15 Jun 2016

Is a Once Hidden Culture Still Hidden Away in Boxes? The Irish Queer Archive and The National Library

Guest Post by Mark Ward (Please note, that all views are my own and not representative of any organisations)
Eight years ago today, on the 16th June 2008, the Irish Queer Archive (IQA), “a vast collection of material which provides interesting and valuable insights into the social history of lesbians and gay men in an Irish and international context over a thirty-year period”[1], was donated by the National Lesbian and Gay Federation of Ireland to the National Library of Ireland (NLI).

In 2009, a 157 page collection list detailing its fascinating contents was released by the NLI[2].

And then, nothing.

I kept waiting for the National Library to mount an exhibition of the archive, but they never did. Why?

The archive’s Wikipedia page talks about how “the historic transfer of IQA to NLI was also hugely symbolic as it signalled the Irish state taking ownership of LGBT heritage”[3] and states that digitisation of the entire collection is an aim. The IQA has a semi-active Facebook page[4] where a number of items have been photographed and shared along with historical information which gives a fascinating insight into the wealth of the material in the archive. I am under the impression that this endeavour, however, is not coming from the NLI but from historians associated with the IQA.

Tonie Walsh, member of the IQA group, historian, DJ and founding editor of Gay Community News (GCN), has done much to keep the flag of the IQA flying, giving talks and staging exhibitions using copies of materials from the IQA. For example, his exhibition, A Liberating Party: LGBT Pride in Ireland Since 1974, has toured all over the country, visiting places such as Clonmel, Arklow, Waterford and South Dublin (full disclosure: A Liberating Party visited Tallaght Library in 2010, and Ballyroan Library in 2013, both of which I organised). Accompanying this, and all of his exhibitions, is Everybody’s Diary, a ledger of Pride Testimonials which has been travelling the country since 2003 and will continue touring until full, and then be added to the IQA – crucially, the IQA is a living archive that is continually accepting donations.

As is evident from the above, Walsh is a powerhouse in getting the IQA out there, but he is only one man. The NLI have not mounted a single exhibition of the IQA in the eight years that they have had it. And they do mount exhibitions, frequently it seems, not only ones in the NLI itself or in their National Photographic Archive, but they also have travelling and online exhibitions. Frustratingly, there have been events at the NLI which, arguably, would’ve been a perfect opportunity to include IQA exhibits, such as a Marriage Equality event in the NLI in 2013[5] or a BeLonG To Youth Services Photographic Exhibition in 2014 in the NLI’s National Photographic Archive[6]. Currently, there is no NLI-led exhibition of the IQA, and none seems to be forthcoming. This despite the fact, according to Wikipedia that “an advisory group (…) continues to focus on opportunities to help the National Library of Ireland exploit its collection”[7] – if this is the case, why hasn’t an exhibition been mounted? Are the National Library actively collaborating with this advisory group?

Furthermore, despite the aim mentioned earlier that the NLI would be “ultimately digitising the entire collection”[8], nothing of the IQA appears to have been digitized by the NLI and there is no mention anywhere of any such digitization project happening at any point in the future.  

Searching deeper, even their blog, which began in July 2011, began first with a news post announcing that it was beginning, and in which they posted a list of suggested posts that could be featured on the blog, of which the IQA was one. Almost five years later, and the NLI has not even made an informative blog post regarding the IQA. A blog post that does mention it is a now defunct Irish History Blog, Pue’s Occurances, on which, in 2009, their contributor CiarĂ¡n Wallace wrote about the IQA at the NLI stating that “much of the history of late-twentieth century Ireland can be traced through this archive”[9].

More recently, in December 2015, The Christopher Robson Photographic Collection – a collection of 2000 photographs taken at “pride events in Ireland between 1992 and 2007”[10] by the late Robson, a founding member of the Gay & Lesbian Equality Network, was donated to the NLI. I do hope that the new acquisition of the Robson collection – which sounds like it would make a wonderful exhibit - doesn’t succumb to the same fate that appears to have befallen the IQA.

With all of this in mind, my question to the National Library is twofold. Firstly, why are you not fully exploiting this wonderful resource of the Irish Queer Archive? And secondly, if not now, then when? Whilst it is fantastic that the IQA is at the NLI and can be consulted, the history of my community – an archival history that was painstakingly assembled and collected by a dedicated group over decades – deserves better than languishing in closed stacks. As we approach, and almost pass-by another Pride, is it too much to hope for our history to be put on display in the form of a large-scale exhibition and/or a digitized online collection? At this stage, I’d even settle for the promised NLI blog post…

[Postscript: I welcome a response, or a dialogue, with the NLI about this issue.]


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