LGBTQI+ nightlife: Genre-busting, gender-bending gas
Dublin’s thriving alternative scene is a key part of working out what Ireland wants to be
underCURRENT: the camp cabaret spans burlesque, dance, drag and live music. Photograph: Eddie Kavanagh
The City of Dublin Working Men’s Club, established more than one hundred years ago, historically catered to the brewers, dockers, drovers and others employed in Dublin’s industries. Today, in its current premises on Little Strand Street in Dublin’s north inner city, it’s a focal point for community, where subsequent generations come to sustain a tradition of fraternity. And recently, the club has also opened its doors to host LGBTQI+ performance nights.
Inside, the aesthetic is positively parish hall. A wood-panelled bar offers pool tables and darts on the telly. On a Friday night in mid February, in the neighbouring function room, metallic streamers frame a modest stage; fairy lights haphazardly line the space’s perimeter; bunting, illustrated with abstracted butt plugs, among other motifs, traverses the ceiling. On one wall, set like a devotional icon, a gold shield bears the fiercely gurning face of Sinéad O’Connor. Welcome to Spicebag.
One of several LGBTQI+ performance nights to emerge in Dublin over the last few years – joined by Glitter HOLE, underCURRENT and Avoca Reaction’s Big Durty Queer Cabaret – Spicebag lends itself to a thriving scene of alternative, experimental entertainment for the LGBTQI+ community. Inclusive by default, these nights are politically reactive, socially aware, gender bending, and non commercial. Moreover, in their celebration and subversion of the full and frankly outrageous gamut of Irish cultural phenomena, they’re simply gas.
Spice Bag has spanned Twink’s answering machine message, Nadine Coyle’s passport, and Winning Streak as a dating show hosted by a drag-king Marty Whelan
Co-founders of Spicebag, “partners in filth”, Stephen Quinn and Sarah Devereux, first met while working in the National Leprechaun Museum. “A demented, Ireland-specific place, the fertile ground from which [Spicebag] sprouted,” Quinn recalls. This detail goes a long way in explaining the bonkers quality to their night’s programming.
“There’s a lot of hilarious stuff out there”, Quinn says of Ireland’s myriad cultural touchpoints that prove so rich for the picking. These have spanned Adele “Twink” King’s answering machine message (“zip up your mickey”); Aoife McGregor’s voice note (“the neck”); Nadine Coyle’s passport (“making me a Gemini”); a sean nós rendition of the delightfully explicit “My Neck, My Back”; and RTÉ’s Winning Streak, reimagined as a dating show hosted by a drag-king Marty Whelan.
“The audience at Spicebag go wild for this stuff; these weird, trashy, cultural moments,” Devereux explains. And for the unfamiliar? “It’s about pushing the particular to such a completely ridiculous extreme that it doesn’t even matter if you don’t get the reference points.”
Beth Hayden, founder of Glitter HOLE, has incorporated Britney Spears as Gaeilge, and a participative Leaving Certificate Irish aural exam into its offering. She says: “It’s a reflection of the richness of Irish culture. There’s a huge amount to play with and audiences always respond really positively to it.” Already, Hayden has taken Glitter HOLE to Body & Soul and the Dublin Fringe Festival.
That these shows sell out almost instantly and are quickly standing-room only is unsurprising. Their richness and authenticity aside, the community has been crying out for newness. Beyond the resilient flag bearer of The George, bars such as Pantibar and Street 66, and a smattering of club nights, the scene can feel flaccid. Restrictive licensing laws, dating apps, gentrification and the mainstreaming of the LGBTQI+ community in a post-marriage-equality Ireland are all contributory factors.
In addition, target markets and patronage are too often dominated by cisgender gay and bisexual men. Lesbians and bisexual women get a look-in, while opportunities for trans and non-binary people are distinctly lacking. This is where these nights reveal their edge. Devereux explains: “What a night like Spicebag is doing, in and of itself, is a political thing because it’s so different to what is available. It’s a bit of a two fingers up: this is what we want to see, so this is what we’re going to make.”
By devising the kind of night that I want to attend, I am naturally creating a space that is at odds with other queer nights in Dublin
Intersectionality and inclusion are centre stage. Avoca Reaction, an “inter gender drag entity”, sometimes known as John Dennehy, and founder of Avoca Reaction’s Big Durty Queer Cabaret, describes their eponymous night: “It’s an open platform for alternate gender expressions with an emphasis on programming under-represented pockets of the queer performance community. It aims to be a necessary palate cleanser from commercial, non-descript queer spaces. It’s come as you are, a place to find connection; a family reunion you actually want to be at.”
For Hayden, the more diverse the offering for fun, the better. She says, “I have always loved drag as an art form and enjoyed dressing up, but never really saw it as a viable option for myself because all my exposure to it had been performed by cis gay men. I was extremely bored by the lack of variety. [By] devising the kind of night that I want to attend, I am naturally creating a space that is at odds with other queer nights in Dublin.” While these nights occupy the fringe of Dublin’s LGBTQI+ nightlife, everyone agrees that there is ample room for all in an environment that is supportive rather than competitive.
It’s impossible to fully appreciate these nights without recognising the domestic sociopolitical contexts from which they grew; circumstances continually referenced, implicitly or explicitly, affording political astuteness. Marriage equality, gender recognition, the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and the assimilation of LGBTI+ identity in wider society, manifested in the election of a gay Taoiseach. Even in their staging, the lo-fi, make-and-do magic of these nights is emblematic of a generation who came of age during the Celtic Tiger, who started going out into the world and making things as the economy tanked.
Recent legislative changes are especially salient for Spicebag’s essence. Quinn begins: “What I found moving about the marriage-equality and repeal referendums and how they happened was the sense of possibility, of ‘what will we change next?’ The same energy that has created these movements has gone into Spicebag.” Devereux continues: “The fire in everyone’s belly that erupted with both referendums has grown over the past few years. Spicebag is like a continuation of the party after we won.”
At the Fringe, alongside her Glitter HOLE comrades, Hayden introduced “Ireland’s brand new queer communist party”, Fianna Fellatio to the world. Comprising “leather daddies, gay witches for abortion and reformed Gardaí who now work in the hen party industry”, the troupe presented its political manifesto, a vision for a “queertopian future”.
Hayden explains: “it was a response to the notion that having a right-wing gay Taoiseach who hates the poor was a win for queer people.” Though forcible, Hayden reflects a discontent among some of Ireland’s LGBTQI+ community, who feel they should be better represented by Leo Varadkar, given his sexuality.
Despite gains for the community, these nights fulfil an unfortunately sustained need for sanctuary amid stubbornly resilient intolerance. For Avoca Reaction, “attitudes towards trans and gender non-conforming people are reminiscent of the prejudice seen during the AIDS crisis. We’re making apes of ourselves on stage, but it’s to provide a break from the bullshit for anyone who’s struggling.”
A recent performance at Reaction’s cabaret saw advocate and lesbian mother, Ranae von Meding speak and sing about her ongoing struggle around parental recognition among same-sex couples, all while raising funds for the Dublin Lesbian Line. These are nights with heart as much as soul.
This scene, the type of performance it supports and the politics it at once espouses and is underpinned by is not without precedent. For Lady K and DialEmma, producers of underCURRENT, a camp cabaret of disciplines spanning burlesque, dance, drag and live music, queer culture and politics are indivisible. They offer a brief timeline.
Few venues, gay or straight are willing to take a punt on offering a riposte to the mainstream fare that is a staple of our ever-contracting nightlife
“Queer nightlife has always been a focal point for rallying our community in this country. Be that Tonie Walsh fighting for gay rights and running clubs in the 1980s and 1990s; the Alternative Miss Ireland (AMI) team raising awareness and funds for HIV and AIDS in the noughties; Panti Bliss’s Noble Call; or the burlesque scene mobilising people for Repeal.”
Of these citations, AMI stands out. Lovingly known as “Gay Christmas”, the bastardised beauty pageant ran for almost two decades, starting in Sides nightclub on Dame Street before graduating to the Olympia. In ways, these nights are filling an AMI shaped void.
Artistic Director of Project Arts Centre, Cian O’Brien, and winning AMI alum by way of alter ego, Mangina Jones, attributes the huge successes of AMI to the way it created a space for transgressive and subversive personalities in the community, and evidences parallels today: “These events are arising out a lack of something like AMI. Performance in queer spaces in Dublin is quite homogeneous, so these events give voice to a more alternative, diverse community of artists.”
Activist, DJ and ‘Godfather of Gay’, Tonie Walsh, who was intimately connected with AMI, agrees: “Few venues, gay or straight are willing to take a punt on offering a riposte to the mainstream fare that is a staple of our ever-contracting nightlife. Spicebag, Glitter HOLE and others fulfil many roles, not least their dedication to unapologetically queer, agitprop performance. Over time, these nights, if encouraged and celebrated, will become a significant launchpad for who knows how many distinctively queer careers.”
With a strong sense of time and place, these nights, their organisers and audiences, embody contemporary Ireland. Bound by a love of entertaining and the craft of performance, they celebrate the social change this country has produced while decrying the distances it has yet to go. Providing respite from a news agenda increasingly centred around division, an overwhelming togetherness reigns. For the ideas represented and the talent incubated, they should be seen as an essential part of any conversation around what Ireland is and what it wants to be. They’re here, they’re queer – get used to them.