Senator David Norris on the history of the Hirchsfeld Centre and celebrating Pride

Senator Norris believes the fire which claimed the Hirchsfeld Centre in 1987 was set as a deliberate act.

Senator David Norris in his living room speaking and gesturing with his hands

Senator David Norris kicked off Dublin LGBT+ Pride Festival last week by unveiling a commemorative plaque at the site of the Hirschfeld Centre. Opened 40 years ago in 1979, it was named after Magnus Hirschfeld – a pioneering gay rights leader in Germany whose work was destroyed by supporters of the Nazi regime.

Speaking exclusively to Dublin Live and GCN before the event, the Senator said: “I had started the campaign for homosexual law reform. People came to me and said, ‘We must have some place, we must have a social centre, you know. We really need it’.”

Norris spent weeks looking for a premises that year, before finding one at Number 10 Fownes Street, in Temple Bar. “I put up all the money to refurbish it and so on and so forth, and I put my house as security. Otherwise it wouldn’t have happened. When we opened there was the Project (Arts Centre) at the extreme end of Temple Bar. There was a barber shop and a pub. And that was it, full stop. The rest was derelict.”

The Hirschfeld Centre had a theatre, a cinema called the Hirschfeld Biograph, a restaurant, counselling services, a publishing arm, a legal service and a youth group. It was also home to Flikkers nightclub, before it burned down in 1987, in what some believe to have been a deliberate arson attack. However this was ultimately never proven.

“It was probably arson,” Norris said. “Because some years previously I’d been working in the office on the top floor, and I noticed sparks… There was a flat asphalt roof and I went up with two fire extinguishers under my belt. Somebody had poured petrol all over the roof. There were two barrels full of petrol, and in between them was a milk jug full of explosives. They’d gone down and thrown up firelighters and the idea was to set the roof ablaze, and that would explode the milk jug, and then the barrels of petrol would flow down the walls. 300 people would’ve been burned to death, but I got it out the fire extinguisher and then called the police. Nobody was ever arrested but that was clearly a deliberate act.”

Senator Norris, who was instrumental in the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, also recalled happier times at the former community venue. “We had the best disco in Dublin,” he said. “At one stage, we were running discos four or five nights a week… We really made an impact, you know. I didn’t know the music. I was more interested in classical music and jazz.

“On separate occasions I stopped Elton John and asked him for his membership, and then Freddie Mercury. I remember Elton arrived with a cohort of minions. One of them was carrying a very large bottle of champagne, and the other carrying a jug of freshly squeezed orange juice. The kids were absolutely thrilled! He had to go up to the office to drink his champagne.”

Recalling the night he discovered the centre had burned down, Senator Norris said: “I got a phone call at half past two in the morning. I assured myself that nobody’d been injured, the insurance was in place and that the archives had been saved. And once that happened, I just relaxed. It was good luck (that there was no one there). But if there had been, we would have caught it, just like I had before. I wasn’t frightened. I don’t allow myself to be frightened or threatened.”

“I think it is important to still celebrate Pride,” he added. “Just yesterday actually, I was passing a pub in Parnell Street, and a fella started shouting obscene abuse at me. He was very drunk, but you know. That sort of thing [still happens]. He just shouted, ‘Queer Norris, get outta here”. I just walked on and ignored him… I’m not intimidated but other people might be.”

This article appears courtesy of DublinLive.ie as part of their Pride coverage.

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

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