OCCASION, OCCASION: CASTLEBAR, 1981

In July, 1981, The Mayo News carried a small advert publicising an upcoming novelty football game in Castlebar. The Jimmy Magee All-Stars, a Gaelic football team assembled from the ranks of Ireland’s light entertainment royalty, were billed to take on a selection of former inter-county players from Connacht with the aim of raising money for local charities. The All-Stars, led by the redoubtable  sports broadcaster, Jimmy Magee, were regular fixtures on the domestic showbiz circuit from the mid-1960s. For decades, the squad featured an unlikely cabal of showband singers, broadcasters and priests among its number, an ever-rotating combo of the great, the pious and the spectacularly coiffured. A Marty Party hosted by multiple Martys, the team fetched up in provincial outposts where they did God’s own work and brought a peculiar kind of glamour to bear in the cause of giving alms.

Immediately beside that advert, a five-paragraph flyer announced a far more ambitious outdoor event also due to take place in Castlebar: The Occasion at the Castle. This two-day festival of live rock music in the outdoors was conceived by a group of young local businessmen and tyros who, taking their cues from recent events in Macroom and Lisdoonvarna, were pitching an ambitious rock music festival onto the sprawling grounds of Rehins Estate, four miles outside the town. ‘We hope to make this first festival an annual event and one to remember’, ran the introduction on the official programme for the show, which took place during the August Bank Holiday weekend, 1981. The first concert series was headlined by a left-of-field antidote to the Jimmy Magee All-Stars featuring Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Pretenders, Loudon Wainwright III, The Undertones, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and a colourful under-card of assorted local strays. The weekend was hosted by a young comedian and writer, Billy Magra, and the publicist and broadcaster, BP Fallon.

As enterprising as its grandiose title suggests, The Occasion at the Castle is both a barely believable and important junction in the history of live entertainment in Ireland. Featuring a decent cast of international performers, set in an unlikely, off-Broadway location and run over consecutive days, it was a resourceful development of what was then a primitive Irish music festival model. Organised by brothers Tommy and John Staunton, who at the time ran a music shop in Castlebar, and Tony McHugh, a young hotelier, The Occasion was using the pull of popular music to attract a younger demographic into Castlebar during a Bank Holiday weekend at a period of prolonged economic gloom. ‘It was just something we wanted to do’, Tommy Staunton told The Irish Independent, which reported that the event was costing its organisers at least £150,000 to stage, an enormous sum by any standards but especially so in Ireland in 1981.

Even allowing for the over-sized hoopla and hot-air that surrounds many big events here, it seems extraordinary that Mayo’s local newspaper chose to bury the announcement of the Occasion at the Castle so deeply inside its covers. Indeed the show attracted more focus from the national media than it did from local journalists, much of it, albeit, disbelieving in its tone. And with good reason: live music events like this were still new to Ireland. Yes, the first live show was about to take place at Slane, Thin Lizzy had headlined at Dalymount Park, Desmond Guinness had hosted The Boomtown Rats on his pile in Leixlip and Macroom, Lisdoonvarna and Carnsore Point had all set various wheels in motion but Castlebar feels now like a real escalation, a hub that was locking a variety of different festival aspects into place. But at a remove of forty years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that locals just didn’t think it was ever going to fly. That the whole enterprise was, in effect, just a figment of a younger imagination.  

First published in 1968, John Healy’s ‘Death of an Irish Town’ paints a stark picture of the decline of Charlestown, County Mayo, and points to the extent of poverty and lack of inward investment across that part of rural Ireland. The proprietors of The Royal Ballroom in Castlebar would have been far more tuned into this than most and, in the numbers that regularly traipsed through their doors, would have seen first-hand what the historian Diarmaid Ferriter refers to as the disintegration of ‘a harmonious self-sufficient system of the past’. The transitioning, or even the demise, of traditional society and communities.

Opened by Paddy Jennings in 1963, The Royal was a vast, functional complex, originally built to capitalise on the popularity of the showbands that dominated Irish entertainment for a decade from the late 1950s. It proclaimed itself as the biggest such venue in the country outside of Dublin and quickly became a regular fixture on the national entertainment circuit. In July, 1965, it hosted the American star, Roy Orbison, for a show that one local newspaper referred to as Orbison’s ‘only appearance in Mayo’.  

In 1966, The Royal Ballroom hosted The Castlebar International Song Contest for the first time. Conceived as a one-off event, it was launched ‘with the aim of finding a song that would make the town famous and thereby attract tourists to the area’ which, according to the 1966 census, then had a population of 5,629. For over twenty years the contest enjoyed a decent profile: it boasted a considerable prize-fund, attracted entries from far and wide and was covered annually on national television. But with limited capacity at the venue, it was also off-limits to many of those it sought to benefit. ‘It maybe eventually fell foul of the local people’, Paddy McGuinness told me when we spoke last year, ‘because it became like an All-Ireland final. You couldn’t get tickets for it’. McGuinness served as one of the directors of the song contest for many years and recalls how, alongside The Rose of Tralee, it was a staple in the annual RTÉ television entertainment calendar.   

Tickets were far more readily available for The Occasion at the Castle, which was set on the expansive 26-acre site at Rehins Estate. Pitched at a broader and younger audience, the 1981 show was a qualified success in that it took place at all, lured a string of well-known names to a small town in the west of Ireland, went off trouble-free and laid down an obvious marker for a sequel. Unusually for the period, The Occasion at the Castle prioritised comfort and what we might now refer to as ‘the customer experience’. As well as complimentary on-site camping facilities and a full catering and bar service inside the venue, a creche was also available to those attending with small children in tow. A 24-hour video booth pumped audio-visual material at those staying over and what was referred to in the publicity material as ‘a communal kip marquee’ – in reality an out-sized gazebo – provided cover for those who had travelled light to Castlebar.

The back-stage catering was provided by Seán Cannon, a founding member of The Dubliners, one of the country’s best-known ballad groups. Outside in the arena, meanwhile, in a concession to the religious sensibilities of some of those on-site, a local priest, Fr. Tommy Murphy, at home on holiday from a posting in Taiwan, celebrated an open-air folk mass for patrons. Of the three hundred who attended on Sunday morning, Fr. Murphy claimed that he had ‘never had a more reverent congregation before’. Once mass was over, an early-morning jazz session kicked into gear.

By any measure, the ambition of the event and the holistic approach adopted by the organisers looks really prescient and Castlebar was far more consumer-friendly than, say, Lisdoonvarna, which worked on the primary principle of rack ‘em, stack ‘em and pack ‘em. The stage itself, for instance, was designed and set by Pat Murphy who, four years previously, had promoted Thin Lizzy’s outdoor show at Dalymount Park and who went on to work on some of U2’s most ambitious live tours subsequently. By way of context, just four years previously, Rory Gallagher had played a live set at Macroom on what was essentially a long trailer parked at one end of a field.

The organisers had initially toyed with the idea of staging the show in McHale Park, the county GAA ground in Castlebar. Oliver Barry and the Cork County Board had successfully run live music shows at Páirc Uí Chaoimh since 1978, although those early Siamsa Cois Laoí line-ups were far more in-line with the GAA’s cultural sensitivities, dominated as they were by assorted balladeers, beardies and imported middle-of-the-road folk singers. One can respectfully conclude that, in 1981, the idea that Ian Dury and The Undertones might be granted access to the sacred sod at McHale Park was, culturally and politically, a bridge too far. Its worth remembering also that the first ever out-and-out rock show to take place in Croke Park didn’t occur until 1985, when U2 brought their ‘A Sort of Homecoming’ tour into the heart of Dublin city. That commercial relationship, one suspects, was predicated on the close personal connection between the show’s promoter, Jim Aiken, and the GAA: indeed Aiken enjoyed exclusive access to the Croke Park field until the early 2000s.

Either way, an estimated 13,000 fetched up at Rehins Estate on the August Bank Holiday weekend, 1981, and the whole shebang passed off without major incident. All of the weekend highlights all took place on stage and on-site where Ian Dury and the Blockheads put on a real tour de force. An improvised camp site sprung up on The Mall in the middle of Castlebar but An Garda Síochána reported only ten arrests within the town all weekend. Back on the site, the 140 security personnel who were engaged for the duration enjoyed a quiet enough shift.

Given the omerta that surrounds so many aspects of the entertainment industry, especially when it comes to the vexed question of finance, it was interesting to see the Occasion’s organisers issuing a breakdown of the cost of the event to the media. A review in The Irish Press on 3 August, 1981, claimed that of the £150,000 invested into the festival, £76,000 was spent on fees for the performers. This, by any standards, seems inflated and, based on the estimated attendance of 13,000, it’s difficult to see how, as was also reported, local businesses had ‘reaped an estimated £4m bonanza from visiting music fans’. In the cold light of morning, the reality was that the first Occasion at the Castle had actually lost at least £70,000.

Paddy McGuinness had honed his organisational skills during a long tenure with the Castlebar International Song Contest, a fact not lost on the organisers of The Occasion at the Castle: he joined the team of investors for the follow-up, which took place at Rehins in August, 1982. ‘I was not involved in the Song Contest or the rock festival because of my knowledge or lack of it, in music’, he told he when we spoke last year. ‘It was community involvement and the fact that I was reasonably good at administration and getting things done’.

Despite carrying over a considerable debt, the second Occasion at the Castle was buffed-up and expanded accordingly. Now taking place over the course of three days, weekend tickets were priced at £18 [€52.70 in today’s money] and, given the scale of the investment into the event, organisers required an attendance of at least 14,000 people to cover their base costs. A pair of familiar names were booked to headline the 1982 Occasion: Thin Lizzy, who had star-billed at the first Slane Castle live show the previous summer, and The Boomtown Rats, who were returning to the Irish outdoors for the first time since an ill-fated and controversial outing to Leixlip Castle two years previously. ‘My motivation was purely financial’, McGuinness admits. ‘I was going to make money. It would be good for the town, yes, bring a lot of people in. But the promoters were going to make a lot of money’.

It wasn’t to be. The weekend previously – July 24th, 1982 – one of the biggest draws in the world, The Rolling Stones, had played the second ever show at Slane Castle in County Meath as part of a high-profile world tour. Again promoted by Jim Aiken, what was probably the most lavish live music event ever undertaken in Ireland had dominated the domestic entertainment news agenda for months. Scheduled so closely to such stellar company, and with Ireland in the teeth of a full-blown recession, the floating voters opted for Meath over Mayo: Castlebar never stood a chance. ‘Surveying the small crowd that turned up, you couldn’t help feeling that the ‘real occasion’ had already happened the weekend before, at a castle in Slane’, ran a review in The Evening Press. ‘All in all, not much of an occasion’, concluded Mary Kerrigan in her piece.  

The audience at Rehins, estimated at 7,000, was nowhere close to that required in order for the event to wash its own face. Now in his late 70s, Paddy McGuinness recalls how, in the sunshine on the weekend of the second festival, he was ‘occupied telling lies to the media about how many people were in and how great it was going’. But even before Thin Lizzy took to the stage on Sunday evening to close the weekend, it was clear that the Occasion at the Castle had had its day. ‘The crowd did not match the numbers we needed’, Paddy told The Evening Herald from the site. ‘It is a mystery and a disappointment’.

Adding insult to injury, local Gardaí insisted that all acts deemed to be on the noisier end of the spectrum be off-stage at Rehins  early. In a concession to local residents, the organisers were told specifically that The Boomtown Rats and Thin Lizzy had to be finished their headline sets by 8.30, denying fans not just an opportunity to see the full extent of an expensive lighting rig but to also rock on into the after-dark. In Castlebar, meanwhile, a number of public houses used special licences to stage live music and serve booze well into the small hours.

‘The second year was a complete, out and out, total disaster from every point of view’, Paddy remembers. ‘Instead of making money we lost our shirts. But not just that, we lost good-will within the community too’, he told me. Any commercial boon for the town and the broader community also came at a cost: many of those who did come to Castlebar elected to stay in the town centre itself, well clear of the concert site: ‘and they wrecked Castlebar’. Many local businesses closed for the duration of the festival and many of the town’s bars and public houses confined their trade to ‘locals only’. A brawl at the local hospital, during which windows were broken and Gardaí had to disperse a crowd of youths, didn’t sit well with many of the town’s elders.

A press release issued in advance of the 1982 concerts at Rehins claimed that the public address system hired for the festival was ‘turbo charged’ and that ‘on a clear day it can be heard 14 miles off stage’. The reverberations from the festival site were certainly felt by the Castlebar Urban District Council, which discussed the concert at length at a meeting weeks later. Although many of those who contributed to that discussion referred to the positive energy created around the town during the weekend, one Councillor likened the middle of Castlebar to ‘Pearl Harbour the morning after the night before’. Another claimed that ‘the streets were running with rivulets of puke and urine’. Several claimed to have been ‘shocked and appalled’ by what they had witnessed in Castlebar during the Bank Holiday weekend: the event had attracted the ‘flotsam and jetsam of society’, according to Councillor Patrick Durcan. Councillor Johnny Mee informed the meeting that ‘we are living in a highly pressurised society where sex, drink and everything gawdy is thrown at young people’ and a proposal by the UDC that promoters be granted court licences before proceeding with future festivals was adopted unanimously.

In the great traditions of such matters, the moral and regulatory concerns expressed inside the council chamber, alongside speculation that a third concert might take place in Westport, finally brought The Occasion at the Castle onto the front page of The Mayo News.  ‘I was a businessman in town at the time’, remembers Paddy McGuinness, ‘and I was lucky that wasn’t closed down because the reaction to it [the concert series] was very bad’.

‘It is set to become one of the highlights of the European festival circuit and the most prestigious in the British Isles’, ran that same trailer piece for the first Occasion At The Castle in The Mayo News on July 15th, 1981. But the event collapsed inwards as soon as it found itself competing for business with an unlikely counter-attraction: the night-life in Castlebar. What was described by one writer as a ‘finely-stretched bill’ certainly didn’t help the second Occasion and, like Féile’s relationship with Thurles a decade later, the organisers found that good will in small towns eventually comes with strings attached, and at cost.  

The concert series also left a core of young local businessmen out of pocket. ‘I was a young man, building a house and I was going to pay for the house out of the money we were going to make out of this thing’, Paddy McGuinness told me. ‘Instead I had to increase my over-draft substantially’. NOTE: Paddy McGuinness’s terrific history of the Castlebar International Song Contest, 1966 – 1988, was self-published in 2017. The book is available here https://www.mayobooks.ie/castlebar-song- and here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Castlebar-International-Song-Contest-1966/dp/1527202305 and in public libraries all over Mayo and beyond.

CODA: This is a modified version of a broader piece written last year as part of an academic project. Apart from Paddy McGuinness, who was a huge help to me, I’d also like to thank Fintan Murphy and James O’Connor who, in pointing me in the right directions, went far beyond the call of duty on my behalf.    

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