Irish Gays Busy Dodging Croziers and Shillelaghs

By Unsworth, Tim | National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1993 | Go to article overview

Irish Gays Busy Dodging Croziers and Shillelaghs


Unsworth, Tim, National Catholic Reporter


I waited for the foam to settle on New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade, then called Brendan Fay, an immigrant Irish Catholic who is gay. He is one of the leaders of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization ILGO, which put the New York church to a test of its faith.

The church flunked. Beneath its grand smiles, green ribbons, watered silk and Blessed Mother banners, faith proved thinner than boarding-house soup, made mostly of fear, prejudice and hypocrisy.

"It's not such a human way to be living," Fay said. "I'm fresh out of jail and I'm late returning your call because I've just come from giving a talk at a conference on gays and lesbians in Irish history.

"Ireland and Irishness aren't presented very well. For years, I thought the only gay Irishman was Oscar Wilde. But then I began to find all kinds of others. There was John Atherton, for example, one of the first bishops in Ireland. He was appointed by Henry VIII, who made church law into civil law and then had Atherton executed by the very laws against homosexuality the bishop had set up. And, in 1822, there was Percy Jocelyn, the lord bishop of Clogher, who was the head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He was sent off to jail himself for being a homosexual. Well, of course, they were both Protestants. ..."

Fay carried on like that until 1:30 a.m. He told me of the beautiful poetry that came from monasteries where monks often went off in pairs and lived together and of both the words and art in the early Irish texts that showed clearly that the Irish were well-aware of sex in all its forms.

Then there was Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist and hero of the fight for freedom, who went to jail for his homosexuality. Priests pleaded with him to just say he was crazy and they could get him out. But Casement answered that he could not deny "a love that God had made, not I."

Fay recalled the young Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins who spent time in Dublin. He had a head filled with examples. And so he went on, Brendan Fay, a lover of Irish history and literature, a member of the Gaelic League, a dancer at Irish ceilidhes, a former Irish Christian Brother, seminarian and religion teacher in New York Catholic schools, a man who would much rather talk about a rich Irish culture than about a parade that, as often as not, gives a shanty Irish impression of a nation where words are sacred.

But I needed to talk about the parade, in which Fay had proudly marched for years after he came to this country in 1984, until he and more than 200 other Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans announced they were homosexuals and lesbians and wanted to celebrate both that and their Irishness by having their own contingent in the parade.

Then the New York police horses reared, the bishops used their crosiers like shillelaghs, and the bagpipes nearly split their kidney-shaped sides.

Over 35 years ago, I taught in an allboys Catholic high school in Manhattan. The school marched in the parade every year, celebrating more faith than Irishness. The brothers and lay teachers had put the fear of God into the boys, not to disgrace the school with even a turned head. I never even thought about how many of the teachers or boys might be gay.

At the reviewing stand, the mayor, other politicians and the top men of the Ancient Order of Hibernians elbowed each other for a chance to show their green sashes at the front of the platform.

It never crossed my mind that under those top hats and ample bellies, there might be some gay Irish Catholics.

At St. Patrick's Cathedral, the boys turned their heads left to acknowledge the cardinal and his clerical entourage, all of them grinning and blessing under those birettas with the colored balls that signified their ranks. It never dawned on me to think how many of God's chosen were gay. This year, I thought about it a lot.

The church made me do it. …

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