Dragging Ireland into a new era

mr pussy Alan Amsby book
Alan Amsby AKA Mr.Pussy photographed in Mr Pussy’s Cafe De Luxe on Dublin’s Suffolk Street in 1994 Pic: Marc O’Sullivan

Dragging Ireland into a new era

Ireland’s original drag artist was Irish World Award winner Londoner Alan Amsby, known for many years by the stage name Mr Pussy. Politicians, entertainers and ordinary Irish people in conservative Ireland took him to their hearts…

The Kray twins were fans. Bono is a close friend. His many anecdotes include a kiss with Danny La Rue and an exchange of underwear with supermodel Naomi Campbell. Judy Garland convinced him to give drag a go as a full-time career. But how did he capture the hearts of not so liberal Ireland and become as much a part of Irish entertainment as people like Daniel O’Donnell and Gay Byrne.

His new memoir Mr Pussy: Before I Forget to Remember, is more interesting than just Amsby’s showbusiness-y anecdotes. It chronicles the changing face of Ireland as its populace became less in thrall to the Catholic Church and more and more influenced by the pop culture of the UK and the US.

Dragging Ireland new era
Returning the favour: Bono on Alan’s lap

Mr Pussy’s book recounts the many wild nights that occurred at his world-famous club My Pussy’s Cafe De Luxe, a Dublin eatery that was run by Bono, Gavin Friday and Jim Sheridan in the mid 1990s. Stars who frequented the restaurant/bar, which served Pussy Pies and Pints of Pussy (a large glass of milk) included Barry Manilo, Van Morrison, Ronnie Wood, the members of REM, Mel Gibson, Michael Flatley and Sean Connery.

Dragging Ireland new era
Alan with Dermot (Father Ted) Morgan

“I’d start calling out bingo numbers at 2am in the morning, sometimes later,” Alan recounts. “You’d have Ronnie Wood there telling everyone to shush and be quiet as he was really into it and wanted to be able to mark his numbers off. And it’s not like we were playing for big money either, a turkey or something could be the prize!”

The venue closed after a while because Alan found that people expected him or Bono to be there almost constantly.

“That’s what people wanted to pay for, to come in and see us. But obviously with our other work and shows that wasn’t possible. I’d have people coming asking if Bono was in the building and I’d just reply, ‘oh yes, he’s just out the back now peeling the potatoes for the chips’,” he jokes.

Alan was born the only child to a lorry-driver father and a barmaid mother in Hillingdon, and grew up in Peckham. But he calls Ireland home.

Dragging Ireland new era

“I’ve been here now for over 40 years. I started out as a model in Carnaby Street, there are photos of those shoots in the book, and people couldn’t believe that I wasn’t a female model. “Then I started doing drag shows, and because a lot of my friends were Irish there were a few shows that I got booked for and I haven’t really left since.”

The Mr Pussy shows were really Ireland’s first introduction to drag, and after a small stint in Belfast, “I was meant to be there for a day or two but the shows got sold-out and I stayed a few weeks. Then I came to Dublin and the rest is history. I don’t think there is a venue in Ireland that I didn’t play.

mr pussy Alan Amsby book

“It just really kicked off, and it was around the time of the showbands scene so they were big places to fill.”

Alan also recalls the nights he would spend with some of Ireland’s biggest stars at the time, and greatly misses the late Joe Dolan.

“He was such a lovely man, irreplaceable. He used to have great parties too, I remember staying at his house a few times.”

In the book Alan details the different Ireland that he arrived in. Gay Byrne is a personal friend now, and he appeared on his Late Late Show a few times. He says that the first time people didn’t really understand what was going on as he appeared as Mr Pussy, but that Gay invited him back, as Alan, to join the panel discussions.

He writes: “The Late Late Show was still in black and white, and was a groundbreaking show by any international standards. It was presided over by Gay Byrne, and featured people discussing sex and other things that decent, God-fearing Irish folk would never have dreamed of talking about before.

Dragging Ireland new era
Alan, in full drag, with a young Daniel O’Donnell

“Ireland in 1969/1970 was a vastly different country to what it is today. For a start, it was more insular. Those TV aerials were tuned to catch one station: Radio Telefis Éireann. The broadcaster’s 1973 Annual Report said that 77 per cent (542,000) of households in the Republic had a TV; 530,000 had a licence, and 27,000 had colour televisions. I just thought I’d throw those statistics in there to show how clever I am.”

“I’m not a man or a woman on stage, just a character”

And Alan has really noticed a change in Ireland since he first arrived in the 1960s. “Well I suppose the world is changing isn’t it. People are more open and welcoming now and that can only be a good thing.

“But I was always made to feel welcome here, they warmed to me. I think it’s because I was never really crude and it’s entertainment for everyone. I’m not a man or a woman on stage, just a character.”

mr pussy Alan Amsby book
Alan, as himself, with Ireland’s grande dame of panto Twink

It was a very different Ireland to now, and very different to the Britain that Alan left behind before he got his regular gigs in Dublin’s Baggott Inn. “The only international programming came from HTV Wales. If you wanted to watch Welsh television, you had to angle your rabbit’s ears towards the Irish Sea and hope it wasn’t raining in Snowdonia. Sometimes, after this, you were rewarded with a TV picture that looked like Scott’s last hours in Antarctica.

“The radio was equally foreign and bizarre to me. The first time I heard the Angelus, I thought it was a bomb warning.

“This was an Ireland that was still struggling to free itself from its rosary bead chains: divorce, homosexuality and contraception were all illegal, and the Church influenced most parts of daily life.

“In 1971, the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement highlighted the crazy state of social affairs in the Republic when they boarded a train from Dublin to Belfast to buy contraceptives, which were legally available in Northern Ireland.

“TV crews from around the world filmed the ladies as they arrived back at Connolly Station waving rubber johnnies and spermicidal jelly over their heads. Some even swallowed their newly purchased pills rather than surrender them to customs.

Activists on the platform of Connolly Station, Dublin in 1971 prior to boarding the Belfast Train to buy contraceptives. Photograph: The Irish Times
Activists on the platform of Connolly Station, Dublin in 1971 prior to boarding the Belfast Train to buy contraceptives. Photograph: The Irish Times

“It later emerged that the women had been filmed arriving at a chemist’s and being informed that they needed a prescription to buy the pill. Someone hadn’t done their homework. So they bought a load of aspirin instead, which they proceeded to swallow for the cameras.

“One thing is for sure: contraceptive pill or no contraceptive pill, they couldn’t use the old ‘Not tonight, love, I have a headache’ excuse when they got home.”

But there are certain things that Alan has issue with now that the world has ‘evolved’. After Dana won the Eurovision Song Contest in Amsterdam in 1970 it gave Alan a lot of material for his show. “Some of it would be too un-PC to do now, especially the bit where I wore a bra pad as a skullcap to illustrate the early morning dew/Jew. God, I hate PC. It seems that the PC brigade are just waiting to be offended these days. And they often feel discriminated against if they haven’t been offended.”

mr pussy Alan Amsby book

The book’s foreword is written by Panti Bliss, famed Dublin drag artist and gay rights campaigner, and it is written with journalist David Kenny who was shortlisted for a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for the project.

“I can’t thank Dave enough, he was brilliant. And I clearly rubbed off on him, he said later that he’d be meeting his friends to play darts in the pub and he wouldn’t stop calling them darling, which they got a great laugh out of!”

And what next for Alan?

“I would love to open a club again so that is a possibility. It might not even be in Dublin again, I do really like Cork and Galway too.

“And I’m not ready to stop doing shows yet, I will have a few over Christmas and then I do my annual Mother’s Day show in the Regency Hotel too which has become quite a tradition now.

“Philomena Lynnott (Phil Lynnott of Thin Lizzy’s mother) is a great friend of mine and she always comes to that one. Aging doesn’t really bother me. I’ve been really busy with parties and launching the book but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Plus, Botox is great. A little injection here, a bit there just to freshen up a bit.

“I always joke that Botox is used by posh people to sit on! I have been offered to do shows in America too.

“I worked in the Irish pubs and clubs in New York years ago and I loved it, but it really is so far away from Dublin, from home that I turned it down for any longer after that.

“But I think I would like to travel now for a bit anyway. And then I’ll miss the miserable weather and want to come back to Dublin again!”

Mr. Pussy: Before I Forget To Remember by Alan Amsby with David Kenny, is published by New Island

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