Oh what a night! Remembering the debs
The dress, the date, the sneaky drink… The debs is Ireland's own coming-of-age celebration - a chance to throw off the shackles of school and have a last tearful hurrah with beloved classmates. Here, four writers remember their own colourful debs nights
2004, Old Stand Hotel, Curragh racecourse, Co Kildare
My debs was more than 11 years ago now, but it feels like 11 minutes have passed since that night. Some girls grow up dreaming of the glamour of the ball and being a princess for a day, but not this one. In the lead up, I wasn't really interested in the tradition and ceremony. However being the kind of girl that loves a party, the closer it got to the big night, the more excited I got.
Thinking back, I feel bad that I denied my poor mother a big shopping expedition for the dress, but that was never going to happen. I was spending the summer after my Leaving Cert in London with my then boyfriend and his family, and I bought my dress in House of Fraser on Oxford Street - the first shop I visited.
I went for something classic and flattering, a Grecian-style backless halter dress in jet black. It had a plunging neckline that meant I had to go braless - something that would never happen now - and I accessorised with silver shoes and a matching bag I bought with my employee discount in Clarks.
I insisted on doing my own make-up on the night, but conceded to having my hair done professionally because Mam really wanted me to. I had a natural tan from a holiday in Croatia and I don't think I wore nail polish (I doubt I've ever been as laid-back about my looks ever since).
My date for the night was my aforementioned English boyfriend of three years. We'd been in an angst-ridden long distance relationship since the summer after my Junior Cert, flying between Gatwick and Dublin as often as possible.
Being from London, he didn't really understand the importance of the debs to an Irish mammy, especially as I was so chilled out about it. He missed his scheduled flight and ended up catching one so close to our departure time, it gave my mother palpitations. She was also disgusted he didn't go for traditional debs attire - also known as hiring a gold jacquard waistcoat from Black Tie. He wore his own tux, and his shirt was creased, but I couldn't have cared less. Dad drove us from Tallaght to the Curragh in his Volkswagen, with us guzzling Cava in the back seat.
We, quite literally, had a ball. My left breast popped out on the dance floor when I was hopping about to Maniac 2000, a friend vomited on me on the bus home and my English boyfriend refused to stand for the national anthem and was thus denied a breakfast roll - but none of it mattered. It ended up being my only debs experience (the English boyfriend standing in the way of any other potential invitations) but I'm glad because that makes it stand out so much more in my mind.
Most of the girls I went to school with are married now, white dresses hanging in their wardrobes. Again, not this one, and a princess wedding is not something I desire (sorry, Mam).
However my slinky black number is still in my closet and there's a slim chance I could still batter myself in to it. Thanks be to double-sided tape!
2002, Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin
I attended a convent school so I was looking forward to my debs from age 12. It was basically my wedding.
My date had been earmarked for a couple of years. He was an older boy who went to college - because that was the sort romantic girls focused their ambitions on in 2002.
An Intellectual, who wore a long woollen coat, drank brandy rather than Dutch Gold, grew his hair around his ears. A young fogey - the perfect chevalier to step up to the time-warp that is the debutantes' dance.
I didn't have his phone number so I phoned a friend I knew would be in the same place as him; Paddy's flat.
Paddy was the only acquaintance whose parents were unfortunate enough to have rented a flat for their 18-year old son. It was a den of debauchery, featuring video games and leftover takeaways. The date came on the phone and said he wouldn't come to my debs. Then he said "only joking", he would. The dress was a corset and skirt bought in Chica and Rococo respectively with money exhorted from my parents. Not your traditional corset, it had pieces of lace, sequins, satin and other haberdashery sewn around it. This was paired with one of those sheets of material that truly complete the Disney princess, in fuchsia, for a skirt. It had streaks of red wine down it from another debs.
There it is in the most embarrassing photo I have ever manufactured a smile for (right). It does, however, beat my brother's debs photo from 1994 - an accidental selfie when my mother held the camera the wrong way around.
The venue for pre-drinks was my parents' house. I forced my mother to buy red roses and my father to be charming and pour drinks for the sad trickle of guests. "Do NOT make it awkward," I hissed at my father inside the kitchen. "I'm not going to MAKE it awkward," he shot back.
The date brought a white lily on a pin and a beautiful box of four Butler's chocolates. I thought four chocolates was a bit tight, but he compensated by getting me sauced later on.
After the meal at The Shelbourne Hotel (inevitably a food fight and scene of shrieking moral decay) someone suggested we splinter from the group.
We shivered on the street in Temple Bar for some time before hailing a taxi to the after-party in Sachs Hotel. Few remember anything about Sachs. Photographs attest to a disintegrating Babylon. The staff I'm sure were curious, when they reviewed the CCTV, as to why the girl in the corset was tearing down the strip lights in the little Eurotrash disco they had facilitated for us. Well, vandalism was the only way to expunge years of adrenaline, people.
And this wasn't exactly the wedding I'd planned… After our compulsory French kiss in a corner booth, we walked down Appian Way and could think of nowhere else to go but Paddy's flat.
My gallant date carried me in a fireman's lift up to the pigsty, and left me to wake up the following morning next to Paddy. Someone else carried the traffic cone.
1992, Bridge House in Tullamore, Co Offaly
From the outset, it was all about the dress. Sure, the date part was important but being an all-girls' convent school, we had the pages of the nearby Christian Brothers School yearbook thumbed to death, and most of us had a fair idea as to who we'd like to bring. Asking my chosen CB student was mortifying, but he said yes and I nearly vomited with excitement and that was the job done.
The "what to wear?" question was far more taxing but the inspiration came from Tania Bryer, a slim, leggy, blonde British TV presenter. I saw a picture of her in Hello! magazine, at a garden party with her then fiancé, Count Gianfranco Cicogna Mizzoni (who many years later would be tragically killed in an airshow crash) and thought: "That's what I want".
Sartorially, I was going through a difficult time, after just exiting a goth stage and having flung myself wholeheartedly into grunge during my first week in college. I was quite the fan of the unkempt look and a mode of dressing that involved wearing oversized jumpers and stripy tights suited me fine. But my new-found aesthetic wouldn't work at the debs.
Instead, my aspiration was to look cocktail-party ready and grown-up - although I don't think that I'd ever had a cocktail proper at this point. Anything frou frou, voluminous or that rustled was out. While I knew I could never be a shiny, glossy Tania Bryer, I hoped that I could channel the clean lines and elegance of her garden party dress, and maybe get a Euro aristocrat boyfriend too. And thanks to the genius skills of my dressmaker aunt Ciss, I got the dress that I wanted: a square necked, sheath dress in red raw silk, with little black buttons on the long sleeves and a slit up the side. The shoes were black suede mules, almost certainly purchased somewhere in the Ilac Centre in Dublin and the tights were 10 denier. That you might get your hair and make-up done for such an event didn't occur to me.
On the evening of the debs, I arrived home from DCU on the train, deposited the backpack on the floor, had a shower and started my ablutions. This involved blowdrying my hair straight (not terribly successfully); being absolutely thrilled that my face hadn't erupted in spots so that I wouldn't have to wear a mask-like application of foundation, and putting on a slick of Rimmel's Heather Shimmer. I can't remember if eyeliner and I were friends at that stage, but the scent was definitely the Body Shop's patchouli oil - a smell that was, in retrospect, at odds at the sophisticated look I was trying to achieve.
The night itself is a bit of a blur, as all the best nights are. My parents drove myself and my date, who had arrived at the front door armed with a box of Milk Tray, to the hotel. There was much mutual complimenting on everyone's dresses, there was a baked Alaska for dessert and there was much, much dancing. The dates mainly drank pints; I was drinking Ritz, as was my wont back then. All the parents made their excuses and left as the dancing really kicked off and the end of the night saw us all pile into a bus to take us back home.
We were huge successes. The dress is, as far as I know, sitting in the attic at home in Portarlington. I'm not tempted to dig it out and try it on because instead, I'd rather keep the memory as it is, of that one night when I thought I looked like someone out of Hello! magazine.
1986, Green Isle Hotel, Dublin
I still smile when I think of my debs. Ours was on June 27, straight after the Leaving Cert. It meant that we had something nice to fantasise about during those dreaded exams.
I attended an all-girls' Catholic school, St. Paul's in Greenhills. Our debs was organised by the school and was very formal. We wore white dresses to symbolise purity, so we looked like a horde of mini brides. We were permitted to wear a coloured sash around our waists, and more thought probably went into deciding on that scrap of ribbon than in filling in our CAO forms. I fancied myself as quite the rebel back then, so I chose a black ribbon (pictured left, second from left). I don't recall anyone actually buying a debs dress - most people rented, borrowed or had one made, complete with hooped underskirt. I was lucky because my mam was a dressmaker.
The next most important thing was the matter of the guy you were going to bring. Again, attending an all-girls' school made this one a bit tricky. If you weren't drop-dead gorgeous, in some sort of social club, or didn't have older brothers with friends who could be pressganged into service, you were probably up the Swanee without a paddle. Luckily, I was in the local church folk group (some rebel, eh?) and I asked a lovely guy there called Chris Keogh. He was a couple of years older and was the perfect escort, charming to my parents and teachers, and courteous and attentive to me.
Twelve girls who lived on my road were in my year at school, and I vividly remember the neighbours going from house to house to see all the style. The atmosphere was electric as our escorts arrived bearing their corsages and chocolates, and we headed for the school where crowds had gathered from the surrounding area to check out the glamour.
We were sent to wait in classrooms, and then one by one, the girl's name was called. Each of the 130 couples had to walk up the red carpet in the middle of the assembly hall, in front of parents, guests and assorted onlookers.
Once you made it safely to the top, the school principal, Sister Mary Clare, presented you with a silver ring and a rose, and you had to introduce your escort to Sister Maria Rosa, head of the order of nuns that ran our school, who had been flown in from the UK for the occasion - our young escorts seemed morto at encountering this alien species.
Once the formal part was over, it was off to the Green Isle hotel for dinner and dancing, and our parents and teachers went along too. Being underage, none of the girls could have a drink, while most of our escorts lorried enough pints into them to cope with having to make conversation with our fathers. I recall being shocked at the nuns being great fun and throwing themselves into the dancing.
After that, we got on a coach to the post-debs dance in the Olympic ballroom in town. This was where we let our hair down and all the hot action occurred - and there were some sights that night that I can never unsee! It was great fun, and when it was all over at about 6am, some of us headed into Bewley's for breakfast and then straggled home on the 55 bus.
The debs was a bittersweet occasion, filled with excitement at finally being at the big, much-longed-for pinnacle of our school career, sadness at leaving behind our friends and classmates, and trepidation about the future - all packaged up in a virginal white dress with a rebel black bow.