SIAMSA COIS LAOÍ

An earthy Breton harpist, Alan Stivell, topped the bill at the first Siamsa Cois Laoí, a day-long festival of folk and traditional music that took place at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork on July 17th, 1978. Then in his mid-30s, Stivell was a prominent figure in the electrification of Celtic music and was already a fixture on the live circuit here. Nine albums into what was then – and what has continued to be – an extraordinary and prolific career, his prints are all over what we might respectfully refer to as Celtic rock music.

Adding electric instruments and lavish arrangements to traditional Breton tunes and spikey originals, Alan Stivell was one of those leading the way and carrying the light: his 1975 album, ‘Live In Dublin’, is one of Celtic rock’s essential foundation pieces. Recorded over a couple of nights at The National Stadium in November, 1974, that elpee features bagpipes, Breton woodwind, flutes and harp over a blanket of progressive electric rock riffing. Onto which Alan spoons vocals and general caterwauling to a record that, forty-five years later, straddles the junction between invention, genius and parody. On the eve of an upcoming world tour, Stivell repeated one of his regular mantras in Cork: ‘I’m trying to preserve the Celtic culture through music’, he told one of the local newspapers.

His set-up in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was pared back and un-plugged: Alan, seated, on harp and tin whistle, flanked by fiddle, acoustic guitar and basic, hand-held percussion. The 1978 Siamsa Cois Laoí – which translates as Festival by the [river] Lee – was captured on film by an RTÉ outside broadcast unit and subsequently transmitted as a multi-part performance series by the national broadcaster. In the early evening balm at the great bowl deep in Cork city’s dockland, Stivell’s ornate, Breton vibes are lost in the outdoors.  

The lingering shots of attractive young women, couples shifting and youths necking beer suggest that RTÉ’s live director was looking to distract from the subdued humours on the main stage, on which Alan never looks entirely comfortable. Over coffee with Vincent Power of The Evening Echo the following day, he claimed that while ‘the [Siamsa] organisers are nice people, they don’t know anything about sound’. Although pleased with the reception he received in The Páirc, ongoing issues with the stage monitors didn’t help his cause and, he claimed, his small band had found it ‘difficult to play together’. 

As well as hosting thousands of games and training sessions during its lifetime, the original Páirc Uí Chaoimh also staged ten consecutive Siamsa Cois Laoí shows and numerous other high profile and profitable live events after it opened in June 1976. The stadium endured until 2015, after which it was razed to the ground and re-built. Over the last couple of years, my friend Michael Moynihan has highlighted, in a series of scarcely-believable exclusives in The Irish Examiner, the extent of the over-spend on that project. Peter McKenna, the Stadium Director at Croke Park and an influential figure within the G.A.A. hierarchy, has suggested that the eventual cost of the project will be close to €110m: the venture was originally budgeted at €67m. At a meeting of the Cork County Board in February, 2019, Michael O’Flynn, on behalf of the current Stadium Committee, predicted that the final cost of the re-development will be closer to €96m. By any measure, the over-spend on the recent re-fit is staggering. The cost of the re-construction of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, whatever the final figure might be, will have consequences for Gaelic Games in Cork for decades to come.

Some of the veteran delegates and officers of the Cork County Board will know this feeling only too well, though, because they’ve been in this territory previously. When Páirc Uí Chaoimh was first opened in June 1976, it did so at twice the projected cost and it too left a mouth-watering debt in its wake. Using terms that’ll sound very familiar, it was presented as a strikingly modern, state-of-the-art, consumer-friendly operation: the most contemporary facility of its sort in the country. The final cost, even allowing for the rate of inflation during this period, was off the charts.

In May, 1978, the then chairman of the Cork County Board, Donal O’Sullivan, told The Cork Examiner that ‘even though the County Board succeeded in raising £650,000 from its own resources [towards the cost of building the stadium], and received considerable grants from other units of the Association, there is a debt of £800,000 still due, and the repayment of this loan means that a big sum must be found annually’.

He was speaking in Dublin at the launch of the first ever Siamsa Cois Laoí, one of a number of innovative schemes devised to help alleviate the Páirc Uí Chaoimh debt. Siamsa was promoted during its ten-year history by Oliver Barry, from Banteer in North Cork, who served his time on the fledgling entertainment industry that sprung up around the Irish showbands during the 1960s. He was a formidable operator with strong G.A.A. credentials and I credit him as one of the most important, innovative and unheralded figures in the history of Irish entertainment. 

Because of the G.A.A.’s constitution – ‘the Association promotes Irish music, song and dance and the Irish language as an integral part of its objectives’ – the early Siamsa line-ups needed to recognise the organisation’s ethos while also being commercially attractive. With the Grounds Committee of the Cork County Board, Barry put together a first line-up that spoke, in broad brush-strokes, to the association’s cultural remit. Apart from Alan Stivell, Siamsa 1978 also featured The Chieftains, The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones, the Dublin-born fiddler, Paddy Glackin, and a group of set dancers from Youghal. Tickets were priced at £3 and the show attracted over 12,000 paying punters, grossing almost £40,000 in sales, half of which went towards the stadium debt.

Siamsa Cois Laoí is a seminal concert series in the history of live music in Ireland and, by the mid-1980s, had re-drawn the entire pitch for entertainment promotions here. After ten years, it was seamlessly morphed into bigger, international-scale shows by the likes of U2, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Prince, all run by the same principal partners: Cork G.A.A. and Oliver Barry. Its line-ups bear witness to the development of cultural imagination in Ireland during the 1980s, not least of all within the upper reaches of the Gaelic Athletic Association.

In 1984, the G.A.A. marked the centenary of its foundation by pointedly staging its annual congress in Belfast during the height of ‘the troubles’. It is to the credit of those driving G.A.A. matters in Cork that they could look out beyond the narrow rhetoric and cultural focus that often characterised their organisation. What went on within the concrete wrap at Páirc Uí Chaoimh from 1978 until 1987 was utterly game-changing: Siamsa set the course for U2’s show at Croke Park in 1985, Féile in Thurles in 1990 and all outdoor live music events in this country ever since. It is a hugely important cultural pivot point. 

The last event held under the Siamsa Cois Laoí banner took place at Páirc Uí Chaoimh during the weekend of August 8th and 9th, 1987, when U2 and Status Quo headlined two consecutive nights at the ground, a series co-promoted by Oliver Barry and Jim Aiken. The melding of the two live shows back-to-back, and the re-scheduling of that summer’s senior inter-county championship calendar to accommodate live music in Cork, was as profound a development in its own way as the opening of Croke Park to rugby and soccer decades later. Status Quo, legs-splayed, denim-clad rock and roll scruffs from London, were the last ever Siamsa head-liners: the roll-of-honour also includes Don McLean, Joan Baez, Glen Campbell, Kris Kristofferson, Leo Sayer and John Denver. 

The broadcaster, Donncha Ó Dúlaing, was keenly aware of the G.A.A.’s cultural bent. From Doneraile in North Cork, he began his broadcasting career in the RTÉ radio studios in Cork during the early 1960s as Denis Dowling, before his name was changed at the suggestion of one of the station heads. He compered the first Siamsa concerts and, as he did throughout his long career on the wireless and on television, oscillated between English and Irish, the first language of the Irish state and the Gaelic Athletic Association. During his long career, Ó Dúlaing conducted a number of interviews with the fabled Cork hurler, Christy Ring, including the only surviving television sit down, which was recorded for a series called ‘Donncha’s Travelling Roadshow’ shortly before Ring’s death in 1979. 

During The Dubliners’ Siamsa Cois Laoí set in 1980, Ó Dúlaing invited the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, to join the group onstage. The Fianna Fáil leader reluctantly took the mic and belted out a line of an old Dublin song, ‘Monto’. As he was being glad-handled back down the ramp at the side of the stage, Haughey quipped ‘What about my fee?’

On-stage in front of The City End and with a live mic in his hand, Ó Dúlaing’s schtick was peppered with tribal old guff. ‘Two years ago, I had the distinction of being called a republican by The Irish Times’, he told the Siamsa crowd on that same afternoon in 1980. ‘Well, since this is a republic, I suppose we must all be republicans’. A review of the event in Magill magazine mentions how he later called for ‘a round of applause for the late Tom Barry’, the Kerry-born commander of the West Cork Flying Column during the War of Independence and the Civil War, who died a couple of weeks previously. In remembering Barry, Ó Dúlaing played fast and loose with history, telling that crowd that people like Tom Barry ‘gave us the Ireland we love – the thirty-two county Ireland’. 

The Wolfe Tones, a four-piece ballad group from Dublin, were well known to Ó Dúlaing: he’d cut them a couple of decent breaks during the earlier part of their career. Trading in old school folk and rebel songs and anti-British sentiment, they were managed by Oliver Barry and have the distinction of being the only act to play at all ten Siamsas. At every single one, they’d amble on-stage in the mid-afternoon and rouse the crowds with some of their most popular material, much of which, like ‘A Nation Once Again’, ‘Some Say The Devil Is Dead’, ‘On The One Road’ and ‘God Save Ireland’, was politically-charged. They were unapologetic opportunists who didn’t do nuance: a popular live draw all over Ireland at this time, they were also regulars in the Irish charts. 

During the weeks that preceded the first Siamsa Cois Laoí, a number of atrocities took place in Northern Ireland, as had been the case all too frequently since 1969. On June 17th, 1978, the I.R.A. carried out a gun attack on an R.U.C. patrol car near Crossmaglen, County Armagh. One officer was killed at the scene and a second was kidnapped. A Catholic priest was kidnapped the following day as a reprisal and, later that year, three R.U.C. officers were charged with the offence. The same officers were also charged, along with two other officers, with the killing of a Catholic shopkeeper in Ahoghill the previous April. Three members of the I.R.A. and a passing Protestant civilian were shot dead by undercover members of the British Army during an attempted bomb attack on a Post office depot in Belfast.

This backdrop wasn’t lost on The Evening Echo’s traditional music columnist, Bob O’Donoghue who, the week after that first Siamsa, claimed that The Wolfe Tones’ left him ‘as cold as death in Belfast’. Drawing parallels between the power of Irish and American Negro folk music, he concluded his piece by reminding readers that wounds are healed by justice, a combination of ‘reason and feeling’. Justice does not lie, he signed off, ‘in the song of the bullet’.

It’s unlikely that his sentiments were shared by the Cork County Board’s Registrar, Denis Conroy, who was back at Páirc Uí Chaoimh early on the morning of July 18th, 1978. The long-serving Carrigtwohill delegate, who never hid his republican sympathies, was leading a group of fifteen young helpers to clear the ‘massive amount of debris left behind’ after Siamsa. A trial match between the Cork senior and under-21 footballers set for Tuesday evening meant that time was precious and the clean-up crew was up against the clock. Describing Siamsa as ‘an unqualified success’, Conroy paid special tribute to The Wolfe Tones who, he reminded reporter Maurice Gubbins, ‘almost brought the house down’. ‘I never saw anything like it’, he said.

Siamsa was notable also for the first appearance at the venue of pint-sized cans of beer, which, up until the mid-1970s, were almost unheard of in Ireland. From the evidence left behind by thirsty punters, they were a popular choice of refreshment, a fact not lost on Denis Conroy. Noting that the cans were imported, he suggested that ‘there was surely an opening for an industry manufacturing them in Cork’.

A decade later, the people of Cork had a far greater choice of beers and soft drinks available to them, in cans, bottles and on tap, both inside Páirc Uí Chaoimh and outside it. During the weekend of that last Siamsa, local hotels and guest houses were, as reported by The Cork Examiner, ‘jam packed for 20 miles around’ while restaurants and bars across town were ‘turning away customers on Friday and Saturday nights’. Not only was Siamsa now generating considerable ticket revenue, it had also developed its brand more widely: for three years from 1984, the event was supported by a title sponsor, the Ford Motor Company. A media partnership was formalised with local and national outlets, side deals were concluded with stall holders and hospitality providers around the event and the net value to the city was determined to have been in the millions of pounds. This during a period when 248,462 Irish people were registered as unemployed. 

Live music in Cork that weekend wasn’t confined to Páirc Uí Chaoimh either, and most other venues of note piggy-backed the occasion and ran well-supported shows of their own. A formidable local outfit, The Belsonic Sound, played Sir Henry’s that Friday, introduced on-stage by RTÉ’s Dave Fanning, while In Tua Nua took the boards at De Lacy House as their patrons, U2, were half way through their set down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. An emerging young band from Bray, County Wicklow, The Icon Trial, played the first date of a four-date residency in Mojo’s.  

Such was the expected influx of crowds into the city over the couple of nights that Fine Gael councillor, John Blair, was fearful of a breakdown in public order. He warned a meeting of Cork Corporation in July, 1987, of possible clashes between rival followers of U2 and Status Quo on the city’s streets. From Ballintemple, in the shadow of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, John Blair’s late brother, Des, was one of the best known local promoters working the seam in Cork at the time. In respect of live music, Des Blair, who died in 2014, is best remembered for booking the Sonic Youth/Nirvana double bill into Sir Henry’s in 1991 and also B.B. King’s shows at The Neptune Stadium in 1988 and 1990.

John Blair was lending his voice to the worries of some of his constituents: those living in close proximity to Páirc Uí Chaoimh have long had concerns about public safety, access, lighting and general crowd control around that part of the city. With over 80,000 concert-goers moving in and out of The Marina that weekend, additional Gardaí were drafted onto the city roster from Mallow, Fermoy, Cobh and Midleton. As it turned out, most of those fears were unfounded: Chief Superintendent Larry McKeon told The Examiner on Monday that ‘the number of arrests or incidents in the city were on a par with any other weekend’. 

A familiar public safety concern at the time concerned the use of small, unlicensed boats, dozens of which – some of them home-made and most of them without life-jackets – would ferry concert and match-goers across the river from Tivoli. One of them sunk on the afternoon of Siamsa, without any casualties.

Cork G.A.A. eventually knocked forty years out of the original Páirc Uí Chaoimh but, by the 2000s, the cracks, literally, began to appear in its structure. The stadium was eventually over-taken by the demands of the modern consumer and, on the days of bigger games and concerts, it was just too much of a challenge to get in and out of. Large-scale, live music events feature prominently in the stadium’s  history and, looking at the financial strategy under-pinning the recent re-build, will continue to do so. Two high-profile British performers, Ed Sheeran and Rod Stewart have already played there.  

But if Siamsa is another story of an emerging Ireland and, within that frame, the evolution of the Gaelic Athletic Association, it’s also another chapter in the remarkable story of Oliver Barry. From show-running dance bands at The Crystal Ballroom in Dublin during the 1960s, to the vagaries of the cabaret circuit that followed it, he was just as comfortable running with the international jet set during the 1980s and thereafter. With the Wexford businessman, James Stafford, Barry was one of the founding directors of Century Radio, Ireland’s first independent national radio station, that opened in 1989. 

Supported by high-profile backers like the radio and television personality, Terry Wogan, and the singer, Chris De Burgh, Barry attempted to lure Gay Byrne, then the best-known broadcaster in Ireland, away from his long-time home at RTÉ. Despite the promise of a salary of £1m a year, and all of the supports and benefits he required, Byrne wouldn’t bite. ‘When all is said and done, RTÉ is my home, and a pleasant one’, Byrne wrote in his 1989 autobiography, ‘The Time Of My Life’. Century collapsed within two years and Barry took a considerable financial bath, estimated at the time to be close to £3m.  

He was also compelled to appear at the Flood Tribunal, a mammoth tribunal of enquiry, set up in 1997 to investigate irregularities in high-profile planning procedures in Dublin. In May 1989, four months after Century Radio won it’s commercial radio licence, Barry gave €35,000 in cash to Ray Burke, the Fianna Fáil Communications minister, at one of his departmental offices. Mr. Justice Flood found that Barry, and James Stafford, among many others, had obstructed the Tribunal’s work.

In the telling of the history of popular music in Ireland, Oliver Barry’s name features largely. The Gaelic Athletic Association features far less so. By consistently evolving from its tentative beginnings with Alan Stivell in 1978, Siamsa Cois Laoí – an initiative of the Cork County Board in partnership with the promoter – has had a considerable impact on the development of live entertainment in Ireland, and the industry that has grown up around it. Maybe far more than even the G.A.A. itself might admit.

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