Brian Finnegan recalled going into a gay bar in Dublin 15 years ago. He had to knock on the door to get in. A man on the other side pushed a peephole door to the side and made sure he belonged there before opening the door to let him inside.
It was like Prohibition, said Finnegan who now is an editor of Irelands gay news magazine, Gay Community News.
But almost overnight, things changed, Finnegan said. That change coincided with the so-called Celtic tiger high tech industry boom in the mid-1990s that propelled Ireland from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of its wealthiest. In the early nineties more people were moving out of Ireland than moving in. By the late nineties, however, the trend had dramatically reversed.
The unemployment rate plunged from 15% to less than 5% with jobs attracting immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe. Nowadays about ten-percent of the four million residents of Ireland are now foreign born, whereas a little over a decade ago that figure was a little over one percent. Further evidencing the countrys recent changes, in 2007, Rotimi Adebari, a man from Nigeria, became the country's first black mayor in Portlaoise, a city that is about 55 miles southwest of Dublin.
You will notice that immigration boom soon after arriving in Dublin. You will be more likely met with a hotel or restaurant worker from Eastern Europe than you will one from Ireland. While the faces of Ireland may look a little different, the Irish spirit of hospitality is not lacking in the Emerald Isle. Whats the gay scene like in Dublin? While you wont be greeted at a gay bar in Dublin by someone peering at you through a slit in the door these day , you may notice a small vestige from the underground days.
Unless you are very obviously gay or a familiar face, you will probably be asked by a doorman if you were aware that you were entering a gay bar. Irish people are known for their gift of gab which you are certain to notice if you strike up a conversation with a local They love to chat with strangers. There is seldom a hidden agenda, just a natural curiosity about other people. By the way, despite its reputation for hard drinking and smoking, Ireland banned smoking in bars in 2004. Bars usually close during the week at 12:30 a.m. but most stay open later on weekends.
Notwithstanding subtle reminders of its recent underground past, the gay scene in Dublin is open and concentrated. All the citys gay bars and nightclubs are in short walking distance of one another in a section of downtown near the Liffey River, adjacent to the trendy Temple Bar area.
The newest gay bar in Dublin just opened in November 2007 and is already drawing big crowds even on the weekdays. Its called PantiBar. It is owned by Rory ONeill, more commonly known as Panti, one of Irelands best-known drag queens. Its gay/lesbian mixed crowd but mostly gay men.
The George is Dublins oldest and best known gay bar. Its on the other side of the Liffey River from the PantiBar, closer to where many of the other gay bars are clustered. When it first opened in 1985, it was a small traditional looking Irish bar. Today, the old bar is still there and known to locals affectionately as Jurassic Park. But now it is attached to a cavernous two-level nightclub that features dancing and entertainment. The George nightclub is also very popular with lesbians at night, although the crowd is mostly gay male.
Just down South Georges Street from The George, is the Dragon nightclub. Its owned by Capital Bars, the same company that owns The George. The Dragon is the largest gay club in the city, and the second newest, after PantiBar. Unlike The George, they dont charge a cover to get in the Dragon, so that has helped give it a big boost by drumming up business among locals.
The Front Lounge on Parliament Street is a bar and popular lunch spot. The front of the Front Lounge tends to be more popular with lesbians and the back with gay men. As its name implies, the Front Lounge is a lounge type bar, with sofas and easy chairs throughout. It is a popular place for gay people to bring their non-gay friends after work or after dinner.
Dublin has two gay saunas, the large and modern Boilerhouse, on the edge of the Temple Bar area and just behind The Clarence hotel, and the Dock Sauna, about a five minute walk from the Boilerhouse on the other side of the River Liffey.
The River Liffey cuts through the heart of downtown. Several charming pedestrian and vehicle bridges span the river, the most famous of which is the pedestrian-only Ha Penny Bridge, so named because it once charged a half-penny toll. Now its free.
The best known gay sight is the statue of Oscar Wilde. He sits reclining on a rock in Merrion Square near Trinity College where he was educated. Reflecting his colorful life, the statue shows him off in a vibrant green jacket with red trim. He sits on a perch overlooking the home where he grew up. Wilde was known for his wit and some of his best-known quotations are inscribed on stone columns in front of the statue.
There are a wealth of museums, parks and even a castle within easy walking distance in downtown Dublin. The city offers a number of walking and bus tours that allow vistors to take it all in without getting lost. I took the City Tour Hop On- Hop Off bus which runs every ten minutes allowing tourists to hop on and off at a sight of interest.
Dubliners love their parks and the city is home to Phoenix Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world. It is a little more than 10 times the size of Johannesburg's Zoo Lake. Pope John Paul II celebrated mass before more than a million people there in 1979. A papal cross marks that spot. Not very pretty I know but hey, Ireland is still a predominantly Catholic country.
The park is also home to the Dublin Zoo and the Irish Presidents residence, which looks a lot like the American White House.
There are reminders throughout Dublin of Irelands struggle for independence from Great Britain. The best known symbol of that fight is a jail, the Kilmainham Gaol, where Irelands political prisoners were held. It was also where 14 rebels were executed following the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion. Ireland finally gained its independence in 1921 under an agreement that allowed the UK to carve out Northern Ireland.
The Guinness Storehouse is a must-stop. It has been called a Disneyland for beer lovers. It is a museum that uses high-tech multimedia to tell the history of Irelands most-revered export. It sits in a converted old grain warehouse opposite the Guinness brewery. The top floor features one of the best views of the city from the Gravity Bar. A free glass of Guinness in the Gravity Bar is included in the admission price. If you ask, they will artfully carve out a shamrock in the foam.
A gay friendly hotel is more the rule rather than the exception in Dublin. The staff of the Gay Community News met with little resistance when they distributed the papers gay map of Dublin to the citys hotels.
That said, some hotels are better than others in making gay customers feel especially welcome. By the way, prices in Ireland, including hotel rates, almost always include its hefty sales tax. Best that you know, so you wont be in for added shock when you check out.
If you want to visit Dublin in style, you would be hard-pressed to do better than The Clarence. U2 band mates, Bono and Edge, bought the then-two star hotel in 1992. Millions of dollars later, they transformed it into a luxury 5-star property. It is perfectly situated on the River Liffey, on the edge of the Temple Bar area and within a short walk to all the gay clubs of Dublin. It has 49 rooms now, including a spectacular penthouse suite. Plans are in the works to nearly triple its capacity when it expands to a building next door around 2010. The Clarence is Travel Alternative Group (TAG) approved which means that the hotel does not discriminate, actively outreaches to the gay and lesbian community, and strives to create a gay-friendly experience for their guests. Room rates start around R2 500 but you can often get a room much cheaper through the hotels website.
Across the River Liffey from The Clarence and on the opposite end of the luxury scale, is the 11-room gay B&B, the Inn on the Liffey. Rates start around R770. Breakfast in its charming riverfront room is included. I heard a couple of negative comments about Inn on the Liffey from locals, but when I showed up unannounced for a tour, I found the staff very friendly and the rooms clean and quaint. The front rooms have a nice view of the river but if youre sensitive to traffic noise you should ask for a back room. As a guest of the B&B, you are granted free admission to the gay sauna, the Dock Sauna, which is housed in same building as the B&B. Thought, women are very welcome to stay in the B&B the sauna is for men only.
If you prefer to stay at a gay B&B that is more upscale, the Nua Haven is a great option. The four-room property is run by a gay couple who live on premises. Nua Havens clientele is mixed, gay men and women, and is straight friendly. The owners maintain a family atmosphere and breakfast is served until midday.
If you are traveling alone, unlike many mainstream bed and breakfasts, no one will look at you funny for having an overnight guest of the same sex stay with you. In fact, they will be graciously welcomed for breakfast. Nua Haven is located in an upper middle class section of Dublin, in the Harolds Cross area, about a ten minute taxi ride from downtown. The property is also serviced by two public bus routes that service the city. Rates are about R1 150 year round, but check the hotel website for specials, especially if you are traveling outside of the busy summer months.
The gay owned Mermaid and Gruel restaurants are right next to each other on Dame Street, at Sycamore Street, in the middle of the gayest part of Dublin. Youll pass by them on your way between the Front Room and The George. Mermaid is upscale and expensive. Entrees start at R200.
Gruel is a more informal deli-like setting and its prices are more down to earth. An entrée there will run you less than R160.
Juice on 73-83 South Great Georges Street, near The George, bills itself as Dublins only sit-down vegetarian restaurant. Although its not gay-owned, its very gay popular in the middle of Dublins gay nightclub area. An entrée costs R120 -R150.
The Boulevard Café on 27 Exchequer Street features a mixture of Mediterranean and Asian food. The staff is mostly gay, and the menu features a mixture of Mediterranean and Asian food. The lunch special there will run you about R130.
If you like Indian food, Diwalis Indian Restaurant is on South Great Georges street, near The George. Lunch runs about R120. Dinner is about R170.
If you are in the mood to splurge, the Tea Room Restaurant at the Clarence Hotel is a good bet. It is set in a spacious room with double high windows facing south, bathing the room in sunlight for lunch and summer dinners. A three course gourmet meal goes for about R650.
On the other end of the budget scale, you can have a light meal at the gay-popular Lemon Jelly restaurant for about R80. Lemon Jelly is in the heart of the Temple Bar area on 10-11B East Essex Street.
Tipping at restaurants is not as generous in Ireland as it is in South Africa. AND you get good service too. A 10 to 15 percent tip is standard unless the bill specifically includes a service charge. Tax is already included.
Tipping of bartenders is not customary in Ireland.