Surf, sounds and Michael D by the sea


The wind picked up as the President fulfilled a campaign promise and returned to join revellers at Bundoran’s Sea Sessions festival, a weekend of extreme sports and joyous sounds

IT’S JUST after midday on Saturday at the Sea Sessions in Bundoran and a handful of revellers are purging their hangovers by surfing the furious Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the conditions that make this town a Mecca for surfing are, for the moment at least, rendering it unsuitable for doing just about anything else.

There’s a gale blowing up from the sea and, at the ticket office, a dreadlocked member of staff has mounted the portacabin roof in a desperate attempt to reaffix a torn-away sign. Oh dear. We could have a Rod Hull situation on our hands here.

Now in its fifth year, the Sea Sessions festival combines live music, surfing and beach sports. Unfortunately, due to the inclement weather, Saturday’s entire programme of (non-musical) activities has had to be cancelled.

Alas then, none of the high-octane sports – tag rugby, Olympic handball, BMX stunt biking, motocross et al – will now be going ahead. Down at the beach, only a hardy band of beach volleyball players have ventured on to the sand. The teams are drawn from all over Ireland but the players, for the most part, are natives of continental and eastern Europe.

There is a rather farcical nature to the proceedings. Experienced players are seeing their services fall as much as a metre short of the net. “Only in Ireland,” laughs American Megan Burgdorf, “is beach volleyball an extreme sport.” Are the players worried about getting blown into the sea? “Not at all,” she replies. “We have stones in our pockets!”

Joining me on the sidelines, a young man, who may or may not have been up all night, is offered a massage by a pack of roving masseuses. He ponders his response. “Is this a charitable service?” he asks. It isn’t.

Where are the rest of the previous night’s punters hiding out, I wonder? Seeking respite from the wind, I make for the Kitchen Bake Cafe, a converted Methodist church on the town’s main street. It’s 1.30pm and a queue of older ladies has formed outside. “It’s like trying to get into a nightclub,” one of them chuckles.

I duck into the Kicking Donkey pub across the road. The place is heaving. There are lots of standard-issue fluorescent festival wellies and preternaturally bronzed female thighs. But there are also plenty of beach bums and Patagonia-clad outdoorsy types too.

In Surfworld next door, one of Ireland’s best-known big-wave surfers describes how the sport has helped to change Bundoran’s grim image as the dilapidated Las Vegas of the northwest. “Aesthetically, it’s not a very beautiful town,” admits Richie Fitzgerald. “But what we do have are fantastic beaches and great surf.”

In recent years, it has become fashionable for people from the east coast to come to Bundoran to surf. But Fitzgerald is keen to stress that surfing has longstanding roots in the town. “The surf club was set up in 1961. Our shop has been here since 1990. As townspeople, we would have grown up with the sport.”

“We’re busy in the summer. We’re busy in winter. The only day we close is Christmas Day. Surfing doesn’t need Sea Sessions. But it’s great for the town. It brings in a different demographic.”

Back at the festival site, Sea Sessions organiser, and local bar owner, Declan Madden echoes those comments. “Traditionally, Bundoran was known for slot machines and country and western music. But a different crowd began coming here to surf. We wanted to keep them here and maybe bring along some of their friends too. I suppose we wanted to make Bundoran cool.”

They seem to have succeeded. With 4,500 tickets sold, only 500 walk-in ticket sales are required tonight to make the event a sell-out.

At 5pm, the motorcade of Uachtarán Michael D Higgins arrives at the site. Michael D and wife Sabina are greeted by Bundoran mayor Philip McGlynn and tonight’s headliners, the Coronas, who happen to be standing next to him.

Candidate Higgins had attended the Sea Sessions last year and promised to return as President. Making good on that promise, he is escorted on a tour of the festival ground by organiser Daniel Browne.

In a speech to a group of invited guests, he paid tribute to a “special” festival that attracts visitors from abroad. “They come to experience not just the unpredictable Irish weather, but also the very predictable Irish hospitality.”

Almost on cue, the wind picks up a notch. Irish music festivals have been struck by all sorts of meteorological calamities down through the years. But this is surely the first ever to be struck by a sandstorm.

As he mingles with artists and guests, I inform the President of UEFA’s plan to present a special award to Irish fans to recognise their contribution to Euro 2012. Having been part of that award-winning effort in Poznan, along with the President’s sons John and Michael, I ask for his reaction.

It is well deserved, he thinks. That one Polish newspaper chose to print the words of The Fields of Athenry, he says, is a testament to the good impression Irish fans made. However, he expresses the hope that some of that fan enthusiasm will rub off on attendances in Ireland’s domestic soccer league.

By 7pm, the President and First Lady have departed. Donegal have just defeated Tyrone in the Ulster football championship. Crowds begin spilling out of the pubs and making their way towards the site, where the music is getting underway in earnest.

Among them is a hen party and a young couple who have just gotten engaged. I bump into those roving masseuses again and ask how much they’re charging for their services. €5, I’m told. But for The Irish Times, it’s on the house. It’s a tempting offer, but by now her services are surplus to requirements. New Orleans’ Hot 8 Brass Band have arrived on stage with a joyous sound to put a smile on even the most wind-ravaged of faces.

Rain begins to spray the roof of the main tent, but no one seems to mind. The party is just getting started.

Big-tent appeal

The focus on surfing and other events might suggest that music is secondary at the Sea Sessions. The festival might not have the headline names of its competitors but, as Saturday’s line-up proved, it’s a carefully programmed event with music for all tastes.

Bitches With Wolves’ high-energy 80s synth pop was enjoyable enough, but with wind and rain blowing through the sparsely-populated marquee, it was hard to feel the full day-glo experience.

Over in the North Shore marquee, Cry Monster Cry’s brotherly folk harmonies were more in tune with the damp, early-evening festival vibe. But it took the Hot 8 Brass Band to really kick proceedings off with their hip-hop-like call-and-response set.

Cork electronic producer Toby Kaar showed he knows his bits and pieces. His head-rocking beats drew them in as his set progressed, but it was the arrival of Jape which saw the introduction of a one-in-one-out rule for access to the heaving marquee.

While Richie Egan showcased new Jape tracks, his band got the best reaction for tracks from breakthrough album Ritual, such as Graveyard and I Was A Man. Egan knows his audience and sent them into the night with an inspiring finale of Strike Me Down. JOHN COLLINS

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