Rashers Tierney takes a trip down memory lane and hears how a little known community centre and disco not only laid the groundwork for an opening up of Irish sexual attitudes but also dragged our clubbing sensibilities out of the dancehalls.
As the dust settles on the carnivalesque exuberance that is Dublin Pride, it’s hard to imagine that thirty years ago being gay in Ireland was illegal, stigmatised and dangerous. Back then an integral part of the underground gay scene was the Hirschfield Centre, opened up on Fownes St. in 1979 by the National Gay Federation. The centre was named after a German gay rights reformer, whose own Institute for Sexual Research was torched by the Nazis.
Dublin was a different city in the late seventies. The council had just ripped up Viking Dublin on the quays and discussions were afoot to raze Temple Bar for a bus depot. Lifelong campaigner, and don of underground clubbing Tonie Walsh remembers the urban decay well.
“It was on Fownes Street because it was so derelict. It made an ideal place for a gay community centre at a time when homophobia was endemic. It was important to get somewhere that wasn’t too in the public eye, that was a little bit discreet. Because of course you had to run the gamut of gay bashers, or people wanting to torch the place. I mean there were grills on it. A poet friend of mine, from Finglas John Grundy used to refer to it as ‘Fortress Fownes’. It looked like it was totally grilled. Barricaded.”
According to Tonie, Victorian laws cast “a shadow of criminality” that infected every part of Irish society. This failing of the legislature was echoed in a string of notorious murders during the period. When the killers of Declan Flynn walked free from court in 1983 it provoked outrage. A huge march took place from Liberty Hall to Fairview Park, where he had been viciously attacked.
Against this intense backdrop, the Hirshfield housed all the day time facilities typical of any community centre. Then at weekend nights, there was Flikkers. A disco for members of the NGF, that took its name from Dutch slang for ‘faggot.’ There’s a warm laughter as Walsh delves back to his first visit within six months of its opening.
“I was expecting some freaks, and then it struck me when I went in how incredibly normal the whole place was. It was a little like a parish hop, with same sex couples dancing to a slow set. ”
The Flickkers soundtrack differed markedly from standard Dublin fodder and Tonie threw himself into the organisation of the club. Paul Webb, a straight DJ involved in Flikkers, also found the place liberating – it opened him up to a music and a social cohort Catholic Ireland couldn’t fathom.
“Coming into somewhere like Flikkers it was just a whole new world it was brilliant, how do you explain it? It was was like being reborn – when you are going out clubbing and you don’t want the same twenty clubs up on Leeson or Harcourt St all playing the same 20 songs, down here it was a whole new world. You could experiment there. I used to play 12 inch instrumentals of James Brown with people doing speeches or raps over it.”
A real lack of alternatives propelled the Hirschfield centre and Flikkers into an intense hothouse of cultural and social fermentation.
“The sound system was quite extraordinary,” remembers Walsh. “they had gotten it right from the very beginning – and the reason they did was because Flikkers, the dance club, was the cash cow on which the whole edifice was actually structured; in a culture where there was no funding from the national lottery, there was no government funding for LGBT services, youth groups, switchboard services, publications and all that sort of thing.”
Owing to this crucial role, the centre set up a weekly fund for the DJs to bring in exclusive imports and a record pool quickly grew behind the booth. This was a very American concept, and as Tonie saw it “really well thought out obviously from some people that had done the gay party circuit in the states or had been to the Paradise Garage, been to The Saint and seen how this operated.”
The promotors took the decor as seriously as the sounds – recycling an RTE national song contest set and painting the floor in military grade armour clad black. Tonie has fond memories of going up to Stephen’s Green to collect leaves to cover the floor for one Halloween Ball. The space was alcohol free and E had yet to make an appearance, so the drugs of choice were acid, cannabis and tea.
“When it was polished and the UV lights came on, the black turned this sort of swamp green and with the dry ice, smoke and everything you could literally find yourself transported to the Dark Crystal or something. Going ‘where am I?’ This is quite amazing. Low ceiling. So it was always that little bit sweaty.”
There was a variety of nights in the centre, from women-only clubs to more commercial nights and fundraisers for progressive campaigns across the city. But Saturday night was when it hit fever pitch.
“We’re talking about 1979 and 1980,” says Walsh. “It is the high point of disco and paradoxically also the end of disco as it starts to go underground and take on board all the musical influences of the emerging techno scene in mainstream Europe.”
Given taboos around homosexuality, there was a certain lawlessness to the centre and according to Tonie the cops let it run to its own devices.
“When we had to phone them to come in because there was a scrap going on in the jacks or something, they would come in really trepidatious, there was a lot of hostility between gay people and the cops at the time with very good reason. And the cops had to run the gauntlet of three hundred angry homos all slow hand clapping them as they left the venue, all jeering or wolf whistling.”
The upside of this was that within a few months of opening the centre was holding all night dance parties. With the first all nighter they agonised over how many people would be left at 7 or 8 in the morning.
“We thought ‘ah there’ll be just a few of us and our mates. Twenty or thirty people,’ says Tonie, but “there was a couple of hundred people left at 7 o’clock in the morning. Quite extraordinary. What’s interesting is that there was a demand for people to dance their little socks off all night until 8 in the morning, and really to be taken on that fabulous musical odyssey and journey.”
Like any good social centre, the party and good time vibes of Flikkers had a “subtle politicising force” on those that went to it. Tonie explains further: “you bought membership of the NGLF to get into the venue. It was one part of a building that also had a library that was full of international gay and lesbian titles and magazines, both political and social and cultural stuff, so we weren’t immune to the developments that were happening abroad on every level. In terms of Iran trying to behead gay men for having sex or protests in Toronto over gay teachers being sacked or simply the club scene.”
Photographer Sean Gilmartin remembers taking photos there: “in October 1987 Tonie invited me to take photos at the Halloween Party in the Hirschfeld Centre. It never entered my head about the historic importance of the place in gay history. Such histories are made after the event. I was there to photograph. The Centre was jammed, which is what I liked, as I used a wide angle lens taped to focus at two or three feet at f8 so I could get very close to people. I photograph for myself. Those images where taken 25 years ago. Very few people have seen them.”
Much like its namesake, the Hirschfield centre had a tragic ending – burnt to the ground in suspicious circumstances, a few years earlier there had been a bombing attempt. Those involved like David Norris chased lottery money to rebuild the gutted centre which housed Gay Community News for a while. Despite being at the forefront of distributing information on safe sex techniques at a time when it was illegal, and awakening much of the city to the potential of the Temple Bar area as a cultural haven – no official support came for the Hirschfield Centre.
Webb has no doubt about the centre’s role in shaking up nightlife: “the people involved there grabbed the bull by the horns and changed Dublin night clubbing for ever.”
Many of the Flikkers DJs like Tonie Walsh, Paul Webb and Liam Fitzpatrick took the primary dance music DNA they’d forged in Flikkers and brought it to new experimental gay venues like Sides. But that’s a whole other story.
No plaques exist for the Hirschfield Centre, and MBT shoes has taken its place. Walsh still has the Flikkers decks in his den, they just about survived the fire – some of the plastic is melted. But they are perfectly usable – an ever resilient totem to how Flikkers forged community identity and strength when it was most needed.