by Natasha Rainey
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Photo provided by Caoimhe O’Connell

Goths, emos and punks are some of Belfast’s most prominent personalities. Usually seen congregating outside City Hall, touring to St Anne’s Square or overflowing the now derelict venue, the goths, punks and emos are a natural force in the ecosystem of Belfast’s developing social culture.

Parading the city adorned in Fresh Garbage attire, the customary studded belts and chunky boots to stomp their ground, the kids your parents didn’t want you to be were relentless. However, their numbers largely dwindled since their peak in the 00s. I caught up with some of Belfast’s veteran goths, punks and emos to trace the trajectory of the subcultures from Northern Ireland’s dominant politics to the social media revolution.

It is characteristic of cities to embrace difference and reject the norm. In Belfast’s case, difference paradoxically became a refuge for young people to escape the trauma of The Troubles and political strife integrated throughout Northern Ireland. Caoimhe O’Connell, a committed punk among the City Hall anarchists, said: “Belfast was always quite unique because of the continuation of the 70s punk scene, it was one of the strongest in the world. This carried on through the 80s, and during The Troubles, music was the one thing people still bonded over.”

“I think during the 00s people began to gather at City Hall as a continuation of this alternative culture that had stayed connected throughout The Troubles. This was the re-emergence, the next generation starting to go back into town. We didn’t talk about politics, we didn’t talk about religion - we talked about music and bands and what t-shirt you were going to get from Fresh Garbage. I think it was the beginning of a reconciliation.”

The idea that identifying as a goth, punk or emo as a form of rebellion is ironic in that seeking shelter through this seemingly radical identity was escapism from the institutionalised sectarianism in Northern Ireland. This is perhaps a more personal issue for some more than others, but the reformation of the Northern Irish identity came through embracing a new form of difference and distancing one’s self from mainstream politics and religion that served as tools for coding the “norm.”

In rejecting the mainstream, through the development of subcultures grew more juxtaposition. Caoimhe said: “City Hall was like a carnival – on one side there were the black clothes, piercings, ‘don’t look at me’ goths but when everyone came together, we were like any other group of teenagers.” What may appear as groups shrouded in misery were young people grappling with self-expression, solicited solely by the more socially accepting city of Belfast.

Illustration provided by ︎Benji Connell

Somehow, also shaped by religion and politics, were the safe spaces. Hotspots for goths, punks and emos are: City Hall, Waterfront, under the bridge at the Royal Mail (“New York”), Custom House Square (“News Spot”), across the road from St Anne’s Cathedral. Micky Murray, a chief goth of the 00s scene, said, “we just went from spot to spot” because, “we thought where is the one place we can go to? And I think even our parents were happy for us to go there. A sort of safe area to go to.” Neutral pockets around Belfast allowed these teenagers to socialise without a religious motivation or political agenda, “I didn’t even know what religion my friends were. I went to a state school which was probably 99% Protestant, but I never identified with that part of my life,” said Micky.

Beyond Belfast however, the status quo was sustained. Smaller towns around Northern Ireland were yet to experience this social regeneration; some are still making their way there. Micky both expressed their fondness for Belfast specifically: “I didn’t know there was goth culture in other places in Northern Ireland, obviously people lived outside of Belfast, but I had friends from Omagh who came to Belfast and a group from Lisburn”. Caoimhe, originally from Belfast who now lives in a rural town in Donegal, said, “we had people from all over Northern Ireland just to come and stand at City Hall.”

Just travelling for a taste of solidarity, the newfound groups in the city’s quarters have shaped generations of the subcultures. Now an Alliance Party MP, Micky said: “I’m gay, I came out to my family in my early 20s and came out to everyone else when I was about 14. A lot of that was because I was in Belfast hanging out with people from all over the place and everyone was a minority in a way. Everyone was so open and what progressive society is now, we were all there so many years ago. Minorities can be more progressive because there’s been that form of oppression.”

Nonetheless, goth, punks and emos are very three distinct identity categories. Their secular communities maintained their own different styles and music tastes; albeit the social media revolution has played a great role in diluting the strict boundaries of each culture. “Over the last decade, there was all of us at Waterfront and there were hundreds of us – you don’t have that anymore,” Micky said. Whether everything has moved online, or the cliques are more spread out now is up for investigation.

Kaya Lili, a.k.a. Toxic Tears, a Youtuber and veteran goth from Belfast said: “the internet has changed things a lot. It’s brought a lot of good, but it’s also brought a lot of problems and negativity. It’s nice that it’s so easy to find so many people who have similar interests, it’s SO much easier to find things like music these days, there’s a lot more available in general. But some days, with all the negativity and fighting and misinformation, not to mention things often feeling sort of ‘watered down’,  I do find myself missing the days when the internet wasn’t such a HUGE part of our lives. The irony of that, considering social media is literally my job, is not lost on me.” In a society that seems almost flipped since the early 00s, its trendy to be alternative and the binary of goth and punk or emo no longer stand so stark.

Belfast may have been ahead of its game in the wake of goths, punks and emos; however, through the rise and fall of Facebook, the boom of Instagram and now the emergence of Tik Tok, identity categories have never seemed so ubiquitous but also undefined. Northern Ireland’s religious and political faculties are progressing, but it is the foundations laid by goths, punks and emos that have allowed social media to build on subcultures exponentially since the crowds at City Hall began to disappear. Wherever Northern Ireland goes from here, there remains a safe space for more than just younger generations to explore difference.

One last piece of advice from Caoimhe: “Be who you are even if it goes against the rules of the subculture that you want to be a part of. And don’t be afraid to take a sleggin’.

“Taking a sleggin’ means you’re ruffling feathers -which is always a good thing.”