Knockanstockan to break after 10 years of putting the artist first

After a decade supporting new Irish music, Bettine McMahon of Knockanstockan explains why the festival is taking a break

Over the past 10 years, Knockanstockan has set itself apart from the crowded pack of Irish festivals by staging a staunchly independent community celebration of Irish music often neglected by other avenues in the industry.

Knockanstockan operates on an artist-lead basis. The entire operation appears to primarily serve the artists with gigs and a potential for new ears to hear them. What started as a ramshackle reverie with 40 bands and 400 people 10 years ago has transformed into a Blessington bacchanal of Irish music with 150 bands and 4,500 people in attendence.

One of the festival directors of Knockanstockan since the beginning, Bettine McMahon, remembers the climate in which the festival begun.

There were no small festivals out there at the time,” she says. “For a band trying to get a gig, it was Oxegen and very little else. It was very difficult for bands to get a festival slot. The whole idea was started by a band, The Mongrels, who were down in Ballyknockan overlooking the lake and thought it would be a great place to start a festival.”


Ten years on and Irish musicians have more opportunities than ever in the live arena. Which may explain why the team behind Knockanstockan are planning on giving the festival, and themselves, a break for the first time in 2017.

Time and space
The team behind the festival pay themselves very little ("a token") and only if the festival makes a profit.

“A lot of us have been working on the event for 10 years,” says McMahon. “For myself, I’d like to be able to look at taking on artists more as an agent and working with acts, and that’s hard to do if you’re working on a festival the whole time. A year off will give us the time and space to explore other options, including Knockanstockan at other European festivals. Some of the crew want to go on tour for a year, and the farmer that owns the land wants to develop his land as well. It’s been sustainable, just about, but we need a break.”

Before that happens, there’s the matter of the 2016 edition. Right now, there are 60-plus crew in Blessington putting the finishing touches to the staging and production of Knockanstockan, which is aiming to be the biggest yet. The organisers have some surprises in the form of five secret guest acts across the three days, who will be only announced only as they walk out on stage. Expect a mix of Knockanstockan alumni and bigger bands who have never played the festival.

No hierarchy
What unfamiliar parties should know about Knockanstockan is that there's no hierarchy. No band is given greater weight than another on the poster by type size, and this ethos follows on-site. There is no special rider or treatment for any one artist. Everyone is treated the same because they are all worthy of your time.

This year’s acts are mostly of emerging and alternative persuasion: Meltybrains?, Sample Answer, Come On Live Long, Raglands, Æ MAK, Feather, The Hot Sprockets, Toofools, Vameel, Booka Brass Band and Ciaran Lavery are among them.

McMahon suggests that with the imminent closure of TXFM, and the general homogeny of the Irish music media landscape, is a blow to bands operating at the rising level: they’re not well-known but they’re hardly given much of a chance outside festivals.

“I’ve had that over the years – why would I go to Knockanstockan, I don’t know any of the bands?” she says. That’s why were are here – to facilitate discovery of the genuine great talent that is not represented in the media.”

Finding the right sponsor
This year's edition also marks a first in terms of sponsorship, but fear not, Knockanstockan hasn't sold its soul. Approached by O'Hara's beer, the festival didn't want to compromise the little things that make it attractive to people, namely that it was to remain BYOB and flow between campsite and arenas wasn't to be restricted as a result. O'Haras agreed.

It was about finding the right sponsor,” says McMahon. “If brands loosen their grip a bit, their brand will be perceived in a better light because of it.”

Despite sponsorship, McMahon says the organisers are aiming to break even this year, and with a few days to go, it’s typically the busiest time for ticket sales.

“Any profit is invested back or goes to artists. The last week is when you sell 40 per cent of your tickets. Last year in a week, we sold 2,000 tickets.”

You wouldn’t begrudge a selfless group of people, who have worked tirelessly year-round for little pay a year off. But naturally, Knockanstockan regulars will be wondering if the festival will return in 2018? To which McMahon responds resoundingly.

“We are definitely coming back.”