Dublin's in the pink
A recent travel article in Britain's biggest selling gay glossy, Gay Times, suggested that the gay scene in Dublin is tiny compared with other cities of its size, judging by the number of bars dedicated to homosexual punters. Currently there are only three exclusively gay bars in Dublin, dominated by the George, a two-storey, Gothically-enhanced playground that also becomes a late-night disco seven nights a week. However, the New Year's Eve opening of Hilton Edwards, a new club from successful alternative promoters, brings to 12 the number of gay one-nighters packing them into predominantly heterosexual venues on a weekly basis.
The city has become a thriving hub for gay tourists keen to party on a "scene" unlike any of its European counterparts. Before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, Irish gay social life was a shadowy entity, packed into a couple of small, dimly lit pubs and backstreet clubs where a community of sorts mingled out of view of the mainstream eye. Cyril O'Brien, the original owner of the George, once a tiny corner-bar at the bottom of South Great George's Street, saw gold in a sudden new-found confidence that legalisation brought to the city's gay population, and began expanding his interests. The George took over the building next door and became a sprawling venue to rival any gay club in Europe.
Its enormous windows looked out on to one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, unashamedly allowing the city to look back in. Since then, the George has changed hands a couple of times, but continues to expand and dominate Dublin's gay scene. But behind the immediately visible face of gay nightlife in the city, there's a much larger industry at work.
Faced with Ireland's draconian licensing laws, a group of talented young promoters have found ways to create a diverse and prosperous social calendar for Dublin's lesbians and gay men. Top of the long-term hit list is Ham Productions, a group of people who first got together five years ago to create a club called Gag. Such was the popularity of this alternative fetish club, the word "gag" has become Irish gay parlance for "great" when describing a good night out. Gag was an underground club that lasted for little more than a year, but its reputation leaked into the mainstream. Ham Productions, headed by graphic designer Niall Sweeny, Miss Panti creator Rory O'Neill, DJ Tonie Walsh, and Karim Rehmani-White, decided to capitalise on its cultish reputation. They created Powderbubble, taking over Dublin's Red Box on a monthly basis. It became an instant hit with the city's twentysomething dance set, gay and straight, and had its name up in lights for two dance-filled years.
"To this day people are constantly asking me if Powderbubble will be coming back," says O'Neill. "It happened because a big bunch of people with lots of talent, energy and time on their hands wanted to create something fresh. That kind of club really belonged in the early 1980s, with its whole pan-sexual philosophy of dressing up in crazy clothes and having happy hedonistic fun, but Dublin hadn't seen anything like it." O'Neill is also behind Ham, one of the city's most popular Friday night gay haunts, and The Alternative Miss Ireland, an off-beat talent contest that has grown from a tiny event into an annual bash, packing the Olympia and launching a new generation of drag queens into the public eye. The latest Ham production is the Hilton Edwards, a lounge club much in the cultured gay vein of its eponymous old thespian. It will run each Sunday in the new club, Spy, in Powerscourt Townhouse in Dublin.
"It's going to be decadent and relaxed at the same time," says O'Neill, "and definitely for an older crowd. You won't find disco kids in tight T-shirts dancing there."
Although one-nighter clubs have been very successful for O'Neill and his cohorts, he's aware of the limitations the system brings to Dublin's gay scene. "If this was any other country, instead of having one gigantic George and then other straight clubs that give you one night a week, there would be 15 or 20 smaller gay venues. If things were different, I would have opened a gay bar years ago."
Patricia Carey, who runs the popular lesbian club, Stonewallz, is optimistic about the future, based on the changes she has seen in four years of promoting. "It used to be difficult to get a venue for any gay club to operate in, but nowadays we're welcomed with open arms, no questions asked. The value of the pink pound has finally been recognised. I really believe that in the next two to five years the number of specifically gay pubs in Dublin will double. The money is there, and people are interested in going to gay venues seven nights a week." The numbers are out in force, no doubt about it. All seven of the promoters interviewed for this piece reported crowds of 300 and more filling normally quiet weekday nights at venues across the city. Sharon Hargrave, who promotes Libida, "a club for queer boys and girls", sees the shift in terms of cultural trends.
"Our numbers have doubled since September," she enthuses. "We've put it down to the visibility of Anna, the lesbian member of Channel 4's Big Brother, who suddenly made being Irish and lesbian fashionable. All these women have come out of the woodwork, and more and more men are coming to what is predominantly a lesbian night." Promoter Eddie McGuinness says: "At my clubs we get a whole range of punters, from students to executives, in all age groups. There are far fewer divisions socially for gay people, so there's a wide market to target." Mack Quirke, who runs three popular weekday gay nights, reports a rise in the number of heterosexuals coming along to the venues. "I'd say that maybe 30 per cent of our clientele is straight," he says.
Quirke's former business partner, Pat Kent, is recognising this trend with Score, a club advertised to both the gay and straight markets, while Polysexual, a new night at Mono on Wexford Street, advertises itself as a "sexy celebration of diversity". It seems everyone wants to have a piece of Dublin's gay action.
"I feel there's a certain intimacy in Dublin that you don't find in other cities, because the gay scene isn't so specifically commercialised," says Rehmani-White. "There's no branding, like there is everywhere else, which more often than not isn't reflective of the clientele. Every promoter on the alternative gay scene in Dublin brings genuine energy and a personal touch to their clubs, and while the lack of commercial funding means that production qualities are not always good, it's a great scene that caters to all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations."