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Dublin's unlikely grassroots reggae sound system culture


Ireland is known for its deep relationship with rock and folk music, but few would associate it with the tropical sound of reggae. However, a unique, DIY soundsystem culture has been flourishing in Dublin over the past 30 years and bringing the spirit of Jamaica to the streets of Temple Bar.

 “Bubblin’ in Dublin,” is apparently the all-time favourite phrase for reggae MCs to announce at a Dublin gig. “They all have the impression that they’re the first person to ever think of this,” laughs Cathal Mooney (AKA Rankin Rez) of Worries Outernational, a Dublin-based crew who have been running reggae nights in the capital and abroad since 2003.
Worries are just one of many crews dotted around Ireland. Stalwarts Firehouse Skank are the country’s oldest vets in Dublin, dedicated Rastafarians Revelation Sound System head up the Cork chapter, and Rootical Sound System rep the West in Galway. Despite the lack of any significant Jamaican or West Indian population in Ireland, the sounds that made waves in the UK in the wake of the Windrush Generation managed to make their way to the shores of Ireland, creating a generation of reggae enthusiasts that have had real staying power. Today the scene is stronger than ever.

For Cathal and the Worries crew, who built their soundsystem during Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom years, it was heartening to see an increasingly diverse population in Dublin who were willing to approach reggae and dancehall nights with an open mind. “People were coming from all over Europe and Africa and there was definitely a bigger audience that you could appeal to. It really helped our night kick off.”
Running out of the Temple Bar Music Centre, just fifteen minutes from our hostel in Dublin in the busy party district of Temple Bar, from 2003 to 2011, Worries’ night ‘Dancehall Styles’ was the perfect way to round off the weekend on a Sunday night. Cathal almost winces remembering the late finishes and early starts on Monday mornings. Their subsequent night, ‘Reggae Fever,’ finished last year in Sweeney’s bar on Dame Street, just around the corner, after a seven-year streak of Saturday night dances.

The official nights ran into problems though as the law cracked down on licensing, forcing Dublin’s reggae aficionados to go underground, or to independent festivals. Fortunately for the crews dedicated to replicating traditional reggae music, assembling a serious soundsystem is de rigueur and most groups in Ireland have worked for years creating systems with multiple pre-amps, bass scoops and amplifiers. This allows these crews to create a trademark sound and style as well as offering self-sufficiency for playing outside of club venues. “In Dublin, it’s very hard to get spaces [for soundsystems] because people want nightclubs with a bar so it’s all regulated. You can’t generally find an empty school hall or somewhere that will allow you to bring in your soundsystem,” Cathal laments. “I remember the guys from the Temple Bar Music Centre telling us, ‘Yis are banned from using it!’ The bass had cracked the paint or something.”
But the crackdown has led to a flourishing fringe contingent, meaning a reggae night in Dublin offers insights into the city’s rarely seen enclaves. Firehouse Skank pitched up at The Teacher’s Club on Parnell Square, a beautifully appointed Georgian building that houses a members club for meetings and functions for the Irish National Teacher’s Organisation as well as local dramatic groups and political activists. Despite it being a seemingly peculiar booking, the Firehouse guys had no problem filling the place with a couple of hundred people, with the wood interior providing great acoustics.

Tom Beary is a Dublin-based photographer who has been documenting the Irish reggae scene for more than three years. What began as a photography project for his degree has now become a personal passion. Beary regularly attends and DJs at reggae gigs, buys records, and generally extols the open and welcoming nature of the scene. His aim is to eventually shoot all the main players of Irish reggae, but as a regular attendee of the gigs this process is happening more and more organically. What has become apparent since he began the project is there is a false notion that reggae is simply relaxing, chill-out music that’s best enjoyed with a joint in hand.
“There’s a misconception that you listen to reggae during the day and have a few smokes,” Beary says. “But I’m at dances where it’s heavier than any techno gig I’ve ever been to!”
For Cathal, it’s a similar misunderstanding that he believes has kept reggae and dancehall nights from occupying proper weekend headliner spots, something that he hopes to put to rights in 2017. “‘We definitely want to present reggae music as dance music, music with energy where people get up and party. People only know Bob Marley and there’s a perception that it’s novelty music, which really rankles because there’s so much depth to this music and so many great musicians. People like to dismiss it as a diversion for people because they’re stoned.”
Despite the hurdles that face a niche scene in a country such as Ireland, younger crews such as Rub’A’Dub and party community Sim Simma have created a new outlet for reggae and dancehall nights that often operate in tandem with more mainstream musical offerings. The proliferation of reggae stages in festivals such as Electric Picnic, Body&Soul, Life Festival and others have also created new opportunities for music lovers to engage with this diverse and powerful sound in a live setting. For Cathal, the reggae community in Ireland is tight-knit in a way that gives him the freedom to draw from multiple reggae sub-genres, something he thinks UK nights are often unable to do.

“I think in Ireland people are a lot more open-minded and there’s more scope to bring people together and play different styles of reggae and go for it.” For Tom, his experiences have shown him just how deep the message and the rhythm can go: “It’s like a sermon in a way, like mass or something.”
If you’re planning on seeking out a reggae dance in the capital check out the Facebook pages of Sim Simma, Rub’A’Dub, Worries Outernational and Firehouse Skank for their upcoming dates or head down to rock bar Fibber Magee’s on a Thursday's to check out weekly offering.

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