Famous for politics, activism, Joycean scholar and wit, Senator David Norris is a national treasure: so where to begin? Seán McGovern does his best to find out
When dealing with the life and times of David Norris there is no way to avoid, and no reason not to begin with, what is now a solid part of Irish history. It was 1988 when David Norris became not only a familiar name in Ireland, but internationally.
Norris v Ireland was his victorious court case which led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, a mere sixteen years ago, leading the way for the attitudes of Irish homosexuality to grow and change to what they are today: a sharp and steady push toward civil marriage.
Armed with the formidable legal force of Mary Robinson, Norris obtained evidence from American psychiatrists and Cambridge academics that homosexuality was not an ‘illness’, and that they “weren’t sick, unbalanced, crazy, cross-eyed, anything like that.” The victory in the European Court of Human Rights, as he puts it, “blew the veil of silence away from it and made a lot of very frightened people around the countryside realise that they were not alone.”
The story of David Norris’s victory cannot be summed up in one mere article, and there is certainly more to this man than this one monumental moment in history. David Norris was born in Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo in 1944, his father died when he was a small child and Norris was sent to Ireland to live with family here. Having earned a BA in English Literature and Language, he became a tutor and lecturer in Trinity College. It was from Trinity that he won his seat in Seanad Éireann in 1987.
Senator Norris is one of the few politicians who can be known as an entertainer. He laughs when asked about balancing politics and personality “I think you can make serious political points with sugar-coated humour.” He remembers once meeting a former student who said how much fun his lectures were, which helped her learn that formal education didn’t have to be arduous and painful.
“It’s the same with politics, you can strike a fairly powerful blow with a crack… the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Connell, foolishly repeated some of the turgid drivel the Vatican comes out with about human sexuality… the newspapers got me to call and demand that I say something, and I didn’t particularly want to, but I discovered that Dr Connell got his doctorate in Divinity on the rather remote and archean topic of how God communicates with angels.
“So I just said that ‘Dr Connell may know everything there is to know about angels, but you can take it from me that he knows sweet fuck all about fairies.’ They put that in The Irish Times but they softened it. They said ‘sweet damn all’. It was ‘fuck all’, not for the profanity but that the alliteration suited.”
My question of politicians’ expenses not only highlights Norris’ feelings on the matter, but allows for glimpses into his international work. The senator mentions how misinformed reporters choose to ignore truths about how many politicians actually spend their money. One who accused Norris of claiming daily travel expenses (although he lives in the north city centre) mixed it up with the daily allowance he claims when he sits in Seanad Éireann, money which he says he uses to cover expenses of delegations as well as paying for the occasional lunch, where many a political deal is struck. “When I went to Australia I cashed in my first class ticket and went all over the place in steerage. I ended up in Beijing. I opened dialogue for major cultural exchange that’s still going on.”
We move on to the topic of what Norris likes to read. “I just finished another John Grisham novel, they’re great; but no one need underestimate me as an intellectual. I have the complete works of Beatrix Potter, Maeve Binchy and Georgette Heyer – you know, the Regency romances.” And how he relaxes? “I go to church, and then I go to lunch in the Kildare Street Club. I have a little table to myself, and I listen to Sean O’Rourke on the news… Tevick [Norris’s partner] says I only go for the music and that is not at all true. But I think beautiful music helps. If you have a Schubert Mass, a Haydn Mass, it is glorious.”
otwo then asks who his own icons are. There are many – from Raoul Wallenberg to the Dalai Lama – but the biggest in particular is “my ex-partner, Ezra. He’s been shot, stabbed and jailed by the Israelis for reaching out and helping the Palestinian farmers. At the moment he’s waiting sentence on another case where he went in to protect the pathetic little hovel of two elderly Palestinian farmers by going inside it. He goes in; two soldiers go in and obviously clout the hell out of him, and he’s being sentenced for attacking them!”
And as he says those final words, the interview ends with an assurance that David Norris, like so many of the rest of us, is inspired by his very own personal icons.