The Woodstock of the west remembered

This month marks the 35th anniversary of one the boldest and most imaginative private ventures to be undertaken in Mayo. The year was 1981 and the plan was to transform a 65 acre site outside Castlebar into the biggest two-day rock festival ever staged in the province. The proposal was the brainchild of brothers Tommy and John Staunton and local hotelier Tony McHugh. The substantial sum of £120,000 was invested in the festival with half going toward enticing major acts to play over the August bank holiday weekend.

Logistically, the Occasion at the Castle, as the festival would be known, proved to be as demanding as the dream was big. Coordination of suppliers of camping facilities, sewerage, cooking water, and security services had to dovetail with a host of public services. The Garda drew up a contingency plan to deal with any trouble the out-of-towners might bring. Negotiations took place between the tenacious organisers and the Western Health Board to ensure sanitation levels were adequate and maintained. Developing the event was an audacious gamble but was accepted as a welcome boost to the town's valued reputation for entertainment at a time when the Castlebar International Song Contest's £18,000 deficit placed that event's future in serious doubt.

The bank holiday weekend saw 13,000 revelers bused in from across Ireland to hear The Pretenders, Ian Dury and The Blockheads, The Undertones, and popular local groups. Post-festival reports of only minor misdemeanors convinced the president of Castlebar Chamber of Commerce, Jim Kavanagh, to give his blessing to the event as he felt the well-run affair proved that some critics might have overreacted when the concert was first mooted. Most importantly, the £3 million injection into the Mayo capital's businesses from the event was the statistic that had organisers immediately talking of an annual gathering. The inaugural Occasion at the Castle was cheered as a success.

Despite the cash injection into Castlebar's pubs and food catering premises, the organisers themselves reported only breaking even. The extent of the financial hit taken by the organisers only came to light during the court hearing of their beer licence application for the follow-up event in 1982. John Staunton informed the district court that the previous year's substantial loss could be turned around if the licence to sell beer on site was granted. Justice Brennan, though not in favour of the festival, granted the licence and the way was cleared for the second Occasion at the Castle.

Hoping for a financial return, several businessmen sponsored the second event, investing a total of £250,000 into the now three-day festival. They had good reason to be optimistic. The 1982 line up was second to none. Thin Lizzy, Madness, and The Boomtown Rats were the headline acts of the new and improved show. Despite the obvious efforts of the organisers, the concert failed to grab the interest of the intended audience. Local businessman and former director of the Castlebar International Song Contest, Paddy McGuinness, put the poor numbers, which were unchanged from the previous year, down to the general recession and the fact that The Rolling Stones had played at Slane the previous weekend.

The weekend's music was reported to have been of good quality and the festival relaxed. Gardaí had only made 15 arrests all weekend. But the news that one incident occurred outside the hospital where a group refused to disperse and had to be baton charged, moved Castlebar UDC to unanimously adopt their chairman Frank Durcan's call for festivals to be licensed in order that objectors would have an official platform from which they could be heard. The motion would not affect The Occasion at the Castle. The organisers had already announced that the financial hit was too much to bear and that no festival would go ahead in 1983.


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