Save the last dance: nightclub's future hangs in the balance

West Kerry

Declan Malone & Joan Maguire

Caught between increasing insurance costs and a changing nightlife culture, the owners of the Hillgrove Nightclub are considering what the future holds for the venue that has been part of the social fabric of West Kerry since the 1970s.

Up to the early noughties the Hillgrove did a roaring trade as the hub of music and romance in Dingle. It attracted the top bands on the national showband circuit; the Fureys and the Wolfe Tones would guarantee a full house, and even Christy Moore played there at the peak of his career - leaving a lasting impression by demanding a shut bar and respectful silence from the audience.

However, like all nightclubs around the country, the Hillgrove has been affected by the introduction in 2000 of later pub closing times, the subsequent expansion of small, town centre pubs into quasi nightclubs, and the fact that going to 'a dance' doesn't have the same pulling power any more.

And then there are the running costs that tilt the balance against nightclubs. Last year, when only two UK-based companies were offering insurance cover to nightclubs in Ireland, the cost of the Hillgrove Nightclub's insurance almost doubled even though they had no claims. This year only one company is offering nightclub insurance and Hillgrove owner Kieran Ashe fears his annual premium could soar to €50,000 because insurers are so fearful of the claims culture that exists in Ireland.

Nightclubs also carry costs that don't apply to pubs. Like pubs they need a bar licence for opening up to the regular closing time of 12.30am. However unlike pubs, nightclubs are also required to have a dance licence for opening from 12.30am - 2am and this costs €410 per night, plus the additional cost of making a court application for each late opening night.

In a market where margins are already tight, the extra costs can make the difference between making a profit or a loss, so when his insurance runs out at the end of November Kieran is going to take time to consider his options.

"I'm taking a break to analyse the sustainability and future options for the nightclub," said Kieran. But it's a decision he doesn't like having to make: "I'm very conscious of closing the nightclub when it has been such a central part of the social life of Dingle since the 1970s," he added.

Kieran feels that the licensing laws will have to be changed if nightclubs are to survive. "Small pubs are expanding to a capacity of hundreds. They have the advantage of town centre locations and nightclubs on the periphery of towns are closing down all over the country," he said.

"Nightclubs need to be defined differently to a late bar because as things stand nightclubs carry all the costs but have none of the advantages of location and lower running costs that bars have," he added.

Since the Ashe family bought the Hillgrove Hotel and Nightclub from their Annascaul neighbour Tom McCarthy in 2007, the focus of the operation has changed a lot. Initially the nightclub amounted to 95 per cent of the business but that is now down to 30 per cent as Kieran developed the hotel accommodation side of things and opened a very successful laundry, providing a service to the local hospitality sector.

The hotel and laundry employ 10 people and that side of the business will continue to operate, regardless of what the future holds for the nightclub.

Meanwhile, there are some big events coming up in the nightclub before its long term future is decided. On the October Bank Holiday Sunday (October 27) Mary Black and her band will be in concert with Altan as the support act and on Saturday, November 30, the Hillgrove will host an event as part of Other Voices. After that, the future of Dingle's 'ballroom of romance' hangs in the balance.

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