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Dr. Charles Silverstein, our Travel Editor, is a licensed psychologist in New York City. He is best known for having presented the case for the deletion of homosexuality as a mental disorder before the American Psychiatric Association. He is also the founding director of two gay counseling centers, and the founding editor of the Journal of Homosexuality.

He's author or co-author of six books about gay life, including the three editions of the popular Joy of Gay Sex, contributed chapters and articles in professional books and journals. He is considered an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of relationships between men and problems of sexual disorders. Further information about him and his practice may be found on his website:




In 1993, all laws against gay sex were abolished in the Republic of Ireland. The government also sponsored a range of anti-discrimination laws in support of the gay community. Of course the Irish didn't always have so supportive a government since they inherited the exceptionally homophobic British laws when they became a state in 1923. Prior to that the only good news was when the British abolished the death penalty for sodomy in 1861!

The anti-gay laws were enforced until the early 1970s. Then an active gay movement led to a decision by the state prosecutor's office that consenting sexual activities between men would not be prosecuted.

"I wouldn't paint too lurid a picture of conditions before 1993", said Donal Sheehan, my host in Cork City. "Irish people have a very strong ethic of fairness and equality, and no deep respect for the law, which we have too often known only as a form of tyranny. We even had an openly gay Senator who is an admired public figure."

Cork City (County Cork) is the Republic of Ireland's second largest city, lying about three or four hours south of Dublin, the capital. Only a few miles from the eastern coast, it was from County Cork that countless tens of thousands fled the potato famine that starved so many of their countrymen. Shipping out (in steerage) from the nearby coastal port of Queenstown, they arrived on our shores to enrich cities such as Boston and New York, and to change American politics forever.

(This article was first published in The Guide in 1995. I suspect that much has changed in the past decade. Please let me know about these changes. There's now a second gay bar, Taboo, in addition to Loafers. The section, "Return to Cashel College," demonstrates how difficult it is for Irish Catholics to confront the excesses of the church. The account is very timely given the recent exposure of child molestation by priests. It has not been published before.)
During my visit to Cork City, Donal Sheehan, a member of the Southern Gay Mens Health Project, was quick to point out that the port called "Queenstown" had previously been known as Cove. In 1849, while still under British rule, Queen Victoria visited and was persuaded to walk down the gangplank from her yacht so that Cove could claim to be the first place in Ireland where she set foot. In her honor, and to the fury of Irish nationalists, Cove was renamed Queenstown. Upon the establishment of the Irish Republic the name "Queenstown" was sacked and the port was once again renamed "Cobh," the Irish language equivalent to Cove.
There was a point in telling me this story. There is still anger toward the British for their political and religious persecution of the Irish.

I arrived in Cork with Sean, a gay Irish friend, who had been my roommate in New York City 15 years earlier. Now living and working in London, he too demonstrated Irish pride, especially when in the presence of an Englishman. Years before we had gone to a party in New York City and he was introduced to a well-known gay member of the British House of Lords. Recognizing Sean's own upper-class speech, Lord Whatsisname said, "I see you're one of my countryman."

"No, " said Sean. "I'm Irish."

"Well, at least we share the same queen," said the pompous English lord.

"We may share many queens," said Sean, "but not the one you mean."

Sean told the story with that perfect sense of timing and inflection one learns to expect from the Irish. He and I were with a small group of gay men. They took us to Loafers Bar which is the premier, most popular (and only) gay bar in the city. Loafers has been an openly gay bar for about a dozen years. It's small by American standards, consisting of three small rooms. The first of these contains the bar, some stools and a few tables. Just beyond is a room off to the side that is reserved for women one night a week. In back is the garden area, with wooden benches and tables.

Everybody is drinking beer. And of the beers, top honors go to Guinness, a dark colored Irish brew that must be "cooked" correctly. "How do you cook beer?" I asked Sean, wondering whether it was a remnant of some strange Celtic practice. So my friend, knowledgeable in the subtleties of beer drinking, ordered two pints of Guinness, and said, "Watch." The bartender poured the stout into two glasses, but only half-way, then set the glasses upon the bar to allow the bubbles to coalesce into just the right foam. They were now "cooking," as were about eight other glasses of Guinness' next to them. After a few minutes the foam was just right, and the bartender poured the rest of the beer into the glasses, and once again set them aside to continue "cooking," while at the same time passing other already "cooked" beers to the men and women waiting for them. How he remembered who had ordered what was a mystery to me. Quite obviously, if very thirsty, one shouldn't order Guinness in an Irish bar.

A few minutes later, the heads of our beers having taken on the proper contrast to the dark liquid below, the bartender handed us our Guinnesses. We marched into the garden and sat down.

"It would be a breech of etiquette to drink your Guinness immediately," Donal Sheehan whispered in my ear, motivated I'm sure by the desire to save me the embarrassment of drinking prematurely and thereby demonstrating that I'm an uncivilized, stupid American who has no idea how to drink beer - a characterization correct in every respect. "Not finished cooking?" I whispered back to Donal. He nodded assent. Ireland was in the middle of a rare heat wave, my throat was parched with dryness, I had already waited about ten minutes for my beer to "cook," and still I had to wait. Finally, a few minutes later, Sean picked up his Guinness, visually inspected the thick head of foam carefully, and with the certainty of hundreds of years of tradition behind him said, "It's ready."

It tasted wonderful.

We might as well deal with the alcohol question here and now. I have it upon good authority that the per capita consumption of alcohol in Ireland is one of the lowest in Europe. I can also say that in my four evenings in Loafers Bar, I never saw anyone drunk or even tipsy. On Friday and Saturday nights the bar was packed with men and women (and lots of friendly straight people too), and Guinnesses were being cooked by the score, yet everyone seemed to be a model of sobriety. Perhaps they drink their beers more slowly than we do.

The scene outside was something else. There was a rock concert in Cork City that weekend, and it seemed as if every man and women below the age of 25 converged on the city with just one goal in mind -- to get as blasted as possible. The streets of Cork City were littered with staggering teen-agers, bottles or glasses of beer in hand, a few playing traditional Irish music or singing. Yet through this alcoholic haze I noticed something interesting. There wasn't the slightest sense of hostility or rudeness anywhere. In the United States, alcohol often leads to aggression and fighting among straight males. There was none of that in Cork City. I purposely walked among them as they were singing or drinking to see their reaction, something I would never do in the United States, and always they greeted me with "hello" or "excuse me" or "how ya boy?" It is clear proof to me that the culture of alcohol is nastier in the Unites States then it is in Ireland.

"The Other Place" is the name of the gay community center in Cork. While there are other gay organizations in Ireland, Cork is the only city with a community center. In the center is The Southern Gay Health Project, the gay switchboard, a STD clinic, a bookstore, a small cafe, offices, a meeting room, and a large dance floor in which they hold their Friday and Saturday night discos (one Friday night a month for women). While only a subset of gays go to Loafers, almost all seem to end up at the dances. Looking out on the crowded dance floor on Saturday night gave me the impression that there are more homosexuals than Protestants in the Republic of Ireland.

Over Guinness, Sean and I talked with some of the active members of the gay community. The gay switchboard is housed in The Other Place and, through the phone lines, closeted gays, many from outlying rural areas, call to ask questions about activities in Cork, or just to talk with an openly gay man. Dominick Whyte (age 30), tall and slim with a knowing expression on his face, has been working on the gay switchboard for two years. Leaving home at 16, he briefly lived with a woman. Only one week after having his first gay sex, Dominick met John with whom he fell in love. They have now lived together for over five years. They are both active in the gay community and a photograph of them, as a gay couple, appeared in a local newspaper. John's parents were so upset at their son's public display of homosexuality, that they threatened to kill him. They are still estranged.

Emmett Flynn, age 25, works at the center as a youth worker and HIV/AIDS counselor. Of medium height and build, his face radiating friendliness, he talks about the effects of Catholicism on his life. As a child, and to the joy of his parents, Emmett decided to join the priesthood. From ages 12 to 16 he attended a Catholic boarding school. A sexless romance with a woman for two years followed. Then, at age 18, Emmett had his first gay sex with a man in a "loo" (t-room), and spent the next two days at the gay man's house. The next year he received an unusual call from his mother. She said that the Holy Spirit appeared before her in a dream saying that Emmett had something important to tell her. "What is it?" she asked.

"So I came out to her," Emmett said. Divulging his homosexuality was not well received. His aunt tried to convince him to visit a faith healer who would cure him. (The rural phenomenon of folk medicine is still strong in Ireland.) Two years ago, Emmett met Warren and they've been living together ever since.

Everyone at the table talked about their conflicting feelings about being both Catholic and gay. Some expressed anger at the church, and especially for the hypocrisy they saw around them. They talked about a local bishop who is rumored to be gay, but no one would even consider "outing" him. It just isn't done in Ireland. Well, not yet.

During the conversation I noticed that virtually everyone in the bar knew every one else. This was small town stuff, I thought, fertile soil for gossip and tackiness. There was none of the anonymity of the big city with its kaleidoscope of new faces. "Yes," said Steven, at 18 the youngest in our group that night, "one has to keep a hundred secrets about other people." A hundred secrets known by a hundred people one sees every day seemed a bit intimidating to this habitue of New York's gay ghetto.

Yet very few in Cork talked of leaving. There were, I was told, places to have anonymous sex, or as anonymous as it ever gets in Cork City. I wondered about people interested in kinky sex and the acting out of esoteric fantasies. They would certainly go to the top of the hundred least kept secrets list. "People just know that wouldn't happen here," said Steven (who showed up in drag at the dance that evening). I assumed that people into kinkier sex would go to Dublin because of its larger gay population. 'No,' I was told, they would fly to London. My table-mates expressed a conservative attitude regarding sex and admitted that they feared behaviors outside the boundaries of vanilla sex. Once again, they attributed their sexual conservatism to the church. Only the evening before I had given a lecture on HIV transmission to the staff of the health project, and off-handedly said, "Look, if you have sex with a dozen men in one night...." After the lecture, Steve, a good-natured, middle aged social work student, half jokingly remarked, "When you're talking to a bunch of Catholics about sex, don't use the number 12!"

Fear of AIDS is very much in the air, but not talked about so openly as in the United States. Donal and Emmett and their colleagues at the Southern Gay Health Project, are trying to change that, but it's an uphill battle. The Irish, according to gay Corkonians, are embarrassed by sexual discussions, by mention of sexual acts or body parts, or "dirty talk" so admired by Americans. This information fit in with my observation that these gay men virtually never kissed their friends hello or good-bye, or touched or cuddled not even with their lovers. They shook hands. Though there was considerable friendliness and congeniality present, there was a suppression of sexual excitement.

Steve, the social work student, wanted to do more HIV counseling. He was also outraged by the fact that some physicians in Cork refuse to see gay patients, while others are noticeably uncomfortable in their presence. In one case, a physician started wearing latex gloves after a gay man came out to him. The poor attitude these doctors display discourage gay men from divulging information about their sex lives that a competent physician should know.

There is considerable secrecy around the incidence rate for HIV in County Cork. Though the health department keeps national statistics, it does not break them down by counties. In the past few years a number of infected gay men who had been living in either the United States or Europe returned to spend their last years in Ireland.

As of 1994, there were about 1,500 seropositive people in the Republic of Ireland. Twenty percent of them are gay men. A whopping 50 % are IV drug users, a sign of how serious IV drug use is in Ireland.

There is no support group for gay men with HIV in Cork (there is one in Dublin). Nor, for that matter, is there a single openly gay therapist in all the south of Ireland. The gay men I met in Loafers and at The Other Place are under the impression that seropositive men don't come to the bar or dance at the discos, and that they know which gay Corkonians have unsafe sex. Wishful thinking, I thought.

Unlike the United States, friends don't surround an infected gay man with support and comfort, and once again the influence of the church was blamed for the virtual abandonment of infected gays. "If you're Catholic and you have AIDS," said Steve, "it means three things. You're a slut, you like to get fucked, and you're promiscuous. People disapprove because the church disapproves."

Leaving Loafers when it closed (at 11:30 pm), Sean and I walked around the cruising area called "Sesame Street" by gay Corkonians. It's the quay nearby Jury's Inn. We were the only people there so we sat down and talked. I wondered aloud whether the church was as guilty a party as they claimed. After all, are Protestants or Jews exposed to more liberal traditions? "You don't understand what it's like to go to Catholic schools all your life, then try to feel good about sex, and be a fag to boot," said Sean, not a little angry with me. After all, I was suggesting that the complaints against the church might be being used as rationalizations for the struggle with their homosexuality.

The next morning we drove to Shannon airport and our flight back to London. I was convinced, the Catholic Church notwithstanding, that gay life in Ireland will take giant steps forward in the next few years. In some ways they are ahead of us; the government sponsors anti-homophobic laws, the labor unions back gay and lesbian rights (and have since the 1980's), and there is no gay bashing on the streets.

There has been a gay and lesbian contingent in the Cork City St. Patrick's Day parade since 1993, when their float won the prize for the "best new entry." (A gay contingent also marches in the Dublin parade.) No one tries to stop them, or claims that they aren't "real" Irish, or throws beer bottles at them. Yet in the United States, on Saint Patrick's Day in Boston and New York, gay people are legally prohibited from marching in the parade. Gay Corkonians have every right to feel proud of these accomplishments.

Travel Hint

The Irish, like the British, place their steering wheels on the right side, instead of the left side like in the United States. They also drive on the left side of the road, not the right. When coming to a traffic circle (called a - roundabout), one drives to the left, not the right. This can be terrifying for an American, especially if you drive the Irish country roads, because they are both enchanting and narrow.

Whenever you pick up a rental car, take photographs of it from all sides. That way you have evidence that a dent here or there was present when you picked up the car. Don't assume that your credit card covers the insurance for a rental car. Things have changed in the past decade. They will no longer pay collision (and other types of insurance) on rental cars in certain countries, such as Italy and Israel. Check this by calling the rental car insurance number of your credit card.

(The events chronicled below took place about twenty years ago.)

My friend Sean, though born and raised in Dublin, has always felt ambivalent about Ireland. On the one hand he is an exemplar of Irish intellectualism, while on the other hand he's furious at the treatment he received from the Catholic Church. Like so many contemporary Irish he struggles against church conformity, feeling scarred by the harsh treatment he received in a residential Catholic school.

One can well understand why Sean's father placed his three sons in an Irish boarding school far from Dublin. To hear Sean tell the story, his mother was far more interested in having affairs with men than in taking care of her sons. While his father was away on his frequent and lengthy business trips, his mother left Dublin with a lover for weeks at a time, leaving the children to fend for themselves. By putting his sons in a boarding school, the father must have reasoned that at least they would be cared for. The school he chose was Cashel College, a Catholic boarding school of about 500 students run by a well-respected clerical order. At Cashel the boys received an upper-class education. Especially important were elocution lessons meant to replace local Irish dialects with an upper class Anglo-Irish pronunciation.

But to Sean, who attended the school from ages 12 to 16, the experience felt like imprisonment. Punishment was severe. Caught smoking a cigarette at age 13, he paid a cash fine and was hit six times on both hands with a leather strap by a priest who, Sean claims, appeared to enjoy watching his pain. His hands were swollen for days afterwards.

Another priest liked to spank the boys. "He was quite hot," Sean admitted about 'Father Queery,' as he was called by the boys. Certain boys were invited back to his room for "extra study," where he'd "sort out some reason to admonish you and take down your trousers and spank you on his knee. I could feel his hard-on sticking into me when he did that." Sean was spanked by Father Queery eight or nine times over a period of a year and one half. The priest was eventually expelled. Also expelled was Sean's older brother who slugged a priest who was hitting him. That brother was his protector at the school, and his expulsion left Sean feeling all the more alone.

Sean was also molested by a monk at the school. Feigning interest in the boy, the monk made coffee for Sean. Then he started talking about sex shows in London. "Does this make you hard?" the monk asked. Then he took down Sean's pants and masturbated him, then asked Sean to jerk him off, but the boy refused. "I felt absolutely filthy," Sean said. He told me that he was never molested by any of the boys at the school. In fact it appears that quite a few of them were getting it on together. One day a few of the seniors were having sex together in the woods. A few other seniors surreptitiously took pictures and blackmailed them. Somehow the incident got reported to the priests who promptly expelled the blackmailers. He was shocked to learn that the priests could have such empathy.

"Why don't we visit Cashel College?" I suggested. We had already hired a car to see the Rock of Cashel a noted castle not far from the school. Now, at the age of 35, visiting the school might put to rest some of the anger Sean still holds against the church. He readily agreed.

We drove through the front gates, then up a 1/4 mile-long driveway, and around a circular garden being tended to by the gardener, and parked in front of one of the buildings. "I won't go inside," Sean said firmly. As we walked, he reexperienced more feelings of loneliness and not a little anger.

"Hello there. I'm Father O'Donnell." It was the man we took for the gardener. "Are you one of our graduates?" he asked Sean, who responded that he was. "I'd like to take your picture for the yearbook," said Father O'Donnell. "Would you come inside please?" We then marched through the very door Sean had refused to approach only minutes before. This is a very strange irony, I thought, since his picture may appear in the yearbook of a place he hates more than any other in the world.

Father O'Donnell took Sean's picture, then one of the two of us, and I wished that my friend would say "and please title it ‘fag graduate visits.'"

"Now, would you mind filling out this form so we can send you the newsletter?" asked Father O'Donnell. I bit my lip, since I knew how I would have responded. But Sean filled out the questionnaire, guaranteeing a steady supply of future newsletters. Then we said our good-byes and drove away. Sean didn't say anything to me while we drove away in the car, and I didn't want to embarrass him by asking any obvious questions.

Want to ask a question about Gay travel or submit your own travel stories? Email your questions or submissions to Dr.Silverstein at: psychs@mindspring.com.

photos by Dr. Charles Silverstein


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