“Dublin feels like a very LGBT-friendly city.” We’re standing in the buzzing outdoor area at the back of the city’s most iconic gay bar, The George. Inside things have turned hot and giddy as resident drag queen Shirley Temple Bar whips her devoted Sunday Bingo audience into a full-blown frenzy on the dance floor. I’ve popped out to get some air, and got chatting to two very sweet, heavily pierced girlfriends visiting from Spain.
The pair had previously been ensconced in the best stage-side bar stools, which my friends Moninne, Orla and I had been coveting. As any regular can tell you, if you want a seat, you’d better get here early.
We first came to Bingo at The George back in the late 1990s, but tonight we made the rookie mistake of being too late to nab those stools. (Although true to their reputation for being unusually kind, the bouncers did help us find a spare stool for one sore back.)
As city-break tourists, the Spanish couple are Bingo first-timers who have come for what is Ireland’s longest-running drag show. They tell me that their home city has nothing like this. They’re clearly enjoying exploring a place that can offer a queer bar for every mood, from the calm comfort of Penny Lane to the high-octane hilarity of Pantibar to the happy crowd and kooky decor of Street 66, as well as the alcohol-free space of Outhouse café.
Though tonight’s crowd is peppered with tourists, Sunday Bingo draws troops of regulars too, who love to finish out their week with a bout of pure-Dublin silliness. During the show, I befriend a group of Irish and Brazilian guys who tell me that “on a Sunday night, if you’re gay and in Dublin, there’s only one place to go… It’s our own people, it’s top-class entertainment, and it’s for free!”
As top-class drag shows go – and now that RuPaul is a household name, we’ve all become aficionados – this one has it all. There’s the dazzling emerald headdress sported by Davina Devine as she lip-synchs through Diamonds are Forever (AND a girl’s best friend) into Material Girl.
There’s a wind machine blowing as glam rock queen Veda Beaux Reves belts out Spanish Train, Chris de Burgh’s power ballad about a chess game between god and the devil. (High-stakes stuff, given that so “many souls are on the line”.)
There are classic show tunes such as Ethel Merman’s Everything’s Coming Up Roses, sung with tenacious heart and tattooed soul by veteran drag queen Dolly (aka The George’s annual Eurovision hostess) who is celebrating a very big birthday that weekend.
And bringing focus and purpose to the proceedings is the former child-star of Sunday Bingo: the one and only Shirley Temple Bar, who has been hosting this Dublin city institution since the late 1990s and is greeted with whooping and hollering the minute she arrives on stage.
Indeed Shirley herself is a household name here in Ireland, having moonlighted with the national broadcaster RTE for four years as presenter of Telly Bingo, a role that her alter ego Declan Buckley still performs three times a week.
But Shirley’s cult career in calling the bingo balls first began here in The George in 1997, not long after she won the hotly contested crown of Alternative Miss Ireland. This queerest of annual beauty pageants, otherwise known as Gay Christmas, ran for 25 fabulous years to raise money for Irish HIV/AIDS organisations, and that year Shirley Temple Bar stole the judges’ hearts with her Dublin schoolgirl quips and feckless charm.
As she says herself, she may have aged somewhat since, but she’s never grown up. Her banter keeps things lively as she keeps the audience in check with their bingo cards (“don’t turn those pages, it’s not a children’s book”) and calls the balls in various languages, including in Irish (“number nine, naoi, what does the horse say?”). At times things get curiously quiet during the bingo itself; it’s clear that people take their Sunday night fun very seriously indeed.
“Irish drag queens can hold their own against drag queens from around the world,” one audience regular observes to me. “They can lip-synch and they look great but they also have personality, you know who they are. Anyone can lip-synch, but Shirley is out there owning it.”
There’s certainly no doubting what city we’re in, thanks to Shirley’s true-blue Dublin accent (33 becomes “all the trees, number tirty-tree”), but tonight’s crowd is as cosmopolitan as the staff. Behind the bar, pretty-boy Brazilian bartenders strut with their staff t-shirts knotted up to expose perfect midriffs.
Tonight’s grand prize winner is “Isabella from e-Spain” (as Shirley christens her), here with her post-work crowd and still in uniform. Isabella goes up against stiff competition from both Mateo and Hector but is ultimately victorious, winning €600 in crisp twenties. These are doled out to her with great ceremony by all the drag queens in a sort of reverse lap dance.
The show closes with a rousing group rendition of I’m a Woman, in which Shirley brings home the love for her supporting cast of drag queens, including the elegantly leggy Victoria Secret (“she’s Ireland’s answer to Cate Blanchett”).
Watching this grand finale with my friends, we are struck by how polished this cult show has become since we first came post-work as Sunday lunch waiters.
“It definitely felt a lot edgier back then,” observes my friend Moninne, “and a little bit more secret.” After all, homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in Ireland until 1993. “It was a very queer space, where now drag shows are a lot more mainstream. At Dublin’s drag brunches and other drag events, you see lots of non-LGBT people enjoying the fun and the naughtiness of drag.”
Since our days of waiting tables, Moninne went on to become Director of Ireland’s Marriage Equality campaign, culminating in the successful referendum vote on 22 May 2015 when a clear majority of Irish people voted to legalise same-sex marriage in the Republic of Ireland. She is now CEO of Belong To, which provides youth services and advocacy for young LGBTQ+ people.
Does she agree with the Spanish girls that Dublin is now a very LGBT-friendly city? “Dublin has become much more inclusive and queer-friendly, and we have a great reputation abroad. We have marriage equality and some of the most progressive gender-recognition legislation in Europe.
“And I know that there are lots of LGBT people moving here at the moment because things have become so hostile elsewhere. While we’re not immune to that, by far the majority of Irish people are very supportive of and even celebrate LGBT identity.”
She cites the example of the annual Dublin Pride parade every June, which has become a huge street party. “The parade is very family orientated and crowds of people come into town with their kids and their rainbow flags. It’s like another St Patrick’s Day.”
Tonight, however, the best party in town is right here in The George – as it is every Sunday night. Just be sure to get there early for those ringside seats.