Without Electric Picnic, summer’s end seems strange

The annual exodus to Stradbally has been paused, leaving a rather empty feeling inside

On the evening of Saturday September 3rd, 2005, Electric Picnic became more than just a music festival. A little after 7.20pm, the Electric Arena stage welcomed Canadian-American indie band Arcade Fire. One of the buzzier names in a line-up that also included The Flaming Lips and Kraftwerk, they had arrived at Stradbally, Co Laois touting an unlikely mix of U2-style anthems and 19th-century frontier settler attire.

The sense that something special was about to happen was palpable as they shuffled into the spotlight and quickly segued from the choral bliss of Wake Up into the uptight throb of Neighbourhood #2 (Laika). “Alexander, our older brother,” sang Win Butler, hair already plastered to his face. “Set out for a great adventure.”

It was a great adventure, for them and for us alike. The gig was rapturous and instantly mythologised as one of the finest-ever Irish festival performances.

Campers arriving at Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois on September 4th 2009. Photograph: Alan Betson
Campers arriving at Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois on September 4th 2009. Photograph: Alan Betson

A decade and a half later, it lives on in the memories of those who were there as an ecstatic blur. My recollection is that it culminated in Butler diving into the crowd. Alas, a trawl through the records has failed to turn up any confirmation. Perhaps, in my delirium, I imagined it? Either way, nobody in attendance has ever forgotten 2005 and Arcade Fire at Electric Picnic.

With that, the Picnic seemed to come into its own as an essential component of the Irish summer. A swirl of unforgettable sets would follow. Sonic Youth sending the rain clouds away in 2007. My Bloody Valentine making your ears pop in 2008. David Byrne and St Vincent in 2013. And, just last year, Billie Eilish drawing the largest-ever main stage crowd in the history of the festival.

It’s just as well these images burn so brightly because what else is left? Electric Picnic 2020, to have taken place from September 4th to 6th, is off for obvious reasons. Who knows if festival season will recommence in 2021?

I couldn’t get over how cool everyone was. So many trendy people in such a concentrated area

The organisers of Glastonbury in the UK have already cast doubt on their event going ahead in June. By the time festivals are something we feel comfortable attending again, Eilish at Stradbally, with her retrospectively haunting spattered red face-mask, may be as bleary in the memory as Arcade Fire in the Electric Arena.

First Picnic

I missed the first Picnic in 2004, largely because I couldn’t drive at the time and was unable to get a lift down (I was far, far too broke to pay for the bus). But from the moment I stepped into Stradbally 12 months later it was clear this was a festival with a difference, at least in an Irish context. It was arty – pretentious, even. I couldn’t get over how cool everyone was. So many trendy people in such a concentrated area. It was mind-blowing – they just radiated drop-dead insouciance. To me, the Irish festival experience meant sunburned townies in straw hats and jerseys advertising their home county or favourite rugby team. There were no jerseys at Electric Picnic 2005.

It wasn’t just about the music either. There was a “spoken word” area (what was that, exactly?) and eateries that went beyond the traditional curried chips with a plastic fork stuck in the middle. (Remember how, on your first bite, all you could taste was the fork and the lava-hot curry?)

Dublin hip-hop duo Versatile on stage in the Electric Arena at Stradbally on Friday August 31st. 2018. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Dublin hip-hop duo Versatile on stage in the Electric Arena at Stradbally on Friday August 31st. 2018. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

And there was the Alice in Wonderland-esque Body and Soul arena. I remember getting lost there one night and thinking I’d slipped down a rabbit hole. It was a phantasmagoria that seemed to exist in a hidden dimension adjacent to the dull old Ireland of everyday life. As a bonus, the fact the entire thing took place in September imbued it with a hint of autumnal wistfulness.

Send us your Electric Picnic stories

“It’s the Irish Glastonbury. It’s important for the Irish psyche,” says Jerry Fish, who across the past seven years has curated his own Jerry Fish Electric Sideshow (which was to be bumped up to a mini-arena in 2020).

“We didn’t really have a boutique festival before that. We didn’t have a version of Glastonbury in Ireland. Not something that included other great art forms. It was an escape. I’ve often called festivals the last bastion of community. You could go there and see different ways of living. It has always opened people up to that.”

It’s that moment that separates the end of summer and the beginning of autumn

“It’s been a huge part of my life,” says Naoise Nunn, who ran the first Leviathan political cabaret at the 2006 Electric Picnic, which he later expanded into the MindField area. “When you’re involved in something that long it becomes embedded in your psychological calendar. It’s that moment that separates the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. There is before Electric Picnic and after Electric Picnic.”

“This would be the time we’re all white with panic and nine out of 10 people are smoking cigarettes that never smoke any other time of year,” adds Hugo Jellett, who designs and curates the Trailer Park, Salty Dog and, as of last year, the new Freetown area at the Picnic.

“Everyone is knee-deep in mud and doesn’t think they’re ever going to quite make it,” he continues, fondly. “Everyone is a ball of stress.”

Jellett, who also runs the Boris Festival of Writing and Ideas in Carlow, has been involved since the 2004 Picnic, though his role has evolved in the interim. “I was on the lawn the very first year with John Reynolds [the founder of the festival, who died in 2018].

“It is really since the handover between John and Melvin Benn [who runs the festival for Live Nation subsidiary Festival Republic] that we have become more hands-on. It’s thrilling and, creatively, very unusual work.”

Nothing in life stays the same. Electric Picnic certainly has not. Body and Soul announced its departure at the end of 2019. And the Festival Republic version is far larger than the “old Picnic” – 57,500 attending in 2019 compared to the original 10,000. Dare I also claim the punters aren’t as cool as they were in 2005?

I’m sure I won’t be the only one who, even amidst all the other stresses and traumas, will be distracted by a strange, cold ache, as if a dear friend was calling out from afar

It’s undoubtedly more corporate too, with major-label pop acts typically headlining. Watching Dua Lipa on the main stage in 2018, I had a mild out-of-body experience in which I could have sworn I had tumbled back in time 10 years and was at Oxegen in Punchestown. She was amazing, don’t get me wrong. Yet, as I looked around, it was as if reality had folded in on itself and Electric Picnic had taken off its mask to reveal Oxegen underneath, gazing at me with knowing, beady eyes.

Aerial Footage From Electric Picnic 2015. Photograph: Niall Bouzon/Inpho/Red Bull
Aerial Footage From Electric Picnic 2015. Photograph: Niall Bouzon/Inpho/Red Bull

Still, there’s enough of the old Picnic in the new for it to be missed. And, as September 3rd comes around, I’m sure I won’t be the only one who, even amidst all the other stresses and traumas, will be distracted by a strange, cold ache, as if a dear friend was calling out from afar.

“We live near Stradbally and it allows us see what the estate looks like when there isn’t a festival,” says Jellett. “There are elements of the festival that live there all the time. Much of what was Body and Soul, for instance. And the shipwreck from the Salty Dog. It lives there in a very forlorn-looking way, sinking slowly into the wood. It’s there all the time and when you pass it you see the reminders of the festival that isn’t.”

How green was our Stradbally: five iconic Picnic performances

Arcade Fire, 2005
They came, they saw, they reduced the Electric Arena to a heap of jelly. It was the performance that catalysed their ascent as the biggest force in alternative rock and doubled as the Picnic’s very own baptism to boot.

The Fall, 2010
It wasn’t so much the late Mark E Smith’s onstage antics at Stradbally but his brutal subsequent dismissal of that year’s headliners, Mumford and Sons.

“We were playing a festival in Dublin [sic] the other week,” he reminisced. “There was this other group warming up in the next sort of chalet, and they were terrible . . . I said, ‘Shut them c***s up,’ and they were still warming up, so I threw a bottle at them.”

Hozier, 2014

Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

The Picnic had changed a great deal by the time Hozier played the main stage. But, as with Arcade Fire a decade earlier, this was a gig that crystallised the sense that here was an artist about to get very big, very quickly.

Billie Eilish, 2019

Billie Eilish: ‘I’m part Irish, dude… This is my home.’ Photograph: Dave Meehan
Billie Eilish  on the main satge at Electric Picnic. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

The world’s most intriguing new star blew the capacity attendance away with her goth-tinged pop. At one point the big-screen camera alighted on a young girl weeping her eyes out from sheer emotion. It seemed a reasonable reaction.

King Kong Company, 2019
Body and Soul had announced it was departing the festival in 2019, and this gig at the end of the weekend marked a poignant farewell. The crowds were so huge security had to briefly close the gates to that part of the site. Who knows when they will next open?