When David Norris answered the door of his beautifully renovated Georgian Home on North Great George’s Street, he was impeccably dressed, and with a warm greeting, offered up a cigarette. His house was like a time capsule, bringing all those who visit back to a time when people wore three-piece suits and smoked indoors. Down a hallway, dotted with white marble statues and entire walls filled with books, Trinity News was brought into Senator Norris’s personal world, his haven away from the chaos of the Seanad, for an interview about his professional and personal past, his activism, and his future.
Born in 1944 in what is now called Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo), the Senator moved to Ireland after his father’s death when he was a child. Norris went on to be a student of English Literature at Trinity where he was elected a foundation scholar in 1965. Speaking to Trinity News, he said that the reason he did so well in Trinity was not because of the amount of secondary sources he cited when writing essays, but because “I wrote about how the work made me feel, the emotions it invoked.” Norris explained that Trinity was a very different place in the mid-60’s to how it is now: “Trinity was much smaller then, only 2,000 people.” He spoke of how tutorials were held in professors’ offices, where there was always a roaring fire and glass of sherry on offer. He recounted stories of the house parties of “the posh English people who didn’t get into Oxford and Cambridge so they came here instead.” At one such party, he admitted to stealing a bottle of champagne “because no one would notice it missing”. He turned the bottle into a lamp, which stands proudly in his study today. He was also kicked out of both the Hist and the Phil for “academic nudity”, i.e. not wearing the robes. When asked why he refused, Norris simply said: “I wanted to be an agitator.” This desire to shake things up and go against the grain has never faded from Norris’s life.
When it comes to celebrity encounters, Norris always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Seán O’Fhaolain – a renowned Irish short story writer – gave Norris his first jazz record, which he then accidentally scratched. As a passionate Joyce scholar, Norris excitedly recalled meeting Syliva Beach, the first person who published Ulysses at the opening of the Martello tower. When asked what he loved so much about Joyce, he said: “His courage. He wanted to write and other people were going to pay for it. Mainly women.”
Courage is an important trait for Norris and has informed all of his political decisions. He explained that “people should be true to themselves. A lot of people have parents who want them to study Science or Medicine so that they will make a lot of money but they really want to study the arts or theatre or something … I always say go for it!”
He became a senator in 1987, but the journey there wasn’t easy. “My manifesto was the first one that included abortion as well as the [decriminalisation of] homosexuality. I eventually won people over. After 10 years and three elections, they came around.” By that point, Norris had taken the Attorney General to the High Court over the criminalisation of homosexual acts. When the High Court ruled against Norris, he appealed to the Supreme Court and when he lost that case, he took his case to the European Court of Human Rights. Here, the Court finally ruled that the criminalisation of homosexuality was at odds with the European Convention of Human Rights. The law in Ireland was consequently overturned in 1993. Trinity News asked Norris whether, throughout this process of constantly losing lengthy court cases, he ever lost hope: “Never. I always, always knew it would happen. I was told it would be a long and hard battle and it was but that suited me”.
“Humour is a fantastic way to connect with people”
His favourite thing about the LGBTQ+ community is the “solidarity.” The pictures of Norris at various pride parades and protests that hang all over his house are proof that he has always found solidarity with this community. But that’s not the only place where Norris has found solidarity. When asked about the challenges he faced being the first openly gay person to be elected to Irish public office, he said: “my greatest challenge was getting people on my team to trust me. I think they thought they were going to get raped in the corridors. I don’t know what they thought. But then I told a few jokes and we all got on after that … Humour is a fantastic way to connect with people.”
Norris was frank about the homophobia he has experienced, but was quick to add that things are much better these days, which he puts down to the fact that sexuality is talked about more openly. He continued, saying that “it wasn’t talked about at all … That’s why when I was doing my gay rights activism the first thing I did was go straight to the press, I wanted it to be on the front page.”
In the last decade or so, Norris has expanded his activism to include all marginalised groups. In a 2011 interview with the Irish Independent, he said: “I did start out on that campaign [for the criminalisation of homosexuality law reform] but I found very quickly that the mechanism of discrimination was exactly the same against women, against ethnic minorities, against the handicapped, so I broadened out and this now is how I see things, very much so.”
When asked if he has any advice for young student activists today, Norris was direct and succinct: “pick something you’re really really passionate about, don’t half do it”; and when asked if there are any issues he thinks are important for young people to focus on specifically, he simply chuckled and said: “I don’t know, it’s not my world anymore. It’s time to pass on the baton.”
In keeping with this sentiment, Norris will retire from the Seanad in January 2024 and move to Cyprus to enjoy some well-deserved relaxation and sunshine. Perhaps that is the true mark of a great politician: the ability to recognise that you have done all you possibly can and that the time has come to “pass the baton” to the next generation.
Correction 14/11/2023, 3.25pm: This article previously said Norris’ home was on Parnell Street, but was corrected to North Great George’s Street.