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.”