Via EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum: Last summer, as lockdown restrictions eased, EPIC’s historian-in-residence Maurice Casey found himself in Waterford browsing the shelves of a local bookshop. Here, he spotted Flowering Dusk - a 1940s memoir by Ella Young.
Having written his PhD on the Irish radicals of the early 20th century, Casey was already familiar with Young as a Republican, mystic and member of the period’s queer bohemia. So he brought a copy home.
Exhibition inspiration and new stories coming out
Reading it, he was intrigued to learn about a 1922 party held in Dublin for Chester A. Arthur III. He was the grandson of US president Chester A. Arthur, whose father was from county Antrim, and he supported the republican cause during the Irish Civil War.
Because of his interest in the Irish diaspora’s contribution to revolutionary politics, Casey began to do some more research. Soon after, he came across a VICE article entitled This President’s Grandson Was More Interesting Than You’ll Ever Be.
It discussed Arthur’s life as an Ivy League dropout, experimental actor, commune leader, gold prospector, sexologist, gay rights activist, astrologer and bisexual. And, when he came to Ireland, he brought his radical ideas with him. That’s when Casey realised that this was a story for EPIC’s newest exhibition on the LGBTQ+ diaspora.
"What’s curious is that I wrote my entire PhD on the Irish radical world of the early 20th century but never encountered Arthur. Only when I returned to my own period of expertise through the lens of the LGBTQ+ diaspora did I realise he’d been hiding amongst the sources all along," said Casey.
Researching an exhibition during a pandemic
The exhibition is the culmination of a year’s work by Casey. He is the exhibition’s researcher and curator and he did much of it from home.
It involved countless Zoom calls and emails, as well as the generous help of scholars and the LGBTQ+ community who shared all sorts of documents, photos and memories. Archival records weren’t always accessible, but he didn’t want to rely on official documents anyway.
While it would have been easy to find the likes of official police, court and psychological records, Casey only wanted to use sources which allowed people to speak about their sexuality on their own terms.
As a result, each figure featured in the exhibition spoke openly about their sexuality and that’s why it’s called Out in the World.
"It’s strange that the pandemic and this year of disconnection has also been the time where I carried out my most collaborative research project," noted Casey. "I was in touch with LGBTQ+ scholars who shared their knowledge and contacts, while groups like the Queer Culture Ireland research network were also really helpful."
When researching Chester A. Arthur III, for example, Casey managed to get his hands on relevant newspaper archives. But Joey Cain, a researcher in San Francisco, scanned him over a chapter of Arthur’s unpublished memoir. It documented his time in Ireland and was a key source of information.
"More so than other topics I have worked on, there is a common idea within LGBTQ+ history circles that these stories need to be told," Casey said. "It’s absolutely the right idea and I hope the exhibition goes some way to helping these important histories be shared."
Exploring the diversity of the diaspora
Casey’s mission as historian-in-residence is to highlight the diversity of the diaspora and Out in the World: Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora goes a long way toward that.
This hidden history is a goldmine for finding extraordinary emigrants - many of whom were defiant in the face of exclusion. Although there are tales of love and solidarity as well.
The exhibition features lifelong partners Bridget Coll and Chris Morrissey who were both nuns before they started a new life together, protesting against Pinochet in Chile and challenging Canada’s unequal immigration laws. There’s also information on Michael Dillon, who was both a trans healthcare pioneer and a novice Buddhist monk over a hundred years ago.
But among the most important emigrants are the ones who returned home to implement change. "Throughout my research I noticed how common it was for Irish people to go abroad, discover models of activism and community and bring them back home. It is a crucial part of the story of Ireland’s recent referendum," said Casey.
The exhibition features activist spaces, like the Railton Road squats in London, where Irish emigrants developed their politics before bringing them home to Ireland.
Ireland has come such a long way that these days emigrants even bring their experiences and ideas to other countries. This is the case with Collette O’Regan from Cork, who helped establish RoCK - Cambodia’s first state-recognised LGBT organisation. She also features in the exhibit.
The story is just beginning
Out in the World features 12 stories across six themes: exclusion, community, love, defiance, solidarity and return. The exhibition highlights some previously hidden parts of the past, but there is still a lot of work to be done - both in terms of making history and recording it.
"We could never cover this vast history in its entirety," said Casey. "But the themes also allow us to avoid a linear approach, because this history isn’t over… Ireland has become more welcoming for LGBTQ+ people, but there is still a way to go.
"We highlight under our Return theme, for example, how LGBTQ+ parents in Ireland do not have full equality yet."
For those who want to share their own experiences, there is also a storyboard online and at the exhibition where messages, reflections and personal stories can be posted. These will be added to future versions of the exhibition and may even appear at your local embassy or consul.