Deputy InDepth Editor
Once darkness descends upon the Phoenix Park, an ominous cloud of silence hangs over the surrounding area, broken only by the odd jogger or a few people making their way home towards Chapelizod Road. Still, if you are aware of the gay-bashing gangs that have been rumoured to roam the grounds, or the many accounts of sexual activity beyond the Wellington Monument’s fencing, then this emptiness does not give you the sense of being alone. Venturing out to the park at night, intent on observing a hotspot for cruising in Dublin, I found there to be a certain degree of menace projected upon the surroundings, especially after November when Gardaí discovered the charred remains of a homeless man, which although unrelated to the area’s prostitution, still provides sufficient enough of a reason for the park being somewhere you might not want to find yourself after hours.
That feeling of there being something lurking around every corner is not exactly paranoia, because oftentimes there is something there. Most times, it is completely benign, though strange to say the least. For example, when I ventured up to the park intending to observe the activities of Dublin’s male prostitutes, which the park is renowned for playing host to, I nearly fell over a man crawling out from behind a hedgerow carrying a large plastic bin bag, who made himself scarce rather quickly thereafter. Between six and eight, there is a heavy flow of traffic on Chesterfield Avenue, eventually thinning out by about nine. At this point, a few noticeable vehicles can be spotted on the park’s main road, turning off, usually to its left hand side, towards Magazine Hill, the Polo Club, Furry Glen, the Papal Cross car park, or other such secluded spots, which one does not typically consider part of a daily commute. Within a short space of time, Garda vans begin to patrol the area, pulling up next to small groups of people lingering, or stalling cars in the aforementioned desolate locations.
“Daytime activity appears to have petered out with the removal of the public toilets on Burg Quay. All exchanges are now, by and large, conducted in the park under the cover of darkness for most of the year, no longer around the Wellington Monument,but in tucked away cul-de-sacs, to avoid the Gardaí on the beat up and down the main avenue.”
In summertime, these checks are done as early as six, which seemed slightly surprising until a friend of mine pointed out to me that Furry Glen was often an afternoon hotspot. Seemingly, it is common for park goers to be propositioned by men on the job, while out on a peaceful walk. However, this daytime activity appears to have petered out with the removal of the public toilets on Burg Quay. All exchanges are now, by and large, conducted in the park under the cover of darkness for most of the year, no longer around the Wellington Monument, but in tucked away cul-de-sacs, to avoid the Gardaí on the beat up and down the main avenue. However, on a typical weekday, if you can reach a cruising point before the vans, then chances are you can spot the image of fogged up car windows, or a vacant vehicle situated by Magazine Hill, right before the pathway which leads to pick up spots around the fort, out of plain sight and only reachable by foot. The meetings are swift. The cars are in and out of these areas typically within a twenty-minute timeframe. But given the circumstances of most people present – the threat of surveillance, as well as the taboo attached to male prostitution – it should come as no surprise whatsoever that this is the case.
Regarding this point, and digressing for a moment, I must mention that, for the past few months, I have delved into the matter of sex work in Ireland, and have spoken with and encountered a number of people who are, or have been involved in the trade. However, this research had by and large focused on female sex workers. Even in the vast majority of the reading material available for public consumption, there is seldom any reference to men other than as clientele. At present, there are only about 14 men on the Escort Ireland website operating in Dublin, out of some 360 advertised services in the city. Online forums and specialist sites for “dogging” and No Strings Attached meetings would on occasion contain a few men offering their service. But most were simply giving pointers as to the cruising hotspots in the greater area, which named a few places other than the park, with the second most common place mentioned being the underpass on Pearse Street.
However, my chief interest was not in the online meetings, but in the on-street workers, whose state I can only describe as being on the periphery of an already marginalised group in Irish society. Despite having seen in recent times a significant increase in public discourse regarding sex work, giving many female workers an opportunity to step up and discuss their experiences, a similar platform has yet to appear on the male front.
This facet of the trade at times felt borderline impenetrable. From my initial attempts to speak with members of several sex-work support networks, what became clear was that I would be better off to try contacting homeless groups, such as Focus Ireland, or health services for victims of HIV. Still, even within these circles, the people with whom I managed to converse with reiterated the same statements. Usually the desperation of those offering sexual services was so severe that they were reluctant to come forward, even in private. The word “shame” was ubiquitous, and after looking into old studies – conducted by people such as Dr. Ian McCabe, Evanna Kearnis and the East Coast Health Board – the reasons for this became incredibly clear.
Back in 2011, McCabe interviewed twelve male prostitutes, out of whom ten identified as heterosexual. The ECHB found that five of their twenty-seven participants identified as such, while Kearnis in her book Rent from 2000, came up with similar findings, noting that many had girlfriends and in one case, two children. On top of this fact, all of those interviewed by McCabe noted that between 45 to 90% of their clients showed clear signs of being married men. Thus it is obvious why so few were willing to come out of the shadows. Most of the workers find themselves afflicted with depression, a condition which becomes exacerbated furthermore by a sexual identity crisis. Often, their cases are further complicated by a heroin addiction. These males, typically coming from inner-city Dublin where, during the 1970s and ‘80s, the class A drug was easily obtained, their stories are a far cry away from the more middle-class escort services, who often lend their voices to campaigns for legalisation.
Taking this into account, and having spent the much of my time in Dublin being related accounts of spotting men at work in the Park, hiding amongst the trees and dashing between vehicles in its parking lots, I chose to make the journey out to the park and see for myself how shrouded this world was. With a small group of friends, we drove out to the park on a relatively quiet Monday night. When on foot, there was scarcely anyone to be spotted standing out in the open. All signs of life came from of the occasional car, flashing their headlights at us once as we drove down the main avenue, before shooting past and cutting off towards Magazine Hill.
“Back in 2011, McCabe interviewed twelve male prostitutes, out of whom ten identified as heterosexual. The ECHB found that five of their twenty-seven participants identified as such, while Kearnis in her book Rent from 2000, came up with similar findings, noting that many had girlfriends and in one case, two children.”
When we went up to the Hill car park, two cars had already been situated there for some time. The first was steamed up, while the second, a jeep with slightly opaque windows, showed clear signs of activity from within. Waiting patiently for a few moments, a small light flickered once, then twice and then disappeared again. At the time, none of us present took this to mean much, until we were questioned by Gardaí up by the Papal Cross park during their efforts to clear the area for the night. Having explained our reasons for being in the park, they mentioned how the exchanges are initiated through a Morse code of sorts, in which flashing headlights or a lighter once meant “giving” and lashing twice meant “receiving”. It is a weird feeling, to find out, retrospectively, that you were propositioned. But, as an outsider, the whole mood around the park leaves you on autopilot, neither feeling shocked nor repulsed.
It was interesting that, contrary to my expectations of spotting men blatantly loitering out in the open, all parties were now conducting their services from inside cars. Given the dangers that are already present in this high-risk work, it was, in some small way, reassuring to see that these men were at least taking some measures to ensure their safety since working in the city centre seems no longer an option. However, this small improvement falls far too short when we look at the bigger picture. When you mention the park to a great many people in context of male sex work, either they pass a humorous phallic-related remark, or recoil in fear of the potential dangers involved. Yet in the midst of the quiet meetings taking place, the only prevailing feeling is one of misery. One is struck by a sense of pity that one must bear witness to these couples of worker and client, whose desperation and need lead to them retreating into what is frankly one of the loneliest places I have ever seen.