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The Vacuum Issue 11 spacer Issue 11
Mapping 100 Years Of Belfast Gay Life
by Jeff Dudgeon
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According to Roger Casement's diaries, from 1903 to 1911, the gay cruising areas in Belfast were at the Albert Clock (probably also around the Customs House toilet), Botanic Gardens, Ormeau Park, and the Giants Ring. Cottaging went on in Victoria Square in an elegant wrought iron edifice (which was still operating in the 1960s and may be in the Ulster Folk Museum) and at the Gasworks.
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From then until after the 2nd World War, the GNR station in Great Victoria Street and DuBarry's bar at the docks were recognised haunts, the latter, as in other cities, being shared with prostitutes. The blackout from 1939, and the arrival from 1943-44 of 100,000 American troops in Northern Ireland had a huge impact and special place in gay memories.
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The Royal Avenue (RA) Bar in Rosemary Street (the hotel's public bar, opposite the Red Barn pub) as portrayed in Maurice Leitch's fine 1965 novel The Liberty Lad (probably the earliest description of a gay bar in Irish literature) was the first in the city. It operated from some time in the 1950s being shared at times with deaf and dumb customers who often occupied the front of the bar. The two (straight) staff in the RA ran a tight but tolerant ship. Two lesbians, Greta and Anne, were the only females who in the 1960s were regular customers. At that time and until the end of the 1970s, pubs closed sharply at 10 p.m.
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When the Royal Avenue Hotel was on its last legs due to the troubles, Ernie Thompson (who has just died) and Jim Kempson, from 1974, ran, in its elegant ballroom, Belfast's first ever and highly memorable discos in Belfast (probably the first in Ireland).
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After the RA closed, the Casanova Club (prop. Louis Wise) in Upper Arthur Street (presently part of the British Home Stores site) flowered briefly until bombed by the IRA in c. 1976.
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Meanwhile the Gay Liberation Society (GLS) was meeting at Queen's University Students Union from 1972 with significant town as well as gown membership. Initiated by Andy Hinds and Martin McQuigg it was taken forward by Dick Sinclair, Maeve Malley, Joseph Leckey and Brian Gilmore. Later from about 1975 until the early 1980s it ran highly successful Saturday night discos in the McMordie Hall, attended by up to 300 gays (and indeed many apparent straights). Key helpers included Kevin Merritt, Billy Forsythe, John McConkey, and Michael McAlinden. This was at a time, during the most brutal years of the troubles, when there was next to no night life in the city and only gays ventured out.
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Cara-Friend started its befriending and information operation as a letter service in 1974. After a brief telephone service at the Students Union which ended in the switchboard collapsing, it moved on to a permanent telephone service in about 1976, operating first from Doug Sobey's flat in Ulsterville Avenue (Doug is still a C-F officer after 30 years). Lesbian Line and Foyle Friend developed later. Cara-Friend was grant aided by the Department of Health and Social Services, at Stormont, from as early as 1975 despite the RUC raids that next year with twenty arrests of key members of Cara-Friend, NIGRA and the Union for Sexual Freedoms in Ireland (USFI). Prosecutions for sodomy were set in train by the Northern Ireland Director for Public Prosecutions until the Attorney General in London intervened and stopped them
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NIGRA started in the summer of 1975 when USFI became corrupted. Early NIGRA Presidents have included Dr Graham Carter (who sadly died young), former life-President Richard Kennedy, and Tim Clarke ably supported by Sappho sisters Geraldine Sergeant and Maureen Miskimmin. A large number of NIGRA officers married and had children which was baffling for some. The Strasbourg case taken by Jeff Dudgeon to the European Court of Human Rights, which in 1982 ultimately resulted in the ending of life imprisonment for gay men, was started by NIGRA in 1975. P.A. MagLochlainn, current NIGRA President, has filled the post longer than any of his predecessors.
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From about 1975 until the early 1980s Gay Lib (GLS) met in No. 4 University Street, a large house loaned by the university, where Cara-Friend had a room with a telephone cubicle. It was in constant use for regular Thursday meetings and parties.
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The Chariot Rooms in Lower North Street was the first gay-run bar in Belfast, which was operated successfully, and with flair by Ernie and Jim in the darkest years of the troubles. It had its own disco. The reasons for its closing are obscure although it was well frequented. It is now the site of the NI Human Rights Commission.
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Off and on in the 1970s and 80s, the Europa's Whip and Saddle bar in Great Victoria Street was the city's only gay venue. Despite, at times being the only customers in such a bombed hotel, we were never entirely welcome and were ultimately driven out, At one point in the 1970s NIGRA mounted a picket because of a member being barred for some minor indiscretion like kissing.
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Due to Kieran Hayes, a gay staffer's efforts, the Crow's Nest in Skipper Street then became a gay bar with a small disco from c. 1986. After several makeovers, it changed its name to the Custom House in 2002 and is re-invigorated as a gay bar hoisting Men of the North events.
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The Carpenter Club in Long Lane (proprietors Richard Hodgson, Jeff Dudgeon, and NIGRA in a limited partnership) was an extensive, unlicensed disco and coffee bar on two floors operating from the early to the mid 1980s. Cara-Friend had offices upstairs. It was ultimately compulsorily purchased by the DOE to make way for the currently renamed Writers' (formerly Skinhead) Square. The Carpenter Club though gradually successful was ultimately vulnerable to any premises like a hotel on the skids with a drinks licence. Such licences were prohibitively expensive. Cara-Friend moved to new premises at Cathedral Buildings in Lower Donegall Street where Lesbian Line also has rooms and GLYNI and NIGRA meet. Both C-F and Queer Space have run Saturday drop-ins at Cathedral Buildings the former having had previous rooms in Botanic Avenue and Eglantine Avenue.
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The Orpheus Bar/Disco in York Street had a successful three year existence under the proprietorship of Ian Rosbotham in the mid-1980s, despite the rampant damp, and a short afterlife once renovated.
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The Dunbar Arms in Dunbar Link was firebombed by the INLA with drag queen Mae West being nearly singed to death. After rebuilding, it became the Parliament Bar, run by two straight guys, Martin Ramsay and Brendan, continuing as a gay venue with an upstairs disco, from the 1990s until 2003.
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One nighters have been operated since the mid 1980s in the Midland Hotel (Saturdays), the Limelight (Mondays), the Venue, White's Tavern (Wednesdays) and Milk (Mondays).
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The Kremlin, an extensive, gay-owned (by André Graham and Seamus) bar and disco(s) in Upper Donegall Street after opening in March 1999 has become the dominant gay venue in the city, regularly enhancing its facilities. Most recently they have brought property in nearby Union Street to house the men's health, Rainbow Project (formerly in Church Lane) and Belfast's first ever gay sauna, the Garage, in whose tropical climate romance blossoms. Sex in saunas, that is sex with more than two males present, will be legalised later this year thanks to NIGRA's successful campaign to have Northern Ireland included in the Sexual Offences Bill's abolition of the crimes of gross indecency and buggery. Its sex in a public lavatory clause is still being debated in the House of Commons.
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Remember:
Anthony McCleave * Harry McClarnon * David Templeton * Darren Bradshaw * Ian Flanagan * Warren MacAuley
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Jeff Dudgeon is the Author of Roger Casement: The Black Diaries. Publisher: Belfast Press, 2003. ISBN: 0953928721. Price:£25.00 The book is available from: www.politicos.co.uk
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