“Everyone was having sex, but nobody was talking about it”

Ireland was a very different place in the 1980s. From Sir Henrys in Cork to The Afro Spot in Dublin, Suzanne Harrington recalls the decade that changed everything

MY LIFE began in 1983 when I went to my first gig, aged 15. It was The Smiths at the Savoy, and afterwards nothing was ever the same again. That gig was my graduation from teeny pop — Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, Spandau Ballet, Adam Ant — to Eighties alternative: The Cure, Siouxsie, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, Jesus & Mary Chain, Teardrop Explodes, Echo & the Bunnymen, Violent Femmes, Husker Du, and a thousand lesser knowns. The Smiths played Cork again in 1985, and New Order did Connolly Hall in 1986. I began buying the NME.

As an Eighties kid you had little choice but to embrace the look — frilly shirts, headbands, big hair, blue eyeliner, pink blusher, mini-crinis, terrible legwarmers, fluorescent ankle socks, pointy-toed shoes, plastic jewellery. Slow dancing to Chris de Burgh, and wondering if life would always be naff.

Thank God then for Goth, for indie, for alternative. Jackie and Smash Hits were tossed aside for the NME and The Face, but reading the NME gig guide used to drive me insane — all the musical action was happening in London. Not Cork. Of course there were home grown bands — Microdisney, Five Go Down To The Sea — but Cork felt teeny-weeny and cut off from the rest of the world, at least if you were a restless teenager gagging for adventure.

I spent the mid Eighties in The Oak and Sir Henry’s, drinking and listening to music and seeing bands. A great deal of time was spent on hair — Mohican, skinhead, or Robert Smith bogbrush, you made an effort with your hair. The Oak was tiny — shouty, squashy, noisy, smokey, boozy and deafening with the Clash and the Dead Kennedys; there was one tiny loo for a whole bar full of pint-drinking girls (the men’s was even worse). It was all overseen by a brilliant old couple called Dan and Maura.

I had my first ever drink at The Phoenix, aged 14, before graduating to Loafers, a mellower pub that was a lot of fun. Nightclubs were limited — Coco’s was all high heels and hair gel, and Spiders was yob central, although they did have some good gigs there, like The Damned; but if you wanted anything more alternative, you had to go to Dublin. The Afro Spot in Fleet Street was the last word in cool.

Everyone I knew in Cork was in college or on the dole (except me — I had a job in my dad’s bakery, which paid for the snakebite and hairspray), and loads of friends were moving to London, mostly because Ireland was an economic graveyard. Moving abroad was completely normal back then — London was the holy grail for alternative culture and the freedom to be yourself.

Socially, Eighties Ireland was super-repressed: being gay was still illegal, and sex was still a sin. You couldn’t buy contraception. Ann Lovett died, aged 15, giving birth in a field in Longford, which I remember as really scary and horrifying. Living together was still outrageous. Everyone was having sex, but nobody was talking about it. There was no openness about anything, which meant the up-and-coming generation muddled along as best they could, determined not to be as hemmed in by the Church as the previous generation.

And being vegetarian was murder. The Quay Co-Op seemed like the only place in the whole of southern Ireland that served veggie food; there was also a tiny wholefood shop in Paul Street, where you could get TVP (which tasted like chewy gravel) and vegetarian pate as expensive as caviar. Quorn hadn’t yet been invented, nor Linda McCartney’s sausages.

Neither had coffee evolved beyond Nescafe, and ice cream still came in melty blocks. In restaurants you would be asked what colour you wanted your coffee — black or white — and what colour you wanted your ice cream — pink, brown, or yellow.

Avocados were the last word in sophistication. There was no such thing as hummus, or proper chocolate.

Apart from a handful of Chinese takeaways, there was no foreign food in Cork — fast food was provided by a place called Burgerland, before McDonalds and BurgerKing moved in — but there was nothing Indian, Thai, Japanese, Middle Eastern, or even properly Italian.

While a lot of social energy was put into drinking, dining out remained very dull. If you wanted a kebab after the pub, you had to go to Dublin.

In fact if you wanted anything — a pair of 14-hole Dr Martens, your nose pierced, weird hair dye — you had to go to Dublin.

But still the lure of the NME gig guide called. Finally, at the end of my teens in 1987, I left Cork for good, not for Dublin, but for London. Eighties London engulfed me — Camden Palace, the Town & Country, Brixton Academy, the Astoria, the Slimelight, Kensington Market. A different band every night of the week. Exotic flatmates with blue hair and unheard-of body piercings. My first Gay Pride, my first animal rights march, my first rave.

With rave, my appearance transformed from the black leather and white make-up of Gothdom to the bright bagginess of E culture — snakebite was replaced by Evian and little pills that let you dance for 10 hours straight. The Sisters of Mercy were over, the Happy Mondays filling their place; guitars were out, repetitive beats were in.

Depending on where you were, the Eighties could have been anything from shouting in a brick phone whilst quaffing champagne in a stock market to plunging wildly around the dance floor in head-to-toe Goth. Moving toward the ’90s, rave democratised everything — you’d get the poshos and the yobbos dancing side by side, hands in the air. It was a new beginning. It was fantastic.

Picture: Suzanne Harrington pictured in the ’80s

More in this section

Price info

Subscribe to unlock unlimited digital access.
Cancel anytime.

Terms and conditions apply

ieFood pic
ieFood Logo

In the Kitchen with

 Video Series

Join Colm O'Gorman in his kitchen as he makes flatbreads in minutes and crispy air fryer chicken. Explore why he thinks chilli is the spice of life, and find out why his 50-year-old food mixer is his most important piece of kitchen equipment. Friday, September 17, 12pm

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.

great irish summer

From walking and hiking, to day trips and camping, your guide to holidays at home in 2021


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up