IN THE BASEMENT of the Academy, the music venue on Abbey Street in Dublin, a woman in lingerie is being tied up and spanked. This is Nimhneach, a monthly fetish and bondage night that claims to be one of the friendliest sex clubs in Europe. Among the crowds pouring into another nightclub upstairs, few seem to notice those with bags over their shoulders slipping away from the queue and disappearing into the subculture below.
The first rule of Nimhneach is no effort, no entry. Nobody gets past the PVC-clad bouncer without appropriate fetishwear. Inside, the rest of the club’s commandments are distributed and posted for all to see. There’s no sex or full nudity; no blood or water play. Privacy is paramount, so cameras are forbidden, and the objective is to keep things sane, safe and consensual.
“After that, anything goes,” says Fig, the club’s chief organiser and one of several supervisers. (“Fig” is a pseudonym; as with everyone interviewed for this article, he insisted on privacy as a precondition.) A 47-year-old IT worker with a shaved head, Fig is dressed in a leather skirt with boots, and admits it can be daunting for first-timers unsure of what to wear.
In the communal dressing room, the atmosphere is tense but playful. As people zip each other up and help squeeze flesh into fishnet body stockings, it feels like being backstage at a school play: neither the flamboyantly uninhibited or the quietly self-conscious can tell who may be out there to see them.
Some hide behind masks; others are happy to flaunt their collections of toys and accessories as the club pulsates with cyberpunks, cross-dressers, leather and lingerie.
This is entry-level kink, Fig explains, where the curious but uncertain are welcome. It’s a bracket encapsulating academics, civil servants and factory workers, all aged from 18 to 60. “It’s 45 per cent men, 45 per cent women and 10 per cent you just wouldn’t know,” says Fig. “We’re talking about people with complex sexualities and sensualities.”
Now in its sixth year, Nimhneach – the word means painful in Irish – typically draws 200 people from a wide but close-knit community. Regulars of Ireland’s kink scene meet several times a month at munches, or informal gatherings, in pubs around the country where like-minded people “chat about everything from the weather to the best whips”. For a more advanced level, there are play parties: invite-only sessions that are smaller but more intense, with no rules except what the host lays down.
“The fetish scene in Ireland is very much underground,” says Fig, who met his wife through Nimhneach. “The whole idea is to provide a safe space for alternative sexualities, to let out that piece of you that’s been hiding away for years.” This, he explains, can range from whipping and humiliation to pet play (where one party assumes the role of a pet) and urination.
In one corner, two women are lying stretched across the laps of their partners, who are spanking them softly; in the next room one woman is flogging another as if using a feather duster. On the stage, Emer, a 39-year-old education admin in a red PVC dress (see panel, right), is tying up her hot-pants-wearing play partner, David. Once she has him secured from suspension points, Emer begins dropping molten candle wax across his bare chest. She’s locked in concentration, he’s writhing with nervous energy, and their subsequent embrace prompts a spontaneous round of applause.
Every scene has to be negotiated in advance in order to establish a threshold of pain, the duration and nature of play, and the body parts involved. In Emer’s case, she reads her play partner for changes in breathing and skin colour, mindful of the ropes’ positions and which nerves she should avoid. But what does she get out of it? “You’re in control, discovering sensitive parts of his body and finding a rhythm that works,” she says later. “The wax is more about erotic tension: seeing his breathing accelerate and relax. So there’s the pleasure of tying up someone who enjoys it and the satisfaction of doing a neat suspension.”
Normally Emer gauges someone’s level of experience and physical condition before negotiating a “safe word”. “When you use that, everything stops,” she says. “If somebody freaks out, I can cut the rope and you’re down in less than 20 seconds.” This is where another rule of Nimhneach comes in: maintain a respectful distance and do not comment on scenes. Only the dungeon master, an experienced crew member adept at spotting distress, can intervene. Disrupting the headspace of either party, Fig explains, can be dangerous.
“You can’t just tie someone up and start flailing away. Where’s the fun in that?” he says. “The dominant party has to be extraordinarily empathetic to their submissive party for the dynamic to work properly. It’s an ever-evolving relationship, even over a period of seconds and minutes, so there has to be a connection.” When a scene intensifies – many liken it to the euphoric rush of a long-distance runner breaking through the pain barrier – having access to the right support is crucial. “I’ve heard horror stories of uncontrolled situations,” Fig says. “Often people’s sexualities are so repressed that when they have a moment of release it all comes out in an explosive fashion. Our job as the community is to make sure you don’t just go absolutely nuts. Or if you do go nuts, we’ll at least tell you.”
To make this easier, Nimhneach encourages a traffic-light system of safe words. Calling out “yellow” signifies that you’re approaching your limits; “red” means stop. “If someone shouts out, ‘No! Take it off me, you ba**ard,’ that can be safely ignored,” says Fig. “But if it’s red, you stop and renegotiate, because obviously something has gone wrong. That way, the dominant party has the power but the sub has control.”
A couple dressed as teacher and schoolgirl demonstrate the dynamic: as moderate spanking shifts to intense caning, the woman’s reactions spur her partner to up the tempo while a crowd gathers around. One inebriated figure, however, is quickly ejected after becoming a nuisance. Though crew members admit this happens more often than they’d like, several women say they feel more comfortable here than they would in other clubs. “It’s more relaxed because there are clear boundaries,” says Stella, a 29-year-old submissive. “I don’t go to regular clubs any more, because I find them much more drunken and sleazy.” Emer agrees. “There’s less drinking; it’s less aggressive.”
For me, a vanilla person – the term describes an outsider with conventional sexualities – the etiquette lightens the atmosphere. In some ways it’s just like a normal nightclub with a fancy-dress theme, only more diverse and friendly. Though the difference between curious onlooker and participant feels significant, the rationale and openness of the club disarm what would otherwise seem taboo.
“The human mind is wonderfully complex,” says Fig, smiling. “You have to explore your own head before you’re able to express what your needs are and have them met. That requires self-honesty. But we don’t encourage. This is a journey you have to take for yourself.”
Learning the ropes: Irish festish classes
John and Emer
John and Emer do not inhabit the typical dominant/submissive dynamic between kink couples. John, a 38-year-old who works in the media, is a bisexual rubber fetishist; his wife, who is 39, is more into props and visuals, particularly rope. They’ve explored these areas on a “journey of discovery”, but they recognise it’s not always easy for other couples. Some marriages break up over it; some evolve to accommodate it; many people choose to keep it hidden from their other halves.
“For a lot of people who have a kinky urge, it can really mess with who they are and what they want from life if they don’t know how to express it,” says John. “Until you have the right information, it can be confusing. You want to do stuff, but you’re not sure what it is.”
For the past three years the couple have been holding regular fetish and bondage workshops in Dublin, coverings topics such as health and safety, erotic storytelling, needle play, flogging and terms of consent. What began as a group of friends sharing tips has grown into gatherings of 20 or 30 people for three-hour events.
The classes, which cost €10, are not advertised publicly, as the couple prefer to operate through community channels such as FetLife, a social network for “kinksters”, the term they prefer. The idea is to foster a quiet acceptance of areas still suffering from social stigma. “It’s important people get to verbalise things they don’t normally get a chance to talk about, to discuss fantasy versus reality or even just laugh about it,” he says. “The most important thing is that people accept themselves. Anything after that, whether parties or workshops, is the icing on the cake.”
Dominic and Stella
Dominic and Stella, who work in IT, were inspired to start rope workshops after going to a bondage conference in Chicago. Seeing that Ireland had become the ninth-most- active country on FetLife, they established the Cinch as a place for people to “learn, experience and share” rope techniques.
“The biggest turn-on with rope is the power shift,” says Dominic, a 35-year-old whose fetish developed after he self- experimented with bondage. “When you tie a person up, their life is in your hands. It requires a great deal of concentration, and the responsibility is very fulfilling.”
Their monthly classes, which cost €15 for three hours, usually involve between 15 and 35 “rope enthusiasts” learning about consent, communication and connection. Demand has been such that they’re now giving workshops in Cork and Belfast as well as Dublin, and in September they will launch Twisted Leprechaun, Ireland first’s bondage, domination and sadomasochism (BDSM) convention, a three-day event featuring 55 workshops and a 500sq m dungeon.
“A lot of it is about the psychology of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” says Stella, a 29-year-old who finds being tied up an arousing full-body experience. “It’s a self-aware practice. You don’t just get tied up and go back to work on Monday.”
She stresses that aftercare, a supportive process to ensure people are in the right frame of mind when the high wears off, is an important aspect of bondage and that people who are disrespectful risk being ostracised. “A common misconception is people involved in BDSM are sleazy, mentally unhealthy or unable to maintain relationships. That’s not the case. We’re not perverts in the old sense. We’re taking back ‘pervert’ the way gay people reclaimed ‘queer’ and turned it into a positive.”