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Given the dominance of the Roman Catholic church on its culture, Ireland was a country in the closet until relatively recent times.

Under a British law of 1634, "," or male-male , was a crime punishable by death. This law remained in force until 1861, when the Offences Against Persons Act changed the penalty to life imprisonment. The next legal development came with the Labouchère Amendment (1885)--the statute under which Oscar Wilde was prosecuted--which criminalized all homosexual relations between men as "gross indecency" and imposed sentences of two years at hard labor.

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When the Republic of Ireland's constitution was adopted in 1922, the repressive British legislation was retained.

Historically, gay men have had little visible presence in Irish life, lore, and literature. Lesbians have also been virtually absent, but their social situation was somewhat different: although stigmatized by the church, they were not subject to prosecution under law, which was silent on the topic of lesbianism. (Eventually, in 1895 and again in 1922, measures were proposed to criminalize lesbian sexual activity but never passed into law.) Lesbians were thus marginalized as a class whose very existence was not legally recognized yet whose members were condemned within the religious culture.

Two of the very few visible Irish lesbians, cousins Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), ran off together to Wales, where they became known as the Ladies of Llangollen. They jointly devoted their lives to reading and writing and frequently had literary figures as guests at their country cottage.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, issues of homosexuality began to enter the public discourse when Irish-born Oscar Wilde was convicted of "gross indecency between males" in 1895.

Irish Nationalism

Around the same time, there were stirrings of the nationalist spirit that would lead the Irish to fight for independence from Britain. Éibhear Walshe argues that "colonialism itself generates a gendered power relationship and, inevitably, casts the colonising power as masculine and dominant and the colonised as feminine and passive." He further asserts that in a post-colonial era there is a need for the new nation to forge an identity that excludes "the sexually 'other.'" In such a culture, he contends, "lesbian and gay identity is acutely threatening and unsettling."

Nevertheless, gay men and lesbians were part of the nationalist movement. The great patriot Roger Casement (1864-1916), though closeted because of the serious threat of criminal prosecution, kept journals in which he recorded his enjoyment of sexual encounters with other men. These so-called "Black Diaries" were seized by the British and used to dissuade potential sympathizers from intervening for clemency after Casement was tried for treason in an English court and condemned to death for his role in the cause of freedom for Ireland.

Another hero of the Irish national movement was Pádraic Pearse (1879-1916). A highly respected scholar in both Old Irish and Modern Irish Gaelic, he founded St. Enda's College in 1908 to promote and preserve the Irish language and culture against British domination. He was also a poet, among whose works are verses, including "Little Lad of the Tricks," which begins "There is a fragrance in your kiss that I have not yet found in the kisses of women." While Pearse, like Casement, did not speak publicly of his sexuality, and conclusions about it must remain speculative, such writings strongly suggest a gay identity.

Pearse was commander-in-chief of the Easter Rising on April 24, 1916. It was he who proclaimed the provisional government of the Irish Republic, of which he was named the first president. When British forces overcame the rebels, Pearse was court-martialed and executed.

Another writer close to the rebels was lesbian poet Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926), whose sister, Countess Constance Markievicz, was a fervent nationalist and became the first woman elected to the Irish parliament. Writing during the Celtic Revival, Gore-Booth often chose themes from Irish mythology but recast them in a way that, in the words of novelist and scholar Emma Donoghue, "feminise[d] and lesbianise[d] the stories handed down to her."

Despite her devotion to her Irish heritage, Gore-Booth spent much of her adult life in Manchester with her life-partner, Esther Roper. The two women are interred beneath a joint headstone bearing a quotation from Sappho.

Republic of Ireland

Nationhood, achieved in 1921, did not bring an improvement in the status of gay and lesbian Irish citizens. The new constitution incorporated the oppressive elements of the old British laws with respect to gay men and made no mention of lesbians. The pervasive Roman Catholic culture of the country strongly inhibited people from acknowledging any identity other than a compulsorily heterosexual one. Those who came forth risked rejection--and possibly violence--from their families and communities, ostracism from the church, loss of employment, and, in the case of men, criminal prosecution.

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Ireland and its neighbor, Great Britain, in 2004.
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