Meet the real guitar heroes


The Oxfam music festival has gained huge momentum thanks to the number of post-primary students eager to rock for charity, writes John Holden

THROUGHOUT THE YEARS, musicians have regularly given their support to good causes. From anti-war demonstrations to political rallies, environmental fundraisers to Aids research benefit gigs, plenty of good money has been raised with the help of music.

Oxfam is currently tapping into that potential. Their Oxjam Festival, which has been taking place throughout the month of October, is an unofficial festival of gigs from all manner of performers across Ireland. Essentially, artists organise gigs themselves and then donate any profits to Oxfam.

"Last year we had 55 bands from Dublin and Belfast involved," explains Michelle Hardiman, Oxfam Ireland's Oxjam Coordinator. "This year we have 74 on the roster from all over. But that number is rising every day. We're aiming for 100."

Hardiman believes the success of the festival has to do with its diversity. "Whatever type of music you're into can help us to raise money," she stresses. "There have been classical evenings in golf clubs and rock music gigs in sweaty venues. We'll support any kind of event.

"It doesn't have to be huge either," she adds. "We're not forcing people to get a certain number of people or a certain amount of money in. It's all unofficial. But we'll support and promote anyone who wants to help. If you play the trumpet and want to play it on one leg, we'll publicise it."

The Oxjam initiative was not targeted specifically at post-primary students, but they have taken to it in a big way. "We haven't been aiming for secondary students' participation," says Hardiman. "But their response has been amazing. Some call us to get involved because they want the experience of running an event. A lot of them are getting info from the website []. It's the Oxjam hub - attractive and easy to use."

OXFAM HAD A STAND at last year's Young Social Innovators (YSI) conference, and a lot of post-primary interest was generated there. One of the contacts they made has proven to be quite an adept gig promoter. Last Saturday, 16-year-old Ali McGardle of Mount Anville put on a marathon gig in the Ambassador Theatre in Dublin.

"I had 14 bands playing on the night," she says. "The bands were made up of a combination of students from post-primary, college and elsewhere. I started off just asking people I knew, then other bands heard about it and eventually people started contacting us. It just snowballed from there.

"I first contacted the Ambassador after I had approached a number of smaller venues," she says. "I don't think they knew how young I was when I first made contact. It didn't matter. It started by e-mail and then when I was on the phone I tried to be as serious and descriptive as possible."

Naturally, Hardiman is very impressed with McGardle's achievement. "It's incredible," she says. "It was the highest-profile gig we had this year and it was run by a 16-year-old."

McGardle is just one of a number of young promoters nationwide to get involved with Oxjam. Lara Taylor of Sutton Park School in north Dublin also put on a gig.

"We had a concert in our music room in school," she says. "There were 16 acts playing, a mixture of bands, a capella girl groups and soloists. All were students from the school. We also opened the floor at the end for anyone from the audience who wanted to play, and a couple of people got up. It was really good fun. I'd love to do it again next year."

As the festival draws to a close, there are still a number of gigs coming up for music lovers everywhere. Sixth-year student Ruth McElroy (17) of Dundalk Grammar School is in her second year as an Oxjam promoter.

"Whenever I have any free time, instead of watching TV, I work on the gig instead," she says. "Last year, we sold 300 tickets to the gig and made €3,600. This time, we're hoping to better it. We just found a venue, the Sportsbowl in Dundalk, and we have all our bands so we're planning to have the gig on October 27th. Last year we had three bands, two of which were from Dundalk. This year we've six bands, two from last year and four new ones. The hardest part of putting on a gig is finding the venue. A lot of places are suspicious of putting on under-18 events. Plus, venue rental can be high and you have to pay a soundman. A lot of gigs have been cancelled because they couldn't get someone to do the sound."

Another good gig to check out is being put on by 17-year-old student Patrick Geoghegan and takes place in the Riverbank Hotel, Wexford town, on October 27th.

Bass instincts Benjamin from Republic of Loose on his Transition Year

"I thought Transition Year was brilliant. Well, it was great for me. It was the first year to be made compulsory in my school when I did it. I was in a tiny Jewish school called Stratford College in Rathgar, Dublin. A lot of the students thought they'd pretend to put on a Transition Year programme and then just have us preparing for the Leaving Cert. But there was loads of stuff put on for us to do and it was all pretty chilled.

"One of my best memories was an exchange to France we went on, which was unbelievable. At the age of 16, going to Paris for two weeks was incredible.

Our French teacher was excellent. She got everyone interested in the subject. Half the class went to Paris and I swear I learnt more French in those two weeks than I did in three years in school. I still speak a little bit and still go over the verb tables in my head.

"We also watched lots of foreign movies and did golf lessons. I'm sure a lot of people hate school, whether they're in TY or not, and can't wait to get out of it. But for my TY, I'd get up in the morning and go to school and be asked 'what would you like to do today? Watch a French movie or play a bit of golf?'

"But how good the year is will depend a lot on the school you're in. I'm sure some schools just use it as an extra year to prepare for the Leaving Cert.

"When I was 16, I was mad into being a journalist. If a student could organise their own work experience, our school let them go off and do their own thing, which is great. I spent one week in the former Irish Press, one week in The Irish Times, and one week in the RTÉ sports department. It was a huge learning experience for me.

"Our school was very small and didn't have any music classes and they weren't willing to give me three hours to go home and play the bass every day. But whether you want to be an accountant, journalist or musician, TY provides the space and time needed to explore your interests. In my opinion, going straight from the Junior Cert to Leaving Cert is a bad idea. TY is like a little break in between, where you can put more focus on the important things in life.

"By the time I did my Leaving Cert, I wasn't that into journalism anymore. I went through my options and decided to do theology in TCD. Then music got in the way. I finished college and started playing in a country band with Mick Pyro, the singer from Republic of Loose, and it has been music ever since.

"There's a hell of a lot more to education than results. It's hard to believe that the Department of Education have the intelligence to realise this but they do. Having the space in TY provided for you to experience other things is a great opportunity."