'Attitudes may have changed but gay-bashing still happens'
More than 10,000 people will take part in this year's Gay Pride festival, which has its origins in a tragic killing more than 30 years ago. John Meagher reports
In the summer of 1982, a series of systematic beatings was carried out in Fairview Park, not far from Dublin's north inner city. They focused on gay men who used it as a meeting place and cruising area.
On September 10, the gang struck again. This time, their target was 31-year-old Aer Rianta worker Declan Flynn. One of them was used as 'bait' and when Flynn sat down next to him on the bench, the other four rushed out from behind trees.
Their victim managed to run towards the gate and the main road but was caught just 10 metres from the perimeter. They proceeded to kick him and beat him with sticks and when they had finished and had robbed him of £4 and his watch, Declan Flynn was left lying on the path choking on his own blood.
He died within an hour of admission to Blanchardstown Hospital.
His attackers were Tony Maher (19) and Robert Armstrong (18), both members of the Air Corps, Patrick Kavanagh (18), Colm Donovan (17) and a 14-year-old boy who can't be named. "We were all part of the team to get rid of queers in Fairview Park," Armstrong later said.
In March 1983, the Declan Flynn case came before the court. Justice Sean Gannon gave them suspended sentences for manslaughter and allowed the five to walk free. "This," he said, "could never be regarded as murder." There were reports of celebrations in Fairview.
Failure to jail the ringleader Armstrong would have dire consequences. In 1992, Armstrong and an accomplice broke into a flat in Ballymun and raped a woman who was seven months pregnant. He received a 10-year jail sentence.
The ruling caused outrage – as did the judge's comments that the so-called vigilantes were "cleaning up the area" – and would prove to be the catalyst for Ireland's fledgling gay rights movement.
Within days, 900 people marched from Liberty Hall to Fairview Park where a rally was held with speakers from then fledgling Dublin Lesbian and Gay Men's Collective and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.
It was a defiant show of strength in the deeply conservative country of the time and that June the first Gay Pride march would took place in Dublin – with 200 people walking together from St Stephen's Green to the GPO.
By contrast, there will be 10,000 participants at this year's Pride. The 10-day extravaganza, which starts today, has long been embraced by the wider community. But campaigners like Tonie Walsh believe it is important that the tragic circumstances that gave birth to the festival are never forgotten.
"Pride grew directly out of the gay-bashing killing of Declan Flynn," he says. "There was such a sense of anger at the killing and disbelief that the thugs who killed him would get off scot-free that gay people started to mobilise in a concerted way. While there had been efforts to campaign for gay rights before that, many people did not want to go public. Being gay could be very isolating back then.
"And we shouldn't forget that Declan wasn't the only gay man who was killed at that time: nobody was ever caught for the murder of [RTÉ employee] Charles Self in January 1982 either. He was stabbed 14 times in his own home."
Violence against gay people was becoming a depressingly familiar phenomenon in the early 1980s. "There were a lot of physical attacks," Walsh says. "You'd find yourself looking over your shoulder a lot. There was a huge amount of discrimination too. Don't forget that homosexuality was only decriminalised as recently as 1993, so I think a lot of gay people who were attacked because of their sexual orientation were afraid to go to the guards in case they were accused of criminality themselves."
Walsh – who is director of the Irish Queer Archive – spent much of his teen years in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, where he says he "felt like the only gay in the village, to use that cliché.
"For some people in the Ireland of the time, being gay was seen as being akin to paedophilia. I couldn't wait to get out, to get to Dublin, although the situation there wasn't quite as rosy as I'd hoped. That said, there were fantastic gay-friendly outlets like Bartley Dunne's on Stephen's Street [now the site of the Break for the Border superpub] and the Hirschfield Centre in Temple Bar [which burned down in 1987]. But in everyday life, you really did feel like an outsider back then."
A sense of how much Ireland has changed since those days can be gleaned from a letter sent by a young gay man to a Sunday newspaper in 1980. He wrote that he was so lonely he wanted to die, and asked if he could be cured of homosexuality. The agony aunt advised him to visit the Legion of Mary at the Star of the Sea hostel in Dublin as they ran "special meetings for people with that problem". She added that medical experts were reluctant to "diagnose" homosexuality until someone was at least 27, due to hormone fluctuation, and went on to suggest that the man considered a life of celibacy, "like priests, spinsters and bachelors".
That same year, the appearance of a lesbian named Joni Crone on The Late Late Show caused considerable disquiet. According to a news report the following week, a doctor phoned RTÉ to say that he "does not pay the licence fee to see that filthy person", while another complainant referred to the woman as "a pervert".
Casual homophobia was close to the surface throughout the 1980s, judging from a newspaper article in June 1985 on the founder of an Irish singles club. He was quoted boasting that his group had "no queers, homos, none of that carry-on. Our members are entitled to no less".
Despite the show of strength in 1983, gay pride appeared to be at low ebb just two years later. "Due to the depression and high levels of unemployment in the country, everyone was exhausted and disillusioned," says Gay Pride director Chris Procter. "Subsequently attendance was at an all-time low and 1985 will always be remembered as the year where only 25 people walked slowly behind a small van with a winding down tape recorder slowly wheezing "Sing if you're glad to be gay".
Yet, thanks to the efforts of Senator David Norris and others, gay rights campaigners gained momentum at the end of the 1980s and in June 1993 justice minster Maire Geoghegan-Quinn finally decriminalised homosexuality.
'Since the 80s and 90s, Dublin Pride parade had continued to grow and evolve," Procter says. "We have made the transition from being a protest movement into becoming the second largest annual festival in Ireland celebrating social inclusion and the rich tapestry of diversity in Irish life today.
"Last year, we outgrew our traditional post-parade venue at the Civic Offices and had to move to the larger space in Merrion Square where we partied at the gates to Leinster house at the home of the Government and the Taoiseach's offices."
Tonie Walsh says while the change in attitude has been profound, problems persist. "Gay-bashing still happens," he says. "And only this month we have the example of a gay teacher who had to leave his job because of the homophobic bullying he suffered. We still have a way to go, but the sort of fantastic Prides that we've had in recent years would have been unthinkable two or three decades ago."
Meanwhile, Chris Procter is anxious that Declan Flynn's name lives on. "We are currently working with Councillor Damien O'Farrell to have the newly refurbished foot bridge in Fairview, named as the Declan Flynn Memorial Bridge.
"A man should not have had to die at the hands of homophobic thugs for Ireland to change."
For further information, see dublinpride.ie