'Not the country I left': Cork man working in UK's oldest LGBT bookshop proud of changed Ireland

Following reports that Cork City Library staff have been subjected to protests and even intimidation related to the library’s LGBTQ+ reading material, Amy Nolan chats to Ballinlough native Jim MacSweeney, manager of the UK’s longest running LGBT bookshop, who expressed his solidarity and support from London
'Not the country I left': Cork man working in UK's oldest LGBT bookshop proud of changed Ireland

Jim MacSweeney, manager of Gay’s the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, London,

A CORK man who has been working in the UK’s oldest LGBT bookshop for over three decades has expressed solidarity with staff in the library on Grand Parade who have been subjected to verbal abuse and intimidation over LGBTQ+ reading material.

Last month, Cork City Library confirmed that it had reported to gardaí a number of recent incidents at the Central Library involving people opposed to the display of the material.

“A number of libraries across the country, including the Central Library, have been subjected to campaigning from groups who object to LGBTQ+ reading lists which are available to young adults,” a Cork City Library spokesperson said.

“Libraries are centres of learning at the heart of communities and have no role as censors.

“Cork City Council has been to the fore nationally when it comes to social inclusion and the diversity and inclusion agenda ….

“Cork City Libraries fully recognise the right to peaceful protest and has informed An Garda Síochána of recent activity.

“There are no plans to remove material from the library.”

Amid the difficult period, however, staff are believed to be receiving overwhelming support in the form of everything from bouquets to letters and chocolates from members of the public who oppose the protests.

And now, Ballinlough native Jim MacSweeney who is the manager of Gay’s The Word, in London, the UK’s longest-running LGBT bookshop, has also sent words of support from overseas.

“I applaud the staff at the library for having a range of books on the shelves that give succour to young people who might be LGBT,” Mr MacSweeney said, when asked about the situation by The Echo.

“I think it’s fantastic that LGBT books are available in libraries — they certainly weren’t there when I was growing up and it’s really important just to have visibility, to let people know that they’re not alone.

“Anything that emboldens people to be authentic and live life on their own terms is fantastic.”

Mr MacSweeney said an attempt to ban certain books is reminiscent of a shameful period in Ireland’s history.

“I’m aware in the States there’s a kick back sometimes with families trying to ban books and banning books is a bad thing.

“We had it in Ireland in the establishment of the Free State and the control of the church and that fear of contaminating people with ideas and so many great books were banned ….

“We look back now and hopefully hang our heads in shame so to see it reoccurring.

“You’re going, really? Is this where Ireland wants to be?

“Because the Ireland I’m seeing is a very modern, progressive and outgoing society.”

Indeed, Mr MacSweeney said he believes there has been an enormous shift in attitudes on the whole towards LGBT people in Ireland over the decades.

“When I was growing up in 60s/70s Ireland, I had a sense of being the only one.

“I boxed and ignored my sexuality until I came to live in England and didn’t deal with until I was about 22.

“Whereas these days it’d be very difficult for young people to think they’re the only one.

“LGBT people are much more visible and it’s much more positive.

“One thing I found really moving was I happened to be home in Cork when the referendum was going through on same-sex marriage and walking down say North Main Street and seeing flyers and banners and pubs festooned with ‘vote yes’, I thought, ‘my God this is not the Ireland I left.’

“It was extraordinary. I was really proud of those changes and proud of the activists and the people who caused those changes.

“It’s just a much better place to be if you happen to be different.”

Mr MacSweeney, whose family owned a former second-hand and antiquarian bookshop on Lavitt’s Quay, said that serving customers at the till in Gay’s The Word remains his “favourite part” of his job.

He also said there has been a welcome increase in age appropriate LGBT reading material for young people over the years.

“In the old days you would have say a mum or a dad ring us and you would be the first person they’d talk to since their son or daughter had come out and you’d talk to them for a bit and then you’d suggest a book.

“These days, it’s much more visible and you get parents coming in with their teens and the teens will choose books and the parents will pay for them.

“And there’s also many more books available for young people.

“There’s now a huge growth in books for young adults, fiction, where there happen to be LGBT people as main characters and these are age appropriate,” he said.

“It gives them that sense that they’re not alone.”

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