THE SPECTRE OF THE BROWNIE

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

                  We knew about gays but we didn’t call them that. That was in our primary school days. Our mammies or das or others had warned us boys about them. We were never to accept sweets from strangers. They were men, older, probably shabby, hanging around in public toilets (when we had public toilets in streets). They would try to see your mickey, try to touch it (they were only interested in boys, which went to show how totally deviant they were).  They’d give you sweets or even money.  Just for that?  It was enough!  We thought no further but when we had to use those public urinals, kept as far away as we could from any men (a habit we continued into adulthood) and tried to cover our mickies with our hands and sometimes got some of the urine on them as a result.

Old-style urinal formerly on Ormonde Quay, Dublin, photographed in 1969. One of the types of places where the “Brownies” supposedly lurked.
(Image source: Internet)

Locked underground toilet in Kevin Street, Dublin, one of many such now all closed or demolished.
(Image source: Aoife Barry, the Journal)

We didn’t call them “gays” then but there were other names in our vernacular dictionaries: brownies, dirty men, homos ….. They were always predators and always male. Girls didn’t have to worry, apparently – those dirty men would not be tempted at all. It was the normal men girls had to worry about.

Was there such a thing as female homos? But if they wanted to play with your mickies that would be normal wouldn’t it? And nice even if sinful. Ah, chance would be a fine thing! But girls or women doing it with one another? How? And sure, what for?

Did we know any homos? Well, we were kind of getting to hear about poor Oscar Wilde. He would have been our fifth national Nobel prizewinner for literature and the fourth from our capital city. If not for …. well …. Poor man, he was misguided. And duped. But a lovely writer.

Oscar Wilde quotations, part of his monument in Merrion Square, Dublin. (Image source: D.Breatnach)

Head sculpture of a youthful Alexander the Great, from the Hellenistic period. (Image source: Internet)

Our elders, well a great many of them, knew that many famous men had been homosexual – but they didn’t tell us. We knew quite a bit about the military exploits of Alexander, the Macedonian but nobody told us he was homosexual. If we’d known, we’d have asked ourselves whether he went to conquer the world in order to hang around public toilets in foreign lands, waiting to touch boy’s mickies. William of Orange was a homo too but then we had enough reason to hate him already. Wait – William …. Willy …. willies ….. nah, coincidence!

There was another William they might have known about, King William Rufus (1087 – 1110), son of William the Conqueror, openly homosexual. And probably assassinated by order of his brother, King Henry II, not for being gay but to get the kingdom. Well, what would you expect of the English! OK, Norman-English. Whatever.

Mícheál Mac Liamóir as Iago in Orson Well’s production of Shakespeare’s “Othello”. (Image source: Internet)

They surely knew, educated adults and anyone around the theatre, that Mícheál Mac Liamóir was “a practicing homosexual”. An Englishman who became Irish, including a fluent speaker and writer in the Irish language, he lived with his lover Hilton Edwards in Harcourt Terrace. Edwards was another Englishman converted to Ireland. But sure they were English, so our elders only sniffed and turned a blind eye, grateful for the culture of the Abbey and Gate theatres, the formation of An Taidhbhearc and fame on English language stage and screen.

We knew Roger Casement could not be homosexual (even though he was a Protestant) because he was an Irish patriot. The English would do anything to tarnish his reputation and they had forged “the black diaries” to say disgusting things about him1, before they hanged him, not for homosexuality but for “treason” to the Crown. That’s the English Crown, of course. The one on top of the Arms of the Union, with the Lion and the Unicorn below, and below them the shield bearing the Thistle of Scotland, the Rose of England and the Harp of Ireland. You can see the design on the front page of the London Times, or on the roofs of the Bank of Ireland and Customs House buildings in Dublin.

Roger Casement, projected by British espionage service as a homosexual in order to undermine the campaign for clemency on charge of treason.
(Image sourced: Internet)

But did we know any homosexuals personally? Perhaps some did. There was a lad at school who liked to knit and listen to opera and whose manner was quite feminine. Probably he was/ is, we thought years later but at the time he was just a boy who was like a girl. There was another one, son of a famous actor, a bit of a bully with a gang around him. He turned out to be gay but I at least never suspected.  Then there was a certain barber who seemed quite effeminate but would do his best to cut your hair to any fashionable style which you required.

As we came into our teens, our vision broadened a little and we came upon more sinister knowledge. There were now rumours of homosexual Christian Brothers and priests. Seeing as these two groups, along with the Jesuits, directly controlled most of secondary education in the Irish state, nearly all of us Catholics were going to pass into their hands at some point. Hopefully their educational hands only. They didn’t have to hang around public toilets. They’d have us for six or seven hours a day, five days a week. Not to speak of the residential schools (too many people didn’t).

We knew in general and we knew of specific instances, by rumour or by experience. We resolved not to be victims ourselves and the strong succeeded. The weak? Well ….. Sauve qu’il peut, as they say (or I think they do) in France.

And we didn’t talk of it to our elders. Why? Well ….. hard to say. Would they have believed us? Did we have proof? Would it only have showed how dirty our minds were?

In my teens, a youth selling newspapers in Dún Laoghaire told me of a brawny sailor who one evening wanted to entice him into an alley away from company in order “not to embarrass the girls”. So, homosexuality was not confined to the creepy men hanging around toilets, or to the effeminate and arty, or to the clergy and Catholic brotherhoods. Burly sailors? Dear God!

And now a disturbing but exciting knowledge also came to us. We learned that there were indeed homosexual women – they were called ‘Lesbians’. And almost unbelievably, if you managed to get hold of a copy of the Kinsey Reports (or reviews of them), lesbianism appeared to be even more common than male homosexuality! Disturbing in a number of ways …. women preferring to have sex with women than with men? For some of us, it was difficult enough already to get physically intimate with a girl without some of them preferring other women! Then, a second thought, disturbing in a different way: imagine seeing them together … doing it! Double female nakedness!

As we grew older, we came to know gay men personally. Of course we did. Some of us, the better ones, acknowledged them our equals, did not avoid the subject nor deny them our company. Some of us, while accepting their company, avoided any mention of their preferences; we treated them as heterosexuals, knowing they were not. And some of us avoided them or worse, inflicted violence on them. We found out that some indeed did hang out around toilets but not to feel the mickies of little boys but to make assignations with adult males. Where else could they meet? It was illegal and religiously prohibited too.

Then came gay liberation agitation in the 1970s. Decriminalisation in 1993. And finally, equal rights to wed in 2015. Incredibly almost, that same Ireland of our childhood voted by majority in every county but one in the Irish State of the Twenty-Six Counties, that gays should have the right to marry people of their own gender.  In May 2015, Ireland became the first state to legalise on a national level same-sex marriage by popular vote.  The New York Times hailed the victory as putting Ireland at “the vanguard of social change”.

A badge in the Irish language calling for a vote in favour of the right to same-sex marriage in the Irish state referendum of 2015.
(Image source: D.Breatnach)

We have come a long way, in that respect at least.  But oh, the victims of intolerance strewn along each side of the route of our progress!

Generations in Ireland will grow now, hopefully, without the spectre of the Brownie.

End

Footnotes:

Roger Casement (1864-1916) was an Irish patriot and Protestant, also a poet and an enthusiast for Irish culture. In 1916, in preparation for the Easter Rising in Ireland, he came in a German submarine to assist in the unloading of German armament, including 20,000 rifles. The German boat, disguised as a Norwegian, was discovered and its captain scuttled it outside of Cork. The IRA Volunteers who went to meet the boat and Casement at its rearranged landing place, of which they had just learned, drowned as their car went off the road into the sea.

Casement was apprehended after landing. He was tried for treason in wartime and a substantial campaign arose to save his life. He had earned fame and a knighthood (CMG) a decade earlier through exposing ill-treatment of indigenous people in the African Congo under Belgian Royal control and in Putamayo in Perú by rubber-exploitation commercial interests.

Extracts from the “Black Diaries” were circulated by the British espionage service to undermine popular support for clemency for Casement. Those Diaries (as opposed to his other diaries of his travels abroad)gave details of his  allegedly sexual interludes with men abroad and the extracts circulated substantially undermined the campaign for clemency. Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison on 3rd August 1916, the last of the 1916 executions, the only one not by firing squad or to take place in Ireland.

The authenticity of the “Black Diaries” continues to be the subject of controversy. Although Wikipedia notes that a handwriting expert concluded by comparison with his other diaries that the entries were genuinely Casement’s, he is the only handwriting expert to have been permitted to examine the original, nor have samples been subjected to modern forensic testing. And the British espionage service did have a reputation for forging documents.

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2 thoughts on “THE SPECTRE OF THE BROWNIE

  1. Times have changed. I disembarked the Red Luas line at Bluebell one Sunday afternoon in Dublin late last summer. I joined the Grand Canal at Goldenbridge following it and the swans into town.(Other stops on this line are Red Cow, Blackhorse so quite a kaleidoscope of colours). There were only a very few people out enjoying this nice walk and weather I observed. I noticed three couples at various stages along they way and a few joggers and dog walkers – the couples were holding hands, cuddling and taking photos and selfies on the canal locks, fooling around playfully and as I passed by – all three were same sex couples. Which got me thinking…. are same sex couples more likely to take romantic walks out in nature than heterosexual couples. Perhaps it is a celebration of the freedom they can now enjoy – things so many heterosexual couples take for granted and hence don’t do enough of. Or maybe heterosexual couples are more likely to do separate gendered things on a Sunday afternoon. The swans mate for life too. They were swimming together their necks entwined in the shape of a heart. I really felt a change in the air that afternoon as I sat on the Poet Patrick Kavanagh’s seat and reflected on my childhood growing up in Dublin and how things were way back then, before I headed back over to my own turf, to the ebb and flow of the Royal Canal on the other side.

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