The 1884 Dublin Castle Scandal took the United Kingdom by storm when two British administrators governing in Ireland were accused of having sex with other men. Like most crimes, sodomy was usually a case of men caught in the act by patrolling policemen, or was otherwise uncovered by normal police work. The discovery of this particular government sex scandal, however, was the work not of the police, but of journalists. An examination of the Dublin Castle Scandal of 1884 sheds light on the Home Rule movement and queer history in 19th century Ireland. Listen as Dr. Averill Earls shares her original research on queer history and politics in 19th century Ireland.

Listen, download, watch on YouTube, or scroll down for the transcript.

Transcript for: Queer Politics: The Dublin Castle Scandal of 1884

Researched and written by Averill Earls, PdD

Produced by Averill Earls, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik

**Before we even start, a warning for the listener: This episode is about a sex scandal, and as you know, we don’t censor the details. So if you normally listen to this in a public place, or you have children in the car, you might want to pause this one for a moment when you can listen with headphones and you won’t be interrupted.**

Averill: George Taylor was probably not thrilled about the prospect of taking the stand as a witness against the colonial administrators of Ireland. He was subpoenaed to give testimony against Gustavus Cornwall, who was in charge of the General Post Office in Dublin, and James Ellis French, who was in charge of the Royal Irish Constabulary Dublin Fusiliers. If the prosecution somehow lost the case, he might not have to worry about what Cornwall might do to him — but French had friends with batons, friends with rifles, who had no qualms about arresting, beating up, or even killing Irish ‘savages.’ We don’t have much in the way of records describing the courtroom scene, but if the libel trial involving the same defendants the month before can be a measure, the courtroom was likely packed, rowdy, and every eye in the room would have been fixed on young Taylor as the prosecutor opened up the line of questioning. Maybe he was not afraid, nor embarrassed about admitting to his role in the illegal deeds on trial. Or maybe he was flushed with shame, anger, and fear, sweating in the hot August courthouse. In the course of his testimony, he described an evening with Gustavus Cornwall. “[Cornwall] unbuttoned my trousers and I unbuttoned his,” Taylor told the courtroom. I expect there were some rumbles in the courtroom at that. He went on: “[Cornwall said to me]. “Come over here on to the bed.” …While we were both on the bed there was mutual masturbation. We remained on the bed about three quarters of an hour. He kissed me several times.” The prosecution asked him if they went beyond masturbation, beyond kissing. He replied that “ There was no attempt at sodomy nor was sodomy committed then.” The barrister pushed Taylor, asking him if he even knew what sodomy was? And Taylor replied tartly, “I know the meaning of sodomy.”

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik

 And we both know the meaning of sodomy

Averill: And we’re you’re historians for this episode of Dig.

A black and white photograph of Dublin Castle

Dublin Castle, 1907 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: George Taylor was one of 22 witnesses in the sodomy trials of Gustavus Cornwall, James Ellis French, and five others. This was no ordinary trial, either. Like most crimes, sodomy was usually a case of men caught in the act by patrolling policemen, or was otherwise uncovered by normal police work. The discovery of this particular government sex scandal, however, was the work not of the police, but of journalists.

Averill: Nineteenth century Anglo-Irish relations were… fraught, to say the least. By force, Ireland was folded in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. Few Irish citizens wanted this, and fewer had any say in the Act of Union. From it’s very inception, there were loud objections. In the early part of the century, Daniel O’Connell was the voice of the nationalist movement, fighting for Catholic Emancipation with Monster Meetings of thousands who’d gather in rural Ireland to hear him speak and to rally behind his causes. The mobilization of a very dissatisfied population spoke volumes to the lawmakers in London, and Emancipation was achieved by the 1830s. By the end of the century, though, the political arm of Irish nationalism was led by Charles Stewart Parnell, maybe the only man in Ireland who was both respected by the British and loved by the Irish. Mostly because the British effectively did not respect Irishmen as a rule, but still. He was a powerful figure.

Elizabeth: For a while in the 1870s, Parnell led a minority of the Irish Home Rule Party in obstructionist tactics to demand the British government work on land reform for Ireland. He’d convey his humiliations of the British through coverage of these tactics in newspapers. While there were plenty of nationalist-sympathizing newspapers in Ireland, particularly the Freeman’s Journal and the Cork Examiner, none were quite as dedicated to the Home Rule cause as Parnell wanted. So with his fellow MP William O’Brien and friend Tim Healy, he launched United Ireland, a mouthpiece for Parnell to revitalize the nationalist cause and reach all of Ireland. Where the Monster Meetings had worked wonders in the earlier part of the century, journalism took the fore in this new age of the Home Rule movement.

Averill: There was also other stuff that Parnell was involved in or linked to – the National Land League, the Land Wars and agrarian violence, the Phoenix Park murder of the newly appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland – but for our purposes today, we’re going to focus on the journalism aspect, because that’s where French, Cornwall, and poor George Taylor come back into the story. Ultimately journalism proved one of the most effective ways to garner national support and challenge British rule — not in terms of actual administration or even the atrocities the British committed against the Irish on the regular, but instead on moral grounds. In the British press, the Irish were depicted as savages, children, animals – the kinds of things that you wouldn’t even consider giving autonomous rule to. This was established as fact through centuries of media and literary representations. When an Irish man actually did something horrible – like the Phoenix Park murders – it was the only thing British newspapers could talk about for weeks, even months, as a confirmation of all the things the British assumed about the Irish.

Elizabeth: A truly infuriating sidebar: just days – literally, just two days – before the radical nationalists known as the “Invincibles” murdered Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke in the Dublin park, the Royal Irish Constabulary had opened fire on a group of teenage boys in Ballina [baal-in-AW] who’d taken to the streets to celebrate Charles Stewart Parnell’s release from prison. Several children will killed. But this act of British violence against unarmed Irish children was swept away by the tide of newspaper outrage at the political assassination of the Lord Lieutenant – an English man killed by Irish rebels. It was as if British violence against Irish people was normal, everyday, expected, deserved. Even the Irish papers let their disgust with the Irish rebels overshadow the Ballina massacre.

Averill: Violence, evidently, was not the sort of moral failing that would hold up in an attack on the British fitness to rule Ireland. It had to be sex.  

Elizabeth: Dublin is a small town. In the 1880s, it was even smaller. Like most small towns, everyone knew everyone else’s business. At some point in 1883, frustrated with the lack of movement on the land reform promises from the Gladstonian government, the United Ireland newspaper leadership decided to hit below the belt for a change. Parnell had been falsely accused of having a hand in the Phoenix Park murders, and the Liberals were not delivering on the promises negotiated during the so-called Kilmainham Treaty (from when Parnell and the Land Leaguers were in prison because of the Land Wars, and they negotiated their release plus land reform promises in exchange for cessation of agrarian violence). Rumor had it that the Secretary of the GPO was using the post office on Sackville Street to gain access to sexually available young men.

Averill: This is actually pretty common for the British postal service, in an uncomfortably hilarious way. Katie Hindmarch-Watson has a great article on a sex scandal in London just a few years after this, which also revolves around teen boys who worked for the General Post Office there. Effectively telegram running was not quite as lucrative as telegram running plus selling sex on the side.

Elizabeth: So re-enter Gustavus Cornwall, Secretary of the GPO.  By 19th century standards, Gustavus Cornwall was probably dashing. He wore his wavy blond hair with a side part, and grew some impressive mutton chops to hide what I suspect is a weak jawline. He looks a little, I think, like Gene Wilder with facial hair – maybe a Blazing Saddles Gene Wilder rather than a Willy Wonka Gene Wilder. He was a man of influence – as the Secretary of the Dublin GPO, he would have been in charge of all communications in Ireland, and including messages and orders arriving from Britain for the administration of Ireland.  

Averill: I doubt it took much effort for Tim Healy and William O’Brien to ‘discover’ Cornwall’s dating service at the GPO. Upper crust Dublin was quite entangled socially, and queer men of those circles mingled with the conventional at house parties, at the theater, and various other genteel spaces. It’s likely that they knew about Cornwall, perhaps even French, just from encountering them with their “dates” around town. But for the sake of a little fun speculation, let’s say they were clueless, and only happened upon the information from one of their regular paper or post office boy informants. A few pence would most certainly buy information from one of the hundreds of teen boys who ran messages all over the city or haunted street corners hocking their paper. Those boys were well connected and very much in the know – and not a few of them made that sexual side hustle work for them.

Elizabeth: Healy and O’Brien had a bone to pick with James Ellis French in particular. Because the United Ireland was the Parnell mouthpiece, poking fun at the British government at every conceivable turn, it was also a target of police harassment. French’s beat cops harassed the paper boys selling the United Ireland on the streets, made life difficult for its writers, and even dismantled the printing presses a time or two. So running some suggestive stories and cartoons that indicated Cornwall and French might be boinking dudes was probably a pretty tantalizing opportunity.

Averill: In addition to feeling pretty sour towards French, Healy and O’Brien also had their directive from Parnell: challenge the British government, chip away at their governance in whatever way you can, and remind the Irish people that it’s the Home Rule movement that is fighting for them and against British corruption. So there were overtly political motivations to poke the Dublin Castle Administration – what we call the British colonial government in Ireland – and its cronies. The first historian to really discuss the Dublin Castle scandal, as the French and Cornwall were known at the time in the print media, is HG Cocks, and he saw this attack on French and Cornwall as Irish Catholic homophobia. Other scholars, myself included, disagree. While it is true that Irish Catholic nationalism in the Free State, after 1922, was homophobic, the motivations for this investigation were to find dirty laundry of any kind. William O’Brien also tossed around the fact that a British Member of Parliament, George Bolton, had lived with his wife for several years before they were married.

Elizabeth: Quite the scandal.

Averill: Indeed.

Elizabeth: In a sort of poetic justice, Mr. Parnell himself would ultimately fall from political grace for a sex scandal as well. Parnell lived with a married woman, Mrs. Kitty O’Shea, and when he tried to appoint Mrs. O’Shea’s estranged husband to a position within the Home Rule party, Tim Healy turned on Parnell and blew the O’Shea-Parnell-O’Shea affair up. Colonel O’Shea then had to sue for divorce, citing Kitty’s infidelities, and the scandal shocked Parnell’s voter base and discredited him among the British parliamentarians. He died just a few years after being kicked off the team.

Averill: So it was a sex scandal that O’Brien and Healy sought, and a queer sex scandal involving not one but two of the top Dublin Castle administrators was too juicy to pass up. There is a story about Tim Healy that Margot Backus tells in her book Scandal Work that she thinks absolves him of homophobia, and maybe it does (and she actually pulled this anecdote from Frank Callanan’s bio on Tim Healy, but I couldn’t get a copy of that in time to write this episode, so I’m quoting from Backus instead): “Healy, in fact, was sufficiently comfortable with male sexual variability that while once walking home from the House of Commons with radical MP Henry Labouchere, sponsor of [the Criminal Law] amendment [of 1885, section 11, which made any sex between men illegal, and] that destroyed Oscar Wilde, he had responded to Labouchere’s observation that most of the men in a given circle were “musical” (homosexual) by saying that ‘those who have no music in their souls are fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.’”¹

Elizabeth: So if that story is true, and Healy himself wasn’t explicitly against same-sex desiring men, he still used the system of sexual oppression as like, a revenge opportunity to effectively ruin the lives of these two guys for having sex with other men.

Averill: Right. So, not exactly a nice thing to do. But ultimately really effective in some ways – because, as we’ll discuss, James Ellis French is found guilty and his life is ruined; Gustavus Cornwall, though, was acquitted, because none of the witnesses — including George Taylor– could testify to committing an act of sodomy with him.

A black and white drawing of Parliament having a debate

Gladstone debate on Irish Home Rule, April 8, 1886 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Ohhh, because the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 was what ultimately made the other things George Taylor was talking about — the mutual wanking and the kissing and stuff — illegal. Up until that new law in 1885, the law was specifically about sodomy, which had to be anal penetration.

Averill: Exactly. Which is why George Taylor said “I know the meaning of sodomy, and buddy boy, that wasn’t it.”

Elizabeth: Let’s take a moment to giggle. [get some giggles in, because anal penetration and wanking are all funny words]

Averill: Thank you for that opportunity. Back to the story, though.

Elizabeth: Yes. So, Healy, with O’Brien’s approval, started alluding to certain Dublin Castle administrators’ “adventures” of a questionable nature about town. Though never speaking frankly, the insinuation and implication in the United Ireland was enough to cause backlash from other editors and politicians alike. Other papers, including the London Times but also the Irish (moderate) nationalist paper the Freeman’s Journal lambasted him for suggesting sexual impropriety. The Times turned his reporting back on him, chalking it up to just another vulgar Irishman failing to meet “that unwritten code of good breeding and good feeling which all once obeyed.” Clearly feeling attacked, Healy dug in. He asserted his right to reveal the follies and even private lives of public officials when, according to Healy, such public men’s “private character” was such as to “affect [their] public position.” He invited the House of Commons to “make rules to stop such questions,” but that it “will not do so until the life and adventures of what is called the ‘private character’ of various Crown employees in Ireland, from Corry Connellan, to Detective Director and County Inspector James Ellis French are fully laid bare to the universe.” The gauntlet was thrown. Healy never printed anything explicit; he couldn’t, there were censorship laws and social mores that prevented them from even using the word sodomy in print, but it was pretty clear to everyone what they were saying, and it’s the kind of thing that if Cornwall and French didn’t do something big about it, it would have been as good as admitting to it.

Averill: In late 1883, French launched a libel suit against the paper, to be represented by the editor in chief, William O’Brien. George Bolton also launched his own libel suit against O’Brien, which he won – O’Brien had to pay 3,000 pounds in damages – even though the stories about Bolton living with his wife before they were married were quite true, and everyone knew it. There were some weird libel laws in Britain at the time, because defamation of character was pretty serious business. So for the most part, any one who launched a libel suit won it, and the degree of truthfulness to the libel might have mitigated the punishment meted out to the libeler. But in the mid-19th century, the libel laws and practices relaxed a bit. By the time Cornwall and French entangled themselves in libel suits, a jury might find in favor of the defendant if the libel was a) found to be true AND b) proved a danger to public safety or good.

Elizabeth: Bolton living in sin with his wife, by that estimation, was not deemed dangerous to the public good. It was true, but by British standards, it was not O’Brien’s place to wave that around in public. So O’Brien was found guilty of spreading libel.

Averill: When O’Brien heard about the suits coming from French and Cornwall, however, he had a good feeling that the law might be on his side this time.

Elizabeth: O’Brien hired a private investigator. In the time it took the case to go to court, he had gathered 22 witnesses, most of whom had had sex with either French or Cornwall or both. He paraded out these witnesses one after the other, and they delivered such testimony that surely shocked and outraged and blew the courtroom away.

Averill: We don’t know what that testimony was in the libel suit. It was so scurrilous that the Grand Jury ordered it not be published after the case was closed. Parts of it appeared in places like the Freeman’s Journal, which regularly reported on court proceedings. The April proceedings included the testimony of one Malcolm Johnston, which recounted the then 28-year-old’s first meeting with a one Captain Martin Kirwan, one of French’s soldiers in the RIC. Cornwall met Johnston through the GPO; he may have been an employee or message runner. But Cornwall’s role in Johnston’s experience was as matchmaker. It was through Cornwall that Johnston met Kirwan, at the Botanical Gardens. Kirwan was already in the Gardens with his lover, 21-year-old George Taylor. It is clear from the Journal’s narrative that this testimony was to establish a connection between Cornwall and Johnston, because later testimony, from George Taylor, established that Johnston would have sex with James Ellis French.

Elizabeth: Taylor testified during the sodomy trial over the summer and fall of 1884 as well as the libel trial. At the sodomy trial, he described a scene between French and Johnston that he walked in on: “French asked Mr. Johnston said “George come in.” Johnston was sitting on the bed when I went in and French was standing over him with his hand on his own person which was exposed. Johnston’s trousers were open. French said to me “What’s wrong with this fellow.” And said he (Johnston) could not get an erection. He was then speaking of Johnston. He wanted Mr. Johnston to let down his trousers. And before that he tried to commit masturbation with Johnston. He was masturbating himself at the same time. He asked Johnston to take down his trousers and let him bugger him (Johnston). Johnston refused and we then went in and sat down to tea and in about ten minutes something occurred.”

Averill: With such vivid testimony, and with multiple witnesses to various sex acts between these men, the judge really had no choice but to indict Cornwall, French, Kirwan, and four others who quite clearly, from the testimonies, men who procured and paid for sex with the young men of Dublin.

Elizabeth: French’s libel suit collapsed. The evidence was simply too damning — and the fact that there was sufficient evidence to convict him wholly of sodomy meant, to the judge, that the truth of the matter outweighed the modus operandi of libel cases. He represented a danger to public good; and when Cornwall, caught up in the tide of the United Ireland attack on French through the continued coverage of the libel case and the proclivities of the GPO officials and RIC soldiers, launched his own libel suit in July 1884, he did so foolishly. The evidence mounted against him was equally damning, and he was arrested and put on trial for sodomy along with French.

Averill: The parade of witnesses was incredible, and fortunately for all of us, there is a copy of the sodomy trial testimonies in the National Archives of Ireland. We shall proceed to quote liberally from them now. Here, I promise, are the salacious romance-novelesque details you’ve been waiting for. At the time of the trial, in 1884, seven of the witnesses testified against Gustavus Cornwall specifically: 25-year-old George Taylor, an employee of the Prince of Wales Hotel; 25 year-old Malcolm Johnston, also an employee of the Prince of Wales Hotel (do you suspect this to be a hotel that might cater to same-sex desiring men? Me too); William Clarke, late-20s; 25-year-old John Strong; 21-year-old Michael McGrane; and 33-year-old Alfred McKiernan.

Elizabeth: George Taylor met Gustavus Cornwall when he was 21. His acquaintance, Captain Martin Kirwan, brought him to the Botanical Gardens — one of Cornwall’s favorite places to take potential ‘boys’ for his flock. Cornwall used both the Botanical Gardens — a place you could duck behind some plants to steal a kiss or even a little fondle — and the GPO as main meeting spots for dates and to introduce men. That first day, nothing much happened. Taylor met Malcolm Johnston, who arrived with Cornwall in a car. But Cornwall hinted that he hoped to meet with Taylor very soon.

Averill: “I remember,” Taylor said, “in the summer of 1883, going to a musical party.” (As you’ll all recall, “musical” was likely code for “homosexual” – although surely there was some music played at such parties). “I met [Cornwall] at the party, and left with him at 11.” Cornwall offered to take Taylor home; they got a car, but Cornwall’s house was closest. “Come up for a brandy and soda… or some refreshment,” Cornwall told him. Cornwall’s wife was not home. They had the drink, Taylor said, “with me on his knee.” “He kissed me, put his tongue into my mouth, and exposed his person and my own, and committed masturbation with me. He committed masturbation on me and I with him. … He asked me had I ever committed sodomy with anybody. “I said “Never” I think what he asked me was had I ever been buggered. “Oh,” said he, “It’s like a knife going through you.”² When the prosecution asked Taylor if he got anything from Cornwall for these encounters, he replied “I repeatedly got tickets for the Royal Irish Academy concerts, and, on one occasion, a ticket for the flower show from the Defendant.”

Elizabeth: Later, Taylor met up with James Ellis French, Malcolm Johnston, and another man at the RIC barracks. “Mr. French lit the gas in the office, and he locked the door. French exposed his own person and exposed Malcolm Johnston’s person, and held it and committed masturbation on himself. Mr. Johnston committed masturbation with me at the same time. He masturbated me.” Just a regular old police barracks orgy.

Averill: In the course of the interrogation, the prosecutor asked Taylor when he first “prostituted himself to bestiality.” Cheekily, Taylor retorted, “I don’t understand what you mean… I understand bestiality to mean connexion with the lower animals.” The prosecutor asked when he’d begun these beastly practices with men. “These beastly practices with men,” Taylor responded, perhaps gritting his teeth? Or even defiantly? “commenced with me about seven years ago, and I have been at it ever since… I never got any presents for my acts, nothing but dinner or drinks. I did not consider that remuneration at all.”

Elizabeth: It’s not clear how much of these testimonies were actually read out loud in the packed courtroom. And for this high-profile of a case, the room would have been packed. And of course none of these salacious details made it into the papers. The censorship laws still reigned supreme. But the sentiment in that room was palpable. During the sentencing, the judge called French’s crimes “unspeakable.” In the past, “unspeakable” was language reserved only for the most grisly of crimes – murder, child murder, religious desecration. In July of 1884, it was a phrase applied for the first time, according to Margot Backus, to a male same-sex sex crime. It would thereafter be used with some frequency to refer to male same-sex sex in the papers, joining the litany of terms like “unnatural acts,” crimes “not to be named by Christians,” and “crimes against nature.”

Averill: Clearly, the Justice O’Brien (not related to William O’Brien, who stood for the paper in the libel cases) was truly horrified by the evidence brought forth in the Cornwall and French cases. Take the testimony of John Strong (great porn name?) He recalled an evening when he dined alone with French, after which they went to bed together. “He caught me round the waist,” Strong recalled, “squeezing me very tightly to him, and then he inserted his penis between my legs in front, he twisted me around and tried to insert his penis into my person behind. He did not wholly or partially succeed. I told him I would scream out and alarm the house. Later on in the night, he said “Let’s get up Johnny and wash him.” He asked me to take his penis in my mouth, and I said “Certainly not.” He kept me awake the greater of the night, and messed me all over; he was continually spending. I breakfasted with him next morning.”

Elizabeth: That probably felt like a bit of a mixed message to the jury. On the one hand, he said no to the sodomy, but on the other hand, he had breakfast with the guy the next day.

Averill: Yeah, in a lot of these cases the men who turned witness for the crown, like John Strong or George Taylor, were male prostitutes, and had been in the game for most of their lives. So when they got picked up by the cops, they knew what stories to tell — that they were victims, that they objected. They’d still be somewhat culpable, but it was also a sort of safety net to backtrack to if needed. Because being party to any sex with other men, whether as the passive or active partner, was a crime. Even rape victims were liable for being party to a crime of sodomy or, after 1885, gross indecency.

Elizabeth: In the end, the testimonies given against Gustavus Cornwall were insufficient to find him guilty of sodomy. In those days you needed at least two eyewitnesses to anal penetration. As you might surmise… this was difficult to obtain. For the watching nation — the Irish, but also the British — this was a problem. Because while the extensive particulars of the case could not be reported in the papers, William O’Brien was not content to let this juicy scandal drift out of the limelight. He went so far as to describe “the alleged nature of Cornwall’s kisses,” which was, to the other newspaper magnates of the era, a step too far.³ Even if he did not explicitly say ‘sodomy,’ describing the exchange of something so intimate as a kiss between two men was too much.

Averill: And yet, Cornwall walked. He was effectively forced into retirement, but he spent no more time behind bars than when he was held before trial. For someone like Henry Labouchere — that unpleasant homophobe and Member of Parliament who Tim Healy rebuked in that quaint anecdote Margot Backus quoted — it was unacceptable that a man who so clearly was party to something that Victorian society deemed irreparably and undeniably wrong should get away with it. So I think, and a few scholars, like Jonathan Coleman and Katie Hindmarch-Watson, that the Cornwall acquittal was what prompted Henry Labouchere to casually tack section 11 on the Criminal Law Amendment Act just a few months after the conclusion of the Dublin Castle Scandal. This bill was created to reform female prostitution, allegedly to improve protections for women and girls. How, then, did a section on sex between men belong? It didn’t, not really; although Jon Coleman wrote this brilliant dissertation a few years ago, and I was hoping his book would be out right now, but it’s not, so go download his dissertation, we will link to it in the show notes. He puts some of the other same-sex sex scandals of the 19th century into such an interesting lens. But he basically argues that with the 1885 amendment, the Labouchere Amendment we were talking about earlier, that male same-sex sex was explicitly tied to prostitution. That the way Victorian Britons thought about homosexuality was within the context of prostitution — because male prostitutes were as ubiquitous as female prostitutes in Victorian cities of the UK.

Elizabeth: So obviously that means Ireland too – and undoubtedly most of the guys like Alfred McKiernan, George Taylor, and the others who gave testimonies in the Cornwall/French case were male prostitutes. And that new law was in part a response to the failure of the old law to catch someone like Gustavus Cornwall, who was supporting and living in that world of illicit male prostitute sex. He was as bad as the men who lured young girls from their homes to work in brothels or be prostituted out — which was the crux of that Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885.

A photograph of Gustavus Cornwall

Gustavus Cornwall | National Portrait Gallery, London

Averill: Fascinating stuff. Worth a read.

Elizabeth: Yeah.. Yes. Anyway. Different story for James Ellis French. The evidence presented against French was more than enough to put him away. He lost his job. He was charged with seven distinct counts, including committing a felony (sodomy) with George Taylor, William Clarke and John Strong. His station in life and connections did save him somewhat; whereas no ordinary man would be able to get out from under evidence that compelling, the jury in French’s case came up with a nolle prosequi on the first and second counts, which were the counts of committing a felony (sodomy) and attempting to commit a felony (sodomy). He was left with misdemeanor charges, and he was found guilty of one on Saturday November 22, 1884. He was sentenced to two years hard labor. The maximum sentence for a sodomy conviction would have been life imprisonment.

Averill: The longer lasting consequences of the Dublin Castle Scandal were, for one, the Labouchere Amendment in 1885. After days of debating the particulars of that Act, Labouchere just introduced the amendment one morning, it was accepted without debate, and then the entire bill passed into law the following day.

Elizabeth: another longer lasting consequence of the Dublin Castle Scandal was, In Irish politics, a win for the Home Rulers. William O’Brien had further entrenched his reputation as a bit of a savage — confirming all that the British thought of him anyway — but Dublin Castle also gained a pretty tainted reputation. Thereafter the men who served in the colonial administration were basically guilty by homosexual association. Those jobs, once relatively cushy compared to say, administrative roles in South Africa or India or wherever, were quite controversial. So Healy and O’Brien won the day. A dozen or so men’s lives were effectively ruined, and all because they had sex with other men, but at least the poor, beleaguered Irish Home Rule Movement advanced a little. (say this with some heavy sarcasm… because also, fuck these guys)

Averill:  On the other hand, people in glass houses, right? Because not a decade later, Charles Stewart Parnell had to face down his own sex scandal, and even he could not survive the ego of a morally righteous colonized nation.

Elizabeth: Adulterers!

Averill: They are great. So this is, if you’ve never read my bio or met me in real life, my stuff – the stuff that I research and write on in my academic life. One of the reasons we’re doing this series, these next four episodes, is to give you a bigger glimpse into the work that we do as professional historians. Sometimes this bleeds through in our episodes.

Elizabeth: Right — when Sarah talks about the Civil War and disability, that is her field, and her forthcoming book from UGA Press! When Marissa talks about early modern women and body commodification and specifically breastfeeding, that’s coming from her dissertation. When I talk about women and Progressive era reforms, that’s coming from my dissertation.

Averill: And when I talk about Ireland and sex, that’s my field, that’s what I write about. This Dublin Castle Scandal is an important part of a journal article I’m working on right now, which is why I wanted to flesh this story out in full, as it were.


1.Margot Gayle Backus, James Joyce, the New Journalism, and the Home Rule Newspaper Wars (University of Notre Dame, 2013) 42.

2. National Archives of Ireland. 3-045-14 – Box 15 – Duke of Cornwall Sodomy depositions. Deposition of George Taylor.

3.H.G. Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010) 140-144.

Show Notes

Articles from the Freeman’s Journal, Irish Examiner, The Nation, etc, through, 1883-1886

National Archives of Ireland. 3-045-14 – Box 15 – Duke of Cornwall Sodomy depositions.

Margot Gayle Backus, James Joyce, the New Journalism, and the Home Rule Newspaper Wars (University of Notre Dame, 2013)

H.G. Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010)

Jonathan Coleman, “Rent: Same-Sex Prostitution in Modern Britain, 1885-1957,” Dissertation: University of Kentucky (2014)

Averill Earls, “Queering Dublin: Same-Sex Desire and Masculinities in Ireland, 1884-1950,” Dissertation: University at Buffalo (2016)

Diarmaid Ferriter, Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland (Profile Books: 2010)

Alvin Jackson, Home Rule: An Irish History 1800-2000. (London: 2003),

Loughlin, “The Irish Protestant Home Rule Association and nationalist politics 1886-93,”IHS, 24:95 (May 1985) 341-60.

Paul A. Townend, The Road to Home Rule: Anti-imperialism and the Irish National Movement (University of Wisconsin: 2016)

The Dublin Castle Scandal of 1884. Home Rule and Queer politics in the age of the British empire.

1 Comment

Cecilia · May 1, 2021 at 7:32 pm

It’s odd to have such a boring personal history, yet one’s cultural history must always come with a disclaimer..

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.