Monday 27 January 2020

Why Ireland should never forget its national treasures

The gay icons who established Dublin's Gate Theatre deserve their special place in history, writes Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson at the Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Square. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Sophie Donaldson at the Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Square. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

During one of my first nights out in Dublin I was at the sink in the ladies when I felt somebody's gaze boring into my back. I met their reflection in the mirror and saw a girl, maybe 18 or 19, staring at me, her kohl-lined eyes narrowed.

"You," she said, "look massive." My eyes widened and - never having been insulted quite so directly before - I swiftly left the bathroom. I was totally floored, and probably felt the same way all the Irish people in my native Australia did the first time they were told to "bugger off".

This wouldn't be the last time I would misinterpret slang, misread colloquialisms or completely and utterly miss the point.

Although I had moved from one English-speaking country to another, language wouldn't be the problem. What would trip me up, however, was the local lingo, the assumed knowledge and in-jokes that we all take for granted in our homeland.

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Given my botched general knowledge of Ireland perhaps I was not best placed to work on INM's photographic archives. But some 10,000 photos in and I've improved to the point that I would make a valued team member at your next pub quiz. In the blur of faces and dates and grainy photos, two names piqued my curiosity; Micheal Mac Liammoir and Hilton Edwards. Partly because they made a striking pair - Edwards's bald head and aquiline nose were the perfect foil for Mac Liammoir's dense black hair and still-beautiful, if not slightly craggy, features.

And then there were the names; one was so Irish I could barely wrap my tongue around it - and the other upper-class English.

I learnt they were the founders of the Gate Theatre, which explained why they were always pictured together, and the heavy greasepaint daubed on Micheal's face.

But then came the kicker - they were a gay couple. My faith in Google wavered.

Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir outside the Gate in 1972. Photo: INM archive
Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir outside the Gate in 1972. Photo: INM archive

At that moment, we still basked in the glow of the marriage referendum six months earlier. During the often visceral war of words in 2015 I had come to understand Ireland's chequered past in its attitude to homosexuality.

I became familiar with Oscar Wilde's persecution and the heroic efforts of Senator David Norris. I read about the battles fought by Senator Katherine Zappone and her late wife, Ann Louise Gilligan. I learnt of the shocking deaths of Declan Flynn and Charles Self. I was astounded to find that homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993, and yet here I was, living in Ireland with my girlfriend, just 20 years later.

I may have watched as Rory O'Neill's Panti was elevated to the status of cultural icon - but the bigger picture was this: 20th century Ireland had been an unwelcome place for 'queers'.

I was transfixed by a story that was incredulous threefold. Alfred Willmore, the London-born child actor who reinvented himself as the Irish speaking Mac Liammoir; that this raconteur and his so very English partner were lauded in Ireland just years after the formation of the Free State; and finally, that they were a gay couple who apparently flourished by being even more gay.

"Micheal wore more make-up on the street then he did on the stage," says Christopher Fitz-Simon, the accomplished writer, artistic director and author of the joint biography The Boys.

"I think in a way, certainly amongst the theatre goers, they were admired for being so theatrical."

Brian Merriman, founder of the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, concedes the fact.

"That's what gay men had to do in order to survive in life," he says, adding, "they played a role and they also had to be highly entertaining people in order to be included in society."

They rubbed shoulders with socialites and politicians, held court with doyennes of the theatre like Dame Sybil Thorndike and veterans like Cyril Cusack. Mac Liammoir's rich voice would often pour over the airwaves infiltrating the most rural parts of the country. In 1961, Edwards was enlisted by RTE to head up the drama department.

If there were any residual doubts that they were not ensconced in the mainstream, then you only need to revisit The Late Late Show that was dedicated in its entirety to Mac Liammoir on his 70th birthday.

But you don't need me, a foreigner, to tell you all this. They were national treasures, given Freedom of the City of Dublin, whose deaths were reported internationally with sympathies delivered from the Taoiseach himself.

Of course you don't need me to tell you all that - unless, perhaps, you are under 35. Because not a single person I spoke to under that age knew who they were.

There are Wilde memorials, bars, plaques, statues and tours. When Dublin City Council threatened to remove the vast backlit Panti Bar sign that presides over Capel Street and the popular gay bar, outrage ensued. It was allowed to remain because of its "social, historical and cultural significance".

Fanfare around them in modern popular culture is scant. There was John Keyes's play The Importance of Being Micheal, and the Enniscorthy Athenaeum proudly acknowledges being the place where they met. Merriman's theatre festival has an award dedicated to each. And that's about it.

"I think it's sad we are the only awards in their name," Merriman says. "I wanted to remind the young people today on whose shoulders we all stand."

Micheal Mac Liammoir and Hilton Edwards did not march, or protest, or hold placards. It was their visibility as a gay couple and the subversion of the word partner that was their guerrilla tactic.

With Mac Liammoir's linguistic mastery and Edwards's stentorian delivery, nobody knew better than them the power of word play. Mac Liammoir's one-man play The Importance of Being Oscar, in which a faux-Irish gay man portrays a persecuted Irish gay man, was his finest trope. That he purposely left out the trial and prosecution of Wilde by positioning it during the interval is utter sangfroid.

What I find even more extraordinary than Mac Liammoir and Edwards's story is the fact that it seems at risk of being forgotten.

During the referendum Mac Liammoir's visage should have been plastered on posters, and Edward's handsome Roman profile emblazoned on T-shirts. There are no blogs or websites dedicated to them, no single place online that tells their story start to finish.

The Boys is a thorough account of their life's work, and Christopher Fitz-Simon himself is a wealth of knowledge. He knew them both personally while touring with the Gate as a young actor, and later when he worked with Edwards at RTE. But in the years to come, there will not be many people who will be able to recall personal anecdotes about them.

Glitter will this morning be settling over Dublin after yesterday's Pride parade that snaked its way through the city. Our gay Taoiseach attended last year. Due to the ongoing cross-city tram works, the parade was diverted from the usual route and began at St Stephen's Green.

But the assembly point that has been used for years is at the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square, just a short hop from the Gate Theatre. Thankfully, the couple's legacy in the arts is solidified there in bricks and mortar. But I wonder how many of yesterday's young Pride goers know about the other great legacy that played a huge part in paving the way for the parade they marched in.

I hope I am wrong, but my old friend Google suggests it isn't many. It is vital Ireland's LGBT youth learn about their story, lest it becomes lost in time.

I hate to be dramatic, but I do think they would have rather liked that.

Sunday Independent

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