The Tullow case, where eight males were shamed by a judge for their so-called crimes, was typical of Ireland then, writes Catherine Fegan
The eight defendants, who were charged with almost 70 counts of gross indecency, had all pleaded guilty. The youngest of the males, one of two juveniles, was 15.
It was late January 1970 and, as they stood to receive their sentences, there was silence in Carlow Circuit Court.
“I do not propose to give you a lecture about the crimes you have committed,” Judge Mc D Fawcitt said.
“You are a sorry sight to look at there. The humiliation it brought on yourselves and your families is very severe.”
Seven of the eight, all from nearby Tullow, received suspended sentences, with the eighth man, who arrived late to court, receiving a six-month sentence.
“Keep away from one another,” the judge warned as he concluded proceedings.
More than 50 years later, in an Ireland where same-sex sexual activity is no longer a crime, plans to disregard historical convictions of gay and bisexual males could see the men in the Tullow case – one that became part of LGBTQ+ folklore – vindicated for their “crimes”.
“I don’t think Tullow was unique,“ LGBTQ+ campaigner Kieran Rose told the Irish Independent.
“There are probably many other cases waiting to be researched and documented. They are incredibly fascinat- ing and sad.”
Mr Rose, founder of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), is part of a working group examining how Ireland can go about disregarding convictions made against gay and bisexual men under legislation that was later repealed.
Earlier this month, a progress report published by the Department of Justice detailed the group’s advice to set up a disregard scheme that would consider individual cases. Living individuals, or someone acting on behalf of a deceased person, should be able to apply for their conviction to be disregarded, the group recommends.
It is also considering whether a letter of apology from the justice minister should be sent alongside successful applications, or if an official pardon could be granted.
Mr Rose said the research undertaken by the group showed there had been 1,690 such prosecutions and 941 convictions between 1953 until the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993.
“There is a huge difference in terms of prosecutions and convictions,” he said.
“I think it is an issue that has to be considered. Huge trauma and damage would have been caused to men who were prosecuted, even when they were not convicted, such as possible social ostracisation, loss of employment, forced emigration, forced psychiatric treatment. It seems these men should be entitled to some form of redress from the State.”
Mr Rose, who lobbied for the 1993 Criminal Law Amendment, said the working group had initially been tasked with looking at convictions, but the “huge” number of prosecutions involved warranted equal attention.
“I thought the figures were very high,” he said. “Not only that – very late. I thought when the Irish gay rights movement was set up in 1974 and they worked to challenge some of this they would have reduced more. There were still prosecutions and convictions in the 1980s, which is shocking.”
Homosexual activity was decriminalised in Ireland on June 24, 1993. Convictions for consensual sexual acts were rare in the years leading up to decriminalisation but were common up to and throughout the 1970s.
Recalling the atmosphere at the time, filmmaker and long-time LGBTQ+ campaigner Edmund Lynch said there was a sense of panic in the gay community as gardaí clamped down.
“It was an underground scene,” he said. “It’s not like the way it is nowadays, when you can be openly gay in Ireland. The police were being very heavy-handed. I would have been moved on by the police once or twice, but I met others who found themselves in trouble with the law.
“There was a lot of panic because many of them wouldn’t have told their parents they were gay.”
Following the introduction of legislation in the UK that will pardon those convicted of homosexual “offences”, Mr Lynch and others say now is an opportune time to examine how the gay community was treated by the law in Ireland.
The working group examining the issue consists of representatives from the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), the Office of the Attorney General and three individuals from the LGBTQ+ community with expertise in this area.
A public consultation on the issue will be launched in the coming weeks to allow representative organisations and affected people to provide input based on their experiences.
Labour TD Ged Nash, who introduced the Conviction for Certain Offences (Apology & Exoneration) Bill in 2016, encouraged anyone affected by the previous legislation to come forward.
“If we are to achieve a more equal, tolerant and inclusive republic, we must come to terms with our past and have a reckoning with it,” he said.
“Today we are an important step closer to making peace with those men whose only ‘crime’ was their sexual orientation.
“I would urge everyone who can to share their real-life experiences with the working group and contribute to this important process.”
The working group is due to submit a final report in late summer or early autumn.