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Saturday, April 17, 2010

The gay tour

To mark the upcoming 25th anniversary of The George next month, I went on a tour of Dublin's historical gay social spots with the pretty fabulous Tonie Walsh. The piece ran into today's Weekend supplement in the Irish Examiner.

History doesn’t always have to be about fusty manuscripts, ancient buildings, and dusty door-stopping books. It can also be traced and documented through the evolution of its social outlets like pubs and clubs. Such is the case with the Irish gay community, and in particular its fledgling attempts at gay social visibility over the past four decades.

Next month, the city’s most famous gay bar and club, The George, will celebrate its quarter-life anniversary, having first opened its doors to an under-served and largely disenfranchised gay clientele in Easter 1985.
To mark the occasion, gay activist and archivist Tonie Walsh brought the Irish Examiner on a walking tour of gay Dublin to show how the struggles and successes of its social scene corresponded with, and indeed often directly supported, the wider emergence of the Irish gay rights movement.

Indeed, the mere act of socialising in itself was often seen as a public stance of defiance against Victorian legislation, censorship, and taboos around any discussion of homosexuality. “You need to time travel a bit and imagine the kind of environment that existed in the 1960s and 70s,” says Tonie.

“Up until the late 1960s there was very little mention of homosexuality in the Irish media. Normally any use of the word was the result of legal scandals, such as people being arrested for cruising. Gay social outlets were scarce on the ground, and bar culture, as we’d understand it today, was practically non-existent.”

We begin the tour – quite appropriately, as it turns out – at the gates of Dublin Castle. “The Crown Jewels disappeared from Bedford Tower in the castle just before the visit of King Edward in 1905,” explains Tonie. “It was a huge scandal at the time because Sir Arthur Vickers, the Chief Herald charged with looking after them, was the subject of intense rumours about his sexuality.

“It seems he was quite a bon viveur, and had contact with a lot of gay people, including Richard Shackleton [brother of Arctic explorer Ernest], who was described at the time as “extremely good looking and extremely depraved”. This cast Vickers in a very suspicious light, and he was scape-goated for the theft.”

From there, we move on towards Temple Bar, which was the location for two of the pivotal developments in modern Irish gay history. Stopping on Crow Street, Tonie points out the former site of the Women’s Centre, which, Tonie believes, doesn’t get enough credit for its role in gay liberation. “The establishment of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in 1971 helped create a space for gay women and men to imagine new sexual identities and give expression to their desires and concerns,” he says.

Skipping over a few streets, we arrive at No 10 Fownes Street (now a footwear store), the one-time site of the Hirschfeld Centre, a community resource centre that opened on St Patrick’s Day 1979 and operated until 1987 when it burned down in suspicious circumstances (even murkier was the fact that a week later, the avowedly gay Sides dance club across the road on what is today the site of the Adams Trinity Hotel on Dame Lane, was also burned down).

“The newly-established National Gay and Lesbian Federation bought a warehouse building to house the centre for 60,000 punts which was a massive amount of money in 1978,” Tonie says. “Hirschfeld is fondly remembered today. You have to remember at the time that the social facilities for gay people were very thin on the ground.

“Homosexuality was still illegal: the same laws that had sent Oscar Wilde to penal servitude in the 1890s were still on the Irish statute books. Lesbians were, to all intents and purposes, invisible. You could get kicked out of a bar for simply being identified as gay.

“The Hirschfeld Centre provided a safe place for gay people simply to be themselves. What was unique was that it had a cafĂ© and dance club called Flickers (the Dutch word for ‘faggots’), which proved to be a training ground for lots of future club DJs (amongst them the late Vincent Hanley, who was to become a popular RTE presenter).”

Tonie continues: “Hirschfeld also had a youth group, a women’s group, a cinema club called The Biograph, counseling facilities, the Gay Switchboard operated from here (and still exists now), and of course, offices for political and campaigning groups, particularly those set up to combat HIV and Aids in the 80s”

Strolling around the ‘Pink Triangle’ linking Temple Bar, South Great George’s Street and South William Street, Tonie identifies the one-time sites of Hooray Henry’s (now the site of the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre), Pgymalion (now The Hairy Lemon), and Bartley Dunnes (today it’s Bia Bar), all of which operated with varying degrees of success throughout the 1980s.

Looping back around to South George’s Street, our tour terminates back at The George, which was originally opened by Kerry businessman Cyril O’Brien. The building itself had been an ‘old man’s’ bar called The George, but it had no gay association.

Personally speaking, The George was the first gay bar I ever went to in Dublin, and apparently I’m not alone in that experience. “For most gay and lesbian people, it’s the first gay bar we ever walk into, which is a major moment in our journey towards self-acceptance,” says Brian Finnegan, editor of Gay Community News. “That’s a moment we remember for the rest of our lives because it showed us there was a big, exciting gay world that we could be part of.”

Tonie believes that The George’s commercial success served as a metaphor for how gay visibility increased, and the gay social scene expanded following decriminalisation in 1993. He says: “Once the aura of criminality was removed from homosexuality, it allowed mainstream society – the popular media, government, business, advertising – to engage with the gay community in a really powerful and meaningful way, probably for the first time in our history.”


It’s now 17 years since homosexual decriminalisation in Ireland, meaning there’s a whole generation of young gay people coming of age today who were only babies – or not even born – at the time of the law reform. A new two-part documentary series, Growing Up Gay, which starts on RTE1 on Monday night, follows six such gay teenagers through the ups and downs of life at home and in school, as well as through more universal experiences like friendships and falling in love.

The key objective of the series, however, is to look at just how much Irish society has changed for gay people. Is it easier to be gay today than it was 17 years ago?

“It is vastly different for young people growing up now than it was even for the generation before them,” says Michael Barron, director of the gay youth service BelongTo. “The landscape has changed hugely.”

A clear sign of progress is how young people are coming out at a younger age than ever before, and at a time when there is a substantial gay presence in the media and everyday life.

That said, young gay people still face significant problems, namely bullying and homophobic violence. Last week, BelongTo launched Stand-Up, a campaign aimed at supporting friendships between gay and straight people, and to encourage all young people to stand up to homophobic bullying.

At the launch, Irish actor Colin Farrell wrote an eloquent personal testimony about his memories of the abuse suffered by his gay brother Eamon. “The thing I remember, quite literally, is blood on his school shirt when [Eamon] came home in the afternoon,” Farrell recalls. “The beatings and taunting were very frequent for him and a constant part of his school years.”

It would seem that, in this regard, not a lot has changed. “I think bullying is the biggest LGBT issue of all, even bigger than marriage,” says Michael Barron. “Bullying and harassment, and educational drop-out, are big issues for gay teens today.

“It seems like a huge contradiction: young people are coming out younger, in greater numbers, and there is greater acceptance among large numbers of the youth population, yet at the same time homophobic bullying seems to be more physical and violent than ever before. I don’t have the answer as to why that’s the case, but that broader acceptance certainly is not across the spectrum.”

The other issue that comes up in the RTE documentary is that of family relationships. “The young people in the series have received a lot of support from their families, and the relationship with their parents is key,” says Barron.

“Some young people were really nervous about coming out to their parents, and sometimes the parents were shocked and initially didn’t have a brilliant reaction. But once the mother and father come to terms with the news, it’s clear to see the positive effect it has on the confidence and the mental health of the gay person.”

*Growing Up Gay, Monday April 19, RTE 1, 9.35pm.

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