University College Cork, Ireland
by Eibhear Walshe. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
UCD Press: 2021. 218 pp.
Contemporary Irish studies is at a particularly exciting moment as scholars find ingenious ways to expand and deepen our perception of what Irish identity means. In this excellent new literary study, Jose Carregal sets as his challenge to recover and excavate a hidden history via literary texts and related social and cultural events. In this, he has succeeded. Gay and lesbian identity, was, for many years, criminalised and banished to the margins by the dominant moral codes of a conservative and predominantly Catholic Ireland. It is now known that criminal convictions were widespread and punitive and many were committed to mental asylums to “cure” their “deviant” sexualities. As a result, many queer lives were lived outside Ireland or hidden or suppressed within Ireland. An entire social history was obliterated and silenced. Nevertheless, here and there we can see evidence of an earlier queer identity in rare and valuable moments in Irish twentieth-century writing. Kate O’Brien, Michael Mac Liammoir, Eva Gore-Booth and Paul Smith were among the very few writers brave enough to risk censorship and condemnation. They did so by featuring other sexual identities in their writings in the early and middle twentieth century and thus allowing precious moments of visibility. Now, in the twenty-first century, the reclaiming of those earlier lost voices greatly encouraged those of us who watched Irish society move slowly but steadily from criminalisation to decriminalisation in 1993 and then on to the euphoria of the marriage equality campaign in 2015.
As part of this change in contemporary literary studies Jose Carregal has continued a mapping of this hidden history of Ireland in his excellent study. In his crisp and deft introduction, he tells us that “If language and naming are often associated with power and authority, silence can easily flourish in situations of hiddenness, marginalisation, and public shaming” (2). As he amply demonstrates in this book, hiddenness, marginalisation, and public shaming never quite extinguished these queer voices. Instead, although they were whispers, they made enough noise to help facilitate the gradual shift in societal attitudes and laws. This is a fluent and readable study, and it is underpinned by extensive research in Irish archives and newspapers, to set a cultural and political context for the close readings of the fictional texts. The weight of research sits lightly on the prose, fluent and readable and always insightful in terms of the close readings and the conclusions drawn from these texts.
The time span is wide, from the early 1980s to Celtic Tiger Ireland and beyond and, in the author’s own words, “Queer Whispers Gay and Lesbian Voices in Irish Fiction explores these works of fiction in union with their contexts of production and their interaction with current debates and social realities” (10). To do so demands a clear grasp of the social structures within which these works were written and the extensive bibliography assists the reader in understanding the complexities of the society that produced these fictions.
One very important aspect of the book is the voice given to one of the most important writers for Irish Queer voices. Mary Dorcey was a pioneer, a lesbian writer who was prepared to be visible and vocal in Ireland where there were few public figures who were out. This visibility clearly came at some personal cost and risk. Here she provides a fascinating biographical introduction and describes the heady and sometimes terrifying atmosphere for gender politics in Ireland in the early 1970s. Dorcey draws on her own experiences and her own aesthetic to set the context for the book and pays generous tribute both to the writers examined and to the exciting scope of the study: “I am more than proud to realise that Irish writers have produced since the 1980s, a body of work describing gay life as we know it, that is confidant, distinctive and illuminating” (xiv).
The structure of the book allows the analysis to span several decades of social change in Ireland and marks the progress towards acceptance and legal validation. To do so, the author examines the writings of twenty-one Irish authors, straight and gay, to provide close readings and tell the hidden story of queer Ireland. The decision to include a range of texts, from leading queer writers like Keith Ridgeway, Emma Donoghue, Colm Toibin and Mary Dorcey, in tandem with Sebastian Barry, Edna O’Brien, Joseph O’Connor and Anne Enright means that many of the most influential writers in contemporary are included. Here, the range of perspective queer and non queer give invaluable insights into Irish literary and cultural attitudes and perceptions. A useful feature is also the inclusion of lesser-known writers like Jarlath Gregory. AIDS, lesbian love, and identity, coming out, masculinity and male identity are all central themes here. For me, “Men Without Refuge” is an outstanding chapter, providing an original account of the subculture of cruising and the kinds of subterranean knowledge that such worlds operated under. The analysis of stories like Ridgeway’s’ “Graffiti” and “Natai Bocht” by Eamon Somers leads to the perceptive comment that:
Although cruising is often a counter-reaction to the oppression and regulation of same-sex desire, it still remains a space of vulnerability and limited possibilities, as this sexual behaviour (usually covert and anonymous) seldom emerges as politically transgressive, even though it may lead to homosociality and rebellion is some instances. Far from being a self-regulated system, cruising, as the stories in this chapter suggest, had to be understood within the socio-cultural and political contexts constructing moral codes and sexual behaviours. (61)
Overall, this is a study that keeps a clear eye on the central purpose, to use literary texts as a way of understanding how queer sexuality was constructed in Irish culture over the past thirty years or so and what Carregal calls a cultural shift from silence to recognition. Queer whispers have become vocal and multiple voices and this book provides us with an invaluable guide to this process, with admirable scholarly fidelity and precision.