The report of the McNamee Commission, a body that looked at how the GAA conducted its affairs and outlined a possible future for the association, was published in December, 1971. At the GAA’s annual Congress eight years later, Director General Seán Ó Síocháin, told delegates that ‘the McNamee Commission had crystallised much of the new thinking in the association’ which, he said, was now acting ‘in a bigger, better, more positive and more professional way’. His thinking might have been prompted by events in his native Cork, where the construction of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, which was opened in 1976, left a debt of over £1m.  

Siamsa Cois Laoí was part of the ‘new thinking’ employed by Cork GAA in order to subvent that over-spend. Launched in 1978, it was a once-a-year live concert of traditional and folk music that eventually ran every summer at the new stadium for a decade. The first Siamsa was headlined by Alain Stivell, a Breton harpist, and its earliest line-ups were carefully designed to reflect the GAA’s unique cultural remit. Joining Stivell on that first bill were a rowdy ballad group, The Wolfe Tones, a traditional fiddler, Paddy Glackin, and a troupe of set-dancers from Youghal.

The series was promoted throughout its history by Oliver Barry, from North Cork, and was run in partnership with the Cork County GAA Board. Barry, who had a long association with Gaelic games, began his career in entertainment running dances in the late 1960s and early 1970s and he is among the most pivotal figures in the development of popular culture in modern Ireland. Jim Aiken, a former Armagh county footballer who cut his promoter’s chops during the ballroom boom in the mid-60s, is another. The manner in which they both flexed their relationships with the GAA fundamentally re-drew the rules for live entertainment in Ireland and, having re-set their business models to reflect the developing tastes of local audiences, were now chasing big international deals.

Croke Park, the GAA’s headquarters in Dublin, had long been used for non-sports activities, from rodeo shows in the 1920s to liturgical set-pieces and even a boxing bout with Muhammad Ali in 1972. But Aiken crossed a cultural Rubicon in 1984 when he booked the American singer-songwriter Neil Diamond into the stadium, where he played to a fully-seated crowd of 40,000 and memorably, belted a sliothar out into the audience from the stage. Aiken was back again the following year when he promoted U2’s first ever headline show at Croke Park and, in 1986, assembled a sinewy bill in Dublin 3 that was headlined by a Glasgow band, Simple Minds. A horse had bolted and the stable door had been splintered in the process.

In Munster, Oliver Barry was just as busy. He enjoyed a long commercial relationship with the German composer, James Last who, in 1983, brought his big band to Austin Stack Park in Kerry. Over 13,000 people attended that show, held to mark the 25th anniversary of the Rose of Tralee Festival and during which Last’s orchestra performed one of its most popular tunes, ‘Jagerlatein’, best known as the theme music to the then fledgling RTÉ sports series, ‘The Sunday Game’.

But it was Siamsa that was taking Oliver Barry into far more interesting territory and, in the course of its ten-year lifespan, it acquired an aspect that was far from its founding principles. By the time its final curtain fell in 1987, it had attracted headline acts like John Denver, Leo Sayer, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez and Don McLean.

The final concert in the Siamsa series, which was headlined by Status Quo, a rock band from London, was in fact presented as part of a double-sided live concert weekend at Páirc Uí Chaoimh: the previous day, U2 brought its Joshua Tree tour to the same venue. Seven years after the Dublin band had performed a support set to the Cork cabaret turn, Tony Stevens, at The Garden of Eden nightclub in Tullamore, U2 played its biggest ever show in Cork.

The income generated from the rental of the stadium and from percentages on ticket sales contributed significantly to the clearing of the original Páirc Uí Chaoimh debt. One can also realistically claim that the 1987 Siamsa weekend in Cork was, in all but name, a speculative rock music festival co-promoted by the GAA inside its own premises, the first of its kind. The venture was the GAA at its most pragmatic: as in tune with the demands of an increasingly sophisticated and informed cohort of Irish youth as it was aware of the potential for commercial benefit through the use of its biggest assets.  

In a rare interview with Tony Leen in this newspaper in 2014, Frank Murphy, the long-time Secretary of the Cork County Board, admitted that as well as helping to pay the stadium’s mortgage, the live shows at Páirc Uí Chaoimh also helped to fund other investments. The Michael Jackson concerts [two shows promoted by Oliver Barry in 1988] enabled us to buy Flower Lodge [a former association football ground in Cork, now known as Páirc Uí Rinn] without bank borrowing’, he said. ‘These concerts made a huge difference’.

In fact, so important did Siamsa become as a fixture in the local GAA calendar that numerous high-profile fixtures – from local club games to even [indirectly] the 1983 Leinster Hurling final – were re-scheduled to accommodate it. Addressing this matter at the Cork County Board’s annual convention in 1987, chairman Con Murphy said that ‘money is not everything, but we can’t go on without it’.

Siamsa Cois Laoi ran for ten years and more or less set the template for the big, live outdoor music experience that now populates the Irish entertainment calendar. It also showed what was feasible. In bringing a cohort of sceptical GAA grandees along in its slipstream – and in spite of very public resistance from some of its own membership, its best-known officers and patrons and elements of the media – the 1987 Siamsa weekend revealed the way and the light.

So much so that, when a newly-elected Fine Gael T.D. for Tipperary, Michael Lowry – in his guise as head of that county’s GAA fund-raising sub-committee – was tasked with clearing another large building-related debt, he didn’t have to look too far. In a bid to eat into a £1.2m bill caused by the re-development of Semple Stadium before the staging of the All-Ireland hurling final in 1984, he looked across the county bounds in Cork. And when he did, he saw gold where he heard rock ‘n’ roll.

This piece originally appeared in The Irish Examiner newspaper and website on December 26th and 27th, 2022. Brian Reddin’s documentary film, ‘How Ireland Rocked The 80s’, was first broadcast on RTÉ One on Tuesday, 27 December, 2022.

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