The queen of gay bars turns 25
Opened 25 years ago at a time when homosexuality was illegal, Dublin's best known gay bar, the George, is now a city landmark. To celebrate its silver jubilee, Róisín Ingletakes a historical walking tour of 'gay Dublin'.
The bar, which celebrates its 25th birthday next month, was established by Co Kerry businessman Cyril O’Brien who ran one of the city’s first and most commercially successful gay saunas, The Gym, on Dame Lane. Interviewed in 1997 in Gay Community News(GCN) when the George was taken over by Capital Bars, O’Brien said he used to drink in the bar and was constantly hassling the previous owner to do the place up.
One night the owner suggested that O’Brien “buy the bloody place” and renovate it himself. So, on the lookout for a new business, he did. It opened as the Loft disco bar on the first floor in 1984 – Senator David Norris famously described the decor, with its trompe l’oeil of musclemen playing pool, as being like “a hairdresser’s brain” – and the venue expanded downstairs, becoming the George in May 1985, almost a decade before the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
It’s a sunny afternoon midweek, but the oldest and most famous gay bar in Dublin is busy with punters reading the paper or chatting. Outside, Tonie Walsh, gay historian and founder of GCN, has arrived to take The Irish Timeson a brief walking tour of gay Dublin. The tour proper will form part of the birthday celebrations next month, along with a slew of other rainbow-tinged events.
The last tour he conducted with David Norris, featuring a cameo by Nell McCafferty, attracted more than 200 people. He begins the tour in the lane beside the George, pointing to the site of the Gym, O’Brien’s sauna. He reminisces about the Loft, where the mirrors were different depths, creating a freaky funfair effect. In May 1985 the venue moved into the small room on the ground floor of the building that became the George. That bar is fondly known as “Jurassic”, as in park, a reference to the older crowd who drink there. If it weren’t for the semi-naked pictures of men hanging on the walls, it could be a traditional watering hole anywhere in the city.
In later years O’Brien expanded next door on to the site of Ali Baba’s Egyptian Cafe, creating a nightclub where the main entertainment – events such as Strictly Come Pole Dancing or drag queen Shirley Temple Bar’s bingo cabaret – now takes place. When asked whether he had a problem getting planning permission because it was a gay bar, O’Brien said: “You don’t look for gay planning permission, you look for planning permission.” Though gay himself, O’Brien’s venture was never a philanthropic gesture but a business proposition – and a commercially sound one as it turned out.
Apart from the George, the city’s only other exclusively gay bar at that time was the Viking on Dame Street. According to Tonie Walsh, management in the pubs around town were “happy enough to take the pink punt, but never, ever, publicly acknowledged their gay clientele”. It was a time when being gay or looking gay was enough to get you kicked out of a pub.
This happened to Walsh. “I was around 21 and having a drink in an indie club on Dame Street called Fives,” he says. “Myself and my first boyfriend were nonchalantly holding hands when we were asked to leave. At that time you couldn’t go rapping on the door of any equality agency.”
An article in a gay newsletter describing a pub crawl conducted by some gay and lesbian students in 1981 notes that they were refused in five out of eight bars simply for being gay.
We cross Dame Street into Temple Bar, walking to the site of the former Hirschfeld Centre, which, as a social, political and cultural hub for the gay community, helped create a climate in which the pubs that came later, such as the George, could thrive. Opened in 1979 and spread across three floors, there was a large dance club known as Flikkers, the Dutch word for faggot. The centre was also home to the Dublin Gay Switchboard, a cafe and campaigning offices.
“It was very cloak and dagger,” Walsh says of the Hirschfeld Centre’s nocturnal activities. “This was pre-decriminalisation and there was a huge level of antipathy on the part of police and State agencies, so much so that the club was a bit of a law unto itself.
“I remember on its first anniversary it held an all-night disco until eight in the morning. This predated the rave culture and the commodification of nightclubs. The police weren’t au fait with the fact that people were getting down to Gloria Gaynor until eight o’clock in the morning and having coffee and croissants as a coda.”
The centre was burnt down in 1987 in, says Walsh, “mysterious” circumstances. Our tour also takes in the former sites of Sides nightclub, Bartley Dunnes and Pygmalion, all gay bars that blossomed in mid to late 1980s Dublin. Walsh is fascinating on local gay history, and his talk takes in the early gay liberation movement, the horrific spate of anti-gay violence of the early 1980s and the George’s place in improving the lot of gay Ireland. “It was really important to have a safe space to gather. The George provided that when few other places did,” he says.
When, in the late 1980s, Declan Buckley, aka drag queen Shirley Temple Bar, first began, as he puts it, “coming to terms with being a big homo” the social landscape of gay Dublin was as grey as David Norris’s beard.
“Gay bars then were places of secret knocks and darkened windows,” he says, sitting in the nightclub side of the venue where every Sunday for the past 13 years he has presided, in pigtails, over the madly popular bingo cabaret event. Buckley was invited to be a resident bingo caller on Sunday afternoons after winning the Alternative Miss Ireland competition. “Back then it was just me and a couple of bingo book sellers, it’s now a cabaret show with a cast of thousands,” he says. The show quickly became a cultural phenomenon, anointed in the mainstream media as an original and entertaining afternoon out, and attended by fun-seekers of all sexual persuasions, including, in their droves, heterosexuals.
“I think it was timing,” says Buckley. “It began in the Celtic Tiger years when there was a general spirit of ‘yay!’ As it became more popular, people from outside gay circles wanted to come in, and that dragged a lot of people through the doors of the George who would never have been inside a gay bar before.”
These included Buckley’s parents and the straight siblings and friends of regular George punters. “That’s probably what I am most proud of, seeing people like that in the front row,” he says. “Before, there was maybe a fear on both sides. On the straight side, it was ‘I don’t want to go in there’, fellas thinking ‘I am totally going to get cruised’ because, of course, all straight men think they are so hot and irresistible to gay men. And then, on the gay side, there was a fear of being open and maybe being recognised by straight people they knew.”
He talks about the image of gay bars perpetuated by some straight people, of Village People-style characters in leather trousers and moustaches parading around shirtless. “People who’ve come to the bingo and the George see that it’s just regular people in a regular bar who are just having a better time than other regular people,” he says. “That’s been really important in terms of the self-esteem and self-confidence of the community.”
Last year the George went into receivership. A new management structure is now in place, and until a buyer is found it’s business as usual, the business of the George including plenty of “fantabulous fun” and “brand new electronic bingo balls”, according to a press release.
Over the years, hipper, edgier gay bars have opened – the Dragon, also on South Great George’s Street, the Front Lounge on Parliament Street and PantiBar on Capel Street – but the George has remained a beacon for the community, a reliable, if mischievous, elder sister.
As one long-term customer, who didn’t want to be named, said: “If you are a teenager trying to come to terms with yourself and living an isolated life, you know the George is there and you know that one day you will walk through its doors and inside there will be hundreds of people just like you.”
“There is nothing like the George,” says Buckley. “It’s open to everybody and anybody. Whether you are the meek, insecure, geeky teenage guy or the formerly married or the ex-priest, you will find some night of the week, or some time of the day, or some place in the venue, where you are going to enjoy yourself – and I am not sure other venues can offer that.”
You could put this down to silver jubilee hyperbole but there’s no denying that at a sprightly 25 The George is still the queen of Irish gay bars. Three cheers for that.
Editor, Gay Community News
“The George is at the cornerstone of the Irish gay experience. For most gay and lesbian people it is the first bar we ever walk into, which is a major moment in our journey towards self-acceptance, 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.”
Aka drag queen Mr Pussy
“Back in 1985 the opening of the George was very exciting for Dublin. The gay scene was very small and underground with only a few bars in town . . . I have had many great nights there with my celebrity friends, including Bono, Danny La Rue, Paul O’Grady, Lionel Blair and Sinéad O’Connor. Gavin Friday got the inspiration for his song, Mr Pussy, from hanging out at the George.”
Union of Students in Ireland, LBGT (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender) rights officer
“The George has been invaluable for many Irish LGBT people. Opened before decriminalisation, it was a safe space for people, and serves somewhat the same role today. The George is a place where you can go out with your mates and have a ball or, if you’re new, it’s a place where you’re guaranteed to get chatting to people – it’s such a friendly environment.”