Soggy but happy in Ponchos-town
It could have been a post-apocalyptic nightmare – the deluge, the prices, the toilets. Yet somehow, there was gaiety all over this epic wasteland, writes Carl O’Brien
THE GIRL in the over-sized yellow sunglasses and striped wellies was struggling to roll her pink trolley bag through the grit and mud.
Things hadn’t started well.
She’d just had a blazing row over the phone with her boyfriend, who’d hung up on her. Now, to make matters worse, she realised she’d forgotten to bring her pillow, pyjamas and headache tablets.
“I want to go home,” she told her friend, as tears rolled down her face, mingling with the driving rain. “I can’t take it any more.” It was 3.45pm on Friday. Good, only 72 hours to go, then.
It was a sentiment repeated across the soggy flatlands of Punchestown over the weekend. As is tradition by this stage, the green and verdant pastures of the racecourse transformed into a muddy hell reminiscent of no-mans-land on the western front.
If the rain wasn’t enough to firehose away any exuberant festival spirit, then the gale-force wind that arrived yesterday did a good job of toppling over even the hardiest of party-goers.
The website and ads for the festival beforehand conjured up jaunty images of blue skies, wholesome young people camping and smiling, as if this would be a good-natured, sun-drenched jamboree.
It was nothing of the sort. This was a post-apocalyptic nightmare. All that was missing from the overwhelming grimness was a plague of locusts.
It wasn’t a surprise that by Saturday evening, fleets of mammies and daddies had arrived outside the venue, their hazard lights blinking, on mercy dashes to rescue their sorry-looking children suffering from chilblains, over-exposure and lack of mobile-phone credit. Some looked like they might have trench-foot as well.
AND YET somehow, the vast majority of people were inexplicably, perplexingly, incomprehensibly, unfathomably . . . happy. Outbreaks of gaiety were everywhere across this epic wasteland.
Friends whooped with delight to see each other. Strangers danced in the rain. Grown men who should have known better wrestled near-naked in the mud. A young woman on her hen weekend arrived in a full wedding dress, which stayed white for all of two seconds. Two lads togged out in wetsuits and inflatable rings frolicked about like children. Good-humoured gardaí posed for pictures with party-goers. Normally po-faced stewards helped girls with their luggage to their tents. One optimistic soul asked every girl within a 100m radius to kiss him (and some did).
On stage, bands continually expressed their amazement at the relentless enthusiasm of the crowd, who endured whatever the elements threw at them. Win Butler of Arcade Fire was moved to empty a large bottle of water over his head in solidarity with the drenched masses. “Look, now we’re all the same,” he roared.
Amid the deluge, somehow the girls managed to turn the event into a fashion show. They looked like they were dressed for a combination of ladies’ day at the Galway Races and the National Ploughing Championships. It was a dizzying array of multicoloured and floral-patterned wellies, fake tan, hot pants, full make-up and day-glo ponchos.
The fellas, inevitably, let themselves down: green wellies, GAA jerseys and raincoats were the order of the day.
The only real dampener of the weekend? The signs instructing fans: “No moshing, no crowd-surfing”, and the kill-joy bouncers directing people to get down off their friends’ shoulders.
Or the gang from Mayo who had the hilarious idea of bringing a loud-hailer, which they proceeded to use through most of the set of Vampire Weekend, roaring: “May-o, May-o, Sam Maguire is coming home to Mayo,” to the tune of Day O.
The latest must-have accessory – the vuvuzela – threatened to be annoying for a time, although the half-cocked efforts at playing them meant they were discarded mercifully quickly.
And then there were the toilets. Squelching toward the overworked portaloos and leaking urinals, they seemed to scream at you: “Do not enter unless you want to enter the ninth circle of hell.” They were best avoided, or at least entered into only in complete darkness or after a bellyful of drink.
AGAINST the backdrop of economic hardship, some had wondered if anyone would turn up. They did, in their tens of thousands. While there was no official word on ticket sales, the numbers seemed smaller than in previous years.
There were other tell-tale signs of the recession. Many shunned the expensive food stalls and tucked into their own packed lunches of home-made rolls and sambos. Quite a few passed up the chance to buy ludicrously overpriced laminated gig guides (€10 a pop) and brought their home-printed versions in plastic sleeves. It was good also to also see that old festival habits die hard: the car parks were full of punters decanting vodka, Red Bull, rum and other combinations into innocent-looking 7Up bottles. With beers selling at €5.20 per plastic pint glass, it was a cost-saving measure Eddie Hobbs might have approved of.
The festival itself has evolved over time, taking a few leaves from the book of its boutique sister event, Electric Picnic. There was a self-styled hippyish vibe – in appearance at least. There were the psychedelic flags with love hearts and the Stonehenge-type entrance to the festival itself.
But the reality is that this is a massive corporate assault on the senses. The stages are festooned with sponsors: mobile-phone firms, global beer enterprises, radio stations. And then there was the corporate hijacking, with ponchos and vuvuzelas emblazoned with logos of the Sun and others. No one, it seemed, wanted to miss out on the chance to market to up to 70,000 young people.
THERE WAS also a hierarchy at Oxegen. It was about as much of a commune as the Fianna Fáil tent. There was the luxury green campsite, a bespoke village where pampered campers could stay in cute “pod pads”, boutique teepees or insulated fibreglass cabins for the princely sum of €1,000. The other, main, campsites were more akin to a refugee camp.
At night-time, this shimmering neon city continued to throb with life. The lazer lights from a dance stage pointed into the inky blackness; the strains of a song you knew and loved drifted across the air. It was hard not to yield to the transporting hedonism of it all.
After a while, the mud, the rain, the wind, even the drone of the vuvuzelas will fade with memory, and only the highlights will remain. Is it rose-tinted glasses? Or do we just willfully forget the awfulness?
Either way, by the time tickets go on sale, chances are we’ll do it all again next year.