The world over, Ireland is known for her traditional music. Whether it be the improvised pub session sounds commonly mislabeled as “Gaelic” or “Celtic,” heartfelt ballads exported by Irish and international artists, or the modern “trad” dance mixes made popular by Michael Flatley and Riverdance, the sound of the fiddle, bodhran, and uilleann pipes are audibly synonymous with Ireland.
But Ireland has a rich twentieth-century rock ‘n’ roll tradition that is often overlooked; U2 isn’t the only Irish rock group to achieve international acclaim. This week, I visited the newly-opened Irish Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum Experience in Temple Bar—Dublin’s art and culture hub—to see a collection of Irish rock memorabilia and get a sneak peek into a working recording studio and concert venue.
The museum is on the premises of the Button Factory and Temple Lane Studios, not in a dry, sterile traditional museum. Because visitors get to see a living, breathing music center, access to the museum is by guided tour only. I met Dave, an experienced studio tech and guide to all things Irish rock ‘n’ roll, who took us backstage at the Factory and through the studio. As we explored, I couldn’t help but think of the boys of Spinal Tap—rock’s parody poster boys—as they lived the highs and lows of the business in This is Spinal Tap.
The Button Factory is a well-known staple venue—in an actual former button factory in once-industrial Temple Bar—for up-and-coming Irish musicians and international recording stars alike. The tour begins in the backstage hallways and rehearsal spaces with a look at an impressive collection of Irish rock relics: guitars, keyboards, and records line the walls.
Before heading up to the venue, we visited the Button Factory green room to see where rockers can gather their thoughts, apply their eyeliner, tease up their hair, and complain about the size of bread on the catering tray.
From the green room, we navigated the obligatory mazelike hallway to the stage; although with a guide, we were in no danger of getting lost.
And We’re Rolling!
After the all-access look at the concert venue, the tour continues across the street to Temple Lane Studios, where many famous recording stars continue to lay down material. The sound of drums echoed through the hallways and recording techs and sound engineering students hustled between studio spaces as we made our way to Apollo Studio and something of a shrine to the late Dublin rocker Phil Lynott.
Thin Lizzy had a string of hit records in the 1970s, calling on both their Irish traditional roots (“Whiskey in the Jar”) and the rebellious spirit of the day (“The Boys Are Back in Town”) to appeal to rock fans around the world. Led by the charismatic Lynott, the band enjoyed international success while the boys of U2 were still in primary school, and many Lizzy fans today still see a visit to Dublin as something of a pilgrimage. Thanks to Lynott’s mother, visitors can see a collection of his personal effects, including the black Fender P Bass he preferred for live performances.
But Apollo Studio isn’t just a dusty museum exhibit, it’s a working recording studio with a two-tonne, seventy-two-channel soundboard that has been used to record dozens of famous artists, including Lynott himself.
After a walk through the recording booth—learning about the sound engineering in its design—the tour finishes with a look at the legacy of another famous Dublin recording studio: Windmill Lane.
Originally located in Dublin’s Docklands, Windmill Lane Studios was made famous by U2, who recorded their legendary albums Boy, War, and The Joshua Tree in this small studio in a dilapidated, crumbling industrial neighborhood. When the boys achieved international success, the studios began to draw bigger and bigger recording stars, among them Van Morrison, Def Leppard, and the Rolling Stones.
Fans of U2 and other bands visiting Dublin once paid homage to the studios by painting the brick walls of Windmill Lane with symbols of peace and support. This “graffiti wall” became a popular tourist attraction, a must-see for rock fans. Sadly, the wall—and the original recording studios—were demolished in 2015 for new development.
Temple Lane Studios was able to save some of the vintage recording equipment from Windmill Lane before its demolition, and the old 2-inch tape recorders and other antique sound equipment are on display. For hardcore Windmill Lane enthusiasts, this is as close as you can get today.
Nuts and Bolts
- The Irish Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum Experience is open 10:00–17:30, 7 days a week*; access to the museum is by one-hour guided tour only, tickets can be booked in advance or purchased on the day; €16.00* adult; combo ticket offered with the National Wax Museum Plus, discounts at the Button Factory and Crowbar pub with ticket.
- The Irish Rock Museum entrance is on Curved Street, a small alley near Meeting House Square in Dublin’s Temple Bar Neighborhood. When approaching from the east, look for the Irish Rock ‘N’ Roll Wall of Fame—you can’t miss it.
- This museum experience is recommended for music fans, particularly those of U2, Thin Lizzy, or other Irish artists. Audio or sound nuts should feel free to nerd out when looking at master recording tapes of some of their favorite artists, and the Saturn 2-inch tape deck from Windmill Lane used to record so many hit songs.
- This museum is not recommended for those without a specific interest in rock music or rock memorabilia; if you don’t get excited at the idea of seeing (insert famous artist)’s instruments, recording equipment, or studio space, consider something else.
- Thanks to Brian, Dave, and the rest of the Rock Museum team for inviting my wife and me for a review tour. See my full disclosure for more about invited reviews.
*Opening hours and admission prices accurate as of January 2016 and are subject to change. Visit the museum website to confirm before your visit.