From Sunstroke to Lisdoonvarna to Carnsore Point - a history of music festivals in Ireland
Summer festival-going is now as much a rite of passage for Irish kids as two weeks in Magaluf after the Leaving. With annual doses of Longitude, Forbidden Fruit, Life, Body & Soul, Castlepalooza, Indiependence, Electric Picnic, and what feels like a zillion more to choose from, it's simply a question of how many, and which?
And it's not just the kids. It's their parents, too. A generation who came of age Tripping to and in Tipp, have shown themselves unwilling to stay home just because they are now 45 and parents; particularly given that the scene they once endured in all its physical rigours has matured so nicely. Yes, festival-going has become a national pastime. But it wasn't always thus, and so, as you check the fraying on your denim cut-offs and wonder will the plaid shirt work across various weather fronts, take a moment to wonder how we got here.
If You Can Remember It… There is as much machismo around festival-going as any other aspect of Irish social life, a kind of competitive oneupmanship that takes the form of listing horrors and hardships. Fond reminisces of days of driving rain, mud to the waist, burgers made of sawdust and getting lost for two days, off your face on dodgy pills while your friends were snug in the VIP tent with Russell Brand…
In fairness, there was plenty to boast about in the hardship stakes. Early prototype Irish festivals were very rough and ready. "Imagine a world without proper telephones," recalls one concert promoter who has been at the heart of the Irish music scene for 40 years. "No email, no ticket distribution, no security-designed tickets. No proper security firms or enough crew to make the whole thing work. Untrained scaffolders with rusty scaffolding; plywood held down with nails and screws…" He could go on, but gets sidetracked by a story that pretty much says all there is to say: "The guys at one festival, to try and solve their 'poo' problem, bought a big steel storage tank, the sort of thing that is buried under every filling station forecourt. So far a great idea, until the helpers installing it didn't quite connect the main pipe from the toilets at the surface to the tank. All the excavation clay was filled in, and all appeared to be working, until cometh the hordes! The stuff flowed down the pipe, but missed the tank. On about the third day, (now forever called 'the turd day'), there was enough liquid swilling around underground for the empty tank to float upwards and come to the surface like a giant U-boat covered in shite in the middle of the camping site."
For most of us, music festivals began with Lisdoonvarna, as immortalised by Christy Moore. Begun in 1978, the Lisdoonvarna Folk Festival ran every year until 1983, when a combination of violence and tragedy brought it to an end. This was Ireland's take on Woodstock, but booking international acts was tough in the days of the Troubles. The brave few, including Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Emmylou Harris and Planxty played to crowds that included a smattering of English and German hippies, Hare Krishnas and Hells Angels, along with students and left-wing revolutionaries.
Sadly, it all came a cropper in 1983, when a skirmish on what was fondly known as 'Toilet Hill,' got out of hand. A biker gang had apparently been asked to provide back-up security, and were rumoured to have been part-paid in beer (clearly, the lessons of Altamont and the infamous 1969 Rolling Stones' gig had not been learned). The bikers went about their duties none too gently. A riot broke out; some tents were burned; many motorbikes were pushed over. Much worse, at a nearby beach, eight festival-goers were drowned in an unrelated incident, and the spirit of Lisdoonvarna died.
The Gods of Rock
For the less folksy among us, there was Dalymount Park in 1977, entrance fee, £4 - the country's first full-on open-air rock concert, with the Boomtown Rats and Thin Lizzy. The vibe that day was described in the handwritten Heat magazine thus: "What did we see? Groups of hippies equipped with sleeping bags, denims and dope, and even worse, for god's sake, gangs of Lizzie loonies, decked out with Lizzy posters, Lizzy knickers etc etc". One Lizzy fan lucky enough to have been there, recalls "everything smelling of wet wool, like a sheep dip, as jumpers were soaked in sweat and beer".
The 1990s were fertile festival ground, a decade where festival-going switched from something fairly niche - an esoteric activity for the music-mad and the counter-cultural - to a more general free-for-all. Feile, from 1990 to 1997, had a lot to do with this. These were the glory years, where love of music was far less a prerequisite than love of beer and mayhem. Those seven years were where many of us cut our festival teeth, to the point that, post-Feile, the idea of Irish summers without festivals became impossible.
The rapid evolution of our musical taste saw early grassroots-style performers such as Meat Loaf, Big Country and Elvis Costello, entirely superseded by mega dance acts, including The Prodigy and Orbital, as well as Manic Street Preachers and The Stone Roses. By 1995, Thurles had had its fill of vomit and spilled chips, and Feile was moved to Cork. That was also the year free condoms were distributed to concert-goers, and Kylie - who still needed a surname in those days - appeared on a side stage, making her transition from teenybopper to dance diva.
Liss Ard, which ran from 1997 to 1999, had perhaps a smattering more music credibility than Feile, bringing in Pulp, Nick Cave, Lou Reed and Patti Smith.
Throughout, there was Slane, begun in 1981 under the benign gaze of Henry Mount Charles, Ireland's answer to Glasto's Michael Eavis. As reliable as white bread, Slane was, and is, an annual delight, where the weather always seemed magically better than anywhere else. Over the years Bob Dylan, Queen, Guns N' Roses, Bruce Springsteen, U2, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones have rocked crowds of 100,000-strong.
That Was Then
Many more, too numerous to mention - Self Aid in 1986; the aptly-named Sunstroke, Dalymount Park in 1993 and 1994; Siamsa Cois Laoi, which ran for 10 years from 1978, and where, in 1980, Taoiseach Charles Haughey took to the stage with The Dubliners. Then there were the altogether more ramshackle festivals, Larks In The Park and By The Lee, where a general spirit of "sure, we'll turn up and see…" ruled and U2 were a good bet for unexpected appearances, including one memorable one in Cork a few weeks after Live Aid.
The point was, we had learned to love the festival, and were unwilling to do without. No Irish summer could be complete without days in fields and tents, whatever the weather. But, we also learned to be demanding. Terrible loos and inedible food, badly resourced campsites and wonky organisation, became a problem. We wanted our festivals with a modicum of comfort and elegance.
Witnness, later known as Oxegen, did the job for a while, first at Fairyhouse and then Punchestown, introducing the notion of proper loos, better food, and added value (in this case, a funfair). This then properly took off with Electric Picnic, which identified all our needs, including the ones we didn't yet know we had.
Bye-bye revolting burger-and-chip vans and makeshift stalls selling tins of cola and snack bars. Electric Picnic is where Irish festivals morphed into something 'boutique', where the idea of 'glamping' brought in yurts and family-friendly campsites. The concept of 'street food' took off, as did many and various add-ons: literary events, henna tattoos, phone-charging, hairdressers, masseuses, oxygen bars; everything decked in fairy lights and magic pixie dust.
And even though every year the crowds get bigger and the old-timers start to mutter about 'over-exposed' and 'used to be so much better…' in the end, none of that matters. We know why we're here.
Festivals to never forget
They were all wonderful in their own way, but in the years of festival-going in this country, a few stick out in memory for being particularly fabulous, odd, unexpected, and sometimes all three.
Carnsore Point, 1978
A free festival to protest against the building of a nuclear plant. Christy Moore, left, Clannad, and many happy hippies. Oh, and still no power plant.
Fleadh Mor Tramore, 1993
The one that cost Vince Power his shirt. Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Van Morrison, above, great weather, and (alas for Vince) almost no crowds.
Homelands, Mosney, 2000
Wins ‘oddest festival location’ award. Primal Scream, above, Leftfield, 20,000 ravers, many, bizarrely, waving stolen Mitsubishi car showroom flags.