I was very disappointed to have missed the first Mayo Pride Parade in Castlebar on Saturday July22. I was out of the country but as soon as I got back I read the local papers' reports and contacted Mick Baynes, one of the event organisers, to get another view of what by all accounts was a well-attended day of good spirited solidarity. It is not that long ago when even the thought of such a colourful Pride parade through the county capital's streets would have met weighty and vociferous opposition.
To say that our country's past treatment of LGBT people was shameful would be a massive understatement. In researching this article I was not surprised to find very few occurrences of the word 'homosexual' in our local press from the 1950s to the 1970s. Any reference was usually in relation to the proceedings of a court case. Homosexuality remained a crime in Ireland until 1993. The unmentionable word appeared in local papers in 1976 when a new Vatican document on sexual ethics was enthusiastically reported. Public and political thinking in the 1970s was still very much influenced by the Catholic Church. The document aimed to further ostracise gay people by claiming that only those with the right sexuality could be inserted into society. Homosexuals, the document continued, were unable to fit into society. That same year, Mayo priest Fr Colm Kilcoyne wrote of his shock when he discovered that nowhere in Ireland was there a single qualified priest counsellor for gay men. Fr Kilcoyne was critical of the lack of church support and acknowledged that it encouraged isolation. The Catholic Church, and other religious denominations, were not alone in denigrating homosexuals. Influential figures from the medical profession added their voices to the discourse. Professor Tom Fahy, Clinical Director of the Psychological Department of Galway Regional Hospital and former Leinster rugby star, was guest speaker at a seminar organised by the North Mayo GAA Board in late 1976. Professor Fahy became strongly critical of rugby, calling it one of the greatest anti-social sports in Ireland and that made it largely a homosexual sport. Language was, and is, very important especially when used by people of influence. Almost two decades after Professor Fahy's address to the GAA seminar, G Everard Hewson MB, formerly of University College Galway, wrote a letter to a Mayo newspaper in which he referred to 'poor homosexuals'. Scorn and misunderstanding were by then turning to pity, an undesired victory.
Nationally, the Trinity College lecturer David Norris had advanced a campaign in the 1970s to decriminalise homosexuality. He made a legal challenge against the law in 1977 which eventually gained support in the European Court and paved the way for decriminalisation in Ireland. The Catholic Church believed campaigns such as David Norris' actually harmed the gay community. A 1985 church-sanctioned article, again in a local paper and directed at its Mayo readership, claimed such campaigns encourage 'others whose sexuality is not exclusively or irreversibly homosexual, to indulge in homosexual acts and habits'. There were, however, more enlightened figures within the local priesthood. Fr Brendan Hoban presented a general interest show on Midwest Radio in 1990 and used the forum one night to discuss homosexuality. He was probably aware the topic would anger some of his conservative base who, only four years earlier, had helped defeat a referendum to allow divorce by voting three to one against the proposal in Mayo. Fr Hoban received phone calls to his show querying why this subject? Why now? One caller felt it was an unnecessary debate as there were no gays in Mayo. But the underlying church belief on homosexuality remained, that it was a lifestyle choice, some were born with it, others chose it.
Prominent alongside David Norris during the campaign for gay rights was Ballina's Mary Robinson. Robinson's election as President of Ireland in 1990 gave hope to many that the country was heading in a new, tolerant direction. Some Mayo county councillors were not for changing however. When the Irish Naturists Association wrote to the council seeking a secluded beach for naturists, one councillor warned that gay or lesbian elements would not be welcome at such a facility. During a debate on Department of Education funding for Mayo VEC, a councillor blasted that the government had money for condoms and homosexuals but not for teachers. Two years ago, Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote (Mayo voted in favour ) and last month Mayo had its first Pride parade, 34 years after Ireland's first Gay Pride festival was held in Dublin. We have come a long way and there is no turning back.
Sadly, this is the last article I will pen for the Old Mayo column. Commitments elsewhere make it impossible for me to carry on but I have very much enjoyed researching our county's history and would like to thank the Mayo Advertiser for the opportunity to share my findings with you. My final act then, is to consign this last composition to history itself. Maigh Eo Abú!