In this book, Richard Kirkland explores the history of Northern Ireland through the biography of one of its most unusual and talented personages—the legendary musician, IRA activist, poet, and Catholic mystic, Cathal O’Byrne. O’Byrne’s fascinating life, as Kirkland shows, is part and parcel of the extraordinary story of this fractured island.
Both gay and Catholic in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland, O’Byrne’s circle of friends included Roger Casement, Maud Gonne, and Patrick Pearse. Despite his outsider status, O’Byrne’s work was indicative of major shifts in public opinion, as O’Byrne moved from Home Rule politics to an eventual commitment to arms during the Irish War of Independence.
Kirkland uses the story of O’Byrne’s life to delve into that of his colleagues during the Northern Irish cultural revival, making illuminating connections among the Ulster Literary Theatre, Belfast’s music hall culture, the Casement trial ,and the devastating Belfast pogroms of 1920 and 1921. Just as important, Kirkland brings to light the hidden history of gay Belfast and the fate of Northern Ireland’s Catholics in this previously neglected period after Partition but before the Troubles.