Celebrating 30 Years of The George

“When you’re a minority, you know what it feels like to be a minority. And the majority will always see you that way. Somewhere like (The George) changes that. It gives us the space that we need to be the majority.”

That’s what Declan Buckley, aka Shirley Temple Bar, aka one of The George’s longest-standing drag queens and entertainers, tells me when I ask him why he thinks the bar has remained so successful over the years. “The George is a certain kind of gay bar,” he says. “It’s an entertainment bar. It tries to appeal to lots of different people. And it does it very well.”

The George - HeadStuff.orgAnd he’s right. For almost three decades The George has been at the core of the Dublin gay scene; staging its wildly popular drag shows, club nights, and of course, Shirley’s own Sunday night Bingo. It’s a place positioned at the very centre of Ireland’s LGBT history – growing in size, and popularity, alongside the country’s gay community. It has seen the decriminalisation of homosexuality, celebrated the national triumph that was the Marriage Referendum, and watched as hundreds of its regulars marched in numerous Gay Pride parades over the years… And through it all, the bar has remained as relevant, and fabulous, as ever.

This month, The George celebrates its 30th birthday. It’s doing what The George does best, and hosting lots of different, great events with lots of different, great people; including a performance and DJ set from Ana Matronic, a special appearance from Katie Price at the end of the month, and an official birthday party that kicks off tomorrow night. In the lead up to the most eagerly anticipated celebration of the year, I took a look at the bar’s history, spoke to a few of its regulars (and regular performers), and found out just how an ‘old man’s pub,’ became the city’s most successful, and most celebrated, gay bar.

30 or so years ago – before The George became The George – it was frequented by County Kerry businessman, Cyril O’Brien, who was constantly pestering the owner to fix the place up. Having been conveniently on the look-out for a new project himself, O’Brien decided to buy the bar in 1984. He converted the upstairs section into a gay disco called The Loft – a space which Senator David Norris so candidly remarked looked a bit like “the inside of a hairdresser’s brain.” The next year, O’Brien expanded his business venture even further, shifted the myriads of Tivoli lighting and fancy décor to the bottom floor, and made The George the city’s second bar opened exclusively for the gay community.

For Ireland, 1985 was a year of treaties, terrorist attacks, and non-prescriptive contraceptives. It was also a whole eight years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. One might presume that opening up a gay bar in an Ireland so preoccupied with strict Catholic piousness and outdated ‘family values’ would have been challenging, but O’Brien didn’t seem so fazed. When The George eventually expanded again to form the basis for the nightclub that we all know and love, O’Brien declared that he had had little trouble securing the site next door because “you don’t look for gay planning permission. You look for planning permission.”

Declan Buckey - HeadStuff.org
Declan Buckley

Declan Buckley makes some similar observations when I ask him whether he noticed a shift in public attitude towards The George, and gay bars in general, after homosexuality was decriminalised. Buckley started performing as Shirley Temple Bar back in 1997 after winning the Alternative Miss Ireland competition, and has hosted Bingo with Shirley Temple Bar ever since. He also went to The George a lot before the birth of Shirley, and says that it took awhile before any major changes were noticed.

“To be honest, everything didn’t suddenly change one day in 1993,” he says. “The laws obviously existed alongside all other forms of discrimination, but it wasn’t as if the cops were showing up every night, knocking on the doors and asking ‘are there any gays in there?’”

Buckley’s early experiences of Dublin’s gay bars consisted of blacked out windows and inconvenient licensing laws forcing late night bars to start serving fish fingers and chips if they wanted to stay open past a certain time. “When I first started going,” he recalls, “I was a student and I wasn’t fully out, so you’d usually walk around the block a few times before you went in. It wasn’t like Stonewall where we were being constantly harassed, or shut down, or anything like that. Places like The George and The Parliament Bar were known as gay bars, but nobody really acknowledged them until much later.”

One of the bar’s customers from the late 80s, who would prefer to remain anonymous, spoke of a similar vibe concerning the gradual growth and transformation of Ireland’s gay scene. The bar may have been opened exclusively for gay people, but even back in those dark days before decriminalisation and generally progressive attitudes towards the LGBT community, The George didn’t isolate itself from the rest of Dublin’s club scene. In fact, it did the opposite, by steadily increasing its popularity as the years went on. “From what I recall,” Anon says, “there wasn’t a huge difference between the George and other bars (…) No one took umbrage if they made a pass and were politely declined. If anything, (The George) was possibly a little less packed than other popular bars of the time.”

Vincent Browne - HeadStuff.org
VinB poses outside The George

The George being “a little less packed” is certainly not the case now, as seven different events seven nights a week entertain thousands of the bar’s regular attendees. Each time I’ve been in there it’s been absolutely jammed full of young people, old people, and everybody in between. It hosts some of Dublin’s longest running, immensely successful, and probably most loved drag shows, and is known by many as the epicentre of the city’s gay scene – just as it deserves to be.

But what is it that has kept Dublin’s oldest gay bar so successful for so long?

Laragh Carrigan thinks it’s the atmosphere. “It’s electric,” she says. “The club nights in The G are the best around. There’s something to suit everyone, like comedy, lip syncs, drag shows, and then afterwards there’ll always be a DJ.” Laragh first went to The George after meeting drag queen Victoria Secret at a college workshop, and admits that she was initially apprehensive about going to the bar. “I was terrified going in the first time, just for fear of being judged, but now I know that that’s stupid because The G is the one place you know you can be yourself.”

She also equates The George’s consistent success to the history of the bar itself, and its differentiation from other gay clubs around the city. “It was opened during a time when it was illegal to be gay in Ireland, so it provided a safe place for LGBT people to be themselves. I don’t know if anywhere else has that history.”

Shirley Temple Bar - HeadStuff.org
Shirley Temple Bar

Luckily, this history has been documented and preserved in the form of numerous documentaries, interviews, television series’, and radio shows. TV cameras have been hovering around The George for years, eager to witness the bar’s celebrated spectacle of individuality, and to share that experience with whomever else might be watching. Only recently, Vincent Browne and his team took to The G’s stage to announce the results of the Marriage Referendum. In true #VinB style, Born This Way was the theme tune, Bosco made an appearance, and there was a lot of lip syncing to Lady Marmalade. The whole thing was incredible, and a bit mental, but it was also extremely important in terms of the media’s representation of Ireland’s gay community. Declan Buckley told me a bit about the significance of Shirley Temple Bar’s success in relation to The George.

“For awhile it seemed like TV crews were always around,” he says. “The bingo night and the drag performances were dragging a lot of people into the bar – the straights wanted to come in, the media wanted to come in… And it was great because there was a light being shone onto the gay scene, and that light was being shone in The George.”

Buckley also added that despite all the years that had passed, the media attention, and the welcomed shift in attitudes towards the gay community, the way people experience the bar probably hasn’t changed all that much since the 80s. “The George is a social space. Sure, 20 or 30 years ago you might have felt safer there than you would in a straight bar, but it’s still a bar – people went there to hook up, and they still do. Obviously, things like Grindr and Tinder and the changing nature of technology has affected the vibe, but that’s the case no matter where you go. The George appeals to a lot of different people, so you go there to meet these people. That’s that way it’s always been.”

Some of the bar’s regular customers, Seán McHugh and Stephen Hardy, attribute similar aspects to The George’s success. When I asked them why they might choose to go there over some other popular spots in the city, they both agreed that The George was probably the first port of call for most young gay people. “It’s about consistency,” says Stephen, “you know that if you go there on a Saturday night that you’re going to have a good night. A lot of other places can be really hit and miss.”

Stephen Hardy Seán McHugh - HeadStuff.org
Stephen Hardy & Seán McHugh

They also spoke about the kinds of people you’d find in the bar on a typical Saturday night – which seems to be just about anyone and everyone. Seán claims that what makes The George different is that it offers a little bit of everything. “The crowd varies a lot,” he tells me, “but that’s what makes it so enjoyable. It’s consistently fun. It’s not a place where you have to dress a certain way, or fit into any sort of box, to be accepted. The general atmosphere means there’s a great mix of people.” When I asked Seán whether he could see The George being open in another 30 years, he said definitely. “The George is a pillar of the Dublin gay scene, and it will remain that way for the foreseeable future. Also their dance floor is a stage… And that’s pretty amazing.”

All in all, The George has had a pretty good 30 years. What started as a simple business venture became so much more to so many people. Many see the bar as a safe place where they can be themselves, others use it as a place to hook up, and some simply know they can always rely on it for a good night out.

“It shifts with the times,” says Buckley. “It’s made mistakes, of course, but in order to survive you need to know who your customers are.” And The George certainly does… So happy birthday to it! Here’s to another 30 years of fabulousness.


Images via TV3.ie