Strict licensing laws and a lack of suitable venues have created night-life dead zones
Una Mullally – The Irish Times – 26 August
“The decline of Irish nightclubs is not particular to Dublin, but given that is where the highest concentration of nightclubs is and was, their erasure is most pronounced in the capital. The range of socialising options has never recovered since the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, and the vibrancy Dublin had in the 1990s, when it was genuinely perceived as a cool European capital – as hard as that is to believe now – is but a memory. The landmark spaces of that time were the Pod, Red Box and Chocolate Bar, all in a complex on Harcourt Street – now a culturally dead zone of offices – and The Kitchen, which has gone through several incarnations and is currently clawing its way back into a music-driven venue called Cellar, owned by Press Up. These were just two parts of a nightlife ecosystem that was abundant in its offering of spaces and genres of music.
This summer, The Irish Times reported on a Behaviour & Attitudes Sign of the Times survey, comparing the 1990s with today. It showed that in 1991, close to one in four – 23 per cent – of adults went to nightclubs weekly. In 2021, that figure was 6 per cent. Various large dance floors in the capital have evaporated, such as Spirit (now the Academy, a live music venue), Hangar (now a hotel), the Tivoli Theatre (an apart-hotel), and Jam Park (formerly the Wright Venue) closed during the pandemic. In 2000, there were 522 in Ireland. By 2022, there were just 85. There is no large purpose-built nightclub in Dublin city, a remarkable situation for a European capital. During the pandemic, Electric and Halo also closed in Galway.
It is also important to differentiate between a nightclub as an artistically creative offering – one that prioritises dancing over drinking, with a specific music policy connected to contemporary or niche culture, primarily electronic music – and a nightclub that serves as a late drinking and mingling joint, although those are disappearing apace too.
Many of the basements, bars and other venues, that were nightclub-focused or were open to independent promoters holding club nights, were spat out the other side of the recession bruised if not utterly broken, and turned into cafes, cocktail bars, restaurants or tourist offerings. Or they were simply demolished and replaced with hotels, as the economics of a capital where hospitality businesses operate on incredibly tight margins simply could not afford to operate nightclubs within the parameters of our stringent licensing laws.
In tandem, the housing crisis has gutted the capital’s centre of opportunities to live, play and hang out for artists and young people, who cannot afford rent in Dublin city. The loss of other cultural venues – DIY spaces, artist studios, or any empty space where cultural events could take place – has decimated the capital’s cultural offering. If a city really is an ecosystem and a habitat, the cultural element of that ecosystem has been broken because there is no thriving underground to feed the mainstream, and the habitat for cultural activity has become endangered, and in some parts, practically extinct.
When it comes to independent venues shutting down, it tends to be gentrification, not phones, that causes their demise
There are multiple authors of this obituary. There are the licensing laws. There’s the economics of a city where it’s increasingly impossible for small independent businesses without deep pockets to take risks. There’s an attitudinal issue in not considering fringe, late-night, or underground scenes as things of cultural value worthy of protection and support. There’s corporate gentrification. And, as mentioned, there is the housing crisis, which disproportionately impacts lower-income artists and young creative people whose wealth is in ideas, not cash. The suburbanisation of the city centre was well under way before the pandemic, as restaurants and expensive bars raised the price point for socialising, and smoothed the edges off the gritty, recession-era nightlife.
Behavioural change is also a factor. Technology certainly plays a role. The widespread use of dating apps, as well as social media as a digital sphere of interaction, has an impact. But when it comes to independent venues shutting down, it tends to be gentrification, not phones, that causes their demise. One of the more curious anecdotes heard from people working at music festivals over the summer, is how older teenagers and people in their early 20s are drinking less comparatively. This checks out across various studies. By 2018, teenagers in Ireland had one of the lowest rates of regular drinking in Europe, and were getting drunk less than in the past, according to research carried out on behalf of the World Health Organisation. The average age at which people start drinking in Ireland has risen a year, from 15.6 in 2002 to 16.6 in 2019. Teenagers in Ireland also smoke less than the European average, but their drug use across cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine is higher than the European average. Alcohol is expensive in Ireland, and increasingly, young people cannot afford the price at the bar.
The Department of Justice under Minister Helen McEntee said through a spokesperson that she intends to publish the general scheme of new legislation to reform licensing laws next month. The Sale of Alcohol Bill will repeal the Licensing Acts 1833 to 2018, the Registration of Clubs Acts 1904 to 2008, and the Public Dance Hall Act 1935. “The creation of new categories of intoxicating liquor licences in order to meet the needs of new areas of activity in the hospitality sector is under consideration,” the spokesperson said. When the Minister launched a public consultation on modernising licensing laws, there were more than 5,000 responses.
For Robbie Kitt, a DJ, producer, spokesperson for the Give Us the Night campaign – which advocates for the night-time sector – and member of the Night-time Economy Taskforce, the issue of the decimation of the nightclub scene is cultural, as well as economic. He goes back to the Public Dance Hall Act of 1935 as something that laid down a marker. It was not the infrastructure that was regulated, it was behaviour – dancing – that was the target of regulation. “We are stripping young people of their access to social infrastructure,” Kitt said. “There is a desperate need for the conditions that facilitate small independent arts spaces to exist. If you don’t have that, you are never going to be able to build on economically-motivated arts spaces… If you look at the tech world and how the Digital Hub was used, there’s a recognition that nascent digital ideas need an incubation period before they’re exposed to market forces. What really needs to be recognised is the need for artist-led, artist-owned spaces, dedicated spaces that are owned by artists.” Unfortunately, that is essentially an impossibility in Dublin for artists without wealth, or without intervention in terms of grants.
But it can happen.
Recently, a fringe music scene has coalesced in Stoneybatter in Dublin 7, where the experimental music collective, Kirkos, took over a small retail unit on Prussia Street. The results have been astonishing. Ambient music nights, workshops, contemporary classical performances, film screenings and other events, have breathed life and built community in and around the space, called Unit 44. Along with the desperate need for purpose-built venues, the potential for cultural collectives filling the many vacant retail units around the city is obvious, but there is no policy to facilitate this.
That said, the Department for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media under Catherine Martin has taken a more creative approach since she became Minister. While the broad arts and culture sector would prefer a single ministry, various initiatives such as the Basic Income for the Arts Pilot Scheme (which was meant to be up and running by the summer, but now will be in autumn), as well relative dynamism shown by the Arts Council throughout the pandemic to diversify and increase the number of grants to artists, in particular the Agility Award (€1,500 – €5,000), are helpful.
In response to questions, Martin’s department said: “The department is of course concerned about the impact of falling numbers of nightclubs on night-time culture. It is a vital part of our lived experience and particularly impacts on young people. The department is in regular contact with members of Give Us the Night, who keep us informed of developments (and are part of the NTE [Night-Time Economy] Implementation Group) and help us to understand the challenges facing the sector.”
But back to spaces. Kitt is particularly concerned with the interruptions that have occurred in Ireland’s night-time infrastructure, which was acutely seen when enterprising artists filled dormant spaces in the capital during the recession, only to be turfed out when owners and developers seized on opportunities to build offices as the economy strengthened. “We need physical infrastructure,” Kitt insisted. “If we don’t have spaces that allow us to create lineage, then whatever the expression of cultural heritage made right now will be too temporary to sustain itself into the future. I think there are chilling implications of that in terms of what that does to our cultural journey. How do we advance our cultural expression if we don’t have continuity?”
Across the city, people running nightclubs and club nights believe there needs to be a complete shake-up. Some also show what happens when they are sustained, even as venues close or are changed. For example, the hugely successful LGBTQ+ club night Mother began during the recession as a fundraising mechanism for the LGBTQ+ press, GCN, with 200 people in the basement of the Arlington Hotel on Dame Street (now the Hard Rock Hotel), and is now based at Lost Lane (formerly Lillie’s Bordello). Over Pride weekend in Dublin in June, about 20,000 people came to Mother’s Block Party at the National Museum at Collins Barracks.
Promoters speak of clubbers leaving venues early because of the difficulties in getting taxis home, and the lack of safe late-night public transport, and difficulties people in their early 20s have in staying in the capital. One promoter, who did not want to be named, said: “We know that clubbing is culture. We know that coming together and meeting on the dance floor has a potent, transformative energy. But there are such significant barriers…talent is emigrating.
“We need to make the city more liveable on a basic level so people can stay and make things happen. But before we get to liveable, we need to get to non-hostile. I have no idea how people in their early 20s are navigating this city. It’s hostile; we don’t have places for people to live. There is no diversity in [food and drink] offering – everything is just premium – that range of choices doesn’t exist. We’ve squeezed the interesting stuff out. The diversity has diminished. There’s hostility on the streets, weird undercurrents of not feeling safe. The urban centre was neglected during the pandemic… clearly the powers that be see nightclubs as evidence that you forgot to go home, or a way to have a late drink. That’s not what it’s about. If all the galleries were suddenly gone, you’d be like, ‘do we not care about art anymore?’ Clubbing has artistic DNA that expresses itself in a way that’s easy to dismiss, or is more misunderstood.”
The housing crisis and the crisis in cultural amenities have simultaneously given rise to a distorted wave of emigration, with young people who have jobs leaving the country in order to avail of affordable rent, and access to a broader cultural offering. “The saddest thing for me is nobody wants to leave,” Kitt says of this new wave of emigration, which is being felt acutely among artists and those pursuing creative lives. “Anytime anyone is leaving, it’s like they’re being rejected by Ireland rather than them rejecting Ireland. It’s not the case that young people are leaving by choice. You’re seeing this nascent cultural pride in Irish heritage, but they have nowhere to put it. They can’t go and share these feelings about their heritage in any established venue, setting or expressive outlet. You’re leaving all these kids with all these feelings of love for their place with nowhere to share them. Obviously they’re going to want to share that somewhere else. It’s a tragedy of Irish society.”
The enthusiastic spark that starts a club night, or the mad idea that turns an empty building into a brilliant venue, or the grassroots connection that fosters community, do not come from developers or hospitality conglomerates. They come from people. But when things are too hard to get off the ground, that enthusiasm wanes, or emigrates to where it can be realised.
Yet in a capital that can seem hostile to cultural innovation, Ireland is paradoxically witnessing something of a cultural boom that has been burgeoning for a while. Emerging from creative activity during the recession in DIY venues, squats, house parties, clubs, and warehouses, and articulating itself across food, film, literature, design, music and even philosophy, a new movement is emerging, particularly dominant across traditional music, as witnessed in the protests that prevented a developer turning a part of the Cobblestone pub in Smithfield in Dublin 7 into a hotel.