Mr Picnic: the master of the electric estate
The master of Stradbally Hall is amazed at how quickly the Electric Picnic festival on his estate has clocked up 10 years but then his family has been here for four centuries
Thomas Cosby with his wife Gesa and son Richard at Stradbally Hall. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Thomas Cosby at Stradbally Hall, Co Laois with his dog Penny. Photograph: Alf Harvey/hrphoto.ie
Aerial view of the Electric Picnic festival. Photograph: Dave Meehan
‘Get off my land!” These are not words you are ever likely to hear coming from the mouth of Thomas Cosby, owner of Stradbally Hall in Co Laois. When a landowner is willing to allow 30,000 wild revellers to run amok across his estate every year, it’s a fair bet that he’s probably not too precious about his property. In two weeks’ time, he will welcome another influx of happy campers for the annual Electric Picnic and, as usual, he’ll be delighted to see his place overrun by wassailers as far as the eye can see.
As I pull up to the grand pillared entrance to Stradbally Hall, Cosby is standing proudly outside, chin turned upwards, surveying his land with a gimlet eye. He’s only doing this because The Irish Times photographer has asked him to pose. Picture taken, Cosby relaxes his “lord of the manor pose” and returns to his real persona – a modern young family man who just happens to be the owner of this fine 550-acre estate adjoining Stradbally town.
Cosby is neat and well-groomed in a starched white shirt and trousers. He could be a young hedge-fund millionaire who bought the estate but in fact the Cosby family has been here for more than 400 years.
Sir Francis Cosby was given title of Stradbally in the 1500s by Mary Tudor. In 1580 he died in the Battle of Glenmalure, and the estate was taken by the O’Mores in a battle at Stradbally Bridge.
But a Richard Cosby took revenge near the Rock of Dunamase, killing the O’Mores and recapturing Stradbally. Since then, the Cosbys have been firmly in control of the estate – except for three days around the beginning of September, when the estate is taken over by Electric Picnickers.
As we gaze across the vast, tree-lined grounds towards what will be the Body and Soul area of the event, it’s hard to imagine that soon it will be teeming with festival-goers. All that’s here now is a few sheep.
“There’ll be a hoarding blocking that view and this whole front area will be filled with buses,” says Cosby. “The sheep will have to be moved – that’ll be a nightmare, because when you move sheep even a few miles down the road, you have to fill out reams of paperwork.”
The crews haven’t yet built the temporary stages but the stages in the Body and Soul area are permanent fixtures, made from recycled materials. We go across to what Cosby calls “the Teletubbies stage”, its structure inlaid with old computer components, keyboards and monitors. Right now it makes a nice shelter for the sheep, but soon it will host performers.
Cosby seems more surprised than anyone that Electric Picnic has reached its tenth birthday.
“It’s happened so quickly. How it’s got to 10 years I don’t know. It only seems like yesterday when the thing was starting off: just a funny afternoon where you had only one stage. It’s bizarre to be part of something that has grown exponentially. It’s a funny thing . . . if that had come in as it is now, I would probably have run for the hills. But it started so small – about 10,000 people – and it came in at two that afternoon and was meant to be gone at 11 that night. It was a one-day affair.”
Afterwards he was worried that there would be queues of traffic leaving the front gate. “So I went up there and there were no queues, because everybody was camping anyhow. So it was pretty obvious that it had to evolve into something.
“These are all campsites here,” he points to an empty expanse of grass. “There’ll be supermarkets and showers and stuff like that here too.” The “glampers” – renting out yurts, pods and mini-mansions – will be in their own VIP field in front of the big house. “They’re much more spread out.”
We traverse the field where the camper-vans will stand in grid formation, the areas set aside for security and festival crew to camp, and pass the entrance where the concession stands will rumble in.
“We try to have different gates for different personnel, to keep it all separate, because there’s such a vast number of things coming in, you have to keep it all organised.”
Then we’re at the main entrance, on the southern end of the estate, through which thousands of punters will pour in.
Has hosting Electric Picnic changed Cosby’s life? “It’s made it very simple,” he laughs. “Fiddling around with sheep and horses is all fine but you’re only going to get a certain distance. You need something like this to come in every year. There are no two ways about it, Electric Picnic has saved me from having to have a proper job.”
Stradbally doesn’t exactly lie idle for the rest of the year. There’s a riding school and the estate also hosts point-to-point races, paintball weekends, fishing and an annual steam rally in early August.
But Electric Picnic is the “focus”, says Cosby, the one weekend when the real hay is made.
From an early age, Cosby knew he was going to be taking on the mantle of the master of Stradbally but he also knew it would be a huge undertaking to maintain his ancestral home and keep the estate in good order.
He and his German wife, Gesa, and their two small children, Richard and Charlotte; live in the nursery wing to “save the hassle” of living amongst the breakable antiques in the main house.
He may have been to the manor born, but there’s a sense that Electric Picnic gives Cosby a chance to swing out a bit from the family tree. It had always been his ambition to host a major event in his big front garden and when the Electric Picnic people came along in 2004 with their idea of a “boutique festival”, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
But the 10th anniversary Picnic was put in doubt by a legal dispute between the festival’s co-founder John Reynolds and Festival Republic Dublin (FRD), who bought a majority stake in 2009.
Was Cosby worried that he might be still looking at empty fields on August 30th? “The place was always available, but I didn’t get involved in any of the internal disputes. Obviously I would have preferred if everyone involved got along.”
Reynolds was unhappy with some of FRD’s choice of acts, which he felt went against the spirit of EP. He was critical of having The Killers as co-headliners last year and blamed some of the line-up for the fall in numbers attending the festival. FRD, on the other hand, believed that recession-hit fans were put off by ticket prices and promised to reduce them this year.
Now that Electric Picnic is going ahead, it must be a relief for Cosby, especially since ground conditions are ideal this year following three years of wet festivals.
“The ground is rock hard. There’s such a deficit of moisture in the ground, that it could take a little rain between now and the festival and it would still be firm.
“There’s never any real mud because everyone is careful where they’re dancing around. The ground hasn’t been walked on, either. Fingers’ crossed, it will hold. I just hope the good spell continues until September 8th, when everything is gone. Then it can rain all it likes for the next six months.”
He’s been called the Michael Eavis of Stradbally, even though he doesn’t sport a West Country beard, and Electric Picnic has been described as Ireland’s Glastonbury. But, Cosby points out, Worthy Farm’s annual shindig makes the Picnic look like a village fete.
“I went there a number of years ago, They’re in such a totally different scale, it’s mind-blowing. Their central area is 10 times the size of our central area.”
We pass a field where the Trailer Park – a popular new attraction – is stored. We stop to look at the Stradbally Express – a steam train which is the centrepiece of the steam rally. Then we climb through some fencing – “don’t brush against it, it’s electrified” – and walk to a small but imposing stone building. This is the church founded by Cosby’s father in recent years.
“He found religion,” explains Cosby. “He became disillusioned with the Church of Ireland and fell in with some Russians who had broken away from the Russian Orthodox church.”
What does his Dad think about the parade of people who converge here every year? “He usually keeps to himself, but he will go for a stroll around the site during the festival. We had a bishop visit here one year and he came in all his finery. Everyone thought he was a bloke dressed up as a bishop and were stopping to have their picture taken with him.”
Our next stop is the Salty Dog, the derelict boat that lies in the woods, and the venue for many a musical knees-up. It is tilted, although the deck on which the bands perform is level (can’t have singers rolling off the boat). “These two guys – they were like Podge and Rodge – brought the boat up on a truck, and it fell off, so it ended up like that. It’s perfect as a stage.”
We peek down a hatch into the hold, which smells strongly of old boat. “I think Jerry Fish slept down there once,” says Cosby. We have lunch in the cafe across the road from Stradbally’s main gates. Everyone knows Cosby here – his family have been patrons of the national school for generations. “My great-great-grandmother founded the school.”
The residents of Stradbally welcome the festival every year, says Cosby, and there are only a handful of people who might feel inconvenienced by the annual influx.
Tickets to the event are given to the GAA and other local groups to sell for fundraising, and many of the locals are employed as crew members. “What’s been happening this year, is that people were worried that the festival wouldn’t go ahead.”
Inside Stradbally Hall it’s an 18th century world: paintings, tapestries and books fill every square foot of wall, and every table and shelf is adorned with stuffed animals, vases, clocks, porcelain figures and other antiques. At the top of the great staircase is an impressive 60ft long gallery with a vaulted glass ceiling.
Cosby lets me out by the huge front door and we take one last look at the grounds, which will soon be filled with the rí-rá and ruaille buaille of the Picnic.
This was Cosby’s playground as a young lad and he explored every inch of these fields and woodlands, even delving into hidden tunnels.
Did he ever dream that one day it would become the annual playground of 30,000 party people? “No, but I’m glad it turned out that way because otherwise life might have been very boring.”
Electric Picnic runs from August 30th-September 1st. A weekend ticket costs €229.50, electricpicnic.ie