A CENTURY AND MORE OF BELFAST GAY LIFE – Northern Ireland’s gay geography, history and people: 1903-2021
According to Roger Casement’s diaries, of 1903 and 1910-11, the gay cruising areas in Belfast were at the Albert Clock probably around the Customs House toilet, Botanic Gardens, Ormeau Park, and the Giants Ring. Cottaging went on in Victoria Square in an elegant wrought iron edifice (which was still operating in the 1960s and is now in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum) and at the Gasworks. Only the Giants Ring remains popular, although policed.
From then until after the 2nd World War, the GNR station in Great Victoria Street and Dubarry’s bar at the docks were recognised haunts, the latter, as in other cities, being shared with prostitutes. According to one old-timer, a teenager in 1941, the cottages were particularly busy the morning after the big German air raid in Belfast city centre, only yards from the smouldering rubble of High Street and Bridge Street.
He also recalled, after the raids, special difficulty in the fields in East Belfast, where he used to go regularly with a soldier friend. They were filled instead with people who were sleeping out of doors to avoid the bombing. The blackout from 1939, and the arrival from 1943-4 of 100,000 American troops in Northern Ireland had a huge impact and a special place in gay memories.
The Royal Avenue (RA) Bar in Rosemary Street (the hotel’s public bar, opposite the Red Barn pub) as portrayed in Maurice Leitch’s fine 1965 novel The Liberty Lad, probably the earliest description of a gay bar in Irish literature, was the first in the city. It operated from some time in the 1950s being shared at times with deaf and dumb customers who often occupied the front of the bar.
The two (straight) staff in the RA ran a tight but tolerant ship. Two lesbians, Greta and Anne, were the only females in the 1960s who were regular customers. At that time and until the end of the 1970s, pubs closed sharply at 10 p.m. The café burger café in High Street then served as an after hours venue and later a café in Victoria Square run by the distinguished Indian hotelier and mogul, now Lord Rana of Malone.
When the Royal Avenue Hotel was on its last legs due to the troubles, Ernie Thompson and Jim Kempson (both now deceased), from 1974, ran, in its elegant ballroom, Belfast’s first ever and highly memorable discos, also the first in Ireland.
After the Royal Avenue closed, the Casanova Club (prop. Louis Wise) in Upper Arthur Street (presently part of the British Home Stores site) flowered briefly until bombed by the IRA in c. 1976 for reputedly serving police officers!
Meanwhile the Gay Liberation Society (GLS) was meeting at Queen’s University Students Union from 1972 with significant town as well as gown membership. Initiated by Andy Hinds and Martin McQuigg it was taken forward by Dick Sinclair, Maeve Malley, Joseph Leckey and Brian Gilmore.
Later from about 1975 until the early 1980s it ran highly successful Saturday night discos in the McMordie Hall, attended by up to 300 gays (and indeed many apparent straights). This was a time when there was no other night life in the city. Key helpers included Kevin Merrett, Billy Forsythe, John McConkey, and Michael McAlinden. The early and mid-70s were the most brutal years of the troubles, when there was next to no night life in the city and only gays ventured out for fear of murder.
Cara-Friend started its befriending and information operation as a letter service in 1974. After a brief telephone service at the QUB Students Union which ended in the switchboard collapsing, it moved on to a permanent telephone service in about 1976, operating first from Doug Sobey’s flat in Ulsterville Avenue (Doug from Prince Edward Island in Canada is still a Cara-Friend officer after 30 years). Lesbian Line and Foyle Friend developed later. Cara-Friend was grant aided by the Department of Health and Social Services, at Stormont, from as early as 1975 with £700 p.a.
NIGRA (a groups’ group originally) started in the summer of 1975 when USFI became corrupted. Early NIGRA Presidents have included Dr Graham Carter (who sadly died young), former life-President Richard Kennedy, and Tim Clarke, ably supported by Sappho sisters Geraldine Sergeant and Maureen Miskimmin.
A significant number of NIGRA officers married and had children which was baffling for some. The Strasbourg case taken by Jeff Dudgeon to the European Court of Human Rights, which in 1982 ultimately resulted in the ending of life imprisonment for gay men and was the first European recognition of gay rights, was started by NIGRA in 1975. P.A. MagLochlainn, NIGRA President, filled the post longer than any of his predecessors.
From about 1975 until the early 1980s, Gay Lib or the QUB Gay Liberation Society (GLS) met in No. 4 University Street, a large 3-storey Georgian terrace house loaned by the university, where Cara-Friend had a room with a telephone cubicle. It was in constant use for regular Thursday meetings and parties. From there was organised the successful case at Strasbourg against the British Government funded by the Queen’s discos and the later-married pop singer Tom Robinson (Glad to be Gay and Motorway).
1976 was also the year of the totally unexpected gay raids when all the NIGRA and Cara-Friend committee were arrested and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) decided to charge Jeff Dudgeon and Doug Sobey, and Richard Kennedy and another (for sex acts inter se). All of us were over 21 and thus could not be charged in England. Only a political intervention from London forced the DPP to drop the cases in 1977, just as the instruction to police to charge us was issued and literally retrieved from the post room at the last minute.
The Strasbourg case took seven years to go through the court and was won in 1981 when the UK was found guilty of a human rights violation of the European Convention. This was because it criminalised all gay male sexual activity with a possible sentence of life imprisonment for buggery, and two years jail for any other sexual act (“gross indecency”) thereby interfering with the right to a private life. A year later a reluctant British government pushed an Order in Council through Westminster legalising certain gay sexual activity with an age of consent of 21.
The Chariot Rooms in Lower North Street was the first gay-run bar in Belfast. It and its own disco were operated successfully, and with flair, by Ernie and Jim in the darkest years of the troubles. It was in the central gated area where no other night life existed for several years. We had to be processed by the civilian searchers to enter the central area leading to many camp and ribald remarks. The reasons for the Chariot Rooms closing are obscure although it was well frequented and much loved even by soldiers who duck patrolled through the dance floor, lingering in the warmth and safety. (Ernie and Jim were both processed through the courts in October 1967 and jailed or committed to a mental hospital along with a dozen others in the last big round-up of gays in Bangor.)
Off and on in the 1970s and 80s, the Europa’s Whip and Saddle bar in Great Victoria Street was the city’s only gay venue. Despite, at times being the only customers in such a bombed hotel, we were never entirely welcome and were ultimately driven out. At one point in the 1970s NIGRA mounted a picket because of a member being barred for a serious indiscretion – a kiss.
Due to the efforts of the late Kieran Hayes (d. 2011), a gay staffer’s, the Crow’s Nest in Skipper Street became a gay bar with a small disco from c. 1986. After several makeovers, it changed its name to the Customs House in 2002 and was re-invigorated as a gay bar hosting Men of the North events on alternate Fridays. It returned to the Crow’s Nest (or Raven’s Rectum) title later, after another makeover. (The Nest was demolished in 2008.)
The Carpenter Club in Long Lane (proprietors Richard Hodgson, Jeff Dudgeon, and NIGRA in a limited partnership) was an extensive, unlicensed disco and coffee bar on two floors operating from the early to the mid 1980s. Cara-Friend had offices upstairs. It was ultimately compulsorily purchased by the DOE to make way for the currently renamed Writers’ (formerly Skinhead) Square.
The Carpenter Club though gradually successful was vulnerable to any premises like a hotel on the skids (like the Midland Hotel) which had a drinks licence. Such licences were prohibitively expensive. Cara-Friend moved to new premises at Cathedral Buildings in Lower Donegall Street where Lesbian Line also had rooms and GLYNI and NIGRA met. Both C-F and Queer Space have run busy Saturday drop-ins at Cathedral Buildings, the latter having had previous rooms in Botanic Avenue and Eglantine Avenue.
After buying out his partners, Richard Hodgson, an accountant turned builder, was dubiously jailed for fraud after receiving compensation on the building’s compulsory purchase by the Department of the Environment. He developed other premises in Hill Street which never opened.
The Orpheus Bar/Disco in York Street had a successful three-year existence under the proprietorship of Ian Rosbotham in the mid-1980s, despite the rampant damp. It had a short afterlife once renovated.
The Dunbar Arms in Dunbar Link was firebombed by the INLA, with drag queen Aunty Mae (West aka Harry) the last out of the building being nearly singed to death, possibly due to a protection refusal. After rebuilding, it became the Parliament Bar, run by two straight guys, Martin Ramsay and Brendan, continuing as a gay venue with an upstairs disco from the 1990s until 2003 when it abandoned the gay market. It later returned to its roots as Mynt. Darren Bradshaw an off-duty gay policeman was murdered there by the INLA in 1997, having been picked out and shot down in front of dozens of customers.
Cruising areas too have been marred by murder – Anthony McCleave in Oxford Street, Belfast in the 1970s and Ian Flanagan in Barnett’s Park in 2002. There have been others.
One nighters have been operated since the mid-1980s in the Midland Hotel (Saturdays), Delaney’s, the Limelight (very successfully on Mondays for several years run by Patrick James), the Venue, White’s Tavern and Milk.
The Kremlin, an extensive, gay-owned bar and disco(s) in Upper Donegall Street, after opening in March 1999, became the dominant gay venue in the city, regularly enhancing its facilities. The owners were a New Zealander André Graham and Seamus Sweeney. A later development in the creation of a gay village in Belfast was the opening of their up-market Union Street pub with its many bars and dance rooms. The property they bought in nearby Union Street housed the Men’s Health Rainbow Project (formerly in Church Lane) and Belfast’s first ever gay sauna, the Garage. Another sauna opened across the street in time.
Sex in saunas, that is sex with more than two males present, was legalised in 2003 thanks to NIGRA’s successful campaign to have Northern Ireland included in the Sexual Offences Bill with its total abolition of the crimes of gross indecency and buggery and the equalising of penalties between gay and straight for sexual crimes.
Later rival venues were another Dubarry’s bar and disco which opened in Gresham Street and attracted the older clientele, being a bit less noisy (and having fewer straights). Despite success, it eventually reverted to a straight clientele. The advent of Maverick also in Union Street in the former McIlhattons Bar enabled both sides of the street to become LGBT dominated and in time pedestrian only.
The gay organisations – Rainbow, Cara-Friend and Here NI migrated for a decade to the former War Memorial Building in Waring Street taking over several floors. It was eventually sold for the purposes of a gay hotel venture which has yet to materialise, and new group premises were taken further down the street.
The only cloud on the commercial scene’s horizon has been cyber-sex through the likes of Grindr which have become ever more popular, night and day. Cruising and outdoor sex seem largely to be a thing of the past.
At the same time there has been an explosion in the growth of gay history studies at Queen’s University and through Gay History Month. PRONI and the Linen Hall Library now have considerable LGBT documentary collections. Cultural events, many organised by Outburst, have featured strongly in the new millennium as of course have the increasingly popular Belfast Pride parades which started in 1991, being first organised by Sean McGouran and P.A. MagLochlainn. They have now spread to other cities and localities.
(Author of ‘Roger Casement: The Black Diaries – With a Study of his Background, Sexuality, and Irish Political Life’ (3rd edition 2019); and ‘H. Montgomery Hyde: Ulster Unionist MP, Gay Law Reform Campaigner and Prodigious Author’ (Belfast Press, 2018) – website https://jeffdudgeon.com/ )
- Wikipedia – Jeff Dudgeon MBE
- Wikipedia – Sailor Town, Belfast
- The Portsmouth Defence by Jeff Dudgeon
- Pushing the Boundaries; Decriminalising Homosexuality 1974-1982: The Role of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association by Jeffrey Dudgeon & Richard Kennedy