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Dublin: 6 °C Saturday 29 February, 2020

'When I started people would shout slurs': Inside the drag scene on Ireland's west coast

Drag in Ireland used to be a Dublin-only thing. Not any more.

FOR MANY YEARS, the conversation around drag in Ireland has tended to centre around the scene in Dublin, thanks in part to the proliferation of drag nights taking place in venues like The George and Panti Bar.

Consult your calendar on any given week and you’re certain to find an event taking place in the city, whether it’s starring one of our own performers (Davina Devine, Victoria Secret, Veda, Pixie Woo, Shirley Temple Bar, Panti Bliss and Dolly Grip, to name but a small handful) or a RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni passing through.

Nowadays, however, you can’t talk about drag in Ireland without mentioning the rest of the country. While they may not have as many drag performers, the scene has come on leaps and bounds in recent years.

Take Simon Carroll, for instance. Carroll has been performing around Galway as Kiki St Clair for seven years. He was first exposed to drag when he attended a bingo night hosted by local drag queens Dusty Flaps and Jane Eyre Square. Not long after, he saw Panti Bliss and Veda perform at a festival. He was instantly enamoured.

“I was like, ‘I need to do this,’” he explains. “It was empowering to watch.”

Dusty and Jane took Carroll under their wing and Kiki St Clair was born. He describes his drag alter ego as “a heightened version of myself”.

“I’m an introvert at heart but that tends to change when I’m in drag,” he says. “To this day I still don’t understand how I ended up being a drag queen. I wouldn’t say my day to day personality matches up with what people imagine a stereotypical drag queen to be. But there is no stereotypes in drag anymore, it’s becoming so broad with so many subcultures. It’s really exciting.”

@ Club Gass last night. The best atmosphere with the most amazing people. ❤

A post shared by Kiki St Clair (@kikist.clair) on

Having performed in Galway for seven years, Carroll says that the drag scene has made small, but significant progress.

“There was a period of three, four years that I was more or less the only queen in town,” he recalls. “Cut to last Friday where I organised a drag competition with nine Galway-based competitors. I was shocked that I had that many entrants but also extremely excited.”

“It proved to me that there is potential in Galway for a glittering drag scene.”

It was a far cry from when he first started and encountered abuse.

“Drag is cool now,” he says. “When I started it was not cool. I remember when I started first the gay boys in the club would shout slurs at me just because I was in drag. My own people. This would never happen now.”

He credits reality show phenomenon RuPaul’s Drag Race with helping to popularise drag within the wider community.

“Without a doubt in my mind, Drag Race has done wonders for drag,” he says. “Some queens may not like the show or agree with what it stands for but every queen has been able to ride off the success of that show.”

Nowadays, Carroll says he is able to gig at least once a week as Kiki St Clair. He also hosts a monthly club night and drag show, Club GASS, in Roisin Dubh each month.

“It’s a great venue with an amazing stage and a platform that Galway drag has never had in my time here,” he says.

“The Roisin itself isn’t a gay venue so we get an amazing mix of people at shows,” he adds. “That’s where I can see drag going in the next few years as the gay bars continue to close down. I can see drag taking on a more mainstream vibe with groups of like-minded people from all walks of life gathered together to appreciate the art of drag regardless of sexual orientation.”

Such an amazing night at Club Gass.

A post shared by Kiki St Clair (@kikist.clair) on

Like Carroll, Bradley Brock first came across drag in Galway as a teenager.

“It amazed me seeing this whole different character brought to life,” he remembers. “The sass, the glamour and the humour of it all just drew me in.”

The 22-year-old is based in Ballina, Co Mayo. He has been doing drag for the past six years and now performs as Neon Love.

“I started off like most baby drag queens and with a different name,” he explains. “But the more you do it you may feel the name just isn’t right which is what happened with me.”

He decided to rename his character Neon Love. Love was his original second name and he chose Neon in honour of the UK singer-songwriter Neon Hitch.

Brock explains that Hitch was raised in a family of circus performers and says he admired her “free-spirited character” as well as her fondness for wading through second-hand shops for props and costumes. He says this practice reminded him of when drag queens used to trawl thrift shops to find material to make their own gowns.

“Hence why I chose Neon. I thought it was fitting for me.”

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A post shared by Bradley Brock (@teambradleybrock) on

A few months ago, Brock and Neon Love were featured in the RTE 2 series Alison Spittle’s Culchie Club. Brock had no inkling as to whether his local community would embrace Neon Love, but was pleasantly surprised by the warm response the programme elicited.

“After that aired I received lovely feedback from my community which I honestly wasn’t even expecting,” he says. “It’s great to see a rural area being so open after growing up here. My younger years terrified me but this feedback has proven my fears were just monsters under the bed. People were so accepting of me.”

Brock now regularly performs as Neon Love at shows like The Dirty Circus and Taboo.

He says that things have improved for rural drag performers in recent years, pointing to the number of smaller towns and cities with their own Pride festivals and LGBTQ nights. (Indeed, Brock’s native Mayo will host its second annual Mayo Pride next month.)

He says that there are now a network of performers from drag, burlesque and more in his region, who keep in contact after they meet.

“It’s great to be a part of that community and see each other at different venues and places,” he says.

He says that while there may not be quite as many exclusively dedicated LGBTQ venues in the West, there are still plenty of opportunities for queens to perform such is the popularity of drag.

“Nowadays queens don’t only perform on LGBTQ scenes. They perform at burlesque show, pole shows, festivals. Even events for businesses opening and products being released. It’s very mainstream in recent years.”

“It’s a hard scene to get into but once you get your stage and a platform to start you just need to keep going and work hard.”

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Amy O'Connor

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