The history of Bridie's Bar: One of Dublin's first openly gay bars

Nestled in the corner of the iconic George nightclub is a piece of history. Brian Dillon gets the lowdown on Bridie’s Bar.

The interior of an empty bar, wood panel on the walls, rows of drinks at the back wall

Nicknamed ‘Jurassic’ because of its mature clientele, Bridie’s Bar is the original George. Barman Jonathan and general manager Sophie McDonald spoke to me about the history behind this often forgotten queer space.

“This bar was the original George. Some people don’t even know this exists and that there’s only the nightclub part of it, which is interesting, because this is where it started, not in there,” Jonathan said. 

Working here, Jonathan has gotten to know the regulars who have been drinking there since the bar opened 34 years ago. “It is really interesting hearing some of the stories from the guys who have been coming here for years. They would tell me that they used to have to pace up and down outside and wait until there were fewer people around so nobody would see them walking in. If people saw you walking in, you’ve outed yourself. When they were leaving, they would have to peep out the door to make sure no one was around. Everyone knew it was a gay bar but it was still illegal back then.”

“A few of the customers were saying that the clientele was basically gay men and straight couples who were cheating, because who was going to find them in a gay bar? So, there are a few guys who would tell me that there used to be a guy and a girl in the corner and they would leave all of the gay men alone and the gay men would leave them alone because it was like a hiding ground for both. It was a ‘we won’t tell on you if you don’t tell on us’ kind of situation.”

Bridie after whom the bar is named in male attire

“Upstairs, which is now the cloakroom of the nightclub, was kind of like a mirrored dance floor area. Sometimes the regulars tell me the things that used to go on up there might be similar to what would probably happen in the Boiler House today. You would come here to dance, to meet people, to get your first gay experience, and to feel free for a while. It was probably no different from any other underground gay scene.”

Discussing the old bar and comparing it to the bigger, more lively George nightclub most of us know today, the conversation quickly turned to the divide between the older and younger members of the Irish queer community. Sophie McDonald, who has worked in The George since 2006 and has been the general manager for almost two years now, explained how the younger generation of queer folk in Ireland can be somewhat disengaged with what the older generation went through to pave the way for the vastly more tolerant Ireland we live in today.

“I don’t think the younger generation understand the struggles that some of these older regulars in the bar went through,” she explained. “Obviously, there are still so many important things that we need to fight for, but I don’t think the younger generation really understand just how much people fought before or how much Pride means to people and what it’s truly about.

“I was recently listening to David Tennant interviewing Ian McKellen, and Ian was talking about how he goes into schools and talks about his experiences as a gay man in the ‘60s and ‘70s and just how different it was to how it is now and how he used to have to hide. He could have gone to jail just because of who he is, and the kids he talks to just have no idea about that.”

Bridie after whom the bar is named in male attire

Touching on the meaning of Pride, Jonathan added, “A lot of the younger generation just want to party during Pride but the older generation remembers when some of their friends died during the AIDS epidemic. Now, we have PrEP.

“I’ve heard interesting conversations between regulars in Bridie’s about their distaste at today’s Pride. The older generation may not like it because it has become such a party and they would have known it as a political demonstration. A lot of the younger gays don’t really know what it is or where it came from. A lot of them might not even know who the likes of Tonie Walsh and David Norris are. And they’re sort of living legends, the people who started the gay rights movement. The people who allowed you to have a gay nightclub and Pride parties still exist. Being in Bridie’s Bar, we are literally sitting among our own history. But because they’re just the older men who drink in Jurassic, nobody seems to care.”

The story of the LGBT+ struggle for freedom in Ireland proves to be somewhat of a bittersweet one. Although we should be happy that most of us can openly skip into The George and fall out a few hours later after enjoying a killer drag show and dancing the night away, it is a sad reality that those who struggled through much more testing times for Irish queer people are almost a separate community altogether. 

“I think there has always been a bit of a divide in the community. When I worked in the Front Lounge, I used to hear it being referred to as the ‘Elephant Graveyard’ because it was where all of the older lesbians used to go. There is such segregation and that’s probably why the younger gays don’t know their history. They don’t want to interact with the old men, but they are the first ones who marched for Pride. The first Pride where there was barely a couple of hundred people – they were there. The reason we are able to party is that these people who you would rather leave in a separate part of the bar are the people who got you here,” Jonathan said.

The exterior of Bridie's Bat by The George nightclub

Sophie added, “They were the ones who fought for the rights that are often taken for granted. For Pride this year, I really hope the committee does a lot of historical events, like the walking tour they already have, especially because it’s the 50 year anniversary of Stonewall.”

Of course, Bridie’s Bar cannot be discussed without talking about Bridie himself. The bar was renamed after the tragic passing of Bridie on Good Friday, 2007, dying suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. 

Sophie explained why his passing was such a loss to The George and to the wider LGBT+ community, “One Thursday a month, it was always Bridie’s night. He would get his makeup on, his feather boa out, everything would be on. He had all of these songs from the old musicals, DVDs and videos he would put up on the screen and it was everyone’s favourite night of the month. He was beloved. He would go on a night out and never pay for a drink because everyone wanted to buy him a pint. He knew everybody and everybody knew him.

“He worked here pretty much since the start and he passed away very suddenly. It was such a shock for everyone. He was the essence of The George and that’s why the bar was named in his honour. So the staff used to always have a memorial on Good Friday before we had to open.”

Jonathan, who wasn’t working in The George at the time, told us of the stories he would hear about Bridie from the regulars, “He would have been a huge character on the scene. Apparently, his wake and funeral party lasted about a week. Apparently, it was just like Pride, where everyone shared stories about how great he was.”

While Sophie pointed out how The George has seen a new generation of 18 to 21 year-olds frequenting the nightclub, an unfortunate truth is that most of them may be oblivious to the history that sits on the other side of the double doors.

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 352. Click here to read more.

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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