Celebrating Cultures, Promoting Integration
The Hirschfeld Centre existed for less than a decade. It, however, left a mark on the Irish LGBT+ history
Ireland was a difficult place to be gay in 40 years ago, but the opening of Hirschfeld Centre in spring 1979 marked the beginning of a new era for the LGBT+ community.
It was St Patrick’s Day, March 17 of 1979, when the centre opened its door for the first time. It was housed in a building at 10 Fownes Street Upper in Temple Bar, a spirited cultural hub of Dublin today. Prior to the birth of the Centre, Temple Bar had not been any near to what it is known for now. The Hirschfeld Centre revolutionised the area.
“It was a hive of activity,” Senator David Norris said. He put all his money to have the centre launched, without any support from the central government. Norris is also regarded to be the first openly gay man to have been elected to public office in Ireland.
The Senator decided to name the Centre after Magnus Hirschfeld, a German sexologist and leader of the gay movement in Germany in the first half of the 20th century, who ran the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for the Science of Sexuality) at that time.
The pioneering Hirschfeld Centre
In the seventies, a bus station was planned to be constructed in Temple Bar, but the idea faded away. The already standing Hirschfeld Centre found in the area was not popular among everyone, but gay people loved it. A library, café, counselling room, publishing house, cinema, and club Flikkers were housed here.
“We ran discos not just for gay people but also for women’s issues, environmental issues and so on,” Norris said. On the opening night much more people turned up than Norris expected, and several hundreds had to celebrate outside.
Although Ireland recognised marriage equality after the 2015 referendum, the times in Catholic Ireland had been hard for anybody from the community in the seventies, however. The Church saw them as sinners, and the state regarded them criminals. The Centre helped the LGBT+ community somewhat get rid of the feeling of isolation and fear. It offered a phone advice service called Tel-A-Friend, which aimed at helping people to come to terms with their sexuality, and Parents Enquiry, a support service for parents of homosexuals.
A month since the opening of the Centre, the National Gay Federation also found its home in here. Pre-gay pride events, such as picnics in Merrion Square, were also started thanks to the Hirschfeld Centre. The actual gay pride march took place no sooner than in 1983, four years after the Centre started.
“The Hirschfeld Centre and the gay community gave a lead in the fight against AIDS,” Senator Shane Ross also said in Seanad Éireann in 1988.
The media soon became interested in the Centre and the life of gay and lesbian communities as well.
Decriminalisation of homosexuality
Norris did launch not only the Centre but also fought for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland and Northern Ireland in the seventies. It all started when he lectured at Trinity college.
He first turned to the Irish High Court, in 1980, demanding from the Court to declare laws of 1861 and 1885, which criminalised homosexuality, as unconstitutional. Norris did not succeed and turned to the European Court of Human Rights in 1983. The court ruled five years later the Irish legislation breached gay people’s human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Ireland, however, decriminalised homosexuality only in June 1993, five years since the verdict. While gay people could celebrate this big victory, a few years earlier, in autumn 987, they were confronted with a cruel reality. The Hirschfeld Centre burned down. In the past, it faced several attacks.
“I went up and found a bomb on the roof. I defused it and got the police, and the disco went ahead,” Norris recalled the old times at Flikkers.
The Hirschfeld Centre was replaced with another LGBT+ centre Outhouse, housed in a building on 105 Capel Street. It opened in the nineties, back then located on Wicklow Street.
In 2019, a commemorative plaque was installed on the building of the former Hirschfeld Centre.
The Hirschfeld Centre may be the only centre named after Magnus Hirschfeld in fact. He ran the Institute for the Science of Sexuality in Berlin. He was gay. He was Jewish.
“I thought here is somebody who needs to be revived, who needs to be memorialised,” Norris said.
When Adolf Hitler came into power, the Nazis began to destroy gay clubs in Berlin and banned gay initiatives. They also beat up Hirschfeld himself and burned books in the Institute. It ceased to exist in the Second World War period. Hirschfeld went into exile and tried to continue his work in France. Nonetheless, he died there in 1935.