of visitors to Cork including many gay folks.
According to him, the recent Day of Diversity (which invited the gay and lesbian community) was mostly aimed at racial minorities especially blacks who have arrived in large numbers in Ireland in the past five years. Ireland has become one of the most attractive destinations for Africans and Romanian gypsies who are given food, shelter, some money and health care when they arrive as their immigrant status in examined (which can take a year). Many of them are having babies and the newborns are given Irish citizenship thus making the decision to repatriate the parents much more difficult. There has been a degree of resentment toward such policies and what appears to some as “unwarranted privileges”. The issue is obviously controversial and divisive among traditionalists who want to keep Ireland ‘green’ and progressives who see Ireland as a land of opportunity for all including immigrants who come to work–especially in the lower tier jobs that nouveau-middle-class Irish no longer want to perform; it’s an issue now common in prosperous western countries.
Richard is one of eight children, two of whom are gay: his brother Steve is gay and lives in Dublin. Richard offered that some mothers secretly like having gay sons because such offspring often continue to pay attention to their mothers when straight siblings are off and gone to attend to their wives and children. Raised in a Catholic family he, like many other gay and lesbian people, has pretty much dropped the church out of his life.
For native gay sons and lesbian daughters, Irish life has been mostly free of discrimination, harassment and violence in recent years. Richard also thought that the enmity of the Catholic and Protestant churches no longer have such a powerful sting. Homophobic violence is rare. Spiritual venom from the pulpit is minimal since federal legal protections have been in place for more than a decade. Religious hate speech is not legal in the Emerald Isle.
Richard’s assessment of the Dublin gay scene was that it had been seduced by the ‘pink Euro’ into being too commercial and overpriced. He said the prices for drinks automatically are bumped up after midnight in the gay bars and pubs like George. In Cork, there is much more familiarity among the LGBT community. Locals mainly support the gay venues so there is not this rip-off attitude among the bar owners. When Richard did some renovations on his B&B, he readily knew a gay carpenter, gay electrician and a gay kitchen installer.
So it seems that gay life in Cork is active but contained. As long as one doesn’t expect more visibility, more flamboyance, more public space, LGBT people can live well amid the busy city. What else can the community want—marriage, adoption? Given the progress of change in Ireland (and the EU), even they don’t seem farfetched now.
A visitor to Cork soon finds out that one of the most successful lesbigay organizations is Linc—Lesbian in Cork. It’s a community resource center “primarily for women who identify as lesbian, bisexual—this includes transgender people or those in transition–who identify as lesbian or bisexual.”
At its new offices in downtown Cork, Linc offers a web site (www.linc.ie). a drop-in-and-chat time several times a week, a film club, a help phone line, numerous activity groups such as a hiking (Bootwomen), an annual Irish Women’s Summer Camp, a Fantasy Ball, an upcoming Mural Project and a well-presented quarterly magazine ‘Linc’. There are also activist groups that do outreach education and political lobbying. Linc also marches in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Supported mainly by local private contributions Linc also receives funding from the federal government via the Health Board as well as the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. It has also received support form the Cork City Partnership to help train phone line volunteers.
The July ’02 issue of ‘Linc’ featured an insightful series of testimonies about Irish lesbians who have moved to other countries or back to Ireland. One very interesting narrative points out that, according to one study on Irish gays and lesbians in 1995, almost 60% of respondents had emigrated at some point in their lives and that sexual orientation was a key factor in their decision.
However, since homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993 a dramatic shift has occurred. As Irish laws and attitudes have changed significantly in the ensuing decade, many Irish émigrés who had moved abroad now find, ironically, that Ireland offers more liberal laws regarding homosexuality. Consequently there is evidence that the migration has now shifted back toward Ireland.
The Other Place
The other major Cork lesbigay organization is Cork Gay Project. CGP offers diverse services and events for the entire community. It has a café, bar, a bookshop, social meetings as well as the city’s office of the national Gay Men’s Health Project, which offers advice and support for STDs and HIV.
In addition to CGP the directory of venues and services listed in GCN newspaper under Cork offers more than twenty locations and organizations.