Category Archives: Features

Enter The Dragon – Remembering one of Dublin’s most iconic queer venues

This story was originally published in GCN Issue 361 under the title ‘Enter The Dragon.’ It was later published online on GCN’s website.


With a stage positioned 12 feet above the bar, and nothing but flimsy scaffolding to prevent performers from toppling onto the crowd below, mishaps were plentiful and often expected. So how is it that The Dragon, a place so haphazard in design and atmosphere, is remembered so fondly by its former patrons?

Located on 64 South Great George’s Street, The Dragon was one of two dedicated queer nightclubs in Dublin until its closure in 2015. It was youth-focused and, at times, chaotic – mainly due to the club’s unusual layout.

Samuel Riggs moved from Carlow to Dublin in 2011. He first visited The Dragon with Trinity College’s Q-Soc, on whose committee he worked as Public Relations Officer. “My first impression of it was ‘This place is a labyrinth.’ You used to go through the front door, and go through, like, a corridor, and there were all these doors going off of it, and you had to go up one stairs, where everyone was congregating on the little platform, and you went up another stairs, and that was the actual dance floor, which was always just so wet. Yeah, my first memories were, ‘I’m drunk, I’m never going to find my way out of this place, this is insane.’”

The club’s unusual design was often a bone of contention for many of its patrons and performers. Philip Keogh, better known to the Dublin queer scene as his drag persona Victoria Secret, hosted numerous events, including Deal or No Deal and Dragged Up. “It was one of the most awful performance spaces you could imagine,” he says. “It wasn’t exactly the easiest space to work around. They made the most with what they had because when you’ve got such a narrow, long building, it’s very easy for that building not to have any atmosphere in it.”

Echoing Keogh’s sentiments is Cormac Cashman, who ran the queer student night PrHomo out of the Dragon every Thursday. “There was a seating area up the front, done out in this tacky Eddie Rocket’s style red, the rest of the venue was kind of a different red that you might find in a burlesque venue. The DJ was facing the staircase that took you upstairs, so you couldn’t really dance in front of them. The DJ would then turn towards the dance floor, but directly in their eye line was the ceiling for upstairs, so it was just a weird, structurally-strange, place.”

Having the stage above the bar meant many patrons had to crane their necks to see performers. However, the performers that The Dragon drew in were fresh and exciting.

Noted Dublin performer and Ireland’s Got Talent semifinalist Paul Ryder viewed the performance space as a rite of passage for queer entertainers: “As drag queens, as performers, I think we’re just thrust into a situation sometimes and told ‘That’s your stage, there you go.’

“I’ve performed on beer crates, I’ve performed on unbelievable stages, so that’s part of your art, and that’s part of your internship in this world, to get out and entertain the crowd in whatever way possible.” While the space was difficult to perform in, it often encouraged creativity, as Ryder elaborates: “You look at the likes of legends like Pixie Woo who climbed the bars for the first time… Then you go to the latter end of the scale, where you’ve got Shannon O’Hara who fell off.”

Shannon O’Hara has entered drag infamy for attempting to climb onto the scaffolding, only to fall off the stage and onto the audience below. At the time of writing, the video of her fall has been viewed over 14,000 times online. “From what I hear, even RuPaul has seen that video,” Keogh says. “The most interesting part was that she got up and kept lip-syncing even after falling.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that bitch is in the south of France living her best life, being like, ‘Do you remember Shannon O’Hara,’ as she smokes a cigarette and wears a beret,” jokes Ryder.

Ryder created The Ringmaster’s Drag Race, which was a staple of The Dragon when it was in its infancy. In its second year, he was asked who he would want for the final. After toying with the idea of inviting reality stars, he eventually contacted the manager of RuPaul’s Drag Race legend, Jujubee. “She was only delighted to come, and it was funny because the fee that was charged back then is nowhere near the fee that is charged now,” he says.

“And we had never heard of an American drag queen coming over to Europe. These were people we could only ever see online or on social media or through a television show we watched at one o’clock in the morning and we had her in the building and it was such an experience. The Dragon was the first-ever club to book a Drag Race queen in Europe.”

From then on, The Dragon regularly booked performers from around the world. This included the likes of Drag Race stars Willam, Carmen Carrera (who stripped naked on the club’s stage), Alaska Thunderfuck, Shangela, Latrice Royale, Jinkx Monsoon and Michelle Visage, as well as pop acts such as Little Mix, Neon Jungle and Alexandra Burke. “We had DWV for one of their last gigs, and on that show, I fell off a wrecking ball and broke my wrist,” remembers Keogh. “My dancers had to take my boots off at the end of the night so I could go to A&E.”

The Dragon also helped foster home-grown Irish queer talent. Ryder elaborates: “When I started, there was no real room for something different. Everybody wanted to see the usual drag they saw on the circuit. It was the place where my drag kind of began, because I had just started my own style of drag, and it was new to the Irish scene, especially trying to attempt that club kid gender-fuck. The Dragon for me was a blank canvas of, ‘Okay, you’ve been given this opportunity so you can try anything.’ It was a place of trial and error with regard to what was working on the scene and what was new and fresh and different.”

With a strong youth focus with events like the weekly student night PrHomo, The Dragon is a place remembered most fondly by queers who came of age in the climate of marriage equality and Repeal. On this, Samuel Riggs says, “I was like – finally I can relax into my identity, and The Dragon was a huge part of that. It was space where you could be a little more sexual, and it was where I really cut my teeth on Public Displays of Affection for the first time. And that was really important.”

Photographer Eleanor Rogers visited The Dragon a number of times in 2014. She had her first-ever kiss with a girl there. “My class in college were going out to D2 and it was over 19’s,” she recalls. “Me and another guy in my class, we lost everyone. I had been having a pretty rough time starting college because I was struggling with my sexuality, and it was at the stage where it was hanging on my shoulders. I hadn’t come out to anyone. I remember blurting it out.”

She continues: “The guy I told wasn’t even a close friend, but he was gay, so I felt comfortable telling [him]. He said we should go to The Dragon. I was wary at first and was like ‘No,’ but he said, ‘You never know, something might arise that you can test it.’ We made our way to the Dragon and it was like entering an underground world that felt wrong but right. I remember a girl was eyeing me up. It literally felt like taking the plunge, and we kissed. It was one of the most intense things ever. I’ll always remember that night so fondly, from talking to so many people in the smoking area about my confusing feelings, and everyone being so chill and not batting an eyelid. It was so strange for a country bumpkin being in this world for the first time.”

The Dragon’s closure marked the end of an era. It was the loss of one of the few dedicated queer spaces in the city. “Some of us mourn that place,” says Ryder. “The night it closed I was home at one o’clock because I couldn’t hold in the tears and I cried. It was the beginning of the end of some queer culture because we were losing venues, and club nights started to close down. I think we’re beginning to pick up and I think we’re a fresher culture than some cities, but it was a hard time when it closed down.”

In the years since The Dragon’s closure, Dublin has indeed seen a surge in club nights. Although there are now fewer dedicated queer spaces in the city, the club scene has found ways to thrive. “It’s important that we have spaces to come together, but the venue isn’t what’s important about it,” says Cormac Cashman. “What’s important about it is the people who are there, and the memories you create. It’s not necessarily tied to the venue, but to the queer community itself.”

Pride in the family: Irish LGBT+ siblings share their experiences

This article was originally published in the Gay Community News (GCN) Pride issue #355, dated July 2019. It was later published on GCN‘s website.

In post Marriage Referendum Ireland, LGBT+ issues are no longer discussed in hushed tones, and the likelihood of someone knowing an LGBT+ person in their family has increased tenfold.

In fact, a huge part of the campaign for Yes saw activists reach out to their families to have frank conversations about how a Yes vote would affect them. The hashtag #RingYourGranny caught on like wildfire.

For many LGBT+ people, this was a turning point: To ensure equality in civil marriage, they had to make their lives, and the lives of their friends, the focal point of conversation. They had to tell people, ‘This is about me’. Some had never had to do that with their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles before.

The stories of LGBT+ people and their families (biological or otherwise) have been documented in everything from books and TV to YouTube videos and podcasts.

However, it’s rare to hear stories from LGBT+ people who grew up with LGBT+ siblings. How do their stories differ from the expected narrative?

 

Luke and Declan Faulkner

At first glance, Luke and Declan Faulkner are very similar: They are funny, eccentric, and expressive. Sitting in a café in Rathmines, they bounce off each other rapid-fire like a queer comedic duo and seem to have a common understanding of each other’s personality quirks.

This was not always the case, as Declan informs me: “[Growing up], I didn’t really like Luke and he didn’t really like me either.”

According to Luke, this was due to the pair’s age gap: “My sister is two years younger than me, and Declan is five years older. When you’re a child, there’s a bigger age gap. Me and [my sister] were loud and annoying.”

Maturity is one reason for their newfound rapport. Another links the two in a bigger way. “I didn’t come out until I was 18, even to myself,” Declan says. “I could even pick the date on the calendar where I said it to myself.”

“I came out to myself, and then Declan came out,” Luke says. “And I was like, ‘oh I’m going back into the closet now’ [because] I felt like there can’t be two […] Then around 15 or 16 I went, ‘ah, no’.”

While Luke had no qualms about acting ‘different’ with his family and in school – by way of having a friend circle exclusively comprised of girls – Declan felt a larger pressure to conform to the norm. “I was more sociopathic. You have all these coping mechanisms to get you through, to avoid the shame.” He continues, “When [Luke] was a child, I would say that he didn’t like football, and we lived in a little GAA suburb, and that’s as good as saying, ‘I want to murder 10 million people. [He] didn’t really care about social suicide, whereas I was like, ‘what tools have I got to get through this’?”

“Declan said that I was in the closet with the door open,” says Luke.

The pair’s watershed moment came when Declan threw a house party while their parents were away. Luke had just turned 18 and was finally allowed to stay up with his brother.

Declan recalls, “I asked you if you were bisexual because I thought that might be a way to get you to open up, just to confirm it, even though I knew. It was up to me to open that dialogue.”

Once the brothers had both come out, it began to feel like their family came closer together.

“That was when the family could really begin,” Declan says. “It felt like this tiny little drawer that needed to be pulled open.”

Luke elaborates: “It’s a lot more united.”

Although Declan has always felt a degree of responsibility towards his younger brother, he always knew that he would be okay: “It was clear that he was mature enough. I admire him.”

Family photo of a new born baby on a bed, his brother beside him. A VHS tape between them
Luke and Declan

Mike and Naoise Dolan

In their youth, brother and sister Mike and Naoise Dolan had a nebulous sense of feeling different.

“The earliest signs of non-straightness were kind of on the gender-conforming side of things,” Naoise says. “Not so much wanting to do traditionally coded masculine things as not wanting to do traditionally coded feminine things.”

Mike agrees: “Where it would be different for LGBT+ siblings growing up who are the same gender, for us it was experiencing gender variants towards the other person’s direction. I think, to go back into that mindset, there may have been some latent jealousy that Naoise was able to access forms of experience and expression that I wasn’t able to.”

Naoise came out in her third year of college, when Mike, who still hadn’t told his family, was in his sixth year of secondary school.

“Naoise just randomly slipped it into the conversation, like, ‘oh, by the way, I’m gay,’ and just kind of moved on,” he remembers.

“It was a very disarming moment because obviously, in my mind, I had coded my story as being ‘the only one’ and feeling isolated, so it was really strange to discover that, not only was there one other one I knew, but they live in the same house and are my sister.”

Although Naoise’s coming out paved a path that Mike would soon follow, he says the five years between him realising he was gay and Naoise opening up about her sexuality still weighed on him. “I think a lot of the damage tends to be done when you’re a lot younger,” he says. “And I was still in a secondary school environment that was no longer as actively homophobic as it used to be, but was still a place where I did not feel comfortable sharing that about myself.”

Naoise attended the same school as Mike and outlines the difference a few years can make. “It was a mixed school, and even in the three or four years above mine it was still actively homophobic then. I feel like it has changed pretty precipitously in that sense.”

Mike and Naoise, self-defined private people, have never shared a watershed moment where they addressed both of them being LGBT+. “We had a lot of the same friends in college, so he just never needed to come out to me,” Naoise says.

“I think we just started talking about it without realising,” Mike elaborates. “I think we started talking about the cultural aspects of our identities more… so it was probably something about RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

When asked if both of them being LGBT+ has brought them closer together, she responds almost instantly with an enthusiastic – “Definitely.”

Mike continues: “I definitely feel like it’s something that’s a defining feature of my personality. If it wasn’t something we were able to discuss at all, that neither of us knew about each other.“

“It would just feel insane,” Naoise interjects.

Family photo: a toddler holding a football and a little girl with a guitar, both sitting on the ground
Mike and Naoise

Maria McGrath

Maria McGrath is currently working towards a degree in Creative Music Production in NCAD. She is originally from Galway. She is LGBT+ and older than her sister, who is bisexual.

“We’re very lucky to have a father who does not give a fuck as long as we don’t kill someone. He’s very vocal on his belief that you should not be homophobic, he is very vocal on his belief in gay marriage. He has never given me a reason to think he would never accept my sister or accept me.”

When Maria was a teenager, her mother passed away. Her sister was 10. “I don’t want to say I was a mother to her,” Maria says. “It was more so that I had to parent her a little bit more.” She did not feel concerned about her family knowing her sister was bi: “I don’t think either of us experienced homophobia in the way that other people do if they’d grown up in a conservative family.”

Although only five years older, she has noticed striking differences between her coming out experience and that of her sister’s: “When I came out, I was rejected, and I had people who said, ‘I don’t want to be your friend.’ By the time she came out, the referendum had passed, Glee was on.”

Kate Butler

Kate Butler is 25. She grew up on a farm in rural Roscommon. She is the middle child of three and currently works in Dublin. Kate is younger than her brother, who is gay.

“I came out as gay to my parents on Saturday, October 11, 2014,” says Kate. “I only realised after the fact that this is National Coming Out Day. They were very open minded and my mam does a lot of work with and around LGBT+ young people.”

She continues: “I was still insanely nervous, as I think most people are, because even when you know your parents haven’t a problem with these things, you are kind of challenging the idea of your future that they had in their head and sometimes
I think that can be the part some parents struggle with.”

Kate, who came out before her brother, feels her open minded family environment may have eased the pressure on her sibling. “In a way I can imagine that it made it a little easier for him because he could see that our parents would be okay with it; but, I’m sure he still had his own concerns. My parents were always going to support us no matter what [but] he was experiencing it as the eldest and only boy in our family, and there are underlying societal expectations for boys in rural Ireland.

“Growing up he carried more of the stereotypes of being gay whereas I think I was kind of lucky because I coasted along in the background and I got to work everything out for myself in my own time. I think there was a lot more pressure for him. 

“I think sometimes people think that because you’re born gay you always know you’re gay but it’s hardly ever that easy and it can make the coming out process very difficult when people are pushing their own opinions and expectations on you.”

Coming out in the country: Growing up LGBT+ in rural Ireland

This article was originally published on the Gay Community News (GCN) website on .

I still lived in rural Ireland when I came out. I was 18.

The fifth person I told was my counsellor. We were sitting facing each other in an old renovated house in Gorey, a small market town near the Wexford/Wicklow border. After a strained silence, she spoke: “Be careful,” she warned, “gay people are promiscuous.”

This is a prime example of the micro-aggressions that typified my teenage years; the sometimes-coded, sometimes-overt language that denoted otherness, difference, queerness. I didn’t have the words then – the emotional language necessary to navigate how that comment made me feel – but I could feel the gulf between my chair and hers widen in that moment.

For the first 15 years of my life, I lived in a village called Coolgreany. Coolgreany, also in Wexford, is neatly positioned between Gorey and Arklow, a town in south County Wicklow. To suggest that Coolgreany is humble is an understatement: It contains a national school, a shop, two pubs, a prayer group, and a garage. It has more potholes than people.

Main street of a town in rural Ireland

It was here that I discovered my gayness. I was 12 years old when I looked across the classroom and caught the eye of my classmate. We had known each other five years, and we were never close, but when we locked eyes something inside me exploded. It felt like fireworks. Suddenly I wanted to spend every day with him. I wanted to know what he liked to watch on TV, who his favourite football player was, whether he preferred GAA or hurling.

My nascent queerness was developing at the same time as my school colleagues’ homophobia. Although I had no idea I was gay, I was still targeted as ‘other’ for a variety of reasons: I didn’t like sports of any kind, bar swimming. I liked comic books and reading, and was a tad sensitive. I couldn’t join in on their gentle teasing, nor could I fight (at least not physically). This was enough to mark me as a target for bullying. When I discovered that I like men I buried that part of myself so deep so as not to exacerbate the emotional and physical violence that had already found me.

By the time I started secondary school I felt lonely. I would develop crushes and hide them, and date girls to maintain a cover. I was a young gay spy. The homophobia became more overt. I was still a target, and words like faggot came as naturally to some students as breathing. Sometimes teachers even joined in.

I went to secondary school in a farming town in Wicklow called Carnew. It was a clear upgrade from Coolgreany, but had very few outlets for me outside of local drama clubs. LGBT+ issues were rarely discussed, and if they were, they were met with sneers.

A teenager in rural Ireland lying back on his elbow looking at the camera, a group of young people in the background.

My teenage years in rural Ireland were typified by suppression. I would fall in and out of love and would have to stifle my desire to reach out for intimacy. I longed for someone to love me in the way I needed them to, but could never show it. By this time I had moved to Gorey town, and there were no supports available (at least to my knowledge) for young LGBT+ people. We didn’t have the south-east equivalent of Outhouse in Dublin city.

My eventual coming out (six years after realising I was gay) was timed almost concurrently with my moving to Dublin to attend college. For me, it marked the beginning of a new chapter: to begin afresh, make new friends, build a life and find a community. I was successful. I cut ties with my home, slowly and quietly, and looked to the future. But when you move anywhere in life you carry your past with you, and if I was to ever find peace I needed to reconcile with this.

I contacted former teachers. My secondary school now has a gender-neutral bathroom policy. They fly both the Pride flag and the trans flag in their main social area alongside the nations of the world. There are LGBT+ students who exist in that space more openly than I could. There is even now an LGBT+ support service for young people in Gorey town. They convene every Wednesday on St. Michael’s Road, a short distance from where I came out to my last girlfriend. Kids in rural Ireland now have an outlet if they need help.

This is post-Marriage Equality society. Straight, cisgender Irish citizens have begun to view LGBT+ people less in the abstract, and more as people. They are our children, friends, family and teachers. It would be naive to say that all is healed, but there are more supports available now in rural Ireland than there ever was before.

Although I just missed the boat on this change, I am not bitter. I see the change in young people’s live, people who are like me, and I am heartened. I now see less fear, and less suppression.

What Is Gay Panic Defence And Where It’s Still Legal

This article was originally published on the Gay Community News (GCN) website on 3 MAY, 2019.

James Miller had developed a passion since leaving the Austin Police Department: Music. He had acquired a guitar and propositioned fellow musicians at a bar about setting up a jazz band. His 32-year-old neighbour, David Spencer, shared in his passion, and the two would play music late into the night.

On one of such nights, after a round of drinking, Spencer moved in for a kiss. He was stabbed in the back two times by Miller, and bled to death.

Miller was charged with murder, but three years later claimed he was sent into a blind “gay panic” by his neighbour. The defence was successful: Miller only served six months in jail, with a decade to be spent on probation.
This sentence was passed in April, 2018.

Although seemingly a defence from decades past, the gay panic defence is still employed with alarming regularity worldwide. It is a workable defence in all but three American states (it is not applicable in California, Illinois and Rhode Island), and South Australia (where it is set to be repealed by 2020). It was still legal in New Zealand up until 2009.

The “gay panic defence” stipulates that same-sex interactions are so repulsive to cisgender, heterosexual individuals that it sends them into a rage that culminates in murder. It reinforces our second-class status: That our inherent sexuality is grounds enough for our deaths. That non-straight sexuality and existence is of less value than straight lives. It propagates the dated and offensive idea that we are sexual predators who need to be expelled.

The defence first attained recognition in the 1960s, when homosexuality was still defined as a mental illness. Californian man Joseph Rodriguez beat another man to death with a tree branch. His defence attorney called the incident, “an acute homosexual panic brought on him by the fear that the victim was molesting him sexually”.

Other such incidents have attained greater critical examination: The 1998 murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shephard by two older men received worldwide condemnation. In Ireland, the murder of Declan Flynn in 1982 by a crowd of youths – who received minor suspended sentences – was the impetus for growth in our national LGBTQ+ movement.

A troubling offshoot of the gay panic defence is the “trans panic defence.” Last year 265 trans people were reported murdered in 29 countries, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring.

While stringent strides have been made in the development of LGBTQ+ rights both at home and abroad, it is impossible to feel fully-accepted by society at large while our siblings are slain in incidents that are justified by archaic laws. When legislation is on our side, only then can we begin the process of feeling safe.

A Woman Remembers Her Rathgar Bookshop, Closed a Year Now

This article was originally published in the Dublin Inquirer on 16 January, 2019. 

Liz Meldon had been nervous about coming back, she says.

We are leaving the road in Rathgar where her bookshop used to be. She had spent more than a decade of her life working here, but she hadn’t come back for quite a while.

“I couldn’t put a finger on exactly why,” she says. “It’s always the people you miss the most, about anything. I mean think about it.”

She takes one last look in the window to wave goodbye to old friends, customers, and pulls away. Through the windshield is a wet winter morning.

***

Meldon worked in publishing for eight years before she got a chance to open her first bookshop in Dundrum. “I went for it,” she says.

“I had no experience of retail, so that was a total novelty. I did it as I went along and I have no regrets.”

It was 1990. Dundrum Books was in the old shopping centre. It was simple, on the first floor, and became a special place, she says. “Because of the people,” she says.

Customers behaved differently, then. “It was before online selling, Amazon, discount selling,” says Meldon.

The old shopping centre was later sold. The shop closed. Meldon moved the shop to 100 Rathgar Road in 2005.

The Rathgar Bookshop ignored the bestseller lists, and talked a lot to their customers about what there were interested in, what they wanted to read, she says.

She didn’t want loud offers. Four books for the price of three. “What I call ‘sticker bookshops’,” she says. She wanted to share the authors she liked with those she thought would like them too.

***

The shop is now home to the Fat Cat Café, which serves light food.

Earlier in the day, Meldon parks the car outside. She suggests visiting a butcher’s next door, and locks the car door.

In the butcher’s, a customer greets her. “They would text me when a book came in. People came from a good deal around because of the service that they gave,” the woman says.

“I used to come up with my grandchildren and get something out the back, and if you didn’t have the name of a book when you went in, they’d say ‘God have you got nothing to read? Come over here and have a look at this, I think you would like that.’”

Meldon goes next door to the café where her bookshop used to be. “It’s weird being in here,” she says.

In her day, the bookshop had a small bakery. Meldon baked scones and cakes for it. Each morning, she would get up at 6:10am and go for a swim in the Forty Foot, an 18-minute drive, while her baking cooled.

Photo courtesy of Liz Meldon.
There was a small garden out back. She sold the plants she grew there. The shop felt like a home. It felt like a community. “There was a whole mixture of things that drew different people,” she says.

The Rathgar Bookshop closed in December 2017. Meldon says this was due to a change in the buying habits of customers. “It was no longer financially viable,” she says. “I was forced to close the shop, and yes I regret that it had reached that point.”

“Buying online is easy-peasy,” she says. “Everything has to be done in a hurry, and it was palpable – ‘Do you have that book now?’, ‘I can get it in in two days,’ ‘It’s okay, I can get it online.’”

***

Meldon hopes there will be a turnaround in bookselling. People need communication, she says.

“With Amazon, there’s just no experience. If you bring it to its logical conclusion, you can sit on your couch, you can do all your shopping online, you can do all your banking online.”

These days, Meldon works as a consultant for the Books@One foundation. She oversees the development of community bookstores across the country, teaching others how to foster the same sense of community she did.

“It took some time to get used to the day taking on a different shape,” she says. “But I have to say, I really like the new shapes.”

The hardest part of closing the Rathgar Bookshop was losing the community she had helped build, she says. “If you want to ask me why people minded when I closed, it was because of that total community. Human interaction, people need it.”

***

A family arrive into the café. Meldon talked to them for 20 minutes. She greets each child with a hug.

On Christmas morning of December 2017, the last Christmas that the shop would entertain customers, Meldon threw a small party in the store for friends and family.

“I said to everybody here that they could just go around and pick whatever book they wanted as a keepsake. We were here for about three hours.”

This family came. They lived behind the shop. They were regulars, who became friends. The children would come through the laneway behind the store to visit, bringing friends for hot chocolates and reading. Meldon watched them grow up.

“We miss Liz a lot,” says Fiona Brennan. “The shop had a good open-door policy.”

Meldon had a wonderful dream when she closed: “that I would be filled with inspiration and creativity and start writing my first best-selling novel, and at last my gas bill wouldn’t have to be paid in instalments.”

“Needless to say, the last year has been different to how I imagined,” she says. “I did pay the gas bill though.”

Working-Class Heroines, Reviewed

The following article originally appeared in print in the November, 2018 issue of the Dublin Inquirer. It was also published on the Inquirer‘s website.

The stories told by working-class women in inner-city Dublin that are included in Kevin C. Kearns’ book Working-Class Heroines have acquired a new resonance in contemporary Ireland.

It might even be fair to say that this book resonates more strongly today than it did when it was first published in 2004.

In the wake of the Repeal the Eighth and Take Back the City movements, these oral histories, with their stories about women fighting for bodily autonomy and a right to housing, highlight the origins of contemporary struggles.

These narratives offer a framework through which we can judge how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

In Their Own Words

Working-Class Heroines is the result of more than 30 years of research, a compendium of detailed oral history documenting the oft-forgotten details of working-class life, with a particular emphasis placed on working-class mothers.

It was something of a “pioneer path” more than 50 years ago when, in the 1960s, Kearns set out to be an urban oral historian, he said, by email.

Back then, Irish academics “associated oral history and folk history strictly with the west of Ireland, especially the Gaeltacht regions”, he says.

Yet there he was, “exploring the lower-income working-class neighbourhoods of Dublin that Irish journalists used to call slumlands,” he says. “From the Coombe through the old Liberties and into the tenement rows of the northside.”

In Working-Class Heroines, Kearns uses the narratives gleaned from urban “mammies” to construct a case for their reinsertion into the larger narrative of Irish social history, and to ensure that their stories of survival are not relegated to the footnotes of Irish femininities.

“Back in those days women were absolutely ‘voiceless’”, Kearns says. “And they dare not try and speak out against their husbands or any man […] I found the women so pathetically abused and defenceless in those days. So I determined to try and tell their stories in their own words.”

Working-Class Mothers

The word “mother” is laden with symbolic meaning in Ireland’s national discourse. It is a concept wrapped up in images of Mother Ireland, a figure chaste and maternal, sacrificial and tenacious.

The mothers interviewed in the book occupy a particular space as a result: the concept they embody, that which is devotional and pure, is at odds with the reality of their lives. They are admonished, abused and neglected – at home, and by the state.

The book is divided into chapters detailing everything from home, family, finances, sex and marriage, to religion, drugs and death. Throughout, Kearns interrogates the societal pressures placed upon urban mothers.

As Kearns tells it, the origin of their plight lies in the “flight to the suburbs” by middle-class families that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, which left lower-income families to live in a decaying city centre, raising eight or ten or twelve children in cramped quarters with no more than two or three rooms.

Often, the women of these urban families were expected to marry young and begin to care for children almost immediately. It is here that the traditional narrative of family life begins to unravel: what was propagated by the state was the husband as breadwinner, with the wife as stay-at-home caregiver.

However, as Kearns documents here, for working-class “mammies”, this was rarely the the reality. Husbands faced constant layoffs. Some squandered what little money they had on alcohol or gambling. This left women to rear the children and make ends meet. Many had to find menial cleaning and care-taking jobs.

Molly the Piss

As Dr James Plaisted, an inner-city doctor for over 40 years, says in the book: “[Mothers will] get up at six o’clock in the morning and go in and clean offices, and they’ll be home to get the children up and fed and out to school.”

The day isn’t over yet. “And then they’ll do their work in the house and do the shopping. And the man, if he’s unemployed, he’ll lie in bed until 11:00 and do nothing […] Your woman fed him and she’ll be back at half five in the evening to clean offices again,” he says.

Working-class mothers were just expected to “get on with it”. Husbands were granted freedoms of which their wives could only dream. Many men would rather become distant from family than have their pride wounded by being seen to help with household chores.

In one notable exception, Kearns quotes Lily Foy, a woman who grew up in the Coombe watching helpless men neglect family and home, and who married a man quite liberated for the 1950s, who helped with cleaning, cooking and washing.

However, his helpful attitude was taken as “woman-ish”, and Foy’s mother took to calling him “Molly the Piss”. Distress, an ever-present facet of working-class inner-city life, was expected to fall squarely on women’s shoulders.

Evictions

Reading Heroines, you begin to see how little autonomy mothers had. While many suburban mothers had access to better education and information around sexual health, and so some limited autonomy, many inner-city mothers were bullied and much more closely controlled.

This control could manifest through bodies such as the church and the state. Mothers, who took to looking after money and finances due to neglectful husbands, were often under the thumb of the Dublin Corporation.

The “Corpo”, as it was known, was responsible for social housing in the inner-city. It was notoriously ruthless in demanding rent, often employing eviction crews or local gardaí to help with the forced removal of tenants.

In one harrowing case documented in the book, “the Corpo” forcibly removes an elderly woman who is suffering from dementia. She had lost her husband, her mind had deteriorated and she couldn’t pay the rent. She was thrown out and left to wander Foley Street.

Baby-Making Machines

To the church, another controlling force, women were seen as little more than baby-making machines, and were encouraged – nay, forced – from the pulpit and confession box to have multiple children.

Women with 10 or more children were encouraged to have more, in spite of dwindling finances or heavy physical and emotional toll. Childbirth was viewed as maternal duty rather than personal choice.

Kearns documents how some women were turfed out of the confession box for admitting they could not bear any more children. He interviews May Cotter, who says she was often asked in the confessional why she was not having more children, a question she found invasive. “Didn’t matter if you had the wherewithal or not to feed them or rear them,” she says. “You just had to keep populating the country.”

Meanwhile, sex was a subject not spoken about or acknowledged. And even though they were in charge of home and finances, women were subordinate in matters of intimacy. “The man dominated. Always. Do your duty! His word was absolute law,” says one working-class mother.

Changed, Changed Utterly?

“[There was] nothing romanticized in their oral histories,” says Kearns via email.

“Emotions bared as never before […] And, God forbid, how some bared their anger toward the priests who terrified and condemned them in their younger years! Their faces turned flaming red as they told me every detail. How the husbands were tyrants in the home – and absolute demons in commanding their wives in bed!” he said.

Kearns uses Yeats’ poem “The Song of the Old Mother” to sketch an understanding of these women’s lives.

He might, these days though, have used a different Yeats poem. Indeed, in documenting the stories of these “mammies”, Kearns offers us an opportunity to gauge how things have “changed, changed utterly”. And the ways in which they have not.

A Dublin Bloom | An Interview With Dermot Bolger

This article was originally published on HeadStuff on July 19th, 2018.

Dermot Bolger is a stalwart of the Irish literary scene, having written numerous novels and plays since the mid-1980s. These include his recent successes Tanglewood, a microscopic look at the Irish property boom of 00s, and The Lonely Sea and Sky, a coming of age novel set against the backdrop of World War II. He is known to indigenous readers as a champion of working-class narratives, but the subject matter of his fiction is far-reaching and touches off many facets of Irish life. It is unsurprising then that he would choose to concern himself with Joyce‘s Ulysses, a sprawling narrative that interrogates the contradictions of life in Dublin in the early 20thcentury.

Humble Beginnings?

In between paltry sups of tea, Bolger details the complicated history of his fated adaptation. “I was approached by Greg Doran, who is now the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to do a production of it,” he says. However, changes in Irish copyright law would affect his work while it was still in its infancy. Originally, the copyright on works lapsed 50 years post the author’s death. This means that when Bolger began to pen the show, Joyce’s writings were in the public domain. This was in the early 1990s.

The script that Bolger had written found life as a rehearsed reading in the United States. The once-off production was staged to an audience of 1300 people. However, when it came to stage the piece in Ireland, it was clear that they would have to contend with new state laws: “It quickly became apparent that the European Union was going to change its copyright laws, it was going to harmonise [them]. It was going to take the German model of 70 years … So [Ulysses] was going to come back into copyright.”

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

That author was not sure a theatre would commit to a project if its legal status became uncertain. Despite this, he found a work-around to ensure his project found a certain life: “The day before the copyright reverted to [Joyce’s estate], I actually did a reading of it. I got a number of my friends to do it in the Project Arts Centre. We did it at ten past nine in the morning because we figured ‘no solicitor would get here in time.’ We tried to get two men and a dog, but we couldn’t get a dog so we just did it with the two men, and we read it.”

This story is suitably Joycean, as the author himself also had to contend with innumerable laws to get his works published. Ulysses was banned in United States – copies of it were burned by the New York Postal Authority – and although contemporary audiences consider it Ireland’s national text, it would not be openly available in the country until the 1960s, 40 years after its initial publication.

Eventually, Bolger got in contact with Andy Arnold, artistic director of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, and together the pair revived the production in 2012. With the text out of copyright once more, they were able to transform it into a full-blown play.

Metempsychosis: A Question of Adaptation

“—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.”

This is how Leopold Bloom, the unlikely hero of Ulysses, explains a cumbersome and philosophically-charged word to his wife, Molly. This is when we meet our protagonist, and from here we follow his journey through Dublin on June 16th, 1904. Despite its reputation as a mostly-inaccessible text, the narrative of Ulysses, at its very heart, is simple: Leopold, an Irish Jew of Hungarian descent, wanders through the capital on the day his wife is to have an affair. What proves to be a challenge for some, though, is the scrupulous digging required to appreciate the novel to its fullest. Although simple at its core, the book is buried beneath several layers of irony, shifts narrative styles between chapters, and through dialogue, Joyce has sprinkled his book with meditations on art, literature, nationalism, love, sex, and smut.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Indeed, the very idea of transmigration is central to text: it is based on Homer’s Odyssey, with each hour in the book corresponding to a year in the life of Odysseus, Homer’s quintessential hero. Others have attempted a certain kind of transmigration before: In 1967, American film director Joseph Strick adapted the book for the screen. The resulting production, although occasionally showing promise, quickly devolves into a highlight reel with wordy narrations. Critic Pauline Kael famously said of it, “[Ulysses is] an act of homage in the form of readings … plus slides.” Does Bolger feel he has streamlined the text enough for theatregoers, without isolating the scholars?

“The Abbey version is different from the Tron version,” he says. “And this version is quite different from the Abbey version of last year [the current production enjoyed a successful run in October of 2017]. There’s still the emotional essence of the book. Because the book is 18 episodes, a dazzling array of linguistic styles, covering 265,000 words, you have to figure out what to cut.”

For Bolger it became of matter of focusing on what sections best flesh out the characters, to provide them with the depth for which the novel is most famous: “In the Tron version there was a whole section in the newspaper offices, as there is in the book. A week into rehearsals, I said to Graham [McLaren, director of the Abbey version], ‘the newspaper offices isn’t really telling us anything.’ I mean, we see how Bloom’s contemporaries relate to Bloom and everything else, but nothing that we haven’t been told elsewhere.” The scene is question is the Aeolus episode, in which Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s insert character, miss meeting each other for the first of many times.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Bolger continues: “It began as the play of the book, and now it’s almost the play of the play. Novels give you a lot of scope, because generally novels aren’t read in one sitting and you’re able to have subplots. I just had to figure out the emotional journey of Bloom, and of [his marriage to Molly], what made their marriage. In the end I had to go into the areas of the book that most engaged my intellectual curiosity, but also most engaged my empathy.”

What makes the current run at the Abbey unique is the use of puppets. Some of the characters made famous in the novel are portrayed here by grotesque, uncanny caricatures of human figures. Rudy Bloom, the deceased son of Leopold and Molly, appears as a small, blue, Tolkien-esque figure, with accentuated facial features and dark, beady eyes.

The same act of transformation is seen in characters who appear in the Cyclops episode of the book: Joyce used this piece to criticise the atavistic and animalistic nature of staunch nationalism. In this section, Bloom enters Barney Kiernan’s pub only to be chastised by a man known only as ‘the Citizen’, a Republican and anti-Semite. In the Abbey version, he is gaunt and menacing. By choosing to depict him in such grotesque terms, Bolger and McLaren have only emphasised Joyce’s original critique: that atavistic nationalism is inherently malformed.

The puppets are also used to emphasise the more comedic aspects of the book. When adapting the Circe episode, in which Bloom and Dedalus experience physical manifestations of their greatest fears, characters from earlier in the text appear again, only this time as body puppets worn by the actors. The bawdy and acerbic dialogue is punctuated by slapstick comedy, as the performers milk as much humour out the situation as possible: this includes Brian Burroughs as a masturbating Buck Mulligan, and Faoileann Cunningham as a flirty and accusatory Gerty McDowell.

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

On the humour found in the book, Bolger says: “Nora Barnacle [Joyce’s partner], who believed Joyce should have stuck to the singing, used to complain that he’d keep her awake at night laughing at what he wrote. The fun thing about Ulysses is that the most theatrical bits of it – like Nighttown [the ‘Circe’ chapter] – are actually very theatrical. There’s a lot of subtle humour going on there, there’s really a lot of very Dublin humour that has gone past you before you actually realise that it’s a joke, and the humour is very contemporary. It’s something you could imagine two fellas sitting at the counter in this bar saying.”

Another departure from the book is in how Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is handled: In the novel the entirety of the last chapter, titled ‘Penelope’, is dedicated to Molly’s rambling stream of consciousness. She meditates on life with her husband and recounts the events of the day from her perspective. In the Abbey production, her speech is spliced into sections and introduced to the narrative at intermittent points. It therefore centres the narrative, and the staging that Bolger and McLaren have created reflects this: Molly, played with great delicacy by Janet Moran, spends the majority of the play in her bed in the middle of the stage. The audience, and indeed the action of the day, is centred around her, and her interruptions offer the perfect, almost grounded counterpoint to Bloom’s highfalutin musings.

“Molly’s monologue is the most theatrical part of the book,” Bolger says. “It unbalances any show because basically you would have to have everything else in the book in Act One, and Molly in Act Two.” Bolger chose to present Molly’s piece in this way to give his production a more streamlined, dreamlike quality: “When Molly is awake, and Molly is having a monologue, and Bloom is asleep, and Bloom is reliving his day in dreams, you can have that strange, fractured narrative quality that dreams have. Like, you and I could be in this pub in a dream and be on a bus two seconds later in the same dream.”

“By having Molly in the foreground, I could then begin to dig into the emotional heart of the journey of this man who has lost his son at 11 days old and has not fully recovered from that.”

Ulysses Dermot Bolger
Ulysses, by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

A Question of Relevance

Despite ambivalence from many readers, Ulysses continues to entertain into the 21st Century. The annual ‘Bloomsday’ festival, set every year on 16th June, attracts tourists from across the world. Fans mimic their favourite sections from the book, and map Bloom’s journey through the city minute by minute. How is it that a book so seemingly of its time, with dated reflections on the Irish psyche and the nation’s place in the world, be so appealing to contemporary readers?

Another example of transmigration it seems: “I read Ulysses for the first time at the age of 14,” Bolger says, “on the impression that it was a dirty, scandalous book. And when you’re 14, it’s not. Then I read it when I was 24, and when I began to adapt it, when I began to read it seriously, Bloom was still a year or two older than me. Then, each time it was done, I had a different relationship to Bloom, because now I envy his relative youth. I turn 60 next year.”

He continues: “It’s like an appreciation of whisky, or any great work of literature: You respond differently to it at 20 as you do at 30, as you do at 40, because you’re bringing your life experience. Some years ago, I lost my wife, and now I understand the undercurrent of grief running through Ulysses in a way that doesn’t have a direct connection, but my life experience [is there] now that I return to it.”

The theme of loss is ever-present in Ulysses. It is what eventually brings Bloom in contact with the young, bookish Dedalus. The protagonist Bloom finds a son-surrogate in the young Stephen, who is looking for a paternal figure himself in the fallout of his mother’s passing.

Bolger also finds something relatable in the character of Leopold Bloom, who is played in the Abbey production by actor David Pearse. “[Bloomsday], this alternative national day, is in honour of a Hungarian Jew, who, even in the funeral cortege to Glasnevin Cemetery [as seen in the ‘Hades’ episode], you know is an outsider.”

Bolger feels that if Joyce had chosen to make Bloom either Catholic or Protestant, that that would have come with significant baggage, denoting the character with many presuppositions based on Irish history: “He doesn’t have that same easy familiarity. If he had been Catholic, we would have had many preconceptions about his politics. If he had been Protestant, then he becomes part of the same lost, vanished ascendency class of Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu … Who wrote out of the sense that their own power was fading away. Because he was Jewish, he didn’t have any power. And because he is an outsider, he is observant of everything … He’s present, but he’s also excluded.”

In a passage near the book’s closing, Dedalus and Bloom, having squandered money in a brothel, end the night by going to a cabman’s shelter. They discuss politics, and Bloom, having been persecuted for his outsider status for the duration of the books, quips “a revolution must come on the due instalments plan.” Indeed, the same forces that oppressed Bloom and Dedalus – forces of religion, sectarianism, and oppressive attitudes towards sexuality, art, writing – have been unravelled in recent years not by divine intervention, but by slow, calculated manoeuvres by grassroots movements. Social change has come through the long, arduous work of the everyman.

We hint at this in conversation. Bolger smiles: “Yes, I think Bloom would sit very comfortably in the Dublin of 2018.”

Ulysses runs until the 21st of July. Tickets can be purchased through the Abbey Theatre website.


Featured Image: Ulysses by James Joyce, adapted by Dermot Bolger, directed by Graham McLaren – at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 21 July. Photo by Ros Kavanagh