‘Mark was a very popular guy - he knew everyone’, says close friend

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As we exclusively revealed last week, a new movie ‘Pride’, set to be released later this week, will tell the story of how a Portrush gay rights campaigner helped the Welsh miners back in the 1980s.

Mark Ashton was brought up in the resort and attended the Catering College before moving to London.

While there Mark became a gay rights activist, and during the 84/85 miners strike, Ashton and his friend Mike Jackson, set up ‘Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners’ (LGSM).

In doing so they raised over £20,000 for the mining families of the Dulais Valley in South Wales and helped to break down prejudices.

Sadly Mark died of HIV in 1987.

This week, The Coleraine Times spoke to one of Mark’s oldest friends Robert ‘Monty’ Montgomery, who studied with him at the former Portrush Catering College.

He described Mark as ‘loud and in-your-face’ but added that he had loads of energy.

Monty joked: “Mark was alway the ‘Belle of The Ball’ and he knew everyone.”

Looking back on growing up in Portrush with Mark, Monty recalled: “Punk was happening and he embraced it like there was no tomorrow.

“He was by far the best dancer at the local clubs (Kellys, now Lush! Portrush and Chesters) where our group had a reserved booth next to the DJ.

“The bouncer Tommy, a Scottish Hells Angel, made sure that we weren’t hassled by anyone.

“Mark would watch the off duty solders busting out the Northern Soul moves and within a few minutes he could follow them step for step...with a bit of an Ashton twist!

“Being gay in Northern Ireland at that time wasn’t something you made public, however I recognised a kindred spirit in Mark and the two of us began the process of coming out, first to each other, then our friends.”

Monty went on: “It was hard not to be political living in Northern Ireland at that time as the civil war raged across the provence.

“Portrush was a unique place in that although it was predominately a Protestant town, the kids at the Catering College and the nearby University of Ulster in Coleraine, coming from all backgrounds, could mix together in peace - often it was the first time that some had met people of a different religion.

“This environment had a profound effect on Mark.

“When we completed college, Mark and I jumped on the first boat out of Northern Ireland, set sail for Liverpool and ended up in London.

“Mark hung out with people like Boy George, Marilyn, Phillip Salon, he frequently cross-dressed, living as a woman for about six months when we shared a flat on Ladbroke Grove.

“He never left the house unless he was in full drag, and he was totally convincing.

“Morning ritual was getting out of bed, consulting his book of Hollywood glamour portraits and choosing a look for the day.

“He had his eyebrows shaved off and would with the quick flick of a eyebrow pencil have ‘the look’. “

Monty went on to talk about Mark’s political background: “I was aware of his political involvement, first through his work at the Young Communist League, in which he went on to become the first out gay man to be General Secretary, and then LGSM.

“I myself became involved in LGSM shortly after its inception.”