Irish Journal of Anthropology. Volume VI, 2002
Ecstasy Culture and Youth Subculture in Cork’s Northside.
J. Daisy Kaplan
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Ecstasy is a small pill that produces a chemical sense of euphoria and general well being, accompanied by an abundance of energy. Yet this drug has taken on a far greater significance in Cork: Ecstasy has become a symbolic and vital part of Cork’s Northside youth culture and social identity. In this article I examine the Ecstasy culture in Cork and its role in Northside youth subculture.
The fieldwork for this article was based mainly in the Northside community of Ballyglass. I interviewed several Ballyglass adolescents about their personal experiences with Ecstasy use, the rave culture, and to place the culture in perspective, about growing up in the Northside. The following paper is based on these transcribed interviews, and I draw examples from these interviews throughout the paper. There are four separate interviews that I quote from: one was conducted with a group of Ballyglass teenage girls, “Cory,” “Shannon,” “Aisling,” and “Sheila,” all of whom have taken Ecstasy. A second interview was held with a group of Ballyglass teenage boys “Michael,” “Martin,” and “Mark,” two of whom take Ecstasy on a regular basis. The third was held with “Steven,” a frequent Ecstasy user and small time dealer who grew up in Ballyglass. The final interview was with “Natasha,” 19 year-old Cork University student and friend of Steven, who was heavily involved in the Rave/Ecstasy scene in both Cork and Dublin. I also conducted several interviews with Northside parents and Cork residents, but I do not have transcribed versions of these interviews.
While writing this paper, I have often referred back to my sources to check the accuracy of my ideas, and I have tried to make my portrayals as accurate and unbiased as possible. Please note that in the following paper, “Ecstasy” and “E” will be used interchangeably. Due to the sensitive nature of the topics, the names of informants and any establishments mentioned have been changed. The clubs mentioned in this paper will be called ‘The Playground’ and ‘The Tree House,’ and the name of the Northside neighbourhood discussed in this paper has been changed to Ballyglass.
Growing up in Ballyglass: Youth Perspectives and Social Identity
The research for this paper focuses on the youth perspective of the Northside neighbourhood of Ballyglass and the rave scene strongly associated with Northside youth culture. The young people growing up in this neighbourhood are always linked with joyriders, ravers, Ecstasy, drug use, and the Cork rave scene that takes place in a well known club, “The Playground.” Although there are several neighbourhoods in the Northside, Ballyglass is the neighbourhood most strongly linked with any Northside image. Michael, one of the Ballyglass informants, explained, “The Northside of Cork is Ballyglass. …There's other places in the Northside as well, but when 'Northside' is mentioned, the 'Northside' is Ballyglass.” When I asked the girls I interviewed how they would define a Northsider, Shannon said, “They're from Ballyglass.”
Most of the images and stereotypes concerning the Northside and Ballyglass in particular are negative. Ballyglass is viewed as a rough and dangerous neighbourhood, associated with low income, high unemployment, vandalism, and drug dealing. The commonly accepted view is that the problems Ballyglass has are limited to the Northside, and do not encompass other parts of the city of Cork.
Ballyglass residents Michael and Mark believe that Ballyglass’s image adds to its problems. They explained that people that are seeking drugs come to Ballyglass because Ballyglass is associated with high drug use. This consequently creates an increase in drug traffic in Ballyglass and results in a greater presence of drugs in the Northside neighbourhoods. This increased drug presence has a direct impact on the youth of Ballyglass, as the girls explain in the following two excerpts:
Q: Do you think that growing up in the Northside, or in Ballyglass, is different from growing up in any other city in Ireland?
Cory: It would be, all right.
Aisling: ...they're growing into an environment with drugs anyway, like, so they're growing up different.
Cory: But even when we were younger there wasn't as much cars and stuff compared to now, like. [This refers to the burnt out cars left by joyriders.]
Aisling: And drugs. Drugs weren't-
Cory: Drugs weren't that bad.
(Agreement from others)
Sheila: They were around but we wouldn't have heard of them...
Aisling: Yeah, I mean, there wasn't so much dealers, like-
Shannon: With ten-year-olds, twelve-year-olds taking drugs now like-
Sheila, Aisling, & Cory: Yeah.
Shannon: Especially, ten-year-olds, they wouldn't be into their E and hash and all... And ah, all our age then take E's and hash and trips, d'ya know, and speed now is coming out as well...
Increased availability is accompanied by an increase in drug use among the young people exposed to this environment. Mark noted, “In a year, a lot has changed, like, you [young people in Ballyglass] take them [Ecstasy tablets] much quicker now than you would a year ago, and next year they'll even be younger again, probably like.”
The interviewees from Ballyglass estimated that seventy to eighty percent of the Ballyglass youth take Ecstasy. They said kids start taking Ecstasy between the ages of twelve and thirteen, and many of the youth I interviewed believe that age to be dropping every year. By the time they are eighteen, Aisling said, “they're addicted to it.”
Although growing up in Ballyglass is not without its problems, the interviewees also expressed a strong pride in their Northsider identity and a strong sense of unity and community. Michael stated, “all Northsiders stick together.” The girls discussed the sense of unity and camaraderie in their neighbourhood. Shannon explained, “The neighbours are everything… It's like they're all one family up here…They'd all back up for each other up here, d'ya know?”
I asked Natasha, who grew up in the Northside of Dublin, to compare Cork Northsiders with Dublin Northsiders. She explained, “There's more of an identity thing with being from the Northside in Cork than you'd notice in Dublin. … you know, there really is more of [pause], an identity thing! You know, it's like, 'I'm from the Northside, I'm tough, I'll fuckin' kill you!' She also described the Cork Northside as a close-knit community, adding “They're nice, you know, they're just, they're the nicest people in the world. Because they all live so close to each other, in estates, they're all friendly with each other. I was going to say this great community spirit, but that's such a horrible cliché.”
Northside vs. Southside
The Ballyglass informants saw this interview as an opportunity to express and emphasise the good things about Ballyglass, and to dispel the negative images they believe Southsiders have of their neighbourhood. At the end of the interview with the Ballyglass girls, I asked if there was anything else anyone wanted to add. With the idea in mind that this interview would be read by “the UCC, who're out in the Southside,” they ended the interview with the statement, “Ballyglass's not as bad as what it's made out to be!”
The interviews included a lot of discussion about attitudes towards Northsiders, Southsiders, and their respective opinions of each other. Jansen explains this concept of outside and inside perspectives of a culture as the “esoteric-exoteric factor in folklore.” Folklore in this definition signifies the elements of a group's culture and beliefs that come from outside any formal, institutionalised educational forces (Jansen, 1965:45). The “esoteric” factor applies to what a group thinks about itself and what it believes others to think about it. “Exoteric” concerns how one group thinks of another (Jansen, 1965:46). Natasha explained:
Northside people are generally seen as the normal working class people. It all depends on where you're from. If someone asks you where you're from and you say somewhere on the Northside, if they're from the Southside, they'll think you're common, if they're from the Northside they'll think you're cool. Cause you know the way we all think that the people from the Southside are posh. For me, Northside people are what I think of as normal people, cause that's where I grew up, and they're the people I grew up with.
Mark and Michael believed that if they were to encounter a Southsider on the street, the Southsider would be afraid of them because they were from Ballyglass. Mark added, “And d'you know, there's nothing to be afraid like. It's just the name of up here, so. That's it.”
The Northsiders I spoke to felt that the Southsiders had negative opinions of Northsiders, that some Southsiders were afraid of Northsiders, and that Southsiders were always ‘putting them down.’ Steven remarked that many of the negative stereotypes come from the media and the image that they create and maintain with each new article printed about the Northside. One Cork college newspaper even joined in with a derogatory article published a few years ago entitled “How to be a Norrie.” Mark explained, “Say now, if the paper put up a headline. It'd be about something bad if it was a big headline. If something good, then it's in a small box; something positive, like.” “Yeah,” Michael agreed, “...it's just a load of exaggeration—them putting us down again.”
A sort of us-versus-them attitude was expressed throughout the interviews. When I asked if there were differences between the Northside and the Southside as regards the amount of drugs used, Aisling remarked, “It's not really much different from the Southside because they take as much drugs as we do.” Shannon added to this, “We can't be putting ourselves down just for them, like.” In a more lighthearted comment, Cory pronounced “everyone up here, like, likes a good time. D'ya know, they likes going out and enjoying themselves, whereas everyone in the Southside—they're too high up, and everything like that, to do that, so we enjoy ourselves more than them. In other words, [she joked] we hate them.” The Northside-versus-Southside attitude is reflected Cork’s in club scene.
The Cork Club Scene
The major rave scene in Cork takes place every Saturday in ‘The Playground,’ a well known club in Cork city. On Saturdays, the club is considered a Northsider club. The girls explained:
Cory: ...when we're going around The Playground we'd know everyone, d'ya know, they're all from the Northside-
Sheila: 'Cause they're all from here, like.
Cory: They're all from Ballyglass, like, it's pure Northsider disco, whereas-
Aisling: So we'd go into that disco. We'd go into that disco knowing that everyone's going to be on drugs, knowing that we know everyone in there.
Aisling: No, seriously! We would though!
Cory: Yeah, I mean like, whereas The Tree House, the exact amount of people, like, take the drugs up there, but we wouldn't go in there at all because they're all Southside. D'ya know, we keep separate, like… Northsides always stick with the Northsides…
While The Playground is the designated Northsider place, The Tree House, another rave club in Cork, has come to be regarded as the “Southside” place. Aisling remarked that if they were to attend The Tree House, they’d be immediately labeled as Northsiders by the regulars of that club. Aisling explained, “Like, there's a disco that we go to, and half the people, most of the people in the Tree House, they're all Southsiders, they go straight away, oh they're from the Northside, d'you know what I mean?”
A person’s choice in clubs can become a personality assessment. The following anecdote is a personal experience that exemplifies this: Natasha and I had just left The Playground one Saturday night. As we were walking down the main street in Cork, two young men approached us. They began attempting various chat-up lines, and then asked, “So where have you girls been tonight?” When we answered “The Playground,” they exchanged glances, said, “Right. Bye!” turned, and walked very quickly away. The name of the club we had attended caused an instant (and rather amusing) reaction.
Recreational habits have become part of youth identity in Cork: the youth who attend The Playground identify themselves with the other ravers and Northsiders that habituate The Playground. They believe others see them as tough and unified, and will consequently leave them be. Playgrounders in general view all other club goers, those that don't go to The Playground, as stuck-up, posh, Southsiders, and in the more negative descriptions, posers. Club goers that don't attend Saturdays at The Playground see Playground ravers as “knackers.” They associate The Playground with trouble-makers, drug dealers, high drug use, and fights. UCC students have often described The Playground to me as “a real Northsiders’ place,” a description that is meant to be negative. Non-Northside have told me that it is dangerous for anyone not from the Northside to go to the Playground on Saturdays.
On Saturdays The Playground is a Northsider club, but on this night the club is also qualified as a “rave.” Thus the people who attend are “ravers” as well as “Northsiders.” It’s assumed that the people in The Playground on Saturdays are taking Ecstasy. The girls commented:
Cory: Everyone inside The Playground take drugs, right? Well, nearly everyone now, like.
As a designated rave scene, The Playground is legendary among club-goers. Natasha, who grew up in Dublin, remarked , “I've been hearing about The Playground since I was about 15. It's THE place to go, you know?” She reported that ravers would make the journey all the way from Dublin to attend a Saturday night at The Playground.
Although the rave scene in The Playground is not so different from rave scenes found in other major cities, what makes this scene unique is that it is a Northsider scene. The Playground is viewed as the heart and centre of the Cork rave scene, and it is also viewed as a Northsider club. Northsiders and ravers are firmly linked.
The following is an account of a typical Saturday night at The Playground. The Ecstasy terms used will be explained in a later section.
'The Playground on a Saturday Night'
The Playground is a drearily coloured building with boarded up windows. It looks as if it has seen better days, but now has fallen into a state of disrepair. The queue gathers outside the brightly painted door—the one spot of colour on the entire outside face. The club’s music is audible from the street. It is loud and fast, with a monotonous, steady beat. The people queuing outside are mainly between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. Many are from the Northside. The two or three burly bouncers stand at the door, eyeing each person entering the club, demanding ID from those that look too young or that look suspect. The crowd waits impatiently, girls shivering in short skirts and shiny nylons, stamping their heeled boots to keep warm, as people without valid ID argue with the bouncers. A Playground employee stands just beyond the bouncers. She stops people at random and searches their pockets, checking for drugs. The clubbers purchase their tickets, hand them to the ticket collector, and enter The Playground. There is a dove (a symbol representing the most well known type of Ecstasy tablet) drawn by someone’s finger on one of the entrance door’s grimy window-panes. The inside is painted black—floors, walls, ceiling, and stage—and has a dingy, slightly dilapidated appearance to match the exterior. A few surrealistic designs are painted on the walls. The music inside the club is so loud that people can feel the beat throughout their bodies: conversation is now nearly impossible. The air inside The Playground is humid and warm from the body heat, breath, and perspiration of hundreds of dancing bodies. Coloured lights flash through the smoke-filled room, and ultra-violet lights on the walls give an eerie glow to the people dancing under them. There are the necessary bar, 'chill-out room', and above the dance floor, the DJ. He has on earphones, and is concentrating intently on his task of 'mixing the decks,' providing the music that is the centre and heartbeat of the rave. His skill in combining the rhythms and music from his various simultaneously playing records is essential to the success of the night for the rave-goer. The music is designed to accommodate the Ecstasy user’s ‘trip.’ The music at the start of the night is relatively mellow as the people are ‘coming up’ on their E's. The music builds over the course of a few hours, climaxing towards the last third of the evening, when people are in the height of their ‘buzz.’ The club goers respond to this build-up with whoops and whistles and yells. When the DJ plays the climax songs, the dancers start cheering and yelling, and begin dancing with renewed vigour. The DJ continues to mix the most intense music of the night for the next quarter of an hour or so, and then he brings it back down to a slower pace, so that people will leave with a calmer buzz and be more prepared to face their come-down. The DJ ends the music around two a.m., and the dancers whistle and yell, applauding him in appreciation of the night's entertainment and his skill. At this encouragement, the DJ usually adds one last song. Then the ravers leave the club with their friends in search of a hangout that is atmosphere-friendly to someone coming down from an E. This is very important to the Ecstasy user, because Ecstasy-unfriendly environments could induce bad buzzes and paranoia.
E as Culture
An entire subculture has been created around Ecstasy use and the rave scene, and the people that take Ecstasy and attend raves on a regular basis are part of this culture. The following sections will look at the culture surrounding Ecstasy use and the role that Cork’s Ecstasy/rave scene plays in Cork’s Northside youth subculture. Some of the cultural aspects that this article will address are rituals and customs, slang, urban legends and story telling, and the rave scene’s function as an adolescent rite of passage.
The lifestyle of a Cork raver follows a ritualized pattern. (Ritual here means an action that is customary and routine among the participants of the Ecstasy culture.) Ecstasy users generally take Ecstasy on the same night every week. They go raving with the same group of friends, usually to the same place. For most of the Ballyglass youth, this means going to The Playground on a Saturday night. Money is saved all week to buy Saturday’s Ecstasy tablets. The rest of the week is spent in debt, saving up for the next weekend. Cory explained, “Every week we nearly used all our money. We get into debt on a Saturday night, we get out of it on a Friday night and we'd get back into it on a Saturday night. It'd be the same thing every single week.” The ritual timing of the ingestion is also important. The raver takes his or her Ecstasy tablet “at the beginning of the night,” usually right before or right after the raver enters the club. This is done so that the Ecstasy user can synchronise his or her high with fellow ravers and with the music. If the E tablet is taken too soon, the taker will already be high while others are still waiting for the full effects of Ecstasy to begin. If the Ecstasy tablet is taken too late, the taker will still be high while others are coming down.
The Ecstasy tablet is perhaps the most symbolic component of this lifestyle. The Ecstasy culture is based on the objective of reaching an altered state of consciousness through chemical means, and being surrounded by others who are also in this same altered state. This state is reached by ingesting a little tablet that theoretically contains MDMA. However, there is no quality control for illegal street drugs, and therefore many Ecstasy tablets contain none or very little of the actual drug MDMA. Still, a raver need not ingest MDMA to be a part of the rave scene: the raver need only ingest a pill that appears to be an Ecstasy tablet. As Paul Willis explains in The Cultural Meaning of Drugs, “drugs could be thought of as cultural placebos—keys to the experience, rather than the experience itself” (1976:107). Even placebo Ecstasy tablets are enough to bring the user into the world of E culture.
Dance music is a vital component of the rave scene. Mark stated, “There's no point in going buzzing without tunes, really.” Steve and Natasha explained how Ecstasy and dance music work together:
Steven: Ecstasy is energy, d'ya know, and energy is dance music, and dance music is fast and Ecstasy will make you dance fast, d'ya know... ‘cause the music is so fast, and everyone's on drugs...
Natasha: And it makes you happy.
Steven: It makes you happy.
Natasha: The music and the drugs together make you happy.
Steven: Perfect mix. It's like a DJ doing the decks, ya know?
Ravers have created terminology to describe various aspects of the Ecstasy culture. There are words for, among other things, types of rave music and E tablets, E trips and drug-induced sensations. Rave music, for example, is categorised by intensity and characteristics: the names given to some varieties include “techno,” “jungle,” “trance,” “hard-core,” and “house.”
Several different kinds of Ecstasy tablets have been designed, each with their own name, symbol, degree of strength, and kind of trip. Mark explained how the different types of E had different affects: “when you come down, well... depends on the E. There's different E's: pearls, splashers and champagners...” The “dove” is the most well known type of Ecstasy tablet, and has become symbolic of E tablets in general.
The Ecstasy trip, or the effects felt while on Ecstasy, has three stages. The first stage is described as “coming up,” and pertains to the effects that the user notices as the drug begins to act on the body. The second stage is the Ecstasy high, or trip. The third stage is the “come-down.” This relates to the effects the Ecstasy user experiences when the Ecstasy high begins to subside. The E taker feels despondent and depressed, tired, cold, and sometimes cranky and paranoid.
There are different kinds of Ecstasy trips. A “scag,” terminology borrowed from the heroin culture, is the word used by ravers to describe the effects of an Ecstasy tablet that is laced, most likely with heroin. Someone that's “scagging” or having a “scaggy” trip feels dopey and slow and lacks the abundant energy that usually accompanies an Ecstasy trip. A “bogey” E is one that does not have any MDMA in it, and is sometimes comprised of merely baking soda or sugar. A “bad” E is one that may be fatal.
“Buzzing” means that a person is experiencing the high, or “the bang” induced by Ecstasy. The “bang” applies to the enjoyment of the high in all of its aspects, or sometimes more specifically, the initial enjoyment of the high. A “rush” is an intense, brief tingling sensation that travels throughout the body and is a desired effect of the Ecstasy drug. Rushes are difficult for the Ecstasy user to describe to non-users. The closest thing Natasha could compare it to was “a pleasant electric shock.” Mark said, “A rush then is a feeling of—a wave over you, d'you know, like? Just a brilliant feeling all over, like.” Michael explained; “It's like a load of sugar running up through your body... Like your blood is pumping through your body, and you feel it tingling.”
“Giving someone a rush” means inducing the physical sensation of a rush by administering a massage to a fellow E-taker. A rush is given in a variety of ways. The rush-giver can perform this ritual by perhaps giving the receiver a back rub; a “rub-down,” which is the term given to a leg massage; or by helping the receiver to stretch. Complete strangers will give each other rushes: it’s all part of the scene inside a rave. Natasha gave her perspective on seeing this scene for the first time:
…if you're not on E, it's really scary. The first time I ever went… there were all these people making all these weird faces, and lifting each other off the ground, and pulling each other's arms, and rubbing each other's backs, and jumping around the place like lunatics, and I didn't know what was going on. I'd never been anywhere like that before.
To the experienced rave goer, seeing people giving each other rushes is commonplace. Another common nightly ritual is the raver greeting. Although people in The Playground generally don't hold conversations, there is a basic greeting, that follows the pattern, “Hi, what's your name? Where’re you from? You buzzing?” This gives the person questioned a personal identity and determines whether or not they are on Ecstasy. If the person to whom the question was directed responds affirmatively, indicating that they are in fact buzzing, then the two fellow ravers will usually smile and shake hands, hug, give each other a rush, or in some other way display their recognition and drug-induced affection for a fellow raver. Mark explains, “If he was buzzing, I'd come over to him and I'd say, 'You buzzing?', he'd say 'Yeah'. We'd go 'Yeah!' and give each other a rush or something, like, d'ya know?” The greeting is more a symbolic act than a genuine inquiry into the person’s background. It doesn’t really matter what the other person’s name is, as it will soon be forgotten. The conversation is held merely to identify very briefly with a fellow raver.
Other prevalent customs that add a sense of camaraderie to the rave scene are sharing water and whistle calling. Since water is essential to the Ecstasy user (a large portion of cases in which Ecstasy users have been hospitalized are due to dehydration), all Playgrounders share their water with each other, regardless of whether or not they know the person with whom they are sharing the water. The ravers also whistle and yell along with the music. Usually when one raver yells or whistles, another will yell or whistle in response. These customs are familiar to ravers and help bring about a sense of unity in the rave atmosphere.
The last term I’ll define, one of the more important rave culture terms, is “love buzz.” While on Ecstasy, the Ecstasy taker feels affection and love for everyone around them. The following conversation pertains to the presiding love buzz at a rave concert that took place in City Hall in Cork.
Mark: ...half the crowd in there would be from the Southside, and they'd all, well, normally, the people you meet would be on Ecstasy.
Mark: And you'd get on grand with them, like, cause you're buzzin’.
Michael: Cause you're buzzin’, exactly.
Michael: You could be the worst enemies now, and fighting all the time-
Mark: But there, it's just the love buzz.
Michael: But in there, now, it's just the “love buzz,” we call it, and just ah, “Sorry about that, buddy.” and hugging them...
The love buzz generated by the rave atmosphere produces a sense of harmony among all rave goers. Everyone gets along—Northsiders and Southsiders, even people who were normally “worst enemies.” Steven described how the love buzz can invoke a sense of friendship that exists solely in the rave scene:
…you're going to be loving everyone the whole of that night, but then, the next day, that person is different… People that are in the disco are… your best friends, but the next day they're not on X-T-C, they will pass you on in the street, d'ya know, as if they didn't see you the night before. But the feeling is in the scene, ya know. The people you know are all on drugs and everyone is happy because they're on E…
The love buzz echoes the description of a ‘communita’ presented by Turner in The Ritual Process (1969). Turner defines a communita as a relationship among a community of individuals in a common state of transition. This communita is unstructured, and contains no status roles. It is a state of peace, harmony, and brotherhood among all. This bond goes beyond the camaraderie amid friends and acquaintances to something more profound, an experience that is communal and shared (Turner, 1969).
Turner sites examples of communitas in many different world religions and social scenes, including the Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish communities, Gandhi's harijans and even the hippie movement of the 60’s. In the following passage Turner discusses the how the communitas of the hippie era were created:
Some attempts have been made fairly recently in America and Western Europe to re-create the ritual conditions under which spontaneous communitas may be... invoked. ...By the eclectic and syncratic use of symbols... and of 'mind-expanding' drugs, 'rock' music, and flashing lights, [people] try to establish a 'total' communion with one another. The often made etymological homology between the nouns 'existence' and 'ecstasy' is pertinent here; to exist is to 'stand outside'... To exist is to be in ecstasy (1969:138).
Although Turner published his book nearly fifteen years before the arrival of widespread Ecstasy use and the rave culture, there are strong parallels between the hippie culture and the rave culture. The symbolic act of ingesting an Ecstasy tablet, the mind-expanding drugs, rock music, and flashing lights all help to create the communita environment of a rave. The ‘total communion’ is established by the ‘love buzz’ created between Ecstasy users. Ravers ‘stand outside’ structured society by taking part in recreational activities that are considered inappropriate or unacceptable by adults and non-drug users. Natasha reflected on this during her interview: “You know, it's like it's your own little underground thing. It's totally socially unacceptable, but in a way, it's socially acceptable to the people you're with, you know?” The adolescents that participate in the rave culture and take Ecstasy are part of a unified group that goes against acceptable societal norms and standards of behaviour.
Turner explains that the communita environment is invoked by people in a state of transition, and that this state of transition between one stage of structured society and another is a rite of passage. Rites of passage are most commonly associated with adolescence and the transformation from childhood to adulthood (Turner, 1969). Drug use can sometimes function as an adolescent rite of passage (The All-Party Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology as cited in Craig, 1996:14; Bratter as cited in Cohen, 1998:1). The rave scene therefore serves as a rite of passage in two ways: it creates a liminal communita environment for adolescents in a state of transition, and it incorporates ritualized drug use.
A rite of passage marks a signification change or transition in a person’s life. Natasha explained how taking Ecstasy changed her lifestyle:
When I started taking E first, it had a wonderful effect on my life. My social circle grew extremely huge, 'cause once you start buzzing, then for some reason you instantly meet all these other people that buzz, and you meet them everywhere you go. You totally move in this one big huge circle of drug people. And it's really new and exciting and different, you know? And it's really good! Really exciting! You know? It's like everyone's living in this mad fantasy world. Nothing bad's ever going to happen to you, 'CAUSE YOU TAKE E.
Mark and Michael discussed how Ecstasy use affected their schoolwork:
Mark: I have no interest in school. I am like, in the sixth year, doing my leaving cert. Sitting in class, I don't know Maths. I don't know anything. I'm just sitting there. And every, the people around me like, are trying to work as well, like, and I'm just sitting there, I mean, not taking in nothing. My mind is on something else. It affects your life, I tell ya.
Michael: Yeah. Cause, I wasn't taking them at all this time last year… and I was moved up then to the top class, and I worked in that class, and then I came back to the same class this year, and just everything went away… and just people that don't take it [Ecstasy] would laugh and say 'he's stupid, he's going to fail, he's stupid', so. I mean, the way I'm going, I think I am going to fail in my Junior Cert.
One of the life changing aspects of E mentioned by every E user I interviewed was the addictive quality of Ecstasy. The following is Natasha’s account:
Sometimes it makes you feel like it's after taking away your whole personality. That's when all the horrible depression shit starts. It makes you feel really depressed. 'Cause you really do feel like it's after robbing your life on you. There's nothing you can do about it because you know you're going to go out and take more. 'Cause then you have nothing. You don't, E's after taking your life. If you don't take E, then what've you got? You've no life, and you've no E. You've nothing at all.
Every single Ecstasy user stated that if asked, they would strongly advise others against taking Ecstasy. They gave two reasons: the detrimental affects it had on their health, and its addictive quality. Everyone who takes Ecstasy, they all told me, is convinced that they will only try it once, just to see what it's like, but won’t be able to stop taking Ecstasy once they’ve tried it. The following excerpt is from the girls’ interview:
Q: And what would you say to someone that was going to start taking it?
Cory: I'd advise you not to.
Sheila, Aisling, Shannon: Don't.
Q: How come?
Aisling: Because they're not good for you, like.
Shannon: They're addictive.
Cory: ‘Cause your first one is outstanding and you want to go and go and go and you never want to stop-
Shannon: You want to go again-
Sheila: And you'll say I just want to take them once (Cory: Once.) and see what it's like. But you won't though. You'll just keep taking them.
Cory: Everyone says that.
Shannon: You just can't.
All of the Ecstasy users I spoke with said that they’d love to stop using Ecstasy, but they couldn’t. When I asked them why they continued to use Ecstasy, every single Ecstasy user gave the exact same reply, “For the Bang.” Cory’s elaboration of this answer best summarizes the answers that all the interviewees gave:
For a good dancing bang the whole night long and you love everyone, the atmosphere is brilliant then, like, when you're on them. D'ya know, especially now if everyone is on them around you, like a rave now, or something like that, you know, the atmosphere is fantastic, like. You'll be dancing for the night. You wouldn't be able to sit down, and you'll be loving everyone, like, and everyone's like that, like. There's never any fights, d'you know, or anything like that like. And you don't care about no one, you don't care what you do...
They explained that once they had taken Ecstasy and been involved in the rave scene, it just wasn’t the same without E.
Shannon: …I went to a rave there now before and I wasn't even on them, and they were all on them, and… I didn't feel different or anything.
Cory: You don't really care, like, but then when-
Shannon: When you start taking them, you know what you're missing out on.
Cory: -then when you take them yourself and you're not taking them and everyone's buzzing, you get freaked out of your head! (The girls all laughed)
Q: And why do you keep on taking them?
Mark: 'Cause… once you start taking it,
Michael: You can't imagine a disco without it.
Mark: You can't imagine, that's exactly it, you can't imagine a disco without it.
Michael: You're dependent on it.
Mark: …once you start taking it you're going in, it's brilliant and you're on E... so you have to keep on taking them because if you went into the disco without one, like, you won't enjoy yourself as you used ta, before you were on any drugs.
Michael: Yeah. Plus, you just can't imagine the disco without Ecstasy inside in it, like, you can't imagine be buzzing-
Mark: Exactly. You're looking around and everyone is buzzing.
Michael: Yeah, and you're walking around, shaking hands-
Mark: And you have to be on the same buzz to get on with them.
Michael: And you're just dependent on them, like. You have to have them.
This last statement echoes Dusek and Girdano’s definition of drug addiction. They concluded their definition with the statement, “The bottom line of addiction is dependency” (1980:20).
Michael: I was just after going on fifteen, when I started, you know, I just said I'd go for my birthday, and I thought it was good, kept on going then, and, they say they're not addictive-
Mark: Once you pop, you can't stop!
Michael: Like they say in the Pringles ad. I don't think they're addictive, like, but you depend on them [emphasis added].
The addictive quality of Ecstasy is one aspect of the Ecstasy culture that functions as a rite of passage. This behavior separates Ecstasy users from the socially acceptable standards of structured society, but at the same time, creates a sense of unity and group identity among the participants of the E culture. Only other members of the E culture will fully accept the behaviors exhibited by fellow users, and only other Ecstasy users can truly understand the experiences and ordeals incurred by Ecstasy use.
Negative side-affects are another aspect of Ecstasy use shared by members of the Ecstasy culture. A raver who forgot to bring something chewable is easily recognised by the self-inflicted bite marks appearing on his or her lips the next day. Aisling pointed out her tell-tale bite marks during the interview, declaring, “Look what happened to my mouth over them.” Chewed lips, bleeding gums, loss of appetite, prominent cheekbones (due to weight loss), mood swings, and bad come downs are some of the ordeals that initiate a person into the Ecstasy culture. Talking about these side-effects is one way they share their experiences from the night before.
Ecstasy use also opens up a whole forum for story telling among peers. Story sharing can be reassuring, as it can provide a coping mechanism for dealing with the fears of the risks involved in taking Ecstasy. Natasha explained, “[if] someone goes, 'Oh yeah, that happened to me too', you think, ‘that's OK, I'm not going to die from this,’ you know? ‘It happens to everyone, it's OK’.” Cory noted, “I'd say in one way like there's fear all right, because they're saying like, please say it happened to one of you as well, that you were starting imagining things as well like...”
Several urban legends have also arisen out of the Ecstasy culture. Some of the ones mentioned in the interviews concerned the effects Ecstasy could have on the user. I was told it sometimes causes blood to boil, brains and organs to burst, that it causes the spinal fluid to drain and permanently alters long-term users’ personalities. Nearly every Ecstasy-taker has a friend or a friend-of-a-friend that collapsed while on Ecstasy, sometimes going into epileptic fits. There are also stories of people who have taken a phenomenal number of Ecstasy tablets in one night. Some of these people died and others lived. Of those that lived, as the story goes, some suffered permanent psychological damage, while others, the legend teller insists, are fine. (Other Ecstasy takers will often dispute the tale, saying that nobody can take that many E tablets and live.)
But mainly, story telling is a way of sharing the experience of Ecstasy with other users. Shannon explained, “…when you're tripping, you'd want everyone to see what you're seeing…” Sheila added, “and they might even be seeing it.”
Sharing these drug stories gives them something to have in common and makes them part of a group. And, Cory explained, they enjoyed telling stories, “for the laugh.” The following excerpts are some of the stories that came up during the interviews:
Natasha: 'Course, I was kissing someone's runners one night when I was off my head. I was! And then I fell in love with a leaf one night. I brought it home with me and I brought it to bed with me, ya know? This fuckin' leaf. And I brought it to work with me the next day and someone put it in the bin on me. It was beautiful, it was a-
Natasha: -a silver leaf, I brought it-
Steven: A funeral, a funeral, did you want a funeral? You were sad?
Natasha: That was horrible, you get a love buzz for something and someone takes it off you! It's a bit poxy, isn't it?
Steven: My buddy was dealing hash to a banister one day, all right. A coat banister. He was fully convinced that the coat banister was a person, looking for a deal, ya know? …
Shannon: we went up to XYZ one time-
Sheila: And we thought we were in a picture
Shannon: -and we all thought we were in a picture, and there I was, guys, look at him, he's flying…
Shannon: …the lights freaked this fellow, he thought the lights were chasing him inside Playground's and he was ducking down [laughter]… Another fellow thought that the Italian Santa Clause was coming down the chimney
Aisling: and here he was 'ahh'-
Cory: 'I'll get you now Santi!'
Aisling: 'You won't climb down my fucking chimney again!' That's what he was saying!
Ravers Unite: Ecstasy Culture, Social Identity and Youth Subculture
Ecstasy is more than a drug; it is a way of life, and taking E is tantamount to being part of the Ecstasy/Rave youth subculture. Clarke, Hall, Jefferson, and Roberts discuss youth subcultures in several works, including Culture, Ideology, and Social Process and Resistance Through Ritual. In these works they define a subculture as a culture that is localised and differentiated from the dominant societal structure. A youth subculture is a subculture limited by age and generation (Clarke et al., 1981). Individuals share a subculture when there is “a set of social rituals which underpin their collective identity and define them as a group instead of as a mere collective of individuals” (Clark et al., 1976:47).
The members of the rave youth subculture are part of a culture that is different from that of their parents and peers. They take part in customary social and recreational habits that only other ravers are involved in, and share experiences that only other ravers can truly understand. These youth share a “privileged generational experience” and a “generational consciousness” and outlook upon their society (Clarke et al. 1981:65). Natasha explained:
It's like, you feel like you're actually involved in the youth culture of [today]. Cause you know the way in the sixties there was all them hippies and all, and now it's rave and E, and we can look back then, in about twenty years then and say we were in that!
The following is a local example of this sense of group identity and unity. During my research for this paper, I was watching an RTE documentary on Ecstasy and Cork’s rave culture with a large group of young people from Cork, several of whom took Ecstasy. The RTE programme discussed increased Ecstasy use in Cork. It focused on drug dealers in the Northside, and concentrated on one pub in particular, a pub notorious for the abundance and easy availability of drugs associated with its name. This pub had recently been closed down, and the news reporter used the boarded up front of this pub as a backdrop for his broadcast. At one point in the broadcast, the camera focused on the words “RAVERS UNITE” written in spray paint across the boarded-up door. All the people in the room cheered as soon as they saw the spray painted words. This message had a much stronger affect than anything the news reporter said about Ecstasy use and its dire effects on the youth of Cork.
In The Subcultures Reader, Sarah Burton explains the role of youth subcultures: “subcultural ideologies are means by which youth imagine their own and other social groups, assert their distinctive character and affirm that they are not anonymous members of an undifferentiated mass” (1997:201). Ecstasy culture is a key part of youth culture in the UK and Ireland, but in Cork, the rave scene has become a much more localised phenomenon. Ecstasy and ravers are associated with Northsiders, and more particularly, Northside youth from Ballyglass. The major rave scene in Cork City, ‘The Playground on a Saturday Night,’ is a Northsider scene. The young people involved in this scene are differentiated from society by two labels, ‘Northsider’ and ‘raver.’ Although a large majority of young people in Cork take E, there is not the same sense of local shared identity as that found among Northsiders in The Playground. The Northside ravers that attend this club have shaped social activities and drug use into a way to connect with other youth from the same area and economic class.
A youth subculture is a means by which the youth respond to and create meaning out of the circumstances in which they are placed by society. They create solutions, imaginary or otherwise, to the problems they face (Clarke et al., 1981). Northsiders are separated from dominant society by the Northside label and by being part of the rave scene. They have responded to and made meaningful their place in society by being part of a group that has its own culture and sense of identity. As ravers, they are part of the rave culture, and as Northsiders, they are part of the Northside youth culture. These two cultures meet in The Playground. The following discussion looks at how Northside youth are marginalised from dominant society and some of the ways that the Northside youth culture responds to this.
Cork’s Northside is physically marked by the River Lee, which separates the Northside from the rest of Cork City. However, a person is not a Northsider solely because they live on the Northside—there are many social distinctions that separate Northsiders as well. Youth identity in Cork is a mixture of socio-geographical location and recreational habits, self-image and projected stereotypes. When I asked the Ballyglass interviewees to define what the Northsider label meant to them and how Northsiders were different than other Cork City inhabitants, Cory declared matter-of-factly, “You'd know the difference between Northsiders and Southsiders.” When I asked the girls what were some of the distinctions, Aisling and Shannon mentioned high drug use. The girls also included “clothes,” “their appearance,” “and the way they talk.”
One of the most distinctive characteristics of a Northsider is the Northside dialect. I asked Michael, Mark, and Martin, “if there was somebody walking down the street and they were a Northsider, would you know right away?” They replied:
Mark: By the accent you might. The slang, like-
Michael: Yeah, the slang of the accent. Ballyglass really has its own language.
Martin: You'd salute him first and see what his reaction would be.
Michael: And they'd be there [he puts on a heavy Ballyglass accent] 'Alright Shammer, what's the story fien.'
Regarding style of dress, Cory explained, “…they used to call Ballyglass Olympic City. D'ya know, 'cause everyone up in Ballyglass used to wear runners and track suits, d'ya know… they used to be calling it Olympic city, you know, like where the ravers would go.” Shannon added, “Now it's known as Paradise, d'you know, Gangster's Paradise.”
The youth interviewed all felt that the Northside label bore definite distinctions that separated Northsiders from the rest of Cork. Their response to this labelisation was to find a source of identity and pride in their Northsider label. The following is an excerpt from the Ballyglass boys’ interview. (The Ballyglass girls gave similar replies.)
Q: And would you feel like you're a 'Northsider,' like you have this identity attached to you?
Mark: I do. I'm proud!
Mark: Not proud of what's going on like, but proud of being a Northside person.
Michael: I'm proud of being a Northsider.
Mark: Proud of being up from Ballyglass.
One of the interesting things I encountered in the interviews was the dual image the interviewees often presented of the Northside. In one part if the interview, they would say the Northside image of higher drug use, drug dealing and stolen cars was true to life, and later in the interview they would refute this. Shannon, for example, stated a few times that drug presence and drug use were much higher in the Northside, but later declared, “No, it's the exact same as everywhere, as everywhere else, except that Ballyglass has a bad reputation.” The following excerpt is another example of a conflicting account concerning the availability of drugs in the neighbourhood:
Shannon: I mean like, out in the Southside now, if you want to look for drugs you'd have to go far, somewhere else, but up in Ballyglass, now, all we have to do is knock on our next door neighbour's house, or in our own house, and there's drugs there.
Aisling: It's true though, like nearly in every terrace you see, that there's dealers, like my next door neighbour, he's a dealer.
Cory: But I mean there's only a small quantity of people who's like that, like there's loads of people up around here. Don't go away with the impression like that every one, second house like, is dealing or anything like. It's just a small number of people, a small crowd that's giving it a bad name.
Identity became a selection process for these Ballyglass youth. They associated themselves with the Northside identity, and at the same time, distanced themselves from various aspects of this identity. They were constantly re-choosing what aspects of the Northside image were meaningful and redefining which facets of their culture they felt were most representative. Overall, the positives mentioned by the Northside youth outweighed any of the negative things they had to say about their neighbourhood:
Mark: Growing up I love it here. I think growing up here is an experience you have to know.
Michael: Yeah. It teaches you something in life.
Mark: Yeah. You know how to deal with things anyway.
A subculture creates solutions to the problems that the youth of that subculture face in society. So what are some of the problems that the Northside youth face and what are the solutions they’ve come up with? Some of the problems that the youth of Ballyglass face are high unemployment, low paying jobs, social alienation, and the negative images and stereotypes that surround them. Michael observed, “…sometimes it will get you down then, what people say about you. You can be one of the quietest people in Ballyglass and they'd still say you're taking drugs and robbing cars and stuff like that.” Northside youth are often stereotyped as joy riders and frequent drug users. Michael commented:
...other people [non-Northsiders] ...they'd be saying “Ah, sure you're probably robbing cars, and what kind of car was out last night? Where did you rob it from? Mine's gone missing, do you know anything about that?” D'ya know? Or “Who's selling these drugs” and who's taking drugs and all that. That's what you get from other people.
The following excerpts contain Michael, Mark, and Martin’s perspectives on the affect that stereotypes and environment have on the Northside youth:
Mark: It affects young children all right I'd say.
Michael: …the younger children now that are growing up now, the past few years, they get used to the bad name, and all the things that are going with it.
Martin: When their moms ask them what they want to be when you grow up, you know, they're all 'joy riders' and, you know? …
Mark: …where I come from now, over the other side of Ballyglass, it was fierce, it was fierce rough, d'you know, growin' up like, and there used to be robbed cars in my terrace every night. And my brother was robbing cars, you know. My brothers now, you know, the two of them are in jail, like. And um, it affects my younger brother, like, seeing them in jail...
Drug use and the rave scene provide an ‘imaginary solution’ to these problems. Steven and Natasha both stated that Ecstasy use provides a form of escapism. The books Substance Misuse in Adolescence by Adams, Gullotta, and Montemayor, and Drug Education by Dusek and Girdano discuss influential factors relating to drug use among adolescents. Dusek and Girdano listed high unemployment and “social alienation”, or the alienation of a group from the dominant society (1980:24). Other factors are boredom and curiosity (Adams et al., 1995; Dusek & Girdano, 1980). Michael remarked of Ballyglass, “You know, nearly everyone you talk to, nearly every teenager you talk to is after trying it and they're saying it's the best thing in the world, and you know, so, that tempts other people into taking them, like.” The Northside parents I talked to said that there is ‘nowhere to go and nothing to do’ for the kids in Ballyglass, and that this greatly adds to the amount of drug use. The younger people I spoke with strongly agreed.
The Ecstasy culture also serves as rite of passage by creating a communita environment that provides a niche for youth in a state of transition. The culture of the rave scene breaks away from childhood activities but separates the Northside adolescents from the adult world. Ecstasy use not only provides a means of entertainment and the experience of a new and different kind of altered awareness, it also provides a sense of euphoria and well being, and gives the user a sense of identity as part of contemporary youth culture.
This youth culture has developed symbols and jargon to describe otherwise indescribable sensations and experiences. The participants of this culture share stories of nights out at clubs and raves, of come downs and strange drug experiences. They have created an environment of escapism set outside of the reality of everyday life, and they are part of a social phenomenon created by the mixing of mind altering substances, music, and recreational habits. The youth belonging to this sub-culture belong to a group that stands outside socially accepted norms, but shares a sense of belonging within its own sub-society.
A person from the Northside, and more specifically, Ballyglass, is socio-geographically defined by where she or he is from. A young person that takes Ecstasy and attends raves bears the label “raver” and is defined by society based on recreational habits and choice in lifestyle. Many of the youth from Ballyglass are involved in Cork’s rave scene, and therefore bear the double label of Northsider and raver. The Northside youth have made the major rave scene in Cork City, The Playground on a Saturday night, their rave scene. The Northsider ravers have formed their own youth sub-culture that combines Ecstasy culture and group identity.
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 The drug Ecstasy (MDMA: methylene-dioxymethamphetamine) is structurally related to both stimulants and hallucinogens, but its effects are somewhat divergent from either. Ecstasy was originally invented for medicinal purposes, but modified by street chemists to form a new street drug, or ‘designer drug.’ Ecstasy evokes a feeling of euphoria and a general sense of well being. It can also produce a range of other effects, from the stimulant-like symptoms of high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, profuse sweating, and agitation, to the hallucinogenic-like effects of paranoia, visuals, and erratic mood swings (American Red Cross, 1991:324). Frequent Ecstasy use causes weight loss, loss of appetite, bleeding gums, dehydration, mood swings and loss of interest in daily life, such as school or work. The long-term side-effects of Ecstasy are still unknown (Cohen, 1998; Tyler, 1995).
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