THE SLOW DEATH OF THE IR­ISH NIGHT­CLUB

Night­clubs are in de­cline – has­tened by the prop­erty cri­sis and an un­likely out­break of pu­ri­tanism among twenty-some­things

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS | REVIEW - Ed Power

As mid­night ap­proached, a blacked-out peo­ple carrier drew up out­side the Wright Venue in north Co Dublin. Out stepped Ri­hanna, in the same dress she’d worn on stage be­fore 14,000 fans less than an hour ear­lier. It was May 26th, 2010, and one of the world’s big­gest pop stars had come to the ¤38 mil­lion mega­club – sit­u­ated in a re­tail park bristling with car deal­er­ships and DIY stores – for her af­ter­show party.

Host­ing Ri­hanna and her ret­inue was ob­vi­ously a coup for the Wright Venue and its owner, restau­ra­teur Michael Wright. The Swords club had opened amid glit­ter­ing fan­fare in July 2009 and, not­with­stand­ing the half-hour drive from the city cen­tre, was build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as the de­com­pres­sion spot of choice of celebri­ties pass­ing through Dublin.

Conor Mc­Gre­gor and 50 Cent would like­wise grace the Wright Venue, partying be­neath the “largest disco ball in Ire­land”. They and their en­tourages were typ­i­cally catered for in the Scar­face Room – named after the Al Pa­cino movie about a Cuban co­caine mag­nate – which of­fered VIP ac­cess via a ded­i­cated lift. A lit­tle bit of Mi­ami’s South Beach had washed up in the Dublin ex­urbs.

But now it is set to be swept out to sea again. Michael Wright has an­nounced that, after al­most 10 years, the club is to be shut­tered at the end of Jan­uary. He is fo­cus­ing on other ven­tures, in­clud­ing a food­hall planned for St An­drew’s Church on Suf­folk Street in cen­tral Dublin.

Un­der the new name of Jam Park, the Wright Venue will be taken over by pro­mot­ers Body­tonic, whose plans in­clude a games room and res­tau­rant as well as a per­for­mance area. In other words, it will be a night­club – but not en­tirely – and cer­tainly no longer the Ver­sailles of bling that was the Wright Venue.

So it goes in Ir­ish nightlife in 2019. On Jan­uary 26th, the pop­u­lar Dis­trict 8 club night will host its farewell evening at the Tivoli in Dublin. Once the lights dim that will es­sen­tially be it for the Tivoli, built in 1934 and used as a club and venue since 1987 but now ear­marked for de­mo­li­tion. Ris­ing in its place will be an apart­ment-ho­tel com­plex with a gym and res­tau­rant.

Like­wise for the chop is Lil­lie’s Bordello, a celebrity play­room since be­fore the Celtic Tiger era. David Bowie, Mick Jag­ger and Guns N’ Roses were among those to make the trek to its un­marked en­trance down a laneway off Grafton Street. There, hav­ing run the gaunt­let of its dis­ap­prov­ing door­men, they would min­gle with the cream of the lo­cal Z-list. It closes for good on Jan­uary 19th, its owner the Porter­house Group has con­firmed.

Ex­tinc­tion event

The Wright Venue, Lil­lie’s and the Tivoli are merely the high­est-pro­file vic­tims of an ex­tinc­tion event rip­pling across Ir­ish club­land. Oth­ers caught in the firestorm in­clude The Palace on Cam­den Street, where much of The Com­mit­ments was shot, Club 92 in Leop­ard­stown and, to step back sev­eral years, The Savoy and Pav­il­ion in Cork.

A thriv­ing night­club is as rare a sight in Ir­ish cities as a cy­clist stop­ping at a red light.

Tellingly, these an­nounce­ments have elicited lit­tle be­yond a re­gret­ful shoul­der-shrug. The im­mi­nent clo­sure of Lil­lie’s, it is true, prompted teary rem­i­nisc­ing among those who clinked cham­pagne flutes with Bono and The Corrs back in the day.

Ab­sent from even those out­pour­ings, though, was any gen­uine shock – much less any se­ri­ous pleas for a stay of ex­e­cu­tion.

The downfall of the Ir­ish night­club did not drop from the clear blue sky. In­stead it is the prod­uct of a unique con­cur­rence of events: the prop­erty cri­sis, in­dif­fer­ence at of­fi­cial lev­els to Ire­land’s late-night cul­ture and an un­likely out­break of pu­ri­tanism among twenty-some­things.

Taken to­gether, it con­sti­tutes a per­fect storm: the mur­der of the dance floor.

“Peo­ple are look­ing for more of an ex­pe­ri­ence nowadays. You can’t just have the tri­fecta of a smok­ing area, dance floor and a bar. You have to do some­thing that en­ter­tains,” says Will Meara, a pro­moter who has had na­tion­wide suc­cess with Bingo Loco – tongue-in-cheek bingo evenings for young peo­ple held in more in­ti­mate venues such as the Twenty Two Club off South Anne Street in Dublin.

Ire­land isn’t alone in see­ing clubs die off. In the UK, a par­al­lel cul­tural shift from all-hours booz­ing has re­sulted in the “af­ter­work econ­omy” de­clin­ing in value by £200 mil­lion in the past five years, with once-pres- ti­gious rooms re­open­ing as gyms or food-mar­kets.

“If you’re a pro­moter you can’t sur­vive on club­bing,” says Stephen Grainger, who ran the Pav­il­ion bar and venue in Cork for seven years and who con­tin­ues to have suc­cess with his GOOD Mu­sic nights in the city.

“What a lot of pro­mot­ers have re­alised is that you have to turn the venues into a lot of dif­fer­ent things. That’s why they’re not called clubs any more. Now they’re venues. Look at Body­tonic – they’ve done sports bars [ the Back Page], food of­fer­ings [Wig­wam]. Be­ing suc­cess­ful to­day means do­ing a lot more than just stick­ing a DJ on. You can’t sur­vive on peo­ple com­ing in for three hours, once or twice a week.”

One irony is that, even as night­clubs slouch to­wards their ob­so­les­cence, other night­time op­tions have pro­lif­er­ated. Dublin, in par­tic­u­lar, has seen the open­ing of dozens of bou­tique bars and up­scale cock­tail lounges – viewed with a de­gree of hos­til­ity by club pro­mot­ers who cau­tion against “gen­tri­fi­ca­tion”.

Di­min­ish­ing ap­petite

An­other is­sue con­fronting club­bing is the di­min­ish­ing ap­petite for he­do­nism among the young. In the age of so­cial me­dia, many peo­ple in their teens and early 20s are more con­scious of health – and ap­pear­ance – than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. A party-heavy life­style is not nec­es­sar­ily com­pat­i­ble with that.

“We are more aware of the im­pact of go­ing out and get­ting com­pletely drunk ev­ery week­end,” says David Mooney, who has for the past decade run Funky Seomra, an al­co­hol and drug-free club night held at venues around Dublin.

“Around the 1990s and early 2000s you would see the night­clubs full. Part of this was a tran­si­tion from Ire­land be­ing quite shack­led as a so­ci­ety. Sud­denly there was a lot of free­dom. To­day, peo­ple prac­tice yoga, are aware of their diet. And they can see the ef­fects of heavy drink­ing over time.”

An in­flux of young ex­pats work­ing at tech com­pa­nies such as Face­book and Google has played its part, says Mooney. Forty per cent of at­ten­dees at his nights are non-Ir­ish and of­ten not from coun­tries with a drink­ing cul­ture. This has en­hanced the ap­peal of Funky Seomra, Bingo Loco and sim­i­lar events – and con­trib­uted to­wards a de­thron­ing of the night­club as the only des­ti­na­tion for an evening out.

The tra­di­tional “meat mar­ket” club has gone into de­cline. Dat­ing apps such as Tin­der and Bum­ble make it eas­ier to meet peo­ple in lo­ca­tions other than noisy, dimly-lit rooms.

“And in­di­vid­u­als en­joy com­ing to events such as Funky Seomra be­cause there is an op­por­tu­nity to talk to peo­ple who aren’t re­ally drunk,” says Mooney.

If club­bing faces sim­i­lar chal­lenges in other coun­tries, what sets Ire­land apart is that Dublin, Cork, Lim­er­ick and else­where lack even the ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture re­quired for a func­tion­ing nightlife.

Dublin has the ven­er­a­ble Club M in Tem­ple Bar and the un­likely na­tional trea­sure that is Cop­per Face Jacks (Marty Mor­ris­sey if he was rein­car­nated as a Har­court Street night­club). But there is no equiv­a­lent of Fab­ric in Lon­don or Berghain in Ber­lin – in­sti­tu­tions that cul­tur­ally en­rich their cities and, in their own mod­est way, en­hance their sta­tus as global hotspots.

“There’s a huge lack of event space,” says Stephen Man­ning of Hid­den Agenda, the pro­mot­ers be­hind Dis­trict 8 and, be­fore that, Hangar at An­drew’s Lane Theatre (an­other for­mer David Bowie hang­out which has closed, to be re­de­vel­oped as a bou­tique ho­tel). “Hangar and Dis­trict 8 had a ca­pac­ity of 800 to 1,000. The next step up is the Olympia and 3Arena.”

Ven­er­a­ble clubs

Dis­trict 8, in con­trast to some of the more ven­er­a­ble clubs, has had lit­tle dif­fi­culty filling its dance floor. It has hosted sell-out late night events by DJs and pro­duc­ers in­clud­ing Dead­mau5, Death in Ve­gas and Daniel Avery.

But with the Tivoli to close, there is nowhere in cen­tral Dublin for Hid­den Agenda to book per­form­ers. Man­ning and his part­ners have di­ver­si­fied with a new bar, The Big Ro­mance on Par­nell Street. And they ex­pect to hold gigs at Jam Park, set to open in late 2019. How­ever, the Swords lo­ca­tion makes it less than ideal.

“If we have an act that sells 1,000 tick­ets – that’s too small for 3Arena and too big for any­where else,” says Man­ning. “Those acts will go else­where. They just won’t come to Ire­land. The only pur­pose-built spa­ces we are see­ing are ho­tels or student ac­com­mo­da­tion.”

Lon­don, Zurich and other cities have “Night May­ors” – of­fi­cial ap­pointees tasked with li­ais­ing be­tween venue own­ers and the au­thor­i­ties. Yet de­spite vig­or­ous lob­by­ing by groups such as Give Us The Night, es­tab­lished by Dublin DJ Su­nil Sharpe, there is scant ap­petite at any level of govern­ment for an equiv­a­lent in any Ir­ish city.

The prob­lem, say cam­paign­ers, is cul­tural. Ire­land is still in many as­pects a con­ser­va­tive so­ci­ety. Our dwin­dling nightlife is an ex­am­ple of where decades-deep hos­til­ity to­wards ac­tiv­i­ties per­ceived as deca­dent and he­do­nis­tic leads.

“Nightlife and night­clubs aren’t deemed to have any in­her­ent cul­tural value,” says DJ and pro­moter Jamie Be­han. “The clo­sure of Dis­trict 8 and Hangar are the prime ex­am­ples. The cul­tural value of night­clubs and the cre­ative com­mu­ni­ties as­so­ci­ated with them is not re­spected. We also have a govern­ment which has lit­tle or no in­ter­est in these mat­ters or that of li­cens­ing laws. Com­pare this to Eu­ro­pean cities where night­clubs are an im­por­tant part of the fab­ric of a city and are sup­ported as such.”

A thou­sand blows

If Ir­ish club­bing is suf­fer­ing death by a thou­sand blows, one of the deep­est cuts was in­flicted in 2008, when the govern­ment rad­i­cally over­hauled the li­cens­ing laws with a new In­tox­i­cat­ing Liquor Act.

Among the wider pub­lic, the most con­tentious as­pects of these “re­forms” was the push­ing for­ward of off- li­cence clos­ing hours by 30 min­utes to 10pm. How­ever, the legislation also had hugely neg­a­tive im­pli­ca­tions for night­clubs in re­mov­ing the old theatre li­cence pro­vi­sion – judged “very le­nient” by the cabi­net – by which clubs could stay open past 3am. Theatre li­cences had fa­cil­i­tated se­quen­tial clos­ing in Dublin, al­low­ing clubs to shut at dif­fer­ent times and thus avoid­ing a surge of peo­ple onto the streets.

Night­clubs were in that pe­riod gen­er­at­ing sales es­ti­mated at ¤500 mil­lion, em­ploy­ing 2,000 full-time and 10,000 part-time. But even those fig­ures were re­garded as omi­nous. A re­port by the (now de­funct) Ir­ish Night­club In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion found that the num­ber of clubs had dropped by 37 per cent be­tween 2000 and 2008. The new law – and the re­ces­sion – saw that de­cline ac­cel­er­ate.

Se­quen­tial clos­ing was no longer an op- tion. All venues in the same li­cens­ing area had to abide by one cur­few, with club go­ers all spilling out at the same time.

The ad­van­tages of stag­gered open­ings had been a mat­ter of record when the legislation was en­acted. When night­clubs in the “Garda B” dis­trict of south Dublin opted for se­quen­tial clos­ing in 2006, the num­ber of pub­lic or­der pros­e­cu­tions fell by 4.8 per cent in the next three years. At the same time the level of pros­e­cu­tions out­side the cap­i­tal was ris­ing by 25 per cent. Later open­ing was work­ing.

One of the ad­vis­ers to the bill no­to­ri­ously joked of hav­ing never seen the in­side of a night­club; it cer­tainly seemed that way .The legislation also dou­bled the special ex­emp­tion or­der fee that clubs pay to stay open late and which is now in the re­gion of ¤400 per night.

“Our li­cens­ing sys­tem is so ar­chaic it doesn’t just need to be re-ex­am­ined or re­vamped,” says Jamie Be­han. “It needs to be com­pletely over­hauled. We have the short­est night­club open­ing hours in Europe, when we could be a vi­brant hub for electronic mu­sic. Peo­ple are go­ing else­where. To Ber­lin, Lon­don, Am­s­ter­dam – cities which have demon­strated that 24-hour li­cences for clubs can work rather than re­sult in the ab­so­lute moral de­cay of so­ci­ety due to al­co­hol abuse – the ar­gu­ment to which con­ser­va­tive naysay­ers re­peat­edly re­turn.”

Huge dis­con­nect

“There’s a huge dis­con­nect if you look at the make­ups of Sen­a­tors and TDs,” says Stephen Man­ning. “The regulations don’t dis­tin­guish be­tween a night­club and a bar. Places like Cop­pers or Club M – these are lo­ca­tions you might go to for a late drink. They are usu­ally at­tached to a ho­tel. There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween those and a ded­i­cated space where some­one is trav­el­ling to see an act. With those sorts of venues clos­ing, it’s go­ing to be very difficult to fos­ter a night­time cul­ture.”

Michael Wright of the soon- to- close Wright Venue agrees the li­cens­ing laws on open­ing hours pose a “real prob­lem” to nightlife in Dublin. “Late-night bars have filled the night­club space. Bars like Café en Seine, Pig­malion, Ber­lin, The Grand So­cial and The Ge­orge and many more, don’t close un­til 2.30am – the same time as a night­club. Gen­er­ally you don’t have to pay in and you can dance for the night. It would make much more sense and help the night­club scene if clubs stayed open later than late night bars. This is a li­cens­ing er­ror and I would call for it to be re­viewed if we are to reen­er­gise Dublin’s nightlife. At the mo­ment, it is not a level play­ing field and as far as night­clubs are con­cerned all roads lead to Har­court Street.”

“Dublin is now very much a cos­mopoli­tan city and Ire­land’s young peo­ple are very trav­elled. It is time to catch up with the other Eu­ro­pean cities where they stay open much later, giv­ing clubs an op­por­tu­nity to be­come part of the night time cul­ture.

But while the shut­ter­ing of the Tivoli and other venues is a cause of dis­quiet for some, it is im­por­tant, too, to recog­nise that times change. Peo­ple of a cer­tain age wax nos­tal­gic about the glory days of clubs such as Sir Henry’s in Cork and the Tem­ple of Sound in Dublin. Yet they would do well to re­mem­ber that the trea­sured pur­suits of a past gen­er­a­tion may not be par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant to mil­len­ni­als and Gen Z-ers.

“A lot of young peo­ple nowadays don’t even know what was go­ing on back then,” says Stephen Grainger. “It is im­por­tant to re­spect and doc­u­ment those times. And young peo­ple still like go­ing out. But tastes in mu­sic don’t stay the same. Ev­ery­thing goes in cy­cles.”

“Dat­ing has also changed,” Michael Wright points out. “Young peo­ple used to go out to a pub or night­club to meet peo­ple, now they are do­ing it on­line. We got dressed up and went out to try and meet some­one, now it’s a ‘Swipe Right’.”

Dublin has the ven­er­a­ble Club M in Tem­ple Bar and the un­likely na­tional trea­sure that is Cop­per Face Jacks. But there is no equiv­a­lent of Fab­ric in Lon­don

The Wright Venue night­club, Swords, opened amid glit­ter­ing fan­fare in July 2009. PHO­TO­GRAPH: DAVID WHITE

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