Drink-free festival: we're just not into not getting out of it


On the evidence of this weekend’s Lovin’ Life festival, Ireland is not ready for alcohol-free social events, writes ROSITA BOLAND

ALL MUSIC festivals have barometers of success. You could call one of them the “burger-ometer”: the number of burgers sold to peckish festival goers. By early Saturday evening, the total number of burgers sold at Sligo’s Lovin’ Life festival, billed as Ireland’s first alcohol-free festival, was less than 40, according to Brendan Gillan, who was running the sole burger stall at the event.

The festival’s anchor event, the “Gettin’ Into It Gig”, had started at 5pm on Friday in the grounds of Mount Shannon House. All in, 19 bands were booked for the festival. An elaborate stage and sound system were in place, so effective that a neighbouring farmer complained to the gardaí that his cows were being disturbed from milking by the noise.

“I was told there would be 1,500 people here,” Gillan said on Saturday, looking mournfully at his piles of unsold hamburger buns and patties.

The slogan of Sligo’s inaugural Lovin’ Life Festival was “Getting into it, not out of it.” It was the idea of Aubrey Melville, who set up a Bill W Club in Sligo in 2008; a non-residential facility for people in recovery from addiction. The target audience was families, music-lovers in general, and people in recovery from addiction.

The gig was at Mount Shannon House, a private home just outside Sligo town whose owners had offered the use of their land. Bands included Tucan, Keywest, Huey and the Hobgoblins, The Gorgeous Colours, Flea Market Poets, and former X-Factor competitor Tabby Callaghan.

But even by late into Saturday afternoon, there was hardly anyone at the festival. Most of those present were volunteers, noticeable by their high-visibility vests, or their black Gettin’ Into It, Not Out of It! T-shirts. The rest were bands waiting to go on, with only a tiny few members of the paying public. There were no queues at the row of Portaloos. At one point, there were exactly three people sitting on the grass watching the bands.

“I think having a music festival with no alcohol is brave, it’s bold and it’s innovative,” offered David McGoldrick, manager of the Navan-based The Whatmans. “But it’ll take a long time to work. The big stigma against it is that Irish people find it impossible to socialise without alcohol.”

Sisters Vanessa (25) and Zoe (15) Scanlon from Sligo were two of the three people sitting on the grass. “I could bring my sister here because I know there’ll be no messiness with drink. It’s family-friendly,” Vanessa explained. So why so few families? “I suppose people are nervous of coming to a music festival with no drink.”

Other people offered their suggestions as to why the event was virtually deserted. “The Sligo-Galway GAA replay today. The World Cup quarter finals. The fact not many people know where this place is. The gymkhana out at Strand Hill. Not enough advertising,” ventured Tony Davis, a health and safety volunteer.

“The recession,” sighed the man on the hot dog stall, whose sales of €2 hotdogs were even lower than the burgers.

Dublin-based band, The Dead Flags – Billy Fitzgerald, Dave Power and Kevin Lowery – were philosophical about their lack of an audience to play to. Fitzgerald felt the reason for the small turnout was the high price of tickets for low-profile bands, and the fact that for a gig going on over a day and two nights, there wasn’t a big enough name to draw the crowds, rather than the festival being dry.

The entrance fee for Saturday had originally been set at €20. By early afternoon, it had dropped to €15. After 6pm, it was €10. The organisers had been expecting at least 1,500 people. They had needed 800 to break even.

When the gig ended, organiser Máire Garvey estimated no more than about 100 people in total had been through the gates. She wasn’t bothering to hide her dismay at the low attendance, although she was optimistic about doing better next year.