IRELAND’S Constitutional Convention last weekend voted overwhelmingly that the Constitution should be changed to allow for civil marriage for same-sex couples.
In light of the recommendation, we talk to three gay Irish people about why they chose to come to London and why the city was not the haven it might have been…
“If you were straight and trying to work out whether or not to leave Ireland, you might have been undecided. But if you were gay, that tipped the balance in favour of emigration.”
That is how Ross Golden-Bannon remembers his reasoning in 1985, when he came to London aged 19. And he says almost everyone he knew in Ireland who was gay was thinking along similar lines.
“It did not make any sense to be in Ireland,” he explains. “It was not the place to be a young gay man. Attitudes in London were much more liberal and welcoming. The discussion was much more advanced.”
Golden-Bannon was amazed to discover just how many gay Irish people had chosen to restart their lives in England’s capital. “There is a whole hidden story of the Irish gay people who left Ireland and went to live in Britain,” he says.
Marian Larragy, who left Dublin in the late 70s, is a part of that story. “When I came to London I very much felt that you had it for being Irish, you had it for being female and you had it for being lesbian,” she says. “It was a very difficult time.”
For the heterosexual majority of Irish immigrants, an infrastructure that helped to take the sting out of immigration was in place. It ranged from Irish centres to county associations and also included Irish sports clubs. But that safety net did not exist for the gay Irish community. So London was not the haven that it might have been. And isolation was a problem with very real consequences
“My straight mates who came over very quickly linked up with local sports teams and pubs,” says Golden-Bannon. “They could meet like-minded people and feel at home. But that absolutely was not there for Irish gay people in London.”
“We felt completely excluded,” says Larragy. “The biggest bug bear was the Catholic Church because it controlled so many places. All of the welfare agencies were under Church control that was often subtle but very definite. People were struggling with things and they had nowhere to go.”
The effect of that exclusion on Larragy was mitigated by her involvement in British LGBT and women’s rights groups. But men and women who were less radical, especially those who had left Ireland distressed, ashamed and in search of exile, suffered abjectly from the lack of support and the general silence in the “traditional” Irish community.
“They were really stuck and often ended up with major mental health problems,” Larragy says. “The number of Irish gay men and lesbians who killed themselves made you think: “Oh God, there’s another one.” And there was no difficulty in thinking why they might have done it. You lined up your own reasons for why it was better not to, but there was not anyone out there actually talking about it.”
Joseph Healy, who came to London in 1985, testifies to Larragy’s story. “One of my friends killed himself,” he says. “And I think that was a result of the lack of an infrastructure. Others took to the drink and did things like that. You never went near the established Irish community. I regarded it as hostile territory.”
Larragy and Healy agree that the feeling of being unwelcome, as felt by those looking at the community from the outside, contributed much more to isolation than direct conflict did.
“Traditional county associations were always led by priests and the directors of most Irish centres were priests. It was just clear that these were not places where we would feel welcome,” Healy says.
Healy made a moving speech at the Irish Embassy earlier this year about the suffering he has witnessed in gay Irish migrants. Among those who applauded him for telling a story that, even today, remains largely untold, was a woman from Tyrone whose brother came to London in his 30s before committing suicide.
“She told me her brother was torn between his Irish identity and his sexual identity,” Healy says, adding that for many people their Catholicism was an essential part of their Irish identity.
Exclusion not only kept gay people at a safe distance from mainstream Irish organisations, but it kept them isolated from one another.
It was not until Larragy got deeper into London’s fledgling network of gay organisations that she discovered how large the community was. The Irish were well represented across the board in such places as the London Lesbian and Gay Centre and London Friend. She says that the London Irish Women’s Centre also became a place where issues affecting gay people could be discussed.
Similarly, a small group of people ran a support service for Irish AIDS sufferers in Bethnal Green during the first half of the 90s.
And when Healy was diagnosed with HIV in 1990, a “death sentence” at the time, that centre was a lifeline. The staff, he says, tended to have a background in social care, which had caused them to develop “a more progressive attitude”.
“But they too did not feel like they were a part of the main Irish establishment either,” he adds.
Today there are important differences in the choices faced by gay Irish people, largely because of social changes in Ireland. While Healy and Larragy were driven to emigration primarily because it would not have been possible for them to function as gay people at home, the same is not true in 2013.
But the equation remains similar to the one described by Golden-Bannon, who returned to Ireland in 2000. In post-financial-crash Ireland, emigration is an option that few need not consider. And sexuality can still give people the final nudge because despite Dublin’s progress, the London scene is vastly more developed.
In support of that point, Golden-Bannon cites the emptiness of a Dublin bar owned by Miss Panty, a famous Irish drag queen. “Because he is a bar owner he is really connected with what the young gay community is doing and thinking,” Golden-Bannon explains. “And he says his bar is empty because all of the young gay people are going to London.”
On the topic of whether today’s migrants could get the support they might need from the Irish community, Larragy and Healy’s opinions differ.
“There are no organisations for young LGBT Irish people that I know of today,” says Larragy. “And I do not know whether any of the organisations that do exist would recognise or make room for people.
“I think that the mainstream organisations do not even realise how necessary it is to make the space for LGBT people.”
On the other hand, Healy sees what he regards as the starting point of a fundamental shift led by Mind Yourself. Last week, the London-Irish charity organised a meeting for the LGBT community to pool their views on gay marriage before the Constitutional Convention discusses the matter next month.
“I have the clear impression that Mind Yourself is an organisation of a different kind,” Healy says. “And Jennie McShannon from the Federation of Irish Societies has been very supportive.”
He adds: “I have a feeling that the tectonic plates are moving, but to what extent they will shift I am not sure.”