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.”