Yo Georgie, it’s your birthday, gonna sip Bacardi like it’s your…well, you know where we’re going with this. As The George celebrates a milestone anniversary, we talked to a few folks about their memories of the place, what the future might hold, and just why the George is ground zero for Dublin’s gay community.
Words: Tanya Sweeney & Ciara McGrattan
Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss
“The very first time I went, it would have been the mid-80s. I was a college student fresh up to the big city and the Loft used to be tiny, with these dark UV lights everywhere. I was living in Dun Laoghaire so I didn’t go out too much, and by the time 1993 came around, I was living abroad. I came back to a changed sort of country (after decriminalisation).
My fondest memory is from 1997, when Shirley Temple Bar won the Alternative Miss Ireland, and got a gig doing bingo at 2pm in the afternoon. The George was halfway through its expansion at the time. Shirley didn’t have a stage (to perform on) as such; just a door she stood on. She and Annie Balls were just nuts, and it was so gas to see people playing bingo in the middle of the afternoon.
“Back then it was a much older crowd than now. People didn’t come out at the age 17 back then. Coming out was a much slower process, of course, as that was pre-decriminalisation (which happened in 1993). You still sort of had to knock on the door in places, like it was a ‘secret society. Now of course, everyone and their granny goes.
“The big difference back then was that it was so underground. Finding the gay scene was difficult, and for a lot of people, you looked at the small ads in the back of Hot Press. I remember meeting up once with 10 or 15 other nervous amateur gays to have a cup of tea and a biscuit. At the end of the meeting, some more seasoned gays took us to a gay club, Hooray Henry’s I think. In some ways decriminalisation was so underground and hidden, and that wasn’t good, but in another way that was terribly exciting.
“I suspect it’s always going to be very exciting to see what the future holds (for The George). It’s true that when I was coming out you had get up courage to go into a bar and find the scene. There were no Brazilian boys having sex on the Internet, no chat forums and no Grindr, I wasn’t entirely sure other gays existed, but when you did them it was too exciting to bear. Nowadays gay people go to Bingo in the George with their mammies and aunties. You don’t have to separate your gay and your regular life.”
Enda McGrattan, aka Veda
“In the 1990s, it was very exciting to be there (in The George) for me, because I’d just come out. I had kind of done some of the clubs before – places like Shaft. I’d been out for a little while but something within me was resisting becoming part of the gay scene. Times were very different then! To be honest, I was very pleasantly surprised when I went to The George for the first time at how friendly people were and how easy-going. I think I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder so I probably went there with quite a lot of attitude, you know?
“My strongest early memories of The George would be going to see Shirley perform Bingo, back when that used to happen in the middle of the day. Shirley and I were bosom buddies so we used to go out partying and to clubs together and her original bingo show really involved her just performing on the stairs (the stairs that we use now to get to the stage) which was mostly just here talking and performing dance routines. She didn’t do any lip-syncing or anything back then – it was more like ribbon or pom-pom routines and it became a really cult thing. There was a real feeling of family about the people who used to go there every Sunday. Of course, then we had this thing called ‘Holy Hour’ so they closed the bar for an hour and Shirley would play Bingo, and a lot of the time, someone you knew would win and most of the time they’d put the money back behind the bar and everybody would just drink it. So those are my fondest memories of hanging out in The George in those days.
“How I got involved was – as I’m sure you might know – I won the Alternative Miss Ireland and myself and Shirley used to hang out together and Peter McLoughlin, the then-manager of the George, who was always a friendly guy, and he just asked me one day if I’d like to take over the Wednesday night and seventeen years later, I still love it and I really feel very blessed to have the support of The George and to get to do what I do.
“I guess I love The George more now – my relationship with it has deepened over the years. It is a home-away-from-home for me and I feel like someone who has two identities; all of Veda’s stuff is in The George, they’re very accommodating in that way, so there’s an attic in there where there are three wardrobes. In my own house there isn’t very much evidence of her except maybe a pair of knickers or a pair of tights drying. So I feel like I really do have a home-away-from-home where there’s a whole other me who actually lives in The George and haunts the place. There is a real feeling of family between all the staff that work there but especially among the drag queens. We are like a coven of witches, we are like The Addams Family sisters or something like that.
“Last year I got married and all of the staff were involved in that, which was really special for me, but one of the most important memories are: the night before the wedding, I decided I was still going to do my Wednesday night show and people did really come out in force that night and there was a really strong feeling of love, which was very healing for me so The George has a special kind of spiritual significance for me in that way. People were so genuinely happy for me and that was in the run-up to the referendum and everything that happened afterwards, it just seemed so important. Also, that week my husband’s family came from Brazil and we’d never met, but they were coming to the wedding, so their first real encounter with me and what I do for a living happened at bingo in The George, when I first presented myself to them I was doing it as Florence Welch or something. And I was in The George! The way that they reacted with so much enthusiasm and how it cemented our relationship was important too. The fact that they – and so many people – now speak fondly of The George is important to me in my life.
“For me it’s so much about family. I suppose what I’m trying to say is, I brought my new family to meet my real family in Malahide for a barbecue but then straight afterwards I brought them to bingo to meet Veda and my other family.”
Dave Redmond, aka Davina Devine
“I did my first ever drag show in Mayo, bizarrely enough… I did my first gig in the George in 2003. I was 18 and nervous and didn’t want to put myself out there fully, so I did shows around the country. I’d never seen drag before but I was aware of Shirley Temple Bar and I’d seen her on TV. It opened me up to the performers at the George – Veda, Dizzy and Dolly, Annie Balls…once I saw it, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
“I went to the George on my 18th birthday for my very first drink. I never did drinking in the park or anything, so I started off on the Smirnoff Ices and thought, ‘this is wild’. It was a Monday, and not very busy, but I was just so excited to be in the George. As a teenager walking past, you were always hoping to see something. When I was in the closet, I was always curious as to what was behind the door, like, what is this wonderland? From the minute I went in though, it was easy to connect with people and make friends, and it’s still like that. A vital part of the George is the staff…they get to know all of their regular customers; sometimes they’re sleeping with you. There have always been relationships between customers and staff.
“One of the best historical moments was at Pride a few years ago, when there was a bomb scare (2007). The place was evacuated and everyone was ushered up the lane and under the canopy of Chez Max. Amanda Lepore was there, and she kept saying, ‘this is a joke, right?’. It was pretty awful that it was happening but we had so much fun. One of the first Madonna nights I ever performed at, in 2003, was chock-a-block. The place went ballistic and I thought, ‘wow, I’m really good at this’. It was the start of my whole career.
“Some of the older people take issue with the amount of straight people coming in, but I guess you can’t have equality without giving it to everyone. A lot of gays go to straight clubs, so we can’t really take issue when a hen night wants to come to the George.”
Tonie Walsh, historian/activist
“Cyril O’Brien opened the George as The Loft, and David Norris has famously described it as looking ‘like the inside of a hairdresser’s brain. It was very resonant of the ‘80s, and the George opened the following year in ’85. A couple of gay special spaces were coming on stream, and there was already the Viking and the Oak Tree. The Viking was Dublin’s first unapologetically bar waving a flag and claiming a gay clientele. Up to that point, the only social spaces were provided by community centres. Gay culture was seeping into public consciousness thanks to ‘90s pop culture, gender bending and all of that. There was a proliferation of wine bars, as well as one of two women’s nights and a monthly leather night, but there were few clubs per se. What passed for dance clubs in Dublin were little black and chrome shebeens on Leeson Street which were little more than a tarted-up excuse for a knocking shop.
“I remember going to a mixed indie club in 1982 with my boyfriend and I held hands with him. At one point the manager said, ‘I don’t want your sort of people in here’. We left, but I was bristling with anger.
“The two boys who ran Bartley Dunnes, when pushed to qualify their clientele that was 94% gay, went into denial, and said, they’re not gay, they’re theatrical’. The aura of criminality was so effective back then that it censored people. So there was a need for the qualities that a safe space offered. You have to have a space where people can go and meet, self-identify and end up with a ride at the end of the night. People can get picky about the commercialisation of the scene, but having places that value you and address your specific social needs are very important.
“One of my fondest memories, was going into the loft while I was working on a FAS scheme at Out magazine, and Oliver Stanley, a wonderful guy, had painted the most wonderful trompe l’oeil on the ceiling, of all of these fit homoerotic blokes playing pool
“I started running indie clubs in the ‘90s and gave the scene a wide berth for a bit, as it didn’t do it for me. From decriminalisation on, the sense of ‘urgency’ started to disappear. It sort of killed the edginess. By the mid-90s the scene was very lacking, very mediocre.
“I think Shirley Temple Bar has a lot to answer for when it comes to the ongoing success of The George. When Shirley started doing the bingo, it became the tipping point (where hetero people started to go to The George). Shirley helped the bar to mainstream itself but conversely helped save it and give it a sense of purpose as a performance space.
“At some point gay bars will become redundant, and you could say one of the reasons we never developed a specific commercial scene that you’d see in larger urban centres, was our population and the intimacy of Irish society. The George will always be there, because it doesn’t take itself for granted and manages to renew itself. If the George manages to keep that in mind over the years, they’ll always find themselves in a happy place.”
Declan Buckley, aka Shirley Temple Bar
“I was a student in DCU around 1991. I wasn’t really ‘out’ very much…maybe ‘exploring’ is the word. I popped in to the George, which frankly scared me a bit the first time. It was dark and scary and I was on my own, so it was pretty intimidating, but then I got to know people. I joined a youth group that was a forerunner of BeLonG To, and I met Brendan Courtney who became one of my best friends. With strength in numbers, we could handle all kinds. I had been to places like Bartley Dunnes and The William Tell, though their reign had sort of come to an end.
“I went to live in London and came back in the mid-90s. Brendan was hanging around with Rory O’Neill and he was looking for contestants for Alternative Miss Ireland. I’d been working with Katherine Lynch in coffee shops, and we were the worst waiters were but we did these impromptu skits and performances, so Rory asked me to do AMI. When I won, I was asked to do things as Shirley Temple Bar. The bingo thing came as a once-off for Pride one year and I was asked to do it again. 18 years later, I’m still at it. The first time I did it, I had a little bingo machine and the stage was on legs and was like a little divers’ board. I think everyone’s hearts were in their mouths.
“Because Shirley was this all-rounder, Irish modern day superstar, you can only imagine that Twink was Shirley’s absolute idol. One day in the late ‘90s, Twink was in the middle of her run for panto and next thing she comes in with a team of dancers and stormed in during bingo for this mad impromptu performance. The roof nearly came off the building. I mean, it shook. She got a 15-minute standing ovation. I mean really, where can you go from there?
“I think it has always been a slightly terrifying rite of passage for gay people but that might change in time. Society is more open and gay people don’t need the experience in that same way. But the legendary status of the bar and its part in gay history means that people will still come in, for the fun, and straight people come in to see what the fuss is about.”
Emma Parkes, The George manager
“I’ve been a manager there for two years, and I’d been going for two years when I started when I was told they were looking for a new bartender. It was the first club I’d ever been to and I’d just turned 18. It was like a circus, always packed. I’d never seen so many gay people in one place. The George is kind of like the beacon where people go to figure out they’re gay. Since working at the bar I’ve seen a lot of people from school who weren’t out when they were there, but come to The George all the time now. Even now, we still have our older customers, but loads of young people coming in with all of their friends. The first Pride I worked at the George I was asked to go on the parade float, so naturally I dressed as a German beer wench.
“I personally don’t think we’ve felt a dent in since other places have opened up. If anything, we want more places to open up and we welcome the competition. We love having Buzz (O’Neill) in to hand out flyers on a Sunday, and we like it when Pantibar’s customers come across when the bar closes at 11pm. There is no animosity. We’ve had a lot of new bartenders, and a lot of our people – Liam, Trevor, Suzanne – have moved on. The George is just like a family – we have couples in the groups, while others go out with the regulars.”
Buzz O’Neill, promoter, Bukkakke
“I think the story of the George intertwines with everyone’s coming out. For me, it was a case of a few false starts, as I was a very late bloomer. I didn’t come out until I was 29, and I was in and out of the George with friends, in my closeted years. In my early 20s I went in to Jurassic and had a pint, and that terrified me so the closet door banged shut again. Fast-forward a few years and the deed was finally done, and… actually I went upstairs and kind of hated it. I was going through some heavy stuff, and it was way too camp for me. Deep down the mincing queen was screaming to get out. Once I’d made that journey and I’d gotten over all of that, you couldn’t keep me out of the place.
“But the George always is and will be the same. It does what it says on the tin and isn’t trying to be anything else. It’s the mothership. You’ll usually find me there of a Wednesday, because I work weekends. Veda’s show is just brilliant, and she’s that step ahead of the curve.
“Sundays were always really massive. Back in the early days you wouldn’t have a lot of money so you’d go to the Front Lounge or Gubu from 5-10pm then leg is to the George before they started charging. It was only a fiver, but we all did it anyway.
“The whole scene is so much busier since the referendum because visibility and confidence has grown. What’s happened is amazing, but it doesn’t mean we need to homogenise the scene. There should always be a place for gay people, and there will always be people who will want to go hang out with them. On my own club night, some groups of girls are like ‘I want to play with the gays!’, and we have to tell them we’re not a petting zoo. But the George have always gotten that balance right.
“Suffice to say that my best memories of the George are non-memories. It’s usually me walking in with a cloakroom ticket on Monday afternoon, sitting down to have a pint, and then that Monday becomes another blurred memory. I think the bingo holds a special place for every gay girl and boy in the city though. The first time I ever saw the drag queens performing at the bingo, it was a bit of a ‘wow’ moment.”
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