On a sunny evening at The Complex in Dublin 7, the faint thump of techno can be heard from the blue and red building. Although not unusual for a Saturday evening, the party here kicks off a bit earlier than most, as doors open at 8pm. Inside, people move to the beat of DJ Minikimono. There is nothing out of the ordinary as far as club nights in the city go – except for the fact that these ravers are all completely sober.
Here for Club Loosen, an entirely sober rave, the lack of alcohol certainly does not put a dampener on the mood. The club may as well have been called dance like no one is watching, as everyone inside – staff and this writer included – is swaying, stepping or full-on grooving to the mixes.
From the very start, there are people on the dance floor. Others line the walls, sipping on mocktails and building up the courage to jump in. People trickle in on their own, in duos or in bigger groups. There is a vast range of ages and styles. Despite this, everyone bunches together in front of the DJ’s decks, united by the music.
At the front, 23-year-old Nicholas Rooney is trying to learn how to shuffle – a dance move that involves moving your feet back and forth without lifting them off the ground – holding up a tutorial on his phone for others to see. Speaking to The Irish Times outside, he says: “My goal for today is to shuffle and have a good time and to be as comfortable as possible in my own skin, which is happening so far.”
The Dubliner doesn’t drink much – he might have a couple of beers every six months – and so, for him, Club Loosen is about inclusion. “When I go out, it’ll just be me having glasses of water with my friends who are drinking. It’s a little bit more difficult to go on nights out and feel comfortable, but if it’s a sober rave, everyone is doing the exact same thing. There’s no peer pressure for you to drink and I really enjoy that,” he says.
With Rooney is 28-year-old Elvira Oredein. “There is a huge issue with addiction in Dublin and, you know what, when I first heard about this sober rave, I thought, ‘This is another wave coming to Ireland,’” she says.
“People who feel like they’re on the fringes, who don’t so much want to feel like s**t the next day, who don’t so much want to take drugs or take anything, [they] can come here and feel safe. It’s a safe space.”
The night, for Oredein, was an opportunity to “be one with the music and just empty out all my other troubles and just dance it out”.
Nuala Billington, who is also 28, says the rave is an “eye opening experience”. She gave up drinking in recent months and found there were so little events in the city centre for those who are sober, sober curious or who simply did not want to drink on a given night.
When you first start, you’re just not there yet. You haven’t loosened up. You may be experiencing a little bit of anxiety— Paul Walsh
“It’s really great to have something like this. It’s quite an experience to be out there dancing and to not have a drink in your hand or extra ‘buzz’ to keep you going. You just really develop that yourself,” she says.
Despite Ireland’s notorious drinking culture, Billington says she’s noticed a shift in attitudes towards going sober: “I know it’s very stereotypical, but there is definitely a huge party culture and alcohol is a big component of that. But I think people have more of an awareness of conversations around mental health and the bigger picture, and I’ve noticed a lot more people are sober curious.”
As the night goes on inside, the music interchanges between techno and remixes of popular songs. There are drinks, bags and jackets left to the side, untouched – such is the safe vibe of the rave.
Paul Walsh, Club Loosen’s organiser, is training to be a psychotherapist and has always been interested in the mind. He had his first drink when he was 12 and has gone through periods of not drinking since then.
It was when he moved to Berlin for a year in 2015 at the age of 26, however, that he really began to experience a high in the club without needing to drink or take drugs.
He went out “pretty much” every weekend while living in the city. At first, dancing in a club sober felt a little bit awkward. “When you first start, you’re just not there yet. You haven’t loosened up. You may be experiencing a little bit of anxiety,” he says.
These feelings shouldn’t get in the way of your rhythm, however. “Feeling a little bit awkward, feeling a little bit of anxiety is not necessarily a problem. It’s actually possible just to allow those to be there and not feeling that they are a problem.
“And, then, I suppose, you just actually step into the process of ‘Okay, there’s really nice music happening so I’m just going to start moving a little bit’ and then you can connect to the music.”
After a while, Walsh says, when you check back in with your body, you will feel like your state is “really sweet” and your energy levels will increase.
“Within an hour, maybe an hour and a half, by being committed to dancing to the music and connecting to my body, I experience myself as being ‘there’. What I mean by ‘there’ is a place where I’m present, my energy feels great and I could dance expressively and talk to anyone.”
Walsh noticed his buzz continued on through the next day, as he had no hangover or come down to deal with. This euphoric sensation led him to create Club Loosen.
His intentions are not meant to be judgmental towards those who choose to drink, and he understands that the standards for the club night needs to be as high as they would be for any other rave, with great DJs and the right venue.
“This is still partying. This is still clubbing, but we’re making a choice. We’re actually acknowledging that we’re not going to take alcohol, we’re not going to take drugs to loosen our inhibition.
“In a sense, [there is] some psychological skill that we’re actually going to develop here and when we do do that, we can have experiences in nightclubs where our states of being [are] joyful, really positive, loads of fun and we did it without taking substances,” he says.
When asked about having fun without drinking and how some feel it’s not possible, Walsh laughs. Going out sober is not effortless, he says, and it does require “some element of warming up”. Those who feel they cannot go out sober probably “haven’t fully committed to allowing themselves to have the experience they could”.
“They may have been in spaces before when, after 15 minutes, they’re like, ‘Here, f**k this. I’m out of here.’ I would say to that person, you may have needed to stay for 90 minutes before you got to this place where you’re not in your shell any more.”
Lauren McNulty, a 27-year-old from Drimnagh in Dublin 12, has been sober for six months. She made the choice to quit drinking based on an “accumulation of things”.
“I would have been like, in the back of my head, ‘Am I getting enjoyment from this? Does this benefit me in any way?’ Then, when we’d go out, I’d be feeling really, really bad the next day. I’d have anxiety,” she says.
You always get that thing like, ‘Are you pregnant? Are you on medication? Oh, where are you going tomorrow?’ It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just ingrained in people to make conversation— Lauren McNulty
McNulty felt then that drinking was her only form of socialising. Now she is sober, however, her social life hasn’t stopped. In fact, it hasn’t even slowed down. She has gone to concerts, where she hasn’t been “queuing at bars the whole time”. She went on holiday to Mexico, where she could be “up dancing”, go to bed at “a reasonable hour” and get to see the sun rise as well.
She has also created an Instagram account, @sober_gal_in_dublin, to share her sober story and connect with other like-minded young people in Ireland. Through this, she has met many groups who organise meet-ups, sea swims and other events.
“Before I researched, I would have never even known there was [a] sober community for people in their 20s or for women especially who just want to go out and do things. Even if they’re not sober, they just want to do something that isn’t surrounded with alcohol.”
McNulty says the reaction was mixed when she told people she was going sober. “You always get that thing like, ‘Are you pregnant? Are you on medication? Oh, where are you going tomorrow?’
“It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just ingrained in [people] to make conversation.”
Friends and family have been “great”, especially her boyfriend, who tries her drinks first to make sure they’re non-alcoholic because the order can sometimes get mixed up. McNulty has even noticed her friends and colleagues are considering giving up alcohol too.
The biggest challenge in going sober, she says, is “always going to be yourself”. “It’s going to be hard. It’s being able to learn to have the patience with yourself and that it’s not just a quick fix, it’s a lifelong journey,” she says.
McNulty would like to see more non-alcoholic options on the shelves or in bars. She’s tried the likes of Peroni 0.0% but loves a cocktail and would like to see better mocktails on menus that aren’t just “an orange juice and a cranberry juice mixed together”.
She would love to see more non-alcoholic alcopop cans, which are “targeted to the younger generation rather than just someone that wants to not drink and drive”.
In March, Dublin’s only alcohol-free bar, The Virgin Mary, closed its doors on Capel Street. This was not down to a lack of interest in the concept, founder Vaughan Yates said at the time, but due to increased costs.
He believes there is still a demand for non-alcoholic drinks, he told Newstalk, and, as a result, The Virgin Mary is now a mobile service, serving people at events around the country.
For young people, there certainly seems to be a gap in the market in our capital city to serve young people who are sober, sober curious or simply looking for an alcohol-free evening that Club Loosen and these groups are trying to fill.