Saul Fidgeon questions how well different sexualities and races are represented in Irish literature.
THE “other” is an age-old concept used in literature to isolate those who are different in some way from what is thought of as “normal”. Groups are “othered” for reasons such as gender, sexuality, race, religion or social class. People suffering disabilities, for example, are often used as the other because their physical or mental differences make it easy for the reader to see them as abnormal. By “other-ing” these individuals, writers encourage an “us-versus-them” mentality in readers that tends to be biased against minorities.
The twentieth century saw many movements for social change that improved the treatment of minority groups, and these have carried on into the twenty-first century. Literature has always played a crucial role in these movements for its ability to simultaneously give a voice to and shape a culture. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ireland, a country known for its literary talent. The stories told by our playwrights and authors echo the issues of their generations, and it is unfortunate, yet telling, that Irish literature has been so slow to adapt a fair and equal view of groups that have been “othered.”
The treatment of gay and other queer people in Ireland has been historically unjust. One of our country’s most famous talents, Oscar Wilde, was arrested and imprisoned for his homosexuality in 1895. In 1983, almost a century later, Declan Flynn was beaten to death in Dublin’s Fairview Park. This was the most vicious in a string of attacks on homosexual men in the area. Flynn’s death was a spark for change, however, as it contributed to the development of the gay pride movement in Ireland and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993.
“Literature has always played a crucial role in social movements for its ability to simultaneously give a voice to and shape a culture.”
Acceptance of queer culture in Ireland has grown stronger over the past three decades and it has been helped greatly by queer writing. Playwright Frank McGuinness and authors Colm Tóibín and Emma Donoghue, three of the biggest names in Irish literature, identify as gay and through their writing give a strong voice to the Irish LGBT community.
The success of biographies written by queer celebrities like Graham Norton and Panti Bliss further reinforce the place queer writing has in Irish literature. McGuinness’ most notable play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, was written in the mid-80s, a dangerous time for any expression of homosexuality, but McGuinness’ opinion on this is not one of fear: “gay characters have been few and far between . . . It was about bloody time, and it had to be faced.”
While queer culture in Ireland has made continuous progress, treatment of other races has not been so forward-thinking. In 2004 the Irish people passed the citizenship referendum which stopped babies born to foreign parents within Ireland from automatically being granted citizenship, a vote widely believed to have been passed because of a mistrust of non-nationals. This mistrust has unfortunately become a part of Irish identity, made acceptable by the old joke of “I’m not racist but…” This treatment is mostly reserved for foreign people of different skin colour, and it is deep-rooted within Irish culture.
“While queer culture in Ireland has made continuous progress, treatment of other races has not been so forward-thinking.”
In the 1960s this became so aggressive that the Nigerian government warned its students of the danger of studying in Ireland. This type of racial abuse has resurfaced in the 21st century due to the fear of terrorist groups such as ISIS; in this generation the abuse is directed at anyone whose skin tone suggests they come from a Muslim country.
This fear and hate of people who are racially and religiously different from what is considered normal in Ireland makes it difficult for them to be a part of Irish society. Kevin Curran, a teacher from Balbriggan, blamed the lack of other races in Irish literature for this divide. “African students were being excluded from our national literature simply by being ignored by it.”
He remedied this in 2013 by writing Beatsploitation, the first Irish novel to have a black protagonist. Wishing to avoid appropriating the voice of another culture, he wrote from the point of view of a white man discriminating against Kembo, the protagonist, to draw attention to how Irish people generally treat foreigners.
In the three years since the publication of Beatsploitation, no African-Irish writers have risen to prominence to take the place in our national literature that Kevin feels they deserve. However there has been a wealth of brilliant writing from authors new and old in recent years. The post-Celtic Tiger period has seen a literary renaissance of sorts. It is likely that the books we see in shop windows today and those we will see over the next few years will do even more to break the boundaries between what is “normal” and what is “other.”