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Saturday 18 August 2018

When Dublin's grunge festival was pure Nirvana

Nirvana.
Nirvana.
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Any piece of radio which opens with a snippet of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is automatically gold in my book. So it was with this week's 'Hidden Histories' on On the Record (Newstalk, Sun 11am), in which historian Donal Fallon looked back at the 1990s Dublin-based grunge festival Sunstroke.

It was somewhat disturbing to be reminded by Donal that "the 1990s is now history" - it's not really, is it? It couldn't be - but that aside, this was as mightily entertaining as, well, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.

Times change and tastes change, he said, and festival line-ups always reflect the charts of the time. So, while Electric Picnic might nowadays be dominated by electronica and hip-hop, Sunstroke was "riding the wave" of the seminal Seattle sound.

Ireland's first outdoor festival, Donal said, didn't take place until 1970, but we "got good at it very quickly" and are now "a festival-mad people - which is ironic, given the weather we have." Sunstroke, he added wryly, was a very optimistic name for an Irish festival.

It ran for a few years from 1993, with tickets for the first event £23.75 - quite a lot in those penurious days. Tony Connelly of this newspaper wrote of Sunstroke: "It's clear that something phenomenal is happening in Ireland". That opening 'Teen Spirit' riff alone merits the term, sure.

On the weekly 'Tell Me Why' section of Moncrieff (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 2pm), they were asking: why do sign languages differ around the world? Which is a very good question.

You'd imagine that here at least is one area where the entire planet could communicate easily. But according to our expert, Dr Graham Finlay, of UCD's School of Politics and International Relations, British and American sign language (for instance) can't talk to each other - their alphabets are different.

Ultimately, he explained, it was only when they formed coherent communities that deaf people developed sign language. So, rather like with the spoken version, different forms sprung up in different places.

The first sign language is believed to have been created on Martha's Vineyard in the US. The most famous, Graham reckoned, was established by The Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée in Paris.

Apart from answering the question, this was a fascinating history of a fascinating subject: language itself. Graham ranged over its origins, the story of Adam and Eve, Hebrew scholars' search for the first language, the philosopher John Locke, how Indo-European tongues derived from a group of nomads who traversed the continent and supplanted the natives, and much more.

Some scholars, he said, believe that language originated in gesture; others that it came from song. And there's a social quality of language: it's based around trust, because words (as we know) can deceive. I found it all hugely interesting. And such a pleasure to be enlightened by a clever person who knows their stuff and wears their learning lightly.

The rise of the machines - or self-driving cars, at least - was addressed on Today with Sean O'Rourke (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 10am). A US woman was recently killed by one of these - as Anton Savage explained - cars with "the capability to drive themselves", though not unsupervised.

Oddly, the bad publicity hasn't scuppered the idea of self-drive cars. Author Christian Wolmar is firmly against this "technology that nobody wants, doesn't work and is not living up to expectations. Why are we developing technology which will put tens of thousands of people out of work, which nobody has asked for?"

Hard to argue with that, really.

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