Written by Orla Egan
A Lesbian Discussion Group began meeting in the Women’s Place in the Quay Co-op in November 1983 and the Cork Lesbian Collective was set up. A Women’s Place had been established as part of the Quay Co-op when it opened in 1982. See post on Women’s Place.
An article on the Lesbian Group in the Women’s Place News states; “It was felt that there was a need for lesbians to get together to combat isolation and provide support.” (Women’s Place News Cork – undated but probably September 1984)
Meetings were held every Thursday night; they were “generally informal and unstructured. The nature of the group is variable, sometimes political sometimes social depending on the mood of those women who turn up.” (Cork Lesbian Line, Gay Information Cork Information Leaflet No. 1 June 1985)
Deirdre Walsh comments that, prior to the establishment of this group, “there was no identifiable lesbian scene or group at the time.” She describes how she and a lesbian friend would be sitting in Loafers’ pub, looking over at Helen Slattery and Paula Keegan, wondering if they were dykes, while they would be sitting there, looking over at Deirdre and Finny, wondering the same thing! The lesbians gradually did get organised. As Deirdre comments: “It was on the 17th November 1984 that we Politico-lesbians organised what we thought was the first Lesbian group. We had fifteen women at our first meeting. I remember it well, the amazing feeling that there were so many of us and we were all so different.” (Deirdre Walsh “My Personal Lesbian History of Cork” in LINC Cork’s Lesbian Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 1)
Following the Thursday night meetings women began to gather in Loafer’s Bar, thus beginning the tradition that Thursday night is the night that Cork lesbians met in the pub, a tradition that continued into the 2000s. The back room of Loafers was reserved for women. The Women Only signs from the back room can be seen in LINC.
One of the interviewees in Jacqui O Riordan’s study on the Womensplace comments on the importance of the lesbian groupL “for the first time there was a group, an actual identifiable lesbian group and that was like very important for Cork…….an identifiable social scene, started in Cork from that group and from that organisation.” Many of the lesbians who were centrally involved in the Women’s Place were feminist, but the lesbian group brought in other women who came because they were lesbian and who “thought feminism was just a whole load of crap or whatever.’ “The feminists would be in one corner and the kinda non-feminists in the other, we used to have huge debates about things.” The groups discussed various topics including sexuality, coming out experiences, relationships with parents and various difficulties which women experienced as lesbians.” (Interviewee in Jacqui O Riordan The Womensplace B.A. Thesis, Sociology, Arts III, UCC, 1992.)
Helen Slattery describes first attending the Thursday night lesbian discussion group: “I went alone for the first time. There must have been fifteen lesbians in the room, some political, others not. There was heated debate. I kept going back after that. It seemed the way to meet most of the lesbians was through political activism so I became involved.” (Deirdre Walsh interview with Helen Slattery in LINC Cork’s Lesbian Magazine, Issue 2, May 2001)
Not everyone’s experience was as positive. Denise remembers how, as a 17 year old out dyke, she was intrigued by the Women’s Place, “by this concept of a designated space for women. What I encountered was a conflict between Lesbian Feminism and the emerging Queer Movement that left me averse to identifying myself a Feminist for many many years.”
The following is part of an entry to the 1985 Alternative Ireland Directory written by the Cork Lesbian Collective:
“Despite society’s belief that Lesbians do not exist, or that we are invisible, the situation in Ireland today is changing. More Women are coming out as Lesbian to their friends, families, and co-workers. Although Lesbians have previously met in secret there are now more groups and meeting places which are becoming more widely known.
We feel that it is through getting together with other Lesbians and defining ourselves as such that we acquire the strenght and develop the support to increase our visibility and undertake to fight for the recognition and acceptance in Irish society, which is our right.”
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I remember the Women’s Place in the Co-Op well and my memories of it are not pleasant to be honest. I was part of a group of students from Crawford who raided the college stores for paints, tools, wood etc to ‘do up’ the building and, as a 17 year old out dyke, was intrigued by this concept of a designated space for women. What I encountered was a conflict between Lesbian Feminism and the emerging Queer Movement that left me averse to identifying myself a Feminist for many many years.
Thanks for that Denise. I’d love to hear more about your experience of the conflict between Lesbian Feminism and the Queer Movement.