Keith Duggan: Saddle up for Garth Brooks’ return to Croke Park

Thursday’s confirmation of the two concerts was a reminder of a simpler time for all

Garth Brooks in Croke Park in 2014 to announce his ill-fated concerts. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Talk to any economists worth their salt and they will tell you that the true source, the vital spark of the Irish economic miracle of the 1990s was Garth Brooks. If you trace the music trends in Ireland from the Treaty through to the 1980s, it's a line of maudlin ballads running straight through to gloomy English synthesiser escapism beamed into our living rooms on Top of the Pops. But there existed by then another cohort: the marginalised country 'n' western romantics to whose needs future Taoiseach and music hall promoter Albert Reynolds quietly and heroically catered before entering politics.

Into this confusing maelstrom stepped Garth Brooks, the cherubic Oklahoman who wore shirts of sequined denim, heeled-boots and a black Stetson under which he gazed at the world with a blue-eyed pacifism and the slight suspicion of a hangover. He yodelled and hollered his way to the top of billboard charts on both sides of the equator. He sang about down at heel American romantics on liquor benders and high school sweethearts and football games but in such a way that the message - and lyrics - were easily transferred to the darklands of Mayo or Donegal. Needless to say, the Irish went daffy for him. And now he is back.

Thursday's confirmation that Mr Brooks will once more 'play' Croke Park, one of the citadels of Irish sport, was a reminder of a simpler time. You had to be there. Culturally, the early 1990s was a hot mess. Nobody was quite sure what to make of the decade when it began. But if there was one clearly identifiable movement, it was the sight of Ireland's country-and-western masses moving into the bright sunlight of the mainstream.

Garth Brooks performing at Croke Park in 1997.

Much like the statue in Ballinspittle a few years earlier, the sight of Garth Brooks storming the world brought out the evangelists. His music - this cannot be stressed enough - was inescapable. How you felt about the Brooks catalogue of twangy ballads and anthems was immaterial. Even Ireland's hardcore metal purists of the early 1990s subconsciously came to know every single line of the Brooks staple 'Friends In Low Places' simply because it was played at them a million times. But for a significant number of Irish people, Brooks wasn't just an American entertainer. He was the great liberator.


Overnight, it felt, Garth Brooks empowered the repressed JR Ewing in many an Irishman. A sudden and unmistakable country 'n' western vibe began to infiltrate all spheres of Irish society. Nobody speaks about it anymore but a line-dancing frenzy took hold of the nation around 1993. Hitherto perfectly normal people found themselves suddenly dressed as though for a walk-on part in the original Dukes of Hazzard, chequered of shirt and cowboy-ed of boot as they went through the intricate little steps and hands-on-hips routines that comprised the impenetrable appeal of the line-dancing phenomenon.

And it was a phenomenon! It was the pandemic for which there was no vaccine. The back roads of Georgia and Kentucky infiltrated the Irish imagination through the ubiquitous sounds of Cotton Eyed Joe and Chattahoochee. By 1994, Ireland was holding All-Ireland Line Dancing Championships. Internal memos reveal that the GAA considered its sweeping popularity an existential threat to the association. More strident members wanted an outright ban placed on the practice.

Contrarily, Brooks soon confirmed himself as the most popular draw in the history of the GAA. Eight sell out shows at the Point were mere dress rehearsals for his 1997 appearances at Croke Park which were less musical nights out than experiments in rapture. It is said that Bono has never quite recovered from the intense aura of love and adoration directed by the Irish heartland at this other beseeching, big heeled, lung-buster of an entertainer.

The economic theory on the ‘Brooks Effect’- as the ESRI and many other economic think tanks have labelled it - is that the country star released a strain of unexpected energy into the Irish psyche. A kind of renegade, can-do American frontier spirit took hold, inspiring hundreds if not thousands of Irish men to no longer content themselves with being all hat and no cattle: to seek the fair land, to then get that fair land rezoned for residential development and to borrow articulated-truck loads of cash from the banks and . . . well, there’s no need to go into all of that here. Suffice to say that Garth Brooks had a profound impact on Irish society in ways he never dreamed.

Residents in Ballybough protested against the cancellation of any of the Garth Brooks Croke Park concerts. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

So there is something very moving about the fact that he is coming back to us: that he has retained the power to sell out two concerts in Croke Park (with the promise of more on the horizon), just like that. It’s as though the last 30 years haven’t really happened. And it has been a long-awaited return! In the turbulent summer of 2014, Brooks’ glorious return for five consecutive concerts in ‘Cro-Park’ as he calls it was scuttled by spoil sport bureaucrats.

That cancellation felt like the final humiliation after a bleak few years when the country was officially insolvent and the IMF had to govern us for a while. Brooks himself had been out of the public eye since 2001, perhaps prudently ceding the limelight to edgier country stars. But with Ireland reeling financially and morally after the great recession, he chose Croke Park - he chose us! - for his comeback. Five consecutive nights of Brooks’ potent brand of Irelandicana would have unquestionably lit another fire under the national economy.

The cancellation - something about planning laws and it was news to many that such legislation existed - caused a national row that was, of course, played out in the nation's last confessional box, the Joe Duffy Show. The mood was bitter, acrimonious and generally heartbroken. And the general feeling was that we had disgraced ourselves again.

This is an anxious time. Much water has passed under the bridge since Brooks' first coming, warbling about lost loves and late nights and the passage of time. Curiously, in his rare instances of publicity, Brooks himself looks much the same, boyish in his late 50s and a little wounded and as though he has come through a lost weekend with Jim Beam - although he has long forsaken the hooch. His fashion touchstones have not changed one iota. It's as though he is stubbornly ignoring the passing of the last three decades.

And for the legion of Brooks fans scattered across the land, there may be something comforting in that. The country has already lived through a season of watching its GAA teams and its rugby and football teams playing their hearts out in empty stadiums. It was better than nothing but it was deeply strange. Popular entertainers need their people in the stadium. They need their tribe. Brooks’ tribe in Ireland has been unflagging in its devotion. They say the man himself will visit Ireland next week, to confirm that it is all really happening, that he is ready to once again unleash that strange power - and sound.

So thousands are dusting down old Stetsons and eyeing up those Corral boots they never could ditch. They’ve suddenly remembered that, like the man himself sings, they are much too young (to feel this damn old).

Saddle up.

Anything could happen now.