Last year, the return Trip to Tipp saw ten thousand fans make the famed flock to Thurles to relive the glory days of Féile’s past and see their favourite Irish bands reunite on the Semple Stadium stage.
The original Féile came to life in 1990 as a means to pay off the debt accrued to upgrade Semple Stadium for the 1984 Centenary All-Ireland Hurling Final. The festival was a huge success and continued for four electric years on the Semple Stadium Stage, attracting the best of Irish talent and a host of international acts. In 1995 Féile moved to Cork – a decision which sparked its decline. After a final one-day concert in Thurles in 1997, the event disappeared entirely from the Irish music calendar – but it was never forgotten.
Hailed as the mecca for Irish bands in the nineties, Féile made an explosive comeback last year on the hallowed hurling turf. Building on last year’s resounding success, the festival returns to Semple Stadium again, this time as Tipp Classical, with a legion of legendary Irish talent from Sultans of Ping to The Stunning.
We spoke to Tom Dunne, festival curator and frontman of Something Happens, to hear about the original Féile days and what’s it’s like returning to the Semple Stadium stage after all these years.
Tom explained that the idea of a return Trip to Tipp had been floating about for years:
“Initially, the idea was to have a house band and then the vocalists from the original bands would walk on stage – but I thought, you’re kind of short-changing people that way. We’d rather return as a full band and all the other acts felt the same. It’s all about that chemistry.”
Soon the idea evolved into a lineup that resembled the early Féile days, with six of the full original bands jumping on board to be accompanied by the Irish Chamber Orchestra. The idea of playing with the ICO sparked huge excitement amongst the bands.
“Everybody felt, ‘God I’d love to hear what our songs sound like with the Irish Chamber Orchestra’. Maybe that’s the ego – something inside you thinks that the sheer masterclass of your song will, at last, be revealed. Everyone was jumping at that. The six bands signed up immediately’.
While the organisers and bands were hugely excited about the comeback festival, they were concerned about the reaction. Thirty years on, would people still be interested? Is it possible to recapture the magic of the original Féiles?
They didn’t have to worry. The initial announcement on the Ian Dempsey radio show was quickly followed by a host of RTE producers reaching out to find out more about the Féile renaissance. Then came a wildly unexpected tweet from Leo Varadkar…
Tom and the rest of the team couldn’t believe it. When the tickets finally went on sale, they sold out in minutes.
Now all they had to do was live up to the expectations.
Tom describes his first rehearsal with the Irish Chamber Orchestra; he was more nervous than he had felt in years.
“One Saturday we all drove down to the ICO in Limerick and our band was setting up around the orchestra. It all seemed very adult. I was thinking, ‘My god, this is really grown-up music’. Suddenly the songs we wrote in the rehearsal room thirty years ago had an orchestra playing behind them. I felt nervous singing them for the first time in years.”
It wasn’t until Liam Ó’Maonlaí and the rest of The Hothouse Flowers stepped up to rehearse with the orchestra, that Tom started to relax.
“They blew me away and I thought this is absolutely brilliant. That was the first day I realised this has the capacity to be something really special.”
Bringing Féile back to life
This belief was brought to life by The Frank and Walters – the very first set of the Féile comeback. When Tom stepped out to introduce the first act, some of the initial doubts started to pepper his mind again.
Then came the introduction to “Afterall”, propelled by the energetic mastery of the ICO. Tom instantly knew they had made the right decision.
“It was just absolutely magnificent”, says Tom, “I was pinching myself on the side of the stage wondering if the rest of the gig could be this good. And it was!”
His overarching feeling on the first day of the Féile comeback was unwavering pride.
Over the years he had come to associate all the bands he had played with in Thurles as friends and family. He had forgotten that it was sheer and utter talent that had brought them together almost thirty years ago.
“I was beaming at the side of the stage. I’ve always thought that these bands are great, but it’s incredible to see ten thousand people agreeing with you and lapping it all up. They were two amazing nights.”
There is a magic to the festival that has brought so many of the original guests back to relive the glory. Tom describes the early Féile days as being “like a Gaeltacht holiday gone terribly wrong – or perhaps, terribly right”.
“There’s a sense of craic and your parents not being around, even all these years later. It was magical, I didn’t want it to end.”
And, almost thirty years on, he still experiences that same euphoric mix of exhilaration and nerves.
Tom describes his first time arriving at Semple Stadium back in 1990. He was able to drive right up to the site and waltz straight in – no tickets or laminates required.
“You could rock up and tell them ‘I’m doing a gig’ and in you go! Now there are laminates everywhere.”
Of course, the event has naturally evolved since the early Féile days, with old traditions now bridged with modern luxuries, like eco-camping and prosecco tents. Tom has some conflicting feelings about these new millennial touches.
“There’s part of you that loves the romance of a room filled with triangle shaped ham sandwiches and some warm beer to wash it down… but then another part of you kicks in thinking, if there was Hendrick’s gin going, I would prefer that. If there’s a margarita, put my name on it.”
But these modern elements haven’t diluted the original magic of the festival in any way for Tom, and that’s down to the lineup – “the original bands playing their original songs.”
How Féile became the Irish music Mecca of the ’90s
Tom describes something very interesting that happened in the Irish music scene from around 1988 – 1992. He says that bands started writing songs as if they were essays and they wanted to get ten out of ten. The need to sell records wasn’t front of mind.
“You felt that if you wrote great music, it would sell, even if that wasn’t strictly the case. As a result of that, every single one of those bands produced a special song – at least one special song that has stood the test of time.”
Think “Parachute” by Something Happens, “Brewing up a Storm” by The Stunning, “Don’t Go” by The Hothouse Flowers.
Tom describes this era as a great time for Ireland. It was post-recession Ireland. There were so many Irish bands being signed by big record producers. There was the elation of Italia ’90.
These songs captured and bottled that air of optimism in Ireland and channelled it into Féile.
“There was great depth and great meaning to the songs, and for me, they have become even more meaningful as the years have gone on. The bands still love these songs and they put their heart and soul into them. And when you see that on stage it’s incredible.’
Another defining factor of Féile, now Tipp Classical, is the all-Irish lineup (with the exception of Transition Vamp, which Tom describes as their ‘get out of jail card’ for being at all the original Féiles).
“There’s something about seeing one of your own on stage. It makes you proud and strengthens the connection. That’s what Féile had and it’s what it still has now.”
The venue is also key to capture the original essence of the festival. Tom shares how welcoming the people of Thurles are and how the stadium seems to bring out the very best in Irish talent.
“Someone was writing last year about how Semple Stadium, for some reason, has brought these amazing hurling performances out of the team over the years. And that’s exactly what happened at the early Féiles. It’s like the Irish bands saved their best performances for Semple Stadium – like they were getting a chance to rise to the challenge and show people that they were as good as the international bands that were coming in, which I always felt they were.”
Returning to Semple Stadium Stage
Tom and all the Something Happens crew have a rich connection with the Tipperary hurling grounds.
Féile was more than just a gig. It was the Irish music mecca of the ’90s. A place where lifelong friendships were cemented. A carefree weekend of craic and music mastery that captured the unwavering optimism in Ireland at the time.
Returning to the Semple Stadium stage alongside his band members was an incredible feeling for Tom.
“It was amazing to reconnect with the songs and find the feeling that was in those songs when we wrote them first – it brings your mind alive again. It’s a very powerful thing and a very inspiring feeling.”
Throughout all the Féiles over the past thirty years, it was last year’s comeback festival when Tom experienced his most powerful Féile moment to date.
For the festival finale, the bands were to come on stage to unite in a tribute to Dolores Keane with the Cranberries’ hit song, “Linger”.
“Just as we were finding our place on stage Liam O’Maonlaí sang a little vocal hook from ‘Dreams.’ As he was doing it, I was looking at him thinking what is he doing? I wasn’t recognising it. He sang it just once and then the entire audience joined in. Ten thousand voices blowing up around us singing this bit of a Cranberries song. It was unbelievably powerful and emotional. That was the most incredible moment. For many people, it was probably the most incredible moment they’ve ever had on stage.”
Tipp Classical, according to its curator, is all the best bits of the original Féiles, now accompanied by the Irish Chamber Orchestra.
Of course, we’ll also see an injection of some fresh Irish talent peppered throughout the lineup and some surprise special guests, but Tom’s not giving that away just yet. Stay tuned for more announcements!
Tipp Classical, now an expanded two-day festival, will take place on September 20th and 21st at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Alongside the iconic lineup on the main stage, the festival will see a return of the Tribal area, the Tipp Top with Jerry Fish and Friends, the usual antics from Dustin the Turkey, and ICO tributes to some of Ireland’s biggest names in music.
So gather the gang, grab your tickets, and get ready for a nostalgia-fuelled weekend with the best of Irish talent.
Feeling inspired? Want to turn your passion into something that brings people together in celebration? Get started on your first event… And who knows, it may become as legendary as Tipp Classical!