Pride of place: At home with David Norris

David Norris will be honoured at this year’s Cork Pride. John Meagher visits him at his Dublin home, where he finds the senator in a contemplative mood.

David Norris does not hesitate for even a nanosecond. 

“Marriage for me?” he laughs, repeating the question. “Not a bit of it. You must be joking.”

He’s tickled by the thought. “I wouldn’t want an old wrinkly fart like myself,” he says mischievously. 

“I’d want a young man! A nice handsome, middle-aged farmer from the midlands.”

The veteran senator and gay rights activist was one of the campaigners who helped make same-sex marriage a reality last year, but it’s not for him. That boat, he says, has sailed.

He’s 72 now: too late, he feels, for marriage. But a relationship — that’s something different. 

“There’s no sexual relationship at present,” he says, frankly. 

“It would be lovely, it would be nice to have someone to share my life with.

“Political life,” he adds, “cuts into your social life.”

We meet in his magnificent period home in North Great George’s Street, not far from O’Connell Street in the heart of Dublin. 

He has had some bad news about a close friend, and it’s put him in a contemplative mood as he looks back over a life less ordinary.

“My brother [John] died last year,” he says. 

“Ken Monaghan [co-founder of the James Joyce Centre] died some years ago. So many people are just drifting away.”

Pride of place: At home with David Norris

Norris has had his own health problems too. Two years ago, he had a liver transplant after an inoperable tumour was detected. He’s made an impressive recovery, although he says his physical strength isn’t what it was before the discovery.

He took the news in his stride: “It didn’t bother me to get the diagnosis,” he says.

“I have a strong religious belief. I’ve always enjoyed life and I’ve been extremely lucky and privileged. There are many places in the world where the life expectancy is just 30. At my age, lots of people get cancer.”

He chain-smokes through the interview, and clearly relishes tobacco. 

“I don’t inhale,” he says, “but I do like a cigarette. I have this compulsive tendency — if I open a box of chocolates, I’ll finish them all.”

David Norris first started campaigning for equality in the 1970s and played an enormous role in the betterment of gay lives in Ireland since then. 

He is one of the significant figures who will be celebrated at Cork Pride, which got under way last Sunday. Its theme this year is ‘The Original Rebels’ and it’s certainly apt where Norris is concerned.

Not only was his work pivotal in ensuring that homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, but he was among the first to organise one of the country’s first gay nightclubs and bring awareness of the then new, barely understood, disease of Aids to the wider public.

Last year’s victorious referendum would have been a pipe dream in the dark days of the early 1980s, an intolerant period remembered for the murders of gay men Declan Flynn and Charles Self.

“The fact that the people who murdered Declan Flynn were let off without any sentence…” he pauses, still stunned by the decision. 

“That just said that a gay man’s life was worth nothing. I remember Declan well. In fact I have a photograph of him which was taken in this very room the night the [gay social venue] Hirschfeld Centre was opened. He had to conceal his sexuality — he was a shy nervous man with a stutter.

“There were an awful lot of queer-bashings back then and sometimes there wasn’t much sympathy.

“I remember when Charles Self died, the guards roped in a lot of people in what felt at the time like a dragnet to measure the gay community.”

David Norris at home surrounded by books. Behind him is a caricature of him promenading with James Joyce. Norris has helped affirm the writer’s reputation, from his legendary TCD lectures to the James Joyce Centre he helped establish.
David Norris at home surrounded by books. Behind him is a caricature of him promenading with James Joyce. Norris has helped affirm the writer’s reputation, from his legendary TCD lectures to the James Joyce Centre he helped establish.

Yet, even in the bleakest days, he was convinced Irish society was capable of true tolerance. The shackles of conservatism had to be removed first.

“Right from the start, I always felt that we as Irish were decent and compassionate — and the [anti-gay] laws we suffered under were imperial, passed in the House of Commons in the 1880s. No Irish parliament ever discussed it.”

“If you go back to the Brehon Laws there are reasonably positive mentions of homosexuality — it was regarded as a grounds for divorce, for instance, if the man went off with the kitchen boy. The possibility of it, at least, was acknowledged.”

He says he was heartened that the electorate “saw through” the “scare tactics” used by ‘No’ campaigners.

“They kept dragging in things like adoption,” he says.

“They harped on the idea that every child needs a father and mother which was a slap in the face for the third of Irish mothers who are single. They also ignored the Scandinavian evidence which showed that children brought up in same-sex marriage do at least as well.”

He chuckles when recalling that he was criticised by some in the gay community “in the early days” for not being seen to be an advocate of promiscuity.

“It was a kind of compulsory ideological position to take,” he say, “but it wasn’t my view. I felt that if I behaved like that, the tabloid newspapers would get hold of it and that would be the end of the movement.”

He says memories of the outpouring of emotion at Dublin Castle when the referendum had been won will forever live in his memory, but believes some important people weren’t given the credit on the day that they deserved.

“I did think it was funny that some people who were marginal to the whole issue where up on the lorry [the makeshift stage], whereas three people got virtually no credit — Brian Sheehan [CEO of Glen — the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network], Gráinne Healy [chairperson of Marriage Equality] and Eamon Gilmore [ex Labour Party leader]. Without Eamon Gilmore insisting it was a significant social issue [the referendum] would never have happened.”

He is convinced that in the 14 months that have elapsed since the vote, a change can already be appreciated.

“The lovely thing now,” he says, “is it’s not ‘gay marriage’, or ‘same-sex marriage’, it’s just marriage full stop. I love the idea of young people being brought up in a society where it’s become increasingly irrelevant and they’re not subject to the pressures, the strains, the neurosis that people of my generation were.”

When he realised he was gay while still a teen in the 1950s, he was convinced he was the only one among a school population of 500.

“It just wasn’t talked about at all back then.”

He felt comfortable being openly gay in the Trinity of the 1970s and it was in his early years lecturing in the English Department there that he met one of the great loves of his life, the Israeli Ezra Nawi.

“Ezra was perfect,” he says. 

“I had my domestic life in Jerusalem. I’d go over for a couple of months in summer and Easter and so on and while I was there I was just a suburban housewife in Jerusalem and it was lovely.

“It wasn’t just the sex — because the sex fizzled out fairly early on with Ezra — it was having a home to go to when he would come home from work… he’d drop off his clothes and jump into the bath and have a cup of tea and then we’d cook an evening meal together and then we’d go for a walk. We’d go on little trips together. It was that feeling of having a little family.”

The relationship ended, but friendship survived.

One of Norris’ more enduring relationships is with a man who had died before he was even born — James Joyce.

His Ulysses lectures at Trinity were the stuff of legend and he talks about the novel with the zeal of one keen to convert the world, one reader at a time.

“There are awful, self-righteous critics who seem to think people shouldn’t get fun out of Joyce,” he says. 

“You may have been damn sure Joyce would have exploited [his literary reputation]. He was so single-minded in his commitment to his art.”

He lives on a street that’s now synonymous with the great writer.

The Joyce Centre, which Norris helped establish, is located across the road and, at the junction on the top of street, Joyce’s alma mater, Belvedere College, is to be found.

“I knew Joyce’s family,” he says, “and some of them were bitterly ashamed of Joyce.

“His two sisters were convinced they lost their jobs when their employers found out who they were.

“Another relation used to refer to him as ‘that antichrist in Paris’.”

Norris was first elected to the Seanad in 1987 and has been returned at every election since.

He campaigned relentlessly for its retention when it looked as though it would be abolished three years ago, but believes it needs radical change.

“People talk about the unfairness of university graduates getting to vote [for six of its seats], but what about all the other seats? For 11 of those, one person gets to choose [the Taoiseach]. That’s hardly fair, is it?”

What about those who dismiss the upper house as a talking shop?

“There’s nothing wrong with a talking shop! I’m all in favour of them. I don’t think we talk to each other enough. The Seanad was the place that held the first debate on Aids — the Dáil was terrified of it.”

He says he does not regret running for President in 2011, despite a bruising campaign. 

“I don’t regret standing,” he says, “because I forced an election. There would not have been an election otherwise.”

Looking back, he feels he was victimised. 

“I was the only one who wasn’t allowed to discuss my ideas — it was all these manufactured scandals. I’ve three actions left against RTÉ, so I can’t really talk about that.

“And then my [campaign] committee just disappeared. They had a meeting to which I was not allowed attend. It was extraordinary - to be tried in absentia by a kangaroo court. Not one of them, to this day, has told me that they resigned. I had to learn about it from the Nine O’Clock News.”

Despite such difficulties, the campaign gave him a chance to see Ireland, warts and all. He says it’s something he will always treasure. 

“It was great travelling around the country and meeting people and seeing the beauty of the place and that, despite the recession, people were fighting back.”

He rules out the possibility of running for the Áras again in 2018. 

“I’m too old,” he says matter-of-factly.

“I’m too old and I don’t think I’d have the energy.” 

Besides, he says, his campaigning days aren’t yet numbered. 

“There are parts of the world where people can be murdered just for being gay. We can’t bury our heads in the sand about that — or, indeed, believe that homophobia has been completely eradicated from Ireland. It hasn’t.”

Cork Pride continues until tomorrow. www.corkpride.com 


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