By Robyn Kilroy
From as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to attend a music festival. Growing up, I remember hearing about the infamous Oxegen festival from my older family members. Even though the news of tent-burnings was indeed concerning and rather terrifying, the idea of standing in a field in your wellies, screaming along to your favorite acts, was too fun to ignore. Of course, much to my disappointment back then, Oxegen eventually ran out of breath and closed down in 2013. However, Oxegen Festival walked so other festivals could run. Many smaller festivals, like Electric Picnic and Body and Soul, stepped out from its shadow and became the most popular summer events in Ireland. Nowadays, your Instagram feed is bombarded with people in tents, drinking cans and smiling (even though it’s definitely cold and their clothes are DEFINITELY soaked). However, with every festival season comes the backlash and trouble; concerns about attendee’s safety, event management, and the pricing and rip-offs. While these concerns are justified, I believe that Irish music festivals provide an important role in the Irish music and culture scene, and I will continue to defend them to anyone listening.
Undoubtedly the most important aspect of Irish music festivals, both big and small, is the platform they provide for up-and-coming Irish musicians and acts. While at this year’s All Together Now in Waterford, I found my highlight to be The West Cork Ukulele Orchestra’s one hour set on one of the smaller stages, rather than seeing some of the bigger acts at the main stage. There’s something special about coming across an Irish act that you may have never heard of before. If an Irish act is playing at a local club or bar, I find myself less eager to go and see them unless I already know who they are. But when I’m at a music festival and I’m wandering around the various stages, I’m more inclined to stop by a random stage and listen to a set. Along with big names, Irish music festivals do make a point of including local acts, such as Irish underground DJ Cáit at this year’s Electric Picnic, or Amy Montgomery at Knockanstockan. Ultimately, Irish music festivals give smaller Irish acts the opportunity to play for people outside of their fan group, essentially aiding them in extending their music to a wider audience.
It’s not just music that Irish music festivals provide, they also play host to wonderful art installations that let your imagination run wild, in-between the tent seshes and mosh pits. Electric Picnic’s Art Trail gives artists the chance to show off their immersive and innovative pieces, be they striking sculptures or calming light installations. There’s also a place for activism at Irish Music festivals, with Extinction Rebellion setting up a stall at All Together Now this year, in order to reach out to festival-goers about their climate change-fighting organization. And while festivals all over the world have been scrutinized for the severe amount of litter that is left behind each year, Irish music festivals are attempting to challenge this, such as Electric Picnic running cup and deposit return stations. At the end of the day, it’s not the festival organiser’s fault that you’re too lazy to not bring your tent home with you.
While Irish music festivals can be magical places where you can see your favorite acts and have a laugh with your mates, there are, of course, dangerous aspects to them. Drug culture and music festivals do tend to go hand-in-hand and, unfortunately, this has led to tragic situations that can’t go ignored. However, you can’t fight this by increasing security (that’s never stopped anyone) or writing off music festivals together (people will take drugs in a field, whether there’s music or not). The only reasonable solution is for there to be access to a safe and non-judgemental service, where attendees can test what they’re taking to ensure it’s safe. Along with this, festivals need to provide information about different drugs, their effects and what to do if they have a bad effect on you. Unfortunately, Ireland isn’t quite there on its cultural and legal treatment of both recreational and abusive drug-taking, and this is to the detriment of many young people’s safety.
Then, there are the prices. Now, I’m not going to defend the prices of many of the Irish music festivals, as, often, they can be extortionate. And there was the controversy this year at Electric Picnic, when it was revealed that the Salty Dog stage had been moved to the main arena. The Salty Dog was a fan-favorite stage where you could have a few cans with your friends and listen to some music before heading into the main arena. Because of the move, attendees who wanted to go to this stage could not bring their own alcohol, as you’re not allowed to bring it into the main arena. With the over-expensive drink prices at all music festivals, this was seen (and rightly) as just another way to make more money. The only defence I can make for the expense is that, with the growth of the music festival industry in Ireland, event organizers have to keep being competitive with how much they pay artists in order to book them. The more money you pay artists and performers, the more expensive the tickets are going to be.
While there are issues with music festivals and the culture surrounding them, I do think that they are integral to the Irish culture scene. As a festival-goer, whether the sun is shining or it’s pouring rain, you find yourself able to step into an alternate world and forget about reality for the weekend. And, without Irish music festivals, the tent industry of Ireland would probably die, so there’s that too.