Although incorporated in late 1978, the National Gay Federation (as it was then known) aligned its inception with the opening of Dublin’s Hirschfeld Centre on St Patrick’s Day 1979.
NGF grew out of a split in the Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM), fuelled by personality and policy differences. Founded in 1974, IGRM was the republic’s first large-scale gay civil rights organisation and responsible for establishing Dublin’s first lesbian and gay community resource - the Phoenix Centre - at Parnell Square. Housing offices and a rudimentary social space, the building flourished from its inception in 1975 before becoming victim in early 1978 to the aforementioned personality/policy clashes, mismanagement and an avaricious landlord.
Chastened by the experience, some former IGRM board members set to launching a new organisation with an administrative structure that accommodated a youth group (Ireland’s first), the National Transvestite Line, Tel-A-Friend (now known as Dublin Gay Switchboard) and Liberation for Irish Lesbians, the latter founded at Rathgar Resource Centre in 1978.
The opening of a new community centre at Number 10 Fownes Street was hugely significant. Close to 400 people crammed the three-story warehouse on St Patrick’s Night, with as many people left outside on the street. A commercial scene was non-existent; it would be 1981 before Dublin’s Viking bar proudly and unapologetically began serving a lesbian and gay clientele, followed in quick succession by the Parliament Inn, The Oak Tree and The George.
The Hirschfeld Centre’s dance club, Flikkers Disco, not only offered a default to a non-existent commercial scene but over time became a home-from-home for young men and women alienated from their biological families. The community centre would remain open on Christmas Day, volunteers serving dinner, and it pushed the boundaries of licensing by staging all-night discos. Book clubs, cinema screenings and outreach groups proliferated, along with a variety of political and campaigning groups.
Throughout its history, the Hirschfeld Centre accommodated emerging groups like Gay Health Action, the Dublin Lesbian And Gay Men’s Collective and other ad-hoc campaigns. Flikkers began hosting mixed-gay club nights, notably - The Cage - from the mid-’80s and regularly rented the space to student unions, NGOs and campaigning groups like Women’s Right To Choose.
A limited company was set up to purchase the building, acting as a holding company for NGF. Secured by a mortgage from Senator David Norris and guarantees from other board members, the purchase of Number 10 put huge pressure on already strained resources. Flikkers became the cash cow, funding not only bank repayments but the maintenance of the building, the administration of NGF, running of the Hirschfeld Centre and a raft of high quality publications like In Touch, Identity and Out magazine.
The late ‘80s was a particularly brutal time both for NGF and the building, as it struggled through the grim economic climate, unable to access statutory funding of any kind. For a time, the organisation lost its way, consumed with keeping the Hirschfeld Centre afloat as people continued to emigrate and increasingly die of AIDS complications.
On Nov 5, 1987, the Hirschfeld Centre was set alight, followed a week later by the destruction of Sides Danceclub (Ireland’s first commercial gay dance club), promoting many to fear an anti-gay backlash.
Refused a grant of approximately IR£200,000 from the National Lottery, the building never recovered. NGF volunteers cleared the building of debris and installed a temporary office on the least damaged top floor of the building, facilitating the development of GCN and a burgeoning archives.
In the early 1990’s, the organisation slimmed down its administrative structure and renamed itself the National Lesbian And Gay Federation. It dropped its paid membership and set to developing GCN as a commercially-run publication.
Towards the late 1990’s, Number 10’s holding company, Hirschfeld Enterprises Ltd, issued NGF with an eviction order. A rancorous battle ensued, ending in the High Court in favour of Hirschfeld Enterprises who put a gagging order on GCN and NGF employees. To assuage its conscience, Hirschfeld Enterprises offered IR£50,000 towards the establishment of a new community centre - Outhouse, at Dublin’s Capel Street. After clearing outstanding liabilities, the company directors pocketed the remaining funds of a building that had risen in value during the speculative years of the early Septic Tiger.
By this stage, the NLGF was shepherding GCN through its own choppy waters and facilitated the growth of its archives collection, now renamed the Irish Queer Archive. A steering group of historians, archivists and academics was appointed to oversee the ultimate transfer of the archive to permanent, safe storage. In 2008, the enormous collection of documents spanning 40 years of LGBT history was transferred to the National Library of Ireland, symbolically marking the State finally taking ownership of LGBT heritage.
The Hirschfeld Centre was by no means perfect but there’s no doubting its iconic, totemic status in Irish queer history. It allowed a generation of Irish LGBT people to come of age and take their place in the centre of Irish society. The results are all around us today. NXF publications, all of which remain to be digitised and made public, rank among some of the most important historical documents of modern Ireland.
As it enters middle-age, NXF can rightly claim an illustrious heritage. Long may it continue.