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Thursday 23 January 2020

Woodstock it was not, but the Trip to Tipp was mighty

It was the festival that gave us the headline 'Teenage ­Mutant Binge at Thurles', and it's back. ­Damian Corless recalls Féile

Pure and Semple: The Trip to Tipp in 1993. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection
Pure and Semple: The Trip to Tipp in 1993. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

They say that nostalgia ain't what it used to be, and that adage will be put to the test on September 22 when the Féile music fest returns to Thurles for one night only. The brainchild of singer Tom Dunne, Féile Classical will reunite veterans of the early 1990s jamborees including The Stunning, Hothouse Flowers, The Four Of Us and Dunne's own band Something Happens.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra will supply sophisticated backing and full seating will ensure ample back support.

A claim much bandied about is that the Trip To Tipp was "our Woodstock". Not in any cutting-edge musical sense it wasn't.

The claims made for it at the time were far more modest, with one spokesperson summing up the fare as spanning "hip newer bands, to boring old farts to the best of Irish". During Féile's Semple Stadium heyday, with the honourable exceptions of dance trailblazers like The Prodigy and Happy Mondays, boring old farts colonised the top slots.

But that hardly mattered, because Féile wasn't primarily about the musical mishmash. It was a rallying point for the young people of Ireland who, as our leaders never tired of telling them, were our greatest national asset. Three years after U2 had conquered the world with The Joshua Tree, our politicians had cottoned on that there were votes and revenue in cosying up to pop culture. Urban district councillors were falling over themselves to confer the freedom of their municipality on any local who could strap on a guitar. Féile itself was the pet project of FG TD Michael Lowery to spin money for Tipperary GAA.

Early 1990s Ireland was on the cusp of something. No one knew for sure that we'd reached a tipping point from austerity to prosperity, but there was a tantalising feel-good factor out there. Everything, it seemed, was finally coming up roses. Sinéad O'Connor had just gone to No 1 around the world, and Donegal's Enya was far outselling the Dubliner. My Left Foot had just picked up two Oscars, while Patrick Bergin - known mostly as the brother of Glenroe's villainous Dick Moran - had come from nowhere to star opposite Julia Roberts in the Hollywood blockbuster Sleeping with the Enemy. And just when we thought things couldn't get any better, Jack Charlton's footballers returned home three weeks before that first Féile as the clear moral victors of Italia 90.

What's striking about those early Trips To Tipp was how much emphasis and pride was laid on the logistics, foreshadowing all those Celtic Tiger construction schemes to come. By 1993, the boast was that Féile was bigger than Glastonbury or Reading festivals, and that on the back of a strong British marketing campaign, it was actually luring punters from those traditional fixtures. The main stage was one of the world's biggest, and fitted with a state-of-the-art traffic light system warning acts they had 10 minutes (green), five minutes (amber) and one minute remaining (red) to clear off or face a fine. Prefiguring the boom, Féile was a mission statement to the wider world from a newly confident Ireland along the lines of anything you can do, we can do better.

Some innovations were faddishly of their time, like the Video Confession Box disclosures broadcast by Dustin The Turkey on the giant screens of Féile TV. There were touches of ingenuity, too. In the days when mobile phones were still bricky and patchy, motorcycle couriers with pagers were a key link in the communications network for a festival that took over an entire townland. Some of the biggest stars on the planet, Bryan Adams included, discovered that the easiest way to move around the sprawling site was to stick on a crash helmet and move through the crowds unnoticed on the back of a motorbike as the courier's special delivery package.

There were downsides. There was camp-site chaos at the second Féile when campers, unable to sleep because of the din, pulled the plugs on noisy generators, leading to scenes of pitch-dark chaos. And the queues for the ladies toilets proved an intractable never-ending story. A Féile spokesman didn't help when he suggested it was an unwinnable battle, saying: "Ladies just take longer than men in the jacks. The only way to speed them up is to remove the mirrors." Chris de Burgh's engagement of a scantily clad woman for 'Patricia The Stripper' emphasised that Ireland was still much closer in time to the 1970s than to 2018.

Throwbacks aside, the early Féiles were a signpost towards an optimistic new departure, though for at least one band the Trip To Tipp turned out to be the end of the line. The outfit arrived into the hospitality tent after finishing a deserted lunchtime slot. As they drowned their sorrows, their guitarist announced he'd had enough and was quitting the band. Hundreds looked on in astonishment, as his bandmates gave him a spectacular send off, punching him across a big picnic table sending beer glasses flying in a bar-room brawl scene worthy of Dodge City. It was shocking to watch, but it did in part inspire the headline 'Teenage Mutant Binge At Thurles,' which I'm proud to claim as all my own work.

When Féile left Semple Stadium after 1994 it was like Spurs relocating to Wembley. Home advantage was lost and the atmosphere was gone. Most of all, though, the moment had passed.

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