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three pairs of lovers with space



Ireland probably alone has posed a challenge to neighbouring Great Britain’s title as the European land with the most miserable history of Greek love in modern times. Unusual as a largely Catholic country in northern Europe, fierce adherence to narrowly interpreted Christian doctrines in a poor country lent a peculiarly bigoted twist to the much increased general hostility to homosexuality that arose in northern Europe around 1700 and was slowly but steadily to concentrate ever more on Greek love as corrupting boys into it.

According to An act for the punishment of the vice of buggery 1634, which copied the Buggery Act passed by the English Parliament in 1534, the punishment upon conviction was to be death.

Following Ireland’s union with Great Britain in 1801, the two former countries became subject to the same changes in the law. There were three of significance for Greek love, though the first two were minor in reality. These were the Offences Against the Person Act of 1828, which said that proof of penetration was sufficient to convict for buggery (proof of “emission of seed” no longer being required) and the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which abolished the death penalty for buggery in favour of imprisonment for between ten years and life.

Cornwall Gustavus
Gustavus Cornwall, Secretary to the General Post office and principal defandant in the Dublin Scandal of 1884

In 1884, an Irish nationalist newspaper, United Ireland, tried to besmirch the British administration in Dublin by accusing the head of the county CID and the Secretary to the General Post Office of sodomy, dragging in others in high society and leading to one of the most sensational scandals of the era.  This shed rare light on the homosexual underworld of the capital, showing that boys in their early teens as well as older youths had been prostituting themselves to men, sometimes working in one of two male brothels practically in the shadow of Dublin Castle, the seat of government. The revelation that there was a sodomitical network led to a witchhunt. The youths involved, some of whom had been roughed up by agents for the prosecution, had to give testimony to avoid prosecution for sodomy themselves. Four men were condemned to brutal imprisonment and other lives were ruined, an outcome that was greeted with celebrations across the country.  United Ireland's proprietor was cheered outside the court, with cries of “Long Live United Ireland”. The nationalist Freemans Journal reported that “a great political as well as a moral triumph had been gained”. At the same time, the nationalist press fulminated against the inadequacy of the police and the administration of justice in not having managed to wreck more lives and in having failed to do so on their own initiative.[1]

Those acquitted in the Dublin scandal were lucky it had not erupted a year later, for the third change to the status of homosexuality then enacted by the British Parliament was far more ominous: the “Labouchere Amendment” to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 criminalised any acts of “gross indecency” between males and thus vastly increased the scope for both prosecution of homosexual acts and for blackmail over them. Interestingly, the most famous victim of this was the greatest literary figure Ireland ever gave birth to and the nineteenth century’s best-known proponent of Greek love, Oscar Wilde (though it was in England that he came unstuck).

British Isles 1878 dtl Ireland
                                                                                   Ireland in 1878

Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland became separate legal jurisdictions from 1921 and remained so, the former seceding from the union with Great Britain the next year and the latter staying within it. Neither, however, altered the illegal status of all homosexual acts until nearly the end of the century, when they did so to the detriment of Greek love.

To determine attitudes to Greek love as distinct from other homosexuality in independent Ireland, historian Averill Earls studied prosecutions for homosexual acts involving youths over seventeen and under twenty-one (boys under seventeen rarely being considered for prosecution).  She calculated that:

between 1924 and 1964, 11 percent of the individuals arrested for same-sex sex crimes were aged seventeen to twenty-one. Of those juvenile-adults charged, 80 percent had sexual relationships, either economically or romantically motivated, with older men, who were usually ten to thirty years older. And certainly the court records represent a fraction of the actual same-sex intergenerational relationships that existed between boys and men in urban Ireland. This kid-glove treatment of the “boys” involved in intergenerational sex reflects a broader Irish sentiment that this period of their lives was formative and that they could be saved or reformed—even when mixed up in something as “heinous” as same-sex sex.”

Judges regularly meted out the harshest possible punishment for adult offenders who involved themselves with those who were under twenty-one years of age.

When an older man was convicted of having sex with one of these “juvenile-adults,” even if the youth testified that he was a willing participant in that relationship, the older man bore the brunt of the punishment. The gross indecency law of 1885 allowed a maximum sentence of up to two years imprisonment with hard labor. The 1861 sodomy law allowed a maximum of up to life imprisonment. Between 1922 and 1960, when there was a significant hike in same-sex sex crime prosecution overall, the Chief State Solicitor’s Office tended to aim for higher sentences when older men had sex with juvenile-adults. An over-twenty-one defendant could expect between two to five years for having sex with a juvenile or juvenile-adult.

In many of these cases, the police wielded the boys as weapons. Some boys may have flipped for promised immunity; others may have been intimidated or worn down into compliance. Some may have held no allegiances to the men with whom they had had sex, and turned on them easily. It is hard to tell from the court records. And these circumstances were true for most adult men convicted of having sex with juvenile-adults.[2]

Mountbatten with twin Knatchbull grandsons
Mountbatten with his twin grandsons, one of them murdered with him and the other badly wounded

The “execution” by bomb of the retired British statesman Lord Mountbatten, a granny and two boys of fourteen and fifteen holidaying in co. Sligo by the Irish Republican Army in 1979, as part of its campaign to drive the British out of Northern Ireland fortuitously timed well with the onset of the moral panic over children and sex in the anglosphere, so the IRA resorted to Irish tradition by trying to smear Mountbatten (and, by extension, the British “establishment”) posthumously with allegations of sex with boys in a Belfast boys’ home that were outlandish (whether or not Mountbatten was really a lover of boys, for guessing which there is better evidence).

A Gallup poll conducted in eight western European countries in 1981 showed that tolerance of sexual activities between children was lowest of all in the Republic of Ireland.[3] In 1993 the latter decriminalised consensual sex between men, but largely under outside pressure since it had already been found in breach of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. A special age of consent of 21 was considered, but not adopted, so it became that for girls, 17. From 2002, it was one of the only two countries in the European Union with such a high age of consent.

Meanwhile, more than usual modern bigotry and intolerance towards Greek love was one thing protestant-dominated Northern Ireland had in common with the Catholic south. Sex between men over 21 was not decriminalised there until 1982. It was the last part of the United Kingdom to do this and only did so because it had also been found in breach of the European convention on human rights. Similarly, it was much the last part to reduce the age of consent, to 17 in 2002 and 16 in 2008, which it did only to be in line with the other parts of the state.

National Geographic Sept. 1994
National Geographic, September 1994

With the spread of the anglosphere‘s moral panic over children and sex towards the end of the twentieth-century, it inevitably became a matter of public acknowledgement and discussion that pederasty had been ubiquitous in the many institutions in which Catholic clergy had had the care of boys. The extent to which anyone had genuinely not known or chosen not to know this unsurprising state of affairs was hard to determine. The impression formed was extremely negative, as of course maximum publicity was given to the cases of priests who had taken advantage of their positions to coerce boys (and these were many since the clergy’s excessive authority and freedom from criticism encouraged the worst sort), whilst mention of liaisons which did not fit this dominant narrative was strongly taboo.

Though something similar happened in most Catholic countries, the Irish had been particularly fond of congratulating themselves on adhering to Christianity whilst its influence was fading away in the rest of Europe. As the Catholic priest P. J. Gannon put it in a sermon in 1929, “Europe is forgetting” the morality of Christianity, while “we Irishmen” would never forget.[4] To find that beliefs that went to the core of their identity had been so disregarded by those charged with preaching them may thus be said to have caused sharper cultural anguish in the Irish Republic than in other countries. This greatly accelerated the precipitate decline of the religious faith that had been at the heart of Irish cultural identity and was now hoisted on its own petard.


[1] The scandal is described at length by Glenn Chandler in Chapters Eight and Nine, “The Duchess Goes to Court” and “The Dublin Felonies” of his The Sins of Jack Saul: The true story of Dublin Jack and the Cleveland Street Scandal, Grosvenor House, 2016.

[2] Averill Earls, “Solicitor Brown and His Boy” in Historical Reflections, Spring 2020, pp. 83-5.

[3] Ireland scored 142 versus 470 for the Netherlands as the most tolerant country (F. Lacombe, “Sondages d’opinion”in L’Espoir 12 (1984) p. 33.). The results accurately reflect the levels of tolerance towards Greek love then, as shown in numerous articles on this website, with Great Britain the second most intolerant and Denmark the second most tolerant.

[4] “How Ireland Has Clung to the Faith,” Irish Independent, 8 July 1929, 7.