Can I Write About It Yet?: The Influence of Politics on Literary Representations of Lesbians in Irish Women’s Writing

From Firenze University Press Journal: Studi irlandesi. A Journal of Irish Studies

Anna Charczun, Brunel University

The staggering advance of Irish lesbian rights and politics is quickly becoming an area of interest to many scholars. The Republic of Ireland, which, up to the late twentieth century, was a cradle of Catholicism, and where there was no place for discussing the topic of sexuality, let alone its ‘deviant’ forms, has transformed unchangeably in the last thirty years.

This article will discuss how lesbian literature of Ireland was a fervent companion of the changing laws and legislations at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries, that at first decriminalised and later equalised same-sex couples. It will also outline how factors such as the failing influence of the church and the increasing openness within Irish society accommodated the emergence of a lesbian subject that was excluded from the pages of Irish fiction, and how a new reconciliation of multiple identities was formed alongside the concurrent publications of lesbian works at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Beginning with the year 1989, when the Republic was in the midst of David Norris’s fight to decriminalise homosexual acts, an amendment that came into life in 1993, the article will discuss the literary activism of Mary Dorcey, who prepared the literary scene for the forthcoming changes. In her ground-breaking collection of short stories, A Noise from the Woodshed (1989), her short story “Scarlett O’Hara” (1990), and her only novel Biography of Desire (1997), Dorcey openly introduces the concept of lesbian desire, passion, and identity, with her lesbian heroines occupying central spaces of their respective narratives. The article will then analyse three works of Emma Donoghue, Stir-fry (1994), Hood(1995), and Landing (2007), and map out the development of lesbian narrative towards and around the second decade of the twenty-first century, as well as the same-sex marriage referendum of 2015, whilst noticing trends in contemporary lesbian writing that contributed to the emergence of a non-stigmatised lesbian sexuality.

This will be achieved by an analysis of the most prominent in that period of time narrational techniques, such as lesbian Bildungsroman, Rich’s lesbian existence and lesbian continuum, and transnationalism, that aided Irish lesbian writers in entering the lesbian subject(s) and the historical presence of lesbians into the canon of Irish literature, which has been hitherto largely dominated by male heteronormative writing.In 1977, David Norris, a lawyer and an active campaigner for homosexual rights, took a court action challenging the validity of sections 61 and 62 of the Offences Against the Persons Act and Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885, established by the British Parliament and continued by the Irish Free State following its foundation in 1922, which criminalised sexual activity between men, be it in private or in public, and for which penalties varied between three years of imprisonment and a life sentence. Norris argued that the sections invaded several of his rights, including his right to privacy, which should have been secured by the Constitution. After having lost the case both at first instance before the High Court and on appeal before the Supreme Court, Norris filed a complaint before the European Court of Human Rights stating that the Irish law violated his right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights.

He won the case in 1988. Sections 61 and 62 of the 1861 Act, and section 11 of the 1885 Act were repealed and amended by the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, that made offences of buggery illegal only if committed with a person under the age of seventeen, or who is mentally impaired, in order to maintain protection for the young and the vulnerable.Parallel to Norris’s case, between 1973 and 1993, many gay and lesbian movements rose to power and achieved general recognition. The Lesbian Movement itself gained more members each day and made itself seen within the society, thus strengthening the visibility of lesbians. Lesbian activists fought alongside gay men in order to achieve the same rights, understanding, acceptance, and their rightful place amongst Irish society.

Organisations, services, and unions for gay men and lesbians of Ireland began to be formed, amongst them the Sexual Liberation Movement (1973), the Irish Gay Rights Movement (1974), as well as telephone befriending services for gay and lesbian individuals such as Tel-A-Friend (1974) or Dublin Lesbian Line (1979). Mary Robinson actively supported David Norris, and in later course became his attorney. At the age of twenty-five, Robinson was the youngest law professor in Ireland. She was a campaigner for human rights and fought vigorously to improve the position of women and to abolish laws prohibiting homosexuality. In the early 1960s, during her stay in Paris, she came across homosexuality for the first time: “I was astounded because I hadn’t even heard that it was possible. And yet through literature and lifestyle in Paris, it was something that I took on board with great interest at the time” (O’Leary, Burke 1998, 20).

Therefore, her 1967-graduation address was aimed at the necessity of changes that needed to take place in the Irish law; in this speech, she targeted issues that were not spoken about out loud before: divorce, contraception, suicide and, most importantly, the position of women in Irish society. She believed that these issues could be resolved by changing the law and overthrowing the old laws that were instigated, in large measure, by the Church: “I was very angry at a lot of what the Church stood for at that time, at how religion could become power-play and oppressive, undermining the true sense of spirituality and the true ethical norms and standards that are the highest reaches of the human mind” (19). Her involvement was initiated in 1977 when she served as a legal advisor for the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform. She became the President of the Republic of Ireland on 3 December 1990 and held her post until 12 September 1997. In 1988, the European Court ruled that the law criminalising same-sex activities was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular Article 8, which protects the right to respect the private life. In 1992, one year before the final decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Ireland, Robinson invited the representatives of Irish Gay and Lesbian community to Áras an Uachtaráin (the official residence of the President of Ireland), which David Norris saw as a sign of “the final act of acceptance, […] being welcomed into the Irish family at last” (107). Robinson’s involvement in Norris’s case, followed by her presidency, have not only had a significant input into Ireland’s European politics, but have also influenced the lesbian narrative in terms of a new-found openness with which lesbian authors could textualise their desires. I notice a perceptible correlation between Robinson’s presidency and lesbian fiction that has emerged during that time; it was a time of change, and lesbian writers began to cele-brate and pay tribute to lesbian love through their voices that were no longer to be threatened by neither the censorship nor the law.


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