Remembering Dublin’s late 20th-century ‘darkside’

Have you ever wondered what it was like to grow up ‘alternative’ in a conservative Ireland during the 1980s and ’90s? 

“Growing up in the ’80s, there were a lot of people who didn’t get us – mainly adults, I suppose,” says Garrett O’Donoghue, 53 now. “As a metal head, the music was loud and loaded with suggestive lyrics and imagery. It was all about the music and everything else followed.

“Of course we weren’t the only alternative faction in town, there were goths, hippies, mods, skinheads and punks.” 

Ireland at the time was Catholic and conservative, but there were ways around that. Pirate radio stations, for example – there were roughly 200 of these stations in Ireland during the 1970s and ’80s.  

The stations shifted locations frequently due to Garda crack down on illegal broadcasters. These presenters often came up with aliases to use on air to protect their identities. Some of the most well-known alias were DJ Chris Tofu of Sunset FM. These stations, which played rock, gothic, and emo music, raised a whole generation of teenagers.  

Some of these radio stations survive, in name at least, right up to today, after eventually being licensed. These stations include Radio Nova and Sunshine Radio. 

It wasn’t just conservative adults you had to watch out for – you also had to be careful when interacting with other ‘alternative’ people.  

“There were many altercations between metal heads and mainly mods and skinheads,” O’Donoghue says. “So, sometimes walking down the street in your garb was an adventure. Similarly, sometimes, it would attract the wrong sort of attention from the authorities. If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could find yourself a person of interest, just because you dressed differently.” 

Fiona Ní Cillín, who has been running alternative events in Dublin since the 1990s. She has been running them under the guise of ministry of Agröculture promotions and has more recently set up Darkside Dublin on Instagram to act as a platform for weekly event listing’s for all things goth, metal, industrial, punk and darkwave in the capital and beyond.

Events are run frequently from Ní Cillín’s Instagram page, so there is an event for everyone on the alternative scene. Tracking down events wasn’t so easy back then.

“When trying back then to fond alternative culture events in Dublin, we had to rely on pirate radio, flyers, posters, and event listings in music magazines,” Ní Cillín recalls. “Mainstream media had no interest in musical subcultures, and when they did, it was only for ‘novelty’ value. So, I started Ministry of Agröculture, and subsequently Darkside Dublin, as a way to give a platform to local ‘alternative’ artists and a as a way to give a point of commection for young people who feel different and isolated, just because of how they choose to express themselves.”

When events were held, they were often set up in the same venues and pubs, who in the long run became a haven for young people into alternative music who could be themselves without any form of judgement. These were pubs like Bruxelles, McGonagles, and Bartley Dunnes. 

Bartleys was known mainly for gothic music, Bruxelles was known for their rock and heavy metal, with McGonagles being a mix between the two. So, the scene often ended up in McGonagles at the end of the night. 

“The attitude has got better since then,” O’Donoghue says. “Some of the people who lived those alternative lifestyles back in the ’80s are now parents and even grandparents. The world is more open now. In this global community, alternative lifestyles are more accepted than in the ’80-90s. I think the acceptance came in the 2000s.” 

The alternative scene in Ireland was small back then, so people who grew up at that time got to know each other, hanging out at events and music venues.  

The scenes led to lifelong friendships and a sense of camaraderie among people who might not have ever crossed paths before, if not for their shared interests. 

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