“Ireland as a whole at the minute is undergoing this moment of uncovering and exploring forgotten histories, things that we’ve covered up and pushed under the carpet. I think this project fits into that”. David Doyle is a multi-award winning producer and lighting designer. He is currently developing an as yet untitled piece of documentary theatre which takes as its central focus the murders of three gay men – Charles Self, Declan Flynn and John Roche – in the Ireland of 1982. These events were foundational to the movement towards LGBT liberation, cataclysmic in their rallying effect on a group of people at a time of conservative social mores. The trials following these murders saw those responsible for the killings convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, explicitly because of the victims’ sexuality.
With a view to bringing the piece to stage by the start of next year, the end result will see carefully researched archival material combined with contemporary interviews conducted by David, sampling a generationally diverse cross-section of the community about their knowledge of that moment in Irish LGBT history, “a story that has been mythologized and [mis]remembered”. Here, David describes the origin and significance of the work in progress.
Like many, David's experience of the marriage equality referendum gave him cause to turn inward, reflecting on the community and its place within society as both stood on the cusp of change. Realising how vague his understanding was of the path that led to that day in May, 2015, he says: “I just wanted to know more about my history. The early 80s, when it felt like a monumental time for the LGBT community, was a period I knew nothing about and as I read more and more about it I became fascinated by it. This project has been a way for me to continue exploring that history”.
Parallels between two relatively recent pasts – at least in terms of the trajectory of the overall LGBT liberation movement – did not take long to present themselves as David explains: “So much of the debate that happened in the community in the 80s, in the early years, is the exact same as the debate that happened around the marriage equality referendum: what way we [as a community] should present ourselves to society”. The value, instructive or otherwise, of insights gleamed from the struggles and lived experience of that period cannot be understated – today and into the future. This project plays a crucial part in their safeguarding.
Everything learned from the process thus far has been eye-opening. Broadly, David describes a social landscape that jars with perceptions of that time: “My impression, and I think it’s one of a lot of people my age, is having a very specific view of what being gay in 1980s Dublin or Ireland was: not a lot happening, really small groups, not very public. And then actually realising the vibrancy of the community at the time”. Despite today’s interconnectedness, and the much improved state of affairs for the community overall, David suggests we have lost some of the vibrancy and sense of community from that time. A consequence – desired by some, loathed by some – of the cultural mainstreaming of LGBT identity and the attendant assimilation, perhaps.
Specifically, David references the Hirschfeld Centre, the first dedicated, multipurpose LGBT venue in Ireland. Located in the heart of Temple Bar and damaged beyond repair from a fire – presumed to be accidental – it arguably facilitated gathering in a way that nowhere today really does. On that note, he references one particularly compelling anecdote from Senator David Norris who, in 1985, during a disco at the Hirschfeld Centre, armed with two fire extinguishers, hauled himself onto the roof to tackle a smoking bomb.
In terms of describing this project’s overriding purpose, David is unambiguous: “It’s about challenging assumptions that, following the protest on Fairview Park [after Declan Flynn’s murder and the outcome of the trial, described above], there’s this straight line that ends in 2015 on the night of the marriage equality result – that’s the mythology, that’s the narrative – but that’s not the way it goes”.
If the journey is not a straight line, then what are its undulations? David reels off incidences of violence from the level of the individual to the State: “It’s things like the 1500 men rounded up and questioned by the police really for being gay or being perceived as gay following Charles Self’s death. It’s a car driving through a crowd [gathered during a Pride protest outside the GPO] because the police weren't willing to stop it. [It’s] that same crowd getting smaller and smaller until really, during the AIDS crisis, Pride doesn’t happen anymore because there’s no drive; there aren’t the numbers. And it's not until the 90s that it grows again. That’s not a movement growing bigger and bigger. In fact, it tails off, it dies to a large extent in terms of that public demonstration of it”.
Despite this recital of grim moments in our history, of hardships endured by those LGBT siblings of ours who managed not to be claimed by them one way or another, our history is there to be grasped and explored and owned; a reminder of resilience in togetherness even at the most trying times. Given the nature of such history, there is a undoubtable timeliness to this project: “this history is not really written down. It’s in people’s heads for the most part. The people who made that history are still around but not all of them are. As generations move on, as the community grows, we’re going to lose that history because people won’t remember it anymore. There isn’t an obligation to know this history but if you want to, you should be able to”. Not just a nuanced examination of where we, as a community, came from, this project holds real potential to inspire us as to where we want to go next – and how.