Here’s a walk through a history of Irish festivals, from mass and Feile to the Beat on the Street
Modern music festivals are a rite of passage, an important transitional period when growing 40-year-olds leave their toddlers with an elderly parent so that they can realise, in a safe environment, that they don’t like new bands, hate being outdoors and find young people upsetting.
In order to ease these people into middle age, festivals are now designed to resemble a broadsheet weekend supplement, crammed with artisanal food and popular columnists giving talks about electoral reform.
It wasn’t always thus. Over the centuries there have been many interesting festivals and proto-festivals at home and abroad – all with very different agendas. I have gathered the more notable ones here for educational purposes.
1 The Eucharistic Congress, Dublin 1932:
Okay, who likes mass? Well, what about a really big mass featuring Count John McCormack singing all his best bangers in the Phoenix Park followed by a fleet of ocean liners docking in the Liffey and the blessing of 500,000 people on O’Connell Street by Legolas (editor’s note: I think you mean the Papal Legate)? I had you at “mass”, didn’t I?
2 The Web Summit:
I went to this a few years ago because I read in Wired Magazine that tech companies were the new rock’n’roll. However, as I stood in the auditorium trying to “air code” as a Silicon Valley billionaire discussed how to best dismantle the social welfare system and jail the poor, it occurred to me that this was, in fact, a load of neo-liberal bollocks. Sadly, I had already invested all my money in a company that said it was the “Twitter for cats” and so had to intern my way to freedom much like the protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
3 Drinking a flagon of Bulmers in a ditch, Kildare 1992:
This was my first experience of “festival” life and it’s also surely evidence of an idyllic rural childhood ( Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee was written, I believe, on a similar theme). Compared to modern festivals it was a little primitive. The sound system was a drunk friend crooning a Stone Roses song from the ditch next door and the catering was a cold batter-burger crammed in the pocket of my army jacket. It was still better than Oxygen.
4 Daniel O’Connell’s Monster Meetings:
I don’t really need to research this one because I can so well recall my grandfather singing traditional songs about these important and very well-attended events. “It was the mash, it was a monster mash,” he would croon nasally, a finger in his ear. “It was the mash, it was a graveyard smash,” he would add with spooky patriotic glee. What with the line-up of ghouls and fiends recounted in the song it’s no surprise “The Great Liberator” achieved catholic emancipation.
5 Feiles 1 to 5:
See Drinking a flagon of Bulmers in a ditch, but with added The Stunning, Transvision Vamp, Meat Loaf and laying waste to the town of Thurles, which no one has seen since.
6 The Pope’s Visit:
My memory of this event is that Sesame Street wasn’t on due to the television coverage and I was quite disappointed. About 2.5 million people went out to see the infallible fellow (Note to self: pitch Fall Guy spin-off called Infallible Fellow about a Pope turned stuntman). He stuck to his greatest hit (mass) and his warm-up acts were Fr Michael Cleary and Bishop Eamon Casey, a wacky club duo who really, really hated condoms and went on to demonstrate this in their personal lives.
7 The Summerisle festival:
An island gathering of animal-masked folk-music enthusiasts and wicker craftsmen. Highly recommended for non-virginal folk from the mainland who are relaxed and incurious about local disappearances.
8 The Beat on the Street:
In the 1980s, a State-funded lorry would sometimes come to our town. All the young people would be rounded up, much like in The Hunger Games, and they were made to dance to the playlist of the terrifying Electric Eddie. He wore a white jumpsuit with loads of zips. The young people wore massive jeans. This story is often dismissed as an old folk tale, but I swear to you it happened. The Beat on the Street is what we had instead of YouTube and Omega 3. (Now sleep children, and tomorrow I will tell of Murphy’s Micro Quiz-M).
9 The Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway Races:
This is what used to be called a “boutique festival”. Each year, tax-efficient “wealth creators” ate roast swan and dodo eggs while riding politicians like donkeys and getting bits of the sea rezoned for housing. It was basically Ireland’s answer to Bohemian Grove (a US institution where millionaires worship a big owl) and was ultimately replaced by the Mindfield arena at Electric Picnic.
10 The second summer of love:
I’m not hugely qualified to discuss the illegal rave scene of the late 1980s/ early 1990s. I was only ever at one rave in my life. I felt the music was too loud and I was overcome by the smell of Vicks vapour rub. After whining about this for a while, I accepted a headache tablet from a man I took to be a policeman because he kept blowing a whistle (“He sure is spotting a lot of crimes,” I thought).
I was, shortly afterwards, filled with a sense of love and empathy for everyone and everything in the cosmos. This was horrible and I vowed there and then that I would never feel anything like that again. The next day I became a journalist.
The Pope stuck to his greatest hit (mass) and his warm-up act were Fr Michael Cleary and Bishop Eamon Casey, a wacky club duo who really, really hated condoms and went on to demonstrate this in their personal lives
Massive gig: Pope John Paul II in Dublin in 1979