She was maybe seventeen. Faded denim and a combat jacket. He was an adjacent age and wore similar clothing. Her hips were swaying, shoulders twitching, her left hand working in a little counter-rhythm, drumming on his back. He was bent over, ninety degrees, and vomiting like a one-armed bandit paying off a Jackpot.
When he straightened up she took him by the elbow and guided him through the crowd, looking for a space where he could sit down and work it out. The crowd they moved through was mostly dancing, some standing, some sitting, some sprawling, all twitching to the music. It was getting on for eleven and Van Morrison's band was on stage doing "Moondance", blowing an extended intro, warming up the crowd while the little big man looked into his soul or trimmed his nails or did whatever it is international rock stars do while they're keeping the punters waiting for the best part of an hour.
The stage was flanked by two speaker stacks, each the size of a double-decker bus. And spreading out across the flat ground in front of the stage and up the sides of the small hills around the concert site was a rippling carpet of people. In the darkness the human carpet merged with the black of the hills and the sky. Flashlights flashed and their beams scythed across the bobbing heads. Here and there bonfires burned. For the heat, for the light, for the sparks, for the smell of the smoke. The senses were being hit from all directions.
Backstage among the serious drinkers, out with the crews and the ticket checkers, there were sighs about the days troubles. Troubles bad enough to be bigger than the problem of the poor attendance. That, it was said here and there and again, is it. The last of Lisdoonvarna. After today, well, it just won't work anymore. And though there was a rumour of a swimming accident it wasn't yet widely known that a couple of miles down the road in Doolin the sea had, a few hours before, capriciously taken eight young bodies from the festival and would hold them through the night and give them back emptied of life. That was the capper.
But out front now, with the darkness and the lights, the wind and the smell of burning wood, a sax and a muted trumpet skimming notes up into the Clare sky, heads full of thirty hours of cold and sunshine, excitement and boredom, anticipation and fulfillment, it was magic. Even the few who had been worn out by too much drink or too much movement or both, lying against the wall at the foot of the stage, pulled themselves together and up. Doolin was miles away and death a rumour. The bottle fight with the Angels, the not-so-savage dogs, the fence smashing and the battle of Toilet Hill - all that had loomed large at the time - were now insignificant in comparison with the sheer joy of life and rhythm. Beat, beat, beat, slide, twitch, shake.and shiver. And when you paused to raise your half-full can of beer to your lips it was so all shook up it was mostly bubbles and fizz.
Lisdoonvarna is on the beaten track. Beaten into brashness by the tourist trade. If villages could wear Aran sweaters Lisdoonvarna would be street-to-street wool. It's pleasant, receptive, glossy. Four miles down the road, beside the Atlantic, there is Doolin, once legendary, now trendy. A place has something special - its music, its atmosphere, its freshness people find out about it, come, tell their friends. There is money to be made meeting the needs of the visitors accommodation, food, drink. After a while there will be money to be made meeting the whims of the visitors. Get yer genuine Doolinburger.
Nothing much wrong with all this, as long as the reality underneath survives. We can't all be explorers, some of us must be tourists. By all accounts the music lives in Doolin and those who want it can get it. Those who fancy a Doolinburger can get that too. (They're not so brash as to call it that - yet - but it's there. Yer authentic genuine pure beef ethnic barbecued burger. Heading north-east out of the village, keep an eye out on your right, just past the sign for the cider flagons.)
About halfway between the two villages is the site of the Lisdoonvarna Festival. The Festival began in 1978, lost money, more than recouped the losses the following year and has gone from strength to strength. This year - the
sixth - the date was changed from July to the August bank holiday, in anticipation of greater crowds. As usual at Lisdoonvarna the bill of fare was top rank - Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Moving Hearts, Christy Moore and a dozen other worthy bands. Admission onsite, £18.50 for the weekend, little more than a quid per band but it doesn't leave much more than small change out of a week's dole money, if you're lucky enough to get that. It's a massive operation.
There's the stage and the generators, the lighting and sound, all technological marvels. Then the toilets, water supplies, festival offices, catering, camping areas. It costs a lot of money just to prepare the site, never mind finding and
hiring the sixteen bands. And the investment has to be protected.
All around the concert area there is a fence of corrugated metal, about ten feet high, backed up with wood props. In the particularly vulnerable areas there is a stretch of clear ground beyond the fence, a kind of demilitarised zone, and then another fence of wood and chicken-wire and barbed wire. There's just one carefully guarded entrance. If you want to leave the concert site you get your arm stamped, red or blue ink, one colour for Saturday, the other for Sunday. (At least one group of kids brought along some pens with appropriate inks and successfully forged the stamps.) Last year it was said that about five thousand kids got in without paying and this year the organisers were taking no chances.
The car came creaking up Toilet Hill and stopped beside the three rows of blue cubicles. Two Hells Angels came across to the car, the boot was opened and they were handed about ten or twelve dozen cans of beer. They carried them just beyond the crest of the hill and began passing them out. There were about a dozen active Angels and a few more hangers-on. One wore a Nazi helmet, all had bits and pieces of the traditional regalia of that particular branch of the headbangers' club.
The trouble began about 6pm on Sunday, during John Martyn's set. A few kids gathered on the top of Toilet Hill, looking outward, away from the concert site. After a while there was a sudden surge from the bulk of the audience in front of the stage and a lot of people went up Toilet Hill to see what the action was. The Angels were standing just beyond the crest of the hill. Below them was the corrugated metal fence. On the hill opposite was a crowd of several hundred. They were just beyond the chicken-wire fence. Between that fence and the metal fence were about a dozen security men, half of them with large barking dogs on straining leashes. About a thousand kids had breached the fences the previous night for Rory Gallagher.
The Hell's Angels had now been engaged to reinforce security. The organisers were providing them with beer while they waited for a possible clash. The Angels strode around the hill hefting large sticks. Some claimed that the Angels had been stomping people the previous night. There was a rumour that Angels had thumped someone in a pub in Doolin. It didn't matter what was true, all that mattered was what looked like it might be true. And these guys were doing security?
The crowd outside the fence were cheered up immensely by the dogs - which barked a lot and occasionally attacked each other, or each other's handler. The tension between the crowd and the security men built up gradually. It was released abruptly. Suddenly the air was full of bottles, arcing towards the security men.
Someone was going down like all his strings were cut. You couldn't tell why or which side he was on. A security man grabbed him by the collar and dragged him back down the hill towards the metal fence, his limbs dangling limply behind, his bouncing body raising dust. The crowd sent one last salvo of beer bottles and charged behind it. There was some fighting - more like strenuous pushing and shoving - in the area between the fences, but the security men quickly gave ground. The unconscious guy was rescued by the crowd and brought back, his feet dragging.
All the while, John Martyn was doing lovely electric sounds over a throbbing bass.
Now the chicken-wire fence was redundant. The security men gave up, retreated at a run, a final few bottles seeing them off. The savage dogs ran and scampered alongside their masters, enjoying the exercise no end. Now there was just a metal fence between the kids and the Angels.
The Battle of Toilet Hill didn't last very long. First there was some bottle throwing between the kids and the Angels. Nothing much. Then the kids cut across the field diagonally and kicked down the metal fence in a spot where the Angels couldn't reach them with their bludgeons. Some of the Angels, frustrated or something, turned on the crowd behind them, those who had paid in. They waved their sticks threateningly. They threw a few bottles into the crowd. Some of the crowd left, some didn't. One Angel hefted a six-feet long plank and tried to hit a guy with it. But he got the centre of gravity all wrong and flailed ineffectually with it. So he dropped the plank and kicked the guy in the crotch.
The security men had one last try with the dogs and then gave it up. Kids had swarmed across the field and through the breached fence by the thousand. They regrouped and headed for Toilet Hill and the Angels. They charged up the hill, ran back down, charged again, bottles flew, the Angels retreated.
If the charge of Toilet Hill was a bit ragged and uncertain at first, the Battle of The Hill Beyond The Toilets was a rout. The Angels ran, scurried over the fence and down the hill away from the concert site. The kids kicked down the fence and some of them went after the Angels. They announced that they were going to burn the Angels' motor" bikes. After a while you could see flames and smoke in a distant field. A tent flamed. The kids came back up and said they'd got the Angels' tent and a couple of bikes. They thought they were the right bikes, the Angels' bikes. They laughed. They hoped they'd got the right bikes.
The next morning the navy and the army, the civil defence and civilian divers were looking for bodies in the sea off Doolin. A helicopter landed and took off again, making sweeps across the sea. A couple of young guys sat in a car park, their arms around each other, both crying.
Back at the site in Lisdoonvarna the last of the stragglers were pulling out. It had been a great night, finishing with Moving Hearts blazing away through encores until 2.15am.
You could easily avoid the violence, and the majority of the kids did. There was theft and messing, but in any few thousand people there will be a number of villains. That kind of trouble, if it hadn't happened in Lisdoonvarna that weekend, would have been happening elsewhere. The organisers lost. Even if the bands played for free the cost of the festival would be huge. If you don't have the fences and the stamps and the heavies with the dogs you won't get the money to stage the thing. But that means trying to lock up the earth and the sky and the music. And a lot of kids who haven't got the money or haven't got it to spare are going to figure that what the organisers weren't going to get they won't miss - and the kids may as well get the music. It's all to do with contradictions in the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution of music and that's not going to be resolved in a field in Lisdoonvarna.
The employment of Hell's Angels, the kicking down of fences, the use of dogs and bottles, are all peripheral to the joy of the music and the adventure of the weekend in the beautiful and scarred countryside. But they determine the future of events like this. Those things, and developments elsewhere. Amid the empty bottles and flattened beer cans, the scavenging sea gulls and the rising stragglers at the site next morning, was one piece of litter among millions.
A letter from the AlB to some guy in Blanchardstown. " ... regret ... not successful in your application . . . appreciate ... large number of applications ... small number of vacancies ... thank you ... wish you well for the future ... " It had been kept carefully in its envelope since 1978, the year Lisdoonvarna began.