“Dublin’s Gate Theatre Once Before I Go, from RIOT co-creator Phillip McMahon, follows the story of three queer friends in Dublin, London and Paris as the gay rights movement of ’80s and ’90s whirs in the background. The production is celebration of queer identity, one that should be very much at home in The Gate given the history of its two illustrious founders.
Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards were among the most influential theatre makers in Ireland and Europe in the twentieth century. In 1928 the pair founded The Gate as a pioneering establishment that introduced Ireland’s theatre-going circles to contemporary European and American productions.
Despite calling himself a Corkonian, Micheál Mac Liammóir was born in London to a family with no Irish connections and was named Alfred Willmore. He arrived in Ireland in 1917 and become entrenched in Irish culture; he learnt the language, writing plays and stories in Irish, and eventually settled on his Gaelic moniker. He met Hilton Edwards, another Londoner although one who made no attempt to fabricate an Irish identity, in Wexford at the Enniscorthy Athenaeum as part of a travelling theatre troupe. It was there that their enduring partnership was born. They went on to live together for 51 years at Harcourt Terrace in Dublin.
Despite never publicly discussing their sexuality the pair were widely accepted as both professional and personal partners, a fact made all the more remarkable given the puritanical attitude Ireland had to LGBTQ+ people at that time. Against a backdrop of vehement homophobia, the pair not only lived but thrived as a couple very much in plain sight- there are many an anecdote from those in Dublin in the fifties and sixties who would regularly see the pair strolling around the capital hand in hand.
Rather than being fringe theatrical figures, the two couldn’t have been more a part of mainstream society. The pair were declared joint freemen of the city of Dublin in 1973. Along with their work at the Gate, Edwards was recruited by RTE to head up its burgeoning drama department while Micheál had a whole episode of The Late Late show dedicated to his 70th birthday. As anybody in this country knows, there comes no greater veneration than that.
Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edward’s influence in the arts is clear, but what of their place in modern Irish memory? The facts laid out above will be common knowledge to a certain generation but ultimately their story is lost on most people aged below forty. Their legacy remains in bricks and mortar at The Gate but their personal story is just as important. Although they surely never set out to become figureheads for Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community – least of all because it would have been a dangerous thing to do – their visibility was extraordinary”. – Sophie Donaldson
Once Before I Go runs at the Gate Theatre until October 30.
Photography: Donal Talbot
Styling: Sophie Donaldson
Hair: Jake Ryan
Makeup: Polina Perminova
Shot on location at The Gate Theatre
With thanks to Selina Cartnell and Christine Monk