In 1946, William Mcllroy, a seventeen-year-old from a village outside Ballynahinch, County Down, Northern Ireland, said goodbye to his mother and siblings and caught a ferry across the Irish Sea. Soon to be known as ‘Bill’ he lodged with relatives in Coventry in England and found work in a factory that produced metal castings. Bill returned to Northern Ireland only once in his lifetime – to arrange for his family to join him in England. This story of emigration and diaspora was far from uncommon in mid-twentieth century Ireland. More unusual were the circumstances which led to Bill’s departure. He had become an outspoken atheist within a culture which demanded conformity in religion as a test of national identity. To profess to have no religion in mid-twentieth century Ireland was perhaps even beyond the ability of many to comprehend. To openly express opposition to religious claims was profoundly subversive.
There was little about Mcllroy’s early life and background which suggested nonconformity, or which presaged his later career as a journalist and political agitator. His parents had married in 1927, five years after the creation of Northern Ireland, a sectarian statelet separated from the rest of the island by a straggling and porous border. His father, James, was alternately a soldier in the British Army or when demobbed, laboured in the linen industry that dominated the economy of significant areas of Ulster.
The family’s economic position was precarious. Religion, in the form of fundamentalist Protestantism, was pervasive. School was, Bill later recollected, ‘a real indoctrination centre’ where he was ‘firmly told’ that if he ‘didn’t believe and died in a sinful state that [he] would go down below to eternal punishment.’ From around the age of fourteen, he began to question such religious claims. Significant was his disclosure – revealed in 1972 to a reporter from the Belfast Telegraph – that he had been ‘saved’ at an evangelical mission hall and therefore had briefly been a ‘born again’ Christian.
More liberal Protestants had good reason to distrust such methods. Converts were often very young, and enhanced expectations were liable to be followed by crashing disillusion. Perhaps in the weeks that followed, Mcllroy experienced a profound loss of faith. He began to speak out against Christianity. It was unlikely to have made him popular.
Historians of emotion have written of the historical and cultural specificities of both fear and anxiety. Bill Mcllroy’s early biography, published in 1970, tells of a complex of beliefs and structures in which a non-believer was an outsider regarded with fear and loathing. Unusually, he emerged from a working class, loyalist culture. He would have been more than familiar with the oppressive sounds of the marching drum and flute band. Even his first name, William, was a political statement commemorating William of Orange, the diminutive Dutch monarch whose memory is beloved of Ulster Loyalists.
This identity would have been defined against the ‘other’ – Roman Catholics. Yet an atheist would have been regarded as an ‘apostate’ – a person who renounced their faith. In a culture in which religious, political and ethnic identities were closely intermeshed, becoming atheist was dangerous. So too was the wider context. The immediate post-war era was a time of religious revival and renewed moral conservatism across Western Europe. The existence of a form of state atheism in the USSR meant that the non-belief was invariably conflated with Communism.
Bill Mcllroy was gay. In the 1940s and 1950s this would have been a closely kept secret. He remained guarded about his sexual identity throughout his life, being, in the words of one friend, ‘half in and half out of the closet.’ Silence can speak volumes. Even though he was later an active campaigner for LGBT rights, it seems that Bill was profoundly traumatised by growing up gay in post-war Northern Ireland. It could well be that confusion over sexuality played some part in his brief evangelical conversion.
Bill left Ireland when he was a very young man – but what if he had stayed behind? Ongoing research at Queen’s University Belfast, and Ulster University, Belfast is revealing the world of shadows negotiated by non-elite homosexual men in Northern Ireland during the early and mid-twentieth century. Using sources generated by criminalisation, including legal files and newspaper reporting, the project Queer NI Before Liberation seeks to uncover hidden queer lives and reconstruct everyday experience of non-conforming identities in the face of religious conservatism.
It is often challenging to locate alternative identities in history, and this is especially the case with Northern Ireland in the mid-twentieth century due to the social and political conditions which prevailed there. Yet individual life stories are essential to gaining an understanding of how people negotiated culture and everyday life. A recurring theme in later source material from the 1970s is the sense of isolation and loneliness felt by many homosexuals. A family member recalls Bill once mentioning the ‘Old Boys Club’ – single men to be found sitting alone in pubs and who were said to be ‘not the marrying kind.’
By the 1950s, the police increasingly deployed aggressive tactics including increased surveillance and the deployment of plainclothes officers at suspected cruising locations such as the docks at the coastal town of Bangor, County Down. In 1958, a series of arrests in the industrial town of Lurgan in County Armagh resulted in the trials of no less than seventeen men for ‘gross indecency.’ The trials uncovered a web of submerged relationships and illicit encounters. At the centre of the affair was a 64-year-old, William Wells, whom the presiding judge concluded was a ‘parasite upon society.’ Mcllroy might have been wryly amused that Wells was described by reporters as a ‘preacher.’
As a teenager in Ballynahinch, Bill Mcllroy would have felt angry, confused and frightened. Throughout his later career as a secularist campaigner, he was preoccupied with conservative religion as a source of existential threat. Amid the rise of Thatcherism, Mcllroy’s keynote speech at the 1979 launch of the Gay Humanist Group (now LGBT+ Humanists) presciently warned that, ‘the small gains made by the gay population in the last ten years could be quickly reversed if Christian reactionaries had their way.’
His writings and speeches frequently dwelt upon the intolerance and fanaticism of religious fundamentalism, which he understood as inevitable consequences of unreason. A persistent theme – such as in his 1972 pamphlet against the Jesus Movement – was drawing contrasts between claims that Christianity was inherently ‘loving’ and examples of cruelties by religious leaders and by the faithful. Such concerns spoke of the treatment which Bill had received in Ballynahinch in the 1940s, which had compelled him to permanently flee his homeland. He refused to countenance ever returning to visit, even in advanced old age, implying that if he had done so, he might have become the target of a violent attack. It is difficult to say whether this reflected reality or a deeply held paranoia which itself spoke of distress. There seems a high likelihood that he had been verbally and or physically threatened prior to leaving Northern Ireland. In later life he did not take the opportunity to ‘open up’ about what had happened to him to an interviewer in 2010, nor did he write an autobiography. It seems it was simply too painful for him to relive. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 85.
Today, Northern Ireland remains the most devoutly Christian area of the United Kingdom, yet becoming atheist is more likely to elicit a shrug of the shoulders than a brick through the window. The nearest parallels to Bill Mcllroy’s experience can now be found in other cultures and overseas, where ‘apostacy’ from high control religions can result in severe consequences and even death. The plight of apostates should remind us of the dangers of fundamentalism and how many rights and liberties have been established comparatively recently in the face of concerted opposition. Present day examples from Florida to Hungary show how they may be subject to reversal.
Dr Charlie Lynch is a Research Associate in History at Ulster University, Belfast. He is working on an AHRC-funded project,Queer NI Before Liberation, and is progressing his monograph, Heterosex and Religion in Post-war Scotland. Charlie would like to thank friends and family of the late Bill Mcllroy for their invaluable assistance with this article. He tweets @drcharlielynch.