News Analysis

Sunday 21 September 2014

Antonia Leslie: The joy of Joys, the best little 'speakeasy' in town

Antonia Leslie recalls 18 years of working in Dublin's most famous night club, known for its mix of wild, monied patrons, which has now closed after four decades in business

Published 12/01/2014 | 02:30

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I’M IN THE DÁIL, YE KNOW: Antonia at Joys on Baggot St, where her duties included escorting a Government minister off the dance floor where he had been standing, downing a bottle of wine by the neck. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Joys Nite Club (yes, spelt with a "t" not a "ght", reminiscent of the era in which it was created) has finally closed for good. For those of you who don't know what Joys was, it was the funniest, sometimes sleaziest, sometimes chicest, most glorious and longest-running late, late, late, night club in Ireland. Every great city has a Joys. That infamous club were everybody goes after hours. It's the kind of place where in movies it's down a lane or in a basement with a big black iron door; you knock and a small hatch opens and you need a pass word like "Erny sent us!"or something to that effect, and then the tiny hatch closes and the big door opens. You pass the big, muscly bouncer, with a Samurai moustache, and you're in!

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Everyone who's anyone frequented Joys at some point. In the old days of the Celtic Tiger, Joys was open six nights a week. It stayed open till the wee hours and I remember Mondays some- times being the busiest nights. Back when everyone drank like crazy and sometimes went to work not fully sober the next day, some even went straight from Joys to their desks.

Joys was situated in Lower Baggot Street so it was a great haunt for lawyers and politicians and developers as well as the owners and staff of other restaurants and the many pubs in the area. It was sometimes called "The Galway Tent In Town" as well as "God's Waiting Room" and "Jurassic Park". These latter two soubriquets arose from the fact that is was a haven for the older crowd who wanted to go out but would feel a bit silly and out of place in Lillie's or the Pod.

There was a pattern for the evening that everyone seemed to follow -- you started out in the Shelbourne, drifted up to Doheny and Nesbitt's, then, around pub closing time, you made your way to Joys. This meant, of course, that many patrons were reasonably well-nourished by the time they hit the club, and their inhibitions were somewhere down the street on which they had made the short pilgrimage. This made for a heady atmosphere and, dare I say it, a sexually charged one. If that was what you were after, whether you were male or female, your chances of success were good, and as a result, it would be no exaggeration to say that the inside of the loos saw more than a little action.

I worked there for 18 years, on and off, but it had been going strong for nearly as long before I came along. I saw it through the Nineties when the Celtic Tiger was roaring and again in more recent times when everything was winding down. It was a very bizarre microcosm of Irish society, but it was a tight circle. Those who were regulars could depend on discretion -- what happened in Joys tended to stay in Joys.

The in-crowd in Joys were an eclectic bunch, from the people in charge of running the country, the politicians, and those who actually run it, the top civil servants, to pop stars and their managers, rock stars and super models, gangsters and hookers and bewildered young folk who had heard rumours of this after-hours den of iniquity, and would stand blinking at the middle-aged Lorcans and Peadars and the women-of-a-certain-age in their finest cocktail wear, hoping to snare someone important but, by 3am, willing to settle for slightly less. And if even slightly less wasn't available, they'd end up dancing with their own reflections in the cracked, smoky-glass mirrors on the tiny dance floor that resembled the one on the B&I car ferry, circa 1980.

They sometimes included the angry wives of captains of industry and banking, invariably pissed off with their husbands for various reasons, and making no secret of the fact, flinging their husband's credit cards across the table at me as they ordered more Veuve Clicquot , and laughing uproariously, shouting: "He'll be sorry when he gets his credit card bill."

The top table up the back was where anyone who could be vaguely described as a VIP was seated. It always seemed to be the most fun table. The owner, Jon Conway, also kept a table in that area, to entertain his special guests. You could see everything from up there, including directly opposite, the table where the gangsters sat, sometimes glaring over at the Fianna Fail crowd and getting glared back at for their trouble.

It really was the best little 'speakeasy' in town.

Of course as a club hostess, I had to learn the knack of dealing with all these disparate types, a little like a ringmaster in a circus. I can't count the number of times I have been nudged and winked at and told with a sly grin, "I'm in the Dail, ye know". Standard operating procedure was to look blankly and pretend to be Polish with very little English. A bit more diplomacy is required when you are trying to gently shepherd a very drunken serving minister off the dance floor where he has been standing, downing a full bottle of wine by the neck.

The same applies a few hours later -- around 5am -- when you have to guide him to a taxi, after pulling him away from the bay leaf tree at the top of the stairs outside, into which he was attempting to relieve himself.

I remember too a couple of guys, loaded, flashy, obviously coked out of their heads -- not an unusual state for several customers in the Nineties -- and buying the most expensive champagne. One night one of them said to me: "Bet you think we are gangsters, don't you?" "Eh, no," I replied. I had never really thought about it. Anyway they kept on at me to guess what they did for a living. "Oh, okay, I give up," I said finally. They cracked up laughing and then produced IDs from their wallets. Turns out they were both senior enough in the prison service. And by now they were so drunk they were openly trying to do lines of coke on the bar.

Just down the counter, but fortunately for them, more or less passed out from drink and tiredness, was a very senior person from the news and current affairs arm of RTÉ. He missed a scoop. As soon as he realised that illicit drugs were being consumed on the premises, Jon decided to clean house. He brought in this highly trained hotel veteran and gave her strict instructions. No more drugs, no more gangsters was the message and she took to her task with zeal. Too much zeal as it turned out. One couple got thrown out for snogging on the dance floor. It constituted "impropriety", she declared.

Worse, she started to discourage what she considered to be "the sleazy auld fellas," failing to realise

that without those sleazy ancient ones, Joys would be pretty empty. And so it came to pass. Word got around that Joys was now a nice, conventional wine bar. No one came down. Eventually our new mistress moved on to run a very upmarket establishment which was really more suited to her talents, and Joys went back to being -- well, Joys.

Another night, way back, a high-profile politician was in, locked, and a very hot gay friend of mine from the USA was there too. This friend of mine had been the lover of Rudolf Nureyev. He had also been a top male model and kept boy by many rich and famous in the Eighties in New York.

He claimed his new political friend took a fierce shine to him and was trying to coax him back to a hotel after. My friend was shouting this round the club towards the end of the evening and had a few journalists calling him the next day for the story but by then he had decided it was better to be discreet.

But he wasn't so reticent with me and informed me that the politician had offered to put him up in an apartment if he would agree to be his "mistress"! The things you'll do when you are bladdered.

Another night, far more recently, a man who was off his head drunk claimed he worked for the Irish Secret Service. "You mean Ireland has a secret service?" I laughed. Well, of course it does, but I was doing my chirpy bar person chitchat. He proceeded as he got drunker to try and impress me with "State secrets". He claimed that over the next few days Enda and co were secretly flying in seven oligarchs from Russia to do some very hush-hush deal worth €8bn. He said it was to do with some type of energy scheme somewhere down the country, and that these oligarchs had to be entertained for three days and where should they be taken?

I have no idea if there was a word of truth in it, but a few days later a friend of mine told me he was jogging early on Sandymount strand when he saw four black helicopters at 6am circling the Pigeon House Powerstation for ages!

Of course, no memoir of Joys would be complete without mentioning Eamon Dunphy. He was synonymous with the place. Strangers would actually come to Joys in the hope of seeing him and ask 'Where's Dunphy tonight' and then be all disappointed he wasn't there. Well, yes, Eamon was a great frequenter of Joys at one stage, and I'm sorry if this is a disappointment to some, but he was the most sweet and well-behaved man there. He'd come in late on a Friday night with his wife or some small entourage, order loads of expensive champagne, offer it to everyone, and he tipped well and we all loved him. His big 'vice' was doing lock-ins and sing-songs. Lovely songs, like Raglan Road and It Was A Very Fine Year. One time during a lock-in with Shane MacGowan, he and Shane had a sing-off. It was very funny watching the two of them trying to out-do each other for attention. Now Shane obviously had a better voice but Eamon certainly won out on floor time!

Joys was great fun and it felt more like home then a stuffy night club. Some nights it was filled with beautiful and immaculate turned-out people, and other nights it looked like the old bar in the arrivals lounge in Dublin Airport. It was never the same on any two nights. It was filled with drama and scandal, the occasional tragedy and lots of colour.

But it was never dull. Sadly all of that began to slip away as the country's fortunes dissipated. We would open less frequently. Soon it was weekends only. Then eventually, we went the way of many of our best customers. With a tear and a thank you for the good times, the doors were finally closed.

It broke my heart to see Jon, the owner, who, when you got used to his gruff manner, had a heart of pure gold, having to preside over the demise of the business. During the good times he'd never see a member of staff go short or be in need of anything. He never sacked me although I sometimes did things that deserved sacking. He'd just explode in a small rage, then it was over and I'd be forgiven. He was loyal and a good friend to the staff whom he treated like friends and he was loyal and generous to his friends.

Irish Independent

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