As the Sweat in Sir Henry’s marks 30 years, author Lisa McInerney recalls the fun of her formative years in the legendary Cork club
LANDED in Cork a month after I’d turned 17. I’d only gone and done something stupid: the Leaving Cert at 16. UCC apparently liked the cut of my jib, and Cork was the obvious choice for me, anyway. I had cousins in Carrigaline and had spent parts of my childhood summers arsing around Mountrivers, so if I got up to no good there was an aunt 10 miles down the road to catch me by the ear. This was important, because the Fresher’s Ball that year was held in Sir Henry’s, and sure that was it, I was lost to decent society forever.
I missed Henry’s mid-90s glory days. I turned 18 just before the millennium, so I experienced what you’d call Henry’s swan song. That first Fresher’s Ball was in 1998 and I’m almost sure Whipping Boy played, though I can find no confirmation online nor in the excruciating journals I used to keep. After the rockers rocked off, the beats began proper, and I thought, “I’m home”.
This was around the time that dance culture had reached saturation point, so it’s not as if I hadn’t heard house music till I went along to Sweat. Ministry of Sound compilation CDs were sold in Virgin Megastore in Queens Old Castle for a steep twenty pounds, there was a Mixmag or a Muzik magazine every couple of weeks, Delerium’s ‘Silence’ hit No 1 and Johnny Moy was the coolest man in Ireland. Everyone was going to Ibiza for the summer to contract something horrible at a foam party. Yokes were still yokes and not head-splitting chemical abominations designed by flinging a handful of alphabet magnets to a fridge door. On the stereo at my desk on Highfield Avenue I had a choice between Radio Friendly and Kiss FM — Radio Friendly being the connoisseur’s choice and Kiss the boy racer’s.
I had a tank top with a diamante Cream logo on the front. The counterculture had become pure commercial.
Though the dance scene was rooted in youth culture, anti-establishment display and festive socialism, it was a substantial movement so it couldn’t help but attract entrepreneurs, and egos, and as its stature grew, so did the cover fees. That dance music was crossing a threshold into the mainstream wasn’t lost on any of us and I’m pretty sure we knew we were losing more than we were set to gain.
Not that Henry’s was prohibitively expensive, or in any way mercenary. In terms of status, we’d proudly state it was up there with Berlin nightclub Berghain. Henry’s felt like dance culture done right — it felt like dance culture done right up to the night it closed its doors, which was maybe why it closed its doors. Not pure commercial, just pure. Too pure for this world, to use a cliché.
I didn’t get to go to Henry’s half as much as I wanted to. There was the age problem, for a start, though I was good at looking cool yet unthreatening and usually found a way past the bouncers. There was also that aforementioned purity: Henry’s was all about debauchery and not at all interested in decadence and if you were the kind of reveller who couldn’t stand condensation, Carling XL or air-chewing, shirtless wonders giving it absolute welly on the floor, you’d be wondering why you couldn’t go somewhere nice instead. Like Gorby’s. Or Club FX.
On this issue I very much stood alone. My pals were mostly other students from West Cork and Kerry, and they didn’t have any interest in yokes, Romanthony, or making friends in toilets with wild-eyed young wans wearing combats. They didn’t know why you’d go clubbing if you couldn’t wear heels and they’d ask what was the point in getting all dolled up only to be trod, dripped or sweated on in some cowshed on South Main St. My love for the place was fervent and, to the girls from West Cork and Kerry, off-putting. I tricked people into it, but usually they weren’t tricked twice. They just didn’t get it the way I did. I’m still very sore about it.
As far as I was concerned, Henry’s was always worth it. You never came away from the place without a story. I recall meeting a fella from Waterford who couldn’t find his way out at the end of the night. I escorted him through the Annex and in impassioned gratitude he pulled out a nodge from his sock and closed my hand around it. I fell down those death-trap stairs to the Back Bar and only when I was a jumble of sticky limbs on the floor did the bouncer stationed at the bottom say, “Watch your step”, without turning around.
I met a boyfriend there, a lunatic from Kilkenny whose pulling ploy was to get me to hold his Carling XL while he went to the toilet. His claim to fame was throwing a bottle of water in his own face in an MTV Ibiza broadcast, so obviously I was very impressed. I met another fella there who swore blind Judge Jules was his half-brother, came home with us, stole a tea-towel from the kitchen and tried to offer it to the girls in a gaff five doors down in exchange for a fag. He was from Bishopstown and absolutely on the wrong kind of drugs.
These are only pixels of a bigger picture. They fall far short of illustrating the importance of Sir Henry’s in terms of Cork City’s character, at least in the way that character made itself known to kids like me, on the cusp of adulthood and therefore the cusp of selfhood, figuring out our place in a changing Ireland. In Henry’s you were naturally one of a swell and not some awkward langer desperately and conspicuously trying to fit in.
Cork City was a richer place for Sir Henry’s. Having a club like this, dedicated to a specific aspect of subculture, a specific genre of music and a specific expression of identity, made Cork feel more welcoming, more accepting of difference. This was a city bursting with life, boisterous, permissive and a small bit mad.
Social conservatives will likely disagree, but the popularity of empathogens — particularly MDMA — had a profound affect on society in the ’80s and ’90s. The rise in recreational drug use meant a rise in government-issued woe betides and sensationalist claims. The sheer numbers of people partaking in a yoke or two of a Saturday night was its own remonstrance, which meant a lack of faith in government directives and traditional wisdom for a significant proportion of my generation. Fellow clubbers were easily befriended, and even connections forgotten about in the cold light of day had a cumulative effect on the clubber; we were all the same; the revellers were levellers.
Most of the clubbers I knew were open-minded, adherent to a live- and-let-live approach. We could argue whether this was down to the prevalence of empathogens or the hedonistic atmosphere in the clubs, but each strand is knotted to the other.
Then there was the sense of connection to the city’s recent past. Half of Cork wanted you to know that they remembered Sir Henry’s when it was but a biker bar, or that they were there for the Sonic Youth/Nirvana double bill.
There was a time there you couldn’t have a simple night on the tear without ending up in a heart-to-heart with someone who once shifted your grandmother. To be a regular in Henry’s, or even in regular proximity to Henry’s, became a kind of shorthand for being of the rebel city; for a time it felt like this was a club that could be passed down from mother to daughter. But it wasn’t to be.
I left Cork in the year 2000, deferring the third year of my degree so I could figure out what in the name of God I was going to do with it, and returned to Galway, where I met a Corkman. It turned out he remembered Henry’s when it was a biker bar; it was love at first bluster.
Being in Galway, we were caught by surprise when Henry’s closed. We had taken it for granted that it’d still be there when we returned. There were plenty of ways to make do in its absence. We came back in 2007 and reconnected with friends, all of whom still seemed to be DJs.
The lads ran a couple of independent club nights. They were dynamite on the decks and tireless promoters, but breaking even wasn’t — couldn’t be — expected. The ravers who came to the gigs were the most winsome hedonists you could ever hope to meet; there just weren’t enough of them. Cork had moved on.
It’s hard to say why, except that this is what happens with culture, and what’s resonating today could fade to silence by tomorrow. No cultural movement is separate from the society; it’s the wider world that feeds, indulges and tires of it. A night out became prohibitively expensive, particularly during the crash.
The drugs weren’t as good, though admittedly it’s an important milestone in raverhood that once you hit thirty you start telling anyone who’ll listen that the drugs aren’t as good. People got tired of partying in cowsheds. Those who were regulars at Henry’s are in their 30s, 40s and 50s now and are in need of comfortable seating with lumbar support.
Carling XL is no longer on the market. Pity. I remember it being palatable gatt, though I was 17 and usually extremely thirsty and therefore probably not the best judge.
Dance music (not that EDM abomination, thank you very much) is in fine fettle. It’s just that the setting in which we partake of it has changed, become glossier, savvier, more decadent and, I suspect, less debauched.
I’ve moved on. I’m far too busy these days to risk falling to two-day hangovers. When I talk about culture now I’m usually expected to stick to literature. When I talk about counterculture I’m probably going on about transgressive fiction and Hubert Selby Jr.
Our only child is almost 17 and has no interest at all in hedonism, being of the age of social media and its associated self-surveillance. I am certainly pleased that we didn’t have camera phones when I was churning around the floor in the main room, my jaw doing the parallel mambo as my butterfly clips slid off my head.
My life is considerably tamer, as is right and proper. On occasion I stick on a mix or go through my old Henry’s flyers, which used to be Blu Tacked to my bedroom door. But there’s residue. I see it most obviously in the currents that run through my fiction; I always seem to be writing about Corkonians who know their own minds and who have strong senses of rhythm, whose politics, like my own, are shaped by early morning declarations at after-parties on the Northside.
I say I was born in Galway but made in Cork and when I say I was made in Cork I mean informed by a very particular translation of the place and encouraged to look at my country from a very particular angle. It’s all about the places you find a home in when you’re 17, isn’t it? The small histories you were lucky enough to be part of.
The pictures on this page of Sir Henry’s in the late 1990s are by Luke O’Brien, and come from an exhibition at the BDSM bar on North Main St, Cork. They can also be seen via O’Brien’s Facebook page: lukesphotographycork