Thursday, December 30, 2021

American hip hop group Arrested Development was the first group to take to the main stage of the first ever organised Electric Picnic festival in Stradbally in 2004.

The on-off saga surrounding the 2021 staging of Electric Picnic was frustrating for both sponsors and music fans. In the end it never happened, but it prompted Nationalist reporter Joe Barrett to look back on the first EP festival in 2004

BACK then, the Stradbally event was a one-day affair, a ticket cost €60 and the festival attracted 15,000 music fans.

Arrested Development, the first band on stage, tuned up just before the electrical supply failed. Meanwhile, free condoms were being handed out to revellers.

2004 was the year Stradbally was swamped, with one of the largest crowds ever seen in the Little Town.

Few public order or drug offences were recorded, which is a far cry from recent years, when 300-odd punters appear before Portlaoise District Court ever year on drug-related offences arising from the event.

The Picnic now boasts over 27 stages, realms and various areas from live music and craft workshops to late-night woodland raves and cooking demos. There’s theatre, art and topical debate, not to mention holistic therapies and hot tubs.

On Saturday 4 September 2004 about 15,000 people flocked to Stradbally Hall estate for the Electric Picnic Music Festival, which was organised by POD Productions and Aiken Promotions. By 3pm the small town was heaving with young people. They had paid €59.50 to be entertained by hip-hop, DJs and comedians for nine hours in a purpose-built arena on the grounds of the Cosby estate.

When the gates opened, a multi-coloured army of music fans made their way up the long avenue to the festival site. But they were held up for another ten minutes as security personnel checked tickets, much to everyone’s annoyance.

The Ticketmaster (a ticket sales company) stand was having a busy time as hundreds more queued to buy their tickets.

About 7,500 people surged forward as the inner entrance gates opened.

At the entrance some were frisked by gardaí from the drugs squad. All were told that bottles and cans containing alcohol were not permitted inside the music area. Some who had their own booze stayed back and guzzled as much as they could before gaining entry.

At about 3.15pm, a section of the steel fencing to the side of the event field was prised apart by some revellers and gave way. One or two punters who were waiting to buy tickets took the opportunity and made their way through the breach in the fence. Like sheep, another 100 or so made the dash and slipped inside before security personnel managed to stem the flow of people.

Four young women had positioned themselves on the approach avenue. They were handing out free leaflets on the virtues of wearing condoms and offering little packages. The majority of those who accepted them just tossed the freebies on the ground.

One young man asked a security guard whether there were camping facilities nearby, as he wanted to pitch his tent for the night. He wanted to know if he could pitch it in the grounds of the estate. “No,” came the sharp reply. However, a young woman informed him that some of her friends had pitched their tent in a farmer’s field, “in some place by the name of Ballyruin (Ballyroan)” and that the farmer’s wife was charging €5 for the night. She gave him the directions to the farm.

It was now 3.30pm and Arrested Development, the first of the bands, had taken to the stage. Then, with a loud bang, the electrical supply went.

Shortly afterwards, it was all systems go again and Stradbally Hall estate came alive to the thumping rheumatic beat of hip-hop music. All the while, thousands were flocking to the town enquiring from locals and gardaí where the venue was.

The sun was now at its peak and the temperature was in the low 20s. Revellers who were not permitted to bring in cans or bottles soon made their way to the many outlets that were dotted around the grounds selling plastic cups of Budweiser, Guinness, wine, minerals and water. The thirsty masses were being charged €5 for their drinks, the wine was €3 with water selling at €1.50 a bottle.

By 4.30pm, the biggest queues were for the bars and toilets.

The usual stalls selling concert paraphernalia were also set up and busily trading. Some were selling t-shirts and plastic couches, while others sold ponchos and rainwear.

In another area of the festival site there were stalls selling foods from many nations around the world. You could have noodles from Japan, Italian coffee, Irish apples or even a bag of nuts from Brazil.

One t-shirt really stuck out at these early stages, as it read: ‘All I’m guilty of is having fun’. The young man who was wearing the slogan captured the moment. While the live bands played on the main stage, DJs were whipping up a frenzy in the music tents as small knots of people bounced to the sounds.

One of the first casualties was at about 4.45pm. The temperature was still climbing, and the young man had been dancing in one of the dance tents. He was rather unsteady on his feet. This could be put down to something that was in either of the two plastic cups that were in his hands. He lay down on the grass. Rolled himself into a ball and fell asleep. He lay there oblivious to the thumping music and the thousands of people who milled around him.

At 6pm they were still flooding in through the entrance gates. Very little evidence of drug use could be seen. However, the distinctive smell of marijuana was wafting from small groups of people who sat in huddles on the grass.

A gang of young people wearing yellow vests could be seen zig-zagging their way through the crowd picking up discarded plastic drink cups. About 40 of these were employed for the day. But three hours into the gig, the task proved a mountainous one as everywhere you looked there was rubbish strewn about.

These concert-goers on Saturday could not be classed as eco-warriors. They didn’t seem to care where they tossed the empty cups – although they did do their part for the snail population in Stradbally demesne. With the amount of alcohol that was spilled on the ground, the snails could have a party for the next month or so.

The Order of Malta had two ambulances on duty and a crew of 24. It was a slow enough day for them, though. No major incidents were reported. As one Order of Malta official put it: “We’ve had them with heat, drink and wasp stings.”

The gardaí, too, were having a quiet time. There were no arrests made. Gardaí on duty said the crowds were well behaved.

The crowd by now were starting to feel peckish and the food stands were making a bomb. It was a wondrous sight as the people sat about on the grass having a picnic at the Electric Picnic.

The first problem observed was at about 6.30pm.

The crowds by now had been watered and fed and were making their way to the porta-loos that were dotted around. The queues at these seemed longer than the ones at the beer bars. Those men who couldn’t hold out just wandered over to the fencing that surrounded the entire event and did what they had to do. This was a feature as the evening wore on. At one stage men were queuing up behind one another to openly pee against the fence.

By 7.30pm the novice concert-goers were feeling the pace. A lot more people were just lying around sleeping on the grass and others were picking their way over them. The odour of ‘herbal’ cigarettes seemed to be hanging over the crowd as more and more people were ‘skinning’ up their own cigarettes.

All the while the gardaí were keeping a low profile but a watchful eye on proceedings.

In the VIP area, the landowner Thomas Cosby popped open a couple of bottles of chilled champagne. It’s hard to know whether he was celebrating the success of the event or his up-coming wedding to his fiancée, the German-born Gesa Wannschaffe. The pair were accompanied by Mr Cosby’s two cousins, Sarah Cosby and Rosaland Emmet.

Sarah thought the festival was “groovy, just fantastic”. Rosaland felt the promoters had targeted the right age group and that next year the event would attract more to it.

“We’re aiming for another 10,000 on top of this crowd for next year,” said Mr Cosby. “It’s been a fantastic day so far with no trouble that I have heard of. We can build on this. Everything appears to be going very well.”

It was now 8pm and still they came in the main gate. Those who had been frantically bopping about had kind of settled down’ by this stage of the night and, as one man observed, “they’ve mellowed out. They’re like hippies not hip-hoppers,” he said, as he went off dancing to the beat.

Locals from the town were now making their way into the event, some in their 60s. They didn’t stay long, however. Some left with what they termed as a ‘ringing’ in their ears.

The bars closed on the site at 10pm. The dance tents were packed and the crowds were now heaving at the front of the main stage to the star act Grove Armada. They brought the place down as the hand-waving young people roared for more before the final chord was strummed.

Other acts that performed in 2004 included Super Furry Animals, Grand Master Flash, David Kitt, Jurassic5, 2 Many DJs, Soulwax and Mylo. There was also the International Comedy Club stage which featured Des Bishop, Tommy Tiernan and the Aprés Match team.

The 15,000 strong crowd made their way out of the site in an orderly fashion. As a garda on point duty remarked, “it was great. No trouble at all.”

As a river of people flowed out the gates and along the main street, they were directed on their way.

Such was the crowd that there were not enough buses to take the people away, so hundreds had to wait hours for them to return to be collected. A local shop opened up in the middle of the night and an impromptu game of football took place on the town’s main street.

The morning after the night before, locals woke to a terrible sight of rubbish thrown all over the town. But before noon the organisers had this in hand; they had a large crew out picking it up, bagging it and taking it away in jig time.

Up where the event had been staged, young workers were wading their way through a field full of discarded cartons, cans, bottles and plastic drink cups. By noon on Sunday, only a small band of people were left rolling up their ground sheets and packing away their tents in Stradbally Hall estate.

One car passed by Dunne’s public house travelling in the Carlow direction. What could be heard coming from it was the incessant thumping beat of hip-hop as the driver and passengers made their way home with happy memories from Stradbally in 2004.

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