I’ve written at length about my old school, The North Monastery which, on many levels, dominated my upbringing on the northside of Cork city during the 1970s and 1980s. For a number of us, The Mon provided a structure and an order during a period when much of the area around us was just dilapidated and sore. Strange as it seems but there were days when some of us were glad to go to school.
I last set foot on the grounds up on Our Lady’s Mount during the filming of a short television insert on the week of the All-Ireland hurling final in 2004. As these things tend to go, some of my friends and neighbours are now among the senior teaching staff there and, with the school’s vast canvas of adventure now captured so thoroughly on new media, I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of the breadth of what’s going on there. But there was always an awful lot going on up in The Mon – good, bad and ugly – except that, for years, most of us were blissfully unaware of much of it.
Herman Kemp was a young teacher from Kilrush in County Clare who was unfortunate enough to have encountered us as a class of forty-four noisy young boys in 1976 and 1977. The date is important here: history recalls that Cork’s swashbuckling hurlers were winning All-Ireland senior titles, Christy Ring still walked among us whenever he tired of walking on water and one of the unlikely pop stars du jour, John Lydon, who’d spat his way into the popular British consciousness as Johnny Rotten, had strong connections to our city that went pretty much unreported.
Teachers among you will know that second and third class are among the most developmentally important years in the Irish primary school cycle. The work-load of the pupil increases and there’s a subtle shift in tone from baby-sitting to, if not full-blown independence, then certainly a greater emphasis on autonomy. Even in Cork during the 1970s, and especially up in The North Mon, they didn’t just hand out those classroom assignments to any old lags or chancers. Which is why, I suppose, that some of us still remember Herman’s classes so clearly.
In his loons, denim shirts and lusty tache, he rarely proselytized the case for hurling and Gaelic football and the more traditional cultural pillars on which the school traded didn’t seem to overly interest him. He looked like a member of The Band and was a proud Stoke City supporter at a time when Liverpool and Manchester United were the only two British clubs that mattered around our way.
On his watch, our class was as likely to debate the merits of contemporary blockbuster films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws’ as we were to struggle with the vagaries of long division. One morning he broke down a Chris De Burgh number for us and went through it line by line as a piece of important literary text. And although this did little to endear me to the rubber-faced songwriter, Herman was clearly thinking on a different plane. Like the best teachers and coaches, he not only instilled in us a sense of the exotica that waited for us outside the school’s sash windows but constantly allowed us to picture ourselves knee-deep in it. To those of us with any sort of a creative streak, he was our go-to.
The North Monastery has long prided itself on its academic achievements and its many notable successes on the playing fields and in Irish public life. It isn’t absolutely clear if Cork have ever won a senior All-Ireland hurling title without at least one former pupil involved somewhere or if Ireland’s state class has ever operated at elite level without our graduates leading out, but it certainly feels like this should be the case. What I do know is that I left our school with a fully-formed love of books and sport and, I hope, good basic manners.
Beyond the most basic stipulations of the curriculum, and notwithstanding the regular sideshow performances of The Christian Brothers, one of whom would shove a piece of bamboo in and out of his gob to make a variety of bird calls, music was hardly a priority up in the school. Indeed, the handful who did experiment with drums and wires, or indeed those who just liked alternative music, tended to do so under the cloak of darkness. I’ve written about this in a previous piece here.
As Herman was getting his classroom ready for a new school year during the summer of 1978, we now know he was also busy elsewhere indulging a couple of his other interests: rock music and photography. The father of three school-going daughters myself – and as a one-time teacher – I’m forever surprised at how children cannot believe that those who front their classrooms every day might also lead interesting lives of their own once the long bell goes in the afternoons. In this respect, Herman left a trail of dots for us that we’re only now joining properly.
The Macroom Mountain Dew Festival is one of the more intriguing outdoor events to have taken place in Ireland during the 1970s. Launched in June, 1976, as a week-long community-focused enterprise, it was conceived by a group of young locals led by a publican, John Martin Fitzgerald, and ran for seven years in total. The highlight of that first year was a live show by Marianne Faithful, who performed in a customized marquee borrowed, for the occasion, from The Rose of Tralee committee fifty miles up the road. The festival was formally launched by the broadcaster and journalist, Frank Hall.
And it certainly achieved its primary ambition, attracting decent crowds into what was then a small market town, located twenty-five miles west of Cork city. By washing its own face financially, and perhaps against all perceived wisdom, the organisers developed the event in its second year and moved into the outdoors at Macroom Castle.
That setting is central to any broader telling of the history of contemporary Irish popular culture. Despite what its people might think, Macroom was never the most sophisticated town and, in the late 1970s, wouldn’t have been best served by general infrastructure and was difficult enough to access. A point touched on in Roz Crowley’s fine book, ‘Memories Of Ireland’s First Rock Festival’, published by On Stream Books in 2016.
That book includes several first-person testimonies from some of those who made their way to Macroom having either walked the distance from Cork or having hitched lifts on the road out from the city’s western suburbs. Many of whom did so against a backdrop of disdain from the local authorities and clergy who, in voicing their concerns for law, order and basic morality, were re-cycling familiar riffs dating back to Ireland’s dance-hall culture during the earliest days of The Free State.
During the mid-1970s, rock music in Ireland’s outdoors – either one-offs or festivals – just didn’t exist. Richmond Park, on the southside of Dublin, had indeed hosted a one-off show featuring Mungo Jerry and Thin Lizzy as far back as 1970 but that, pretty much, was that. So in terms of chronology, Rory Gallagher’s performance on the grounds of Macroom Castle in June, 1977, pre-dates Thin Lizzy’s famous home-coming show – again at Dalymount Park – by a couple of months. And because The Mountain Dew series took place over the course of several days, it is widely accepted as being Ireland’s first ever outdoor rock music festival.
The commercial success of those early Macroom shows also reflected an obvious appetite for rock music in what we might loosely term rural Ireland, kicking against a couple of crudely formed stereotypes as it did. As such, The Mountain Dew Festival can be seen as an important pre-cursor to other similar events that ran subsequently in Leixlip, Ballisodore, Lisdoonvarna and even Thurles, where Féile: The Trip to Tipp, was launched in 1990.
Over the course of its seven-year history, Macroom attracted a number of well-known headline acts and Van Morrison, The Boomtown Rats, Wishbone Ash, Elvis Costello and Paul Brady all feature prominently in its story. The ability to attract such high-profile names to a small town in West Cork is all the more remarkable given that Ireland’s biggest concert promoters had given Macroom a wide berth: the ambition was deemed, understandably so, to be just not realizable.
It’s for the two Gallagher headline appearances there on Sunday, June 26th, 1977 and Saturday, June 24th, 1978, for which The Mountain Dew Festival is most memorably recalled, though. Between 1975 and 1979, Rory released four albums – among them two of his best long-players, ‘Calling Card’ and ‘Top Priority’ – and was a prodigious live performer. Then at his creative peak and kicking in the face of punk rock, which had broken the British mainstream in earnest during Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee in 1977, the first of those shows also co-incided with the launch of Hot Press, Ireland’s long-standing music and social affairs magazine.
Conceived and edited, as it is today, by Niall Stokes, and founded by him and a cohort of like-minded Dublin college graduates, the remarkable story of that publication – and Niall’s constant re-invention of the paper in the decades since – is worthy of a Ken Burns-style documentary series. Rory Gallagher was the first ever Hot Press cover star and, until his death almost twenty years later, both parties were tied at the waist.
Rory played many explosive live shows in Ireland during his career, several of them within the ornate indoors at The City Hall in Cork and The Ulster Hall in Belfast. But the Mountain Dew Festival was his first ever outdoor headliner in this country and, following years of high-profile festival shows across Europe, marks another important crossing of the line for him: was he scaling up and, perhaps, finally finding the mainstream himself?
With tickets priced at 2.50, and with a support bill that also featured The Joe O’Donnell Band and the Flemish bluesman, Ronald Van Campenhout, that 1978 show certainly commanded attention and audience. Estimates of the size of the crowd vary wildly but, using some of the stills shot around the castle on the day, we can realistically put the attendance at around six or seven thousand people and certainly no more than that.
The following summer, on Saturday, June 26th, 1978, Gallagher returned to headline again at Macroom, and Hot Press magazine was once more prominent around the fringes. Still finding its feet in the local marketplace, where it was still regarded as a curiosity, Stokes and his small team succeeded in attracting a number of high-profile musicians and personal guests into the belly of the beast, among them Bob Geldof and Johnny Rotten, and built an improvised awards ceremony into the weekend’s proceedings. And so the first ever Hot Press music awards took place in Coolcower House Hotel, outside Macroom, once Gallagher had completed his set.
Rotten’s journey to Cork, and then onwards to the festival site, has long been the stuff of local legend. His band, The Sex Pistols, had recently come asunder as spectacularly as they’d briefly turned popular music on its head and, now trading as John Lydon, he had re-established himself quickly. With a new band, Public Image Limited, already on the go and about to record its first album, he boarded a flight from London to Cork dressed in priest’s garb. Following an encounter on-board with a couple of nuns, it was only the intervention of Niall Stokes and B.P. Fallon, who was working as a publicist for the event in Macroom, that helped him avoid arrest on landing in Ireland.
Both of Johnny Rotten’s parents are Irish: his mother, Mary Barry, is from Carrigrohane, twenty miles from Macroom, and the singer spent many of his childhood summers back in Ireland among his cousins. By fetching up in County Cork, even on such tenuous grounds, Rotten – like Rory Gallagher – was in effect ‘coming home’.
Herman Kemp was also at that Gallagher show. And in the days before carefully curated media access and strong-armed public relations, took a number of terrific snaps at both the live show and, afterwards, around the tables at those Hot Press awards. He’d travelled down from the city with his friend, Con Downing, his Pentax camera and a bag of high-end lenses borrowed from a colleague on the teaching staff up in The Mon, Brother Leader. Leader’s name will be well known to northside men of a particular generation: he also ran a film club in the primary school and played westerns and war films in the school hall using his own projector.
Con Downing was another keen music fan and nascent writer who went on to be a mainstay on the Cork journalism circuit, eventually becoming editor of The Southern Star newspaper, where he still resides.
Savvy young rakes on the go, Herman and Con’s passes allowed them to drive right into the grounds of Macroom Castle, past the security cordon provided by the local Gaelic football club and straight to a specially constructed front-of-stage hospitality area set aside for the great and the good. In which they enjoyed themselves royally.
And I know this now because, after forty-three years, Herman and myself have recently been re-connected: it’s difficult to hide around these parts when you have such a distinctive handle and live in a small country. By way of standing up his story, he’s given us a number of his original photographs from The Macroom Mountain Dew Festival, 1978 – and the subsequent do – and also his permission to use them here.
Now ten years retired from teaching, having entered the trade as a callow and energetic nineteen year-old, we are grateful to him and humbled in equal part.