Cork's LGBT history enters Digital Repository of Ireland

Cork's LGBT history enters Digital Repository of Ireland
A 1992 Munster GCN article about the Cork LGBT St Patrick's Day float, Photo: Orla Egan, Cork LGBT Archive.

Cork's LGBT history is being painstakingly archived by one dedicated community activist.

Orla Egan is archiving LGBT literature, magazines, pamphlets and posters in order to preserve Cork's heritage.

Recently, the Digital Repository of Ireland has begun to digitise Orla's collection to preserve it for future generations.

Orla has been an LGBT activist in Cork since the 1980s. "There is a rich LGBT history in Cork. There were many community development events and supports set up as far back as the 1970s."

"It's a hidden history, it's not the type of thing people would read about in history books. It was nearly invisible, and younger members of the community didn't have knowledge of their own history."

Orla adds that a lot of LGBT history in Ireland has been configured as very Dublin-centric. "That's a trend worldwide, with London and New York. But a lot of key events in LGBT Irish history happened in Cork."

The collection came about thanks to the foresight of one man, Arthur Leahy. "He was very active in the 1970's LGBT community. He had the foresight to start keeping things. He kept them in his basement. It was like a treasure trove."

"But the collection was completely disorganised, they weren't being stored properly, and were becoming damp," says Orla.

"So I took the collection out of his basement and started storing and sorting. Now, the physical collection has been given to the Cork Public Museum, where it will have a safe home and be catalogued. It will become part of a permanent LGBT exhibition."

Orla also scanned the documents she gathered and made digital copies, which she uploaded to corklgbtarchive.com. This collection is going to be archived permanently by the Digital Repository of Ireland. "For the first time ever, they ran a community archive scheme, where community archive groups could receive free membership. Cork LGBT Archive was awarded this."

A 1992 Cork Lesbian and Gay Film Festival poster, photographed by Josef Kovac. Photo: Orla Egan, Cork LGBT Archive.
A 1992 Cork Lesbian and Gay Film Festival poster, photographed by Josef Kovac. Photo: Orla Egan, Cork LGBT Archive.

"The digital archive has been published, this ensures long term preservation and the content will be brought into the National Heritage Deposit. It's just the beginning, more material will be uploaded."

Orla is a volunteer, and archives in her free time. "It's a bit of madness and passion," she jokes.

However, she says the support and recognition she has received from Cork City Council and the Heritage Council has been important and "symbolic". 

The Heritage Council granted funds so that the documents from Arthur's archive could be safely stored. They also granted the LGBT archive a Hidden Heritage Award. "That is really historic, that LGBT history is seen as part of our national heritage." 

Cork City Council also gave Orla a Heritage Publication Grant in 2016, and she used this to publish a book called 'Queer Republic of Cork'. "That got the information out there in a different way. It documents the history and evolution of the LGBT movement in Cork."

Orla says it is important to acknowledge that the LGBT community in Cork were actively organising in the 1970s. "The Cork Gay Centre was set up in MacCurtain Street in the mid-1970s."

"In 1978, the Cork branch of the Irish Gay Rights Movement published their magazine, Sapphire. In 1981, the first National Gay Conference was held in Cork. This discussed the main issues facing LGBT people in Ireland, and really set the agenda for gay activism in the coming decades."

Cork also hosted Ireland's first-ever Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 1991, as part of Cork's Film Festival. 

Cork's 1992 St Patrick's Day parade was also historic. The Leeside city had the first-ever LGBT float taking part in a St Patrick's Day parade, and it even won the prize of best new entry. "This was organised as a response to the New York and Boston parades banning LGBT floats. It was showing the world that the idea you couldn't be gay and Irish was not true," says Orla.

A 1981 Cork Gay Pride Week poster. Photo: Orla Egan, Cork LGBT Archive.
A 1981 Cork Gay Pride Week poster. Photo: Orla Egan, Cork LGBT Archive.

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