Going underground: The best little dance nights in Ireland

The true health of the Irish dance scene can be measured in the country’s smaller clubs, where local DJs and promoters are doing it for themselves at club nights such as Gary’s Gang in Dublin, Sunday Times in Cork, and Macronite in Limerick

For dance music fans, Ireland is not a bad place to be at the minute. Rather than having nowhere to go at the weekend, the more common problem is having to decide what to skip. A lot of this activity comes in the form of big-name DJs and producers. However, measuring the health of a scene by how many international acts are packing out venues every week only gets you so far.

To fill in the bigger picture, it’s important to look at the smaller players, the die-hard local crews who are putting on shows for themselves and their peers – playing, learning and partying together. There is a sense right now that a loose network of these clubs is developing around the country; often free, always fun and generally packed with raw Irish talent.

Starting in the capital, one of the best examples in recent times has been Gary's Gang. Gary's Gang is a free, monthly club in Sweeney Mongrel, collectively organised by nine DJs, producers and promoters with decade-deep roots in Dublin's house and techno scenes, including Kenny Hanlon of Apartment Records and Andy Doyle of Lunar Disko.

“A club night has to feel like its own little entity,” says Hanlon of the night’s ethos. “You want to make it feel like there’s a core group of people who are there regularly.”

This attitude is reflected in the way each night is booked, with the residents and other Irish DJs taking precedence over occasional international guest appearances, drawing on a pool of talent from around the country that emphasises the community aspect of such a small scene.

“The whole point is that it’s not big names,” says Hanlon. “It’s booking loads of Irish people and then some others you might have heard of. Bringing over people who’ve never played or hardly ever played.”

Both Hanlon and Doyle are quick to point out how busy a time it is for Dublin clubbers, but they believe that the emergence of more nights in smaller venues is a positive thing for both the city and its DJs.

“It’s nice when you see something like the Breakfast Club, something different,” says Doyle of the early morning club in the Dark Horse Inn. “It’s not just going out to the Twisted Pepper every week, or the Button Factory. People are coming up with different ideas, trying to find different places and do different things. Sometimes it works.”

One club that is undoubtedly different is Sunday Times in Cork. Started in 2009 by Barry Walsh and John Hennessy, the club kicks off in the mid-afternoon and runs until two in the morning. This unusual timeframe allows for a more eclectic approach to tune selection; a day that begins with soul or jazz might detour through Afrobeat or hip-hop before ending with banging techno, and no one will miss a beat.

"Over a longer period of time, you get more space to go in different directions," says Dean Feeney, the most recent addition to the team. "That's kind of a cliche about DJing – the journey thing – but if you have that kind of time and space, you really can do it."

“I suppose one of the main things when we were starting it was to take the emphasis off the DJ,” adds Hennessy. “At the start, we were like, ‘let the records be the star of the show’, so we kind of sat down. Plus, we were playing for 10 hours! We’re really lazy, so we sat down! The sit-down thing is kind of important. It totally takes the emphasis off the DJ and puts it 100 per cent back on the records and the music.”

It’s not just the bigger cities that can sustain a vibrant club culture either. Limerick boasts one of the most active and ambitious crews in the country in the form of Macronite, and Galway seems to be thriving, with a small clutch of close-knit promoters and DJs eager to bring both big names and underground heads to the west coast. A key part of this is the re-invigorating effect of the Factory, a top-quality venue that opened in Galway in the summer of 2012.

"I don't know what happened in those first few months in Factory," says Enda Geoghegan from Epoch, a regular club night at the Factory. "There just seemed to be a good buzz. Bap To The Future throwing some really good gigs, our friend Byron [who runs Alice] as well. A lot of people throwing good gigs. The artists themselves were going away after playing and saying that they really enjoyed the place."

"The club was incredibly accommodating," says Colin Finnegan, Geoghegan's partner in Epoch. "Anything we wanted to do, any ideas we had, everything was taken on board. Basically they bent over backwards for us. From there, we kind of haven't looked back."

Of course, there are issues. Things such as a lack of media coverage or a lack of suitable venues with decent sound systems. As always, the most common complaint is the problem of Ireland’s licensing laws and opening hours. Every DJ and promoter out there would perfer to have more hours and new rooms to fill, to create the kind of nightclub experiences they’re used to having in the UK or on the continent, but this situation is unlikely to change any time soon.

Another equally pressing though less talked-about issue is a lack of women getting involved, and staying involved, as DJs and promoters. Even at this local level, the spot behind the decks is a troublingly male-dominated zone. This is something which is up to the clubs themselves to solve.

"In dance music, I'd say the ratio of men to women is like five to one, you know?" says Eimear Fitzmaurice, formerly a promoter with Bodytonic and currently of Not Saying Boo. "I stumbled into it solely because John Mahon [manager, the Bernard Shaw] wanted me to work with him. If he hadn't been as forward in saying 'do you want a job?', I would never have thought I would have been able to have a job in that. I thought it was a man's game.

“From the outside, certainly it can seem like a very closed off, nichey, cliquey, circle. And it’s a shame.”

It would be impossible to squeeze every relevant club into a piece like this. Floating Joints and the Red Social Club in Cork, Together Disco and Bop Gun in Dublin, Bap To The Future and Alice in Galway; the list goes on. These clubs are built on strong roots and the legacy of clubs that have gone before them but they feel fresh, energetic and vital. They’re gateways to new worlds of local musical talent and an antidote to the churning merry- go-round of hyped international guests. As loose as it is, the network is there, and people are really paying attention to each other, inspiring and spurring each other on. DJs and promoters are listening, the audience is listening. The result is clear: no matter where you go now, you’ll find quality Irish DJs taking centre stage just about every weekend of the year.

Apartment Records and Lunar Disko DJs will be at Life Festival, Belvedere House, Mullingar, Co Westmeath, May 23rd-25th. See life-festival.com. Epoch celebrate their second birthday at the Factory, Galway, May 9th. See facebook.com/epoch.galway. The Sunday Times DJs will be at Body & Soul Festival, June 20th-22nd. See bodyandsoul.ie

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