It's very easy for non-Dubliners, when asked to imagine the places to see live music in Dublin, to summon up images of the Irish themed pubs that pop up in cities all over the world. It's an idea that isn't helped by Hollywood's frequent portrayals of Irish bars. It's not the sort of environment that you would imagine could spawn U2, Thin Lizzy, My Bloody Valentine, Jape or Girl Band.
Thankfully, amidst the many imitations and pastiches, there are still authentic venues for music lovers to see bands and for emerging bands to perfect their craft. Whelan's opened in 1989, in the building that had previously housed a pub named Bourke's (though records show it to be the site of drinking establishments going back to 1772). Initially, just another pub that had changed management, Whelan's had a small stage usually occupied by local bands playing free gigs. Like many pubs at that time, there was a school of thought that food was the way forward for pubs wanting to turn around their profits and there is a favourite anecdote within the Whelan's crowd of the day Van Morrison popped in for lunch. Before long though artists were dropping in for a different reason. Live music became more of a draw and the pub became a more attainable alternative venue to Dublin's esteemed Olympia Theatre, especially for smaller, younger bands.
"I played my first proper gig in Whelan's a few years ago, back then I would open each set by stomping my hard soled shoe on the ground while playing the harmonica like a sort of Dick Van Dyke bluesman. I had neither the charm or gravitas to pull it off, I looked ridiculous". - Paddy Hanna
By 1994 the venue had really taken off and Whelan's was becoming regarded as a venue that happened to be attached to a pub rather than a pub with a stage. The Summer of 94 saw the venue host one of its formative gigs when Jeff Buckley played, putting the venue on the map for international artists passing through the Irish capital.
The stage affords artists and audiences a degree of intimacy with artists reportedly stating that the 450 capacity main room feels more like a 150 cap venue due to the old music-hall style balcony above the stage allowing the audience to watch from two levels.
"Whelan’s has always been a nice spot in Dublin for people to just hang out and enjoy good music – whether you’re an artist playing a show or if you’re just there to buzz and see a gig. I think that’s what makes the vibe so good too; it doesn’t really matter who you are or what you do, you’re probably hanging out in there because you just appreciate music and good times. The multi-cultural aspect is definitely one of my favourite things about the place – I’ve made friends from all over the world in there because it’s definitely a tourist spot too. The dim lighting and wooden interior definitely adds to it, as I seem to always end up having lovely conversations in there too. It’s got that old school thing going on. Chatting about Whelan’s kinda makes me want to go there now actually haha, it’s definitely got a lovely atmosphere." - Farah Elle
A further set of renovations and expansion in the mid-'00s saw a second stage added, just in time the wave of indie revival that saw The Arctic Monkeys, The Cribs, Kate Nash and The Twang add their names to the artists that have played there.
More recently the club has been cited by Ed Sheeran as a landmark venue in his career and commercial success. The venue was even featured in one of those Hollywood films when it was used as a location in the film 'P.S. I Love You', but despite these moments of questionable mainstream crossover, Whelan's has remained the place for local and visiting musicians and music lovers to assemble in Dublin.
"My entire musical career could be distilled down to experiences I’ve had under its roof, I have triumphed, failed, drunkenly stumbled, soberly fumbled and even fallen in love". - Paddy Hanna
In the last couple of decades, cities like Dublin have turned their fortunes around with the help of tourism, but it's important to remember that people live there too. Locals of any place can't survive happily on a cultural diet aimed at weekend visitors, least of all young people finding their voice. Happily, it seems, Whelan's is one of the places where authentic culture still flourishes and will hopefully perpetuate itself and its scene for at least another 30 years.
Find out more about Whelan's at www.whelanslive.com