Category Archives: history

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.”

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.