On Tuesday, December 28th next, on RTÉ One at 6.30, Brian Reddin’s documentary, ‘How Ireland Rocked the ‘70s’ looks at the evolution of the festival circuit in Ireland during that decade. A decade in which rock music – national and international – began to take real root in Ireland.
Against a back-drop of political instability and economic depression, the greater penetration of popular culture into Ireland saw, by the end of the 1970s, the development of a nascent national scene and the emergence of a golden generation of local bands primed for export.
Featuring rare archive footage and stills, the documentary includes interviews with festival favourites, rockers and rebels, moonlight dancers and chancers, key figures who created, documented, and promoted the sounds of 70s Ireland.
In this clip, the singer and songwriter, Christy Moore recalls the background to the outdoor music festival in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, which was run by two locals, Jim Shannon and Paddy Doherty, from 1978 until 1983.
In this clip, Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh, the former manager of The Boomtown Rats, recalls events from the early weeks of 1980 when the band was denied permission to stage a live show at the racecourse in Leopardstown. After weeks of protracted legal wrangling, including a trip to the High Court, Desmond Guinness – a well-known member of the brewing family and a founding member of the Irish Georgian Society – agreed to host the band on the grounds of his property at Leixlip Castle in County Kildare.
In this clip, Roz Crowley, Martin Fitzgerald and Donal Gallagher, who managed the career of his brother, Rory, recall the early days of the Mountain Dew Festival, held in the West Cork town from 1976 until 1982. The London-born singer, Marianne Faithful, headlined the first festival when she performed in a dome that was loaned to Macroom from the more established Rose of Tralee event across county lines in Kerry. The festival moved outdoors in its second year, when it was headlined by Rory Gallagher, the guitarist who was raised in Cork.
The piece below was written to accompany the documentary and appeared in The Irish Examiner, 27 December, 2021
On 4 September 1970, Richmond Park, then a dilapidated stadium in Inchicore on Dublin’s River Camac, hosted Ireland’s first ever outdoor rock music festival. Run by a group of enthusiasts from Armagh, the all-night event was headlined by a British band, Mungo Jerry, and the undercard featured a series of emerging Irish beat groups, most notably Thin Lizzy and Granny’s Intentions.
It was a commercial disaster. Only 1,500 people attended and the scatter-gun coverage it received in advance was dominated by concerns about public order and behaviour. In an effort to assure local residents and businesses, the organisers took to the national press on the morning of the festival and confirmed that the site would be policed by ‘private security guards with dogs’.
Those running the event had taken their cues from similar outdoor festivals that had taken place at Woodstock, in up-state New York and on the Isle of Wight, off the South-East coast of England, the previous year. Both were hugely popular, seriously over-subscribed and difficult-to-regulate outdoor music shows that are fondly recalled in modern cultural history. The Isle of Wight festival managed to coax Bob Dylan to Britain and attracted an audience deemed to be in excess of 250,000 people, an impressive feat given that it was organised by three brothers with no experience in event production and was originally conceived as a fund-raiser for a local swimming pool.
In Ireland, meanwhile, popular entertainment had been dominated since the mid-1950s by the enduring appeal of the cinema and by the formidable pulling power of the country’s showbands, travelling jukeboxes who performed faithful versions of popular hits and old Irish ballads to huge audiences on a nightly basis. Vincent Power, in his 1990 book, ‘Send ‘Em Home Sweatin: The Showbands’ Story’ claims that the showbands, in their pomp, became an industry that employed 10,000 people, 4,000 of whom were performers. By the start of the 1970s, though, their popularity was being eroded and, within ten years, a young Dublin rock band, U2, were just one of a number of domestic groups throwing shapes of a different hue.
The showband period in Ireland has long been the subject of glib, one-dimensional analysis. Their influence lies not in the music they performed – they seldom wrote their own material – but in how they enabled social congregation amongst Ireland’s young at badly-ventilated, alcohol-free ballrooms all over Ireland. It is in this respect that the showbands are an important facet of popular cultural history here.
Unique to Ireland, the showbands were undone, ultimately, by the flow of external influences into the country throughout the 1960s and 1970s, in particular the arrival of discotheques and lounge bars, changes in the licencing laws and the broader availability of a greater range of media. Television, radio, newspapers and magazines all combined to open Ireland up to a series of diverse sights and sounds that, for decades, had been difficult to access here. A fact belatedly acknowledged by RTÉ which, in June, 1978, launched a second national television service whose schedule was comprised to a large degree of acquired British and American content.
The following year, as a response to the influence of proscribed or ‘pirate radio’ stations, the national broadcaster launched a second national radio channel, RTÉ Radio 2, that was dedicated exclusively to popular music. 1977 also saw the launch of two independent, Dublin-based print publications, Hot Press and Magill magazines, both of which dealt in social, political and cultural affairs. And it is against this broader cultural backdrop that indigenous rock music began to develop its voice and find its feet.
Following RTÉ’s decision to transmit the weekly BBC television music digest, Top of the Pops, an industry group representing Ireland’s showband sector staged a picket at the broadcaster’s studios in Donnybrook: the charge was that RTÉ was, in effect, doing the work of the showbands in bringing the hits of the day to audiences all over the country. But by now, the country’s most influential promoters, Jim Aiken, Jim Hand and Oliver Barry – all of whom had cut their teeth on the ballroom and cabaret circuits – had already pivoted their businesses and were already opening new frontiers.
Nowhere is this development more apparent than in the decade-long history of Siamsa Cois Laoí, run by Barry in association with the Cork County Board from 1977, initially as a fund-raiser to subvent the debt left by the construction of the original Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Within ten years, Siamsa – launched as a celebration of folk and traditional music in the spirit of the GAA’s cultural remit, as enshrined in its constitution – had quietly changed its spots. The last ever Siamsa, for instance, was headlined by Status Quo, denim-clad rockers from London. The following year, it’s place in the local GAA calendar was taken by big, ambitious live concerts by the likes of Michael Jackson, U2 and Prince.
The unique history of the Mountain Dew Festival in Macroom, which ran for several years from 1976, has been well documented. Macroom is notable for several things, not least of all the manner in which it kicks against several crudely-formed cultural stereotypes: it originated when a group of young locals took it upon themselves to raise the profile of their home-town during a period of economic depression. That they turned to live rock music to do so – and only succeeded because of the buy-in of the broader community in Macroom – is indicative of the distance covered on that journey from Inchicore six years previously.
Macroom is but one of a number of unlikely locations in which Irish rock music festivals took place during the 1970s: Lisdoonvarna in County Clare, Carnsore Point in County Wexford and Leixlip in County Kildare being notable others. Indeed the most ground-breaking Irish rock festival of all – and a genuine game-changer in respect of the live entertainment industry in Ireland – Féile: The Trip to Tipp, was also located far beyond the pale. It took place for the first time in Semple Stadium, Thurles, in August, 1990
The history of live rock festivals in Ireland during the 1970s runs in tandem with the story of one of the most important Irish bands to emerge during this period, Thin Lizzy. Since their appearance at Inchicore, the group, led by Philip Lynott, had re-calibrated its sound and achieved commercial breakthroughs in Britain and Europe. Born in Staffordshire to an Irish mother and a father from British Guiana, Lynott was raised by his extended family in Crumlin and is an iconic figure in modern cultural history here.
In August, 1977, Thin Lizzy played what was its biggest Irish show to date when it headlined a multi-band festival at Dalymount Park, a football stadium on the northside of Dublin city. Promoted by Pat Murphy, who raised £35,000 to stage it, the organisation of the event was typical of the era: in the absence of any formal production infrastructure or support, the security was handled by a retired Garda who, Murphy claims, ‘used to have the semblance of a security firm’. Thin Lizzy’s driver was unable to locate the back-stage entrance at Dalymount Park and one of the biggest concerns on the day inside the stadium was for those who attempted to remove lead from the roof of the main stand during the headliner’s set.
One of the more notable features of the festival, though, was the composition of the crowd, estimated to have been between 12 and 15,000. Earlier that afternoon, in another stadium a couple of miles away, Dublin and Kerry had contested an All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park in what is deemed by many to be one of the greatest Gaelic football games ever seen in the ground. The audience at Dalymount was clearly swelled once the match had finished: many, it seemed, had left one display of urbane 1970s swagger for another.