Familiar to anyone who frequented the scene over the years, John Keelan has seen many changes across Dublin’s queer nightlife. So how did a straight guy who worked on the doors of LGBTQ+ venues end up becoming so beloved by so much of the community? John shared with me his journey and history of working with LGBTQ+ venues:
“I suppose it all started when I came back from San Francisco in 1996. I was a very shy guy. I was kind of lost, looking for new experiences. And I was looking for a bit of adventure.
“I was doing a little bit of security in The Mercantile and through a friend of mine, we started working in The George. It was April, 1996, I think.
“That scene in the ‘90s was absolutely electric. The George was planning to expand - it was only a small venue; you had the old bar and then a little bar where the dance bar is now. Then there were nights like Ham, Powder Bubble, and the Playground in the Temple of Sound, all in full swing, the late-night cafes like Small Talk - there was a real edge and creativity about what was going on around the scene at the time.”
John described how “there were lots of people coming from different parts of Ireland, and different parts of the world and they were all converging on Dublin, looking for new lives for themselves in the city. I was kind of one of those lost souls myself, y’know?”
John recalled how he was “searching for something”, he explained; “I never really felt accepted where I was from, I wanted something a little bit different. I had a bit of boldness in me, a little bit of a divilment, and I really found that acceptance when I started working in The George. I found what I was looking for- this community of people from different backgrounds, different genders, different beliefs. All of these venues were so open and diverse.”
Throughout his time working in LGBTQ+ venues, John was “made feel very, very part of this community because there were a lot of these venues that were able to bring people from different backgrounds, different creeds, and put them into the same place.”
In discussing his vision for opening up the new bar on Meath Street, John spoke about those LGBTQ+ venues and their influences, he explained that everyone in these spaces “had similar goals. They all had a similar outlook on life, you know, and to this day, I’m drawn to places like that. So, it feels like a natural progression for me to want to do that with All My Friends.”
The overarching message John relaid when chatting with me, was how at home the LGBTQ+ community made him feel: “Essentially, I was so welcomed by the LGBTQ+ community that I want to give a little bit back, and provide that community a space where they can feel welcomed and accepted, because I felt so welcomed and accepted in those spaces.”
The chance to open his own venue is a vision he has had for quite some time: “I started this journey a number of years ago. I had always wanted to have my own place.
“During my early 30’s, I went on a bit of a journey through education; I did a couple of degrees, I did a Master’s and I was even teaching for a while. All that time I was always working. I was in Panti Bar and still doing Sunday Social and as busy as I was during the day I could never ever give it up.
“It was the like the adult in me was saying, ‘John, you need to get a proper job and you need to work nine to five, Monday through Friday’ and I could just never do that. I missed the energy and the connections and the relationships that you would get working on the scene.”
John had a vision, and he was was determined to follow it through, as he described, “I had given up my contract with the Department of Education and I was going to go and wait tables at a friend of mine’s restaurant, Lemon Jelly on the Millennium Walkway, because it was the only aspect of hospitality I hadn’t done before. So, I was lucky enough then to have a conversation with Caroline Kinsella, who I met working in The George, and then another friend of Caroline’s, Harry Fagan, who’s my other partner in the pub. I had met Harry through working in Sunday Social. The three of us had a shared experience. When people meet in welcoming spaces like we three did, relationships really do flourish.
“I identified a gap in the market. I saw that there weren’t enough spaces outside of the traditional ‘pink triangle’, if you like, for the LGBTQ+ community.”
He highlighted the importance of the Liberties as being the ideal spot for this new venue. “The Liberties is an area that I love. I love the diversity. I love that you can see somebody selling flowers and then you can walk down the street and see a professor from a university drinking a cup of coffee, you know? It has that kind of blueprint for what I see as a good place to start a venue that needs to be diverse and open.”
“(I want) to provide something that marries into the diversity and the authenticity of The Liberties and create a space where our customers can feel safe and uninhibited to be themselves, their true selves, in an ordinary everyday context.”
Coming back to the sense of community that is integral to John’s vision and journey, he said of his new bar that he hopes it it will feel like “a ‘Big Hug Pub!’ When you come in, you’re going to feel that you’re accepted and you’re a part of something. You can feel wanted and looked after and have a sense of belonging and a sense of fun and that all people are equal. A place for everyone, with good friends with good drink, with good food, good vibes and just fun!”
When I asked how he felt about his vision finally coming together, John explained, gathering inspiration from the LGBTQ+ community, that “sometimes you have to sit back and go, ‘What do I really want?’ Not ‘What does society want from me?’ I think all of our goals in life is to find something that you really enjoy doing because when you enjoy doing something then it’s not work. This is that for me, you know? Although I’m working 18 hours a day, I wouldn’t want to change it for the world. I absolutely would not want to change it for the world because the feedback and the support from the community just gets you out of bed in the morning. It’s phenomenal.”
He laughed, emphasising that: “I’m not being corny! I am really looking forward to giving all of that back to people.”
Hoping to be open by the middle of June, the pub significantly will not have an opening night. In John’s own words “I don’t want people to be excluded. I want to open the doors to people and let them come in at their own pace.”
See you there.