When Richard Tierney was appointed chief executive of St Patrick’s Festival last summer, it is fair to say his friends and family had thoughts.
“My mates were slagging me: ‘How did you land that gig? That’s only for one day a year.”
His 13-year-old daughter, however, was attune to the responsibility involved. “When I got the job, she said to me, ‘Dad, can you do me one favour? Don’t wreck it.’”
While he promises he could melt my head with the number of moving parts involved – he started on July 18th and hasn’t stopped – he is in no doubt that the role is a “godsend”, arriving as it did after a long career as a commercial consultant in the live entertainment sector.
“I honestly feel very privileged and I’m not just hamming that up. It is a privilege to be given the steering wheel of the national day.”
We are talking in mid-December at St Patrick’s Festival HQ in Stoneybatter and there are new staff wandering about everywhere, with the company in the process of swelling from its quantity of nine year-round employees to about 45 who will work on the festival as it nears.
“My ambition is to make the festival bigger and better, though you’ve got to be careful saying ‘better’. People here are so proud – it’s like a calling. They love working here and they’re protective. If I’d come in here and said, ‘I’m going to change this, I’m going to change that’, they’d have poisoned my coffee.”
‘I said I wouldn’t say this in an interview, but I’ve been dying to say it: what Lapland is to Santa, we are to St Patrick’s Day around the world. We’re at the epicentre of this’
The Dubliner’s background is in cutting large commercial deals: he sold the naming rights for the Point when it became the O2, the Grand Canal Theatre when it became the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre and Belfast’s Odyssey Arena when it turned into the SSE Arena, with the first two of these on behalf of Live Nation.
“There’s always a reason why people hire you, and I can’t claim mine was for my looks.”
Tierney’s brief is to make the festival more financially self-sufficient. The four-day event, which this year takes place from March 16th-20th, costs €3.5 million to produce and receives about €1.8 million-€2 million in public funding.
This includes “guaranteed” funds of €1.4 million, which comprises €1 million from Fáilte Ireland and €400,000 from Dublin City Council. This year, it will also receive €600,000 from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
The latter funding is a winding down from the €1 million support given to the festival by Catherine Martin’s department during the pandemic, and it will have to reapply for it, or a portion of it, for the 2024 festival.
“We’re doing a sort of ‘ships in the night’. As we get commercially stronger, we can reduce the amount of funding that we get,” he says.
The public funding largely goes on the aspects of the festival it absolutely has to do. “We have to do the parade, obviously. Santa has to come down the chimney.”
The national parade – which he says it should be regarded as, not the Dublin parade – is the “biggest creative parade” in the world, with more than 4,000 performers, though the insertion of the word “creative” is necessary because some St Patrick’s Day parades in the US are technically bigger.
“I said I wouldn’t say this in an interview, but I’ve been dying to say it: what Lapland is to Santa, we are to St Patrick’s Day around the world. We’re at the epicentre of this,” says Tierney.
He likens the festival company to a conveyor belt: “The reason we get all this money is we redistribute it to the pageant companies and the arts companies and the communities and the cultural organisations that feed into the national parade.”
The theme of the festival will be unveiled later this month at an official launch event, or “Karen’s big reveal”, as he calls it, referring to artistic director Karen Walshe. “Really, it’s Karen, it’s her show, she decides,” he says.
But he can tell me that the parade will feature something called Suntas, which means notice or attention in Irish – and, in this context, “look up and take notice” – with three of the buildings on the 3.5km parade route destined to be dressed “very dramatically, with really fun stuff”.
Over at Christchurch, meanwhile, an “incredible” aerial act called Fidget Feet will be “doing an amazing thing from a crane”.
A programme will also be printed for this year’s parade: “One of the key things we have found is that when people arrive, they see that it’s very vibrant, it’s amazing, it’s colourful, but they haven’t a clue what’s going on.”
Along the route, there are some 2,200 grandstand seats, with prices starting at €100 for Parnell Square and St Patrick’s Cathedral, rising to €120 for Westmoreland Street and Christchurch, and reaching €250 for a new “bucket list” seating option for 2023. This is the “Emerald Circle” on O’Connell Street, from which ticket holders can watch the welcoming ceremony for President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins, as well as the unconfirmed international guest of honour (last year’s was the actor John C Reilly).
The parade is free, Tierney stresses, with the limited seating purchased mainly by US visitors, who account for 80,000-100,000 of the usual 450,000 attendees. It sells out every year, with the money going back into the festival. A new wristband ticketing option will be introduced this year in one area, he says, “which will potentially fill a family need”.
Another addition is a “cable cam” to supplement the main parade views captured by the television coverage, which about 500,000 people typically watch via RTÉ and which the broadcaster commissions from production company Coco Content.
Beyond the parade, Festival Quarter will be back at Collins Barracks for four days and nights, with Con Mór, the giant head created by performance group Macnas, taken out of Galway for the occasion. The band Pillow Queens will headline and curate an Irish music night on the Saturday, while LGBTQ+ club night organisers Mother will be in situ on the Thursday night.
Also new for 2023 is Me Auld Flower, a four-day food and drink event run by the organisers of The Big Grill Festival, with the name springing from its council-supplied venue, the Smithfield fruit and flower market.
Next to the boardroom table where we’re speaking, there’s a giant banner with the St Patrick’s Festival brand on it, and I notice for the first time, having only previously seen the design in miniature form on the back of Tierney’s business card, that it’s a snake, and actually rather brilliant.
Although one version places folding lines of lurid green and pale pink against a deeper shade of green, this iteration is less traditional-looking, with its multicoloured squiggle set against a black background.
“We love it – it’s really contemporary,” says Tierney of the brand, which was commissioned two years ago by his predecessor Susan Kirby. It will now appear on a capsule range of merchandise sold here and in the US.
“We are what we are,” he says. “We’re not trying to be an out-of-touch premium brand, but we are trying to have a brand that is representative of the modern-day parade and the modern-day festival.”
While the merch alone will be “a very strong commercial platform for us”, his main order of business is to establish a string of six-digit funding partnerships that are structured and long term, not unlike the way sporting bodies such as the GAA and the FAI do it.
This March, previous sponsors such as car manufacturer Kia, all-island organisation Waterways Ireland and airport operator DAA are back on board, but the festival “deliberately” hasn’t cast its net too wide, because the task at hand is to sign up four to five “pillar partners” for three- to five-year deals covering the 2024 festival onwards.
“We’re a blank canvas. We’ve got plenty of opportunity because we’ve never really stood up on this parapet before.”
So previous arrangements with companies like TikTok would be small beer in comparison to what’s planned?
“Very small,” he says.
But it won’t be a free-for-all. Over-commercialisation is a risk – “something we’re going to have to keep an eye on” – and there’s a “very fine balance” to be struck.
“People ask me all the time because of my background if I’m going to sell the naming rights to St Patrick’s Day, and the answer is no. You can’t. I don’t think it’s appropriate. Would we have “St Patrick’s Day in association with?” Potentially. But it would have to be the right brand.”
‘You have got to be very careful not to sell your soul and everything suddenly looks like a car show’
A gambling company is a no-no for a partner, while any relationships with drinks companies are restricted to the Festival Quarter concerts. An alcohol brand couldn’t be associated with the parade, given the event involves and is attended by children, and Tierney suggests they would “run a mile” from it anyway.
Brands could potentially “add content” to the festival, he says, as indeed Disney will this March to mark the centenary of the entertainment behemoth founded by two Chicago-born brothers of Irish descent.
“Disney 100 works for us. Their story and their content works for us. If it was a movie, it wouldn’t work for us, because we would then be promoting one thing. But what we’re doing is celebrating a legacy of storytelling that emanated from Ireland,” he says.
Tierney’s message to the market is that the St Patrick’s Festival is “very much open for business”, but not at the cost of the meaning of the day itself.
“You have got to be very careful not to sell your soul and everything suddenly looks like a car show,” he says, recalling one partner who “just wanted branding, branding, branding” and to “stick something in the middle of parade that would kind of blow up with their logo on it”.
He began his career in 1988 at an agency called Marketing Network, “one of the only agencies still going”, and left it in 1997 for his first client there, Aiken Promotions, looking after events for the live entertainment promoter before setting up his own business, Tierney Entertainment Network (TEN), in 2001.
But the “real pinnacle” was meeting Live Nation Ireland boss Mike Adamson and working for him as a consultant. “That brought me up into the stratosphere,” he says. The O2 naming rights deal was worth €32 million – €3.2 million a year for 10 years – and effectively financed a major revamp of the old Point Depot.
I suggest that people now either call the venue “the Point” or 3Arena, with the O2 era, like the brand itself in Ireland, largely forgotten. “Your man from Radio Nova calls it the 2.3 Arena,” notes Tierney cheerily. But, at the time, it was “the greatest piece of business”, with Live Nation teaching him the value and the luck of the right assets.
“You’re only as good as what you can sell.”
After the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre and SSE Arena deals, he set up Entertainment for Business with his friend Rob Hartnett of Sport for Business, then “that dreaded Covid thing” meant everything in the live sector just stopped. He decamped to a cottage by the sea in Kerry with his wife, who runs a medical consultancy, and stayed there for much of 2020. While Covid “wiped out” every business deal he had going at the time, he learned “not to over-complain”. In entertainment, everybody was in the same boat.
“For me, it was a reset,” he says. While live entertainment is going “gangbusters” again, companies are more often using their internal resources, reducing opportunities for self-employed consultants like him. The St Patrick’s Festival gig, his first as a full-time employee after 22 years of working for himself, came at the right time.
“I never thought I’d do anything like this. My wife would have said ‘no chance’,” he says. Then he recalls again his daughter’s plea: “Don’t wreck it.”
Name: Richard Tierney
Position: chief executive, St Patrick’s Festival
Background and family: He lives in Sandymount, Dublin, and is married to Rachel Tierney. They have two children, Matthew and Jessica.
Interests: He’s a “big Bruce Springsteen” and general music fan and likes to keep active through coaching a youth boys GAA football team, golfing and being “heavily involved” in squash. He and Rachel go for a walk early every morning “to get our heads clear”.
Something you might expect: He worked as a mentor at Enterprise Ireland for five years, helping young entrepreneurs develop apps for the music business, and loved it.
Something that might surprise: There is not a lot of up-to-date research on who goes to the parade and why, he says, with the data that does exist in need of “a refresh”.