Tonie Walsh has just left the Light House Cinema after a screening of Yestergaze, a back-to-back series of seminal RTÉ productions centered around LGBT life in Ireland. For the prominent gay-rights activist, it brought back memories, some painful.
After nearly 40 years at the heart of LGBTQ+ life in Ireland he is, he says, thankful he’s come to witness a more inclusive society, one more honest with itself than the one he witnessed in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis.
“I wake up every morning and think, ‘Thank god I’m alive now, that I can actually see this,’” he says.
A New Narrative
Walsh turns his head. Those who stuck around for the Q&A following Yestergaze filter out of the cinema. He waves to a number of those who pass by, pausing to remember past acquaintances with others. He seems to know everybody, and vice versa.
From 1979, Walsh was heavily involved with the Hirschfield Centre in Temple Bar, Dublin’s first LGBT community centre.
In 1984 he became president of the National LGBT Federation. He worked as a journalist at the now-defunct OUT, Ireland’s first commercial gay magazine, and went on to found Gay Community News (GCN), which is still running today.
It wasn’t always easy in the years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. There was the time in 1984 when they had to delay issue 14 of OUT because their printers – the Carlow Nationalist and Leinster Times – objected to a Gay Health Action advertisement promoting safer sex.
It showed two man embracing, so they blocked it. “They used the existence of the criminal law,” says Walsh. “It was absolutely shocking.”
Another time, then Minister for Youth Affairs George Birmingham turned down an invite to open the International Lesbian and Gay Youth Concert in Dublin, says Walsh.
He “couldn’t be seen to support the event because it would be tantamount to encouraging criminal activity,” says Walsh. “What people did was that they used the criminal law to simply back off.”
Later a DJ and club promoter, Walsh would go on, in 1997, to establish the Irish Queer Archive, which he donated to the National Library in 2005.
It is now two years since Ireland voted in the Marriage Equality Referendum and that vote in May 2015, says Walsh, meant Ireland could have “honest conversations” about its past.
“But I sometimes think we still, as a society, have yet to appreciate just how utterly transformational we came to be in our country,” he says. And how tough times were.
At the height of the AIDS crisis, a time when Ireland’s youth were leaving in their droves, thousands had already perished from the disease worldwide. “I think we actually thought things were really hopeless,” he says, of the 1980s.
“I lost two-thirds of my friends and lovers. Two-fucking-thirds of my friends. There’s part of me that never, ever got over it,” he says.
But we need to talk about how people lived and died and survived during that period, too, says Walsh. It’s time for a re-imagining, in other words. It’s time “to write it back into our formal, historical narrative”, he says.
For Walsh, part of that re-imagining, of this reassessment involves taking to the stage.
Part catharsis, part entertainment, he has been quietly working away for some months on I AM TONIE WALSH, a one-man show centred around his experience as a campaigner, as a witness to massive social upheaval in Ireland.
It’s due to premiere next year and, as Walsh tells it, with a mischievous grin, prepare for an immersive experience.
Walsh has kept diaries since he was 16 years old. He’s 56 now.
Working back from 1991, he began by taking snippets from his diaries and posting them online. “It was a really interesting exercise and it helped us put some form on the stories we wanted to tell,” says Walsh.
The idea for a one-man show grew when Philly McMahon and Jennifer Jennings, from the alternative theatre-makers ThisIsPopBaby, got involved.
Though the show pivots on a very personal experience, with Walsh as locus, there’s a wider dynamic to the one-man show, says McMahon.
It’s early days, but as Walsh has pulled together early drafts of the show with the directors, he has discovered things about his past he’d forgotten. He looks stunned. “I discovered that I’d done crystal meth!” he announces.
“I’ve spent the last couple of years moralising about crystal meth going, ‘Don’t do that!’ and then I read this description of me actually doing it at a party in London. Oh-Oh!”
A “development-stage” production is due to premiere at Project Arts Centre in October as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival before a full production in 2018.
Walsh leans in. If you know anything about ThisIsPopBaby – producers of the critically acc-laimed RIOT – you’ll know what to expect. “We’ve been batting ideas back and forth for the past couple of months,” he says.
Director McMahon says that Walsh’s diaries are being used “as a jumping-off point”, offering tiny windows into massive moments. What started with stories spiraled into the pre-production phase. “The idea is to look at Walsh’s life as a lens through which to examine the rise of the LGBT civil rights movement in Ireland,” says McMahon.
Part of that will involve music – Walsh was a DJ for many years – and how it coincided with the movement’s rise. “The challenge is how we’re going to do all this on stage,” he says.
Walsh, has after all, lived through a lot. So his past provides a means “to hear about our own history, particularly the history of the city, the history of the country, a lived history”, says McMahon.
No One History
Part of this lived history is Walsh’s historic queer Dublin walking tours.
When he first took a group around the city in 2007 – highlighting key locations, seedy clubs, saunas, and other landmarks – his fellow guide and longtime friend Senator David Norris balked at some of stops on the tour.
“I’m not exactly sure what Tonie’s talking about but, yes, it all sounds very interesting,” recalls Walsh, in a pitch-perfect coy Norris impression. “Afterwards a couple of people said, ‘You guys are like a bickering, middle-aged couple.’”
That first tour had 150 people on it. “I remember Brendan Courtney coming up to me saying ‘You know what? There’s more people on this walking tour then there were at the first Pride parade,’” says Walsh.
There is now, more than ever, a “huge hunger” to uncover the hidden history of Dublin’s LGBTQ+ community, says Walsh.
And it is time to recognise the unsung and unconsidered. “I’m forever mindful that there is no one definitive history,” he says. “No single individual can claim to define history.”
That’s true. But you’d be hard-pressed to find an individual more involved, more emblematic than Tonie Walsh himself.
Wincing at the word “icon”, Walsh is as much a chronicler as he is an activist. I AM TONIE WALSH will provide a means, he says, of re-examining a period he happened to live through.
The show will be documentary theatre, pulling strands from Walsh’ own experiences and the wider experience of the nation. The latter, he says, is key. “This is, I think, one of the great values of the show,” says Walsh.
“It’s impossible to talk about LGBT history and all the social change without sort of imagining that wider reference, without being cognisant of this phenomenal change that’s happened in our society in the last 40, 50 years,” he says.