On 6 May 1933, Adolf Hitler’s Brownshirts made their way into the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Studies) in Berlin and seized thousands of books and publications they deemed immoral. At the same time, bookshops and lending libraries were raided across the city, denounced as “literary bordellos” by ignorant thugs.
Thankfully, the founder of the Institute, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, was on a speaking tour of the United States at the time the raiding party arrived. One witness to the raid on the Institute described how for three hours the raiders:
…emptied inkwells onto carpets and broke, or vandalised, framed paintings and prints…They confiscated books, periodicals, photographs, anatomical models, a famous wall tapestry, and a bust of Hirschfeld. After music, speeches and songs outside at noon they departed but were succeeded at 3pm by SA men, who removed 10,000 books form the institute’s library. A few days later they carried the bust of Hirschfeld on a pole in a torchlight parade before throwing it on the bonfire with the books from the Institute.
A memorial plaque in Berlin’s Tiergarten today marks the location were the Institute stood. Unsurprisingly, Hirschfeld would never return to Germany. A Jewish sexologist stood little chance in Nazi Germany, and Hirschfeld lived out his final days in France. On his 67th birthday, 14 May 1935, he died of a heart attack in Nice. Once dubbed the “Einstein of Sex”, he was just one of many intellectual leaders who suffered at the hands of Fascism.
Hirschfeld came to be honoured by LGBT activists all over the world, including here in Dublin. A new exhibition in the Little Museum of Dublin, Brand New Retro: Irish Pop Culture 1950-1980, sees the bronze sign from the front of the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar on display to the public. This institution, which opened its doors in March 1979, retains a special place in the gay history of Dublin. For many, seeing the sign will be a reminder of a different time entirely, both for Dublin and the Irish gay community.
Temple Bar in 1979:
Writing in 1979, an English journalist said of the Irish capital:
Suddenly, Dublin has become a shabby city – shabby because its centre is peppered with crude concrete structures, flashy mirror-glass facades and other inappropriate schemes which have no connection at all with the spirit of the place.
There was a certain air of “tear it down and start again”, which was nowhere more obvious than in Temple Bar. Once a district synonymous with manufacturing and production, the wheels of industry had largely seized turning by the late 1970s, and urban decay was becoming a reality. In 1977, there was a massive proposal for the development of a new central Bus station in Temple Bar, which would span the River Liffey, with development on Ormond Quay designed to complement that across the River. It was planned that a tunnel under the Liffey would join both sites, and it was also planned to incorporate the DART into at all. It would have spelled the end for Temple Bar as Dubliners knew it, and C.I.E (the bus company) were buying up huge chunks of property in the area – but leasing them out on short term leases, accidentally bringing a new energy to a district they wanted to demolish. Paul Knox has written:
Paradoxically, this triggered a process of revitalization. Activities which could afford only low rents on short leases moved into the district. These included artists’ studios, galleries, recording and rehearsal studies, pubs and cafes, second-hand clothes shops, small boutiques, bookshops and record stores, as well as a number of voluntary organisations. Together with the districts architectural character, the youth culture attracted by the districts new commercial tenants brought a neobohemian atmosphere to Temple Bar…
Temple Bar was a district in transition, and which it seemed was up for grabs. Interviewed by Rabble in September 2012 Rabble in September 2012, historian and archivist Tonie Walsh made the point that:
It was on Fownes Street because it was so derelict. It made an ideal place for a gay community centre at a time when homophobia was endemic. It was important to get somewhere that wasn’t too in the public eye, that was a little bit discreet. Because of course you had to run the gamut of gay bashers, or people wanting to torch the place. I mean there were grills on it. A poet friend of mine from Finglas ,John Grundy, used to refer to it as ‘Fortress Fownes’. It looked like it was totally grilled. Barricaded.
A new social centre:
The driving force behind the centre was the National Gay Federation, today the National LGBT Federation. It housed “meeting spaces, a youth group, a café, a small cinema and film club and it ran discos at the weekend where gay men, lesbian women and transgender people socialised.”In the years before this, it was clear such a premises was needed. In October 1975, more than three hundred people attended the opening night of the Phoenix Club, HQ of the Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM) at 46 Parnell Square, and as the Irish Queer Archive have noted, this proved the “massive need for a dedicated queer social space in Dublin city.”
The plaque on the new Temple Bar premises was unveiled by Dr. Noel Browne, a TD who had bravely raised the issue of gay rights inside Leinster House in 1977, and who had clashed with conservatives forces in the past, most famously during the Mother and Child Scheme controversy. On the day of the unveiling of the plaque, a speech heralded the centre as “living proof of gay people’s new found pride…testimony to the fact that [we] the gay citizens of Ireland need no longer fear to be openly ourselves.”
The Irish Times reported on the opening of the centre that:
The four-storey building was once a warehouse, but has been renovated and equipped with fire escapes and fire fighting equipment as well as with more “fun” items like the massive disco speakers and imported record collection straight from New York’s most up-to-date record shop, and the brown wood-slatted cafeteria selling Bewley’s coffee.The cinema is already fully functioning.
It was reported that “NGF members will be able to get pink plastic triangles from the centre to wear on their lapels as a sign of membership” In explaining this, David Norris told the press that “Gays were the first to be interned in Nazi camps and also the first to be medically experimented on. And though half a million gays perished in the camps, both German Republics have consistently refused to compensate or even commemorate the fact.” Norris invested heavily in the new centre; indeed The Irish Times reported that it had been “very largely funded by David Norris…with money from selling his home in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, and he is resigned to the fact that he may not get his investment back again.”
As part of the new Brand New Retro exhibition in the Little Museum of Dublin, a number of contemporary handbills from the centre have been reproduced, giving a sense of the wide variety of functions played by the centre. This leaflet notes the disco nights which largely sustained the centre financially, as well as advertising the very important TAF (Tel-A-Friend) service, a “confidential information and counseling service for homosexual Men and Women”:
Similarly, this leaflet advertises the Gay Switchboard:
Could anyone have predicted the immediate successes of the centre? In a country that still criminalised homosexuality, hundreds came through its doors on the first night alone. David Norris recalled that:
The first night the Hirschfeld Centre opened there were three or four hundred people in the place, and when I went to check downstairs I could the floorboards were bouncing. A member who was also a structural engineer approached to say it could be dangerous, so I had the music switched off. I addressed the the throng and told them they could have a refund, or they could stay and chat to their friends and the coffee bar was free for the night, but there would be no more dancing that evening. I was booed and hissed at before one guy stood up and said ‘Hold on a minute, Isn’t it just as well there is someone who does give a shit about our safety?’ and the boos turned into cheers!
By the mid 1980s, there was a belief that Temple Bar had been rescued, and that life had been “brought back due to cheap short-term leases for shops and cafes.” The Hirschfeld was seen by many as an important part of this transformation, and in particular its nightclub component Flikkers, which was regarded as one of the most cutting-edge nightclubs in the city. The name was taken from Dutch-slang for”faggot”. To the Times, it was “one of the liveliest and musically up-to-date [clubs] in town. Records are imported directly from London and, as a rule, are played months before they hit the radio and charts.” In a similar vein to this, DJ Paul Webb told Rabble magazine it was like a “whole new world”:
Coming into somewhere like Flikkers it was just a whole new world it was brilliant, how do you explain it? It was was like being reborn – when you are going out clubbing and you don’t want the same twenty clubs up on Leeson or Harcourt St all playing the same 20 songs, down here it was a whole new world. You could experiment there. I used to play 12 inch instrumentals of James Brown with people doing speeches or raps over it.
It’s fitting that one of the reproduced flyers in the new exhibition is taken from that dimension of the Hirschfeld’s existence:
Visiting the night, one journalist who was sent to investigate felt compelled to write that:
Though homosexuals have a reputation for voracious sexual appetite, there is little evidence of it here. In seating to one side of the room, two men were kissing….It is a surprisingly young crowd, most of whom appear to be in their early twenties. Most have businessman’s haircuts and wear moderately casual clothes. A few form to the traditional image of gays, floridly dressed, wearing necklaces and earrings and with their faces painted with lipstick and eye shadow.
Some sinister forces worked against the centre; on a November night in 1985, Norris climbed onto the rood of the premises to discover “the asphalt-coated felt was on fire, and there was a milk churn full of explosives sitting there, surrounded by firelighters and two barrels of petrol. It was as if the whole roof was a giant petrol bomb, just waiting to explode.”
Two years later, in 1987, the premises was gutted by fire, which the National LGBT Federation history notes was “presumed to be accidental.” In the years that followed Norris and other campaigners sought National Lottery funding for the Hirschfeld Centre project, but were blocked time and again. Gay Health Action, Tel-A-Friend, Liberation for Irish Lesbians and other organisations lost much with the destruction of the premises, though thankfully some important artifacts survived. In the true spirit of the man after whom it was named, the centre had begun the important task of correlating and collecting items relating to the history of the LGBT community in Ireland.
Today, Tonie Walsh maintains the Irish Queer Archive, a treasure trove housed in the National Library of Ireland, and which he often shares with the public via the IQA Facebook page. This year I had the pleasure of organising the walking tours for Dublin’s Culture Night, and the sheer numbers who attended Tonie’s walk of LGBT Dublin was a testament to the work he has done and the enduring interest in it.
While the original plaque is today in the Little Museum, perhaps it is time a plaque was added on Fownes Street, marking this important location in the history of Dublin and LGBT rights.
The Hirschfeld Centre is just one part of the story told at the new Brand New Retro exhibition. It will run until January 2017. We congratulate Brian’s McMahon of the BNR blog on pulling it all together. On Satuday and Sunday mornings, I provide a walking tour of St Stephen’s Green that leaves from the Little Museum at 11.30. Be sure to drop in and see this wonderful exhibition while it runs.