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Image: picture alliance/empics/B. Lawless

The long road in Ireland that led to a 'yes'

Gabriel Borrud
May 23, 2015

It's one of those hypothetical meets you'd like to listen in on: Oscar Wilde and David Norris, two wildly different people, perhaps united by their sexual orientation. The one gave the other one purpose - or vice versa?


If The Ballad of Reading Gaol is anything to go by, one can safely assume that a two-year prison sentence played a profound role in the demise of Oscar Wilde, perhaps Ireland's most remembered lyrical and theatrical voice of the 19th - or any other - century.

Wilde speaks in the poem, written two years before his death, about what he witnessed during his term of condemnation, referring to himself and a fellow inmate at Reading Jail as "outcasts" who had been "thrust from the heart of the world."

Oscar Wilde irischer Dichter und Schriftsteller
Wilde was imprisoned in 1895 for being intimate with menImage: picture-alliance/dpa/CPA Media/Pictures From History

The paradox of the writing is astounding: Describing vividly the desolation in Reading and in his soul, the words flow with a lightness and simplicity of a text that suggests youthfulness, naivety and even hope.

Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Gaol because he was gay. He had been sentenced to two years hard labor for "buggering," i.e. having intercourse with another man, an offense severely punishable by Irish law at the time.

With Wilde's tragic fate as just one example, this weekend's referendum shows how much the Republic has changed in the past century with regard to the legal rights granted Irish homosexuals.

Irland Referendum zur Homo-Ehe David Norris Senator
Euphoria probaly couldn't even describe Norris' feelings on Saturday after the referendum results came inImage: picture alliance/empics/B. Lawless

The first real whispers of change came in 1970, with a movement initiated by David Norris. At that time a lecturer with Dublin's Trinity College, Norris began a movement that would eventually abolish the law that imprisoned Wilde.

He first took his case to the High Court in 1977. It was rejected, and he moved eventually to Ireland's Supreme Court. There, in 1983, he was unsuccessful in an attempt to persuade that the 1885 law, entitled "Offences against the Persons Act," infringed on his privacy and thus contravened the Irish constitution.

This took him to the European Court of Human Rights, which ultimately ruled against the Irish government in 1988, citing a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The reception of Norris and the legalization of homosexuality weren't entirely positive among the Irish, especially in the capital Dublin. In 1982, 31-year-old Declan Flynn, was murdered in a Dublin suburb by a gang of men with overtly homophobic intentions.

The convicts in the trial were given suspended manslaughter sentences, a verdict that was celebrated in pockets of Dublin.

In response, gay rights marches began in the Irish capital. Thousands took to the streets in honor of Flynn and in protest of the "level of violence against homosexuals and women in Ireland."


Just under a decade later, however, on July 7, 1993, those protests would be heard, and the law that Norris had been pushing for over 20 years would become reality.

In 2010, civil partnerships between same-sex couples were recognized, with the first partnership - between two men - was registered on February 7, 2011.

A few years later, openly gay men would become ministers in the Irish cabinet.

Whether or not Oscar Wilde would have wanted to enter the bond of matrimony - some would argue he certainly would have not! - had he lived in 2015 Ireland, that option would have been his. Were he to land in the Gaol of Reading today, it would most certainly be for a crime entirely different from the one he was sentenced for in 1895.

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