“If you can crack a Cork audience, you can make it anywhere”
I’VE always remembered that advice, although I can’t remember who said it. It was 1970 and I had been living in Dublin for a year, having moved from England via Belfast. I was ‘trapped’ in the Pale bubble and knew nothing about life in the rest of the country.
What was so special about a Cork audience? Would they tear me apart if they didn’t like me? Would they take a female impersonator from the heartland of the Old Enemy to their collective bosom? A horrible war was kicking off across the border. English people were as popular as pork scratchings in a Tel Aviv bar.
I was worried, but I’ve always liked a challenge. Besides, I couldn’t change the fact that I had been born in London — where I was on the way to being a major star. There were posters of me on Carnaby Street and I was friendly with some of the biggest names in showbusiness: Judy Garland, Ringo Starr, David Bowie, Noel Coward, Kenneth Williams, etc.
Cork people would either love me or hate me. I could only be myself and see what happened.
Things were going very well for me in Dublin. I had decided to make my home there after a quick visit in 1969. I had a residency in the Baggot Inn, was the darling of Ireland’s entertainment hacks, and about to make my debut on the Late Late. That said, I was eager to see the reaction to my act outside of the capital. I was a drag pioneer: Ireland had never seen anything like Mr Pussy before. If Cork didn’t go well, Ireland might never see him/her again.
I had been taken on by the Ray O’Sullivan agency and we put together our own tour band called Pentagon, a compere (Dale King) and an opening act: Eithne Dunne. We must have played every venue in Ireland and held local records for crowd attendances — rivalling the showbands of the time.
I can still recall driving late at night along dark country roads when a showband bus would pull up alongside us and the occupants would wave… and then drop their flared pants and moon at us. They were simpler times, dear. We’d then pull over and have a gossip about the venues we’d just played.
Some of those venues were huge, like the Cork Opera House. Others were miniscule. I recall doing one and asking where the dressing room was. I was shown to a small cupboard. “Where’s the chain? And the toilet paper?” I asked. “This isn’t a dressing room. It’s a lav.”
“Well, Big Tom used it last week,” came the reply.
“He should change his name to Tiny bleedin’ Tom. And he didn’t have to change into a frigging dress. Or did he?”
We drove and drove and played and played. The Tour was becoming so popular that Mike Murphy from RTÉ joined me on the road with a film crew. Everyone seemed to love us, with the exception of one bishop in Longford.
On the morning of our gig there, he condemned me from the pulpit, ordering his flock not to go to the show. Word spread and, Ireland being Ireland, I ended up with a sellout crowd — more than he’d preached to in a year. I really should send him a card to thank him for helping me.
The roadshow was a great introduction to the real Ireland. The Munster hospitality was incredible. We generally stayed in the venue where we were playing or a nice B&B. After the show, everyone would retire to the kitchen where there would be a vat of tea and a hill of sandwiches waiting for us. Then someone would produce a bottle of whiskey and start singing ‘The Banks…’ It was great craic.
Hotel post-show parties were wilder affairs. We stayed in Youghal one night and returned to the hotel pissed in the small hours. We couldn’t get into our room — I think the key was broken. So, rather than sleep in the van, the band scoured the place looking for a vacant room. Somehow, they managed to find one, unhinge the door, carry it upstairs, and replace my locked door with it. It was extra-miraculous considering they couldn’t breathe, they were laughing so much.
It only struck us the following day that they didn’t need to go to all that bother. I could have just stayed in the vacant room.
Of all the places I have toured, Cork is my favourite. I broke box office records there and filled the Opera House. In my prime, I used to head down every six weeks for shows in Midleton, Mallow, Clonakilty… My first Leeside venue was Moore’s Hotel in the city. Noel Magner had come to see me play in Tallaght and booked me for a week. I looked out the window and could see a crowd queuing around the hotel. I asked a waiter what they were lining up for.
“You,” he replied.
We had driven down the night before and there were no rooms available in the hotel, so they brought a bed down to the residents’ bar. We got locked in there for the night — and well locked too. The night porter was jarred and kept us supplied with drinks. He even made us a ‘salad’ from some hard cheese he found behind the bar and some leftover crisps. ‘To give it a bit of flavour’.
Actually, looking back, I don’t think he was the night porter. He might well have been a customer. Doesn’t matter: That first night set the boozy theme for the rest of the run. We would do a gig, go on the batter, end up in the early houses, and then home to sleep for an hour before the next show.
The management at Moore’s were quite apprehensive about my material before the first show. Keep it clean, they said. I did. I also did a striptease down to a swimming costume and a pair of wading boots — the crowd went wild. I followed this by firing tennis balls out of my bra. They always love that. It’s crowd participation, I suppose, as they have to throw them back.
The crowd, and the papers, loved it. ‘Drag comes to Cork’ ran the following day’s headlines. I was ‘in’. So ‘in’ that I was invited to a civic reception held by the Lord Mayor. I don’t remember much about that as it was 10 in the morning and I was still jarred on the previous night’s brandy. I do recall that there were a lot of nuns there. That’s about it.
Later that day — once the brandy had worn off — I paid a pilgrimage to the birthplace of my hero, Danny La Rue. That was a real high for me. I first met Danny at a London nightclub in the late 1960s. He was the biggest star in the West End and my manager went up to him and said ‘See him? He’s going to be bigger than you.’
Danny was livid and I had to make a point of apologising to him. He followed me into the loo — and snogged me. We laughed about it afterwards and became very close mates. I devote a chapter to him in my book.
It’s sad to think that so many young people have never heard of Danny. He never lost his love of Cork, though and used to grill me for hours about it whenever we would hook up. The poor man was swindled, lost millions and ended his days broke. He really deserves a statue in his native city.
- Mr Pussy: Before I Forget to Remember, by Alan Amsby and David Kenny, New Island Books, €16.99.
David Gordon — one of Cork’s great characters
David Gordon was Ireland’s leading ballet master. He told me he began his career as a soprano and sang at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation as a 15-year-old soloist, where he was spotted by the founder of the Royal Ballet who offered him a scholarship.
His story reads like Billy Elliot: coming from the tough Shankill Road to become one of the Royal Ballet’s principal dancers, touring the world with Margot Fontaine and my old mate, Rudolf Nureyev. When Joan Denise Moriarty founded the Irish National Ballet in 1973, David headed to Cork to become its ballet master.
He never left and became a flamboyant part of Leeside life. Everybody adored him and he was known as ‘mother’ Gordon due to his fondness for long shawls. He was a pioneer of Cork’s gay scene and gave a lot of youngsters the courage to be themselves.
David was irrepressibly funny and outrageous. I remember at one party, he woke with a raging hangover and declared: “I’ve arrived! I’ve arrived! I’ve always wanted to sleep in a four-poster bed — and now I’ve done it.” He had passed out under the kitchen table.
David threw a party one evening and decided we should all have cocktails. He phoned his local and ordered 15 bloody marys to be delivered to the house. Five minutes later he had forgotten the phonecall. So he rang another pub ordering another 15 bloody marys. Five minutes later he repeated the order to another publican. Three lounge boys arrived in three separate cars with trays of drinks and handed them through the window of his flat, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. That was David, through and through.
Ireland lost one of its most colourful characters when David passed away in 2007 at the age of 69. He spanned the yawning divide between gay and straight in a time of rampant homophobia. He proved that if you remained true to yourself, you would eventually be accepted. In David’s case, he wasn’t just accepted. He was celebrated too, and taken to the heart of the city he loved — Cork.