A Special Report
THIS WEEKEND'S open air concerts, from the Lúnasa and Sligo 400 Summer festivals featuring Bressie and The Saw Doctors, to mark the 400th birthday of Sligo Borough, recall the oh-so-different mood which greeted the first such event in the town.
'Greeted' is not quite the correct word for that Bank Holiday weekend in June 1971.
Some of the long haired hippies huddled asleep across the town -- men and women together, God bless us! -- got poked and prodded to 'get up for Sunday Mass,' no less.
Sligo town had never seen a time like it and -- at the time -- some townsfolk said they never wanted to see the likes of it again!
But they did and by the end of the 1970s decade the annual Boys of Ballisodare festival weekend in was drawing crowds from far and wide in Europe and far beyond.
And the 20th anniversary of that first-ever open air concert in the Showgrounds coincided with Sligo town hosting its third successive Fleadheanna Ceoil in 1991, where many slept in the open without being poked or prodded!
The hippies -- although they werent really -- brought hope with them when they came west for the weekend. It is hard to imagine now that Sligo Showgrounds 1971 was decade(s) ahead of Lisdoonvarna, Slane, Oxygen, Electric Picnic, Liss Ard or Ballyshannon. The anti-nuclear rally at Carnsore wasnt even on the agenda.
The poet John Montague - a regular visitor in Sligo -- once wrote of how the 1960s showbands era in Ireland saw young people arrive to ballrooms, many of them glorified mere brieze-block sheds, ''like shoals of minnows."
They were looking for partners, sure, and some of that sex that Gay Byrne had just brought to Ireland with his new-fangled Late Late Show on the TV.Big Draw
It was not so much minnows, more sharks, some in Sligo seemed to be expecting that Bank Holiday weekend in June 1971.
Not so much that the town went into mini lockdown mode -- which it did -- but as the hippies arrived to let their hair down, prices soared skyward in some of the Sligo shops that stayed open.
The big draw was Fairport Convention, who were pioneers of the fusion of rock and folk. It was officially called, eh, folk rock.
Fairport is best explained as a full first cousin of the 'Joyce Country Ceili Band' which features in a great song which The Saw Doctors will probably play in Sligo this weekend.
The Fairport Convention line-up in Sligo Showgrounds that 1971 afternoon was Dave Swarbrick, Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg. In between hammered dulcimer and fiddle, they 'hammered' drums and electric guitars. It was The Bees Knees.
In the 12 months before they came to Sligo, Fairport had quickly lost two its truly legendary members -- singer Sandy Denny and writer Richard Thompson. Thankfully, they stepped back in again over the years. New Decimal Coinage
Apart from Fairport, the line-up for that Sligo Sounds festival in June 1971 included Horslips, Tir na nOg, plus Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains, who were already longer on the road than any of those other bands.
None of them holds the honour of being the biggest music act to play the Showgrounds. That title almost certainly belongs to the late Phil Lynott who played there with Thin Lizzy at their peak of stardom.
Fans made big efforts to be in Sligo that June 1971 weekend for what was the first-ever open air rock music weekend in an Irish town or city.
On Facebook last week, Bob Kelly recalled how he left Tory Island in the morning, travelled to Sligo to see Fairport in the afternoon and immediately afterwards motored south to play his own gig that night.
There was even a collection taken up inside the Showgrounds to help get some of those still outside the price of an admission. Ireland had abandoned pounds, shillings and pence only three months earlier and adopted a new decimal coinage.
The photo here of the band on stage was taken by noted cancer campaigner, Valerie Finan. It sparked a huge debate when Ollie Jennings of The Saw Doctors management team reposted it on Facebook last week.
There were over four dozen contributors and responses to the query as to which band might be on stage in the historic photo.
Opinion divided as to whether the photo shows Fairport or Horslips on stage in the Showgrounds...even differed among those who were actually on stage for some part of that day!
Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention told me in an email: "There are mixed messages here. The fiddle player's stance looks Swarb-ish, and the guy in the red shirt doing something to a Marshall amp resembles me 1971 vintage."
He added: "The outline of the set of the cymbals just looks all wrong for Mattacks.
So on balance I'd say probably not FC."
No doubts, however, about the front three for his colleague Dave Pegg, who is 65 this year and still a member: "The band is Fairport Convention. Left to right, Swarbrick, Pegg, Nicol," he said, also in email.
The Stage at the Showgrounds 1971
. Photo: Valerie Finan
Interestingly, in 2012 there are still many links between Sligo and Fairport Convention.
Starting this Thursday, Fairport or FC, as fans often abbreviate the name, will host its annual three day reunion at Cropredy. The village, near Banbury in Oxfordshire, is now part of English music lore and also the site of a famed English Civil War field battle in 1644.
Fairport has never been back to Sligo, although one of the guests at their reunion this weekend -- Joan Armatrading -- will play Sligo Live in October next.
Even more uncanny, The Saw Doctors will play the Fairport 2012 reunion festival at Cropredy and then immediately head back for Sligo!
The Showgrounds has changed one million percent, too, since that historic day in June 1971.
The opening of the new Connollys/Volkswagen stand in the past month means the Showgrounds is now the premier soccer grounds outside Dublin and the venue of choice for Under 21 internationals.
The red shed in the bottom right of the photo showing the (tame) audience leisurely lying out on the pitch in their bare feet was Sligo Rovers home and away dressing rooms in those days!
It looked more like a hay shed - maybe the place where The Saw Doctors might have rehearsed the first drafts of 'The Hay Wrap.'
The writer once cornered Sligo Rovers goalie Finnbar Flood for an autograph coming out of that shed on a dark winter's evening in the early 1960s, long before Finnbar became Managing Director of the Ireland's most famous company in the world, Guinness.
Over the years Sligo Showgrounds has hosted some big-name crowd pullers - in 1954 Fr Patrick Peyton, the Irish/American "Rosary Priest" (slogan: 'The family that prays together stays together') drew huge crowds as part of his Irish tour.
Not least of the crowd pullers was the great Kerry GAA team with Danno Keeffe in goals, which faced a Sligo county senior team which included Sligo town's greatest ever sportsman, Sean Fallon. He was later an Irish international and assistant manager at Glasgow Celtic when they won the European Cup.
If you're coming to Sligo to enjoy the festivals which get underway today (Wednesday) you'll find a great welcome waiting for you. Enjoy!
See more on Lúnasa Festival
See more on Sligo 400 Summer Festival