In the 1980's the gay scene in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was actually quite a thriving little community. Most memorable from that time were two night-clubs, the Carpenter Club which was followed by the Orpheus. A great many gay men and women would go to the Crow's Nest pub as well. To a lesser extent gays would go clubbing at a night-club called the Delta.
These establishments were all gathered in the same small part of central Belfast. The Crow's Nest pub had a frontage onto a side street, but the other clubs had little in the way of a presence. The Carpenter Club was on a back-street and while the Orpheus was on a major thoroughfare it had a very low profile.
At that time there was a great deal of dissatisfaction expressed about the status quo. I thought this was the fault of Belfast's gay scene, but of course, there is always dissatisfaction with gay scenes held by the gays that hang out in them. In the 80's though I didn't realise that which was a good thing because it meant that I was energised to have a go at doing something on the Belfast gay scene.
A number of people had mentioned to me that there was this club called "The Limelight" which at that time frequently had very empty nights during the week. That it would make a good place for a gay club had also been mentioned.
I went and had a look at it and sort of quite liked it. There is a street in Belfast known as the "Golden Mile" which is a street with several clubs on it. It was one of those streets where people migrate to at night. The Limelight wasn't actually on the "Golden Mile" but rather on a street off that one. It sort of sat on its own. Some people described the Limelight as a "Golden Mile club" and some people didn't think it was part of the "Golden Mile" area at all. It was a bit like those parts of London which are close to good areas but not actually in the good areas. Estate agents sort of try to grow the good area to include them, so West Hampstead increasingly encroaches upon Kilburn.
The interior of the Limelight was run down and tatty at that time. It was like some old seventies club which had never been renovated. In fact the interior was much more recent than the seventies and if it had been in good nick it would have been really hideous.
The Limelight was however good enough for me.
Initially I was just going to do a one off night at it to see how it went. If it went well, then I'd do another. The club itself seemed quite amenable to the idea so we agreed a deal and I had a flyer made up. For the month running up to the night I took fistfuls of those flyers everywhere. There was always a problem distributing flyers in other people's clubs so I kept them discretely in my pockets and handed them out surreptitiously.
The first night went very well indeed, I was really surprised. I immediately booked the club for following nights. I think the second night was a fortnight later and then after that it was weekly. It then ran consistently on Monday night for a few years. The club changed ownership but the Monday nights continued.
The Limelight was on a street called Ormeau Avenue in Belfast. I took up nearly all of the bottom floor of the building it was in. The main door had a canopy which protruded out over the pavement. To the left of the main door was a pub called the Dome bar which was really part of the club, it was adjoined and inside there was a door through to the Limelight, it had the same drinks and dancing licences as the club.
I think gay clubs in small cities become quite important to the people who go to them. All the gays complain about them all the time because there is a lack of choice, but at the same time they have a very heightened sense of community about them. This makes the club very important to the group of people who go to it. As the club promoter I found myself elevated somewhat above the social status which I think I'd have had otherwise. Because I'm not a hugely flashy type of person the role that was created for me was one of a confidant, match-maker type. People sort of trusted me a bit which was rather nice. There were squabbles over this and that all the time and I had to be an arbiter quite frequently. In truth I rather enjoyed all of this.
With a smaller city this sort of excess concentration on the few gay clubs can mean that there is a vibe in them which is quite different from that in a big city. It creates an extremely vivid atmosphere. The actual interior design of the Limelight leant itself very well for some reason, even though it was really tatty it was quite a complicated layout with nooks and crannies which sort of helped with encouraging all the gossip etc. that people at gay clubs love.
We had a stage and this was very handy for some shows. We really went to town on Hallowe'en with a fancy dress, and the customers made these nights by looking fabulous. There was a big competition which always went on for far too long but was great fun.
I do have some fabulous photos of the fancy dress at those Hallowe'en events but I've resisted the temptation to include them. There is still very serious homophobia in Belfast and I would not want to identify one of the customers at those Hallowe'en events because I don't know where they are living now or what situation they are in. They could be in a part of Belfast where they need to keep their sexuality a secret.
We also hosted some local acts as well, in particular groups of customers who put together their own shows etc.
Essentially of course the Limelight was successful because of the people that went to it. They were the club, they were what made it happen. All I did really was facilitate the whole thing.
By the standards of London or Manchester clubs today the Limelight gay nights were provincial and naïve, but sort of better for it.
Fiction generally has very good endings. There's a twist perhaps or at least something rather dramatic. Endings in real life are not very interesting being a fizzling out and this is exactly how it was with my gay nights at the Limelight. You can keep trying different things, different music, different shows, installations etc. etc. but in reality once a club has lost the crucial vibe in the gay community then its time is up really.