Out at last!

June 8, 2008

Twenty-five years after a brutal murder, and official Ireland's failure to react, prompted the country's first Gay Pride march, members of the gay community recall the slow procession towards achieving equality in Irish society.

Twenty-five years ago this month, Ireland's first ever Gay Pride march was born, from anger, arrogance and bloody violence. But just weeks before the parade took place in June 1983, a different kind of celebration was under way several miles away, but not unrelated to the gay community. There was singing and dancing in the streets the night the Fairview killers returned to their homes.

It was the evening of March 8, 1983. At their sentencing in Dublin Circuit Criminal Court earlier that day, Mr Justice Sean Gannon had found that a gang of four miscreants should not go to jail for their roles in chasing and beating to death a young gay man, Declan Flynn, in Dublin's Fairview Park.

The northside park was a popular gay pick-up point at a time when homosexual acts were outlawed as criminal offences under statute. Flynn, a 31-year-old Dubliner, was known to young gay activists in the city, though not very well.

Flynn had helped out on occasion at the Hershfield Centre in the nascent Temple Bar, a resource centre for the gay community, but was spotted there infrequently and was not particularly active within the capital's emerging gay rights movement.

Flynn's family, who lived near the park on the Swords road, did not know that he was homosexual. Nor did they know he frequented places where other young gay men went to find romantic company.

On the night of September 9, 1982, the Aer Rianta employee had gone for a drink with friends in Beltons Pub in Donnycarney, just minutes from his home. He left just before midnight and walked down Collins Avenue to the Swords road, before making his way on foot to Fairview Park. Around the same time, a group of four young men in their late teens had gathered, as they had increasingly done over the previous two months, with violent mischief on their minds and armed with the experience of previous attacks on suspected homosexuals.

The gang included Aer Corps airmen Tony Maher,19, from nearby Poplar Row flats, and Robert Armstrong,18,who was originally from Plunket Drive in Finglas, but who had been kicked out by his mother and lived with Maher.

Two other teenagers, 17-year-old Colm Donovan from Lower Buckingham Street and 18-year-old Pat Kavanagh from Saint Brigid's Avenue in North Strand, made up the group.

They were joined by a 14-year-old friend of one of the four who had met them after midnight as he cycled through the park. One of the older lads told the youngster to hide his bicycle as they were going "queer-bashing".

The young men also stole cars and when they had money, they bought and drank cider and hung around the park looking for fights. The gang had beaten about 20 "steamers" over the previous six weeks, Maher later admitted to gardai.

In the early hours of September 10, 1982, their prejudiced malevolence was about to end in homicide.

Kavanagh, who was a former Dublin minor Gaelic footballer and a wages clerk, took his place as bait on a park bench as the others waited behind trees.

The 14-year-old later told gardai that as Kavanagh sat on the bench he was approached by a stranger. "He [Declan Flynn] put his hand on the fellow's private. I could not see clearly, I saw the man [Flynn] run toward the toilet and I heard someone shout 'get him'. One of the group then tripped him [Flynn] up," the 14-year-old's statement revealed in court.

The gang carried branches, "sticks" as they called them, broken from nearby trees to use as bats. The chase ended ten yards from the edge of the park, where Flynn's near-escape onto North Strand was dashed when the group overtook him.

The gang had chased another man earlier that night, and they had been beaten for pace. The same would not happen again. The implements later found around Flynn's body by ambulance members of the Dublin fire brigade, a large stone, the bicycle and several sticks, including one which was heavily bloodstained, illustrated the victim's comparative disadvantage.

Not long after, two acquaintances of Armstrong came across him near the Fairview Cinema. Armstrong seemed agitated, the duo later recalled to gardai. The men went with him to the park, where they saw a young man lying on his back; his jacket covering his face. Blood was in patches on the grass and coming from the limp man's face.

The men went to summon nearby gardai. Armstrong had called 999 for an ambulance before all five attackers "legged it" prior to gardai arriving on the scene.

Dubliner Chris Robson was, in his own words, "a somewhat senior" civil servant in the Department of Agriculture, in 1983. The now-retired gay rights activist was three years into a relationship with the man who remains, to this day, his life partner.

Robson remembers well the atmosphere that young gay men lived in at the time, and recalls that when the news reached him of Flynn's death, he was "less than surprised" to learn of another so-called gay-bashing attack, but was shocked at the escalation to actual killing.

Four months after the attack, the five gang members were charged with murder. The 14-year-old, whose name was withheld because he was a minor, denied the charge, but the older men accepted their parts in the attack and pleaded guilty.

Maher and Armstrong attended the court in full army uniform. A defence forces lawyer kept a watching brief. Prosecuting counsel Seamus Sorohan SC felt the need to point out that, while the charge would outline that the gang were engaged in what they described as "queer-bashing", that "no aspirations should be cast on the character of the dead man."

When they appeared for sentencing six months after the killing, the assailants believed they would go to jail for several years. Justice Sean Gannon, however, delivered a bombshell, and said that there was nothing to be served in sending any of them to jail.

Suspending the five years given to Armstrong and Maher; the four-year sentence he handed down to Donovan and the two-year term given to Kavanagh, Mr Justice Gannon allowed the four men to return to the freedom of their homes and communities. He added the caveat that if they got into trouble again they would serve their suspended time.

The courtroom drama proved to have the effect of salt ground into a wounded gay community. The feeling of injustice was compounded by the public celebrations that occurred among some friends of the gangs when the court cases ended.

The reaction among members of the gay community and trade unions following the case did much to highlight public revulsion at violent anti-gay sentiment.

It was far from being the first shot in a long war, however. Gay rights had been around since the mid-1970s, as Tonie Walsh, archivist, gay activist and Grand Marshall of Pride 2008 recalls: "There had been a Pride event in 1979. The event that year was small-scale, maybe as few as 20 people took part in handing out leaflets in Dublin city centre."

Following the controversial sentences handed down in the Flynn case, the public show of support for the gay community and the community's own public show of strength were unprecedented.

Walsh says the threat of physical attack was ever-present in gay men's minds. "There was endemic violence against young gay men at that time. People were being beaten on a constant basis and there was no real remedy or end in sight."

On the evening of the gang members' release, as was later recounted by locals to Irish Times journalist Padraig Yeates, there was cheering and celebration in the streets among some of the assailants' north Dublin neighbours, who were overjoyed that their boys had been returned home by the court.

When asked by Yeates why he had gone "queer-bashing", Tony Maher could only shrug his shoulders. Maher's father told the reporter that there was "terrible things going on in the park, they [gay men] were interfering with children", but when pressed by Yeates for specifics he could only add that he had "heard" these things had occurred.

Tony Maher had admitted to gardai that he stole IR£4 from the dying man's pocket as Flynn lay choking on his own blood. Kavanagh had stolen his watch.

Local retailers around the Fairview Park area told Yeates that the "gay-bashing" was little more than an excuse used by the gang to wreak havoc. Their shops and premises, too, had been blighted with vandalism caused by young gangs around the area.

A quarter of a century later, some disagreement remains over the decision to march on Fairview in the spring of 1983, in protest at what was seen by many as a celebration of anti-gay violence. The focus of that disagreement centres on the efforts of competing gay rights groups to mark the controversy differently.

However, even those involved in organising the protest march, which was planned for March 19, 1983, cannot recall the specifics of the disagreement. Whether it was insignificant, or split those who should have been united, seems to have been lost in the mists of time.

Chris Robson was one of the main organisers and a steward of the eventual march that drew an estimated 900 people on to the streets of north Dublin city, in opposition to levels of violence against gay men and women.

"The Dublin lesbian and gay collective, of which I was a member, had wanted to bring this to the place where Declan Flynn was killed. The National Lesbian and Gay Federation, known as the NLGF, had a preference for bringing the march to the Garden of Remembrance."

"In the end, we were the ones that took the initiative and put out a press call and I think in the end both organisations came together to march for one cause."

A few weeks later, the NLGF took the initiative themselves and instigated the first ever gay Pride march. "The colour and vitality of the 1983 Pride march was something we had never seen before in Ireland. It was a first, but in the back of all of our minds, I think, in a massive way, was the Fairview march and the effect that had on all of us," Tonie Walsh remembers.

Whatever fears existed over the public reaction to a brash celebration of homosexuality, those concerns had been suppressed by a combination of bravado and the uplifting reception the men and women received when they marched on Fairview Park.

"When we took part in the march to Fairview Park, we exorcised the fear of what could happen if things went wrong in a major way. It was new for everyone, and there was a sense that we were marching into the place where people, some people, had celebrated the fact that the assailants in Declan Flynn's killing had avoided going to jail," Walsh says.

"I recall feeling a strange mix of trepidation and exhilaration at the time. But I was a 23-year-old guy. Like a lot of young guys, I was spurred on by something. I think what drove me on was a strange mix of innocence and anger. In fact it was innocence, anger and arrogance."

The mood among young gay men was defiant. "It should be no shock that we were defiant. We were the ones who had come out. We had faced coming out at our workplaces. We had dealt with the after-effects of this," Walsh says.

"We had done all of these things in the absence of positive role models and with a sense that officialdom, with the stamp of the authority of the state, saw our life as unsavoury."

The lifelong gay rights activist, now in his late 40s, had come out while an art student at UCD. In 1983, he was working as a journalist with a fledgling gay magazine called Out. Walsh, originally from Clonmel in Co Tipperary, says he was fortunate that his family and friends were "incredibly supportive" when he told them he was gay.

He was one of the main speakers at the first ever Pride event. Looking back at that time, and at what informed our outlook and perspective, there was little public coverage of gay lifestyles then that did not go beyond the stereotypically negative," he says.

"Each of us were very brave in going beyond all of that and coming out and fighting for equality at that time."

Recollecting the actual day of the Pride march in June, Walsh recalls a day when there was "little or no hassle."

"We walked from St Stephen's Green to the GPO, which one of our main speakers on that day jokingly renamed as the headquarters of a new 'gay people's organisation'."

"We had some hoo-hah with the cops over us wanting to go up Grafton Street. It was just being pedestrianised at the time, and the bricks had not been fully laid, and there was some discussion over whether we should be allowed to go that way at all. We darn well insisted that we go up Grafton."

"Bear in mind that the gardai were not used to this sort of thing at all. It was 1983, and they had no experience of a minority group, especially gay people, marching through the capital in complaint at their mistreatment under criminal law."

"The only palpable fear that existed on the day of that first Pride march was on O'Connell Street itself, partly because the cops weren't used to these things and there wasn't great readiness for a motley crew of a few hundred people stretched across the street."

Walsh says the parade had to deal with irate motorists who, though not anti-gay, were annoyed they couldn't travel up the street, and that "a few people got into scuffles and there were cuts and bruises afterwards". Of the Pride march itself, he says, he remembers most of all people's generosity.

"That had shown itself so strongly in the reception we got during the Fairview march. There was a sense of such revulsion over the fact that this young man could have died in the way that he did at the hands of people like that, and then that they would celebrate so openly that they were effectively free men. That stirred up a lot of anger and revulsion among ordinary people," Walsh says.

Chris Robson remembers, with a laugh, his own father's reaction to Flynn's death and to the Fairview march weeks before Pride 83. "We were speaking about everything that had gone on, and I told him I had gone on this march over what had happened to Declan Flynn."

"I hadn't come out yet at home at that time, they did not know that I was gay, and I remember my father said to me: 'Why didn't you tell me you were going on that march? I would have gone with you.'"

Robson says his parents were typical of many people who were disgusted about what had happened. "They thought about this dreadful thing having happened, and they were utterly sickened, and they felt deeply the wrong that had occurred," he says.

The Fairview Park march far outstripped the June 1983 Pride event. There were several reasons why this was so. The Pride march was the perfect opportunity for gays to openly and unambiguously say they wanted equality. In fact, that was part of the problem.

"It was easier to march in that one [Fairview]; to march alongside the trade unionists who came out and marched that day in protest and with other groups; you weren't identifying yourself as gay; although I was an organiser and steward myself," Robson says. "Pride was seen perhaps as being more exclusively a parade for gay people and there was more than a little concern that if one was spotted at this sort of thing that it would get back to the workplace or to family."

If 1983 was a mini-watershed, in that it hosted the first public march against violence and anti-gay sentiment in Ireland, and that it led to the initiation of Ireland's first Pride parade, a decade of waiting followed before real results in terms of equality were delivered.

In between the decriminalisation of homosexuality by statute in 1993, which was preceded by a mammoth Supreme Court action by senator David Norris, there was a hiatus when there was no Pride march, when the numbers could not be mustered due to a combination of emigration, fear and the blight of Aids.

"It is difficult to explain how grim everything in Dublin was in the early 1980s unless you were there," Robson says. "You have to remember that 1983 started Pride off, but the following year it was awful. The same occurred in 1985. I think, in one of those years, there were as few as 20 or 25 people who turned up."

Whereas Robson had gone to London in the 1970s, and returned to Ireland to come out to his friends and family, most others did it the other way around.

"We also lost a lot of people to emigration. People literally went in droves to London and to the US, where they could live normal gay lives," he says.

Walsh will lead the 2008 Pride festival on Saturday June 21 with a wistful memory of how different things were in the 1980s, remembering the spark that lit the first ever Irish Pride march, but affords it a small part in a long list of gradual advances that have brought the Irish gay community and society to the near-acceptance of today.

Likewise, Robson does not paint the events of 1983 as having been the opening salvo in an inevitable victory over prejudice and oppression; rather, it was a key battle in a long war.

"The hope of 1983 did not materialise quickly. It is certainly not the case that Pride in 1983 kicked off something which had a momentum effect. The following year's Pride festivals told a tale of their own. It was not the case that we marched in pride for the first time in 1983 and the world changed," he says.

 

 
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