Body & Soul: ‘Bush and Bowie would be a dream ticket’

In these times you need to celebrate and honour your culture, says festival founder and director Avril Stanley

Avril Stanley at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath, venue for Body & Soul festival from June 19th to 21st. Photograph:  Shantanu Starick

Avril Stanley at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath, venue for Body & Soul festival from June 19th to 21st. Photograph: Shantanu Starick


Avril Stanley, originally from Galway, is director of the Body & Soul festival. She lives in Dublin with her son Jarah (6).

What first inspired you to set up Body&Soul? When I was 20 I took off travelling in India, Sri Lanka and Japan and saw so much that you don’t see in Ireland. Sometimes it takes going away and discovering other customs to appreciate your own. But it was when I studied psychotherapy that things started to come into sharp focus.

It came mostly from me undergoing a huge moment in my life and hit a point where I didn’t know which way to go. I realised I was too young at that time – I was 24 – to be a psychotherapist. So I became an energy worker and worked in that field for eight years. I started to get involved with festivals and curate the (holistic) areas at festivals, such as the Big Chill in the UK.

The Burning Man festival in Nevada also provided inspiration for Body & Soul. What was the craziest thing you saw there? That was definitely a life-changing moment, the year I was 21 and went with nine Japanese friends, rented a campervan and drove into the desert. The whole festival was so profound, outlandish, wild and creative; it’s a world like you can’t imagine. The art was probably the most mind-blowing thing for me to see.

Something about that whole shared experience definitely set me alight.

Do Irish people buy into the idea of a holistic festival as readily as American festival-goers? Well, at the end of the day Body & Soul is pretty rock’n’roll, too. Apart from the name, there’s very little that’s hippie-ish about it. It’s pretty progressive and there’s a real attention to detail, and that’s what people like.

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Sometimes we get a little bit lost to the routine in our lives. We wanted to create an event that would help people step outside the restrictions and be free to be who they want to be for that time. It’s not been hard to persuade people.

Did starting up a festival feel like a steep learning curve? Putting on a festival is one of the most ridiculous things you could do. To take green fields in Ireland and turn them into cities for three days and nights . . . you’d want to be mad to do that with your life. We started Body & Soul in 2009, the first year the recession hit, but it was time more than ever to put on a standalone festival. The one thing you need to do in those times is celebrate and honour your culture.

But, yes, it’s been tough and challenging. Just because you sell out a festival doesn’t necessarily mean you’re left with a profit.

Were there any catastrophes along the way? There are so many things to learn in the beginning. Three years ago, Ballinlough Castle was hit by the worst rain in 25 years. I remember on the day before the festival started, we had to move 500 people from a campsite into another field, and bring in diggers and extra machinery.

Times like that, there’s no such thing as “well, I’m the festival director”. The public are usually very unaware that we are crawling around in the mud trying to put emergency plans in place, trying to stay strong and focused.

Your music bill is always very diverse, but have you had any negative experiences with demanding artists? I’ve heard many horror stories about acts, but we’ve been very lucky that no one has made demands beyond anything we can deliver. I don’t want it to be the kind of festival where people want Rolls-Royces and helicopters and black oysters. I don’t endorse it and I steer away from all that.

In the past, I have moved away from booking a band that definitely would have added pizzazz to the bill, towards an act of a less demanding nature. Who’s on your festival bill wish-list? Kate Bush is my heroine, as is David Bowie. If we were to get a couple of million to book the acts of our dreams, I’d book them and hang my hat up, happy.

You staged your first Body & Soul festival when your son Jarah was 9 months old. How easy was it to “birth” the two at the same time? I look back and wonder how I did it. It’s a great testament to Body & Soul that there’s a great team there, and I often say that it takes a whole village to raise a child. I guess I was like “in for a penny, in for a pound”. It took real superwoman energy to give birth to Body & Soul around the same time. Being part of the festival has given my son and me a real sense of belonging in Ireland. It has made our lives here really beautiful.

Body & Soul takes place next weekend, June 19th-21st, at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath. See