by / June 26th, 2015 /

Féile – The Tripp To Tipp

Before the Electric Picnic, Longitude, Castlepalooza, Indiependence, Body & Soul etc, the Irish festival scene was a far emptier space. There was Witnness. Before Witnness, well before Witnness there was the on / off story of Féile. If you’re of a certain age, you have most likely consigned band names like Flowered Up, Power Of Dreams, Energy Orchard and The Mock Turtles to the dustiest recesses of the back of your mind, where hair wraps, the Inter Cert and ox-blood Doc Martins also possibly languish. If so, you will also no doubt be fondly familiar with Féile, the infamous music festival commonly regarded as the frontrunner to the slick juggernauts of today.

Those who routinely complain about queues for organic cider stalls or cramped campsites in today’s open air offerings may well have been appalled by Féile’s basic, no-frills set up. Still, what Féile lacked in amenities and creature comforts, it amply made up for in sheer camaraderie, energy and carefree chaos…something that many contend to be sorely lacking from today’s more calcified festival experience.

In the early ’90s, the Irish music scene was in famously rude health: by contrast, the country’s festivals calendar was arid dry. Ireland’s most notable music festival to date, the rather beardy Lisdoonvarna in Clare, had ceased operations by 1983, while the annual pilgrimage to Slane had been on hiatus since 1987 (yet resumed in 1992). Cork’s Siamsa Cois Laoi – a festival boasting 40,000 punters and featuring the likes of The Pogues and The Wolfe Tones – disbanded in 1987. To say that there was a gap in the market for a contemporary music outing was no small understatement, and MCD promoter Denis Desmond promptly sought to redress this balance in 1990…a move that Irish Times journalist Jim Carroll calls “Desmond’s first big payday’.

Bizarrely, the arrival of Féile to Semple Stadium in Thurles was thanks in no small part to controversial politician Michael Lowry, then the TD for Tipperary North. “Lowry played a big part in it all, as he was popular down there and was very much responsible for getting the locals on side,” recalls Sunday World journalist Eddie Rowley. “If I recall, the stadium had to pay off a large debt of some sort and the rental of the stadium to MCD went a long way in getting rid of it.”

Billed as a successor to Lisdoonvarna, Féile’s first line-up was – compared to the diverse sonic treats that would follow in later years -quaint, folksy and parochial, featuring a largely Irish line-up. The stadium opened for business at midday on Saturday: local heroes Hothouse Flowers headlined the festival’s single stage on Saturday night while Van Morrison headlined on Sunday. Other acts to perform included Deacon Blue, The 4 Of Us, Mary Black, Meat Loaf, Big Country, No Sweat, The Little Angels, Thee Amazing Colossal Men, Maria McKee, That Petrol Emotion, Energy Orchard, The Saw Doctors, Moving Hearts, and Tracy Chapman. Predictably, it was a resounding success. “What no-one took into consideration was that people would come in their droves. I think MCD budgeted on about 10,000 people showing up, while twice that number came,” recalls Carroll, who was working on a merchandising stall at the time. In future years, the number of attendees would swell to 40,000.

Tom Dunne’s outfit Something Happens were also part of the glittering line-up in 1990 and 1991. True to form, the atmosphere was laid-back to a fault. Due in part to Health & Safety regulations that were only properly instated at open-air concerts in the mid-’90s, Féile’s security system was deliciously laissez-faire. “I think we all drove down in our own cars,” recalls Dunne. “I didn’t leave till quite late and I drove to the gate of the stadium, didn’t have a laminate or a pass or anything, and I said to whoever was there, ‘I’m meant to be onstage in an hour’…they just waved me through. By today’s standard, it was little short of a miracle.”

“Jesus, it was lo-fi in the extreme,” agrees Carroll. “Rough and ready stewards picked out from the locals, there was easy availability of acid and ecstasy. If you took a look around, it was pretty obvious that most people were on something – there was no getting away from the stuff.”

For many people, headliner Van Morrison sticks out as an unforgettable part of the first Féile weekend in 1990…for more reasons than one. “One of my more memorable moments was when Van Morrison ordered that the backstage area be emptied as he went through to go to the stage,” says Dunne. “Every other band was just standing around with bottles of beer.”

Morrison’s curmudgeonly tendencies notwithstanding, the backstage area was a hub of camaraderie at each Féile weekend; arguably a million miles away from the military precision of today’s current operations. “The backstage area was so small that all the heroes and villains of the industry were in one spot,” recalls Steve Wall, then in The Stunning. “Everyone was swanning around wearing sunglasses and acting important: in fact, I think the journalists had more swagger in that respect than the artists. I do remember queuing for food in 1993 – all the artists got a coupon for a carvery or something – and I was behind Michael Hutchence and Helena Christensen. I was checking out her ass and got caught by Iggy Pop, who was doing the same thing. You had the portakabin for a portion of the day,” he adds. “Bryan Adams or someone had brought gym equipment backstage one year, while everyone was loafing around having beer, which was hilarious.”

Naturally, each Féile weekend gave Irish acts the opportunity to fraternise with incoming dignitaries. “One highlight for me from that time was playing football with Tricky and Massive Attack in Cork,” remembers Jim Carroll. “True to his name, Tricky was a right tricky bastard…an even dirtier player than John Terry.” “Drinking with Wendy James, I think I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven,” admits Tom Dunne. “I saw Elvis Costello headlining and I didn’t have the nerve to approach him, much to my regret.”

Out front, things were decidedly less civilised; crepe stalls, mobile credit stands and on-site launderettes were but figments of the future. Bell X1’s Paul Noonan recalls the lack of facilities he encountered when he made the pilgrimage to Féile in 1991. “At the time, it was all good, I was just delighted to be there,” he admits. “I did see a dude being rolled around in a Portaloo though.”

‘I remember getting into improvised refrigeration,” he adds. “Wrapping a pint of milk in a wet cloth and leaving it outside the tent overnight in order to keep it cool, to line the stomach before hitting the Linden Village (cider). It didn’t help.” Noonan inevitably found himself at the mercy of the locals during the course of the weekend. “Six of us paid the princely sum of one pound each to use someone’s bathroom,” he recalls, “to avoid being rolled around in a Portaloo, I’d imagine. Six gangly 18-year-olds with questionable standards of hygiene at the best of times…I think we behaved though.”

The locals in Thurles and Féile’s pop-hungry punters made for interesting, if reluctant bedfellows, although in the five years that Féile was held at Semple Stadium, wily locals entered into the spirit of things. “I remember the town being a mess,” admits Noonan. “Crazy boozing, everyone on the make – card trick stalls, people selling egg ‘sangwiches’ out their front windows that had gotten the funk in the sun, and of course Mrs pound-a-poo.”

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  • I was actually at the one in ’97 as I inexplicably thought Reef were ok. As I remember it, a friend of mine copped off with a girl who had just vomited her guts up all over the path outside the place, it rained on the abysmal-as-always Manics, the Foos weren’t up to much and the Prodge were a load of balls. We drank a lot of cider, my friend pulled out my nipple ring and I still have a pair of jeans somewhere, from that day, that a ton of people wrote all over with a biro. I just shed a nostalgic tear on my keyboard…

  • Yeah, I remember the ’97 one too. The streets were apocalyptic. Just a blanket of cans everywhere. Everywhere. Cans and dribbling, puking, shagging humans. It was pure id. Got in during the Cardigans and couldn’t properly focus on her face on the big screen, so I lost interest in what was probably a shit set anyway. Thought Prodigy were good actually – I recall the ring of halogen lights over the stage, massive innit. Kula Shaker though, jaysus no. Did Reef play after the Cardigans? Fuck knows. Were the Foo Fighters good? Possibly, since it was the Colour And The Shape tour, last time they made any decent music. Good times, despite the filth, rain and much of the music. I, too, have shed a nostalgic tear on my keyboard.

  • was at all the feile’s and have nothing but great memories of the weekends. it always fell on my birthday so was superb to have so many people with me to celebrate.
    one of the highlights was the year a mate brought down a horsebox for a load of us to pile into and use as our ‘tent’.
    it was cramped but sure was warm and dry!

    got one of my long lasting nicknames at feile, radioactive man, but that’s another story…

    cheers for reminding me.

    c

  • wheatln2

    Great article and some really good recollections. Mustn’t forget House of Pain in 1994 either though!

  • Martin Foyle

    Great piece. My memories include
    -Van doing Moondance under a full moon. Magical, equaled last year by the rainbow at the Radiohead show, mother nature stealing the show again.
    -Nanci Griffith being told to ‘fockin’ take it back when she told us we Irish had made ‘From A Distance’ our own.
    -Elvis Costello’s last gasp of popdom when he headlined to a bemused unknowing audience in 1994.
    -Steve Earle literally hitting bottom in 1991. Engrossing all the same, he apparently was impressed that he could score within an hour of arriving in the country.
    And so on. My 1990 t-shirt doesn’t fit anymore, shrunk in the wash, of course.

  • alan clarke

    I was at Feile 89, 90,91
    I can’t remember who palyed at each year its all a bit hazy. Does anyone have a list of the artists for each year. Was 89 the 1st year in thurles? I remember Bowes bar was the 1st pub you found as soon as you got off the train,

    I have really fond memories of trip to tipp, snogging a girl from cookstown co. tyrone and she dropped mr home to drogheda in her ford fiesta xr31,

    Sleeping in a field in the middle on a housing estate beside
    semple stadium the 1st year , but the second year the campsite moves to the racecourse, much more organised, but further away from town.

    The good old days, we hadn’t a clue, no shades, suncream or pinstrip wellies, just a tent, clean t-shirt, sleeping bag optional and €40 for the weekend

    Class,

  • Yes! – Bowes’ beer garden was an oasis for the underage drinker, you could get strong cider and if you asked someone for “gear” they would make a joint for you to smoke. Then there was the legend who got up on the roof and stripped naked and then got down and smashed a bicycle. He was led away by the Gardai but returned the following year to reclaim his spot.

    I too remember the strange feeling of being in someones bathroom taking a shower and then in their kitchen eating a breakfast, all for a fiver.

    I think Cypress Hill and Rage against the Machine all played on the main stage one evening in Thurles. The singer from Cypress Hill stuck his microphone into the crowd and he got a punch in the face and his mic got stolen. I remember I went crowdsurfing over the barrier for Christy Moore.

  • Feile Back

    I was once the biggest festival in Ireland bringing music to the fans and money to the locals.I’ll never understand why I was stopped ,I’ve had Van da Man, Meat Loaf, The Pouges, PJ Harvey, Bryan Adams, INXS,The Prodigy, Blur, Rage Against the Machine, House of Pain and some local talent do what they do on my stages ,with Chris de Burgh bringing on a strip act which is fondly remmeberd.Alot of locals made some money renting rooms,showers,doorways anything ,the pubs didn’t even have time to count their money ,while a couple of people are still making alot of money step forward Mr Ryan(school cleaner) and Mr Maher(alarm installer) who I am sure are not stuck in these hard times ,all credit to them.
    But I still think there is a new chapter to be wrote in this Feile book.For a town doing little about unemployment it would do our councilers no harm to bring me back.
    SO SPREAD THE WORD YOU THE PEOPLE

  • hangsandwich

    94 was my first Feila at the tender age of 15. RAGM getting to No1 for Xmas just reminded me. What a class gig. does anyone remember the hari-chrishna tent getting burnt down. I am sure this happened because it was the landfmark for our tent, but I cant get anyone to confirm. Happy Memories

  • Ali Mc

    The Hari K tent did burn down! I remember it vividly. 15 year old standing laughing at the poor Hari’s crying their eyes out.  I also remember the tent being used as a slide the night before it burnt down. Ohh..what funny funny memories. RATM were amazing. I look back now and laugh at how crazy the whole festival was. Hardly any security and more or less no trouble. Feile 92 was my first ever concert. I went to Isle of Wight this year to mark 20 years of festival going. And Feile was were it all started for me. 🙂

  • Stephen O’Sullivan

    The smell of BO and booze mixed. Bootleg tapes being sold in the days after the concert. 2 litres of cider. People selling cans on the side of the road.
    Our tent got slashed. We found it by tripping over a heap on the ground. We retreated to the grandstand where there were ravers dancing all night, then to the Hari Chrishna tent
    Bands that come to mind 1990. Shakespeare Sister. Extreme. Simply Red. James. Mock Turtles. Maria McKee.
    Great memories.

  • Peter Dunne

    There is a book here!!!
    Favorites for me were, That Petrol Emotion, storming set. Van already mentioned. De La Soul, probably first time to see what live rap looked like. World Party, again a great set. Something Happens getting drowned in more inflatable rings etc from the audience than you would find in Salthill, Blackpool and Tramore combined during the song Beach. The Wonderstuff. Toasted Heretic. Sawdoctors at noon on a Sunday not sure which year, whatever about the music, but lyrics that spoke about where I was from.
    Also two new tapes I brought with me on 1st and 2nd year that opened up a whole new world of music, Go Btetweens and Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden still in my top 3 of all time.
    As I said there is a book here somewhere, especially with photo’s. That reminds me I have some somewhere!!!

  • joe mcdevitt

    oh yes that happened alright the harri tent fire, nothin to do with me mind you. great days, great memories, feile was mad, a sea of cans, bottles etc in the streets wading thru them. madness (the band, not the feeling) were a unexpected standout for me. Stone roses too, me the brother and a couple of mates met ian browne on a low key walkout. The intro to breaking into heaven played for an enternity.. The place was ready to explode by the time the stones roses hit the stage.

  • TheRealOzzy

    Was at Feile ’94 and ’95. A heady vintage indeed. Was 17 and meeting strange folk from all over the country. The lineups were amazing, the lack of facilities, no-one cared. Blur, RATM, The Orb, Stone Roses, Bjork a very youthful Ash, Tricky (with giant joint in hand), Grant Lee Buffalo (my friend missed because of a vodka binge and cried). Even watched Kylie for the craic. Had to break into campsite on last night as I’d lost my ticket. Went to Witness and was appalled. EP reingnited my Irish festival love.

  • Oro

    Went to every Feilé at Thurles, from 1990, when it began until 1995. Those were class times. And we had a blast.
    1991 was the best year. There weather was glorious. The atmosphere was electric.
    We took a truck and used it as our party central. Before the weekend even kicked in, we had 2 German lads in our company and a some stunning females too.Wonder where those girls from Armagh (Aoibhinn & Kerry) are now?
    Magic times and would enjoy seeing Feilé return to Semple

  • Mairtin Cathbhar

    That Van Morison gig under a large harvest moon was incredible. Ahhh the days,

  • Mairtin Cathbhar

    Was at all. 1990 remember the campsite, a wet turnip field with 5 porta-loos and one running tap for 20k campers – some egits set fire to the ditch on last night. 1991 slept in car. 1992 – 1995 can’t remember.