Below is a brief look at the history of Dublin’s sex shops, taking in some of the hysteria and protest that existed around such shops on the island well into the late 1990s. It’s an interesting story, in many ways surprising, looking at shops which today dot the city.
Ah, the sex shops of Capel Street. Those neon signs and tacky window displays are as much a part of Dublin today as the Chinese restaurants, discount shops and early houses which also dot the street. Yet a great many Dubliners will be surprised to hear just how new such shops are to Dublin. There can be a belief among younger Dubs that with the end of Archbishops MacQuaid’s rule the lights came on (or in this case went off)overnight, and all changed in Irish society. Suddenly, Catholics went to Trinity, censorship ended and vibrators arrived. It’s not quite that simple, and indeed it was February 1991 before even talk of Dublin’s first sex shop hit the national media.
Prior to Dublin’s earliest adult shop, and often mistaken for it, there had been Yvonne Costello’s store Kinks in the 1980s, a lingerie shop which carried some ‘novelty items’ but never went far enough as to bring the force of conservative elements knocking on the door. Costello was of course a former Miss Ireland and a character with which the media held some fascination. Kinks was about as risqué as things were to get in Dublin or the south for some time, and while adult shops thrived north of the border, they were yet to land in the capital. Kinks on South Anne Street even featured in the weekend supplement of The Irish Times, and while widely remembered by Dubs as the first sex shop in Dublin, this labeling just doesn’t suit.
Frank Young, owner of the Belfast sex shop Private Lines, was interviewed by the Sunday Independent in February of 1991 about his intentions to bring the store to the sexually conservative heart of the Republic. Young, the paper noted, “looks more like an accountant than someone who sells sex for a living”, and in his interview he said that many of his customers were coming from across the border anyway, making a move into Dublin logical in his eyes. Responsible for the Esprit and Excel mags, which were subject to censorship south of the border, Young believed that were it not for the two menaces of “raving feminists and various Christian group”, the magazine would have a circulation on the island to rival the Sunday World. There was, Young insisted, a strong desire for adult shops further south than Newry. Belfast’s first sex shop had opened in 1982, with huge pickets from Christian groups making the owners of ‘Mr Dirty Boots’ perfectly aware they were unwelcome on the Castlereagh Road!
When sex shops did ultimately land in the Republic later on in the 1990s, few could have predicted the backlash. As Diarmaid Ferriter wrote in his excellent history of the Irish and our sexuality, Occasions of Sin, these shops on one level represented the normalisation of sexuality “by its being transformed into a commodity”, but to others this was very much a threat to the very moral fibre which held our society together. Jim Bellamy, an Aberdeen native, was responsible for the earliest sex shops in the south, opening Utopia outlets in Bray,Dublin,Dundalk and Limerick in very quick succession. In Limerick, one protestor told The Irish Times that “paedophiles and other sex perverts feed off these kind of places”, but the sales figures suggested that Jim Bellamy’s store held a wide appeal to the general public. Thousands joined “pray-ins” against Bellamy’s shop in Limerick and throughout the Provence, organised by the ‘Solidarity’ movement. The Irish Times image of Mr.Bellamy, standing alongside a mannequin in a maids outfit, must be one of the most unusual images the paper has ever printed. Bellamy’s Bray outlet, opened late in 1991, was the first sex shop in the Republic. I don’t suppose we’ll ever see a plaque upon the site.
When Utopia made the short journey into the Irish capital in 1993, it arrived on Capel Street, today home to more sex shops than any other street in Dublin. Utopia however, was about to become Utophia. While the signwriting tradition is sadly dying out in Dublin today, and hand painted shop fronts are few and far between, a painter was given the honour of putting the name above the door of Dubin’s first sex shop. Incredibly, and in the spirit of a good Dublin story, he spelt it wrong and Utophia was born, as it was to remain.
Dublin’s early sex shops found themselves in a very unusual place, coming head to head with the rather extreme censorship laws still in place at the time. While inflatable people and inflatable sheep were both harmless enough in the eyes of the state, the printed word and image still posed the greatest threat to the moral decency of a people. As Bellamy was to tell Sean Moncrieff in a 1994 interview for The Irish Times, what we had was “four old men and a judge deciding the morals of the country”. Through 1995, the shops were raided on numerous occasions by customs officers and Gardaí in relation to the selling of indecent or obscene materials, in the form of video tapes. In many cases such materials were returned to the shops afterwards when they were deemed to be within the law. This situaion saw Bellamy take court proceedings to challenge the decision of the authorities to raid his stores with such frequency.
Heading into the mid 1990s, Utophia was joined by Condom Power, Miss Fantasia and other outlets which remain in Dublin to this day, ironically rather recession proof despite the early controversies around them. Remarkably, by the late 1990s, another scandal would blow up with the opening of Ann Summers on O’Connell Street.
It says a great deal about Dubliners today that more of us are offended by the ugly and plentiful ‘temporary signs’ and ill thought-out shopfronts on our main thoroughfare than what is essentially a lingerie store, but in 1999 Ann Summers found itself in hot water over its chosen Dublin location. It would take a High Court challenge to secure the future of the shop, with Ann Summers informed by Dublin Corporation that there use of the premises and their range of products were unacceptable and in conflict with the objectives of the O’Connell Street Integrated Area Plan. Today, it is one of the best performing stores on a street where ‘To Let’ signs have become an all too familiar sight.
How quickly things change in Irish life. While the earliest sex shops on the island were met by rosary beads and placards, today the island is dotted with them. Over time, they have become a ‘normal’ feature on the capitals streets, and much of the hysteria of the early 1990s has proven unfounded. George Bernard Shaw once asked ‘why should we take advice on sex from the Pope?’, and it appears safe to say in the twenty-first century, very few on the island do.