There was a lunchtime artist talk at The National Gallery of Ireland about Gerard Dillon and Patrick Scott as part of Dublin Pride week. A birthday and zero plans took me down for the day.

I became aware of the Belfast painter Gerard Dillon when the Ulster Museum exhibited a selection of his work three summers ago in 2016 to celebrate the centenary of his birth. I’d never heard of Patrick Scott.

The talk was a short overview of the two artists. I learned about Scott and a little more about Dillon but it was a strain to listen as the woman’s words bounced off the white gallery walls, perfect for artworks but not art-words. One fact stood out: Dillon, apparently never truly comfortable with his homosexuality, painted about it while Scott, whose family was said to accept his sexuality, grew up comfortable with his and seemingly did not need to portray it through his paintings.

With the intention of writing about this talk I found a biography on Dillon. There was little about his sexuality apart from a few mentions including this very curious quote:

Like many other artistic characters, it appears that Gerard was a repressed homosexual, who by nature was drawn to men rather than women.

White, J., 1994. Gerard Dillon: An Illustrated Biography. Dublin: Wolfhound Press.

Like many other artistic characters…

The mind boggles with this sentence and I even wonder at the need to explain homosexuality. Interestingly this book was released in 1994: Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Ireland in 1993 and in such a religious and conservative society, perhaps the reserved and judgemental language was used by the writer out of caution, or habit, or the need to skirt around how people might react to reading about gays.

This assumption that so many “artistic characters” must be gay reminds me of the society I grew up in. In 1994 I was 16 and although homosexuality was decriminalised years earlier in the Northern Ireland (1982), the attitudes were still very much the same. Homosexuality was very much a taboo.

Being gay and having no-one to relate to or reveal it to while growing up meant I hid myself. Being into art usually carried the assumption that you were probably gay and so I felt like a sitting duck, waiting to be found out and punished for it. I censored my own creative expression for fear it may show something unintended. The necessity to act and edit everyday life changes you deep down.

Thankfully, years later, I found music and songwriting as a way to slowly express, reveal and heal. But that’s taking time. My visual artwork still feels stunted. Even with its particular style I feel that I am constantly trying to figure out its true expression. Something isn’t quite there yet. When will I be brave enough to animate a queer narrative with a queer couple?

It seems that discussion of Dillon’s art through the lens of his sexuality is something that has only been happening in the last ten years but you wonder how it’s been avoided for so long. I guess the word Ireland is in the answer.

Since moving back to Belfast I have become more aware and interested in gay artists and writers from Northern Ireland throughout its young existence and further back. I am always curious to see how they dealt with their art and sexuality in a society where I continue to deal with mine.