Pride Magazine 2021

CORK GOES GAY 40 years after the first National Gay Conference in Cork

The 1981 Munster gay pride included leafleting on the streets of Cork and Waterford and sponsored advertising campaigns on local radio in both counties for the Munster Gay Switchboard. Kieran Rose explained that leafletting campaign sought to increase public awareness of gay rights. The high- point of the gay pride celebrations that year was most likely the erection of a giant pink triangle by members of the Cork and Waterford IGRM at the top of the Comeragh Mountains to ‘symbolise the unity of gay people in Munster in our fight for civil rights.’ The organisation of gay pride in Munster in 1981 was further evidence of the growing confidence of activists outside Dublin and it’s important we remember these milestone moments in our wider Irish queer history. The first National Gay Conference was no mean feat to have pulled off. Both logistically and financially it was a considerable challenge to organise a large-scale conference out of which many important lessons were learned. As Kieran Rose has noted it was ‘hugely influential in the sense of setting an agenda for the future in a whole range of areas.’ The conference also sent an important statement that the gay rights movement was not confined to Dublin, but rather was expanding throughout Ireland and gay and lesbian activists were not going to settle for just minimum change, i.e. decriminalisation, but rather were fighting for a broader range of issues, many of which were reported in the significant press coverage the conference generated. As we celebrate Cork LGBT+ Pride in 2021 let us remember its origins 40 years ago and that of the first National Gay Conference, both of which were significant moments in our rich queer history. In doing so, we can try to advance one motion passed at the 1981 conference, that of recording, researching and telling the history of gay (LGBT+) people in Ireland. With thanks to the Cork LGBT Archive and Clement Clancy for the kind permission to use their images. You can read more about the National Gay Conference and wider gay and lesbian activism in the Republic of Ireland in Patrick’s forthcoming book, Gay and Lesbian Activism in the Republic of Ireland, 1973-1993 which will be published in November 2021. Visit for further details and use the code ACTIVISM21 at the checkout to save 35%.

The words gay and straight

almost lost their meaning in the light of such genuine community feeling.’

By Dr Patrick McDonagh

May 1981 was not the start of gay rights activism in Cork. Since the mid-1970s a Cork branch of the IGRM had existed, opening the first gay centre outside of Dublin at 4 McCurtain Street, which became known as the Phoenix Centre. The Cork IGRM also operated a local branch of Tel-A-Friend, a befriending service for gay and lesbian individuals, and published a series of publications: Corks Crew in 1977 and Sapphire in 1978. In 1980 the Cork Gay Collective was established, which Cathal Kerrigan described as wanting a ‘revolution, a revolution for everyone,not just gays.’ Also in 1980 a gay society was established at University College Cork in 1980. It was within this local and national context that the three-day conference, ‘Gays in the Eighties: Which way Forward?’ took place. Over 200 individuals (c. 150 men and 50 women) from Ireland, Great Britain and the USA attended. While billed as a national conference, it resembled more an international one. Two gay films were

In 1981, Tom McClean writing in In Touch, the journal of the National Gay Federation, noted that ‘the Cork Conference will, I feel, become to the gay rights movement in Ireland what Stonewall is to the gay liberation movement worldwide...’ In comparing the Cork conference to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a moment that is synonymous with the history of gay liberation worldwide, McClean reveals just how significant an event he believed the Cork conference to have been. The conference McClean was referring to was the first National Gay Conference held between the 15th and 17th May 1981 at Connolly Hall, the headquarters of the trade union movement in Cork. On the 40th anniversary of this conference, it’s worth looking back at this important moment not only in the history of gay rights activism in Cork, but also on the island of Ireland, for this conference truly was an attempt to advance gay rights in Ireland on an all-island basis and to recognise that organisations existed outside Dublin and that they should have a greater input into the gay rights movement in Ireland. It was an attempt to take stock of where the Irish gay rights movement had come from since the 1970s, to look to the future, but to also to explore why, in the view of the organisers, the movement was not stronger and unified. In the Republic of Ireland the National Gay Conference was the first major gay rights event to take place outside Dublin and it provides an insight into the aims, aspirations, challenges, but also the tensions that existed within the different Irish gay rights organisations at that time. It was, in fact, the bitter split of 1977 within the Irish Gay Rights Movement and the lingering impact it had on the wider gay rights movement in Ireland that was a driving force behind activists in Cork organising the National Gay Conference in 1981. Bringing about greater unity amongst Irish gay organisations was a key desire for conference organisers.

The conference primarily revolved around workshops that proposed motions which were then debated at plenary sessions. In total, the conference hosted 18 separate workshops, some of which were women-only, out of which over 40 motions were proposed on issues relating to law reform, the media, medical profession, religion, education, and isolation amongst others. While the majority of motions were carried unanimously, a minority were not.

The Conference provided a rare opportunity for those who were

often marginalised within the male dominated and Dublin- centric gay rights movement in Ireland to have their

voices heard. For example, John Porter, a founding member of the Galway Gay Collective, used it as an opportunity to explain the challenges of organising in a county like Galway due to the lack of facilities and low numbers getting involved. While Joni Sheerin, Liberation for Irish Lesbians, expressed her hope that the conference would foster ‘a new solidarity between gay women and men.’ One lesbian woman, Sharon, who travelled from Belfast later wrote that while lesbian women were in a minority and the challenges they faced both inside and outside the gay rights movement were considerable, the conference ‘provided an opportunity to get away from oppressive straight society for a while, and to be completely natural. It was great to meet so many other lesbians, and to feel their support and solidarity; any last doubts I had about being perverted vanished.’ There can be no doubt that the Cork conference infused confidence into many who attended. In Cork though there was evidence that activists with differing political viewpoints could work together. In June 1981 the Cork IGRM and the Cork Gay Collective organised the first gay pride events in Cork.

screened on the first evening, Word is Out and Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts. There was also a feminist and gay bookstall, a gay art exhibition, a canteen and a creche. In many respects, the conference was as much an opportunity to socialise and party as it was a chance to discuss gay politics in Ireland. For many the highlight was the gala dance which took place on the Saturday night in Connolly Hall. The conference report noted that ‘it was a unique experience to see hundreds of mixed couples dancing together in a public building.




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