As the Trip to Tipp kicks off tomorrow, John G O'Dwyer remembers how the original Féile came together
"Ye can turn them on now, lads.”
Red lights appeared on the five phones before us and immediately all rang in unison. We turned to each other: “Wow, this thing is going to be huge.”
We were in what is now the Lar na Pairce building in Thurles and an eircom technician had just finished installing the telephone lines.
They were to be used by those seeking information and accommodation for Féile — a new weekend-long music festival in Semple Stadium, Thurles.
Brainchild of local TD, Michael Lowry, it had been proposed as a means of paying the more than £1 million debt accrued by the upgrading of Semple Stadium to accommodate the 1984 Centenary All-Ireland Hurling Final in Thurles.
Not everybody was on-side, however.
Many staunch GAA members were against the whole idea of a music festival in Semple Stadium. The young farmers’ organisation, Macra na Feirme, were also opposed because of the negative impact the event would likely have on their long-running Miss Macra Festival in Thurles.
Crucially, the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly Dr Dermot Clifford also expressed strong opposition.
If this had been 1950s Ireland, there is little doubt the whole idea would have been quietly shelved. It was, however, 1990, and the country was changing.
Team captains no longer knelt to kiss the episcopal ring in Croke Park and the once obligatory rendition of Faith of Our Fathers had been dropped from All Ireland Final days.
In more liberal times,Tipperary County Board GAA felt emboldened to stand behind Lowry.
This new-found backbone, most likely, resulted from the nature of the debt.
Interest rates were dizzyingly high at the time and the liability threatened to escalate to such an extent that the GAA would lose ownership of the famous stadium.
It is sometimes said that if you are threatened with being hanged, it clears the brain wonderfully. Accepting what it probably saw as the lesser of two evils, the County Board gave the green light.
Féile went ahead with MCD Productions promoting the event, but with a stipulation: music would stop during Saturday evening Mass in nearby Bohernanave Church.
Working with community development in the town, I soon found myself shoehorned on board as theaccommodation officer.
More than 300 families in Thurles and the surrounding area agreed to open their homes to the festival goers and my job was co-ordinating it.
In an era before websites and social media, the “bible” for promoting music events like Féile was the Sunday World newspaper.
And so it came to pass that on the Monday morning after the Sunday advertising of Féile, I was standing beside the newly installed accommodation line telephones.
Would the somewhat underwhelming line-up, of mostly Irish acts, be enough to attract the masses? The instantly ringing telephones suggested a definitive ‘yes’.
Soon it became apparent that, while family home accommodation was extremely popular with worried parents, it was less so with the young people attending Féile.
Quickly, we learned that accommodation had to be paid in advance.
The reason was that if Johnny or Josie decided to literally decamp with their friends to the campsite onarrival — as often happened — the family still got paid.
The lead-up to the first Féile was, for Thurles people, like waiting for Storm Ophelia to arrive: the entire town seemed to hunker down as if anticipating a hostile invasion.
On Thursday afternoon the first revellers began to trickle in. To the bemusement of locals, they immediately installed themselves, not in the pubs, but in the sunshine on Liberty Square and contentedly drank from cans for the remainder of the evening.
By Friday afternoon, the takeover was complete.
Liberty Square was transformed into a huge outdoor pub as Thurles became subsumed beneath a deep layer of empty beer cans and fast food cartons.
Businesses, other than those in food and hospitality, closed for the weekend, while on Saturday morning long queues formed outside the local swimming pool as festival-goers sought badly needed shower facilities.
In the stadium, the atmosphere late in the evening, however, became electric.
My abiding memory is of Van Morrison singing ‘Days like this’, backlit by the glow of a silvery, August moon.
In one important aspect, the naysayers to the Féile were proven wrong. Almost no trouble occurred over the weekend with locals suggesting that the extensive Garda presence ensured the crime rate actually fell below its usual level. Certainly, the young people remained good humoured throughout and seemingly intent only on enjoying their rite-of-passage weekend.
Féile went ahead for another four years. The unprecedented success of the event meant big internationals acts were soon headlining it: Simply Red, Nanci Griffith, Bryan Adams, INXS, Iggy Pop, The Cranberries, Elvis Costello and Bjork It seems for a time that Féile was about to position itself as Europe’s top music event. The opportunity was lost, however.
Rumblings of discontent continued locally with older people particularly decrying the annual takeover of the town while Michael Lowry now had bigger fish to fry as minister for transport, energy and communications. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Tipperary County Board, with its debt now cleared, didn’t see itself continuing as a concert promoter.
Féile moved to Cork in 1995 but it wasn’t quite the same. After a final one-day Thurles concert in 1997, the event dropped from the musical calendar.
The biggest winner from Féile was undoubtedly Semple Stadium, which saw it burdensome debt evaporate.
Michael Lowry also emerged smelling of roses with an enhanced reputation for getting things done and a hugely consolidated power base which was to stand him in good stead during theturbulent years which lay ahead.
By contrast, the Catholic hierarchy were shown — not for the final time — to be out of touch with the feelings of young people.
Féile has now been revived as a more genteel all-seated concert, with a pop-up food market and a Prosecco area. It is unlikely queues will form outside the swimming pool this time or canned beer will be sold by the slab from Costcutter. Instead, middle-aged former Féile goers, who for the most part are now pillars of society, will arrive in droves to recapture, for one final time, those carefree days of youth.
- Curated and hosted by Tom Dunne, Feile Classical is on tomorrow and Saturday in Semple Stadium.