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Flikkers Leather
Flikkers Leather & Denim NightCourtesy of the Irish Queer Archive

The raunchy hilarity of Ireland’s queer club flyers

The Irish Queer Archive has lent an extensive collection of dicks and butts that will be on display at Dublin exhibition Pilly Willy

Friends of Dorothy in the 80s and 90s had to make bold guesses at the sexuality of passersby when handing out flyers promoting queer club nights. Does he have an earring in his right ear? A hanky hanging out of his jeans pocket? There were even gay hanky codes that you would literally need a chart to decipher. (A doily worn on the right apparently means he’s a tearoom bottom.) These were all signifiers of whether or not someone was down to RSVP to a night such as Dublin’s H.A.M. or GAG.

The flyers, often featuring explicit or cheeky graphics and language, would be distributed in “hip cafés, clothes shops, music stores and the like,” says Tonie Walsh, LGBT rights activist and founder of the Irish Queer Archive. “Concessions and teasers were usually given out by hand, on the street to interesting individuals, or in bars.”

Walsh, 55, was behind iconic Dublin gay night H.A.M., which ran from 1997 to 2005, along with Niall Sweeny and Rory O’Neill. “Anybody who was there on the first night will remember that it was hot, packed, and an insane mix of staff in slaughterhouse aprons and white boots with blood smeared all over them, kick ass music and a dance floor,” recalls Sweeny in an issue of Free!

For a new exhibition called Pilly Willy: Rave Ephemera from the Queer Underground put on by collective Pussys, Walsh has contributed a host of his own personal collection of flyers showing an electric history of Ireland’s queer club culture.

How did you get involved in the Irish Queer Archive?

Tonie Walsh: As a former officer of the National Gay Federation (both general secretary & president) during the 1980’s, I had a unique and thorough knowledge of NGF’s holdings, which constituted the bedrock of the Irish Queer Archive’s collection. In 1997, I approached NGF (now known as the National LGBT Federation) and offered to reorganise the holdings. By 1999, I had renamed the collection – Irish Queer Archive – to signal its independence as much as its cultural range and scope.

How did you amass this collection of queer club flyers?

Tonie Walsh: Firstly, the queer stuff is but a section of my complete collection. The flyers that constitute The Tonie Walsh Collection (due to be transferred early 2017 to NIVAL, the visual arts library at Dublin’s National College of Art & Design) are all my own and represent my personal acquisitive taste and interest going back to my earliest clubbing days, circa 1979.

Throughout the 1990s I worked as a full-time DJ and club promoter, which gave me the freedom to devote time and energy to projects like IQA. Along the way, I collected flyers and material culture associated with my own projects but also stuff that simply piqued my curiosity. Call it the ‘magpie eye’!

How many would you say are in the collection?

Tonie Walsh: I’m still trying to process and catalogue the collection but there are several thousand flyers, several hundred posters and a dozen or so zines, representing in order of interest: Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Galway, Waterford, London and Amsterdam.

“I cannot forget sitting in a Dublin bar in 1981 (I would have been 20), holding hands with my then boyfriend and the manager coming over to ask us to leave” – Tonie Walsh

How do you explain to young people what gay clubbing was like who have no concept of how it worked before the turn of the millennium?

Tonie Walsh: With the establishment of the Hirschfeld Centre in 1979 and the increased visibility it engendered, the gay commercial scene took its first tentative steps in Dublin in 1981 with the establishment of venues that were gay-owned, gay staffed and unapologetically focussed on serving the needs of a newly liberated community.

However before decriminalisation, any form of socialising felt inherently political and was not without risk. I cannot forget sitting in a Dublin bar in 1981 (I would have been 20), holding hands with my then boyfriend and the manager coming over to ask us to leave. “We don’t want your sort here,” he offered. Unlike today, there was no anti-discrimination legislation in place and I had no recourse to such outrageous homophobia. Important laws like the the Equal Status Act only came into force in 2000.

Decriminalisation in 1993 brought with it significant and almost immediate change, effectively giving Irish society a new dispensation to engage with the needs, fears and aspirations of its hitherto ignored sexual minorities. Nowhere was this more clearly evident than in the explosion of services and facilities aimed at the LGBT community. From the mid-90s onwards, one sees a progressive roll-out of new clubs, cafés, bars, community ventures, cultural events, specialist groups in sports. Business comes touting for us, as opposed to merely tolerating us!

“Having a threesome in the disabled toilet (and then going back to mine to finish what we started) is a standout moment for me among so many, truly glittering and debauched moments” – Tonie Walsh

I know you went to the club night H.A.M. a few times. Do you remember anything particularly wild happening there?

Tonie Walsh: I was one of the producers of H.A.M. as well as a resident DJ, from its establishment in February 1997 up to its untimely demise in 2005. So many lasting friendships and cultural associations were formed and shaped during its glorious history. It really was the highlight of the weekend, if not the week, and all the more so as it came without all the financial stresses and suburban pretensions usually associated with big Saturday nights.

Having a threesome in the disabled toilet (and then going back to mine to finish what we started) is a standout moment for me among so many, truly glittering and debauched moments.

London superclub Fabric closed recently, another in a string of recent club closures in the UK. People are declaring nightlife to be dead. Is that the case as well in Dublin? Is the scene shrinking?

Tonie Walsh: I’m not sure the scene is shrinking as much as some claim but it’s definitely changing. The snowflake generation is by and large interested in pouting and posing rather than engaging (as in getting down and dirty on the dance floor). Licensing legislation is a major inhibitor to the development of a healthy, varied and sustainable scene. Current situation favours bars, some of which try to maintain a dual bar/club identity, often with frustrating and unhelpful effect. In Dublin, as I imagine also the case in any large urban centre, DJs have been agents of their own demise, willing to play for peanuts in bars, delusional in their attempts to convey ’clubbability’.

I’m curious what you make of this recent hookup culture and the idea that LGBT people can skip the club because they can find each other through apps?

Tonie Walsh: Dancing around the living room with your mates is not clubbing, no matter how much you dress it up and engage the services of a friendly DJ and drug dealer. Clubbing has at its core two fundamentals: the great, eternal mating ritual, and a desire to slough off the drudge of everyday reality and set oneself lose in some parallel universe.

I suspect that some have forsaken clubs for their own gaffs because venues have out-priced themselves, don’t offer compelling reasons for attending, and the old chestnut of licensing limitations. I want to dance and drink at 4 or 5 in the morning, if I so wish, and yet the state prevents me from doing so under utterly archaic legislation that ultimately infantilises us all.

Pilly Willy: Rave Ephemera from the Queer Underground runs October 10 - 17 at Tara Street, Dublin 2 between 11 and 6pm