Killarney Festival of Music & Food is no longer taking place in Co Kerry this weekend. The event had been due to host 36,000 people – 18,000 a day – at Killarney House Demesne on Saturday and Sunday. It was announced last Tuesday that the festival would relocate to the town’s racecourse. On Wednesday it was cancelled.
The road to the Killarney festival actually began in Westport, Co Mayo. That’s where Darryl Downey, its promoter, first staged what, in 2012, was called Westport Festival of Music & Performing Arts. It was intended to be, the publicity said at the time, “a grown-up festival for music fans who treasure their record collections”.
Darryl Downey is the brother of Caroline Downey, who manages the singer Hozier, and is therefore brother-in-law to Denis Desmond, the head of MCD Productions. Downey is a seasoned promoter whose Rag Lane company has put on many rock, country and comedy events. He promoted Midlands Music Festival in Westmeath, with John Reynolds of Pod, in 2006 and 2007.
The Westport festival received a broad welcome from locals – plus €40,000 from Fáilte Ireland in January 2012, before the first one had even taken place. Minister of State for Tourism Michael Ring said he was delighted to support the festival and wished all involved every success.
Downey was good at attracting funding and sponsors for the festival. Fáilte Ireland also gave grants in subsequent years, and Mayo County Council and Destination Westport were associated with the festival, too.
But after three years at Westport House the promoter decided it was time for a change for the event, which by then had been rebranded as Westport Festival of Music & Food.
The move to Killarney may have been down to a perception of a lack of local support. Talking to the Mayo News in the aftermath of the 2014 festival, Downey's spokeswoman Nicola Watkins said: "We don't feel we could have depended on the locals if it rained, and that leaves us exposed and this could be too big a risk to run again . . . We believe this is an amazing event, and we really hope it can come back, but we need to see more support locally."
With that Downey and co decided to head to the Kingdom. In December 2014 it was announced that the event would be staged in June in Killarney, although the venue was not specified at the time. A company called Jarash was set up to run the event.
Acts such as Duran Duran, Burt Bacharach, Texas, ABC, The Undertones, Walking on Cars, Father John Misty and The Proclaimers were announced in later months. Tickets cost €76 for one day or €142 for the weekend.
Like winning a competition
Jerry O'Sullivan presents the Kerry Today show on Radio Kerry. He says the festival was initially seen as a good thing in the town. "It was presented as if Killarney had won a national competition and had won this festival against other towns. We were promised big acts and big names and that it would be fantastic for Kerry."
O’Sullivan says Killarney is always busy. “Next weekend you have the Ring of Kerry charity cycle and the Munster football final, and that will be 100,000 people easily in Killarney. We’re well able to deal with those-size events, so we were happy with the festival coming, though it was not the be-all and end-all of things.”
It looked then as if it was all systems go for the festival in its new home, but there were a few teething problems. It took the organisers a few months to secure and confirm Killarney House Demesne – part of Killarney National Park – as the venue for the weekend.
There was also a plan to have a pay-to-play stage, where Irish acts would effectively sell tickets in order to perform. This was shelved after a fierce backlash from bands.
High Court action
Then there was the matter of Downey's other business interests. In March the Irish Mail on Sunday reported that a judgment of €308,885.47 had been registered in Stubbs Gazette against the promoter by the comedian Mario Rosenstock, after a High Court action. This amount is understood to relate to shows Downey promoted for the comedian.
On June 9th the Mayo TD Dara Calleary raised in the Dáil the issue of the festival using Killarney National Park. He asked Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys if the promoter was paying to use the venue, if the fee had been paid and if the promoter had provided a valid tax clearance certificate.
The minister replied that her department had “agreed to facilitate the festival being held within the environs of the national park, subject to licence by the local authority, the completion of appropriate assessments and to the conditions of contract being met.
“Negotiations with the promoter, including in regard to the fee to be paid, are at an advanced stage and are expected to be concluded shortly.”
Calleary told The Irish Times that he raised the issue because there was "a lot of surprise" in Mayo about how and why something seen as a successful festival had been moved so quickly from the county. "The community in Westport were very supportive of the event," he said.
With a week to go Kerry County Council issued an event licence for the festival, a requirement for any outdoor event that will attract more than 5,000 people.
This followed lengthy consultation with various agencies and an examination of the promoter’s event management, traffic management and health-and-safety plans.
Kerry County Council has confirmed that the licence was issued on June 18th, subject to 13 conditions, including a maximum of 10,000 people on the site at any one time – significantly below the promoter’s anticipated attendance at the outset – crowd-control requirements, noise restrictions, detailed signage and participation in a post-event review.
Another condition was that the promoter maintain €6.5 million in public-liability insurance for the event and give evidence of this to Kerry County Council before site works began.
By last weekend, though, word of problems was starting to emerge. “We began to hear that there was some issue with the national park and that things were not moving as they should be with an event of this size,” says Jerry O’Sullivan of Radio Kerry. “Despite many inquiries there was no word from the festival organisers.”
There was also increasing chatter on the music-business grapevine about unpaid artist deposits, the portion of an artist’s fee that is paid in advance. Six Irish acts have confirmed that deposits did not materialise despite repeated promises. At least one international act is also believed to have experienced difficulty in getting a deposit from the promoter.
On Monday afternoon Kerry County Council got in touch with Radio Kerry to tell it that the organisers had said they no longer needed use of the national park and that the festival was to be moved.
“The council also said that a new event licence would not be required for the new venue, as the crowd would be below 5,000 people,” O’Sullivan says.
The following day the festival announced the move to Killarney Racecourse. No reason was given on the festival’s website or social media for the switch, but a statement emailed to Radio Kerry showed that financial reasons were behind the move.
“Holding a festival in a greenfield site presents a number of financial challenges, especially in year one,” the email from the organisers said, “and we were experiencing unexpected additional costs which were outside our budget.”
A spokesperson for the festival accepted an invitation to go on O’Sullivan’s show on Wednesday morning but, with 10 minutes to air, pulled out.
In a statement to The Irish Times about the move from the national park, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht said it "licensed the event subject to appropriate standard conditions which had been fully agreed with the promoter over the course of the past few months".
The statement added that “as far as the Department is aware, the promoters’ decision to change the venue was independent of these standard terms and conditions, with which the promoter was compliant”.
There were few surprises when, on Wednesday evening, the plug was eventually pulled, with "unforeseen circumstances" cited for the cancellation. Despite our efforts to contact them, no one from the festival or its public-relations team has got back to The Irish Times to explain the outstanding issues around the event.
At least disappointed music fans will not be out of pocket. Ticketmaster will issue refunds to ticket-holders, Killarney hotel owners have offered to refund or waive charges and Irish Rail is offering full refunds to those who had booked to go to the town for the event.
It’s a different matter for the promoter. Despite cancelling the event at such late notice, and perhaps saving on site construction and production costs, Jarash will still have to honour artist fees. Amounts will vary, depending on the act in question, but the total will be a six-figure sum, perhaps up to €500,000. It’s not known if cancellation insurance was in place, although it would be highly unusual for any insurer to cover poor ticket sales.
Killarney, meanwhile, will get on with the tourism business. “There’s been a lot of genuine disappointment about the place about how this has gone,” O’Sullivan says. “People are wondering how it was allowed to happen and what circumstances were beyond the organisers’ control. We’re still waiting for them to come out and explain that.
“But it won’t stop people coming here, and there are major events on all through the summer. It might even have put an idea in someone’s head to do a concert in the park, priced a little bit better and less ambitious, perhaps.
“It will be business as usual for the town, but I think outsiders who come here with festivals like this will be looked at twice in future.”