I met Niamh Rowan when I was living in Belfast in 2012, and she graciously agreed to answer some questions about being a bartender, a lesbian (woohoo gays!), a bartending lesbian, and a few other things you have to read on to discover. She’s originally from the town of Castlewellan, right outside of Belfast, though she lived in Belfast for many years before moving to Melbourne, Australia about a year ago. She’s worked behind bars in both places, so she really knows her stuff. According to the Whiskey Women requirements, this is one of the few things that make her a badass. Read on and learn, Whiskey Women.
So you’re a lesbian bartender. In a world where girls behind bars are stereotypically there to flirt with the skeezy male customers for higher tips, bouncing about Coyote Ugly or Hooters, what’s that like? (Do you flirt with the skeezy female customers for better tips instead?) Feel free to ramble on about this one.
I’ve actually been very lucky with the bars that I’ve worked in, in that they’ve all been very queer-friendly and I’ve felt comfortable enough to come out to colleagues and customers alike, so that sleezy tip thing hasn’t been expected of me. That’s not to say that I haven’t played with it in it in the past. One of my former managers was a lesbian too and we used to play “flirt for tips,” putting a jar each on the bar and seeing who could fill it first, flirting with man, woman or beast. The fact that we were both gay helped too because the customers enjoyed watching us flirt with each other behind the bar; we had a good dynamic. This might be considered sleazy but we were very much in control of the situation. I think that’s the difference, the punters knew that they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with us so it really was all just a bit of fun [ed. note: “punters” is slang for “customers”].
I also found that very often I was there to explain things for people who had limited experience of what it meant to be LGBT. I’ve been asked virtually every question you could imagine and was quick to dispel myths or stereotypes, constantly challenging casual homophobia. ‘That’s so gay!” and I’d say “do you mean fabulous?”. I remember one of my favourite bar flies, Niall, saying one day, “Oh Niamh, would you just get over it and sleep with a guy already?!”, to which I replied, “Oh Niall, would you?”. Looking at his face I could see the penny drop and he nodded at me in respect.
Generally people are very good with the LGBT thing, I think they respect you for standing up for who you are and I’ve never had a bad reaction while working in a bar, so I’m thankful for that.
How’d you get into bartending? You’ve been doing it a while, what about the job keeps you coming back?
I got in to it as a part time job to support myself in my Masters’ studies about 8 years ago. I started out just collecting glasses on Friday and Saturday nights in a city centre bar in Belfast. I was soon moved onto the bar and was lucky enough to be working in one of the most progressive Belfast bars at the time. We were trained by visiting international drinks reps who would hold educational seminars on their product and other products in the range. These would typically last 2/3 hours and usually end in a piss-up with all the best bartenders in Belfast. After a few years I was managing a ‘straight-friendly’ cocktail/winebar and very much enjoying the experimentation of flavors we were allowed to play with. We were also very much encouraged to be our own person; no-one wants a robot pouring their drinks.
Since I came to Melbourne it’s just been natural for me to work in a bar. The skills are extremely transferable and it’s a fantastic way to meet people, you learn a lot about someone from how they hold themselves after a few drinks.
You’ve worked in Belfast Northern Ireland, and now Melbourne, Australia. Bartending allowed you to make that transfer of place relatively smoothly in terms of employment. Could you comment on any similarities and/or differences in bar culture between the two countries, and the fluidity with which skills in the bar trade allow you to move about the world?
As I said bar skills are fantastic to have if you want to travel. It’s not just the ability to make a drink, but you must learn how to speak to people, judge when they’ve had too much and diffuse any situation that may arise as a result. These skills apply everywhere, and in all walks of life.
There are a few differences though, to work in a bar in Australia you must gain an RSA (Responsible Service of Alcohol) certificate, this typically takes a few hours to complete and is regulated at state level. You can’t legally work in a bar here if you don’t have one. I think that’s a good thing. The certificate teaches you about blood/alcohol level and about your responsibilities in the law and the implications of irresponsible service.
In Ireland we didn’t drink while working (well maybe one or two sneaky shots behind the manager’s back). I’m sure there are places where it happens but it’s not a big culture, we usually just had drinks when we finished. In Australia we are handed shots behind the bar by our managers. I have in the past been told that the customer can wait until you’ve had your shot. This may sound really bad for customer service but the customer is always included in the banter and they respect that you’re working hard and that the “team” is having a drink together. It’s all a bit of fun. There are also a lot of drinks given to customers for free. Bartenders from other venues are treated very well and that is reciprocated when you travel to their bar. This doesn’t happen in Ireland either, we were under pain of death not to give anything away for free as there were rigid stocktakes every month. I’m not sure why things are so much more strict in Ireland, perhaps it’s the economy, but things are definitely looser here in Australia. It’s good fun.
Favorite bar in Belfast and why… (sorry if these are beginning to sound like high school yearbook questions).
My favourite bar in Belfast is probably The Spaniard in the Cathedral Quarter. It’s the first bar I ever worked in so I feel loyalty to it but it’s also a really great bar. It’s a really small space with record sleeves and all over the wall. It has a fantastic back bar selection of all the leading international spirits and it runs Ireland’s only Rum Club. The Guinness is perfect too. I’ve spent many a rainy Tuesday night here literally bumping into random Belfast folk and talking rubbish ‘til the small hours, and a rock’n’roll soundtrack helps the beer go down nicely. You should definitely check it out if you visit and always ask the bartender for your next bar recommendation.
You’ve been very involved with LGBTQ activism in Belfast and elsewhere, is that something you’d like to move into full-time? How do attitudes towards gay rights differ between Northern Ireland and Australia?
I did a lot of work back home but have been relatively uninvolved since I’ve been in Australia. The gay scene doesn’t exist here in the same capacity that it does back home. In Ireland there is very much a need for gay bars where people feel safe and free to be themselves, that doesn’t apply here to the same extent as it’s much more open and accepting here, certainly in Melbourne. I think a result of this is that the LGBTQ community is much more integrated into “normal” society as well so there is less need for advocacy work in terms of suicide prevention and personal development. I’m sure the sexual health implications are much the same though.
In Northern Ireland, LGBTQ citizens have more access to equal rights than their Aussie counterparts though. We have Civil Partnerships (including immigrant partner recognition) but that isn’t available here. There is an option of DeFacto status though and that applies to same-sex couples equally. Unlike the United Kingdom, there is no momentum towards marriage equality with the leader of both main parties in opposition to such a move. It’s a bit confusing to me actually, in one respect this county is much more progressive in its attitudes towards sexuality but that is not reflected on the statute book.
Perhaps this is because people don’t think there’s a problem and they’ve become apathetic, I don’t know. I hope that marriage equality campaigns like Equal Love get the support they deserve soon and that the tides change to reflect the growing international trend to recognize same-sex relationships in law.
The Rainbow Project, the gay rights group you volunteered most for in Belfast, conducted a study last year on the rate of drug and alcohol abuse within the gay community, finding much higher occurrences of abuse on average compared to the straight community. Could you offer your perspective on this (maybe your opinion on the bar’s role in gay social life, etc. whatever comes to mind when faced with those statistics, really) ?
I don’t think anyone was particularly surprised by the outcome of this study, but we were shocked by how extreme the statistics were. Generally I feel that young LGBT people don’t see themselves reflected positively in the media and have few, if any, positive role models. The “normal” life seems off-limits to them as they never really feel that life is for them, with marriage and kids or whatnot, since society as a whole doesn’t promote the idea that a healthy gay lifestyle is an option, these young people are lost and unsure of their place in the world. This breeds in them a sense of “live fast, die young,” or “die young, leave a good looking corpse.”
There is also the issue of escapism. Many LGBT people feel rejected by their families and society and turn to drugs and alcohol to numb that. I know from personal experience that some LGBT people feel that life will go on without them and that they’ve got the straight brother or sister to procreate and make grandparents of their folks. For most people this reliance on drugs may only last a short time but for others it can have enduring effects that may take years to resolve. Another factor may be that traditionally gay bars are more lenient with their age policy (although they wouldn’t advertise this). I started going to city centre bars at sixteen, all I needed was a fake ID and I was doing Jagerbombs with the drag queens [the legal drinking age in Northern Ireland is 18]. Young people are introduced to a culture where sex, drink and drugs are cheap and fast, they know nothing else. The gay bars where young LGBT people cut their teeth aren’t naturally the nice high-end bars where one would sip over a Ron Zacappa 23; there tend to be drinks promos and give-aways, the whole culture is geared towards getting drunk out of your mind.
On that note, what’s your favorite drink to 1) make, and 2) drink?
My favorite drink to make is a Cosmopolitan. It is one of the gayest drinks out there because it’s bright pink and flamboyant. I’m gonna blow my own trumpet and say that I make a great Cosmo. It’s a relatively simple drink to make but I’ve made thousands of them and I love the way it looks, tastes and smells. I also love the finishing touch of flaming a piece of orange rind. This garnish lets off the beautiful orange oils in a big flame, which you control, and says to the customer, “Hey look at me, I’m making you a kick-ass drink!”
My favorite drink to drink is a really hard question. Guinness? Baby Guinness? Mojito? Rum? Amaretto-Whiskey Sour? Mai Tai? Bushmills 10yr Old over ice?
You are asking an Irish Bartender which one of her children she loves the most. Can’t be done.
There’s your first taste of a foreign Whiskey Woman, ladies – smart, witty, politically active, and maybe more than a little intoxicated at any given time. You can always depend on the Irish!
Remember to put the bad stuff in a bucket and the good stuff in a glass, and take care of yourselves, Whiskey Women. There’s someone out there who really wants to hear what you have to say (and it just might be us!).