Rural Ireland Goes Gay For A Day
Small town Ireland is going gay for the day with the smallest gay pride event in the world. Today the tiny coastal village of Easkey in Co. Sligo, which has just two shops, two pubs, two butchers and a post office, is urging heterosexual residents to turn gay as an act of solidarity.
“We are hoping to attract around 80 people out of a population of just 250,” says Denise Clarke, a 48 year old interior designer and artist who has lived in Easkey for ten years.
“There is a reverse trend now in Ireland where gay people are leaving the big cities and returning to their rural roots,” she says. “It is no longer a necessity to run off to Dublin or London or Manchester to ‘come out’. As a society we have moved on and are more broadminded and accepting.”
However, Denise admits that when she first came to Easkey ten years ago to live, she was ostracised. “People were afraid of the new lesbian in town!” she recalls. “One woman even rang around the local farmers to warn them that their wives could be in danger. It was just a lot of fear and some ignorance, but an event like this today helps dispel those myths and brings the town folk together.”
Outside the Village Store with its giant plastic ice cream cone wobbling in the breeze, manager Michael Gordon says that “gay people are the same as every body else.” He has lived in Easkey all his life, helped rebuild two churches in the area and knows everyone in the town. “Ireland is a tolerant place now, thank God,” he says. “Rural Ireland has grown up.”
Mother of five Linda O’Dowd is at pains to point out that not long ago people were ostracised for being unmarried mothers. “I have no idea if any of my kids are gay, but I would totally support them,” she says. “I don’t see anything wrong with it whatsoever.”
Easkey doesn’t even attract a lot of through traffic. It is best known as a surfing destination with a reputation for its right and left break. It is also renowned for salmon fishing, the picturesque River Easkey begins its journey at the Ox Mountains which straddle Counties Mayo and Sligo, and has large runs of salmon and seatrout from early June.
“At one stage we even had a restaurant in the village,” says pub proprietor Vincent O’Brien. “But there aren’t enough visitors now to support such a venture, this year in particular has seen few tourists with the recession.”
Vincent is encouraging his staff at the Fisherman’s Weir to wear the ‘gay for a day’ badges on their lapels and says that the celebrations are a good thing. “In general people are being positive about it, but I have heard a few of the lads cracking jokes,” he adds.
The Easkey Pride celebrations, which includes activities such as Boccia, indoor curling, and basketball, is part of a larger umbrella group – North West Pride – incorporating several west-of-Ireland counties such as Sligo, Mayo and Leitrim.
Early in 2006, a group of people from Sligo and Leitrim organised a gay pride event for their families and friends. Traditionally gay pride events only took place in big cities like Dublin and Cork. The first Northwest Pride attracted huge support from politicians, community groups, businesses and local residents, according to Una Foster, one of the organisers.
“Friends and neighbours rushed from the pavement to hug people taking part, it was beyond our expectations,” she says. “An elderly man approached me outside the City Hall and said, ‘This is a great day for Sligo.’ That's how important it is to some people who may never join in themselves: people who've kept their secret all their lives, people whose relatives left under a cloud, people who came home to look after their parents and thought they could never live openly again."
Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, and discrimination based on sexual orientation is now outlawed. Ireland also forbids incitement to hatred based on sexual orientation.
“There are 107 Family Resource Centres (FRCs) scattered throughout Ireland and they are obliged as part of policy to support people who are marginalised,” explains Pat Hegarty, Co-ordinator of Easkey’s FRC.
Pat’s daughter Sarah is gay and lives in Manchester. “She told me when she was just 15 years old and I supported her straight away,” he recalls.
Pat and Denise Clarke came up with the idea of ‘gay for a day’ as a way to make heterosexual people feel comfortable joining in the celebrations. “It’s all about inclusiveness,” says Pat. “It’s no different to the world going Irish for the day on St. Patrick’s every March,” he says.
There will be ‘volcanic kettles’ outside the Easkey FRC brewing up tea for passers by and Pat will also oversee a BBQ down at the picturesque seafront. “We are hoping a lot of people turn up for what is ostensibly a small event with a big message,” he says.
Izzy O’Rourke who has travelled up from Leitrim to attend the celebrations at Easkey believes that people in rural Ireland have now reached some level of acceptance that was unimaginable even a decade ago. “They may not be talking to the neighbours about it yet, but eventually it does happen,” she says.
Margaret Conlon who is secretary of the Community Council says she was not really aware of the celebrations taking place as there’s a Feis (Irish dancing tournament) taking place this weekend too.
“I wish them the very best,” says Margaret. “Sure aren’t they just the same as the rest of us and these celebrations are no different to the Orangemen marching in the North”.
* A slightly edited/shorter version of this article was printed in the Observer on 9th August: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/aug/09/ireland-easkey-gay-pride-day
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