All yesterday’s parties: a look back at the glory days of Dublin’s nightlife

The capital’s nightclub scene is not what it used to be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate its heyday by revisiting some infamous moments that defined decades of revelry

U2’s Bono and his wife Ali Hewson leaving The Kitchen nightclub, co-owned by Bono and bandmate Edge, in Dublin. Photo: Photocall Ireland

It was well after midnight, and the phone on the reception desk was ringing. Robbie Fox, the affable ringmaster of The Pink Elephant, had abandoned his usual vigil on the door of Dublin’s hippest nightclub for a couple of minutes, and left me, a regular customer who happened to be in his vicinity, improbably in charge.

The caller was looking for Robbie. I explained he was momentarily AWOL and offered to convey a message. It was Bono or Edge (I had drink taken, to be fair) calling from their jet which was revving up on the tarmac of a Swiss or German airport (see above excuse). The band had just finished a gig, were en route back to Dublin and had a goo on them for a few pints. They wanted to make sure Robbie would see them right, should they arrive perilously near the club’s 2am closing time.

It seemed a reasonable and perfectly normal request. Upon his return, Robbie didn’t turn a hair, and within a couple of hours, the lads were happily ensconced in the upstairs bar, playing pool and downing a few post-massive-stadium-gig beers. As you do. Or certainly as one did in the club carnival that was Dublin in the 1980s and 90s.

But alas, poor Dublin. Once a metropolis of infinite jest, it’s now as animated as Yorick’s skull. Thanks to the havoc that Covid-19 has wrought on after-dark activities, the most high-profile fox in the capital’s city centre is Sam, the four-legged version who trots with impunity around Grafton Street, past shuttered and silent bars, theatres and clubs.

The descriptor “unprecedented” has been trotted out like an over-worked donkey throughout this pandemic, but it’s surely true to say that An Lár has never known such a string of silent nights. It has always been a rowdy city, heaving with rambunctious night owls hell-bent on revelry despite the mightiest efforts of the fun police in various authoritarian guises to clean up the capital’s act.

In 1633, Thomas Wentworth, the Lord Deputy of Ireland sent a letter of complaint to the Archbishop of Canterbury, giving out yards about the proliferation of wine cellars and taverns throughout the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral: “the vaults underneath the church itself turned all to ale-houses and tobacco shops, where they are pouring either in or out their drink offerings and incense, while we above are serving the high God,” he grumbled.

Almost three centuries later, subterranean roisterers still featured in the city’s nightlife. In Remembering How We Stood, John Ryan’s memoir of bohemian Dublin, the author describes “the catacombs” – an underground drinking den in the basement of a Georgian house on Fitzwilliam Square which served as an escape for writers, artists, piss-artists and an array of Rabelaisian rebels from the unrelenting prosaic grimness of 1950s Ireland.

“Tenants dwelt in various crannies of this Gruyère-like structure,” he wrote. “Thither would come, most nights, brigades of young intelligentsia, platoons of poets, past and future revolutionaries and armchair republicans and freeloaders, whose motto was ‘myself alone’. No invitation was required, but a large brown bag of bottled stout was obligatory.”

But not even Dublin’s Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, the joyless Gauleiter of the Catholic Church, could keep the godless shenanigans of the swinging sixties out of Ireland, and Dublin – like the rest of the country – was soon awash with aboveground ballrooms such as the Ierne and the National on Parnell Square where thousands of young men and women jived and twisted their way out of the authoritarian gloom imposed by a Church-State double act.

By the beginning of the 1970s, Dublin nightlife was in full swing or full boogie. Some of the ballrooms morphed into discos, nightclubs, live music venues; the Four Provinces on Harcourt Street became the Television, or TV, Club, while the Crystal Ballroom on South Anne Street transmogrified into iconic live music venue McGonagles.

Nightclubs were everywhere, dancing was widespread, and what the strict licensing laws decreed must be a “substantial meal” (inevitably a paper plate of the sort of chicken curry which included peas, or a basket of chicken and chips) was obligatory wherever there was a DJ. The Top Hat ballroom in Dun Laoghaire became a part-roller-disco where teenage girls belted out Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive while trying not to get their flares caught in the skates and part-music venue which hosted now-legendary gigs by punk royalty such as The Jam and The Clash, before becoming the metal mecca for the likes of Metallica and Slayer.

Nightclubs or “niteclubs” abounded, with names like the cast of a dodgy porn-flick – Sardi’s, Sloopy’s, Lord John, Barbarella. The biggest of them all was Zhivago, off Baggot Street, where the club’s slogan assured everyone, “love stories begin.” It was a multi-storey emporium of red velour, MOR music and legendary Dubliner Jim ‘Lugs’ Branigan on the door keeping the scruffily-dressed at bay. ‘Alternative’ culture it wasn’t: one musician recalls receiving a black eye from an irate patron when his band finished a live set with a shortened version of Amhrán na bhFiann, with Branigan wading in to end the melee.

The 1980s was madder still, even in the ’burbs. Northside disco-goers had Tamango (“where the gang goes”) in Portmarnock; the southsiders had Blinkers (later Club 92) in Leopardstown. If you shifted someone unwisely in one venue during the slow set, you banished yourself across the Liffey to the other until the romantic dust settled.

The 1980s and 1990s was the heyday of Leeson Street; almost every building had a club in its basement: Maxwell Plums, Leggs, Strings, Buck Whaley’s, Bojangles. Middle-aged, moneyed nocturnal animals – lawyers, politicians, property developers – threw loadsamoney shapes in Joys Nite Club, aka “Jurassic Park”, in a basement on Lower Baggot Street.

The wine on offer on Leeson Street was mostly extortionately-priced gut-rot, but nobody cared, as few ever entered these premises sober. Leeson Street was where you went when everywhere else had called time. If you were cool, you made it into Suesey Street, the haunt of musicians, journalists, actors and other ne’er-do-wells, all kept to an acceptable level of disorder by the indefatigable Jean Crowley. The dance-floor was mostly a space one had to traverse when weaving from the packed gossipfest around the circular bar to the usefully capacious unisex toilets at the back.

By 5am, the night-time rush-hour would kick off. Leeson Street was packed with clubbers queuing for a hotdog-with-coleslaw from Wolfie’s stand, or desperately waving fistfuls of pound notes at any available taxi. It was the hey-day of Dublin taxis, too.

If there were celebrities in Suesey Street, they had usually first refreshed themselves in The Pink on South Frederick Street which eventually became Reynard’s (owned by Robbie Fox), or Lillie’s Bordello off Grafton Street, which opened in 1992 and was run with steely aplomb by Valerie Roe, who skilfully turned it into the hottest after-dark ticket in town.

By the 1990s the recession was receding, there was more money to spend on going out. Thanks in large part to U2’s global success, to the work of film directors Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan and author Roddy Doyle, Dublin was becoming a hip hangout.

Nightclubs and music were intertwined. The rock scene had exploded across the city, spawning a warren of venues; the likes of The Underground, the Baggot Inn, the SFX, McGonagles, the Olympic Ballroom had gigs on most nights. Planeloads of A&R men (always men) flew into Dublin armed with wedges of cash to find “the next U2”; tax breaks ensured that a variety of A-list artists took up residence in Ireland – one couldn’t throw a tequila slammer across The Pink/Renards or Lillie’s without drowning members of Def Leppard, Spandau Ballet, the Thompson Twins, The Blue Nile, alongside Bono and the boys, The Pogues and The Corrs, and visiting superstars such as Prince and David Bowie.

Clubs had their own VIP areas, none more famous than the original inner sanctum in Lillie’s Bordello – a tiny leather couch-stuffed library behind a sturdy oak door and sturdier bouncer. On one memorable night, I was ensconced on a prized sofa with Eddie Irvine, the Ferrari Formula One driver – the room’s other sofa was occupied by Mick Hucknall, the Simply Red frontman and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the actress.

Suddenly Valerie Roe was beside us. “Get up,” she muttered to Eddie. “I need your sofa for somebody famous.” Hovering expectantly at the door was Bruce Springsteen and his entourage. Eddie, no fool he, obliged – but only after first haggling his prize perch for a case of Italian beer which was promptly delivered to the corner of the room to which we had been speedily dispatched.

The apex of the nightlife music madness culminated in the arrival of the MTV Europe Music Awards into Dublin in 1999; every venue was jammed, every limo booked, every nightclub under siege.

In the wee small hours in Hot Press HQ on Abbey Street, one of Dublin’s most memorable gigs took place when an on-fire Iggy Pop brought down the house, duetted with Marilyn Manson and Bono (who climbed unsteadily down from the balcony to join him) and roundly abused an amused Mick Jagger for declining to do likewise.

By then the nightlife landscape was changing; clubbers and ravers packed into dance emporia such as the Temple of Sound, or The Ormond on the quays, into the Harcourt Street dance haven which began as POD (which then became Red Box) and Craw Daddy.

The dance scene first blossomed in Flikkers a legendary gay club that operated out of the basement of the National LGBT Federation’s Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar, and took root with the arrival of Sides DC on Dame Lane. Sides was ‘alternative’ in that you went there to hit the dance floor rather than the bar. Asked in an interview if turning up in a three-piece suit lessened one’s chances of getting into Sides, owner John Nolan agreed. “They’re slimmer than usual, yeah, because we feel there’s something fishy about you, and usually there is.”

That’s the thing about Dublin nightlife – it was never just one trend, just one club. Depending on your age, where you lived, how much money you had, Dublin after dark meant different things.

In the Noughties, the bright young – and not-so young – Celtic Tiger cubs crammed into Krystle nightclub on Harcourt Street to drink champagne and get a name-check in social diaries or later on social media. Meanwhile, across the street, a much different flock of night-owls were queuing up for shift central, otherwise known as Coppers.

Everyone has their own patchwork of Dublin nightlife memories; there was the weekly late-night screening of the Talking Heads concert video Stop Making Sense in the Ambassador cinema where everyone would get up and dance and there was the Rocky Horror Picture Show nights in the old Stella cinema in Rathmines – an interactive screen experience, long before mobile phones and gaming tech came along.

There was the fabulous lunacy of Mr Pussy’s Cafe De Luxe on Suffolk Street, run by old-school female impersonator Mr Pussy, aka Alan Amsby, where – unbothered by the absence of a drinks licence – one would get served wine in teapots and hob-nob with the likes of Naomi Campbell, Michael Stipe, Van Morrison.

There was the Blue Jaysus cabaret in The Waterfront club, run by Gavin Friday, where Berlin cabaret artist Agnes Bernelle brought to life the music of Brecht and Brel, featuring a feast of songs with delicious titles like Father’s Lying Dead on the Ironing Board.

No matter where you went, all nightlife roads ended in the Manhattan, the magnificently tatty greasy-spoon cafe on Harcourt Road which fed politicians (Charlie Haughey), legends (Richard Harris) and the simply over-refreshed. You were served a hearty fry and a cup of scald, the latter dispensed with expertise from a massive steel teapot by Auntie May.

And then you went home to bed. Or straight to work.

The Manhattan is gone. Zhivago became The Sunday Tribune and after it closed, it now houses that antithesis to nightlife, a gym. When the Bernard Shaw nightspot shut down last year, its patrons mourned and predicted the death of Dublin nightlife.

In the end, it was the pandemic which stopped the carousel, which emptied the venues, silenced the guitars, dimmed the disco lights, smothered the craic, and broke the anarchic hearts of after-dark aficionados.

But it’s only the pause button which has been pressed. Nightlife will return to doughty Dublin, and someday – hopefully soon – the streets will once again be filled with song and drink, offerings and incense.