Strictly Hedonistic – the heyday of Ireland’s clubland
In 1990s and 2000s, Irish club night scene collided with both acid house and Celtic Tiger
Strictly Handbag hadn’t been Martin Thomas’s first rodeo – before Strictly Handbag, he had started a club night in Powers Hotel.
Panti Bliss with Martin Thomas.
In 1994, Ireland found itself in rare auld times indeed. The country wasn’t just at the foothill of the Celtic Tiger, but wider curiosity in our cultural input was properly piqued, thanks to U2, Riverdance and Paddywood. We had money and we had confidence, perhaps for the very first time.
In October 1994, a curious thing happened in the Kitchen nightclub, in the basement of the Clarence Hotel. Local man-about-town Martin Thomas decided to put on a club night that played “music with words for your dancing pleasure”. What started as an Eighties night soon widened, after a venue change to Rí-Rá on Dame Court, into a heady brew of punk, boogaloo, garage rock, ‘60s pop and ska. For that, Strictly Handbag straddled whole decades, weathering not just a boom and bust, but several musical revolutions in between.
Tonight, revellers can enjoy – or at least try to resurrect – Strictly’s inimitable vibe in the Sugar Club, nearly 25 years after its first night. The night is a tribute to Thomas, who died of cancer in February.
Strictly hadn’t been Drogheda native Thomas’s first rodeo – before Strictly Handbag, he had started a club night in Powers Hotel. A host of scene-stealing club nights followed, among them Rock’N’Roll Rescue Squad, the Good Life and Ultra Lounge. Yet Strictly cut a swathe: punters could create handbags inspired by ‘80s cartoons, while the flyers themselves were works of art. Never one to shy from detail, he even imported thousands of fortune fish so that Strictly Fish could have its own keyring.
Within a couple of years, Strictly was holding its own against club nights like Sunday nights’ Sleep in Rí-Rá, Velour in the Gaiety and the Blue Note on Bedford Lane.
“(Hacienda DJ) Dave Haslam remembered Martin as somebody who could organise 16 DJs to get from Dublin to Manchester but to the casual observer couldn’t use a comb,” recalls Thomas’ widow Venetia Quick.
“Up to that point (in 1994) there had been little to choose from by way of club ‘nights’. I think its popularity was due to the fact that it was open to anybody and everybody.”
The music policy widened out thanks to new hires: writer Mick Heaney and DJ Dandelion were tasked with playing whatever took their fancy.
“I’d been doing a night in the Rock Garden when Martin approached me,” recalls Dandelion. “I was pretty headstrong and was like, ‘this is what I’m doing’. We pretty much wanted a school disco. Martin let me – he was good like that, although he’d always sit at the front to keep an eye on me.
“You never knew how the night was doing to go down,” she adds. “Mr Pussy’s (on Suffolk Street) opened after our club, so that became our after-club. The birthday parties were also brilliant – once, Will Sergeant (Echo & The Bunnymen) and Kevin Rowland (Dexy’s Midnight Runners) came in – that was a real, ‘ah, we’ve arrived’ moment.”
I found a party that didn’t care who you were as long as you were fun. Gay, straight, student, brick layer, barrister... it was all good
After spending time in Tokyo, Panti Bliss returned to Ireland in 1995 and secured a gig “hostessing and acting the fool” at the club: her first regular drag gig.
“When I’d left a few years earlier, Dubliners were still dancing in “restaurants” and the only drink available was wine, but when I came back in 1995 the licensing laws had been changed and we had our first proper nightclubs with a full bar,” Panti reminisced in a Facebook post earlier this month. “But on a Monday night in The Kitchen I found a party that didn’t care who you were as long as you were fun. Gay, straight, student, brick layer, barrister... it was all good.”
Panti’s not wrong: the crowd ran the gamut from professionals and students to scenesters and service industry workers. Given its Monday night slot, it also became the club night of choice of the house and techno DJs who ran their own clubs on the weekend.
Mark Kavanagh ran a dance label between ’92 and ’95 with Mr Spring, and often ran nights on the weekend: “Everyone who worked on the weekend went nuts there, and it was just as much fun on a Monday night as at the height of the weekend,” he recalls.
Kavanagh noticed a huge shift in Dublin’s wider clubbing scene in the ‘90s.
“Before the Celtic Tiger really reared its head I’d be DJing around the country and people would be driving to gigs in Cork and Galway. It was all very exciting and the music was very new. For us it was a labour of love, but in the second half of the decade things became more professional and people like us would make a living, getting paid silly money to gig in Cork. In the second half of the decade people had more money to spend, and promoters like MCD and POD realised there was money to be made out of this.
“Through rose-tinted glasses you’d say it was all about the music, but you have to acknowledge that there were chemical refreshments in the mix, and they were new and different.”
As the years went on, Johnny Moy – who opened a club night in the Waterfront on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay with Billy Scurry – noted that venue owners were perhaps less pleased with the chemical refreshment element.
“Our club nights were rammers and (the owner) loved it at first,” he says. “Then he’d realise that his bar take was lower than usual (because people were only drinking water). In one venue, the owner turned the cold water taps off in the jacks.”
The curious thing about Ireland’s dance club scene in the early ‘90s was that in many respects, scenes in Cork, Galway and Belfast were much more vibrant than their counterpart in the capital.
“I lived in London in 1989 and would often pick up records in the UK,” recalls Johnny Moy. “By 1993 I was DJing full time, and started building connections in Dublin. You could get records at Beat Records and Abbey Discs at the time, but they’d only get a certain allocation from white labels.
“Dublin wasn’t really happening in terms of acid house and dance, but Cork and Belfast were, so we ran buses to club nights there,” he adds. “When Dublin eventually caught up, they started to outgrow the scenes, with venues that were bigger than those cities combined – Cork in particular was hopping – on bank holidays they did this unreal weekender in Sir Henry’s in Cork.”
Down in Cork, meanwhile, DJ/producer Greg Dowling, along with Shane Johnson, had been fostering connections in Manchester as early as 1986. As the duo Fish Go Deep, they celebrate 30 years of DJing and production in November.
“We had a great supply from record stores there,” he recalls. “What made it to special was that we were getting records the same time as the Hacienda, and Cork took to it all really quickly.
“Sir Henrys was pretty much a rock venue, but it had a decent sound system, and managers who were happy to let us be,” he continues. ”When I moved to Cork (from Dublin) there was actually a fantastic reggae scene.”
“Like the Homer (David Holmes) and (Iain) McCready thing (in Belfast) or the Disconauts in Galway, it developed organically. I loved that house had that sound of electronic, and also the sound of soul.”
Sir Henrys soon became an epicentre in the People’s Republic. “Right at the start we would play all sorts – the Sugarcubes to early hip-hop – and it became a focal point for anyone who likes things a bit different. This was completely to the left.”
Cian O’Ciobháin recalls how in 1993, the main club night scene was located out in Salthill before moving slowly back towards the city’s centre.
“Kevin Healy opened the GPO in the middle of town and swiped a lot of the guys from Salthill,” he says. “The main guys (in Galway) back then were Aaron McMahon who did Jazz Juice, Keith (O’Hanlon) and Padraic (O’Connor) of the Disconauts. I was running indie nights in the mid-90s. I remember the house nights had become very prog and housey, and I found the whole thing a bit boring.”
In 1998, O’Ciobhain, along with Cyril Briscoe, started 110th Street, an iconic club night that offered funk, soul and “rarely anything after 1980”. The night grew exponentially from its very first 98-strong crowd to a fanbase of thousands.
Eoghan McNamara (aka Gugai), now booker/co-owner of the Roisin Dubh in Galway came to the city in the mid-90s.
The licensing sergeant at the time was a maniac and made the clubs turn off the music and turn up the lights and serve meals for half an hour
“Galway was like Berlin in those days, the way people talk about it now,” he says. “When I came to the GPO, it felt like one of the most groundbreaking clubs at the time. They were all about putting on proper club nights and building up audiences and creating an experience beyond the standard chart clubs.
“I don’t know what the story was with the nightclub license laws, but there was always a meal included in the ticket,” he adds. “The licensing sergeant at the time was a maniac and made the clubs turn off the music and turn up the lights and serve meals for half an hour. It happened in the middle of Fatboy Slim’s first ever Irish gig in the GPO.”
The early Noughties saw the scene start its wind down. “When the Temple Theatre closed, it was a real sign the boom was over,” recalls Kavanagh. “That was a real symbol of the excess in society. I wrote at the time how the loved-up nature of Clubland had gone because coke became the clubbers’ drug of choice. With the benefit of hindsight I realised that ketamine would play its part, though I was blissfully unaware of that at the time. Things became less tribal.”
The golden age of the GPO, too, came to an eventual end: “I played Seven Nation Army and the floor cleared,” says McNamara. “New management kept asking for more mainstream indie, so I left. The golden age went with the GPO when Kevin sold it, really.”
With a sort of nostalgia running high thanks to Strictly Handbag’s redux, one question does beg to be answered. Do club nights mean the same thing to today’s young revellers?
“There’s usually this feeling that if something important happened years ago, it skipped a generation,” observed Dowling. “But I see a whole load of Irish producers making new house music now, and there’s a whole new generation of hip-hop producers really building up here.”
Adds Moy: “For us it was an extremely social thing as we had no Facebook on WhatsApp. We met in the record stores or on the dancefloor.”
“There’s a handful of people who it really matters to,” says O’Ciobhain. “I know younger guys and girls running nights with maybe even more passion and ideas than us. It’s really hard to compare the two but the difference for me if that if you went to a club night in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s and you were hearing certain records, you might not hear them again until you went to that particular club night a week later. You didn’t have streaming services to check. You had to go along to the night to hear it and it made your night, the moment you heard that song. I suppose we didn’t have the Internet in our pockets either, but older people are just as bad at that than a younger crowd. But I think how you feel at 18 or 19, and you walk into a club for the first time with the lights and the dry ice, will be the same for every generation. You can’t water that down.”
* Strictly Handbag is on in the Sugar Club tonight, with proceeds going to the 3 Amigos and the Martin Thomas Trust in association with Jigsaw. For more information see thesugarclub.com