It seems like old hat now, a music festival, but when the first major gathering of music stars arrived to perform in Macroom, County Cork, it changed for ever how music would be enjoyed countrywide.
It was a very big deal. Major concert promoters had dismissed the idea of an outdoor one, but a town with a population of 3,000 was fearless, and the result was an unprecedented 20,000 music fans arriving to listen to their music heroes. Forty years ago they made history.
Born out of necessity, the festival was part of a rescue attempt for a town considered by businesspeople of the area to be on its knees. They needed an injection of visitors to stay – not just to stop for an ice-cream or their way west. Looking at their infrastructure they could see that they would not be able to support major events requiring thousands of beds with ensuite bathrooms. But they had spaces for tents and places for sleeping bags to be unfurled.
So what would attract people to the town, while at the same time entertain those living there, giving the town a morale boost as well as a financial one? Woodstock’s musical success and financial failure, and Glastonbury’s more sustained success were interesting to a committee with an average age of twenty-five.
With enthusiasm and youthful energy they created Ireland’s first music festival of its size, attracting Marianne Faithfull, and fuelled by her success, an outdoor festival of even greater magnitude to accommodate the loyal local and international fans of Rory Gallagher, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Paul Young, Paul Brady, and other Irish and foreign acts at the top of their game.
A ten-day festival with bands playing indoors during the week had a wide range of fun events, talent competitions and sports events appealing to locals and visitors alike.
The Macroom Mountain Dew Festival lasted for seven years, from 1976 to 1982, and I was privileged to interview many of those involved to bring back memories of a festival many remember as their first ever wondrous, exciting, music experience. Here are just a selection of those memories from the book:
“Nobody thought the festival would be such a great success. For the first of the Rory Gallagher concerts in 1977, we baked queen cakes and scones and gave them out as young people arrived looking very tired, having walked or hitched from Cork. It may have been a culture shock for the town, but the crowds that came in for the festival were all lovely.”
“We had a good relationship with the gardaí. There were older guards who were very sensible. If anyone was causing trouble they didn’t bother arresting them. Instead they would drop them six miles out the road and let them walk back in to cool them down.
“We got some minor negative publicity at the time, but what would happen is that anyone the drugs squad wanted to catch in Cork would be watched for in Macroom, and they would arrest them there. There was more dope smoked on the streets of Macroom at other times than during the festival.”
“I had to deal with the backlash of the Idi Amin [brutal Ugandan dictator] brainwave which was purely devised to bring attention to the festival. And there was quite a backlash. Once we got the idea of inviting him in 1977, we decided there was no time to waste.
Late in the night, John O’Callaghan drafted a letter and Pat Kelleher went home for his typewriter and typed it up while the rest of us stayed on to read and tweak it.
We delivered a copy to the Evening Echo within hours, at the same time as posting the original to Uganda. The paper picked up on it and wrote a story that appeared the next day.
“We wrote to the Ugandan president, inviting him to attend the festival. We never expected him to come, of course. We ended up having interviews all over the world and with all the Irish media who picked up on the Echo article. Mission accomplished!”
On flying to Cork with John Lydon — then Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols — where he was to receive a Hot Press award in Macroom: “Despite being offered a seat with us, he sat with two nuns, one elderly, one young. He made them feel particularly uncomfortable when, under his big coat, he revealed he was dressed as a priest. There was nearly a mutiny on the plane. When we arrived in Cork we were keen to play down the fuss as an arrest would have played into Rotten’s hand and, even though he wasn’t our responsibility at all, would have been bad publicity for the festival.
“A press area around the stage had been created and I went to Woolworths in Cork and bought replica medals that I gave to everyone as backstage passes.”
“An eight-seater plane was chartered for us. It was a very rocky flight so we had to smoke our weed to calm us down.
“The space was so confined that we probably smelled of it a lot when we arrived. We took a chance bringing in our own stash and had no trouble at customs, but we just missed going to jail in Macroom. We were stopped by a plain clothes officer who saw us smoking when we were amongst the crowd. He asked us where we had got our spliffs. We didn’t have a clue as a fan had proudly given us his homemade ones. The fan said: ‘There you are, I’ve grown it myself. I call it Kerrygold.’
“That was real Irish hospitality!
“My assistant roadie then was a funny little wiry young fella by the name of Brendan O’Carroll who much later in life would have a sex change operation — in fact a very successful one indeed — to become Mrs Brown. We drank the night away in a well-known hostelry called The Hooded Cloak. We slept the night in our VW van and I woke up to the wafting aroma of rashers and sausages.”
“I remember the excitement that greeted Gallagher’s arrival in an Aston Martin. Rory had a straw cowboy hat on. He bounded on to the stage, and from the moment he struck his first chord, the atmosphere was just electric. People like The Edge were there. It was part of what inspired him to become a musician. You had a whole wave of bands that came along after that who were inspired by Rory, Van Morrison, and Thin Lizzy. There was a sense that if they could do it, then other bands could too. It was a watershed, a moment which, more than any other, marked the changing of the guard.”