Easter 1991: Sir Henrys and the take-off moment for dance music in Cork

It's 30 years since the first major 'all dayer' in the famous Cork club. Des O'Driscoll looks back at the development of the scene up to that seminal gathering

Cover Image:  Images from an event in Sir Henrys in 1991. Courtesy of Paul Mulvaney.

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Get into the music, it’ll set you free

chorus from a Hi-Bias track in 1991

six o'clock in the evening on Easter Sunday, 1991. As the Angelus rings out in households across the nation and many families settle down for tea, a corner of South Main Street in Cork has something quite different going on.

It's steaming hot, with lights flashing through the smoke effects, and the hall smells of sweat and cigarette smoke, with an occasional whiff of Vicks Vaporub. About 400 young people are moving in unison to an electronic beat. Who even knew Irish people could pull moves like this? Certain sounds in the music suddenly trigger the type of cheering you might have expected at Italia '90 eight months previously.

'Out Of Your Shell' in Sir Henrys. A major milestone in the social lives of many of the 17-24-year-olds who were there. A seminal moment for Ireland's club culture.

With Ireland's restrictive licensing laws preventing clubs from opening past 2am, Sir Henrys had instead decided to extend the dancing time in the other direction. “If we can't go later,” they resolved, “let's just open the doors at 4pm.”

 
 
 
 

[Watch] A clip of the crowd in Sir Henrys for an event in 1991 enjoying 'The Shaker Song'. Courtesy of Paul Mulvaney

 
 

It wasn't the first 'all-dayer' the Cork club had tried, but it was the first to have a major impact. March 31, 1991, also set the template for bank holiday weekends in the club for years to come, as the more regular weekly event branded as 'Sweat' attained a reputation as one of the best house nights in Europe.

One of those at the 1991 event was Dublin DJ Mark Kavanagh. “There was very little happening in Dublin at the time so we decided to organise a bus down to Cork,” he recalls. Many of those who ventured south would in turn become leading lights of the capital's dance scene.

“It was brilliant – great music, and really friendly vibe,” says Kavanagh.

Niall Comiskey, still a DJ and promoter in the capital, was another regular visitor in that era. “When we'd play in Dublin, the crowd was always pushing us in the direction of a harder or more indie-based sound. In Cork, people seemed open to more soulful music, and the atmosphere was incredible.”

HOW IT STARTED

 
 

Former Sir Henrys DJs Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson, aka Fish Go Deep.

 
 

with a capacity of about 500 and a no-frills rectangular shape, Sir Henrys had been a well-known venue for Ireland’s thriving live music scene in the 1980s. International acts who played there included The Pogues, Big Audio Dynamite and Tom Tom Club.

By 1988, however, guitar bands were sounding a bit jaded, and alcohol-fuelled meat-market discos weren't everyone's cup of tea. Something fresh was needed to enliven a recession-ravaged city.

Enter Dublin-born DJ Greg Dowling whose night in Redz nightclub was becoming popular among Cork's self-styled 'alternative' set. Sir Henrys' young manager Sean O’Neill had had mixed luck using live music to try and fill the sizeable venue on weeknights, and liked what Dowling was doing in the rival club.

He signed him up for a new Thursday night event they labelled Sweat Dance. It was a pleasant surprise for all concerned that a capacity crowd on opening night ensured instant success.

While the Sweat would eventually become known for its house music, in those earliest days, Dowling’s sets were a more eclectic affair.

“There might have been some housey stuff, but it was right across the board with funk, hip hop and other stuff... anything with a groove,” O'Neill recalls.

Meanwhile, a friend of Dowling had a younger brother named Shane Johnson, who was also busy building his own vinyl collection on regular trips to London. Regular guest spots gradually gave way to the still-enduring partnership of Greg and Shane (aka Fish Go Deep).

Sweat's popularity continued to grow to the extent that Saturday night was also added, and the club drew a diverse bunch of Corkonians. Common denominator? They all wanted to dance.

“Clubs before then were mainly just a place to go after the pub so you could have another few drinks, even if you did go on the floor for a bit of a dance,” says Johnson. “Sweat really was something revolutionary for Cork.”

While the house music quota of the Sweat nights continued to grow through the late 1980s, a visit from English DJ Mike Pickering pushed the Cork duo even further towards the genre.

Pickering - later a pop star with his M-People group - was one of the main DJs at the Hacienda in Manchester, and a master at programming house sets. A follow-up visit by Dowling to the legendary English club forged the bonds that would see regular guest spots in Cork for the best Manchester DJs, and record store contacts that would ensure a regular supply of top-class (and often rare) releases making their way to Cork.

 
 

 Jerry Lucey: An owner steeped
in Cork entertainment

 

Jerry Lucey in the Sraidbhaile area of the Grand Parade Hotel.

while much of the focus on Sir Henrys is rightly concerned with the DJs and others who provided the music, it's also worth taking a look behind the scenes at owner Jerry Lucey. The launch of the Sweat night at his club in 1988 was just one of his many major involvements in the Cork entertainment scene through the decades.

Born in Kilmallock, Co Limerick, of parents who came from Ballyvourney and Rathmore respectively, Lucey grew up on Blarney Street in Cork.

He had left school at 13, but his early entrepreneurial sprit was evident during WWII when he would burn wood to make charcoal that was in turn used to create gas in the energy-strapped nation.

“Twenty tons of timber made one ton of charcoal,” he told this newspaper in 1991.

By the 1950s, the Lucey brothers – Jerry, Michael and Murt - were building homes in Cork city. Their first estate was Rathmore Lawn on South Douglas Rd, where a £50 deposit was the first down-payment on a house that would cost you a total of £1,450.

A debut in the entertainment scene came later in the decade when the government introduced grant schemes to boost the tourism industry. The Luceys bought seven acres near Youghal and built the Redbarn holiday complex in 1958. A dancehall in the centre hosted gigs, with major stars such as Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash and Chubby Checker among those who played there.

The Majorca ballroom in Crosshaven was added to their expanding empire in 1963, and the Stardust opened on the future Grand Parade Hotel site in the city in 1968.

It wasn't easy to make money back then, and Lucey was constantly looking to innovate. At various stages the Stardust complex – which changed its name in the wake of the fire tragedy in Dublin – had everything from a pool hall to cage-dancing go-go girls. A real-life parrot was one of the props to give the Oasis nightclub an exotic feel, but was dispatched to Fota Wildlife Park after it began unleashing some of the bad words it picked up from punters. The Sraidbhaile saw a representation of an old Irish village being created in one of the hotel's dancehalls.

As well as being a businessman, Lucey also had a reputation for having an appreciation for aspects of the arts – he wrote poetry himself, and his office was decorated with specially-commissioned portraits of such figures as John B Keane and Seán Ó Riada.

One of the staff of the time recalls Lucey, by now at an advanced age, surveying one of the early Sweat dances. As he nodded approvingly at the pumping music and heaving crowd, he declared: “I don't understand it, but I do like it.”

Lucey eventually sold Sir Henrys and Grand Parade Hotel in 1992, and passed away in 2012.

 
 
 

SUPREME SOUND SYSTEM

 
 

 Sir Henrys on South Main Street in Cork. Picture: Theresa Lucey

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We definitely ended up with the best sound system in the country

while the importance of Dowling and Johnson to the club was obvious, a lesser-known component of the Sir Henrys tale is the venue’s sound system. As the Sweat began to take off, venue owner Jerry Lucey decided to bypass the weekly rental of a system and take a punt on a longterm investment in a proper PA.

To source it, Lucey headed off to a trade fair in Paris with his trusted team of sound engineer Dennis Herlihy and company accountant Catherine Cogan. Cogan’s daughter Natalie, a UCC student on an Erasmus scheme near Antibes, was drafted in as translator.

Herlihy soon set his sights on a Nexo SI 2000 rig. Its 10k of power came with a hefty price tag of about £17,000, but Lucey had the foresight to listen to the advice he was getting.

“We definitely ended up with the best sound system in the country," Herlihy, who passed away in 2019, told me in 2013. "We were also the first in Ireland to fly the PA from the ceiling when others were still groundstacking. We had amazing clarity and great coverage."

A press release from the early 1990s outlining the spec of the Sound System. 

While Herlihy had a slightly-nervous first few weeks eyeing the heavy speakers hanging over the crowded dance floor, the DJs loved the experience.

"The sound was so clear we never had to ram the music down people's throats," remembers Johnson. The system was a perfect fit for some of the stripped-back tracks they favoured.

Dowling concurs: “It was so good that something very subtle like a hi-hat or synth sound in a track might get a reaction from the crowd. I remember some of the big guest DJs turning in shock to us sometimes as they'd never have seen reactions like that for these tracks.”

 
 

WHEN MUSIC UNITES

 
 
 
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I don’t know any audience like that anywhere else in Europe

Cork was now plugged into an international club culture. A fairly obscure record that had relatively few copies pressed in Toronto would be equally appreciated by a pocket of like-minded people in Bradford, Brooklyn and Ballyphehane.

Trends evolved and dance music split into multiple subgenres, but the Sweat largely stuck to its house roots and favoured track speed of 120 beats per minute. Many of the top international names would play there, and lavish praise was showered on Sir Henrys.

“When I walked into the DJ booth, I had never felt such an eruption any place,” recalled American house legend Kerri Chandler.

However, there was never a feeling among Cork house afficionados that the weekly fare from Dowling and Johnson was anything inferior to the big foreign names. The city produced more than its fair share of house music snobs as a result, and DJ Deep was among those who felt the pressure when he stepped into the DJ box.

"Playing in Cork is a unique experience,” said the French man. “I don’t know any audience like that anywhere else in Europe. Because of the resident DJs Greg and Shane and because of the crowd's knowledge, it is actually pretty challenging to play over there.”

 
 
 
 

[Watch] A clip of the crowd in Sir Henrys for an event in 1991 getting into 'Relight My Fire'. Courtesy of Paul Mulvaney

 
 

By the time Sir Henrys eventually closed in 2003 - ostensibly to make way for a development on the block that still hasn't happened – it had seen several generations of clubbers pass through its doors. As part of that rite of passage, each of them would claim they experienced the 'best' nights.

Obviously all of them are right, but many of those most memorable events would have taken place on bank holiday weekends that evolved from Easter Sunday 1991. As Shane Johnson concludes: “That night made us realise we were onto something different. It really was pretty special.”

 
 

In the groove: Five big tunes you'd have heard in 1991

 
 

An early flyer for the Sweat at Sir Henrys, promising deep house, pop, rap and funk. 

 
 

while four-to-the-floor beats formed the bulk of the set by 1991, the DJs' eclectic tastes and an open-minded approach also allowed for other genres to rock the dancefloor. Remixes of the Happy Mondays and Primal Scream would have provided input from the indie-dance scene, while a hip-hop interlude might feature tracks from the likes of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Digital Underground.

Playtime Tunes' quirky 'The Shaker Song' is fairly unclassifiable, but worked well in a Henrys set, and usually elicited huge cheers.

Ultimately, however, Sweat was known for its quality house music, and classics of the era included:

 
 


Get Into The Music, DJs Rule: One of several impressive underground tracks out of Toronto, 'Get Into The Music' was part of an EP from the Hi-Bias label that also provided another Sir Henrys favourite in 'That's It'.

 
 


Hip Hop, Chris Cuevas: A perfect house tune. The original was actually a slightly cheesy vocal number but the favoured version in Cork was the Masters At Work dub remix. The duo of Little Louie Vega and Kenny Dope Gonzalez would have numerous records in the Henrys 'best of' compilations in subsequent years, but this was an early indication of their imperious talents. It was also an example of how Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson would often eschew a main mix in favour of a stripped back 'dub' mix.

 
 


Getting Out, SLD: Italian producer Luigi Stanga was the man behind SLD but it was a monster remix from Manchester DJ Justin Robertson that rocked Sir Henrys. A hands-in-the-air chorus of “Getting out, getting ready for the best time in my life” felt very appropriate.

 


Feel the Drums, M1: Released on New York label Emotive, M1 was actually the pseudonym of another Toronto DJ, Matt Dimaria.

 
 


It's Time to feel the Rhythm, How II House: Created by yet another Toronto legend Ron Allen, his debut release made its way to Sweat after being picked up by shortlived British label Outer Rhythm.

 
 

Ecstacy and Agony

 
 


Ecstasy become widely available in Cork through the early 1990s. Photo: iStock Image 

the families and dog-walkers in Fitzgerald's Park may have been a bit puzzled at the short queue that formed by the bandstand in the early afternoon on Easter Sunday, 1991. They probably wouldn't have guessed that the tracksuit-clad youths were buying ecstasy. Word had spread among some of the city's dance music aficionados that E's would be available in the park, and they jumped at the chance to 'get sorted' for their night's dancing. The particular pills on offer were nicknamed 'Brown Biscuits' because of their colour.

“They were £20 each, which was the standard price back then,” recalls one of the lads who was in the park at the time. “It was a lot of money, but they were considered good E's. We wouldn't drink much anyway, as all we wanted to do was dance for the night. And the Biscuits were strong so we wouldn't do more than a half at a time.”

It's impossible to say how many other people who went to Sir Henrys that day were taking ecstasy. Some attendees probably stuck to their Bulmers or Ritz, or may even have been totally sober, but others were certainly under the influence of a drug that had already become strongly associated with the dance scene.

Ecstasy had been hitting the headlines in the UK papers for a couple of years as a moral panic spread about the rave scene, but it seems to have been the latter half of 1990 that it began to become widely available in Cork.

Whatever about the handful of early adopters who were using the drug at the start of the decade, by the mid-1990s, it would become a lucrative business for dealers. The chirpy raver knocking out a few E's to pay for his own night was now one step in the ladder away from a more serious criminal element.

Cork had escaped the heroin epidemic that had scourged Dublin – rumour suggested that one of the reasons was that some of the main dealers were very anti-heroin. However, those dealers were happy to make the most of an eager market for ecstasy brought in from Holland or the UK. Inevitably, trouble would follow. By 1995, Cork had its first gangland killing, and several tragedies occurred through ecstasy smuggling or usage, including one death in Sir Henrys.

For the club itself, these new developments added a layer of difficulty to its main focus of running gigs and various club nights (from dance music to indie). Like other venues in the city, Sir Henrys introduced extra security and barred known dealers. As mentioned, many of the club's regulars never bothered with illegal substances, with the quality music and sociable good times being paramount. But stopping those who did want to bring a tiny pill into a club proved an impossible task.

 

Irish Examiner Longread

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