He’ll have brought it on Himself

Colm Tóibín

  • Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing edited by Éibhear Walshe
    Cork, 210 pp, £40.00, April 1997, ISBN 1 85918 013 2
  • Gooddbye to Catholic Ireland by Mary Kenny
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 320 pp, £20.00, March 1997, ISBN 1 85619 751 4

Sometime in the early sixties, when I was eight or nine, the actor Micheál MacLiammóir came to Enniscorthy, a small town in the south-east of Ireland where we lived, to perform his one-man show The Importance of Being Oscar. My uncle, who was a staunch member of Fianna Fáil, the ruling party, and a fervent member of the ruling church – he was later decorated by the Pope – bought us all tickets, and we attended, as did many others in the town, in a family group. MacLiammóir was, we were told, a great actor, a great Gaelic speaker and a great Irishman. I remember his voice and his presence on the stage; I remember him reclining like a large sleek cat on a chaise-longue, world-weary and knowing and infinitely melancholy, and then standing up and looking at us all, caressing us with his narrowed eyes and speaking as though he was telling us fresh gossip, insinuations he would be asking us to keep secret at least until we had left the theatre. It was strong stuff for a small boy.

By that time, MacLiammóir had performed his one-man show all over the world, and now he was trying it out in rural Ireland. Enniscorthy was important for him: it was here in June 1927 that he met his lifelong partner Hilton Edwards. They became Ireland’s most famous homosexual couple. I remember, on Micheàl’s 70th birthday in 1969, watching them being treated as such on Irish television. When he died in 1978, MacLiammóir’s funeral was attended by the President, the Taoiseach, five government ministers and the Leader of the Opposition. He had become a national treasure.

I wondered why no one walked out of that show in Enniscorthy in the early Sixties, why it was not denounced or indeed stopped by the priests in the town. A one-man show about Oscar Wilde was surely dangerous territory in a provincial part of an overwhelmingly Catholic country. It was not as though the town was especially liberal. I remember that in these same years two men in their twenties who worked together in the same small shop in the town were also living together. I remember someone whispering to me that they were queers, and then later hearing a friend of my sister saying that they had been packed off to jail again for misbehaving. Their lives were ruined. It was clear to me as I grew into my teens that being gay in this country would require care and attention.

In his essay ‘Inventing Micheàl MacLiammóir’ in Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing, Éiibhear Walshe makes clear that MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, who directed him in the show, were very careful and attentive indeed. MacLiammóir stood back from Wilde: he was the narrator of Wilde’s story – he did not impersonate him, except maybe by implication. ‘MacLiammóir,’ Walshe writes, ‘keeps all his sexual references gender-specific. In the first half of the presentation, Wilde’s passion for Lillie Langtry and his love for Constance, his wife, is recounted.’ And in the second half, the trial had already taken place, and thus Wilde’s suffering in prison and in exile could be concentrated on – ‘rendered with pathos and melodrama’, as Walshe writes.

That was why it was a show for all of the family: it proceeded through winks and nods, suggestions and implications. No one knew then that MacLiammóir, who spoke Irish in the most beautiful tones, had not an Irish bone in his body. He came from England to Ireland in 1917 and he recreated himself as an actor and illustrator. He learned an Irish accent, just as many Irish people would learn English accents. In his one-man show, he proved, however, that he understood something very fundamental about the nature of discretion and indiscretion in Catholic Ireland. He had become one of us.

The best accounts of Irish Catholicism are the sociologist Micheál Mac Gréil’s Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland (1977) and Prejudice in Ireland Revisited (1996), and The Moral Monopoly: The Catholic Church in Modern Irish Society by Tom Inglis, published in 1987. According to Mac Gréil, more than 94 per cent of the population of the Republic of Ireland profess themselves to be Catholic; of these, more than 81 per cent attend weekly mass. More than 83 per cent of the population believe that religion has ‘helped’ them, and about the same number believe that children should be brought up in the same religion as their parents; 71 per cent pray once a day or more often; 78 per cent agree that ‘there is a God who occupies himself with every human being personally’ (the same question, when put to a Dutch sample, had 43 per cent agreeing). Seventy-five per cent of Catholics would welcome the news that their daughter wanted to become a nun, 79 per cent would welcome the news that their son wanted to become a priest.

I found Mac Gréil’s first Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland wonderful entertainment when I returned to live here in 1978. It was usually best after several strong drinks. (More than 40 per cent of Dubliners, for example, believed at that time that skinheads should be deported.) Now in his second, 1996 study, he shows in a survey about social distance that only 12.5 per cent of Irish people would welcome a gay person into their family, only 14 per cent as next-door neighbours, only 15 per cent as co-workers; 15 per cent would, in fact, debar or deport gay people from Ireland.

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