To mark LGBTQ+ History Month, Damian Kerlin spoke to members of the community about how gay bars provided them with safe havens in their towns and cities
My friends and I walked up the street towards Pepe’s, Derry’s only gay bar, but none of us were talking as we replayed the date of birth on our fake IDs over and over in our heads, terrified the bouncers would suss us out if we stalled and that would be the beginning of the end.
I was 15. There was a dull bassline coming from inside the bar. “Date of birth please?”
“The 17th of April, 1987,” I replied, meaning I would have turned 18 a few weeks before. I knew that he knew, but he recognised that for many young people my age growing up gay in Northern Ireland, this was not just a gay bar, it was our refuge.
The thumpa-thumpa of the club track hit me and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I stepped into the building. My eyes adjusted and I looked ahead into the dark bar. At first, I saw nothing but swirls of lights from the dance floor as they washed across the patrons already well on their way to oblivion.
One guy winked at me when he caught me staring and, even in the dark bar, I was sure I was bright red.
The night is a blur of dance, lights, vodka, poppers and the echo of deep bass thrumming in my ears. I left late and had kissed two boys I didn’t know by the time I did. It was glorious. It was liberating. It was safe. I was home.
But it wasn’t just me. PJ Kirby, performer and one half of podcast duo I’m Grand Mam, remembers the same feeling of liberation when he visited a gay bar for the first time in his hometown of Cork. “I was still in the closet when I first went to Chambers, the main gay bar in Cork at the time,” he recalls. “I went with all my friends from college. It was overwhelming but contagious.
“I came out after moving to London. I remember being stood in Dollar Baby at Metropolis. There was this huge fireman’s pole in the middle and when drag queen Aquaria stepped out on the second floor, she jumped on to it, sliding down and landing in the splits. My pupils dilated trying to take it all in.”
For PJ, being engulfed in queer culture was the catalyst he needed for him to take pride in his identity, which he carried into a heteronormative world.
It was the same for Emilene Stafford, a 44-year-old pub owner from Dublin. “I was closeted for much of my life while living at home in Dublin,” she says. Emilene used to sneak to The George, which opened in 1985, eight years before homosexuality was legalised in Ireland.
“I would be petrified anyone would see me going in or out. It wasn’t until I moved to London and was taken out by my manager who was a lesbian that I experienced proper gay clubbing. London was incredible.”
Years later, Emilene launched a Pride festival in the rural town of Dungarvan, Co Waterford, where she runs a pub with her fiancée. The event is now in its fifth year and Emilene says there has been an “incredible” response from the community. “I’ve received emails from people who left Dungarvan because of their sexuality and mistreatment, who say they can now finally be proud of where they are from.”
The geography of Ireland has always played a factor in growing up LGBTQ+. Ireland is still full of rural, working-class communities, and for me — and I imagine many others — your experience of living in this type of community is twisted in unexpected ways when you grow up gay.
It’s a bit of a cliché to assume that it’s harder for queer people to come out, to fully embrace their sexuality and identity, growing up somewhere like Ireland. But just because it’s a cliché, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Brídín Ní Fhearraigh-Joyce (25) was in secondary school when she had her first experience of Pride in Dublin as part of a trip with her youth LGBTQ+ group. From Mayo, they travelled up by bus and told their youth leader they were staying with family despite having nowhere to sleep that night.
“We went to Promo, which isn’t open any more, but it was great,” Brídín says. “It was a much younger crowd, which you don’t seem to get as much now. It was very young-people focused. We had just finished our Leaving Cert and all the people we had connected with online through social media were there. It brought us and our shared experience together, which we could never do back home.”
Unfortunately, the closure of Promo isn’t an isolated case. Other gay bars across the country have pulled down their shutters, including Loafers, Ireland’s oldest gay bar in Cork, 31 Thomas Street in Limerick, Wilde’s Bar in Galway and The Dragon and The Front Lounge in Dublin.
“It is easy to be flippant about it, that these spaces only exist for a laugh, but they are important for our community because they are a space where you don’t need to keep looking over your shoulder”
As PJ tells me: “It is easy to be flippant about it, that these spaces only exist for a laugh, but they are spaces of culture. Our culture. They are important for our community because they are a space where you don’t need to keep one eye looking over your shoulder . You can relax.”
Queer bars and clubs offer a space to go where you have the freedom just to be. You don’t have to rush into placing a label on yourself or defining your existence. You can explore your identity, knowing that you are in a safe place. Fortunately, The Front Lounge underwent a renovation in 2016 and Street 66 emerged on to the scene and quickly became a staple in the Dublin LGBTQ+ community.
Owner Siobhan Conmy says she puts its success down to stripping it back to the basics. It’s a bar that doesn’t follow trends, instead flexing to the needs and wants of the community.
“The community gave us a chance, so without the community we wouldn’t be where we are now,” she says. “We all work together as a big team. We know everyone’s faces. It’s literally like a bar in the country where everyone looks out for you.”
Like Emilene, Siobhan snuck in and out of gay bars, worried that she might be seen. “Gay bars are for the whole community,” she says. “They are our own history lesson. Young ones learn from the older generations who would have hosted their own speakeasy bars in the 80s and 90s, and would remember running out the back door when the gardaí came knocking.”
Rory O’Neill, who is better known as legendary drag artist Panti Bliss, also remembers a much more underground queer scene. “Meeting others was a job for Jessica Fletcher. I mean, how do you find another queer person when everything is underground?” he asks.
He eventually came across an ad at the back of Hot Press magazine for Icebreaker, an LGBTQ+ group which met once a month in The Clarence Hotel. “It was gays trying to meet other gays in this awkward meeting hosted by two fellas. It wasn’t until the end when they asked if any of us wanted to go to a gay bar, that I jumped up.”
They took him and some of the others to Hooray Henry’s, which was a space Rory had passed hundreds of times yet had no idea “the gays met there”. It was revolutionary for him and that feeling of love, acceptance and being out and proud was what he emulated when he opened Pantibar in Dublin in 2007.
“We are a modern take on a traditional old-school gay bar, built for the community,” Rory says. “Pantibar is on the north side, which hasn’t traditionally been the queer area of Dublin, and although it took time to build the trust of the community to venture out, in doing so, we’ve created another gay-friendly area in Dublin.”
It’s not like before when the frontage of queer spaces were just large steel doors. You couldn’t see in or out. Many people didn’t even know what was behind the doors. You had to knock to get in, and if they didn’t recognise you or suspected any trouble, you weren’t granted entry. “I didn’t want that for Pantibar,” says Rory. “We are an out-and-loud queer space, a celebration, and our shop front of big windows is part of that defiance.”
And it hasn’t gone unnoticed, says Alan Fogarty (37), originally from Tipperary, but now living in Dublin. “There is much less sneaking around now. Pantibar has a big window front, which you can see everything through. There is no hiding,” says Alan, who in 2022 launched Clonmel Pride in Tipperary, where historically there has been little LGBTQ+ representation.
It’s been many years since my first gay bar experience, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. Much of the night is a blur. I couldn’t tell you what the guys looked like or any of the music that was playing. But I remember the feeling that I left with, this sense of self-worth, the affirmation that I was OK.
We joke that the gay bar is our version of going to church. And in a way, it is. Like a church, these are sacred spaces. As Siobhan says: “Even in today’s social media world, gay bars help those who don’t have an outlet to connect with their community. They give those who are still in the closet a chance to find others like them; you can flirt with someone and only fear rejection, not a beating. It is a place free from outside criticisms, fear and misunderstandings. The ‘how we do it’ is irrelevant, it is the ‘why’ that is as poignant as ever.”
The gay bar, in its many guises, will continue to evolve. Nothing will take these safe havens away from us. The thumpa-thumpa will keep going. We’ve lost a lot, but as Panti says “we won’t lose our souls too”.
Damian Kerlin’s docu-series podcast Memories From The Dance Floor is out now.