Entertainment Festivals

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Tom Dunne’s Féile odyssey

Tom Dunne performing with Something Happens this summer on the main stage at Groove at Killruddery House, Bray. Picture: Tony Gavin
Tom Dunne performing with Something Happens this summer on the main stage at Groove at Killruddery House, Bray. Picture: Tony Gavin

Tom Dunne

History will record that I played the first Féile - Semple Stadium, 1990 - in green shorts and with a hairstyle that would have been more at home in a Birmingham Six biopic than on a rock stage. If we wanted a quick snapshot of how naïve the times were then that's it right there. Louis Walsh later asked me if we'd had stylists. "Louis," I replied, "we didn't even have mirrors."

But no one had known what to expect, least of all the bands. There had never been a three-day festival in Ireland before. I drove to the festival in my own car, through the mayhem of the main street and up to the entrance. There I beeped my horn to gain admittance. I was devoid of any ticket, wristband, stamp, loyalty scheme, Access All Areas laminate or car pass. "I'm playing," I simply said. "Throw it up there so," I was told.

Backstage was a wonderland. We visited the other bands' dressing rooms to make sure they didn't have anything we didn't. We sipped a beer and swapped 'on the road' tales because at that time we - Something Happens, The Four of Us, The Hot House Flowers and An Emotional Fish - were pretty much touring all the time. Bliss it was that dawn to be alive and to be young was very heaven, as the man said, but to be young, alive and in a band at Féile, phew… there were no words.

And then we played. Nothing prepared us for it. We had sold out big venues in Ireland and played big stages in Europe and the US but nothing like this. A wave of affection hit us like a tsunami. I surveyed our audience: a sea of Italia 90-infused Irish men and women intent on having a good time. I saw friends, sisters, brothers, messers, gougers, fine things, chancers, loyal fans and blow ins. People were throwing beach balls. There was a human pyramid. It all ended too soon.

That night the backstage entertainment was the icing on the cake. The backstage bar had a small stage and all the bands that played performed again. Paul Brady was the highlight. I sat enthralled. It felt like we were in the inner sanctum. We felt briefly the equals of people we knew we could never really be the equals of, people whose names we had written on our school bags.

In the years that followed we returned to Féile many times but nothing matched the magic of the first year. Extra stages were added, new headline acts emerged, there were attempts made to introduce proper toilets and decent food and the curse of proper ticketing started to assert itself. All of these things were necessary, but a certain charm was lost.

In retrospect, what we were seeing was the evolution of festivals, to the gold standard now in evidence at the Picnic or All Together Now. Those early Féiles were more like a gaelteacht holiday gone terribly wrong - or wonderfully right -depending on your viewpoint. Your parents might have packed food and clean clothes for you but you lost them on the first day. And you didn't miss them.

When the idea of a return Trip to Tipp was first mooted I didn't really expect the love that broke out. The idea of hearing songs such as 'Parachute', 'Don't Go', 'After All', 'Mary', 'Celebrate' and 'Brewing up a Storm' performed with the Irish Chamber Orchestra whet my appetite immediately. I am in radio now. I play those songs often. I know how good and how enduring and how much a part of the Irish canon they are. And to reimagine them with strings was mouth-watering.

My main job as curator was to make sure the bands chosen for the festival would complement each other and somehow just belong together. I was delighted by the level of enthusiasm shown by all involved and, so far, conversations with each group have been the usual hilarious out-of-school mischief that I have come to love.

I wasn't, however, ready for the public reaction. My first interview to announce the return of Féile was with Ian Dempsey on TodayFM. That was 7.40am. By 11am I had been invited on to almost every daytime RTÉ show to discuss the gig. By lunchtime Leo Varadkar was tweeting his delight. The Late Late Show followed; the gig sold out in minutes.

Ken Rice (ex Engine Alley) is the man mostly tasked with the ICO arrangements. Those that I have heard are remarkable. These are songs that each of the bands have held close to their hearts. Over what has not always been the greatest of times - life, good and bad, happens to us all - these songs have been ever present friends and enduring mementoes of a magic time.

It's going to be great!

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