“Part ambitious, part crazy…” The rise and fall of South nightclub in Tramore

When it comes to internationally-renowned super clubs, a variety of destinations roll off the tongue – Ibiza, Berlin, London, Manchester. In late 2001, however, a team of musical entrepreneurs sought to add Tramore, Co. Waterford to that list, with the opening of a 30,000-square-foot nightclub and entertainment venue: South.

South’s origins lay in Celtworld, an ill-fated historical theme park that opened in 1992 amid much fanfare – funded largely by EU grants – but closed less than three years later. A dinosaur exhibition followed, albeit for a limited time, so by the turn of the Millennium, the space was vacant.

Enter Mean Fiddler’s Vince Power and Mick O’Keeffe, both from Waterford, who teamed up with local businessman Paul Jackman and The Pod‘s John Reynolds to develop the space into a 2,200 capacity venue featuring four different rooms of music.

As Jackman told WLR in May 2001, South had “the potential to make every weekend a strong weekend. Contrary to some people’s comments we do have an infrastructure here – such a development can be absorbed into Tramore better than most towns can accommodate it.

“If you pick up any national newspaper and you look at the entertainment that’s available in Dublin, we would be hoping to link in on any of those main acts across the board and draw them in and have a venue down in the southeast that’s capable of attracting a big crowd, and hence, commercially, making it viable to bring in a big name.”

The venue did attract some local opposition – councillor Michael Flynn suggested that Tramore was in danger of becoming a “a tacky Irish Ibiza”, adding that parents should be “shaking in their shoes” at the thought of a “rave” venue opening on their doorstep.

But the scene was set, and South opened its doors on Friday 26 October 2001.

The following nine months or so would prove to be something of a high water mark for the venue, with artists such as Fatboy Slim, John Digweed, Dave Clarke and others gracing the ones and twos at its weekly Saturday night event, Massive. But by the time of its one-year anniversary, doubts started to emerge over its viability as a club venue.

South would undergo a couple of operational changes prior to the doors eventually being closed in mid-2004 – the departure of O’Keeffe and Jackman in late 2002 saw Joe Clarke of Limerick’s Trinity Rooms brought in to operate a night called Karnival, while Northern Ireland’s High On Life, aka Billy Dunseath, and Wexford promoter Rob Murphy ran a number of gigs in the venue’s latter months

“We were running too fast to catch up with ourselves,” Vince Power told the RicerKnows podcast a couple of years back, talking about South’s eventual closure.“Everything we did, we did good – the venue was fantastic. […] It saddens me to see, we lost a fortune on that place.”

Check out the original South website, archived here.

To mark the 20th anniversary of its opening, 909originals caught up with Mick O’Keeffe to discuss the club’s origins, memorable nights, and when he believes things finally went ‘South’. Over to you, Mick.

“One of the main reasons why South happened was because of Phelim McCloskey. We had brought Homelands to Mosney, which he owned, in 1999 and 2000. Phelim also owned the building that would go on to house South. Vince had a business relationship with him, and the opportunity was presented: did he want to take it on and convert it to an entertainment complex?

“I don’t think Vince had any great aspirations to run a nightclub in Tramore, because up until that time, Tramore hadn’t been kind to us. We had brought Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Van Morrison and lots of other major acts over to do Fleadh Mór at Tramore Racecourse in July 1993 and lost a fortune, around £750,000 I think.

“Vince was mainly known as a music festival guy – that was still his main ambition – but we obviously saw that the market in the southeast was too fragile to put on a major festival. I think that the hook with South was because the property was so cheap. We picked up the building for about £400,000.

“It was huge – the capacity was 2,250, with four different rooms. At that time in Waterford, and, I suppose, pretty much anywhere around the country, a reasonable sized pub in a good location would cost you about a million and a half. And that wouldn’t even get you a big pub, you know? So the fact that we were able to build this super club – between the purchase price and the refurb – for less than £2 million, was very appealing. I think it cost us £1.7 million altogether.

“The consortium was Vince, myself, John Reynolds and a local guy, Paul Jackman, that ran a rock and roll pub. He had 20%, I had 20%, Vince had 50% and John had 10%. John was obviously a partner in Homelands at Mosney.

“We had a great time putting the venue together, we had a very creative designer called Shaun Clarkson, from the UK, who had worked on a lot of club venues. He created this amazing neon pink wall in the venue.”

Getting Off To A Good Start

“The opening weekend was incredible. We had Paul Oakenfold play the opening night, and then he went on to do a a late set for John in the RedBox. I was quite friendly with Paul. I had met him in London; he was a resident at a club that we were involved in called Home, which is where the ‘Homelands’ name came from. I used to spend many Saturday nights having a couple of drinks with Paul.

“So when he came over, there was great excitement. Obviously we had never had a DJ of that stature in Waterford before, so the tickets flew out. We had a Dutch guy, Lucien Foort playing, he was a nice chap, with dreadlocks, as well as John Power, Robbie Butler and a couple of local lads. I also think we had Billy Scurry, he was playing in the second room, which we called the Play room.

“Paul arrived into Cork Airport. We drove down to pick him up, had a lovely meal in The Tannery in Dungarvan and then arrived at the club, which was already full. We walked in the back door and up the steps. And when Paul looked out at this mass of people, it was genuinely an incredible experience. It was like Ibiza, the main floor had something like 1,700 people on it.

“We opened the doors at 7, I think; Paul was playing from 8.30 until 10, and then jumped in a car and headed to Dublin. So he came on fairly early. But that didn’t matter, it was a bit like Judge Jules coming on at Homelands at 2 in the afternoon and the place just going crazy.

“That same weekend, we had Paul Weller play a solo gig – we were also positioning South as a live venue – while other early gigs included The Frames and Will Oldham. Aslan also played, that was a sellout.

“With live gigs, it was difficult to get acts to play the venue, because MCD controlled the market and they didn’t have any interest in putting shows on down there. So we had to work with some of the acts that we had a strong relationship with, so we could override the MCD factor. That’s still the case today, they seem to control the majority of live acts that comes in.

“In terms of DJs, some of the early bookings included Jon Carter and John Digweed. The timing of that one was incredible actually, as he had just been awarded the number one DJ in the world by DJ Magazine. It was rammed.”

Clubbing Dot Com magazine reports on South’s opening, October 2001

A Sustainable Business Model?

“South made a great start, but it couldn’t be sustained. I think the biggest issue really was the lack of a solid way of getting that many people back to Waterford, because we couldn’t get a bus service that was reliable. The taxis weren’t really interested because within Waterford City they would do two or three profitable little runs on a Saturday night in the time that they would come all the way out to Tramore and back

“We did have a few buses coming down from Cork, Galway, Dublin, but nothing regular. These were one-offs for the really big guys. With the likes of Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold and John Digweed, there was no difficulty filling the club, but for the other lads a bit further down the chain, it wasn’t so easy.

“Having been managing director with the Mean Fiddler in London, I knew what volume of business you had to get through the doors of an operation like that to make it work. I could see quite early on that the Saturday night club thing wasn’t going to cover the costs that we needed to meet.

“We wanted to make it multi-functional. We wanted to do live gigs, and maybe also holiday entertainment during the summer. There used to be a huge influx of people from Dublin down to Tramore; a comparison would be Blackpool in the UK. But this was around the time that the Ryanair thing got really big; that people realised that they could get a flight to somewhere beautiful in Europe and it would be cheaper than them going to Tramore or Galway or whatever.

“We tried a couple of different things. The World Cup was on in 2002, obviously, and we put on a couple of events with big screens. I think we had Eamonn Dunphy down for one of them.”

Memorable Nights And Long, Long Weekends

“Around that time, I had my most infamous bank holiday weekend – 72 hours with no sleep. It was the June bank holiday. We had Laurent Garnier in South on the Friday, which was probably the best set that we had there in my time. When that finished, myself, Johnny Moy and a couple of the lads went up to the Grand Hotel to watch Ireland v Cameroon, which I think started at 6 in the morning.

“Then my driver collected me and drove me down to Cork airport and I jumped on a plane, because that Saturday night we had Homelands in Winchester, which I think was the third or fourth Homelands. I had booked Basement Jaxx, Soft Cell, Roots Manuva. I used to look after booking the live side of it.

“Homelands ran through to 8 in the morning, so I got no sleep that night either, and then myself and Roger Sanchez hop on a flight back to Cork, because Roger was playing that night in South. It was a bank holiday weekend, a Smirnoff Experience gig, and was a full house. After all that, I stumbled home to bed and slept for about a week afterwards.

“Another big one was Fatboy Slim on St Patrick’s Day 2002. That was a full house – a monumental gig. That was in his party days, before he gave up everything. I remember he and I arrived into the green room at the back, and he asked me, ‘is there somewhere private we can go?’ We went into another room, the ‘green green room’, which nobody knew existed. He unzipped a pocket and pulled out a little bag of pills. He put two pills in my mouth and handed me a bottle of vodka to slug them back with, while he did the same.

“So that was a crazy one. We we had a phenomenal one with Dave Clarke; a double bill of Dave Clarke and Slam. That was around May or June 2002, and that was my first time meeting Dave. Obviously people think he’s a bit surly and awkward, but that night was the start of what became a lifelong friendship.

“I like dealing with honest people, you know? I said to Dave, ‘look, it’s probably on your rider to bring you to a fancy restaurant, but that that doesn’t exist in Tramore. I could drive you into Waterford if you like, or if you fancy it, the best fish and chips in Ireland are right here, from a place called Cunninghams’. So we ended up having fish and chips in the hotel, with a couple of nice pints of Guinness. I think he really liked that.”

South lineup from November 2001

A New Strategy Needed

“Things started to taper off soon after that. We had a couple of other big ones – Sasha in June 2002, for example – but then as we were coming towards the end of 2002, I said to the other directors, ‘this is not going to work as a pure dance music venue. We have to try other avenues to generate income’.

‘We mentioned conventions and all kinds of stuff but John was very strongly against it. John was basically sticking his feet in the ground and saying,’‘look, this is a super club. It’s a dance music venue. I don’t want anything else coming in here that’s gonna take away from that’.

“I had looked at the numbers and I could see that we had a little bit of a high from the launch, but we were not going to get that every year. It’s just not sustainable. So we kind of fell out over it. John only had 10%, but his vote became crucial. As you know myself and Paul Jackman had 40% of the business.

“But John got in Vince’s ear – Vince held 50% of the business – and they decided to keep it going as it was. So I just said to them, ‘look, I know it’s going to fail and I don’t want to be the public face of a failure because I’m the only one that’s in the local media’. Vince was in London, John was in Dublin. So I decided to walk away.

“I did one last night with Green Velvet, and BP Fallon doing his ‘Death Disco’ thing, and then went off to start the Resistance nights, which I ended up doing for another 15 years, in various venues in Waterford. I still bring Laurent and Dave and people like that over every year.”

Mick O’Keeffe, Paul Oakenfold and John Reynolds, on South’s opening night [Pic source: Mick O’Keeffe]

Looking Back

“South was part ambitious, part crazy, and when you reflect, you wonder would it have ever worked? A 2,200 capacity club in a 8,000 or 9,000 population town? With clubs like Cream in Liverpool, people used to travel to it from all over the UK and Ireland at the weekend, but that just didn’t happen with South. Also, for a good 10 or 15 years, Lush had the same sort of business model – basically anybody that was outside of Belfast in Northern Ireland would head in that direction for a big night out on a Saturday. But we couldn’t get that same level of traffic.

“I managed to walk away without being too damaged financially myself. I took a risk on it, but I managed to get away relatively unscathed. It was a crazy time. I suppose I was trying to make my mark in Ireland; I had moved back to Ireland with my family at the start of 2000, having been managing director of Mean Fiddler in London.

“My main interest was in festivals, but that was kind of a seasonal business. I was looking for an opportunity to do something locally, and I may have invested in a pub if South hadn’t presented itself as an opportunity. I guess we figured that because we had picked it up so cheaply, the value would retain in the property even if the business didn’t work.

“After South closed, it was lying empty for a while, just sitting there looking sad and vacant, and I think was about six or seven years ago that it got knocked down. It’s now an Aldi. I actually was having a laugh with some of the lads here… to mark the 20th anniversary, we should all head down there and do a flash mob, show up with a couple of boomboxes, you know?”

[Thanks to Mick for chatting to us, and to Darren Rice for additional information]

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