On a grey November morning, I meet Orla Egan outside Loafers, Cork’s iconic now-closed gay bar, where bright twin rainbow flags decorate the otherwise fading frontage.
When you have grown up in a city, the streets can become a kind of uninspired theatrical backdrop to your life. However, there is always a fresh way to look at the streets you call home and Orla is here to help.
For my circle of friends, teenagers in the mid-'90s, Loafers, Cork’s longest-serving gay bar, opened by Derrick Gerety in 1983 and closed in 2015, was the subject of curiosity. All bars were out of bounds because we were underage, but this one had double the mystique.
When a close male friend came out as gay, we ventured through the doors for a celebratory pint in the iconic establishment and I was somewhat disappointed to find that it was quite an ordinary pub inside.
“Well, I was here on the night it opened, but I have to admit to having been slightly underage,” Orla Egan says with a grin. Orla is the founder of Cork LGBT Archive and a new interactive walking tour of landmarks in Cork’s LGBT history. Plaques with QR codes have been put at 13 locations around Cork city, each one unlocking an online treasure trove of information.
We discuss Orla’s memories of Loafers as a focal point for a whole generation of Cork LGBT people. I point my phone at the QR code and the website displays film clips, a photo of Gerety serving pints, a news clip about Loafers’ closure in 2015.
Orla and I set off, stopping first at two sites that Orla describes as vital to Cork’s lesbian community in particular; on White Street, the current location of Linc (Lesbians in Cork); around the corner on George’s Quay, the site of its predecessor, Cairde Chorcaí, which opened in 1999.
“It’s really important to mark this as a very important step in Cork’s LGBT history,” Orla says. “There was a long history of lesbians sharing space with gay men or with other women’s groups and this was the first community space that we could really call our own.”
The idea behind the walking tour originated in the digital LGBT archive Orla founded, but also with the help of Konrad Im, the former Mr Gay Cork who now works with Cork Pride, whose idea it was to use QR codes to enrich the experience.
“I was going to get plaques made but Konrad’s idea of having QR codes is leaving a more lasting legacy and really putting LGBT history on the map in Cork,” Orla says.
We walk to The Quay Co-op. The vegetarian restaurant and healthfood shop was co-founded in 1982 as a worker’s co-operative by Arthur Leahy, who, alongside his then partner Laurie Steele, had given a candid interview about life as a gay couple in Cork to RTÉ television in 1979, nearly 15 years before homosexuality was legalised.
The Quay Co-op became a “hive of social change activism,” gay rights being just one cause amongst many, Orla says.
“The Quay Co-op had gays and lesbians, environmental activists, CND: all kinds of movements,” Orla says. “There was the café, but meeting spaces too. The Rape Crisis service began here. There was a bookshop where you could get books and newsletters you couldn’t get anywhere else.”
A sense of real wonder at the bravery of the first wave of 'out' LGBT people, so adamant they were going to live their lives true to who they were in the face of adversity, starts hitting home. There is living, hidden history all around us, it occurs to me: this is the story of just one of Cork’s communities. The city suddenly seems bigger, more full of potential.
We stop at The Other Place at North Main Street. The first LGBT float for Patrick's Day was organised here in 1992, the first Lesbian and Gay Film Festival the year before.
“Also, the first bisexual group I can find operated here in the 1990s,” Orla says. “According to Sara Phillips, the first Teni support group in Ireland was held here too. In the 1970s and '80s, people talked about gay and lesbian people; bisexual and transgender people were there, but they just weren’t always visible.”
The Other Place building had structural issues and closed in 2015. Indeed, many of the landmarks on the tour are no longer with us, including where we end up: at what was known as 'Number 4' on MacCurtain Street, where an unprepossessing car park now occupies the space once taken by Cork’s first gay centre.
“We’re ending at the beginning in some ways,” Orla says with a smile.
Orla says that many of the firsts in the Irish struggle for LGBT acceptance and visibility happened in the second city: “We had the first national gay conference, the first aids leaflet, the first gay and lesbian Patrick’s Day float.”
What made Cork such a hub?
“I think we had an incredible group of brave activists, but I also think Cork is smaller than Dublin and had a stronger sense of community,” she says.
“The gay movement started in Dublin because gay men were being arrested and publicly humiliated. I can’t find those stories in Cork: I think gardaí took a more community policing kind of approach.”
“It was important to challenge the misconceptions and prejudices that existed against the LGBT community and I think those early activists were successful in a lot of ways. There’s still work to do, but we live in a fundamentally different society to the one that existed in 1976. It’s important to me that people know: that young LGBT people now can walk down this street and know this history.”