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Review Essay: Queer Ireland

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 48, Issue 3&4, Fall/Winter 2013
pp. 289-302 | 10.1353/eir.2013.0032

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A Queer Irish Studies

A recent special issue on queer studies for the Irish University Review suggests the strength and depth of that scholarly area in Irish Studies. Drawing together many of the leading scholars, graduate students, and activists in the field, the issue culminates many years of dedicated work by often isolated individuals challenging more dominant modes of inquiry. It was dedicated to the work of Ailbhe Smyth, honoring her lifetime of struggle for justice and recognition for Ireland’s LGBTQI communities. Fittingly the issue emerged from University College Dublin, where over fourteen years ago, Smyth founded the first M.A. program addressing queer issues, “Lesbian Studies and Queer Culture.”

Throughout her career at University College Dublin, Smyth met considerable resistance, but she was also supported by some few individuals, such as Aideen Quilty, who spoke of the centrality of her endeavors for Irish queer studies at the Women’s Education, Research and Resource Centre (WERRC). Quilty marked out WERRC as “an incubation space for queerly invested individuals” at a time when there were “few examples of modules, let alone specific programs of study relevant to lesbian and queer lives” in Ireland or, indeed, the United Kingdom. The Centre’s mandate was to “transform the university’s organization of knowledge and to challenge its exclusions”; under the auspices of WERRC a new generation of Irish scholars and activists found its voice.

Building on these auspicious beginnings, Noreen Giffney and Micheal O’Rourke initiated the The(e)ories seminar at UCD, a series of lectures, forums, and workshops dedicated to the promotion of queer theory in the Irish academy. The(e)ories quickly made a name for itself as a leading center of excellence in Ireland and beyond. Giffney’s response to Tom Inglis’s puzzlement at the lack of work in Ireland on sexuality in her seminal essay “Quare Theory” set the tone for a sustained conversation about the heteronormative, indeed masculinist, presumptions of Irish Studies. Even if Inglis was sympathetic to the endeavors of Giffney and company (and we cannot know either way), that he had not even noticed them starkly revealed the challenges they faced. Often, it was not that such scholars were being resisted, but that they were, institutionally speaking, simply invisible (or actively repressed). In this context, a list of the many extraordinary individuals who have presented at their forum—Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam, Lee Edelman, Leo Bersani, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—demonstrates their resourcefulness in the face of a continuing struggle for resources and institutional recognition. If, as O’Rourke has recently suggested, the Irish queer theory scene has been “crucially important globally for over a decade now,” The(e)ories played a major role in positioning Irish scholars at the forefront of debates.

In 2007, Anne Mulhall, lead editor of the Irish University Review special issue mentioned above, joined O’Rourke and Giffney in their endeavors; since then the study of sexualities at UCD has gone from strength to strength. Conversations with current graduate students pursuing queer studies in Ireland inevitably elicit tributes to a handful of tenacious individuals and their quiet but powerful commitment to a critique of mainstream Irish Studies. Before they made their mark, many of those scholars had themselves to endure a very different experience. Éibhear Walshe, when a student at UCD, recalls feeling compelled to study the dominant figures—John Banville, for example, or Patrick Kavanagh—while quietly pursuing an independent interest in more marginal figures such as Mary Dorcey and Kate O’Brien. Finally the relative security of a post at University College Cork allowed him to come out, as it were, and begin to produce the many groundbreaking publications that we associate with his career. His co-editorship and introduction to the section of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Women’s Writing entitled “Erosion of the Heterosexual Consensus” pays tribute to those writers and activists who labored on the margins of Irish intellectual life. With the rise elsewhere of scholars like Tina O’Toole at the University of Limerick, a queer Irish Studies slowly became thinkable more broadly, having been carved out against the backdrop of Ireland’s dispiriting conservatism in the 1980s and early 1990s...

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