I’M just back from Ireland where my wife Ann and I celebrated two great events.
Our golden wedding — yes, we have been married for 50 years — and the centenary of the Easter Rising when, 100 years ago, a gallant band of Irish freedom fighters challenged the might of the most powerful empire in history.
Coincidently, the first holiday Ann and I ever took together, shortly before our wedding, was also to Ireland.
We hitch-hiked all around the country against the background of the 50th anniversary of the Rising celebrations going on at the time.
Both Ann and I have a bit of Irish ancestry. Both our families came from Maida Vale in west London, where the great Irish republican leader Michael Collins came to work for the Post Office at the age of 15 in 1906.
Like us, he learned his politics and his republicanism on the streets of Co Kilburn.
Ann and I would often speak from a Young Communist soapbox outside the Rifle Volunteer pub in Kilburn High Road.
In 1966 when republicans in Dublin blew up Nelson’s Column outside the GPO in O’Connell Street, Nelson’s stone head was displayed on the bar of the Rifle Volunteer. That inspired us to visit Ireland and we have been back many times since.
On that first visit, 50 years after the 1916 Easter Rising, we learnt all about the heroes, the men of 1916. And with just one notable exception they were all men.
For this year’s centenary however there is a lot more being celebrated about the hundreds of women who also fought for the newly declared republic.
Indeed, this year I wrote, again for the Morning Star, my own tribute to the women of the Easter Rising and I was delighted that the article was reprinted in my book Hidden from History.
Now, however, we are also beginning to realise and talk about just how many of those involved in the historic events of Easter 1916 were also lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
This tied in well with the other reason I had to be in Ireland. Unite the union had invited me to speak at the dedication of a training suite to the memory of Mark Ashton, the young gay activist who is the hero of the award-winning film Pride.
I had written an article for the Morning Star reminding people of Mark’s achievements and of his communist politics. Unite had asked me to make a speech at the dedication based on that article.
I told the Belfast audience a little about the amazing story of Mark Ashton and his all too short life — a life ended by Aids at the age of just 26 in 1987.
Mark, a mercurial young Irishman, was a gay rights activist and a founder member — some would say the founding member — of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) during the epic miners’ strike of the 1980s.
LGSM came together to support the British miners during the year-long strike of 1984-5.
Part of Mark’s story is told in the film Pride, but sadly the film doesn’t mention what was one of the most important factors that guided and inspired him in all his actions.
I knew, and worked, with Mark during the miners’ strike when he was general secretary of the Young Communist League (YCL). His communist principles guided his life.
They are very proud of Mark in this part of Ireland. He spent his early years up until the age of 18 in Portrush, Co Antrim.
Today, campaigners are trying to get a blue plaque erected in his home town. Unite the union is also introducing a bursary for young Irish LBGT activists to perpetuate Mark’s name.
As well as talking about Mark and his achievements, I used the meeting to also pay tribute to some of the LGBT people involved in the fight for a free and united Ireland over the century since 1916.
Women like Kathleen Lynn, Suffragette, doctor and captain of the Irish Citizens Army who fought alongside her lover and lifetime partner Madeleine ffrench-Mullen during Easter week 1916.
Elizabeth O’Farrell and her life partner Julia Grenan were two others who both tended to the wounded on Moore Street next to the ruins of the GPO.
Famously it was O’Farrell’s feet that were airbrushed out of a photograph of Pearse’s surrender. Truly a woman hidden from history.
Helena Molony, an Abbey actress, was another key player in the Rising. She was a bisexual radical who linked feminism, the labour movement and national sovereignty.
She was captured and jailed for her part in the Easter events. She went on to be elected president of the Federation of Irish Trade Unions in 1937.
Although romantically linked with men, including fellow Abbey actor Sean Connolly, she lived with her female partner Evelyn O’Brien, from the 1940s until her death in 1967.
Some writers and researchers have suggested these women played only a minor part in the rising as messengers and nurses, but in fact Helena Molony and Kathleen Lynn, for instance, took command of the rebel forces attacking the British headquarters in Dublin Castle.
Constance Markievicz was second in command at St Stephen’s Green at Easter 1916. Her sister Eva Gore-Booth was an anti-war Suffragette, socialist, active trade unionist and openly lesbian.
The LGBT struggle is particularly hard in the north of Ireland. Here outright homophobic bigotry combined with religious hypocrisy are taken to new extreme levels.
Take the example of Iris Robinson, DUP MP and wife of Peter Robinson, first minister of Northern Ireland until this year. She offered gay men psychiatric treatment to make them straight and declared homosexuality was worse than sexually abusing children.
But Robinson is in no position to lecture others about morality. She illegally arranged for a 19-year-old butcher she was having an affair with to get £50,000 of local government money to open a posh restaurant.
Another evangelical Christian, David McConaghie, who as a leader of Ian Paisley’s rabidly anti-gay Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster demanded the banning of Belfast’s Gay Pride Festival and blood donation by gay men.
He was arrested and charged with concealing a camera in a toilet in the DUP MP’s office where he worked to spy on female colleagues for purposes of sexual gratification.
To combat this homophobic hatred and bigotry takes real courage and I was proud to share the platform with some really brave campaigners for LGBT rights in the north of Ireland.
John O’Doherty is director of Belfast’s Rainbow Project. Jimmy Kelly, Unite’s Irish regional secretary, has thrown the weight of his union behind the struggle for LGBT rights in Ireland.
Greg Sachno, education tutor with the Irish Region Unite, and Francis Loughlin, chair of the union’s LGBT committee, also spoke about Unite’s commitment to equal rights.
Last, but certainly not least, we heard from a speaker who in so many ways reminded me of Mark Ashton.
Young, enthusiastic, ready to take on the world, Ellen Murray is aged just 22 but this trans woman activist stood for the Green Party in West Belfast in May’s Assembly poll, the first openly transgender candidate to stand in any election anywhere in Ireland.
I know that Mark Ashton, like me, would be delighted that a new generation of activists are coming along to take up the struggle against prejudice and he would certainly have a chuckle to think they are honing their political skills in a training suite proudly bearing his name.