- "He's My Country":Liberalism, Nationalism, and Sexuality in Contemporary Irish Gay Fiction
What is wrong with middle-class liberalism is not on the whole its values, most of which are entirely admirable, but the fact that it obtusely refuses to recognise the depth of social transformation which would be necessary for those values to be realised in universal form. It remains committed to sustaining a socio-economic system which makes a mockery of the very values it promotes.Terry Eagleton1
This article analyzes the representation of gay men in contemporary Irish culture through readings of novels published since 1993 by gay-identified authors Tom Lennon, Keith Ridgway, Colm Tóibín, and Jamie O'Neill. It explores how representations of gay men have been used to preserve a liberal political consensus in the face of the widening gap between rich and poor created by the forces of a globalized free market. Before engaging in textual analysis of these novels, therefore, the article situates them within the political and cultural currents of contemporary southern Ireland. This context includes the history and achievements of the lesbian and gay political movement, but more widely, the prevailing liberal consensus as it responds to social and economic change, to the dominant global order in the current phase of capitalism, and to the history of Irish nationalism. [End Page 250]
Celebrating the Diversity in Irish Society: Sexuality, Pluralism, and Progress
Greater freedom and visibility won by lesbian and gay communities in the Republic of Ireland since the 1990s represent important elements in the conception of southern Ireland as a tolerant, progressive, and modern society. This liberal narrative of Irish society has been structured in popular discourse through two events, one tangible and one symbolic. The first is the decriminalization of sex between men in 1993, with particular emphasis on how, with regard to age of consent, the new law made no distinction between heterosexuals and homosexuals, and was, therefore, considerably more progressive than the partial decriminalization won in England in 1967. The more symbolic event was President Mary Robinson's 1992 invitation to a group of lesbian and gay activists to meet with her at Áras an Uachtarán.2
The incorporation of the southern Irish lesbian and gay political movement within a conception of national progress is part of a long-standing élite goal of modernization—the perceived need to transform southern Ireland from a traditional to a modern society. Beginning with the 1958 adoption of the First Programme for Economic Expansion, the Republic of Ireland shifted from a policy of protectionism and autarkic development to one of dependent development involving fiscal incentives and the abolition of trade restrictions to attract foreign (chiefly US) capital. This repudiation of de Valera's vision of Irish society as a pre-modern Gemeinschaft where people would be satisfied with "frugal comfort," in favor of a capitalist, consumption-driven economy was as much a political and ideological shift as it was a shift in economic policy. The transformation involved an uncritical adoption of American postwar theories on modernization and development, as well as the concomitant [End Page 251] belief that industrialization and economic change bring a "corresponding drive towards 'modernisation' in the wider socio-political sphere."3 In this view, those progressive changes in Irish society—the greater economic, social, and sexual freedom won by women since the 1970s and the visibility and political rights won by lesbian and gay rights campaigners in the 1990s—appear not as the achievements of social movements and political activism, but as issuing from the arrival, however delayed, of modernity (by which is meant liberal capitalism) in southern Ireland.
The lesbian and gay movement has thus been positioned within this liberal conception of Irish modernity and progress, while it also occupies a place in the dominant political discourse of pluralism and equality. Kieran Rose describes what was for him a striking moment on the day of decriminalization in 1993: Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the Minister for Justice who had been responsible for the new legislation, "crossed the floor of the Senate chamber and, smiling broadly, shook hands with the lesbians and gay men in the public gallery...