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Dublin’s queer community is battling to save the city’s club culture

Although the economy of the Irish capital is stacked against them, a host of newly started LGBTQ+ clubnights are vying to keep its party scene alive

On a Friday night in early March, in an elegant-looking Victorian building on Dublin’s narrow northern quays, queer techno club Grace is in full swing. Inside, a compact dancefloor under a soaring roof hosts a sartorially mixed bunch, from club kid-like ravers to goths and techno heads. As punters stream in, organisers Stevie Faherty, Caio Fabro, and David Healy place stickers over the incomers’ smartphone cameras – a move they hope discourages in-house photography and encourages self-expression.

Ten years ago, Dublin was going through something of a nightlife boom, and nights like Grace were common in the Irish capital. Today, it feels like something of an anomaly. For a town famous for its convivial, party-like atmosphere, it seems like clubs are closing pretty regularly. In January, the Tivoli Theatre, a stalwart of alternative and go-large parties, shut its doors to make way for a hotel. The move came not long after out-of-town megaclub the Wright Venue called it a day, and just months after the famous, party-hosting Andrews Lane Theatre shuttered. Around the same time, The Irish Times, long viewed as Ireland’s paper of record, ran an obituary for the city’s clubs: “Murder of the dance floor”.

In one sense, the closures can be seen as a manifestation of a trend sweeping Europe. London alone lost half its clubs between 2005 and 2015, and the Netherlands experienced a 38 per cent drop from 2001 to 2011. Promoters across the continent often face high rents as a result of gentrification and Generation Z’s apparent snubbing of alcohol-fuelled parties. But in Dublin, local factors add extra complications. To start, nightclubs technically don’t exist. Under a still-applicable 1935 law, they are known as “dances” and require an often hard-to-come-by licence. Add to this restrictive closing times – many so-called clubs are actually large bars whose owners need to pay hefty daily fees to stay open until 2am. The city is also undergoing a process of what some call “hotelisation”: property owners here know they can turn bigger profits by developing hotels rather than music-orientated spaces. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the capital is in the midst of a housing shortage-fuelled accommodation crisis – its rents chart among some of the most expensive in Europe – while the cost of living has skyrocketed for many, mostly due to sluggish wage growth outside of the big businesses that have flocked to the city in recent years. It’s led to a situation where standalone club venues just don’t make economic sense.

And there seems to be little political will to change. Dublin-based commentators often argue that this is because nightlife doesn’t register in the country’s cultural and political psyche as something legitimate – pubs and bars are great, sure, but clubs have long been seen as frivolous at best, dangerous at worst.

“The church wanted to preserve Irish culture and tradition at all costs,” says DJ and activist Sunil Sharpe speaking about the origin of the current legislation, which has long been resistant to progressive reform and came into practice to curb jazz-focused parties. Sharpe, who is a member of Give Us the Night, a lobby group seeking to promote the economic and cultural benefits of Ireland’s nightlife, adds that this means getting into club promotion often feels like a struggle.

“There has just been zero flexibility,” he says. “Club culture has been strangled by the state. Operators and promoters have always been looking for a loophole or a way to work around the law, rather than the law working with us.”

While Give Us the Night wants to create a shift in the way clubs are seen by the mainstream, the city’s LGBTQ+ community has long known the cultural benefits of nightlife – even when the law isn’t accommodating. Widely recognised as having given Dublin its first modern clubs in the mid-1980s – locally famous gay clubs Sides and Flikkers operated at a time when homosexuality was still illegal – the queer scene has since produced some of its most innovative after-hours spaces. And now, it continues to do so in the middle of a clubbing collapse.

“We really wanted to promote a safe space for queer people to express themselves,” Grace’s Stevie Faherty explains, adding that the trio’s motivation is primarily cultural, not economic. “Dublin didn’t have a queer techno night – and we thought the scene was getting a little dull.”

Grace is one of a number of queer-focused nights that have sprung up in the Irish capital recently. Not far from Grace’s headquarters, the Spicebag cabaret and club hosts top performance artists and poets every few months, while the feminist show Glitter Hole does a great line in experimental drag. They join more established club nights such as synth-playing Mother, the house-focused Sweatbox, and the musically mixed, female-oriented Spinster. Promoters of these clubs seem united in the view that queer spaces are more than just clubs – they are places in which the community comes together to have fun, and to feel safe.

“Queer spaces allow people to come and party, with no discrimination,” says Francesco Pons, a stylish, blunt-fringe sporting Grace attendee, speaking about the importance of queer clubs. “They break down ‘Grindr Culture’ – the idolisation of hyper-masculinity. Queer spaces allow us to do more.”

“Personally, I have only ever felt comfortable in queer spaces,” adds a Grace reveller, who wishes to be identified by ‘w1tchin’. “Dublin has such a potential to be this major inclusive nightlife city, but it takes a lot of support from our own community and our allies.”

This attitude seems to resonate on the Dublin scene. Grace had to turn people away on its opening night because it reached capacity so quickly, while tickets to the most recent Spicebag sold out in hours. Mother, too, is consistently popular – the night moved from its hotel basement home to a larger space and recently branched out into Gay Pride-linked block parties, as well as a queer-focused festival.

Nevertheless, for many queer promoters the problems facing fringe nightlife are the same as those facing the mainstream: with venues in short supply, many of Dublin’s LGBTQ+ clubs exist on a semi-permanent or pop-up basis, while still others make do sharing spaces on alternating nights, often in sizeable bars instead of dedicated venues. It’s a thriving, inventive scene, but one with caveats – right now, there isn’t much room to scale.

“There will always space for clubbing,” says Tonie Walsh, renowned Irish DJ and curator of the Irish Queer Archive. “Historically, clubs were where you met people who were living on the margins.” Though Walsh, who ran H.A.M., one of Dublin’s most successful 1990s queer nights, along with Rory O’Neill and Niall Sweeney, says he sees apps replacing clubs as social spaces and the mainstreaming of LGBTQ+ culture to the point that queer-specific spaces are no longer necessary as equal to economic threats.  

So how can Dublin’s new breed of queer clubs continue to thrive? Most queer promoters support Give Us the Night’s direct action manifesto, which includes legislative overhauls, the introduction of an Irish version of the UK’s Agent of Change law, and sequential closing times for clubs. The most important aspect of which, many LGBTQ+ promoters add, is the move to create a cultural shift in how nightlife is perceived by the mainstream. Once queer nightlife is viewed as a vital part of Ireland’s cultural and economic landscapes, things might start to change.

“Cities like London or Berlin consider nightlife to be a valuable cultural phenomenon. It’s time that Dublin joined them under the disco ball,” says Stephen Quinn, who, along with Sarah Devereux, runs Spicebag at the City of Dublin Working Men’s Club.

Other LGBTQ+ promoters feel that giving queer venues protected status – just like London’s Vauxhall Tavern – might be one option, while others feel that protected status isn’t a viable option, economically. Others, however, feel that the best way to respond is for queer spaces to continue to be as inventive as possible – something, they add, that’s long been part of queer Dublin’s DNA.

“Our response has been to become more creative and to put on nights that offer something different,” says Spinster promoter Emily Scanlan. “There will always be a place for majority-queer spaces, but what those spaces look like may be very different to how they looked in the past.”