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A decade before Oscar Wilde’s three trials, Irish nationalists made political hay with a similar high-profile case in Dublin. A captain of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the secretary of the General Post Office, highly placed representatives of British rule, were forced into a libel case over charges of sodomy. Historian Averill Earls explains how the political exploitation of homophobia peaked in this 1884 “Dublin Castle scandal.”

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“[It was] the culmination of a century of assertions in print culture that immorality existed in Ireland only because of the presence of the corrupting English,” writes Earls. “This was central to Irish nationalist mythology […]. Irish purity could only be preserved through autonomous rule.”

To counteract the English portrayal of the Irish as children incapable of ruling themselves, Irish nationalists undermined English rule by painting it as morally corrupting. The English, often referred to by Irish nationalists as Anglo-Saxons or Saxons to highlight their pagan origins, were awash with crime, bigamy, divorce, prostitution, and homosexuality. In Irish minds, there was no better example of English immorality than same-sex desire. Disregarding Ireland’s medieval past as well as human nature, they saw homosexuality as an exclusively English import. (The English, meanwhile, associated it with the French; today, some nations, particularly authoritarian ones, claim homosexuality is a Western import.)

Dublin Castle was the headquarters of colonial rule and the target of nationalist media. The accused men were essentially forced into bringing libel suits against their accusers because, as Earls writes, “being accused of something like same-sex desire without legally challenging the accuser was as good as an admission of guilt.”

The nationalist press, having been hit with many a libel suit themselves, were prepared for the trial. Witnesses had already been lined up: the evidence was clear, two careers were ruined, and the reputation of the colonist administration besmirched. (The judge “was so disturbed by the testimonies that he had the transcripts destroyed.”)

It was quite a coup for the nationalists, more proof in their mind of the degeneracy of the English. This wasn’t the only reason, but it helped in the 1885 election that saw an increase of twenty-three seats for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). William Gladstone’s Liberals, who lost 33 seats that election, ended up needing the IPP to preserve his government.

The weaponization of homophobia in Ireland would come back to haunt the nationalists. Both sides could wield that cudgel, after all. In 1916, the effort to get clemency for British diplomat Sir Roger Casement, who was convicted of treason for attempting to help the Irish independence movement, was sabotaged by the circulation of his sexually explicit journal. He was arguably hanged not for his treason but his prolific same-sex life. Meanwhile, in their canonization of Casement as an Irish martyr, Irish nationalists denied his homosexuality, claiming it was an English plot.

The ideological uses of Irish purity could backfire in other ways. Charles Stewart Parnell’s career as leader of the Irish nationalist cause was destroyed after the revelations of his (heterosexual) adultery in 1889. “Our uncrowned king” as James Joyce has one of his characters call him in Dubliners, was laid low by a “fell gang/ Of modern hypocrites.”

Historically speaking, sodomy was a capital offense in England and then the United Kingdom from 1553 to 1861. In 1861, the punishment was switched to life imprisonment. “Gross indecency” was added to the criminal code in 1885. This charge was, Earls writes, “broadly conceived and intentionally undefined” and carried a maximum sentence of two years of hard labor. Two years hard labor was Oscar Wilde’s sentence in 1895. The Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 decriminalized private homosexual acts in England and Wales. Decriminalization occurred in Scotland in 1980 and then in Northern Ireland in 1982.

Ireland, independent since 1922 and a republic since 1949, decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, part of the long effort to untangle the nation from the theocratic rule of Joyce’s “modern hypocrites.”

Editor’s Note: This article was amended to clarify that Casement was hanged, not hung.

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Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 28, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER 2019), pp. 396–424
University of Texas Press