Wednesday 22 May 2019

Barry Egan: 'Camelot of Irish nightlife finally disappears forever'

Show business Journalist of the Year Barry Egan recalls the golden age of Lillie's, which is to close next month

Model Ali McDonnell at a photocall for a Lillie’s Valentine’s night event in 2008. Picture: Arthur Carron/Collins
Model Ali McDonnell at a photocall for a Lillie’s Valentine’s night event in 2008. Picture: Arthur Carron/Collins
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

By her bright-red Porsche 944, shall we know her.

Out of this four-wheeled sex machine stepped Karla Elliott - then wife of Joe, tousle-haired rock god of Def Leppard fame. From the laneway off Grafton Street, she made her entrance into Lillie's. And what an entrance.

Clad head to tippy-toe in bewitching black leather, she should have played Catwoman in Batman.

It was the early 1990s. I had rung Karla from the pay-phone in the lobby of the Shelbourne hotel to arrange to meet her that night in the world-famous Irish nightclub. She drove down from her mansion in the Dublin Mountains to meet up for a night on the town.

While waiting in Lillie's for Karla to arrive, I had met a famous actress at the bar who bought me a drink, thinking I was Simply Red's Mick Hucknall. I wasn't about to tell Julia Roberts I wasn't Mick Hucknall.

That was the thing about Lillie's in that giddy, gilded era - now long gone. You didn't know who you'd meet. Be it the star of Pretty Woman, or Van Morrison, U2, David Bowie, Bill Clinton, Clannad, John Rocha, The Pogues, Eamon Dunphy, Paul McGuinness, John McColgan, Eddie Irvine, Conrad Gallagher, Jim Sheridan, Bibi Baskin, Mick Jagger, Guggi, Michael Colgan, Olivia Tracey, Miss Irelands, Miss Worlds, Patrick Bergin, Sinead O'Connor, Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Farrell, The Corrs, Terry Keane, Anne Doyle, Noelle Campbell-Sharpe, Boyzone, Michael Flatley, moguls, political leaders, sporting superstars, models in varying degrees of superness (Naomi Campbell, Yasmin Le Bon and Christy Turlington, together with our own then-emerging queens of the camera lens, Andrea Roche, Glenda Gilson, Amanda Byram, Yvonne Connolly, Vivienne Connolly, and before them, Patricia Devine and Sheila Eustace, et al)... anyone, really.

Gillian Quinn and Lillie’s boss Valerie Roe
Gillian Quinn and Lillie’s boss Valerie Roe

Holding court.

On the lash.

Up for the craic.

Entering through Lillie's doors in its heyday was like going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. It was always going to be an experience.

It didn't matter how famous they were, it was never that surprising to see them standing at the bar of the VIP lounge with someone who might or might not have been their wife or husband. Lillie's was another world, pre-political correctness, because in the 1990s and for a time in the 2000s, the world was an entirely different place to the universe it is now.

You could sometimes emerge blinking into the dawn on a Sunday morning having drunk your wages with someone who was internationally famous, but who, for those three or four hours in Lillie's, was just another megastar on the town in Lillie's.

In the mid 1990s, I joined Michelle Rocca and her new fella, Mr Van Morrison, for dinner at the Rajdoot Tandoori behind the Westbury.

Van was in a good mood, chatty, talking with Michelle about Yeats and poetry. The meal over, we went to a club on Leeson Street, then on to Lillie's until closing time - all very convivial. Van buys lots of champagne. People at an adjoining table invite us to a party in Sandymount. We go to the party. At one point, someone produces a guitar with three strings on it, and Van is prepared to play, but a string breaks as he is tuning, so he puts it down and never picks it up again. At 6am, we went to Van's suite at the Shelbourne for more drinks. My mama never told me there'll be nights like this.

The thing is, of course, there are rarely nights like this any more because the world is different now. Times were freer back then, when Lillie's appeared to be at the centre of the universe, a universe controlled by Valerie Roe, who decided who came in and who stayed in.

Michael Flatley had his own couch named after him because the legendary charmer would bring a string of beauties to the club to woo them with his extraordinary ways.

Lillie's is closing next month, but in reality it hasn't been Lillie's for many a year - the glory faded a long time ago and nothing now could bring it back. But it will live on forever in our imaginations, that Camelot of Irish nightlife on Grafton Street, because it was more than a nightclub. It was an all-too-fleeting moment of social history.

Getting in to witness this history happen all around you was no easy job. You felt if you got in you must be somebody. See - I told you the times were crazy back then. You just wouldn't know who you'd be sitting next to on a couch in the VIP library.

One night I sat next to Mick Jagger. I acted like I didn't know who he was and ignored him. It was that ridiculous.

One night, Sinead O'Connor threw a drink over me. Another night, a famous female singer biffed Shane MacGowan on the nose because she felt he was ignoring her. I mopped his bloodied hooter with some tissues doused in water from the ice bucket where a half-empty bottle of champagne was resting.

Another night, Paidi O Se lost his glasses at the bar and rang me the next day to ask me not to tell anyone he was in Lillie's. If he'd had his glasses, he could have read it himself in the Herald - the news was already out. Another night, Roy Keane sang all the verses, word-perfect, of a Bob Dylan song. Another night, I danced with Bono. Another night...

Like youth, it couldn't last forever, and it didn't. Even though we were too young to realise it at the time.

Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco; I left my liver in Lillie's.

Sunday Independent

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