In this fascinating book, Richard Kirkland explores the history of Northern Ireland through the biography of oneof its most unusual and talented performers – the legendary musician, IRA activist, poet, and Catholic mystic, Cathal O’Byrne. Both gay and Catholic in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland, O’Byrne’s circle of friends included the renowned human rights campaigner Roger Casement, the activist Maud Gonne, and the leader of the Easter Rising of 1916, Patrick Pearse. Despite his outsider status, O’Byrne’s work was indicative of major shifts in public opinion, as he 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 between the Ulster Literary Theatre, Belfast’s music hall culture, the Casement trial and the devastating Belfast anti-Catholic pogroms of 1920 and 1921, for example. Just as importantly, 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.
Cathal O’Byrne is a shamefully neglected figure whose prolific contribution to Irish culture merits far greater recognition. Nevertheless, this beautifully illustrated and diligently researched book does a valuable job in bringing to light a vitally important period in Irish history that has for too long struggled in darkness.
Catherine Morris, Irish Times