This #TransgenderAwarenessWeek we look back at Ireland’s first trans group Friends of Eon

Sara R Phillips of the Irish Trans Archive talks to friend and trailblazing trans activist, Claire Farrell

Friends of Eon still from RTE Archive
Image: Sara R Phillips - Irish Trans Archive | [email protected]

“People came from all over the country to Friends of Eon at considerable expense just so they could be themselves for a few hours.”

I sat down recently with my friend and colleague, Claire Farrell, to talk about the early days of the trans group the Friends of Eon (FoE) in Dublin. Áine O’Connor interviewed Claire and some of the Friends of Eon for the programme Summerhouse, broadcast on 19th of August 1980 and recently reshared online from the RTÉ Archives. 

Claire has been a stalwart of the trans community for over 40 years, being a founding member of the FoE in 1978, and a Board Member and Vice-Chair of TENI for 6 years. Claire was central to the politics behind the advancement of the Gender Recognition Act in 2015 and still works hard with the Fine Gael LGBT committee to address the outstanding issues for our community. 

 We started talking about the background behind the first-ever trans group in Dublin. 

“I was a co-founder of Friends of Eon with a person known as “LOLA” in the late 1970’s.  In the mid 1970’s, I first met a small group of crossdressers, known in those days as transvestites, when I responded to a small advert I had seen in the Evening Herald. I cannot remember the exact wording of the advert but suffice to say it was clear to me what it meant. It may have been a box number and eventually, I was given information to meet some people in the Harp bar on the corner of D’Olier Street and the Quays. I and they were dressed as males and I was quizzed about my “dressing” activities which confirmed to them that I was one of them. For me, it was elation to meet others but after a couple of meetings, I soon realised there was a difference between us. These guys liked to wear female clothes for fun whereas I felt I was female at all times. I decided to keep that fact to myself initially as the opportunity to dress as a woman was more important for me at that time. Before this, I learned that a group of Transvestites met in a basement in Nelson St. on the northside of the city”.

I asked Claire about her first time out with the group. “An event was organised for my first official “Outing” in the rear of a business in Crumlin which was owned by a trans woman known as Alga Campbell. Alga was in fact a founder of the Beaumont Society in the UK which she ran from Dublin. The Beaumont Society still exists to this day, long after the passing of Alga. 

“Shortly afterwards, a trip to London was organised to attend the Beaumont Society’s Annual Ball, which I found exhilarating, the whole weekend in London as a female was mind-blowing. Thereafter I went to London several times with Alga and others, though once or twice I went there only with Alga and loved every time, as Alga could be very flamboyant and would burst into certain restaurants where she was well known to the management. Later, a similar event commenced in Manchester called Sparkle which is still held every year”. 

I asked Claire how they had then started a group – the Friends of Eon. She explained “It was after one of these trips to London or Manchester, that Lola and myself sat down in Bartley Dunne’s in Lower Stephen’s Street and asked ourselves, “Is this it again for yet another year” and armed with a copy of In Dublin we found an advert advertising a women’s disco in the Parliament Inn (now the Turks Head). Realising it was a lesbian event decided that the owner must have been fairly liberal and maybe he would consider allowing a trans event. So there and then we left Bartley Dunne’s for the Parliament Inn, where we met Frank, the leaseholder of the premises. We told him we represented a trans group and asked if he would consider allowing our group to meet on the premises. Frank took us to the top of the building to a disused room and told us we could use it and so we now had a meeting place but no organisation. We immediately set about rectifying the situation and placed an advertisement in the In Dublin magazine and the Ad suggested: “Come dressed if you like”. That was the beginning of Friends of Eon”.

 The first couple of years seemed to be busy and certainly exciting.  Claire became the first President of Friends of Eon. Claire elaborated “As I owned my own business back then I made a telephone line available for people to call on Thursday’s between 6 pm and 8 pm. This phone rang non-stop every Thursday for years.  

During this time RTÉ television became interested in what we were doing and asked to come to an event where interviews were conducted back to the camera. The interviewer was Áine O’ Connor (who is now deceased). Áine’s boyfriend at the time was Gabriel Byrne the actor, who came with Áine on at least two occasions to the Parliament Inn. There were interviews on the radio with Pat Kenny, and I did a walkabout and interview back to the camera for a tv programme called Summerhouse. All of this happened Between 1979 and 1980. There was uproar when one of our members was on The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne in 1979” 

“Some of those who came to Lola’s would come dressed as females and others would bring clothes with them and change into female attire, don wigs and makeup and relax for the evening. You will notice trans men were not catered for, not only that, we had never known of their existence”.

Claire adds “We had visits from a Garda Inspector named Barney Curran, who rose through the ranks and later became an Assistant Commissioner but while as an Inspector, he would give lectures to rank and file Gardai about transvestites and trans women based on what he learned attending Friends of Eon. Barney became a great friend of the group and some of us had his phone number in case we ever had a problem with the Garda or trouble on the streets. I can honestly say I personally never had any such problems”.

In the late 1980’s, Claire began to withdraw from Friends of Eon. I asked her why she had taken a step back from the organisation she founded. “For two reasons, firstly, I had become a Dublin City Councillor and was nervous that a journalist might want to do an expose on me and secondly, Friends of Eon was taking a turn I was unhappy about. We were seen in the early years as a help organisation for trans people and I had always believed we should have remained as such. However, the transvestites were very much the majority and were more interested in turning it into a private club for themselves, for having fun. I think I was proven right because it fizzled out in the late 90’s by then it was meeting in somebody’s office in Wicklow St. but all the while becoming very inward-looking. Also, Ireland was changing, there were many more opportunities to present as yourself in the 1990’s. Other groups, dressing services and clubs had started up. More and more trans people were willing to be out”. 

 Claire concludes “People came from all over the country to Friends of Eon at considerable expense just so they could be themselves for a few hours. Friends of Eon served a useful purpose for about 20 years until the arrival of TENI”.

You can watch the full segment from the Summerhouse programme on the RTÉ archives online here.

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