25 years ago this month, an incredible international line-up performed to a small, festival crowd at a country estate outside of Skibbereen, in County Cork. In this guest post, the Cork-born director and film-maker, Tony McCarthy recalls his involvement with the festivals at Liss Ard.
On 31 August 1997, a car crash claimed the life of a young woman in Paris, leaving behind two young sons, William and Harry, to grieve their lost mother. The following Saturday, with an outpouring of national sadness and global media attention, the funeral took place in London of Diana, Princess of Wales. That same night Patti Smith, the Queen of Punk, took to the main stage at a unique cultural event in Liss Ard, outside Skibbereen, in West Cork. Liss Ard ‘97 – and its follow-up the following year – featured international artists like the aforementioned Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, John Martyn, Tindersticks, Spiritualized and David Gray, as well as Irish performers such as The Frames, Nick Kelly and Iarla Ó Lionáird. I was there, along with my colleagues from ForeFront Productions, to record the festival for Irish television.
This undertaking took place on a sprawling 40 acres of woodlands, wildflower meadows and lakes in support of The Liss Ard Foundation, an Irish-registered charity set up to ‘create a better understanding and appreciation of the beauty, philosophy and intricacies of Irish nature.’ My route to Liss Ard was a circuitous one. Originally destined for a career in accountancy, I crossed the Rubicon and founded ForeFront Productions in 1989 with my father, Joe, who was a talented cameraman during the formative years of Irish television. Joe started his career in an era when Irish life was like the way it was captured on television: more black and white than it is today.
Joe told a story once about his early days filming on a farm in the midlands with an intrepid reporter, Cathal O’Shannon, for the ‘Newsbeat’ programme. After a long day shooting, and as the crew walked back to the farmhouse, Cathal put his hand on the farmer’s shoulder and said ‘this television business can be very time consuming and troublesome but there is a consolation in that there’s a few quid in it at the end of the day.’ To which the farmer swiftly replied, ‘Well, I don’t have it on me right now but I’ll give it to you when we get back to the farmhouse.’ Joe was recounting this story to a table of RTÉ technicians at the Donnybrook canteen and, after they burst out laughing, a large, naive cameraman from Dublin asked: ‘Well, what did you do?’ Joe ball-hopped back: ‘What do you think we did? We took his money and spent it down in the local pub.’ ‘It’s people like you who give RTÉ a bad name’ replied the Dub, as he stormed off. Innocent times in front of and behind the camera.
In my youth I travelled the length and breadth of the country at weekends and holiday times on Joe’s shoots as an unofficial and unpaid assistant. From Flower Lodge to Finn Park, numerous Munster football and hurling championship matches in Killarney and Thurles, Thomond Park on 31 October, 1978 – along with seemingly about half-a-million others for the visit of the All Blacks – many Cha and Miah sketches for ‘Hall’s Pictorial Weekly’ and a few Siamsa Cois Laoi music festivals. Unbeknownst to myself, I was learning the skills and grammar of programme-making by osmosis so, when I made the transition into the world of television, I was already well prepared, albeit without any formal training.
ForeFront’s first big production was a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest called ‘Why Not Millstreet?’ This was quickly followed by the Fleadh Cheoil programmmes for RTÉ and, when TG4 was launched in 1996, we started producing the long-running ‘Geantraí’ series, with Cork fiddle maestro Matt Cranitch as it’s musical consultant and the West Kerry box player and singer, Breandán Ó Beaglaíoch, as presenter. But even though we developed a niche in traditional music programme-making, my own musical tastes were a bit more alternative.
The strains of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ – and later ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ by The Only Ones – were familiar sounds in our household because they signaled the start of the nightly rock shows on national radio hosted by Dave Fanning. It was Fanning who introduced me to the likes of Prefab Sprout, The Go-Betweens and The Smithereens et al. During my college years, I was a frequent visitor to the UCC Downtown Campus gigs at The Arcadia Ballroom on the Lower Road, where we saw visiting British bands like The Beat, The Specials and UB40, as well as Irish acts like Microdisney, The Blades and, of course, U2. So little wonder then that, when I read that the likes of Patti Smith, Nick Cave and David Gray were coming to Liss Ard in West Cork, my interest was piqued.
I cold-called the event organiser only weeks before the festival and I was surprised to discover that a television recording had not been finalised. After contacting RTÉ – and following more phone chats with the organisers – we arranged to record the festival for an hour-long programme for the national broadcaster. Our partners on the project were The Liss Ard Foundation, which was run by Veith Turske and his wife, Claudia. Turske, who was from Germany, had a background in the art world and had run a gallery in Cologne before locating to West Cork. He’d been friendly with Patti Smith during the 1970s, having curated some of her artwork.
Nick Cave had been visiting the Liss Ard estate on-and-off, using it as a sort of retreat to get away from the demands of life in London in the 1990s. So Turske had a pair of obvious headliners in Smith and Cave and, with these names on board, it was probably an easier sell to attract other artists to the event. Turske himself was a charming, enigmatic and formidable character, but also proved to be an accommodating and professional partner to us in the production of television programmes from the event.
He was capably assisted by the event manager, a local man Brian Hennessy. Both were new to running festivals of such magnitude and set out an ambitious schedule, with challenging performance locations on the estate for artists, crew, and punters alike. Despite the usual early setbacks, everybody seemed to go with the flow and the artists and a limited number of paid-in patrons mixed freely on the rambling estate. Given the difficult terrain, unusual performance locations and long days, our production set out to try and shoot as much as was possible within a limited budget, but with a talented and able and willing production team. What to include in the final programme would be decided in the edit suite, depending on the quality of the performances and the production values.
The uniqueness and magical nature of the event was exemplified by the first significant performance on the opening night of the festival, an acoustic and poetry performance from Patti Smith, and band members Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray, at the Proclamation Site. This location had a makeshift stage set out in the woods and, as the night descended, we set up our cameras and lights as a small audience of some 30 to 40 people gathered. A rumour had spread throughout the day that Michael Stipe of R.E.M. had arrived in Liss Ard and, sure enough, there he was, sitting in the woods with the other patrons, with supermodel Helena Christensen by his side. Back in 1997, Stipe was somewhat of a Rock God so, as the performance started, we were on tenterhooks, ready for him to make an unscheduled contribution. Sure enough, towards the end of her set, Smith called him to the stage. I was shooting a handheld camera on this performance so I thought I’d let Stipe get used to me maintaining a discreet distance, ready to move in closer for a second song. That second song never materialized: Stipe sang backing vocals on just the one number, ‘Last Call’, written by Patti Smith about a mass suicide in California earlier that year. Stipe and his entourage left Liss Ard the following day but, luckily, the recording of the performance was good enough to include in the final cut.
If Patti Smith was the High Priestess of the festival in 1997, then Nick Cave became its de facto artist-in-residence, performing there in ’97,’98 and ’99. I became a huge fan of Nick Cave and his music at Liss Ard and remain so to this day. From the sublime ‘Into My Arms’ to the violence of ‘Stagger Lee’, from the tender ‘Love Letter’ to the dramatic ‘The Mercy Seat’, Cave transports his audience through an array of emotions. As Peter Murphy noted at the time in Hot Press magazine, ‘Whatever it is, Nick has it, exuding a kind of scarecrow Elvis charm, a Dylan-esque magnetism. Wherever he goes these few days, people’s eyes follow him.’ In recording our two interviews with Cave we were also mindful of Murphy’s observation about Cave having ‘had more journalists for breakfast then he’s had breakfasts.’ The writer and broadcaster, Pat O’Mahony, interviewed him in 1997 and, initially, there was a bit of jousting between them: Cave has a wicked sense of humour and tends to keep his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Once he saw that Pat wasn’t taking the bait, he relaxed into a fairly coherent interview.
There wasn’t too much trepidation the following year: our presenter, Uaneen Fitzsimons, presented Cave with a pre-interview gift and captivated him with her warm and engaging personality. The interview went off in a relaxed manner and without a hitch.
Cave’s first performance in Liss Ard was a very memorable one. A grand piano was set up for him in the hallway of Liss Ard House and our production team jostled for position with invited photographers and journalists. As 40 or 50 patrons squashed into a small space, Cave arrived and promptly moved the angle of the piano, creating problems for us that we just about managed to overcome. He launched into a short, intimate and compelling set, the highlights including the gentle ‘Into My Arms’ and the loud and raucous ‘Dead Joe’. When the performance was over, I – and no doubt many of those lucky enough to be present – realised we had witnessed something special.
Saturday was the big day of the 1997 festival and the main stage was hosted in a circus tent-like marquee. Support acts included David Gray, Nick Kelly, Ron Sexsmith and Kila, with Patti Smith and her band headlining. It was a somewhat surreal day. Before we left our accommodation for the site, we watched on television the sad sight of Princess Diana’s funeral. At the time it seemed as if, as with much of Britain, Ireland too had been deeply moved by her death. That night, after a feast of music had been performed before her, Patti Smith took to the stage and gave a powerful and energetic performance that belied her age, including songs from her groundbreaking ‘Horses’ album as well as ‘Dancing Barefoot’, ‘People Have the Power’ and ‘Because the Night’. It was a fitting finale to the 1997 event.
The 1998 festival developed into a larger undertaking, with Lou Reed headlining and Nick Cave bringing The Bad Seeds. A fuller schedule and a more diverse line-up enabled us to up our production resources and convince RTÉ to take a six-part, half-hour series from Liss Ard. The weekend kicked off with the legendary John Martyn and his band, with The Frames and Mary Coughlan ably supporting. The highlight of the second day was an excellent headlining set by Spiritualized. I didn’t know anything about Jason Pierce and his band before Liss Ard, but I was very impressed by their performance, with songs taken mainly from their 1997 release, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space’, which I’ve listened to many times since. Murray Lachlan Young and Jack Lukeman provided the support.
A notable performance from ‘98 was Nick Cave’s Upper Pond set with Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Conway Savage and Mick Harvey. The Bad Seeds are mainly nocturnal creatures, so they looked somewhat uncomfortable in their waterside surroundings that afternoon. Nonetheless, the set allowed Cave to unveil what was a still-unfinished ‘Love Letter’, a song he had penned during his retreats in Liss Ard. That same evening, the full Bad Seeds line-up took to the Main Stage, where they were preceded by a lively set by Dirty Three, with violinist Warren Ellis in full flight. His virtuosity was very evident that night and it’s easy to see why he became such an important collaborator with Cave on his output over the following decades. The Bad Seeds put on a no holds-barred show in the small performance space and exposed the audience to the full power of their music. Highlights included ‘Red Right Hand’,‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Ship Song’, ‘Stagger Lee’ and ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, on which Blixa Bargeld proved to be a more-than-adequate substitute for Kylie Minogue.
Other notable acts who took part at Liss Ard in 1998 were Tindersticks, Drugstore, Maria McKee, Veda Hille, Nick Kelly and Iarla Ó Lionáird. The Saturday night headliner was Lou Reed, and his band featured guitarist Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders on bass and Tony Smith on drums. His semi-acoustic set mirrored that on his ‘Perfect Night: Live in London’ album, recorded in 1997, and he also played the expected crowd-pleasers from throughout his long career. The set began in a laid-back fashion with the Velvet’s ‘I’ll be Your Mirror’, followed by ‘Perfect Day’. Reed sat for most of the show and seemed to enjoy himself, warming to the positive feedback from the attentive audience. We all knew we were in the presence of greatness and were left in no doubt as he finished his set, standing and rocking, with ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Satellite of Love’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.
The following year, the Liss Ard line-up was deemed to be not strong enough by RTÉ to interest them, so our involvement in 1999 was minor. We did film the headline act, John Cale – Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground sparring partner – but did nothing with the footage subsequently. Shortly afterwards, Veith Turske left Liss Ard and that particular incarnation of the festival died away. Turske is now a yoga instructor based in Berlin.
At a distance of twenty-five years, I see our involvement with Liss Ard as a challenging but rewarding experience from a production and creativity point of view. And one with many great musical memories. In November, 2000, Uaneen Fitzsimons – who presented our series in 1998 – was killed tragically in a road accident. Another beautiful person taken at such a young age. Liss Ard: fond memories tinged with sadness.
Feature Image – Nick Cave at Liss Ard 1997, courtesy Dan Linehan, Irish Examiner
Image below – Nick Cave being interviewed by Uaneen Fitzsimons at Liss Ard 1998