In photo: Roger Casement
As the nation works towards commemorating the leaders of the 1916 Rising, few have spoken about the gay participants in the fight for freedom. Eoin Walsh remembers the gay leaders of 1916, and looks at their airbrushing from a heteronormative narrative of the Rising.
The reason the title of this article does not include the acronym ‘LGBTQ+’ is not to offend, or be selective; it is simply because little or no evidence exists of the ‘BTQ+’ orientations of the acronym in 1916. Considering homosexuality was only decriminalised in this country in 1993, and the Gender Recognition Act was only passed in 2015, it is not surprising that evidence from 1916 is so scarce.
Sexuality in Ireland in 1916 was not as prudish as one might expect. Dublin had one of the largest red light districts in Europe in an area known as ‘the monto’ (around present day Seán MacDermott Street in Dublin’s north inner city). This was mostly due to a large customer base of eight British military barracks located in the city, along with a very busy docklands area. An area of the Phoenix Park was the main location for procuring the services of ‘rent-boys’ as they were commonly known. There was also an explosion of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in Ireland during and after World War I.
Most people however, were completely unaware of the existence of homosexuality within Irish society. It was, for instance, socially acceptable for two ‘spinster’ (unmarried) women to live together without anyone assuming anything more than a platonic friendship. Upon their deaths, many lesbian couples were actually buried together with the refrain ‘lifelong friends/companions’ being the most common term written on their headstone. The matter of two ‘single’ unrelated men living together was far rarer and more dangerous in terms of what society would deem acceptable. Just like unmarried mothers or other groups that were considered social outcasts, a very low profile was the order of the day.
With regards to the participants of the 1916 Rising, there is definitive evidence that some of the key participants were gay or lesbian. Up to very recently, the sexual orientations of the 1916 participants were kept quiet, especially following the Catholic dominated narrative of this part of Irish history.
The most famous of the gay participants was Dublin born Sir Roger Casement, who was responsible for the failed importing of 20,000 rifles from Germany on Easter Week 1916. He was one of 16 men executed for their part in the Rising (he was hung in London on charges of treason in August 1916). He had received a knighthood for his humanitarian work in exposing the mistreatment of natives of the Belgian Congo and Peru in the early 20th century. Casement kept an infamous ‘black diary’ which detailed his numerous sexual exploits with men and male prostitutes around the world, from Paris to London to South America. He actually kept a ‘white diary’ for the more mundane day to day occurrences. Although this diary had nothing to do with his charges relating to the Rising, it was leaked by the Crown prosecutors during his trial to discredit him. This in turn would have the affect of preventing many people (including the Catholic Church hierarchy) from publicly supporting him, although his friends, like the writers Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw, were not perturbed. For decades in Ireland, these diaries were considered fakes that were produced by British authorities. But using modern day forensics there is now little doubt that the diaries are genuine. It was a reality that did not rest well with the saintly martyrdom of the 1916 individuals, and was largely swept under the rug in Ireland, with Casement being largely forgotten as a result.
The sexuality of Patrick (Pádraig) Pearse, arguably the most famous participant in the Easter Rising, has been debated much in recent decades. Initially, in the years following the Rising, Pearse was given a saint like status. His ‘sacred cow’ status was smashed by historian Ruth Dudley Edwards in her 1977 biography of him which was the first to highlight his homosexual desires. Prior to this, his non-existent love life was said to have been as a result of losing the love of his life at young age, a heartbreak from which he never recovered. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that this ‘lost love’ ever existed in the first place, or that Pearse had any serious romantic relationships with females throughout his life.
In fact, there is no evidence that he had any sexual relationships with men either. It is his poetry and his lustful description of men and young boys that have led people to believe that Pearse was in fact a repressed gay man. It is highly possible that this was the case, and that he battled with his sexual desires which were against the teachings of his staunch Catholic faith. It is also possible that he lacked an understanding of what his feelings actually meant, oblivious to what homosexuality was or that it existed in general society. His greatest detractors have accused him of having paedophilic tendencies, but again, there is no evidence of this, and his former pupils that have left accounts speak highly of him as a teacher and as person. The most controversial poem of Pearse’s, originally written in Irish, was entitled ‘Little Lad of the Tricks’ and includes the following lines:
Little Lad of the Tricks…
Raise your comely head
Till I kiss your mouth:
If either of us is the better of that
I am the better of it.
There is a fragrance in your kiss
That I have not found yet
In the kisses of women.
The most famous lesbian of the 1916 Rising were Dr Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine ffrench-Mullen. They had met in 1913 and would go on to spend the rest of their lives together. Most of the evidence of their relationship comes from the diary of Dr Lynn which describes their lives residing together and sharing the same bed. Both women were heavily involved in the suffrage, socialist and republican movements.
Mayo woman Kathleen Lynn had an incredible life, and was one of the first qualified female doctors in Ireland. On the first day of the Rising in 1916 she was second-in-command of the Irish City Army battalion that attacked Dublin Castle and Dublin City Hall. She was arrested on the first day and went on to spend a number of months in prison for her activities. She is most famous for establishing the very first children’s hospital in Ireland in 1919, St Ultan’s on Dublin’s Charlemont Street. She dedicated her life to helping the less well off and was to the fore in the great flu epidemic of 1918 and the deadly TB outbreak in the late 1940s.
Ffrench-Mullen was rarely seen away from the side of Dr Lynn. Both women lived and worked in partnership together helping the less well off in Dublin society. Although older, Kathleen outlived Madeleine by eleven years, dying in 1955. Perhaps the following diary extract from 1916 by Kathleen Lynn best highlights the love between the two women. Both had been arrested for their participation in the Easter Rising. Initially they were actually put in the same prison cell together with another woman, but they were later transferred to separate prisons. Kathleen wrote:
10th May 1916: Mountjoy clean and comfortable, but I’d give £10,000 for Kilmainham and Madeleine.
Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell is most famous for carrying the surrender order by Patrick Pearse down a body strewn Moore Street on the final day of the Easter Rising on Saturday 29th April 1916. She was one of only three women remaining in the GPO garrison after Pearse had ordered all the women to leave. Nurse O’Farrell, Julia Grenan and James Connolly’s loyal assistant Winifred Carney had point blank refused to leave. O’Farrell was controversially airbrushed from the picture that showed Patrick Pearse surrendering to British Commander General Lowe. However, Elizabeth O’Farrell’s own love life was also neatly erased from history. Her partner was Julia Grenan, the woman who would not leave her side on Easter Week 1916. They remained together for decades after 1916, and upon their deaths were buried together in Glasnevin cemetery, the inscription reading:
‘Elizabeth O’Farrell of Easter Week 1916…And her faithful comrade and lifelong friend Sheila [Julia] Grenan’
The term ‘lifelong friend’ is used time after time to cover-up the true meaning of the gay relationships of these 1916 participants. Even recently published histories continue along the same lines. Perhaps now in the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising it is time to finally state what these relationships really were; a love between two people who happen to be of the same gender. This is a freedom that was not available to the courageous men and women who fought 100 years ago, but is now possible in an Ireland they cared so deeply about.