The club night that won't stop the beat
Cork’s Freakscene has been filling its dancefloor for almost 20 years, and the club is responsible for more than its fair share of marriages. So what’s the secret to this wildly successful night out?
Every week since 1994, with the exception of a brief break, club owner John O’Leary has overseen his Cork city club night, playing classic indie and rock music and the odd contemporary floor-filler. While the club has run some themed nights, where punters dress up to different music genres, generally O’Leary and his roster of DJs stick to the sounds and vibe that helped establish the event.
New bands and artists struggle to make it on to the regular playlist, and club staples include The Beatles, early Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones, The Smiths, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana and the Violent Femmes. So, if a night spent pounding the dance floor shirtless to The Galway Girl or Cotton-Eyed Joe is your thing, it’s probably best to give Freakscene a skip.
Pretty much everyone over a certain age who had any semblance of a social life in Cork city has a Freakscene story or memory. Mine involves a nurse’s uniform, the ladies’ toilet and, well, that’s probably as much as anyone needs to know.
The club has moved six times during the decades, from the now defunct Sir Henry’s nightclub where it started out, to its present home upstairs in The Roxy, over the Classic Bar. Each time it moved, it has managed to bring its audience along, or else find a new generation of 18- to 24-year-old clubbers.
It has survived the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath, witnessed the rise of the ecstasy-fuelled rave culture, outlived baggy trousers and embraced goths, punks, hipsters and label lovers. In recent years, it has also built up a loyal gay following and had to compete with the rise of stay-at-home drinking.
O’Leary started the club because he and some friends wanted to hear the music they liked on a night out. They approached Sir Henry’s nightclub and, despite having no experience in running club nights, they were given a Wednesday night residency.
“There was a fantastic scene at the time. I remember you had both The Frank and Walters and the Sultans of Ping on Top of the Pops on the same night,” O’Leary says. “That inspired everyone and all of Cork wanted to be in a band. It all kind of tied in to the scene we were part of and came from.”
It’s hard to put a precise figure on it, but an educated guess would suggest hundreds of couples have met, married and/or had families because of Freakscene. Hell, even O’Leary and his wife Aisling Byron met at the club. She happened to be at the first night, before she knew O’Leary, and she recalls a somewhat less-than-promising debut.
“I was only 18 years old and the whole place was pitch black. I don’t think John knew what he was doing with the lights, and the sound was also horrific. You had to feel your way along the bar and I fell on the floor. I remember lying there in the dark and thinking, This is shit.”
Impressed by her love of funk and soul, John eventually persuaded Aisling to DJ, and under the name DJ Jenny Glitt, her corner of the club (known as Danascene) became hugely popular, with everything from Marvin Gaye to 1980s power ballads on offer.
“We were literally just setting up a club to go to for ourselves,” says John O’Leary. “It was an eye-opener because we didn’t understand why the Go-Betweens weren’t filling the dance floor or why bands like Pavement weren’t widely known. We also quickly found out that songs we liked could be seriously challenging to dance to – like Billy Bragg’s The Milkman Of Human Kindness for example. Pretty soon though we started recognising the same faces who came back week after week.”
One of those regulars, who first started going to the club when he was in university in the mid-1990s, is 34-year-old journalist Sam Boland. He says the setting of Sir Henry’s nightclub gave the club a good footing from which it was able to establish its identity.
“It was intense and slightly insular. There were all these warrens and caverns and that suited the atmosphere. From my point of view, as a misunderstood arts undergraduate, the crowd was my crowd. There were a lot of Smiths fans with daffodils in their back pockets and skinny young men arguing about whether Richey Edwards was still alive, or having intense debates about what the best Stone Roses line-up was.”
Boland also found love in the dark corners of the club. “Like many great Irish love stories, my wife, Lynn-Marie Dennehy and I bumped into each other drunkenly on the dance floor. This was in January 2004 and it grew from there. Freakscene was a fixture in our lives and we always went to it. Even when we moved abroad, we would make an effort go to it when we came home.”
It made sense then that when it came to getting married, Sam and Lynn-Marie decided to make Freakscene a part of their big day, and asked John O’Leary to participate in the ceremony. “I knew John had a policy of not DJing at weddings, so when I asked him first he refused. But I explained to him we didn’t need a DJ. What we needed was a celebrant for our non-religious wedding. He thought I was joking. But it worked brilliantly. Lynn-Marie walked down the aisle to an instrumental version of November Rain by Guns N’Roses. The ‘responsorial psalm’ was God Gave Rock’n’Roll to You by Kiss and we ended with The Ramones’ version of Baby I Love You. We’re almost five years married now and we have a daughter, Ivy.”
Laurence Kinlan is another club regular. “I look a bit out there for Cork as sometimes I wear a lot of make-up. The staff at Freakscene have always been really nice to me. Four years ago, I went there after work and got chatting to a guy called Dade. We’ve been going out together ever since and go to the club together all the time now.
“It has also become one of Cork’s main gay venues and you get all sorts of alternative types. But it is more than just a gay club. They celebrate diversity and make you feel comfortable in the club, no matter what you look like.”
Inevitably, the downturn has affected the club. In the past few months in particular, numbers had tailed off a little and so the decision was taken to try a new venue and move to Thursday nights. John O’Leary is determined the club will make it to its 20th anniversary and, as a sign of the club’s longevity, one of his regulars from the club’s early days dropped in with their son.
Last Thursday night, all three areas of the club were going full tilt and a sizeable crowd had gathered by 1am. The clubbers were much better dressed and groomed than what I remember from the 1990s, but they still went as wild when The Pixies song Debaser was played. From an elevated DJ booth, O’Leary watched over his flock, lending an ear to their requests and nodding with pride as they twirled their youth around the dance floor.
I started going to Freakscene back in 2005 when I was 19. All my friends invited me to the Halloween Ball. I was shocked that for once in a club I could hear all the bands I loved like The Clash, The Cure, Foo Fighters, Weezer and Blink 182. After that, I fell in love with Freakscene and I was there every Wednesday night without fail.
One night in May 2008, I was there with a friend of mine and he introduced me to two friends of his. I got talking to one of them, James, and we realised we had quite a lot in common. We both loved all the same music and we agreed to meet again.
Not only that, but we ended up dating and a year and a bit later, our daughter Emma was born. We now plan to get married in July. If it weren’t for Freakscene I would never have met the love of my life. It’s cheesy but true and I still go whenever I get the chance.
Freakscene's all-time top 10
1 Rage Against the Machine, Killing in the Name Of.
2 Violent Femmes, Blister in the Sun
3 Weezer, Say It Ain’t So
4 The Smashing Pumpkins, Bullet with Butterfly Wings
5 Nirvana, Lithium
6 The Smiths, Ask
7 Pixies, Where is my Mind
8 The Stones Roses, Made of Stone
9 Pavement, Shady Lane
10 Flaming Lips, She Don’t Use Jelly