Almost 60,000 spectators fetched up at Semple Stadium in Thurles on September 2nd, 1984, for that year’s All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Offaly. It was the first time since 1909 that the decider had been played outside of what has long been the sport’s traditional home, Croke Park in Dublin, marking the centenary of the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Hayes’s Hotel in the mid-Tipperary town one hundred years previously.
But were it not for the decision to locate that game in Thurles – a game won by Cork – it’s debateable whether or not Féile, the fondly-recalled live music festival that launched on the same ground six years later, would ever have seen the light of day.
I’ve written previously about the G.A.A.’s role in the growth of live entertainment in Ireland, and particularly it’s hosting of music events of scale. The association – often in the face of strong opposition from within its own membership – has long sub-contracted its considerable facilities, social networks and the good-will of many of its volunteers, to live concert promoters and has benefitted financially in return. For a cultural and sporting organisation founded on volunteerism and boasting, for the most part, an amateur ethos, this has provided a regular existentialist headache.
And I saw this for the first time as a ten year-old boy at my father’s elbow at ‘Siamsa Cois Laoí’, a one-day folk and traditional music event that ran at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork from the late 1970s and which was conceived to defray – through rental income from the use of the ground and agreed percentages of any profits – some of the debts incurred during the building of the then recently completed stadium.
Across the county bounds in Tipperary, Semple Stadium – a vast, open bowl surrounding a playing surface as wide as its legend – required a considerable refurbishment in order to make it fit enough to host that centenary hurling final in 1984. A local working group led, as tended to be custom at the time, by a high-profile local curate, Fr. Pierce ‘Pierry’ Duggan, over-saw the project and, once the works were completed, had accumulated a debt of well over £1m. Duggan, who later left the priesthood and went on to work in the horse racing industry, clearly left his mark in Thurles. ‘Sure he stepped on the odd toe’, said Liz Howard of the Tipperary County Board in lauding him after the successful staging of the 1984 All-Ireland. ‘But he didn’t go to bed at all the night before The Munster Final’. ‘Fr. Pierry didn’t spare the gelignite’, added another, un-named local G.A.A. associate in a piece on him in The Irish Press in February, 1989.
In 1984, Michael Lowry was a swarthy, ambitious and connected local politician with serious aspirations. Then a Fine Gael councillor and about to take the reins as the youngest ever chairman of the Tipperary County Board, he was once memorably described to me as ‘like Bobby Kennedy crossed with Bobby Ewing … in every respect’, and his political support base was rooted, to a large extent, on the profile he enjoyed within local G.A.A. circles. Lowry had also replaced Pierce Duggan as Chairman of the Semple Stadium Management Committee by the time he was elected to Dáil Éireann as a T.D. for Tipperary North for the first time at the 1987 general election.
Had the ball broken differently, Féile might easily have started life as a one-nighter headlined by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. Lowry and the Semple Stadium Management Committee were, at one point, in discussions with the Cork-born promoter, Oliver Barry, and had attempted to snare the American country artists for a high-end, quick- win live show at the ground. But relations with Barry who, as well as managing the careers of The Wolfe Tones and Stockton’s Wing, also promoted ‘Siamsa Cois Laoí’ and, subsequently, live shows by Michael Jackson, Prince and U2 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, soon ran aground. Between them they just couldn’t make the numbers work :- as Lowry told the Tipperary County Board’s annual convention in 1986, the staging of a live concert was ‘an absolute minefield’ that couldn’t be undertaken ‘without a third-party guaranteeing to underwrite it’.
Michael Lowry’s term as chairman of the Tipperary County Board coincided with a long-overdue revival in the fortunes of the county’s senior hurling team. By the time he took the chair in 1985, the self-styled ‘home of hurling’ was fourteen years without an All-Ireland title. Lowry drove a fundamental over-haul of key structures within the Tipperary set-up and, under the management of Michael ‘Babs’ Keating, an emerging team lost the 1988 All-Ireland hurling final to Galway, before eventually claiming the title the following year after a facile victory over Antrim.
The official home-coming of that winning team, captained by Bobby Ryan, was attended by a crowd estimated locally at 25,000 and, despite the usual pulling and dragging within local G.A.A. circles, was re-imagined by Lowry, who constructed a live entertainment event around it and charged locals £5 a skull for the privilege of welcoming the county’s best players back to Tipperary. Instead of introducing the team and it’s mentors from the back of a customised trailer in the middle of Thurles as would have traditionally been the case, a full stage was erected at the Killinan End of Semple Stadium instead, from where The Wolfe Tones, a rabble-rousing ballad group in the worst traditions of the genre, fluffed the punters from early with a ninety-minute set. After the team had been presented to the supporters, and Babs Keating had knocked out his party piece, ‘Slievenamon’, another popular cabaret turn, Joe Dolan, headlined the show into the night. And slowly but surely cleared the stadium.
By successfully planning ahead and charging supporters to attend a team home-coming – sold, on the surface at least, in the interests of health and safety and adequate crowd control – Michael Lowry had broken with two long-running G.A.A. traditions at once, a formidable feat on any level within the association. And in an interview with The Nenagh Guardian the week before the 1989 All-Ireland final, he pre-empted any fall-out by taking issue with those – and they were many – who felt the County Board was exploiting supporters.
‘We have often heard the G.A.A. being described as the Grab All Association’, he remarked. ‘But we are not grabbing in this instance. We are providing entertainment, the like of which you would not get anywhere for £5’. And on the night, not only did Lowry and his group succeed in staging a trouble-free, well-run event, they’d also show-cased Semple Stadium’s credentials and turned over good coin. According to end-of-year Board accounts, the home-coming generated a profit of £23,000, of which £11,000 was given to the Tipperary Supporters’ Club and used ultimately to pay for a team holiday for the All-Ireland winners.
Less than a year later – on Friday afternoon, August 2nd, 1990 – Pat Scannell loaded four of us into his old beater and faced it for Thurles. Not, as would have been the norm, to see Munster championship hurling but, rather, to sample the opening night fare at the first ever Féile live music weekend in Semple Stadium, promoted by Denis Desmond’s Dublin-based MCD operation. And devised – and successfully piloted in skeletal form the previous September at that Tipperary home-coming – by Michael Lowry.
There’s been an awful lot of talk in the years since – and in the last fortnight, especially – about Féile and the place it occupies in recent Irish social history. But it’s probably fair to say that, as we set out on the ninety-minute drive from Cork that evening, none of us quite knew what to expect at the other end.
Like many others, we’d travelled out of absolute curiosity and, if anything, to see Big Country, who were then four fine albums into a decent career and who, to their credit, managed to sate at least three distinct music tastes assembled in Pat’s car. That opening night line-up also included the Dublin-based soft rockers, No Sweat, the never- quite-completely-there indie squall of Thee Amazing Colossal Men [with Garrett ‘Jacknife’ Lee, now one of rock music’s foremost and in-demand producers, on guitar] and another old friend of this site, Meat Loaf, as the star turn. The rest of the weekend’s bill was populated by Van Morrison, Deacon Blue, That Petrol Emotion, The Stunning, Hothouse Flowers and an assortment of local add-ons. Weekend tickets cost £29.50 and, over the course of the event, an average of 25,000 punters fetched up on site every day.
Just as importantly, though, was the extent of the spend around Thurles and the revenue re-directed back towards the stadium debt. The ground was rented out for the weekend at a cost to the promoters of £40,000 and a pro-rata percentage of any profits.
To those of us long used to Thurles, it can be easy to forget a] just how small a town it is and b] just how irrelevant it is to many. The Munster hurling championship has long given the place a standing and a lustre well in excess of its actual status and, in 1990, it had a population of only 7,500. Following the closure of the local sugar factory the previous year – for decades the area’s primary employer – local unemployment figures stood at well over 30%.
As has become customary around the hard sell of high-profile live events – sport, conferences, concerts – economic benefits can often be as wildly over-exaggerated as they are difficult to accurately gauge. What we can say with certainty, though, is that Féile – which endured in Thurles for four subsequent years – gave the town a short, sharp financial bounce. From the auld wans in local council estates charging for the use of their showers and toilets to hawkers and gawkers flogging cider and rolls – the breakfast of Féile champions – on the long walk from the town square to the stadium, to opportunistic young bucks selling rubber johnnies at a quid a go, The Trip To Tipp was, for the course of its short existence, a pop-up money magnet.
It also cemented Michael Lowry’s reputation as a local shaker who wasn’t afraid to tamper with tradition and his role in the re-modelling of Tipperary hurling and the economic success of Féile certainly contributed to his prolonged electoral prowess. He was a regular poll-topper in North Tipperary for the following fifteen years.
I’ve written previously about that glorious summer of 1990 when, over the course of fourteen improbable weeks just after I’d turned 22 years old, the moons and tides aligned like they’ve never completely done since. Too young, cocky and thick to fully appreciate the magic going off around me, I met The Frank And Walters for the first time, saw Prince perform live at Páirc Ui Chaoimh, witnessed a historic double for the Cork senior hurlers and footballers and, like every other man, woman and scaldy dog in the country, was drunk on the delirium that followed the national football team at The World Cup in Italy. It goes without saying that I’ve never put down another such intensive, disbelieving and giddy summer like it in the thirty odd years since.
Against that backdrop, it’s easy to lose the flight of Féile, whose second-coming, back on the holy ground next September, has already generated an amount of nostalgia-fuelled reminiscences. But the dew-soaked lens of time shouldn’t unduly distort the impact of what was, in its own way, one of the most significant Irish cultural events in recent history.
Féile quickly outgrew it’s body and, ergo, lost much of it’s initial charm:- in popular music, as in life, this just happens. The infusion of bigger, bolder and better international headliners saw The Trip To Tipp briefly hold court alongside similar events in Britain, like the long-running festivals at Reading and Glastonbury. But to my own mind, its success was cut and carved in the bespoke wonder of the local ;- in it’s pomp, Féile was validation on a wide scale of the strength of the domestic live music market. And I sincerely believe that, like many Cork hurling teams over the decades, several home-spun acts reserved their best performances for Thurles where, for four years, they were untouchable on the sacred baize. Where the surroundings and the spirit of the crowds just made them bomb-proof and carried them home.
I can recall, in detail, powerful Féile performances from many of my own pet Irish bands – The Fatima Mansions, Whipping Boy, Into Paradise, Toasted Heretic, That Petrol Emotion – who fleetingly sounded as unassailable as they looked, in front of stadium-sized crowds, as out of water. But regardless of how and where one critically places the likes of The Stunning, An Emotional Fish and The Sawdoctors, it was they who, to my mind, defined everything that was so impactful, urgent and unique about Féile’s Semple years. Because when they looked out on those vast, energised crowds from a stage in the middle of Ireland, they saw the force, promise and mindless optimism of the country’s young as one, it’s considerable voice bounced back stagewards from the vast spread, sucking them all together – performers and punters – into an enchanted space, if only fleetingly .
And when those vast audiences, dragged into Thurles from similar such towns all over the country on a fleet of trains, buses and rattling cars found that single voice during ‘Brewing Up A Storm’, ‘Celebrate’ and ‘N17’, Féile was at it’s most unique and untouchable.
More generally, though, The Trip To Tipp quickly became a mammoth yearly platform for many of those busy local acts working what was then an attractive domestic live seam. Féile was an aspiration, an end-of-season, strictly once-off treat and fleeting respite for those jobbing lags who, otherwise, would have been on another endless van journey around the unreliable back-roads of provincial Ireland, unsure of what they might encounter as they headed for Leap, Ferbane, Letterkenny and Newmarket. And wondering, indeed, if they’d even recoup their petrol money ?
But Féile 90 set the tone, showed what was possible and was a real success on many levels. Over the course of that first weekend, Thurles proved that it could adequately handle the size and scale of a large event of this nature and the money spent on-site and off validated Michael Lowry’s instincts. In a piece by Tara Buckley in The Irish Press the following week, in which she described Lowry as ‘the man responsible for putting the jizz into the GAA and dragging them into the 20th century’, the Fine Gael T.D. himself delivered one of his familiar refrains, repeating the line that ‘sentiment doesn’t pay the bills’.
Wishing, perhaps, to take the organisation back into the 19th century, was the then Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Dr. Dermot Clifford, who also held an honorary position as patron of the G.A.A.. He was one of Féile’s most consistent and outspoken critics and repeatedly distanced himself from the goings-on up the road in Semple Stadium. ‘I speak in the public interest of safety, morality and health’, he told Tipperary G.A.A.’s annual convention in February, 1992. ‘In the name of all that is good and holy’, he warned, ‘be careful with rock concerts. By staging them, you are going off the main road and down a rocky road from which you may not be able to come back’. And Archbishop Clifford would have been very familiar with the rocky roads :- he had previously served as secretary to Bishop Eamonn Casey of Galway, who resigned from office after it was revealed that he’d fathered a son with an American woman.
Michael Lowry continues to attract headlines to this day and is easily one of the most controversial figures in recent Irish political history. He resigned his cabinet position from the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ government in 1996 – and the following year left the Fine Gael party – after The McCracken Tribunal found that building work done on his family home in Holycross, outside of Thurles, had been paid for by the businessman, Ben Dunne. Lowry was also summoned to appear at the subsequent Moriarty Tribunal, a statutory commission of investigation launched in 1997 to investigate illicit payments to politicians. He had served as Minister for Communications – and Fine Gael party secretary – during the period when Ireland’s first mobile phone licence was awarded to Esat Digifone, a consortium chaired by a Cork-born entrepreneur, Denis O’Brien.
Oliver Barry is no stranger to this sort of carry-on either. He was compelled to appear at that other mammoth tribunal of inquiry, the Flood Tribunal, which was also set up in 1997 to investigate irregularities in high-profile planning procedures in Dublin during the 1980s and 1990s and which led, ultimately, to the jailing of the former Fianna Fáil Communications Minister, Ray Burke, for six months.
Back in Tipperary, meanwhile, Semple Stadium and the town of Thurles both benefitted very positively from Féile, which ran for a further three years before moving onwards to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork, where the arse just fell out of it. By the time that Féile had been re-located indoors at The Point Depot in Dublin in 1996, it’s heart had been sundered, its lustre had waned and it was withered on the vine :- in the great traditions of popular culture, its moment had been and its moment had passed.
Easily the single biggest beneficiary of the success of Feile, to my mind, was the promoter, Denis Desmond, for whom The Trip To Tipp marked a serious upping of the ante. Desmond was already one of the country’s most formidable operators and, partnered at the time by the Belfast- based Eamon McCann, his MCD operation had its tentacles into many aspects of the Irish music industry. But Féile, taking it’s structural and organisational cues from similar but more high-profile European live events, proved that in terms of site management, commercial exploitation, stakeholder relationships, media partnerships and branding, Desmond’s machine was as capable, agile and connected as any of his international peers.
And in this respect, Féile was a genuine game-changer helped, I believe, by its location :- road-tested off-Broadway and out of the glare, the festival was allowed to make its mistakes and find its feet in its own time. It also had Michael Lowry’s boots on the ground and it would be naïve to think that having an elected national representative with both feet stuck in the heart of Semple Stadium as a local point-man did anything but positively aid Desmond’s case in Thurles.
Cork-born Desmond would have been keenly aware of the possibilities – and difficulties – afforded by any working partnerships with the Gaelic Athletic Association. But now the chairman of Live Nation U.K. and one of the biggest concert promoters in the world, he has routinely operated on gut instinct, knows when to kill his darlings and has consistently brokered lateral and inventive partnership opportunities. Like the great G.A.A. careerists, it’s fair to assume that Desmond too has that gift so uncommon in Irish society :- the ability to properly and efficiently chair a meeting.