Muddied but unbowed – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Woodstock festival

 Woodstock, August 1969. Photograph: John Dominis/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Woodstock, August 1969. Photograph: John Dominis/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. While Ireland saw troubles in the North escalating, de Valera remained president and Beckett won the Nobel Prize. Further afield, de Gaulle stepped down as president of France and Franco appointed a successor. And, in this year of peace and love, John and Yoko went to bed for days on end, illustrating one way to “Give Peace a Chance”.

It was 1969, and in January the US saw Richard Nixon sworn in as president. By the summer, he was in deep trouble and, come October, hundreds of thousands camped outside the White House, protesting in a giant moratorium against a disastrous war in Vietnam. For Nixon, therefore, America’s supremacy in the space race, as Neil Armstrong made a footprint in the lunar dust, was welcome news on a global scale.

The moon walk was of interest, I admit. An estimated 500 million people worldwide watched it.

Not me, though. On that July Sunday, I was visiting my aunt in Rhode Island, and refused, haughtily, to look at the television. Sailing westwards in wooden ships, never knowing if they’d fall off the edge of the world, those explorers had achieved something. Going up in a rocket with billions of dollars’ worth of support and a team of eggheads behind the enterprise? Mere technology.

I was in America for a summer job, halfway through my course at Trinity College, having found a hospital which paid young people to cheer up its institutionalised residents. My principal motivation, I confess, was not to brighten the lives of the gloomy. I saw myself threading flowers in my hair, dousing myself in patchouli and cheering on the conscripts as they burnt their draft cards.

We came upon an ocean of people swaying and cheering as the music blasted out

The reality was grimmer than I’d imagined. The Middletown State Psychiatric Hospital in Connecticut was virtually a small town, with its own post office and fire station and 3,600 inmates. (Monasterevan has a similar population.) I was the only non-American, the others being students on sociology or medical courses, who didn’t know what to make of me. Incredulous that I’d never eaten a Big Mac, they took me to the nearest Golden Arches as if to a baptism.

Friendships sprang up, and one afternoon five of us spotted a poster a bird perching on the neck of a guitar spoke of a concert. Without much discussion, we crammed into Marcia’s air-conditioned car and looked on the map for Woodstock.

Unaware that we were heading for an event that could, without exaggeration, be called historic, we zoomed up the freeway, singing along to Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Joni Mitchell.

And then we could go no further, as an unbroken line of vehicles stretched before us, many painted with psychedelic patterns. Eventually, cresting a rise, we came upon an ocean of people swaying and cheering as the music blasted out. Like stout Cortez, gazing with a wild surmise, we had discovered America. I thought back to the moonwalk. Forget that. This, this was awesome.

Every last person had long hair and beads – the girls in their floaty skirts and the skinny, bare-chested men who had tied bandannas round their heads. Strangers were passing round joints for free. It was – an expression of the time – mind-blowing.

Half a million people showed up for probably the greatest line-up there will ever be for a rock and folk concert

Country Joe roused the crowd with his satirical song. And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn. The next stop is Vietnam.

Even among America’s hawks, the national mood had turned against the war, but in this dissident crowd there was a heartfelt, if naive, desire for peace and harmony.

Since the gates were not put up in time, it was declared a free concert. A few locals were selling soda pop and home-made brownies, otherwise it was, You got no money? Hey, just share what we got, man! It was Arcadia.

Half a million people showed up for probably the greatest line-up there will ever be for a rock and folk concert. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Canned Heat, Richie Havens. There was some naked dancing and enthusiastic partaking of illegal substances, but no violence. Our generation of idealists felt that the old order must make way for a new, compassionate world. Did we succeed? Looking around me today, I shake my head. But while I was there at Woodstock 50 years ago, I loved my neighbour and looked with optimism for a brighter future. It was worth a thousand moonwalks to me.

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