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  • Unnatural Offenses of English Import:The Political Association of Englishness and Same-Sex Desire in Nineteenth-Century Irish Nationalist Media
  • Averill Earls (bio)

In December 1919 Michael Fogarty, the Catholic bishop of Killaloe, in a letter to the editor, decried the fact that Lord Chief Justice Francis Molony, a "hireling of British tyranny," had characterized the people of County Clare as "a race of moral degenerates." His indignation is apparent: "One would think … that we were here ankle-deep in the filthy compound of burglary and murder, sodomy, bigamy and infidelity, child murder, divorce, and sexual promiscuity that covers the standing pool of Saxon life." Fogarty thought that Molony exemplified the long history of English elites wrongfully characterizing Irishmen as violent children unfit for self-governance.1 To conclude his defense of his countrymen, Fogarty closed his letter with a sarcastic sign-off, asserting exactly what he thought was wrong with the people of County Clare: "It is that they have the manliness to stand up against tyranny, and to flourish the Flag of Irish Independence in the face of [Dublin] Castle hacks."2

The fierce imagery Fogarty evoked, painting the English not only in their barbarian ancestry but also through five counts of sexual criminality and immorality, was not unique. Tying English rule to sexual immorality [End Page 396] was a powerful Irish nationalist tactic.3 Parliamentary debates and media discussions about who should rule Ireland revolved around the moral character of the governed and governing. As historian Maryann Valiulis notes, "Central to the Irish claim for independence was their difference from England. England was described as pagan, Anglo-Saxon, urban and materialistic while independent Ireland was Celtic, Irish-speaking, rural and Roman Catholic. Above all, [Ireland] … was virtuous."4 When Fogarty described the most heinous crimes possible, he grouped murder together with sexual promiscuity, prostitution, divorce, bigamy, and homosexuality—and pointedly affirmed that these were all English behaviors. I argue that the link between sexual immorality, particularly same-sex desire, and Englishness was a well-established concept by 1919, one cultivated by Irish nationalist presses throughout the nineteenth century to undermine British moral authority to rule Ireland. Newspapers like the Cork Examiner and the Freeman's Journal played a critical role in Irish nationalism because they emphasized the association between sexual immorality and Englishness through selective coverage of sodomy court cases and queer scandal and through a vigorous rejection of Irish culpability in such crimes.

This is not to suggest that newspaper editors conspired to create the association between Englishness and homosexuality. It is just as likely that this was a popular assumption in Ireland, just as the English assumed homosexuality to be a French affectation. On the one hand, there were so few sodomy cases in Ireland's own courts that it was reasonable for Irish papers to cover British sex crimes instead. On the other, the tone that Irish nationalist papers used when reporting on Irish sodomy cases in the nineteenth century is peculiar. While editors would print as much detail as censorship and good taste allowed when it came to Englishmen on trial for same-sex sex crimes, those same papers made sweeping declarations that Irishmen could not possibly be guilty of an "unnatural crime" because such things did not happen in pure and good Ireland. Irish nationalist newspaper editors also exploited queer scandals involving important Englishmen to draw attention to the sexual immorality seemingly rampant among the English ruling elite. In one case, that of the Dublin Castle scandal in 1884, when British government administrators in Ireland were accused and found guilty of having sex with other men, newspaper editors were even responsible for exposing the scandal.

Attacking English elites to build political capital was most common at the end of the nineteenth century, but it was a tactic cultivated from very [End Page 397] early on in the Irish nationalist movement.5 Britain annexed Ireland by the Act of Union in 1801, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. For the next 120 years, defiance, suppression, and occasional concession characterized Anglo-Irish relations. Irish politicians and radical rebels alike challenged English rule through mass meetings, armed resistance...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 396-424
Launched on MUSE
2019-09-28
Open Access
No
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