I Am Tonie Walsh: ‘Godfather of Gay’ brings LGBT history to life

Lifelong gay activist’s one-man play features stories from the Aids crisis to marriage equality

“Unlocking memories of the Aids crisis are really difficult because we buried our hurt anger and distress”, says Tonie Walsh

“Unlocking memories of the Aids crisis are really difficult because we buried our hurt anger and distress”, says Tonie Walsh

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The blurb for I Am Tonie Walsh calls Walsh a “living legend”, “life-long activist”, “club impresario” and “Godfather of Gay”. There are plenty of other descriptions of Walsh, former president of the National LGBT Federation, founding editor of the Gay Community News, renowned club DJ, and founder of the Irish Queer Archive. He is also a repository of stories within a community whose history has a tendency to be lost. 

I Am Tonie Walsh, which runs at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, from November 27th to December 1st, is a type of one-man bioplay, mining Walsh’s life as a proxy timeline for community and country. Already overflowing with energy and emotion when it was presented as a work in progress in 2017, the show possesses a brimming rawness that demonstrates the depth of the material, as well as how underrepresented queer lives are on Irish stages.

It's unsurprising that music is central to 'I Am Tonie Walsh', with the production riffing on the idea of a house party chez Tonie

“I always got my gay history from people like Tonie and Panti – snippets overheard in dressing rooms, or more robust monologues from Tonie on street corners in Temple Bar,” says Phillip McMahon of Thisispopbaby and I Am Tonie Walsh cowriter with Walsh.

“His stories span the gay civil rights movement in Ireland and are filled with fun, dance music, sessions, as well as deep pain, trauma and all that went with the loss of so many people during the Aids crisis – a topic I think we haven’t really faced up to or addressed in Ireland.” 

Queer history

It’s impossible to have a conversation with Walsh without him opening his internal filing cabinets to flick back through folders cataloguing some previously unheard of moment in queer history – a debate, club night, bar, head around town. His informal storytelling approach pings pinball-like across decades, locations and people. On a winter’s evening in Rathmines, he strolls towards two houses on Grosvenor Road and Kenilworth Square where he spent part of the 1970s and 1980s, detailing his family tree of suffragettes and actresses. 

Walsh was a prominent figure in the Hirschfeld Centre, Ireland’s first LGBT community centre in Dublin, and its in-house disco Flikkers. The centre in Temple Bar was destroyed by a fire in November 1987. He was at the forefront of a Dublin nightlife scene moulded by gay clubs, discos and club nights. It’s unsurprising, then, that music is central to I Am Tonie Walsh, with the production riffing on the idea of a house party chez Tonie.

McMahon is right that the Irish Aids crisis remains a story unconfronted. “First we have to acknowledge the reason it has remained hidden and ignored is that all of the early primary demographic group affected by HIV and Aids before it spread to the mainstream were sex workers, IV drug users, gay men, men who have sex with men,” Walsh says.

“All of those demographics are tainted by criminality, taboo, transgressiveness, marginalisation and exclusion. As a result of that combination of factors, society just ran away from it, disengaged. They just wouldn’t touch it.

“It was so comprehensively shrouded in criminality, people thought ‘I just don’t want to go there, actually.’ Deep down, if Irish people, society, politicos, people who lived through that, had any real core of humanity and decency and honesty, they’d be looking inwards with shame at how they simply divested themselves, disengaged from the process.”

Rehearsing

Walsh has found rehearsing the show exhausting, particularly because the material is so personal. A current concern of his is how not to break down during the performance. Some of the memories are still incredibly painful. He recalls a friend, Ken, dying of Aids in 1995 and the protracted battle Ken’s partner had with Ken’s family to gain custody of the body. A few months later, Walsh’s best friend died of Aids in London, and he was too traumatised to attend the funeral, something he felt guilty about for years afterwards. “I was just bet down with funerals,” Walsh says. The show has forced him to read old journals he was afraid to read, and has also prompted him to write a memoir. 

“There’s a line I use in the show where I say trying to unlock memories of the period are really difficult because we buried our hurt anger and distress. We weren’t allowed to deal with the trauma.

Declan Buckley (Shirley Temple Bar) on left, with tour guide Tonie Walsh Photograph: Eric Luke
Declan Buckley (Shirley Temple Bar) on left, with tour guide Tonie Walsh Photograph: Eric Luke

“Especially before decriminalisation, which is of course the main period of the Aids crisis, there was such utter marginalisation that we weren’t allowed deal with it. I knew some gay people who would walk across the street to avoid [a friend dying of Aids] being looked after by his lover.

“You can imagine, they’re wasting away, they have all sorts of infections, they’re displaying the cliched skeletal look that was so redolent of Aids. Sunken cheeks and everything, the pallor. Mutual friends who would cross the street rather than publicly engage. It tells you something about the extraordinary levels of fear that existed.”

Marriage equality

Right now, Ireland’s LGBT community is undergoing something of a reco-ordination, along with plays like this examining the community’s place in Irish social, cultural and political history. The historic gains of marriage equality and the Gender Recognition Act have been forged without broader society having a larger understanding of the foundations on which they are constructed.

Hundreds died in Ireland, and many Irish gay men in particular died abroad, having left Ireland to live more open lives in Britain and the United States

Queer history has become blurred over time; where personal archives are lost; where analyses were passed over by straight historians; where national institutions and education systems don’t incorporate queer history and culture; where the delivery of stories to the mainstream was hindered by homophobia; and where intergenerational knowledge is often contained, for obvious reasons, within, not outside, the community.

The HIV/Aids crisis of the 1980s and 1990s is not acknowledged in any meaningful way in Irish history and society in part because the practical and tragic reality is that those who may have been best equipped to detail that history did not survive it. Hundreds died in Ireland, and many Irish gay men in particular died abroad, having left Ireland to live more open lives in Britain and the United States.

Ireland’s LGBT community has spent years contesting heteronormativity – the assumption that heterosexuality is the default sexual orientation – and fighting for equality in the face of much resistance. As LGBT rights are gained there is also the question of homonormativity – the way gay white men dominate media representations of queer culture.

This replicates how the LGBT rights movement tends to position itself within mainstream society; most recently, for example, the issue of marriage equality tended to monopolise conversations around “gay rights”. Walsh’s show is a reminder of history as subcultural, and the personal as always political.

“We can take our place in the centre of Irish society and be assimilated, but that doesn’t mean we also have to give up our unique queer identity,” Walsh says, “Especially in the context of designing a social democratic society of multiculturalism and multiple identities, we have a duty to find platforms to share our unique queer worldview with everyone, especially people who are really in need of it. Even the straights!”

I Am Tonie Walsh runs at Project Arts Centre from November 27th to December 1st

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