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  • Southside

When grunge arrived in Dún Laoghaire

Monday, 6th May, 2019 6:00pm
When grunge arrived in Dún Laoghaire
When grunge arrived in Dún LaoghaireView More Images

Tommy Hickey

FOR the youth of today, the sheer magnitude of Dún Laoghaire’s music scene in the late 1980s and early ‘90s might be hard to fathom.

While the Southside had produced two of its own superstars in Sinéad O’Connor and Bob Geldof, some of the biggest names in world music were coming to play in The Top Hat, such as The Clash, Patti Smith and Metallica to name just a few.

The legendary peak of this golden era arguably took place on August 21, 1991. Sonic Youth’s status as gods of 
alternative rock was firmly established by this stage. Little was known, however, of their opening act, a budding punk band from Seattle.

Nirvana were formed in 1987 by lead singer Kurt Cobain and guitarist Chris Novoselic. In 1990 they settled on Dave Grohl as their drummer. Having developed a cult following in the Pacific North-West, they produced their debut album, ‘Bleach’, on a budget of $600.

It wasn’t until they released their second album, ‘Nevermind’, in October 1991, that they perfected the grunge sound which gained them international recognition. Tracks like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Lithium’ would become anthems for an entire generation. The album eventually displaced Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ at number one on the US Billboard 200.

Their success as an underground rock band was unprecedented. They would go on to dominate the music industry until Cobain’s tragic suicide on April 4, 1994, three days before he was due to play in Dublin.

Monkstown native Kevin Burns (49) went to the gig on the insistence of a friend. “I only lived a mile away,” he recalled. “My friend wanted to stay the night in my house so he asked me to go. We were going for Sonic Youth. They were huge at the time. I was 21, working full-time and saving up to do a masters.

“The ticket didn’t even cost a tenner so I thought, 


‘why not?’”

His voice perks up when I ask him about Dún Laoghaire’s nightlife at the time. “The Top Hat had great bands then and so did the Purty Kitchen. Walters used to be buzzing as well.”

However, rock gigs in the Borough had a reputation for rowdiness. “I remember seeing The Proclaimers play back up to The Housemartins at the Top Hat,” Kevin remembers. “People were spitting at them. They stopped playing and asked the crowd to at least hear out their first two songs. Somehow, they won the crowd over. It was a more respectful atmosphere at the Sonic Youth gig, though.”

Although Kevin had never heard of Nirvana, opening for Sonic Youth warranted respect in itself. “It’s not like they were a local band. They come from America so we thought they must be legitimate. They didn’t play many songs; they were only on for about thirty minutes.”

“I remember hearing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and thinking this is pretty good,” he recalls. “Their other songs didn’t leave as much of an impression. You could tell they would be successful, but no one would have guessed they’d go on to be bigger than Sonic Youth.” A couple years later, when Nirvana became world famous, Kevin was stunned to realise he had seen them play live.

While these days superstars regularly include Dublin on their world tours, the idea of them playing in Dún Laoghaire sounds ludicrous. The Top Hat has since been converted into an apartment block, The Purty Kitchen has evolved into a gastro pub, while Walters closed down a few years ago.

The town had no late-night venues until promoters Bodytonic opened The Lighthouse on Lower George’s Street last year. The success of their ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout It’ nights, where local artists get to showcase their music, indicates that Dún Laoghaire’s nightlife might be on the up again.

However, with the days of the rock gods visiting the town now long gone, all we can do is look back in awe. 

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