Gay man shares his story of coming out in 1981 before homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland

Although the tide was slowly turning in a relaxing of attitudes to gay people, 1981 was still a time when homosexuality was illegal in Ireland.

This article is about coming out in Ireland in 1981. In the photo, Pride flags flying in Dublin.
Image: Via Shutterstock - 4H4 PH

Irishman Colin Daly shares his coming out journey as a gay man in 1981, more than a decade before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland.

There was a lot going on in Ireland in 1981 in terms of politics, arts, music and life in general. For me, the year was about to change my life completely; I was finally going to “come out” as a gay man.

The tide had been changing since I was a child and there were gay events in the city centre that would be advertised in In Dublin magazine, along with personal ads for gay people. There was also the coming of the Hirschfield Centre. For me, this was like a monolith of gayness that represented all that I aspired to become and something alternative to the notorious “queer” venues of Bartley Dunnes and Rices.

Ironically, going to Bartley Dunnes seemed to be almost a rite of passage for red-blooded heterosexual young men. They went to see the queers, “the b*nders”, or perhaps to make jokes about 50p pieces glued to the ground. When the Centre opened, it was like a portal to another world that complemented these gay bars and somehow gave them a veneer of respectability which I may not have previously afforded them.

Although the tide was slowly turning in a relaxing of attitudes to gay people, 1981 was still a time when homosexuality was illegal in Ireland, and homosexuals were still queers, “b*m boys” and “l*zzers”, etc. I would make torpedo runs up and down Fownes’s Street, determined to ring the bell of the Centre and go in but always ended up running huge imaginary gauntlets and tilting at endless windmills before rushing straight by and promising myself that the ‘next’ time would be ‘the one’.

On February 13, 1981, I was working late in the office by myself and realised that it was the perfect opportunity to ring the Tel-A-Friend (TAF) number, the very first LGBTQ+ helpline in Ireland. I plucked up the courage to do this and, for the first time, heard the word “gay” used in direct relation to myself. Now I knew I was gay and accepted it.

I made an appointment to visit TAF on the Saturday afternoon of May 23. This, of course, was terrifying. All those gauntlets and all those windmills would have to be confronted, and then I would have to ring the bell and wait to get in. But it was too late to back out as I was ineluctably drawn into the bosom of the gay community. Finally, a young man called Tom opened the door and brought me in. It was a seminal moment and the start of a completely new chapter in my life.

May 30 was a massive occasion: I went to Flikkers for the first time. It was like being admitted to Heaven. It was a parallel world, full of real people that passed by invisibly during the day. It was friendly, it was exciting, it was sexy, and the music was amazing. It was Studio 54, The Paradise Garage and The Saint all rolled into one. On that first night, the DJ played Donna Summer’s ‘On the Radio’, one of my favourite songs of all time, and it was like a sign that I was now in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing. If memory serves me well, I had my first ever proper dance with another man that night. It felt like I had gone from the nadir to the zenith of my sexuality and was ready to embrace all that was thrown at me.


May came and went with its momentous events, and it turned into June with me as a fully-fledged homo. On June 2, I visited the Centre again, and on June 6, I went to Bartley Dunnes and Flikkers. I had become known as a new boy on the scene. I didn’t care what I was seen as so long as it didn’t interfere with me having a good time. I had spent my life being anathematised by “society”, so words no longer bothered me. Everything else that was going on in the world was extraneous to me – nothing but white noise. I was revelling in my newfound family, but I still hadn’t told any straight friends or family what was going on.

Over the next couple of weeks, I continued on with the rounds of NGF, Bartley Dunnes and Flikkers and continued to meet people and bask in the light of my newfound freedom. Then on June 20, I went to my first (and only) late-night party at Flikkers, culminating with “Breakfast at Flikkers”. It was a magical evening.

I had a very brief relationship around this time, but my heart wasn’t in it, and I ended it in August. I simply wasn’t ready to handle something like that. On July 25, I came out to one of my brothers, and to my relief, he was absolutely fine about it, so that was one less pressure to deal with.

July rolled by and into August, and little did I know that as suddenly as it all began, it was about to end. On August 15, I met my boyfriend again and went to Flikkers. I terminated the relationship and freed myself to be able to get immersed in all the goings on and shenanigans of the “scene” so that I could meet other people and have some fun… except that’s not what happened. For reasons that are unfathomable to me, I walked out of Flikkers that night and never went back – I only went about three times over the next couple of years, but it was just curiosity. I had absolutely no intentions of leaving the scene that night, I just didn’t go back. That was it.

I feel that the ending of my story of coming out in the Ireland of 1981 leaves me with a need for some sort of closure. I suspect that, as I left Flikkers on that final occasion in August, my confidence was ebbing away and I was losing the emotional energy to keep up what was essentially a charade. I didn’t make a conscious decision not to go back, but I’m sure that somewhere along the line, I was constructing terrifying windmills at a rate of knots and needed to step back and take stock of things in order to be able to move forward again.

The most important thing is that I had finally come out as a gay man. The gauntlets were destroyed and the windmills were trashed. Whatever the problems I would encounter in the future, I would be secure in the knowledge that I knew who I was and what I was; indeed proud of it and proud of all the people I met who had been so kind to me. In particular, I would like to thank all those people who put their necks on the line to achieve the sort of freedom that Irish gays have today. People like David Norris, Edmund Lynch, Tonie Walsh, Don Donnelly, and all the others. We all owe you a debt that can never truly be repaid.

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