Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Una Mullally: Night-time economy needs to own cultural spaces

Coalface operators require stable venues to resist plague of developer-led speculation

With the publication of the report of the Night-Time Economy Taskforce, Catherine Martin could become the first Minister who takes club culture in Ireland seriously.

She could begin the process of rejuvenating a sector that has been the victim of all of the elements that have caused a cultural collapse in the capital. Local government that often feels in opposition to those who live in the capital. The rental crisis stalling the lives of young people. The amenities crisis and corporate gentrification.

Given the emergency in nightlife in Ireland, top-down interventions are now unfortunately essential, but as culture emerges from the bottom up, creating the conditions where alternative culture can thrive is a much bigger job.

If skateboarders had their concerns listened to around the squeezing of public space at Portobello Harbour, the situation  would not have become a pandemic-era scandal

Very few people outside of the nightclub sector – those who are involved in running it, and those who participate in it as attendees – paid much attention to the decimation of venues across Dublin in recent years.


Those highlighting the closure and demolition of places such as Hangar (also known as Andrew’s Lane Theatre), the Tivoli Theatre, the Bernard Shaw, the Pod and Red Box, the large squat in Grangegorman, the DIY space Jigsaw, or the gentrified refurbishment of former clubs such as the Kitchen, weren’t taken seriously about the impact this was going to have on broader culture and city-living across the capital.

This was despite the fact that such closures were multiple canaries in multiple mines alerting broader society to an amenities crisis that has subsequently seen the demolition of suburban bowling alleys, or the proposed demolition of the historic football grounds at Tolka Park, along with public space being eroded and overpoliced.

Damaging outcomes

Those who exist on the fringes are always the most vulnerable to the damaging outcomes of change in cities. If skateboarders had their concerns listened to around the squeezing of public space at Portobello Harbour, the situation there would not have become a pandemic-era scandal.

If emerging artists had been listened when they spoke about how difficult it was becoming to find studio space, hotel developments may have not steamrolled over many parts of the city centre. And if young people had been listened to about how their dance floors were being erased, we would as a society have been able to address the urban amenities crisis before it was too late.

What’s been helpful in Martin’s work is her inclusion of entities such as Give Us The Night to help find solutions from those at the coalface. This is an organisation that has been knocking on the door for a long time.

One of the reasons a new underground took hold during the Great Recession was because the economic opposition to things not solely profit-driven temporarily retreated

It has been attempting to alert the State to how damaging draconian licensing laws were, and how depressing the demolition of cultural spaces was, and how that would impact the sense of potential people have about where they live.

There is no shortage of ideas: extending the opening hours of national cultural institutions; creating links between promoters and artists with existing spaces that could be used for night-time cultural activity; proposing the long-discussed idea of night-time economy advisers also known as night mayors; establishing a late-night programme for Culture Night; and bringing our licensing laws into the 21st century are all positive initiatives highlighted in the report.

But we also need to move beyond framing culture as merely part of the “economy”.

This is often necessary for politicians, but also stifles the broader importance of play, pleasure, community and creativity. One of the reasons a new underground took hold in incredibly exciting ways during the Great Recession, was because the economic opposition to things that weren’t solely profit-driven temporarily retreated.

“Meanwhile use” became real in practical ways, and promoters and party organisers were able to operate within the fissures of economic collapse. That is not the case anymore. The plague of land speculation and the coldness of developer-led profit-squeezing has not just decimated housing but nightlife spaces also .

Banking ‘vibes’

In almost every conversation I’ve had over the past few years with people involved in night-time culture, my advice has been the same: whatever you can do, and however you can do it, try to own the space you’re operating in.

This was the fatal error of all of us who ran club nights and parties during the recession. It was an impossible problem to overcome, given that none of us had any money. We didn’t own the spaces, so when the economy revved up again, bolstered by global funds and capital steamrolling across the city, no heed was paid to anything that we were doing.

It was of huge cultural and community value, but not something that could be calculated on a spreadsheet. As a club promoter friend used to always say to me: you can’t put “vibe” in the bank.

Knowing this, the State needs to go much further. There needs to be huge capital investment in buying buildings, empty retail spaces, and preventing the continued cycle of demolition and construction of things that add absolutely nothing to the cultural fabric of the capital, such as cookie-cutter hotels and luxury student accommodation blocks.

Councils need to be able to access funding to buy up vacant buildings, and have flexible change-of-use capacity when it comes to bringing a building into cultural use.

This time, artist-led co-operatives need to be able to own the spaces they’re operating in, because without that, our nightlife will be in a constant, cyclical state of emergency. And when there’s nowhere to go out and build community in Ireland, young people in particular will just search for a vibe, and bring their own, somewhere else.