Remembering Tarlach Mac Niallais, Taken By COVID-19

Tarlach Mac Niallais Ulster 1983 courtesy Lisa Guido
Tarlach Mac Niallais became a gay nationalist hero in the north of Ireland when he wore a T-shirt answering the bigoted unionists who rallied to Save Ulster from Sodomy.
Courtesy of Lisa Guido

Tarlach Mac Niallais, a 57-year-old son of Belfast and an LGBTQ activist and disability rights advocate in New York for more than three decades, died April 1 from complications of the coronavirus at New York-Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Deprived of the time to say goodbye, we hold our memories of Tarlach in heart and mind. There we see him smiling, singing, hugging, dancing, and advocating passionately. We remember Tarlach’s big-hearted and fearless personality lighting up and warming every room and every life he entered and every street he walked, danced, and rallied on.

He loved traditional Irish music sessions, learning new languages, and a good crossword.

For now, friends, work colleagues, and family in New York, Ireland, and Mexico share their grief and tender memories via Facebook, phone, and Zoom.

It was Tarlach’s close friend and the St. Pat’s For All Parade co-chair Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy who told us of a last text from the hospital on March 30, when he wrote, “Here we go! Wish me luck, I’m about to be intubated.”

His brothers Brendan and Tony said the family spoke with Tarlach while he was in the hospital. Tarlach’s other siblings included Sean, Patsy, Gerry, Liam, Christine, Una, Marie, and the late Geraldine. He was the 10th of the 11 Mac Niallais children.

A nurse urged Tarlach’s spouse Juan Nepomuceno and the Mac Niallais family to send messages that she could whisper into his ear; his last moments were hearing those words of love.

Tarlach’s brother Tony announced the sad news of his death.

The last images I have of Tarlach are from the weekend of our St. Pat’s For All Parade in Sunnyside/ Woodside on March 1. Only a mere four weeks ago, it already feels like another world.

At Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center concert two evenings earlier, as Mick Moloney, our grand marshal, began singing the Tommy Sands classic “Daughters and Sons,” Tarlach’s voice soared above the audience for the chorus. It was one of his favorites: “You sowed the seeds of freedom in your daughters and your sons.”

On the way home to Queens that night he sang the Tom Robinson’s anthem “(Sing If You’re) Glad to Be Gay.”

Come March 1, with Lisa Fane, Tarlach coordinated registration for the St. Pat’s For All Parade. After the parade as we all relaxed at Saints and Sinners in Woodside, I remember him, his arm around Juan, the love of his life, singing songs and telling parade stories. He was especially proud to get a picture of himself with his hero Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Whether singing a song about freedom, debating a point about LGBTQ equality, dancing with friends, or rallying for immigration rights, Tarlach Mac Niallais, over 35 years, lived as a prominent and popular activist in New York’s Irish, LGBTQ, and disabilities communities.

In his large, tight-knit large family, he grew up in a Belfast beset by The Troubles, witnessing on a daily basis sectarian violence, oppression, and the denial of civil rights. His early involvement in community politics was with the Belfast Youth against H-Block — the infamous internment camps at the Long Kesh Detention Centre just miles outside of the city. It was the time of the hunger strikes when thousands of Irish people, north and south, took to the streets. All of that awakened in him a passion for justice. Spending time in London and Manchester, he also saw the growing movement for gay liberation, and returning to Belfast from one trip to London he decided to come out.

A very young Tarlach Mac Niallais (left) marches against the brutal internment of Irish republican nationalists in British prisons in the north of Ireland.Courtesy of Brendan Fay

Many years later, at a meeting of New York’s Irish LGBTQ Lavender and Green Alliance, he recalled marching in an anti-internment protest on the Falls Road in West Belfast, saying, “When I came back with a Troops — Out delegation and walked up the Falls behind a gay banner, it was an amazing feeling. After it, I went home to tell me Ma and Da.”

The two gay banners in that march — Irish Gays in London and Brixton Gays — Tarlach said, were “the first time that gay banners had ever been carried on [such] a demonstration in Belfast.”

The banners, both representing LGBTQ groups from Britain and not Ireland, reflected a newly emerging movement of cross-border community solidarity.

Tarlach’s coming out was not easy at first for his parents, and he would leave home at 18. But his unrelenting honesty and openness eventually won him the affection and admiration of his family. In later years, Tarlach’s gay friends in New York would visit Belfast with him and be welcomed by his mother and the rest of the family.

Tarlach recalled those early years on a return trip home for Belfast Pride in 2018. That visit was a huge moment for him, with more than 60 of his extended family joining him at the parade with the beautiful sight of Rainbow Flags up and down the streets of his Belfast childhood. There were many a pint and song as well as a visit to the Newington bar that had thrown him out back in the day for kissing another gay youth. The bar was now decorated with a Rainbow Flag, and he was proud of the people’s struggle that brought LGBTQ equality to the north of Ireland — as well as his role in that story.

While the early 1980s was a time when most young Irish gay men and lesbians remained silent and invisible Tarlach was an active leader — along with his good friends Fergus O’Hare, Cathal Kerrigan, and Marie Mulholland — of Lesbians and Gays against H -Block and Armagh as well as Gays against Imperialism. He was out, loud, and proud, making the connections between movements for LGBTQ equality and for national liberation. He participated in forums and marches, and wrote letters and op-eds challenging the all too common prejudice, inequality, and violence faced by gay youth.

After the British gay decriminalization laws were finally extended to the north of Ireland in 1982, the National Union of Students Lesbian and Gay Conference decided to hold its meeting the following October at Queen’s University Belfast. The 150 delegates from all over Ireland and Britain were met by the Save Ulster from Sodomy protest by the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and the Free Presbyterian Church led by the firebrand Reverend Ian Paisley. With characteristic humor and defiance, Tarlach led the students in responding with their own Save Sodomy from Ulster counter campaign. Tarlach even wore the message on his T- shirt — and the iconic image appeared on the front page of Belfast’s weekend paper. He had become a nationalist gay hero — the only thing that troubled him that weekend was whether his visibility would give his parents a nervous breakdown.

That Saturday evening, Tarlach joined fellow lesbian and gay delegates as guests of a Céilí Mor folkdance celebration at the local republican Martin Forsythe Club in West Belfast, an event that highlighted the need and the effort to build bridges across divides in the common struggle for equality and civil rights throughout the north of Ireland. That weekend inspired a 2019 Belfast theater production “A Queer Céilí at the Marty Forsythe” by playwright Dominic Montague. Tarlach traveled home for a post-production panel with his good friend from the 1983 conference, the LGBTQ historian Dr. Jeff Evans.

The passion for social justice Tarlach learned early in life led him to embrace a career of youth work, first in Belfast’s New Lodge district. While many in that field counseled the closet for Tarlach, there was no going back. He was “out of the closet and into the street.”

Tarlach emigrated to New York in 1985, and was welcomed by Sandy Boyer of the Irish Arts Center, who was an organizer of the H-Block Irish prisoners campaign in the U.S. I met Tarlach at one of New York’s Pride Marches, and he participated in our early organizing efforts among Irish lesbian and gay immigrants. Once, we dared to waltz together céilí style at the 14th Street Eagle Tavern’s Monday evening traditional Irish music sessions.

When the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) formed in April 1990, Tarlach became an uncompromising and articulate spokesperson on both sides of the Atlantic. He hugged easily and was smart, warm hearted, and both principled and fierce when it came to human rights. Wearing his Free Joe Doherty sash, he — along with the Irish writer Malachy McCourt — joined the first television debate over including LGBTQ folks in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, arguing against anti-gay religious fanatics.

March 16, 1991 was a tense and historic day when Tarlach and his mother marched with ILGO members and Mayor David Dinkins as guests of the Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 7 in the Fifth Avenue parade. It was an intimate and proud moment for a Belfast mother and her fearless gay son. Tarlach would recall the moment in his “ballad of the New York City St. Patrick’s Parade.”

For Pride in 1991, he and partner Kevin Potter invited a small group of us to their Queens apartment to celebrate their love with a union ceremony. Their relationship lasted for 15 years, and they remained close friends for life. The two spoke three days before Tarlach’s death, when Kevin urged him to seek medical help for his fever and cough.

In early 1992, Tarlach was tireless in gathering support for ILGO from prominent civil rights leaders in Ireland and Irish America, including Eamonn McCann, Nell McCafferty, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, Frank Durkan, Cody McCone, Terry George, and the Jesuit priest Father Daniel Berrigan.

In March 1993, when hundreds of us were arrested at the St. Patrick’s Parade, I was with Tarlach, who couldn’t have better company. As we were placed in the back of the police van, we defiantly waved to the arresting officers and the gathered crowd, a moment captured by photographer James Higgins. To pass the time, we had songs and stories about early Belfast republicans James Connolly and Jim Larkin, of the late hunger striker Bobby Sands, and of all the men behind the wire and the women of Armagh. We also sang Robinson’s ‘70s anthem “Glad to Be Gay.”

Tarlach Mac Niallais and Brendan Fay being arrested at a Fifth Avenue protest against the exclusionary policies of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.James Higgins/ Courtesy of Brendan Fay

How Tarlach could sing! With songs and ballads, he would keep our spirits up in many struggles over the years — for Irish LGBTQ inclusion in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, for immigration rights, for marriage equality, and for disability rights.

In 1995, our Irish LGBT group Lavender and Green Alliance — Muintir Aerach na hEireann began a tradition of dinner dance celebrations of Irish LGBTQ culture, with Danny Dromm (then a schoolteacher and now a member of the City Council) and Queens Pride helping us organize the first Oiche Aerach (Gay Night) at the Unitarian Church in Flushing. Tarlach led the music session with accordion player Stanley Rygor, whose son Robert had died of AIDS the year before. Instead of shamrocks and leprechauns on the walls, Tarlach arrived proud to see images of our Irish LGBTQ heroes — Roger Casement, Oscar Wilde, Eva Gore-Booth, Elizabeth O’Farrell, and Robert Rygor, among others — on the walls.

At our third Oiche Aerach dinner dance in 1997, we honored Tarlach along with attorney Colleen Meenan, a retired NYPD officer who represented the Gay Officers Action League, with our Roger Casement and Eva Gore-Booth Leadership Awards. We cited Tarlach for both his LGBTQ activism and his dedication to New Yorkers living with disabilities. Among the 200 gathered were his sister Patsy and his mother who came from Belfast. After Patsy introduced her brother on stage, the two hugged and sang. It was a proud Irish gay gathering for a Belfast family and our community in Queens.

When the Lavender and Green Alliance was finally welcomed into the St. Patrick’s Day Parade after a 25-year struggle in March 2016, Tarlach helped organize our contingent. In his big-hearted way, he reached out right, left, and center to old friends in ILGO, Irish Queers, and the wider Irish community, bringing all of us back together for the historic march as we hit Fifth Avenue with our banner “Lavender and Green Alliance — Muintir Aerach na hEireann, celebrating Irish Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender culture and identity.” Tarlach made sure that our press release was written in both English and Gaelic.

He also proudly became an official member of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade formation committee, and parade leaders Sean Lane, Hilary T. Beirne, and Reilly J. Dundon wrote notes of condolences on his passing.

Tarlach Mac Niallais, with his parade formation committee sash, and Brendan Fay at the 2019 St. Patrick’s Day Parade.Courtesy of Brendan Fay

As Tarlach explained to writer, playwright, and Gay City News contributor Kathleen Warnock, “They reached out to me and asked if would I be interested in volunteering on the formation committee to help organize the parade. I think it says a lot about the spirit of inclusiveness that exists now. When you get to know people on a personal level, it’s less about, as we say in Belfast, ‘us’ns and them’ns.’ Getting to know each other on that level creates a more profound type of reconciliation.”

He would later add, “Some people would say our acceptance into the parade was purely as a result of the pressure and boycott, and while that has a lot to do with it, I don’t think it tells the whole story. I think there’s been a general shift in social attitudes toward LGBTQ people and that is exemplified by the new parade committee. Not only has the parade permitted Lavender and Green to march, they’ve gone out of their way to reach out to us. Dr. John Lahey [the former Quinnipiac University president and vice chair of the parade committee] marched behind our banner, and members of the committee have come out to our St. Pat’s for All Parade and Concert. It wasn’t a begrudging thing.”

For more than three decades in New York, Tarlach worked with AHRC New York City, an agency serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There he was facility director as well as director of vocational services, becoming an outspoken advocate for the equal rights and delivering on the needs of one of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities. In turn, he successfully pressed the agency for LGBTQ equal rights and benefits. In recent years, he organized AHRC’s participation in both the New York City LGBTQ Pride March and the St. Pat’s For All Parade in Queens.

Tarlach Mac Niallais and his husband Juan Nepomuceno.Courtesy of Brendan Fay

Tarlach met Juan Nepomuceno in 2002 and they married in 2013. Three years later, Tarlach was proud to meet marriage equality pioneer Edie Windsor and thank her in person when she joined our historic march up Fifth Avenue on Saint Patrick’s Day. With Edie and Malachy McCourt, he sang our anthem “Wild Mountain Thyme” as we waited to step off.

Last year, Tarlach organized the “OUTing the Past Festival Program” at the New York Irish Center In Queens, welcoming old friends from his Belfast days, Marie Mulholland and Dr. Jeff Evans, but also a gay rights ally from the north of Ireland’s unionist community, Jeffrey Dudgeon, MBE, who initiated the famed 1981 case “Dudgeon vs. UK” at the European Court of Human Rights, pioneering litigation that led to the decriminalization of gay sex there.

Robert Pinter, Brendan Fay, and Tarlach Mac Niallais remember the victims of the 2016 Pulse night club massacre in Orlando in the New York City LGBTQ Pride March.Courtesy of Brendan Fay

Today, we are inspired by the legacy of Tarlach Mac Niallais and hope to carry it on. Far gone from us, we hold him close, remembering him at the dawning of the day and by the evening stars as we sing his songs and tell his story of solidarity and hope for a new generation.

Remembering Tarlach, I think of the words of another Irish immigrant, Mary Harris (1837- 1930), better known as Mother Jones, who lost her husband George and their children to the terrible epidemic of yellow fever in 1867 but would find strength to carry on with a fearless passion for workers’ rights: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living”.

“Ni bheidh a leitheid ann aris”; Tarlach’s likes will not be seen again.

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