What It Was Like to Grow Up Gay in Ireland

Arthur Leahy, one of the first people in the country to speak on television about being gay. “In the 1970s in Ireland there wasn’t really a word for being gay. We used to scour the British newspapers to get a sense of what it meant. You would get it sometimes in book reviews.”

John Minihan

On May 23, 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Irish journalist Charlie Bird witnessed the celebrations and decided on that day to interview and photograph those directly affected by the law’s passage. The project was published as a book, A Day in May, this month by Merrion Press.

“The amazing scenes of joyous celebration in cities, towns, and villages across Ireland on that sunny spring afternoon were shown across the world,” Bird wrote via email. “For many, including myself, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Over two months, Bird conducted 80 interviews (52 are included in the book) from people across Ireland who shared stories about what it was like to grow up gay. He found many of his subjects through word of mouth and recommendations from people he met. His only criterion when interviewing his subjects was that he wanted people to tell the stories—of both tolerance and abuse—in their own words.

“People gave me their trust,” he wrote. “To walk into a room with complete strangers and sit down and talk about your sexuality in many cases for almost an hour—it was not easy. In many instances, we laughed and cried together.”

June Hamill, “out and proud circa 1987.” “When I was like 19 or 20, people would say, ‘Have you a boyfriend? Have you a date?’ And I am looking at them, thinking, ‘No, what would I be doing with a boyfriend?’ And over time, I suppose, I became aware—hang on a minute, there’s something going on here. I’m not a bit interested in boys in that sense. Like to me, if they couldn’t kick a football or hurl they shouldn’t have been on the earth.” 

John Minihan

Micheál Ó Ríordáín, barman with a strong passion for equality issues. “I had initially came out to my sister as being not straight, as being something else. I knew she would be fine. She’s got gay friends. And she was like, just go out and figure it out, and come back to me when you want. Then over the course of that summer I told my closest friends. Then after my mother I was driving out from Macroom with my dad. And he goes, like very seriously, ‘Mike, do you have something to tell me?’ He had obviously heard it through the grapevine. And I was like, ‘Oh, eh, yeah, I suppose you have heard that I’m gay.’ And he said, ‘There’s been talk of that all right. But it makes no difference, you are still my son, and I still love you. And once you’re happy, you are fine.’ ”

John Minihan

Kathryn O’Riordan, self-described proud Cork woman, lesbian, and mum. “When I was in the U.K. in 1997 … I adopted a little girl. … I really wanted to be a mum. So adoption was possible there, but it was only possible for a single person at the time to adopt. You couldn’t be a gay couple. So we went through a very, very, very difficult process. We ended up with a new baby, which was unbelievable for gay couples at the time.”

John Minihan

Bird wanted each of the stories to be paired with a black-and-white photo, so he hired six photographers to create the work. Each photographer selected the locations for their photographs after meeting with their subjects. The photographers include John Minihan, John McColgan, Kate Nolan, Tristan Hutchinson, Karl Hayden, and Peter MacMenamin.

“I wanted the book to stand the test of time both in content and quality and hopefully we have achieved that,” Bird wrote.

Bird wrote that he feels many Irish “are more proud of ourselves as a nation because of last year’s vote,” but he also said there’s still a lot to be done to dismantle what remains of the culture of homophobia.

“It would be lovely to think that this book about a moment in Irish history could in some small way help the struggle and fight for marriage equality and LGBTI rights in other parts of the world,” he said.

Nuala Ward. LGBT human rights advocate since 1986; organizer of the pride parade in Galway, Ireland’s longest consecutive pride parade. “I was beaten up. I was walking near where I lived. It was evening. Something was thrown over my head. I presume it was a jacket. There were male and female voices. I didn’t see who it was but they were laughing and obviously having the craic. I was kicked. They were shouting ‘lezzie’ and ‘queer’. I went to the Garda station, because that’s what you do. I told the guard, and he was saying, ‘Why do you think they were robbing you?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s because I had a girlfriend.’ So he just closed the book and said, ‘Well, what do you expect?’ I felt more humiliated in that moment than I did when the assault was happening.”

Tristan Hutchinson

Gary Ridge, marine scientist who was recently awarded the title “Mr Gay Galway.” “I didn’t really have any gay friends at all growing up. I didn’t really have anyone that I could relate to. And for years I was in denial of my sexuality. I had the odd girlfriend throughout my twenties. I just didn’t want to acknowledge my sexuality. I was just afraid, especially because of my background, a conservative upbringing, and Catholic upbringing.”

Tristan Hutchinson

Rebecca Murphy, Cork native who loves loves baking, roller derby, cats and dogs, and swimming in the sea. “When I began to realize I was gay, around the age of 12 or 13, I didn’t think it was even a possibility. It was something that happened to people in America or on TV or in films, you know. Like there were no lesbians in Ireland.”

John Minihan