Having spent four years reading about it from the pens of assorted culture junkies and hearing whispers on the wind from trusted heads and head-the-balls that it was the best festival in the country, my beloved and I finally got to dive into the Flatlake Literary and Arts Festival at the Hilton Park Estate in Scotstown, near Clones.
The trouble with going into something with high expectations is that more often than not they are completely and utterly destroyed by the reality. After all, one man’s cultural caviar is another’s artistic arsenic. Mercifully, Flatlake did not disappoint. If anything, it surpassed our expectations and it is without doubt one of the best festivals I have ever attended.
A June Bank Holiday weekend festival which featured just about everything including literary and historical talks, heated political debate, poetry recitals, family entertainment, film screenings, theatrical debuts, some very odd music, some great music, a human zoo, wandering priests, people clutching typewriters, campfire sessions, bizarre wandering surprises and delicious food and chaype drink. It’s programming was as eccentric and as laid back as the overall vibe, and among the big names taking part this year was novelist John Banville, journalist Robert Fisk, writer Sam Shepard, poet Anthony Cronin, musician Mundy, novelist Paul Murray, writer Ulick O’Connor, madmen Jinx Lennon and David McSavage, and of course, one of the men behind the festival, author Pat McCabe.
His co-founder Kevin Allen told the Anglo Celt before the festival that they were upping the festival’s political edge. “Politics has tended to loiter like an uninvited guest at the Flat Lake but now the time has come to let rip a bit and invite all and sundry to get some ‘stuff’ off their collective chests.”
A lengthy debate between two of my all-time favourite writers Robert Fisk and Eamon McCann was one of the first ‘shows’ we went to on the Saturday afternoon. Taking place in the Butty Barn, a hayshed to the rear of the main Hilton House, it was a fabulous introduction to the wild, untamed nature of the festival. The two writers were seated on a home made stage at the back of the ‘arena’, and to their left, in a little wooden booth sat McCabe, gently sipping a glass of red wine as he listened intently to the two men speak (largely) about Northern Ireland, the Middle East and Obama. Fisk shocked all with admitting he can never see a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, whilst McCann got hot under his trademark black t-shirt collar talking about the cover-ups the Saville Report into Bloody Sunday didn’t quite cover. The audience asked questions and pretty soon some people who love the sound of their own voice ruined the debate with long-winded pointless probing of the two great men on stage.
The Butty Barn has become something of an icon of the Flatlake festival. Very few festival organisers would dare host events in a huge galvanized shed, so credit must go to Allen and McCabe for choosing not to go for a boring marquee like so many other festivals. Throughout the site, the lack of boring old marquees adds to the dynamic nature of the event. A small circus big top is the main musical stage, an inflatable marquee (!) doubles up as a children’s area and a night-time spot, odd little army marquees and other elegantly dressed tents all serve their respective purposes, with the Gonzo Theatre and Boudoir Sessions tents beautifully decked out; all of them proving that a touch of shabby chic going a long way. The main bar, largely queueless thanks to the very generous bring your own booze nature of the festival, was called ‘Chaype Drink’ and featured a couple of mismatching tables, a Beamish Tap, a lager tap, plenty of spirits and bottles of wine for €15 a pop and was manned by older, experienced barmen.
The main children’s area consisted largely of haybales, the toilets were all handmade from sheets of galvanized metal, plywood, guttering and other odd lumps with buckets of sawdust comfortably sitting alongside bog roll. Elsewhere assorted artworks, oddball vans, a campfire stage and random installations made for a totally eccentric layout. The main arena was unlike any I’ve seen in many years of attending festivals. It resembled the village fete from the opening episode of Fr. Ted, crossed with a little corner of Glastonbury and an imagined village. Elsewhere a hard-to-find Holistic area was in the beautiful woodlands and gardens surrounding Hilton House and camping was right beside the main arena, with campers allowed drive their cars right up beside their tents. One hopes that the festival will not get too big, as this is one charming aspect of Flatlake you’d be sad to see the back of.
One thing I do not want to see the back of is Inish Turk Beg Sessions. Musical speaking the Irish folk supergroup absolutely stole the show in the main DB Audio Big Top. Their Saturday night set was the quintessential festival set, a roof and rabble rousing spectacle which drew festival goers like a magnet until the Big Top could hold no more, with hundreds spilling out into the open air. The band mix traditional and informal Irish staples with more modern covers. For every comhaile or traditional staple such as “The Parting Glass” or “The Curragh Races” they play, they add a trad version of more contemporary tracks, with brilliant versions of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, Muse’s “Uprising”, Gnarl’s Barkley’s “Crazy” and Booker T’s “Green Onions” sublime and surreal highlights of an exhilarating set. Their version of Kings of Leon’s “Sex On Fire” was greeted with the cheers of a thousand goals scored at the same time, and they have made an iconic (and dreadful) song all their own. It’s a song which has become an Irish staple and that’s even more apparent when its played by a bunch of seasoned Irish trad heads.
Led by the charismatic Alan Doherty, the band have his flute and his charm out front, but behind him lurks some serious talent, with the backgrounds of the other musicians in blues, ska, reggae and trad greatly adding to their dynamic sound. I’d heard selections from their confidently titled “Brilliant Irish Flute” album on the radio, but live they were a totally different beast. A dancing contest added to the surreal nature of the performance, with the best dancer awarded a drop of some rare Inish Turk Beg whiskey. If anyone involved with the Electric Picnic, or any other festival for that matter, is reading this, then book them now.
But like many of the musical acts playing over the weekend, they came on stage mad late, with all notions of scheduling seemingly thrown out the window early on the first night. There didn’t seem to be a problem with this, as the festival was simply too chilled for anyone to be giving out. This was not the Forbidden Fruit festival, which took place the same weekend and which was blighted by hipsters giving out about having to queue for a drink. However, a little tighter scheduling and stage management would go a long way.
A huge discovery was the blues monsters that are Crow Black Chicken. Recently hand-picked for a slot at Glastonbury, the band look like three brothers of varying ages, with beards to match their age. Like an Irish ZZ Top someone beside me said, and how right they were, albeit the real ZZ Top from the 70’s. Mikey & The Scallywags were also great, and Mundy was his usual charming self. Elsewhere Bi-Polar Empire are easily one of the finest Irish bands around at this point, and there can’t be a festival they have not played this year. That hard graft has paid off, and they are a seriously good outfit. McCabe’s selections for Radio Butty were suitably bizarre, as were random bits of acts and authors such as the Amazing Few, Slowfoot, Ha’penny Mariachi, Anthony Cronin, Sam Shepard (what a coup for Kevin Allen and Pat McCabe), Fred and many others whose names I didn’t get for all sorts of reasons which mainly involve drink and cracking conversation.
I missed Robert Sheehan threading the Gonzo boards and comedian David Mc Savage was disappointing as a bingo host. The Cavan male rugby club choir were probably one of the highlights, whilst young Cavan band The Strypes have come on in leaps and bounds since their Late Late toy show appearance.
Saddened by the news that the world’s oldest typewriter factory has closed down, the organisers launched the Flat Lake Typewriter Appeal, and if you brought along a typewriter you received a discount off the already cheap tickets at the gate. Also at the gate was the box office, which was a school hall with tables lined up like a polling station on election day. If you were not driving in, you could avail of a vintage bus into the site with a suitably eccentric driver in a vest. Food was superb, if limited. The beautiful taste of the traditional lamb on a spit is something I’d eat every day for six months of the year, and overall Flatlake is something I’d go to every weekend of the year.
A beautifully laid-back and elegantly eccentric festival, Flatlake was everything I and my wife had hoped for and then some. Festivals such as Body & Soul, Sea Sessions and Electric Picnic are currently being held up as the golden torch bearers of alternative festival going, but these sanitized events have absolutely nothing on the wild and wonderful Flatlake.