ON JUNE 26 1977, Rory Gallagher played one of his best gigs ever, and one of his largest in Ireland. A gig that would inspire and entertain, it brought together 20,000 loyal fans. Macroom Mountain Dew would make history as Ireland’s first open air rock festival.
But what was it about Gallagher that grabbed his fans? Music buffs can never give one definitive answer, but total dedication to his art was one key to his success. He lived for music. And he was a decent human being.
“There are two people whom I consider the nicest I ever met in the music business,” says Peter Sanquest, a London-based musician (and this writer’s brother).
“One was George Martin. The other was Rory Gallagher. George was kind, humorous and generous, and Rory had those qualities and was self-effacing and humble too, with time for everyone.”
Playing guitar in Cork in the 1960s, Sanquest had a group called The Axills, with which Rory often guested. When the group broke up, other members Eric Kitteringham and Norman Damery went on to form Taste with Rory.
“Rory was extremely clean living,” says Sanquest. “He didn’t smoke, drink or curse and went to Sunday Mass. He lent me his Stratocaster twice — an example of his generosity and kindness.”
They often spent time in Crowley’s music shop testing the guitars. “I had a Watkins Rapier, which cost me £45, and played Brazilian music on it. Rory was always analysing the technique which was completely different to rock.
“We would argue about the importance of jazz versus the blues. He wasn’t so keen on jazz, but loved playing Django Reinhardt.”
When it came to 1977 and the Macroom Mountain Dew festival, Gallagher was well established.
“Rory was on the crest of a wave then,” says Gerry McAvoy, bassist with Rory Gallagher for 20 years. “We had played in Cork City Hall many times and of course in the UK, Northern Ireland and Germany from where a lot of the fans came for the Mountain Dew.”
McAvoy recalls how in 1977 rock music was still unacknowledged.
“I always found it a bit frustrating that it was so rare to have rock music on RTÉ radio, unlike in the US at that time. It didn’t make sense that the festival wasn’t covered by RTÉ. The simple fact that it was Ireland’s first open air rock concert held outside a big city should have been enough to make some kind of news. And they didn’t even come to the second one the following year!
“They obviously didn’t see it as important — that was a disappointment, though we were used to it. The time around the Macroom festival was the high point of Rory’s career.”
In Macroom, a town that badly needed the business at the time, the community made Cork’s own Rory Gallagher welcome. Born in 1948 in Ballyshannon Co Donegal, he grew up in Cork. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Some businesses boarded up their premises, wary of the type of rocker who would follow the nation’s idol. But they need not have worried. Most of those attracted to the Mountain Dew Festival were there for the music.
It also took a while to convince Gallagher that Macroom was right for a concert. While he had played the Isle of White festival and other events, these large-scale outdoor gigs hadn’t been done in Ireland before.
He was wary about achieving a good enough quality sound for his fans. But with his mother from nearby Ballyvourney putting on some pressure, the concert went ahead. It would be good for Cork to have Ireland’s first open air concert, and especially to have one up on Dublin.
To achieve the highest standards of sound and lighting, the rock star’s brother and manager, Dónal Gallagher took over the gig, organising and importing the services of Mike Lowe of Britannia Row/Stage Shows who often worked with them, including Cork-born sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy (later to become U2’s main sound man).
Constructed by the engineers of the festival committee, the stage supported heavy sound equipment and a large Rory Gallagher banner stretched across the stage. Dónal Gallagher, watchful and creative, found a stage backdrop in the Town Hall painted with an image of Macroom Castle. A baby grand piano was hoisted into place and given a final tuning.
Regulars with Rory opened the concert. Blues guitarist Roland Van Campenhout from Belgium was popular with the crowd, Nutz from England and local band Sunset set a vibrant, enthusiastic scene.
To avoid being mobbed by fans, Gallagher was brought on site via a farm road and arrived on stage to exuberant cheering.
Some fans, not realising just how far it was from Cork to Macroom or how poor the bus service would be, had hitched or walked all the 24 miles. Fed on queen cakes and scones by kind locals, they quickly forgot their sore feet.
VALUE FOR MONEY
Gallagher’s performance, with bassist Gerry McAvoy, keyboard player Lou Martin and drummer Rod de’Ath, was a triumph and provided fans with one of the most memorable moments of their lives. They definitely got value for their £2.50 ticket.
Gallagher appreciated that many would travel long distances and wanted to be sure they could afford his concert. The gig was not about money, but satisfying loyal fans. For the festival committee it was about bringing business to their town. It was successful on both fronts.
Keith Mulholland, vocalist with Nutz remembers, “Rory expected the set-ups to be right, and then was able to get on with his own job.
“He played a blinding gig in Macroom. He connected with the crowds and they loved him. It was a perfectly shaped auditorium and the sound was great.”
Rory always suffered from stage fright, and Dónal Gallagher remembers that right up to his arrival he was worried no-one would turn up for the festival. “There weren’t all that many advance sales in those days to indicate how it would go. However, he was thrilled with the concert.”
And so a legend was born.