Alternative accommodation

 

It takes a while before the delicious irony in naming The Horse and Carriage bed and breakfast sinks in. Then the lyrics of the song start going round my head. Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage . . .

The Horse and Carriage is one of a small but growing number of about 20 bed and breakfasts throughout Ireland which are either gay-friendly or exclusively gay. The current edition of the Lonely Planet Ireland travel guide relates that "Dublin has several gay B& Bs; if your punt is pink, they're there and very central".

Ciara Sugrue is the marketing manager of Dublin Tourism. "Why would we produce a list of gay or gay-friendly accommodation? We haven't had the need to do that," she comments. "We do get a lot of queries about gay clubs and entertainment - more or less on a daily basis at this stage - but no, we wouldn't have a list of gay-friendly accommodation. We only book people into approved accommodation."

Liam Ledwidge runs The Horse and Carriage, in Aungier Street, Dublin, with his partner, Tony Keoghan. It opened in 1993, the year that homosexual acts became legal for those over the age of 17. "Before 1993 all the clubs were underground. A gay bed and breakfast would have been out of the question," Liam says.

"We do get a few straight people coming in off the street when they see that we're a guesthouse," he reports. "And they're very welcome to stay but most of them do an about turn in the foyer when they see the copies of Gay Community News on the tables."

The attraction of a guesthouse which actively welcomes gay residents is that it provides a supportive and relaxed environment for homosexuals in which to stay. Both sexes are welcome although they report that their residents are mostly men.

Oriel Lett runs Inn on the Liffey with his partner, Declan Murphy. There's more clever naming at work here: the nearby pub is called Out on the Liffey. "The whole of Ireland has moved into a more European vibe, know what I mean?" observes Oriel. He credits the continuing acceptance of the gay community to a number of factors, including the introduction of gay characters in television soaps. "And we're legal now, so they won't throw us into prison for being queer," he says wryly.

Technically, this may well be so, but out of the capital, the concept of a bed and breakfast whose target market is gay does not always settle so easily into the community. Side by Side is a guesthouse in Salthill, Galway, for gay women only, which opened last year. It's run by "Marie" and her partner "Joan", who is a primary school teacher. Like many of the gay bed and breakfasts outside Dublin, Side by Side is ex-directory.

"Our own paranoia can sometimes be more debilitating than intolerance in the community," Joan says. She is talking about the reason her guesthouse does not advertise, unlike its Dublin counterparts, and why they cannot put their real names on the record.

"I'd be afraid I'd lose my teaching job. Primary schools are still in the domain of the church and teachers have to reflect the ethics of the church. I have to be realistic. We can be as strong-willed as we like about our beliefs but, at the end of the day, I have a mortgage to pay and I can't jeopardise that."

Side by Side, which has four rooms, offers more than a bed and the traditional, artery-hardening, cooked breakfast. "It's a safe place for women to come and be anonymous," Joan explains. "Some of the women who come here are married and we have to protect their identity. And we provide a supportive environment for women who are trying to come out. The support group element of the guesthouse is very much part of what we're about."

Penny Rainbow has been running the Amazonian in Fountainstown, south of Cork city, for eight years. The Amazonian is a women-only guesthouse but while it is gay-friendly, it is not exclusively gay. Why did she choose to cater only for women? "Women need to have their own space, whether they're straight or gay," Penny says. "They wouldn't have that if it was a mixed house. Besides, I don't cater just for women, lots of children come here with their mothers too. About 40 per cent of the women who stay here are straight."

As for the women who compose the gay element of her residents, Penny says: "It's very important for gay people to feel safe in their environment and that they're not vulnerable in any way. They get that here."

Although Penny set up the Amazonian in the pre-decriminalisation days, she says that the change in legislation made little difference to her. "But then, I was only catering for women," she says. "Possibly it would have been different if men were involved."

She admits there was a lot of initial voyeuristic attention from certain sections of the media when she advertised in a regional paper very early on.

Like Side by Side, the Amazonian is not listed in the phone book but, while the Galway guesthouse is unlisted to protect its anonymity, Penny has a different reason. "Most of my business is word of mouth. It's not that I'm being secretive. Everyone here knows who I am."

Out in the Sticks is, literally, out in the sticks. It's a guesthouse set in a forest, close to the lakes and bogs of Connemara, not too far from Galway city, and welcomes both sexes. "We're in a very beautiful rural setting," explains Gary, the owner, who doesn't want to give his surname, as the guesthouse is near a small village. It opened a year ago. "I wouldn't have a problem with being identified but other people might have a problem with me being here," he explains.

"The Dublin gay accommodation scene doesn't represent what the business is about at a national level," Gary is keen to stress. "We're not interested in attracting the cruising element, which is very much part of the Dublin scene.

"Here at Out in the Sticks, we specialise in romantic weekends and getaway breaks because we're in such a beautiful, private setting. People come here to celebrate their anniversaries. They can celebrate with champagne and strawberries in their room and not have to be out by noon.

"We've had people here who've travelled a long way out of their way to stay with us, because they know this will be a hassle-free environment. The truth is, if you're travelling as a gay couple in rural Ireland, you can get a very hard time if you ask for a double room in an ordinary bed and breakfast."