David Norris remembers Hirschfeld Centre fire in new episode of ShoutOut series

'Know Your Queer History' continued with Senator David Norris as he retraced the gay rights milestones in Ireland.

An older gentleman posing beside a memorial plaque

ShoutOut’s Know Your Queer History series has continued with the iconic Senator David Norris. He talks about what it was like being at the forefront of the gay rights movement in Ireland, the Hirschfeld Centre and his part in the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993.

The talk with ShoutOut is such a stark contrast to his early television interviews and highlights the positive changes that have come about in his lifetime in Ireland. Norris tells interviewer Domhnaill Harkin about his first television appearance.When I did the first television interview – with a gay man ever in Ireland – in 1975, RTÉ said they would film me with my back to the camera, in shadow with my voice disguised. And I said well in that case I won’t do it because the whole point is to show that I’m an ordinary person.”

The first question he is asked in that RTÉ interview is “Are homosexuals sick people?” underlining the vile attitudes Norris has faced throughout much of his life.

Norris also recalls the dangers of being openly gay in Ireland at the time. The Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar was first opened in the late 1970’s and was a meeting place for Ireland’s gay citizens, which had a transformative effect on the gay social scene. It housed a disco (Flikkers), a cinema, telephone befriending service (Tel-A-Friend), secretariat of the International Gay Association, a support service for parents of homosexuals (Parents Enquiry) and a café.

“On one occasion, I was working upstairs, there was a flat asphalt roof with plexiglass and I saw flickering and thought ‘oh something has short circuited’,” Norris recounts. “So I went up and somebody had poured petrol all over the roof, and they had got two barrels of petrol and in between it they had got a milk churn full of explosive and they had thrown up firelighters to set the roof ablaze and the idea was to heat the roof up, blow the roof off and send sheets of burning petrol down the walls. So about three or four hundred people would have been killed”. 

Thankfully he went up with fire extinguishers and managed to put the blaze out before calling the police. “Meanwhile the disco went on,” he laughs. Sadly the Hirschfeld Centre was not so lucky after a second fire in 1987 which destroyed the building and saw its closure.

‘Know Your Queer History’ continues this week with an interview with Katherine Zappone. You can watch the full episodes here.

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