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'I'll never forget it': Activist Tonie Walsh looks back on the fire that destroyed Ireland's first gay community centre

“It had a side alley to Dame Street which made it comfortably covert for those still in the closet who’d rock up to the building,” says Walsh.

Tonie Walsh at the National Gay Federation's annual conference at the Hirschfeld Centre, 1985.
Tonie Walsh at the National Gay Federation's annual conference at the Hirschfeld Centre, 1985.

TONIE WALSH WENT to Fownes Street in Temple Bar early on the morning of 5 November 1987, he recalls. 

The Hirschfeld Centre – Ireland’s first LGBT community space – was smoldering after a fire. 

“David Norris was already on hand,” says Walsh, who’s about to put his 40 years of gay-rights activism on stage in I AM TONIE WALSH.

“The place was still dripping with water and full of acrid smoke. People spent the whole day coming down and laying flowers on the pavement as a memorial to the building.”

“People were actually shocked. At a stroke it cut off access to our prime social space in Dublin. It was horrible. I’ll never forget it.

‘Up in smoke’

There is much that Walsh remembers. 

As a chronicler of Ireland’s gay history, he established the Irish Queer Archive in 1997, has worked as a DJ and club promoter and kept diaries since he was 16. 

Through his queer Dublin walking tours, Walsh has kept alive the history of his – and many others – culture and the struggle for gay rights.  

Having premiered a work-in-progress last year, Walsh’s one-man-show kicks off on 27 November at Project Arts Centre. 

It is, says Walsh, “an emotional rollercoaster”.

At least it was for me. I think it will be for the audience who don’t know what’s coming.

Co-written with ThisIsPopBaby’s Philly McMahon, and directed by Tom Creed, I AM TONIE WALSH is a tragicomedy about social change in Ireland.

While bawdy humour abounds, says Walsh, there is a serious reflection on a period in Ireland’s history Walsh says we have yet to come to terms with. 

I feel we’ve never sufficiently addressed the legacy of the AIDS crisis.

‘Home from home’

It was a time when the Hirschfeld Centre – which burnt down 31 years ago next week -was the locus of Ireland’s gay scene. “It was a reconditioned warehouse in a street that was half-derelict,” says Walsh, who signed up in 1981 and still has his “Hirsch” membership card.

“It had a side alley to Dame Street which made it comfortably covert for those still in the closet who’d rock up to the building”.

For the men and women who visited Fownes Street in those days, the centre’s purpose was threefold, says Walsh.

It acted as a default commercial scene in the absence of any commercial scene, he says. 

It was also “a home from home” for young gay people who’d been turfed out of their houses. The centre opened on Christmas day for those with nowhere else to go. 

It was, says Walsh, “a logical family in place of a biological family”.

Thirdly, the centre also attained a politicised quality over time and was integral to the development of gay bar culture in Dublin.  Inside there was a dance club, a coffee bar and a cinema.

At weekends there was Flikkers, a disco. The original turntables form part of the set of I AM TONIE WALSH. “They’re sitll smoke-stained actually. They reek of history,” says Walsh.

When the “Hirsch” burnt down it would be another 10 years before Dublin had a similar community centre.

The fire was “traumatic”, says Walsh, who is currently rehearsing his own history ahead of next month’s show. 

Book-ended by 2015′s Marriage Equality referendum and this year’s Repeal the 8th vote, Walsh feels that something has changed in Ireland. A move, he says, towards a socialist republic envisioned in 1916. 

I AM TONIE WALSH, he says, draws on his own experience but that of the country as well and appeals to wide demographic both in terms of age and gender. 

It appeals across the board.

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