Saturday Tina and I attended what must be the Irish version of Burning Man, something called “Festival of the Fires”. Based on what might be a pre-celtic ritual of jumping over fires to welcome the summer season, it’s a festival of music, arts and culture, and general revelry on a hill which has particular significance in Ireland because it is an ancient seat of Kings, even more ancient than Tara.
It was difficult to find – there was some misinformation about whether it would be possible to get tickets, but out of a sense of adventure Tina and I decided to set off anyway. Driving there wasn’t straightforward, we had a general sense of where it was but the festival website, although looking pretty and modern, was missing a lot of essential information such as can you bring your dog, and where is it (no map provided!). There were signs along the roads, but sometimes not making it clear which road to take. We met another traveller along the way who was lost in the same way as we, and eventually we found our way.
The festival was completely brilliant. The people were so friendly that we struck up multiple conversations with strangers over the night. Most were from the local area around the festival, rather than having travelled from a major city. And the conviviality they extended wasn’t forced or thin, I think everyone we met we ended up hanging around with for an hour at least.
What struck me most about the experience was the wildness of the place. When I see footage of festivals back in the 1960s or 70s I get the sense that things were a little freer then, that there wasn’t as much security, that things were let slide and the dominance of modern industrial efficiency was not so totalizing. I thought I might have been imagining it, but now I know that I wasn’t because it’s exactly what this event felt like. There were not strict boundaries of the festival grounds, just the end of a field crossing over into another at an old stone fence. And there was always someone over in the next field, and usually some flags associating the space with the festival. And while the festival was apparently sold out, it was not busy – I’ve heard 4000 people, and they were selling tickets at the gate with no sign that they were counting, and since they gave Tina and I different change, even the festival entry charge was a bit arbitrary (they charged me ten euro less, the only reason I can think of is that they may have ran out of ten euro notes to give as change). Because there were relatively few people the festival didn’t have an overcrowded atmosphere (the vastness of the grounds and spread between the tents and stages helped as well). Even at the end of the night when you’d suspect everyone to be gathered at the main stage, it wasn’t uncomfortably crowded, it wasn’t a proper north american crowd. And while, as Tina said, there is a time at events when things get a bit messy (as nearly everyone has been drinking all day), there wasn’t a violent feeling at all, just a sense that bodies became slightly sloppy in their movements. What a world of change from “Arts County Fair”, a festival which might have some superficial similarities, but which was largely captured (during the years I attended at least) in the North American ethos of profit, excess, and violent temper.
The food was fantastic, many of the carts served very original, healthy and locally sourced food. It wasn’t terribly cheap, but there was a sense of pride in the people working, and a sense that the goal was something other than the extraction of profit. It reminds me of a pizza restaurant I ate at on Quadra island back in 2003 – a feeling of being a bit outside capital, a feeling that the principle value in the place was care.
As for drink, worth mentioning is that the guineas on tap was excellent and the cans of Bulmers cider, which I’d never drank before, make a lot of sense in a festival context. If we’d have known that they wouldn’t search our bags, we could have brought in our own beer and saved a good number of euro, but I didn’t feel short changed by the prices either, which were really just the same as a pub. Cider is a good festival drink, not as heavy as Guinness (although I’d wager it has more calories), and I think the simple sugars (it just tastes of mild apple juice) help keep you awake.
Rather than try to cab home or stop drinking early so as to drive we opted (in advance) to sleep in the car. This worked out great actually, the festival actually ends at a reasonable hour (I didn’t have a clock but sometimes around midnight), which makes sense given it starts before noon and people have been drinking all day. But again, unlike Arts County Fair, the drinking is a moderate thing, so the crash of tiredness at the end of the night isn’t extreme, and there was very little violent sentiment as people dispersed.
As I’ll be back in Ireland next year for TAPSS, I will try to be here again for the Festival of the Fires.