Coming Out, Queer Sex, and Heteronormativity in two Irish-language Novels

Seán Mac Risteaird, Dublin City University

Éibhear Walshe (1997) posits that literary production, including the novel, became a tool to assert national difference between Ireland and England throughout the revival period (late nineteenth to early twentieth century). A coherent masculine identity was at the heart of the revival’s aims which Walshe terms as “masculinist nationalism”. Masculinist nationalism, informed by a variety of images and mythology of identities (Nic Dhiarmada 1998), was at the heart of the revival period.

In the past number of decades, however, Irish-language writers have begun to disrupt this narrative and are now speaking to transgressive, and oftentimes challenging, themes such as the coming out narrative, queer sex, and non-normative sexual behaviour and identities. Micheál Ó Conghaile and Pádraig Standún, two Irish-language writers, both engage with and chart queer identities and love in two important texts: Sna Fir (Ó Conghaile 1999) and Cion Mná (Standún 1993). While Sna Fir deals with a queer man in his twenties navigating his sexual desires in urban spaces, Cion Mná deals with two queer women’s blossoming relationship in rural spaces. Before looking at both texts, I will provide a contextual survey of how the voice and tone of Irish-language literature changed from a masculinist one during the revival to a more diverse and complex one in contemporary literary works in the Irish-language.Literature in Irish was not always so anxious to maintain what I would see as a masculinist normative identity. Interestingly, the bardic poetry of the sixteenth century was layered with homoerotic themes and imagery (McKibben 2010).

The Early Modern period of Irish (1200–1650), saw the emergence of eloquent, professional poetry as a form of early modern public relations. The land of Ireland represented through poetic imagery, was an ongoing motif in this period. Lacey (2008) points out that male bards were oftentimes seen as symbolically married to their chieftains. Poetry, as mentioned by McKibben, would serve as a tool to counteract “in potent terms of emasculation, penetration and dissolution” (2010, 7). This was on the back of the Act for the English Order, Habit and Language (1537) that sought to create an English colony of Ireland. Bards were obliged to maintain the link to the Irish political elite through praising their chieftains as their primary function. This relationship included praise of “the patron’s undeniable sexual potency […]an additional proxy for leadership confirming the poet’s own homoeroticism as merely conventional in an institutionalized structure” (McKibben 2010, 174). Although very much a poetic conceit, the poetry of this era was markedly homoerotic and conveyed an anxiety about English colonialization.

The Irish cultural revival (beginning in 1884) was noted by Máirín Nic Eoin as one of the most important intellectual movements in Ireland (1982, 25). What the revival sought to deliver and promote was the idealisation of Irish identity through a cultural tradition in order to set itself against British cultural identities (Woods 1998, 42). This was achieved through the promotion of the Irish language, the arts, sport, and political movements. The trajectory of the liberalisation and contemporising of Irish-language literature can be traced back to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In “Queer Treasons: Homosexuality and Irish Identity”, Kathryn Conrad (2001) explores the manner in which non-normative historical figures were handled in Irish history. Looking at Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, Eva Gore-Booth, and Kate O’Brien, Conrad dissects the social and political history of Ireland under the spectrum of non-normative identity and the manner in which they were treated with disdain by a Catholic Nationalist Ireland. Until recently, queer history was often ignored in various social historical accounts of Ireland (Lacey 2008, 6). The development of queer sexuality and social movements in Irish history is a complex one; from a supressed homosexual subpopulation to the emergence of a significant trans rights movement. Non-normative sexuality, and any transgressors, were treated with a disdain which stemmed largely from various inherited colonial laws or from Catholic dogma (Ferriter 2009, 6).

The 1937 Irish Constitution saw the family unit being immediately positioned as an important institution and was enshrined as a legally protected entity which would create a coherency of normative lives and solidify gender roles for the new Irish Republic (Conrad 2001). From the foundation of the state, nationalism and conservative political and religious beliefs went hand in hand. Any outward threat to the family unit was marked with anxiety and resistance. Homosexuality was seen as a foreign import, or as something which came“from foreign hands” (Lacey, 2008). Homosexuality was not seen as a native or normal state of being or identity. Ireland, as a nation, strived to build a puritanical society, in order to remain safe from homosexuality. Homosexuality was categorised neatly as either a crime, a disease, or as a sin (Aldrich, Wotherspoon 2001[2000], 9). However, a more pluralist, inclusive society emerged from this era, which saw Irish attitudes and policies change having been influenced by international events and contexts (see Rose 1994 [1993], 10). The Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York inspired the establishment of gay and lesbian organisations and movements in Ireland, which in turn championed the creation of a more socially inclusive, pluralist Irish society through the decriminalisation of sexual activity between males in 1993 (Bowyer 2010, 57), and the successful marriage equality referendum in 2015.

Through centuries of the British colonisation of Ireland, the Irish-language has indeed recognised homosexuality and queer identities as real phenomenon. De Brún (2017), discuss-ing an essay by Nicholas Williams published in the 1970s, explains that homosexuality was rarely mentioned in the literature of the language. However, in Daithí Ó Luineacháin’s (1997) dictionary of sexuality, the writer lists several native words for non-normative sexual identi-ties, including cigire tónach (bottom inspector), buachaill baitín (batty boy), and Muireann i mbríste (a woman called Muireann in trousers). While the terms appear to be derogatory, they prove that non-normative sexuality was indeed an acknowledged and known phenomenon.

Attempts at linking the Irish-language with a queer urban community was seen in the early nineties with the establishment of GAA (Gaeilgeoirí Aontaithe Aeracha / United Gay Irish Speakers). Woods (1998), in her anthropological and sociolinguistic study of the group, saw its establishment as an attempt to overthrow the cultural and ideological hangover of nineteenth century conservatism in relation to homosexuality. Interestingly, Ohno (2002) describes how the marrying of queer and Irish-language cultures is a natural one; both communities are minorities in the country, and both have fought, or are fighting, for community rights. This contrasts with the views of literary and social commentators such as Ciarán Ó Coigligh (1993, 24), who suggested that homosexuality as a phenomenon only included 1% of the population and therefore was “undeserving” of such critical and social attention.

However, more recently we see the establishment of the group Aerach.Aiteach.Gaelach. This group, founded by poet Ciara Ní É, aims to develop interdisciplinary works that will celebrate Irish language LGBT+ speakers across Ireland.Much like the social movements detailed above, Irish-language literature has gone on a “transformative journey” (Ó Siadhail 2010, 145), running parallel with major societal develop-ments in the Republic of Ireland. Ní Chléirchín (2004) notes how Irish-language poets became outward-looking due to the INNTI movement. INNTI was a literary magazine founded by a group of young poets in University College Cork, who began dissecting themes and issues during the “Year that Rocked the World” (1968) according to Ó Dúshláine (2011, 7).

Irish-language literature has counted queer writers such as Micheál Ó Conghaile and Cathal Ó Searcaigh in its contemporary canon, while others such as Pádraig Standún, Pádraig Ó Cíobháin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, spoken-word poet Ciara Ní É, Alex Hijmans, and Proinsias Mac a’ Bhaird have represented queer love in their literary works through the medium of Irish. This new dawn in Irish-language literature contrasts greatly with the literature of the twentieth-century revival, which centred on traditional novels based on perceived normative relationships. Therefore, this paper will look at two prominent queer novels, both from the 1990s, that seek to reflect queer Irish-language lives.


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