Co-creator Phillip McMahon writes for Culture about the latest show from his theatre company THISISPOPBABY, the story of life-long activist, club impresario, DJ and 'Godfather of Gay' Tonie Walsh, as told by the man himself, which runs at Dublin's Project Arts Centre from 27 Nov - 1 Dec.
I can’t remember when I first met Tonie Walsh. Then again, you don’t really ‘meet’ Tonie; he just kind of happens to you. On the dingy dance floors of the city’s nightclubs or on the cobbled streets of Dirty Dublin, Tonie will collar you for a quick word, which effortlessly grows into an epic story and then, more often than not, blossoms into a full-on call to action. He’s that kind of person, Tonie; he gives you a new perspective on the world and then makes you want to change it.
Listen: Tonie & Phillip talk to The Nicky Byrne Show with Jenny Greene
I do remember trying to get into one of Tonie’s famous gaff parties on Parnell Street years and years ago. It was after a particularly brilliant Alternative Miss Ireland, but Tonie had learned his lesson and hired a bouncer - and I was not on the list. After a bit of old school persuasion, I managed to get in and inside was all manner of fabulous creatures who would later become great friends and collaborators; Niall Sweeney, Trish Brennan, Panti - it was wall to wall with creative buzzers, most of whom I was meeting for the first time. These days we call it ‘finding your tribe’, and that night in Tonie’s flat, I found mine.
Some years after, during a deep dive conversation with Tonie (weirdly outside Project Arts Centre where the show will take place), Tonie talked at length about the Hirschfeld Centre and it burning to the ground in Temple Bar, about the AIDS crisis and all that was lost during those awful years. About Disco segueing into House and about the electricity of queer activism through the decades - that not only changed the country for queers, but the same queers leveraging that energy to fight for women’s rights and housing rights and beyond. About it being important to not just stop at equality for oneself. He talked about coming out when coming out was dangerous and beyond courageous. He talked about fighting for the right for queers to simply be seen, or to tell their own stories on their own terms.
Tonie was telling me his story, but for the first time in my life I was hearing my own story. My own history that was hidden from me in mainstream Ireland. He was telling me our story. So I wanted to bring our story to the stage. For more people to experience Tonie’s fabulousness, or for him to simply happen to you too.
Listen: Phillip and Tonie Walsh talk to Arena
It’s fair to say that THISISPOPBABY was borne, or exploded out of, Alternative Miss Ireland and the glorious Irish clubbing heyday of the 90s and early 2000s. PoD, H.A.M., Powderbubble - those transformative nights where anything could happen and your life could be changed in one or a million small ways. We always thought the theatre could be like that too. It’s why we still make shows like I Am Tonie Walsh.
So welcome to Tonie’s gaff, and welcome to THISISPOPBABY’s table, where everyone has a seat and we’ll sit and tell our stories again and again until someone with more sense than us says it’s time to go home.
I Am Tonie Walsh is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin from 27 Nov - 1 Dec - more details here.