I have been interested in lesbian and gay history for some time. As an active participant in the Cork lesbian community since the 1980s I have really appreciated being part of such a vibrant, active and politically aware community. As well as campaigning for lesbian and gay rights and providing services and supports to LGBT people, the lesbian and gay community has played a vital role in movements for social justice and political change in Cork.
Yet this community, like many other LGBT communities worldwide, has been largely invisible in historical accounts and its contribution to social and political change and developments largely unacknowledged.
The suppression and invisibility of lesbian and gay history has been widely acknowledged. In Hidden From History, Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past George Chauncey, Martin Duberman and Martha Vicinus (eds.) state that “For a century, research on the history of homosexuality has been constrained by the intolerance of governments and academics alike….Repression and marginalization have often been the lot of historians of homosexuality as well as of homosexuals themselves.” (p. 1)
While this situation is gradually being rectified through an outpouring of LGBT historical research and scholarship, for example in the USA and Britain, much less work has been done in the Irish context.
I have sought to redress that balance just a little bit over the years. I carried out research on the history and development of the community from the 1970s, published a few papers, delivered some conference papers and taught on sexuality and lesbian history on the UCC Women’s Studies Masters and Diploma courses.
Orla Egan Searching for Space: Cork Lesbian Community 1975-2000
Yet I am often stuck by how unaware people are of this history, in the community in general, but also sometimes within the LGBT community. I believe that it is important to be aware of our history, of how we have come to where we are now and to have a sense of pride, belonging and acknowledgement of our community.
One key challenge in being able to document and analyse LGBT history is access to materials so that we can record, interpret and anaylse this history and also build a framework for preserving documents on current work and developments. To this end the development of archives is crucial.
Over the years the Irish Queer Archive has sought to gather and preserve documentation about the LGBT community:
- •Collection of material in Ireland relating to homosexuality in particular and lesbian/gay, bisexual and transgender studies in general .
- •Quarter of a million press cuttings from the late 1960s onwards,
- •A complete set of every lesbian/gay title published since 1974 on the island of Ireland
- •A collection of audiovisual material, photographs and slides, flyers, posters, badges and other ephemera.
A catalogue of some of the archive was compiled by Robert McEvoy and James Harte in 2009.
While this is useful in providing information about what is in the collection, it most certainly is not an interactive, accessible digital archive. The material must be accessed directly through the National Library of Ireland. Not all the collection has been catalogued, some of it is stored off site and some scholars have reported difficulties in gaining access to the material – see Ed Madden article:
I have been in contact with Tonie Walsh, founder of the Irish Queer Archive. He informed me that the IQA Advisory Group have discussed the possibility of fundraising for the digitisation of the collection, that nothing further has come of this. Clearly making LGBT archival material available in a more accessible way is of interest to many of those who are concerned with Irish queer history, even if little progress has been made in making this happen as yet.
Over a decade ago I spend time in a damp basement in Cork pouring through old newsletter, letter and other documents relating to Cork’s rich history of lesbian and gay activism. The basement was so damp that I could only mange to stay there for a short period of time before my lungs began to complain. I recently met the owner of that damp basement and enquired about where that archive was now. Its still there and the basement is still damp! I worry that this valuable resource will rot before it can be preserved and made more accessible.
I have been really impressed with the work of Justice for Magdalenes. They are in the process of developing an online digital archive which will contain over 5000 pages of materials as well as personal collections of papers from interviewees, artists and activists. This is crucial work in acknowledging and documenting a hidden history and allowing access to hitherto unavailable materials. This archive will be available through the UCD Archive, which is possibly a useful model for those of us thinking of creating archives through UCD.
I have made contact with Katherine O Donnell in UCD to explore further how this archive was and is being developed.
In searching for a model for a digital archive on lesbian and gay history I came across http://www.outhistory.org/
This digital archive OutHistory was the brain child of Jonathan Ned Katz, author of the groundbreaking Gay American History and many other books on the history of sexuality. As the web became part of the everyday life of millions – even billions – of people in the 21st Century, Jonathan saw the possibilities for LGBT history to reach larger audiences than ever before. He also imagined the site as a place of active community participation in the discovery and creation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history. Amateur and professional historians, those based in colleges and universities and those working on their own, those focused on a particular topic and those with wide interests: all of us could have a forum where we put our research to share it with others, and where others could share and add to it as well. (taken from the website)
The OutHistory website provides a digitised, interactive, accessible website which also encourages contributions from users of the site.
I contacted the email address on the site to seek information about the site design. I was delighted to receive a reply from John D’Emilio, one of the key figures in the field of lesbian and gay history in the USA. http://www.uic.edu/depts/wsweb/people/faculty/demilio/demilio.html
I have been in ongoing communication with John D’Emilio, discussing the website design and possible options for collaboration between us, including some of my work being included on the site and the possibility of developing an Irish subsection of OutHistory or else linking whatever digital archive I design to OutHistory. It is very exciting to have open a chanel of communication and collaboration with a key scholar in my area.
Closer to home, Róisín O’Brien, one of the students on last years MA in DAH in UCC, has developed a digital archive of the diaries of Aloys Fleischmann. http://fleischmanndiaries.ucc.ie “In addition to digital preservation, the aim of the Fleischmann Diaries project was to create a freely available digitisation prototype for scholars and non-practitioners, providing them with a reproducible model.”
Collaboration is key to Digital Humanities and has been key to my explorations of how best to go about developing a digital archive of LGBT history in Ireland. John D’Emilio, Tonie Walsh, Katherine O Donnell, Roisin O Brien, LGBT activists ……
So my work continues, exploring models for developing a digital archive of materials on lesbian and gay history in Cork. Who knows where the journey will take me!