‘It’s been a long 15 months, so let’s party!’ – 3,500 gather for Kilmainham festival

There were few queues, great views, pods of six – as long as your antigen test was negative

The pilot festival at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. All photographs: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

“This feels absolutely f***ing crazy,” exclaimed Gavin James from the stage at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham on Saturday evening.  “It’s been a long 15 months, so let’s party!”

It certainly has been  a long 15 months for music fans, but finally, on Saturday, 3,500 lucky ticketholders were able to gather in a big field for Ireland’s first outdoor festival since the pandemic began.

The "pilot festival", held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, was headlined by Dublin singer-songwriter Gavin James, and featured full sets from Lyra, Denise Chaila, Sharon Shannon, Wild Youth and Wyvern Lingo, with Tipp duo The 2 Johnnies taking care of MC duties.

This was a step up from the low-key pilot gig by James Vincent McMorrow in front of 500 people in Iveagh Gardens in June. With 3,500 people gathering for the best part of a day, the organisers – MCD – had to make sure everything ran like clockwork, and even the weather co-operated by remaining mild and mildly cloudy.


Fans were corralled in pods of six, and they had to go through several hoops in order to gain admission – including an antigen test before the gig.

There are many advantages with a limited-capacity festival: no queueing for food, minimal queueing for drinks, and you get an unrestricted view of the stage no matter where you are. The downside, though, is that you have to undergo that nostril-tickling antigen test. Fans heading to the festival via the Luas had to disembark at Collins Barracks to take the test before continuing on to the event. For most of the fans here, though, it was a small sacrifice to make if it meant finally getting to see some live music.

“It was all very straightforward to be honest, it all ran very smoothly. There were no delays, no long queues,” said Kareem Zaki, who was out with five friends – Emma McCormick, Ciara Murnane, Leah McManus and Femi Bankole – for their first gig in a year and a half.

“They made it all very easy with all the emails, too many emails to be honest, telling us everything we needed to do,” said McCormick.

All six were dressed up in their brightest clothes, complete with glitter, determined to enjoy this rare musical outing. All were agreed that the return of live music was a cause for celebration, but opinion was divided on the Government’s recent announcement that it was delaying the reopening of indoor dining and drinking, following Nphet advice regarding the rise of the Delta variant of Covid-19.

“It’s very disappointing, and I’m very angry,” said Bankole. “The rationale doesn’t really make any sense in my opinion.”

“I think it makes sense,” said Zaki. “I think a bit of a delay for the long term is worth it. I can see the logic, so I’m not going to give the Government a hard time about it.”

“If there was an incentive, it would make more sense, but it felt more like a punishment when we couldn’t even register to get a vaccine,” said Murnane. “But now that we can register it doesn’t feel so unfair.”

Emer Ryan, Emma McCormick, Ciara Murnane, Leah McManus with (back row, from left) Kareem Zaki and Femi Bankole

Grace Hamilton Turley from Loughlinstown and Niamh Ryan from Churchtown are more excited than nervous about gathering with 3,498 other people in the grounds of Kilmainham.

“It’s very reassuring getting the antigen test,” said Hamilton-Turley.

They are, however, annoyed about what they see as the Government’s incoherent response to the Delta variant threat.

“It’s frustrating, especially when Government policy doesn’t make seem to make sense anymore. Why have indoor dining for vaccinated people only when mostly under-30s will actually be serving them and won’t be vaccinated. It’s also very discriminatory to anyone who doesn’t want to get a vaccine. That’s a choice.”

“I’m going to register for a vaccine, but it’ll take time. I’ll probably have to wait for weeks,” said Ryan. “I’d love to be able to go back to nightclubs and pubs, but to be honest, I don’t see it happening for a long time.”

“I think you’ll be better off putting a disco ball in and hanging it up in the kitchen and go wild,” said Hamilton Turley, who believes the negative media coverage of young people partying outdoors in places such as Portobello Plaza is both unfair and inaccurate.

“I think we have been so restricted in doing what we want to do, that people are going to get excited when they get a few drinks in them. There a lot of tut-tutting, but that’s what you do when you go out socially, we congregate instinctively. I don’t think people do it to harm others, I don’t believe we do it on purpose.

“But we’ve been under restrictions for over a year, and that’s a long time in anybody’s lifetime no matter what age you are. It’s affected everybody, every age and every generation.”

They do, however, believe the Government are making the right steps by permitting this pilot festival to go ahead even with the looming threat of a fourth wave.

“I think they are starting to see things a bit more clearly, not just from young people’s point of view. There’s people of all ages out here today, and they just want to get out and have fun and enjoy the sunshine and not be restricted.”

The festivities kicked off around 3.30pm with an upbeat set from Bray trio Wyvern Lingo, and it’s to the organisers’ credit that the festival featured a strong female line-up.

Grace Hamilton Turley and Niamh Ryan
HSE frontline workers Geraldine Daly and Mary Cooney

Wyvern Lingo’s almost-telepathic harmonies provided a perfect soundtrack to a mostly sunny afternoon, and they were joined onstage by Zambian-Irish rapper Denise Chaila, all the way from Limerick.

Later, Chaila would return the favour by having Wyvern Lingo join her onstage for her exuberant and colourful set, along with rappers God Knows and Murli and a troupe of musicians.

Chaila, winner of the Choice Prize for Irish album of the year, is a raw talent whose frenetic mash-up of rap, hip-hop, soul, grime and R&B is quickly shaping up as the sound of modern Ireland.  Sporting an oversized T-shirt declaring “Columbus was a murderer” and “stop romanticising genocide”, Chaila delivered a strongly political set that celebrated female empowerment, cultural diversity and the power of words to change the world.

In between Wyvern Lingo and Denise  Chaila, Sharon Shannon, sporting cool shades and with her trademark smile firmly in place, led her band through the jigs and the reels, along with a few country-flavoured rock tunes such as Galway Girl (the Steve Earle one, of course, not the Ed Sheeran one) and finished by strapping on an electric guitar and delivering a “heavy-metal diddley-eye” finale.

After Chaila’s set, Wild Youth seemed tame by comparison, just another bloke-pop band in the vein of Kodaline or Picture This. Still, they got the crowd going with such catchy (read simple) songs as Can’t Say No and Can’t Move On.

“This is feckin’ weird isn’t it?” said Cork singer Lyra, resplendent in S&M Disney princess get-up. “I’ve had to get dressed up for the first time in ages.” She looked out at the 3,500-strong crowd who were permitted to remove their masks while in their pods.  “It’s great to see everybody’s mouths.”

Lyra has found corporate success with her epic pop songs, getting her tracks onto a Guinness ad, and soundtracks for Riverdance – the Animated Experience and the TV adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral.  It took awhile for it to get through to the crowd at Kilmainham, however , but when she spoke to the audience in between the songs, her unfiltered Bandon brogue immediately won them over.  A highlight was New Day, the song she performed on RTE’s New Year celebrations.

Gavin James stepped onstage with no fanfare and launched into his first song, All for You, then stopped again. “I’m playing the wrong chords – sorry,” he announced.  “I haven’t done this in 15 months,” he offered by way of explanation, before getting back on the bicycle and steering smoothly through Boxes, Glow and Coming Home with nary a hitch.

Sober was the perfect anthem for a by-now well-oiled but still well-behaved crowd, and I Miss You was dedicated to the 500 frontline medical staff who were given complimentary tickets to the festival as a thank-you for the tireless work they’ve done in the teeth of the pandemic.

“I’ve been playing gigs for my mam and dad and my dog, so this is surreal,” declared James as he ended his set with Hearts on Fire, and dusk set over this milestone moment for live music. After such a long, depressing time without the communal experience of enjoying music together, this festival was certainly surreal, but by the time James by the time he finished his encore with Always and Only Ticket Home, it felt strangely strange but oddly normal.