Ireland’s so-called Celtic Tiger high-tech industry boom in the mid-90s propelled it from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of its wealthiest. A more progressive attitude towards gay people eventually followed in the wake of that economic reversal of fortunes.

The big gay political issue now in Ireland is same-sex civil partnership legislation. The Irish government is expected to formulate some form of domestic partnership legislation this year.

What’s the gay scene like in Dublin?

The gay scene in Dublin is open and concentrated. All the city’s gay bars and nightclubs are in short walking distance of one another in a section of downtown near the Liffey River, adjacent to the trendy Temple Bar area.

The newest gay bar in Dublin just opened in November and is already drawing big crowds even on the weekdays. It’s called PantiBar, owned by Rory O’Neill, more commonly known as Panti, one of Ireland’s best-known drag queens. It’s gay/lesbian/mixed but mostly gay men.

The George is Dublin’s oldest and best-known gay bar. It’s on the other side of the Liffey River from the PantiBar, closer to where the other gay bars are clustered. When it first opened in 1985, it was a small traditional-looking Irish bar. But now it is attached to a cavernous two-level nightclub that features dancing and entertainment. The George nightclub is very popular with lesbians at night, although the crowd is mostly gay male.

Just down South Georges St from The George is the Dragon nightclub. It’s owned by Capital Bars, the same company that owns The George. The Dragon is the largest gay club in the city, and the second newest, after PantiBar. Unlike The George, they don’t charge a cover to get into the Dragon, so that has helped give it a big boost by drumming up business among locals.

The Front Lounge on Parliament St is a bar and popular lunch spot. The front of the Front Lounge tends to be more popular with lesbians and the back with gay men.

Bingham Cup and Sydney Convicts

Dublin may be at its gayest ever this June. It will be hosting the Bingham Cup, the gay rugby tournament named for Mark Bingham, one of the September 11 heroes on Flight 93. Organisers expect more than 1,000 people from all around the world to participate in the 12-16 June event, which partially coincides with Dublin’s Pride celebration.

The Bingham Cup is being sponsored by well-known sports betting company, Paddy Power. Their support was a huge boost for organisers because Paddy Power is an integral part of the mainstream testosterone-fuelled Irish sports world.

They take a risk, Bingham Cup Director Richie Whyte said, but they see this as an opportunity to raise their profile to be part of a significant event in Dublin, from a sports and from a social or cultural perspective.

The Sydney Convicts will be among the participating teams. The team plans a Rugger Bugger fundraiser on Saturday 15 March, 8pm-11pm, to help raise money for the trip. For more information, check out the team’s website at www.sydneyconvicts.org. According to Convicts president Andrew Purchas, the team intends to take at least 50 players and is expecting approximately 100 supporters to cheer them on. The team is planning a number of additional benefits, including a trivia night in April, another Rugger Bugger in May, and an event premiering the documentary Walk Like a Man. The film is about the Sydney Convicts and the San Francisco Fog competing in the Bingham Cup in New York City in 2006. For more information and to see a trailer of the documentary visit www.therugbyfilm.com.

For more information on the Bingham Cup, including an interview in Dublin with Whyte, check out Ed Walsh’s multimedia blog, www.gaydublin.blogspot.com. The blog also contains the Dublin organisers’ very well-produced video pitch that helped land them as the 2008 host city.

The sights

The River Liffey cuts through the heart of downtown. Several charming pedestrian and vehicle bridges span the river, the most famous of which is the pedestrian-only Ha’ Penny Bridge, so named because it once charged a half-penny toll. Now it’s free.

The best known gay sight is the statue of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). He sits reclining on a rock in Merrion Square near Trinity College where he was educated. Reflecting his colorful life, the statue shows him off in a vibrant green jacket with red trim. He sits on a perch overlooking the home where he grew up. Wilde was known for his wit and some of his best-known quotations are inscribed on stone columns in front of the statue.

There are a wealth of museums, parks and even a castle within easy walking distance in downtown Dublin. The city offers a number of walking and bus tours that allow you to take it all in without getting lost. I took the City Tour Hop On-Hop Off bus which runs every 10 minutes allowing tourists to hop on and off at a sight of interest. If you prefer to do it yourself, you can download an audio guide walking tour of Dublin through the city’s website, www.visitdublin.com.

Dubliners love their parks and the city is home to Phoenix Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world. It is a little more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park. Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass before more than a million people there in 1979. A papal cross marks that spot. The park is also home to the Dublin Zoo and the President’s residence, which looks a lot like the US White House.

There are reminders throughout Dublin of Ireland’s struggle for independence from Great Britain. The best known symbol of that fight is a jail, the Kilmainham Gaol, where Ireland’s political prisoners were held. It was also where 14 rebels were executed following the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion. Ireland finally gained its independence in 1921 under an agreement that allowed the UK to carve out Northern Ireland.

The Guinness Storehouse is a must-stop. It has been called a Disneyland for beer lovers. It is a museum that uses high-tech multimedia to tell the history of Ireland’s most-revered export. It sits in a converted old grain warehouse opposite the Guinness brewery. The top floor features one of the best views of the city from the Gravity Bar. A free glass of Guinness in the Gravity Bar is included in the admission price. If you ask, they will artfully carve out a shamrock in the foam.

Accommodation

A gay-friendly hotel is more the rule rather than the exception in Dublin. The staff of the Gay Community News met with little resistance when they distributed the paper’s gay map of Dublin to the city’s hotels. That said, some hotels are better than others in making gay customers feel especially welcome. By the way, prices in Ireland, including hotel rates, almost always include its hefty 21 percent sales tax, so you won’t be in for added shock when you check out.

If you want to visit Dublin in style, you would be hard-pressed to do better than The Clarence. U-2 band mates, Bono and The Edge, bought the then-two star hotel in 1992. Millions of dollars later, they transformed it into a luxury 5-star property. It is perfectly situated on the River Liffey, on the edge of the Temple Bar area and within a short walk to all the gay clubs of Dublin. It has 49 rooms now, including a spectacular penthouse suite. Plans are in the works to nearly triple its capacity when it expands to a building next door around 2010. The Clarence is Travel Alternative Group (TAG)-approved. TAG is operated by the San Francisco-based gay marketing firm, Community Marketing. TAG approved means that the hotel does not discriminate, actively outreaches to the gay and lesbian community, and strives to create a gay-friendly experience for their guests. Its rates start around $320 (prices quoted in this article are in Australian dollars) but you can often get a room there much cheaper through its website or through a travel site such as Travelocity.com, which prominently features a gay travel section.

Across the River Liffey from The Clarence and on the opposite end of the luxury scale, is the 11-room gay B&B, the Inn on the Liffey. Rates start around $90. Breakfast in its charming riverfront room is included. I heard a couple of negative comments about Inn on the Liffey from locals but, when I showed up unannounced for a tour, I found the staff very friendly and the rooms clean and quaint. The front rooms have a nice view of the river but if you’re sensitive to traffic noise you should ask for a back room. As a guest of the B&B, you are granted free admission to the gay sauna, the Dock Sauna, which is part of the same building that houses the B&B. Women are very welcome to stay in the B&B but the sauna is for men only.

If you prefer to stay at a gay B&B that is more upscale, the Nua Haven is a great option. The four-room property is run by a gay couple who live on the premises. Nua Haven’s clientele is mixed, gay men and women, and is straight-friendly. The owners maintain a family atmosphere and breakfast is served until midday. If you are travelling alone, unlike in many mainstream bed and breakfasts, no one will look at you oddly for having an overnight guest of the same sex. In fact, they will be graciously welcomed for breakfast. Nua Haven is located in an upper middle class section of Dublin, in the Harold’s Cross area, about a 10-minute cab ride from downtown. The property is also serviced by two public bus routes that will take you into the city. Rates are about $155 year round, but check its website for specials, especially if you are travelling outside of the busy summer months.

Restaurants

The gay-owned Mermaid and Gruel restaurants are right next to each other on Dame St, at Sycamore St, in the middle of the gayest part of Dublin. You’ll pass by them on your way between the Front Room and The George. Mermaid is upscale and expensive. Entrees start at $34. Gruel is a more informal deli-like setting and its prices are more down to earth. An entr?there will run you less than $21.

Juice on 73-83 South Great Georges St, near The George, bills itself as Dublin’s only sit-down vegetarian restaurant. Although it’s not gay-owned, it’s very gay-popular in the middle of Dublin’s gay nightclub area. An entr?costs $16-$21.

The Boulevard Caf?n 27 Exchequer St features a mixture of Mediterranean and Asian food. The staff is mostly gay, and the menu features a mixture of Mediterranean and Asian food. The lunch special there will run you about $16.

If you like Indian food, Diwali’s Indian Restaurant is on South Great Georges street, near The George. Lunch runs about $16. Dinner is about $23.

If you are in the mood to splurge, the Tea Room Restaurant at the Clarence Hotel is a good bet. It is set in a spacious room with double high windows facing south, bathing the room in sunlight for lunch and summer dinners. A three-course gourmet meal goes for about $85.

On the other end of the budget scale, you can have a light meal at the gay-popular Lemon Jelly restaurant for about $11. Lemon Jelly is in the heart of the Temple Bar area on 10-11B East Essex St.

Tipping at restaurants is not as generous in Ireland as it is in the US. A 10 to 15 percent tip is standard unless the bill specifically includes a service charge. Tax is already included. Tipping of bartenders is not customary in Ireland.

Getting there

It will take you around 26-29 hours to fly to Dublin. A number of airlines fly to Dublin from Sydney, stopping first in Asia, then at a European city before transferring to Dublin. Most airlines will transfer you over to Aer Lingus Airlines for the last leg of the trip, so you will get your first taste of the Irish brogue before you are even in Ireland. Aer Lingus makes announcements on the plane both in English and Irish, a language that the English-speaking country is trying to keep alive. Roundtrip fares from Sydney start around $2,200. Fares generally go up during the European summer.

Don’t even think about renting a car in Dublin. Traffic and parking are as tough as, if not worse than, Sydney. Dublin is a very walkable city. Taxis are everywhere. The city has no subway but has an extensive network of double-decker buses that go just about everywhere in the city. If you want to take an excursion to the emerald Irish countryside, a number of tour bus companies will take you out for the day and return to your hotel in the city. Depending on the exchange rate and how far you go, bus fare ranges from around $1.60 to $3.25. You can take an express bus from the Dublin airport to downtown for less than $10.

For more information, including a link to a free gay map of Dublin, visit Ed Walsh’s multimedia blog, www.gaydublin.blogspot.com.

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