A Historic Queer Dublin Walking Tour Ends, for Now at Least

On Wednesday evening, at Barnardo Square, beside City Hall on Dame Street a group of 20 people gather five feet away from bored looking Deliveroo riders.

One person in the group is wearing an eye-catching silver sequin jacket, while others are clad with colourful face masks, including one with a rainbow flag and another one with red lips set against a light blue material.

Standing at the top of the group is Tonie Walsh.

Walsh is a leading figure in Irish LGBTQ+ activism, and has been for over 40 years.

He was the founding editor of Gay Community News (GCN), Ireland’s longest running LGBTQ+ publication, and along with others, aided the set-up of the Irish Queer Archive, the largest collection of LGBTQ+ material in Ireland.

The group are gathered to see what he says will be his last walking tour of Dublin gay history, for a while at least.

“I’m gonna do my best not to cry but we have some really dear friends and colleagues here,” says Walsh, looking humbled.

Walsh has been running this tour since 2007, shepherding people around Dublin and discussing lesser-known facts about the city’s underground queer scene. He founded the tour, he says, alongside Senator David Norris during the annual Pride festival that year.

He flies to Turkey two days after this tour. It is there that he plans to write his memoirs about his decades of activism.

Before he jets off though, he’s taking this group on one last walk through the streets of Dublin, to share the history behind historical landmarks of cultural importance to the LGBTQ+ community.

“Here’s to all of you. Here is to the community and happy Pride,” says Walsh, lifting a cup of Baileys to the crowd as they cheer back at him and with that the crowd begins to move.

A Hidden History

Walsh first takes the group for a walk along the cobblestones past Dublin Castle. He stops at Dubh Linn Garden, a circular patch of manicured grass with Celtic designs paved into the green space.

He’s here to talk about the first known records of homosexuality in Irish history.

“It’s to St Patrick that we go to for the first attested written references to same-sex desire in Irish literature,” says Walsh.

Patrick was looking for a boat back to Wales when he came across two sailors in the port, who leaned over to him and said “come suckle on our breasts,” Walsh says.

People among the crowd giggle and some mutter to each other.

“I’m not paraphrasing. That is the actual quote that is translated from the national Irish language,” says Walsh.

What’s really interesting about this encounter, he says, is the spin that was put on it by cultural anthropologists and historians in decades and centuries to come.

This interaction was put down as a Celtic custom rather than just two randy sailors, says Walsh, which is indicative of how “LGBT history was buried, marginalised, made invisible and devalued in successive generations,” he adds.

The crowd then hears about the history of anti-homosexuality laws in Ireland.

The Offences Against the Person Act had convicted homosexuals hanged until it was reformed in 1861 and changed to 10 years hard labour, he says.

Following this, any act of homosexuality was outlawed in 1885 with the Criminal Law Amendment Act. This was the law, says Walsh, to an attentive audience, that sent Oscar Wilde to prison, and sent thousands of other gay men to prison between 1885 and 1993.

Bringing the Streets to Life

A break forms in the clouds now as the group retrace their steps over the cobblestones past Dublin Castle through an alleyway and onto an unusually quiet George’s Street.

There’s a break in the clouds that have been hovering over the group for most of the tour.

Across the road from The George nightclub, Walsh recalls a particular mural that was once painted over the entire ceiling, depicting men in skin tight jeans.

“It’s a shame that it was painted over , really” says Walsh.

Next, it’s on to Temple Bar, at Fownes Street Lower, where a shop named Tola Vintage now sits, but was once The Hirschfeld Centre, which played a crucial role in Irish LGBTQ+ history, says Walsh.

“The Hirschfeld Centre became a home from home for dislocated — particularly young- dislocated people,” says Walsh.

In the eighties, the building was host to the first lesbian and gay youth club, the headquarters for the National Gay Federation, a cinema and Flikkers Dance Club.

“What was beautiful about the dance club is that it allowed people to be themselves,” says Walsh.

Flikkers operated as a private members club rather than a standard nightclub that was open to the general public and run by volunteers.

The venue was able to play underground records or exclusive tracks from America because it did not have to worry about pleasing the general public, says Walsh.

“It had a rotten good sound system, like nothing this city had ever seen,” Walsh says to the group.

Among the group is Tim Cook. Dressed sharply in a navy coat and thin rimmed glasses he was also a prominent figure in the LGBT nightlife in the eighties.

He too remembers the sound system in Flikkers.

“The wealthier gays would go over to New York for the clubs. What started to happen was that they would come back with house music records,” says Cook.

These records were pressed on 12-inch vinyls. When played on speakers these records were far clearer than others.

The club ran for nine years.

Walsh says: “I went in there when I was 19, I came out when I was 29. I think that it was the making of me both as a man and an activist.”

He pauses between sentences. There is silence as he turns around and looks at the building.

“Sorry I’m getting a bit emotional now,” he says

“The building was torched four days after the Halloween Ball in 1987, which was the high point of the LGBT calendar,” he says.

That was the end of Flikkers but only the beginning of LGBTQ+ friendly spaces in Dublin.

The Last Stop

The tour goes through Temple Bar before it winds around the Olympia Theatre, where the crowd emerges back onto Dame Street, where things began earlier.

At this point the clouds have cleared into a crisp, blue sky.

“I just want to say that it has been an absolute pleasure facilitating this bit of time travelling,” says Walsh standing across from City Hall.

One person thanks Walsh for the tour and the work that he has done for the LGBTQ+ community over the years.

“There is still work to be done,” says Walsh.

People thought that everything was okay once the same-sex marriage referendum and the Gender Recognition Act was passed, he says over the sound of seagulls chirping in the background.

“But you still don’t see our history being taught in school so maybe that is the next thing,” says Walsh.

Back in Barnardo Square Walsh talks about his move to Turkey.

“I need somewhere that I can live cheaply and write full-time,” he says.

The plan is to knuckle down and write a memoir.

“I’m sliding for 60. If I don’t get it done now then I’m never going to do it. I don’t want to wait a few more years and find that my memory has gotten really ropey,” he says.

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Donal Corrigan: Donal Corrigan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers transport, and the southside. To get in contact with him, you can email him on [email protected]

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