If you ever want to experience Old Ireland in all its glory, then the evergreen Marquee in Drumlish festival in the heart of rural Longford is the music festival for you.
It’s a festival that entered Irish folklore long before local boy made good, country star Declan Nerney, wrote a song about it in the 1990’s, a song that has since been covered by practically every single Irish country singer. The last of the 1960’s tent festivals still standing, it is a remainder (some would say relic) of the showband era, when bands normally confined to the ballroom circuit broke loose for a few summer months and travelled from marquee to marquee raking in the cash and making hay when the sun shone. Most of these marquees were erected with vigour by a local committee, some moved with the bands and they were all usually located on the edge of villages and medium-sized towns all over Ireland a safe distance from the local pub(s). They were ‘replaced’ when we discovered outdoor stages (usually on the side of a truck) and they made a comeback when we discovered that the Irish summer is always shit. But few festivals stood the test of time quite like the Marquee in Drumish. Actually, it has stood the test of time. How? By time standing still.
Erected in the local school playground, the mythical Marquee in Drumlish stood surrounded by festoon lighting, a beacon in the darkness calling the locals from the village below. The village itself was packed; cars parked in every nook, cranny and ghost estate, local committee members in hi-viz vests directing traffic and punter alike. Walking towards the marquee it was like an All-Ireland Final — at night. Buskers, charity collections, chip vans and omni-present committee members in hi-viz vests directing us toward the ticket office which was, rather oddly, a stand alone conservatory. Was it a relic of the property boom that has forever altered the landscape of County Longford? Or was it some subliminal advertising? Inside the gates, a pair of chip vans manned by spotty teenagers did a roaring trade. The cloak room was like the an inverted lighthouse — a solitary brightly lit room at the foot of a tower, the attendant within as lonely as a lighthouse keeper. Men in hi-viz vests ringed the snow white marquee itself. These were the lucky committee members, the chosen ones, given access to the marquee, and the first big show of the weekend…
I’m sure the people of Drumlish and its environs could not have wished for a better line-up for the first night of the 2011 festival. It was the Declan Nerney song made real for headlining was Big Tom and the Mainliners, making their first appearance at the Marquee in Drumlish in over 40 years. Declan himself was next on the bill, in fact he was on before and after Big Tom, so enthusiastic was he at the words of his hit song finally coming to life:
When I was just a little boy my one and only wish
Was to get to see the showbands at the marquee in Drumlish.
I’d watch them all arrive in big wagons and fine cars
And I wondered what it would be like to be a country star.
My father used to tell me that I was far too small
And I had no chane to go to the dance to see the bands all
But my mother would get ’round him and I would get my wish
And we’d go to see the Mainliners in the Marquee in Drumlish.
I’d watch Seamus McManus as he played his lead guitar
And I wondered how he got that sound„„„,
When Big Tom sang ”Gentle Mother” sure I can tell you this,
That everyone would sing along in the marquee in Drumlish.
And on Friday night, everyone of the 1,500-plus audience sang along with Big Tom and the Mainliners. All walks of human life were in the audience. Immaculately-dressed rural couples mixed with lads straight from the fields, young travellers mixed at the bar with bright young things, pensioners sat patiently along the side of the marquee mineral in one hand, son or daughter who never left home in the other, gangs of friends out for the craic, locals in awe that the festival is still running, young lads out for their first drink and all in all, over a thousand happy country folk. The marquee itself is a beast of a yoke. A long plain white affair there is few, if any, internal dressings bar an impressive rig on stage. The sound-desk splits it in half. Off it is an annex featuring a bar and ‘set down’ area, whilst at the back of the main marquee is another bar. Both do a massive trade.
Declan Nerney and his immaculately turned out band got things moving on the half of the tent that featured a dance floor (the other half was the school playground surface). Nerney’s a total star of this scene, a pro at the festival game and he effortlessly went about his set mixing jives, waltzes and what-have-yous for an appreciative audience. Last year he brought on Una Healy from The Saturdays as his special guests. This year he brought on three young lads called The Wee Amigos for a couple of numbers before giving the audience what they really wanted… And so, one-by-one he introduced, Big Tom and the Mainliners to the famous creaking stage.
There was something quite moving watching this band and observing the way they look after the Big Man out front, especially when you realize that most of these players have been together since 1966 and all are touching 80 years of age. Most bands of this vintage spend most of the show avoiding each other. Give or take a man or two and it’s the original Mainliners, with five of them still going strong and after all these years they genuinely seem to be enjoying each other’s company on stage.
Seamus McMahon on guitar would genuinely put a lot of modern day guitarists to shame. Country music can be quite restrictive for a guitar player, and Irish country music tailored to two types of dancing feet even more so as it’s practically all in the same beat, but every now and then Seamus would pick out a motif or add a little flourish to even the most rudimentary of guitar lines to make it something else entirely. On keyboards John Beattie plays like a seamstress, his easy-going style perfectly suited to the evening that was in it. Drummer Ronnie Duffy plays with the enthusiasm of a young fella, really getting into the show. With the country dance beat being restrictive it’s hard to stand out as a drummer in this type of outfit, but he adds some nice touches especially some stylish ‘big finishes’ to plain ballads. Vintage bassist Ginger Morgan been around the block to know what the audience wants and together with Duffy they lead the band and dancefloor alike. Bandleader and saxophonist Henry McMahon controls a lot of the show, dictates the pace and adds great humour to some of the on stage announcements when Big Tom is off the mic. He also plays a mean saxophone and combines well with new man Martin Cambell on trombone. Martin stepped in for the late Cyril McKevitt who passed away having just completed the 2009 comeback tour. A brass section is something we don’t see too often anymore, and when they do launch themselves on the rare occasion they’re allowed too, there’s something very reassuring and vaguely comforting about it. Like this entire set-up it’s the sound of yesteryear.
But the mainline of the whole show is Big Tom McBride himself, still drawing the crowds at the ripe old age of 74. When introduced on stage by Nerney the roar is like that accompanying a last-minute winning goal. Delighted to be on stage, the beaming singer is still a giant of a man, his large frame shadowing that of the rest of the band. He doesn’t strap on a guitar tonight so aside from his voice his instrument of choice is a tambourine which he plays a little better than that other famous tambourine-shaking frontman Liam Gallagher. There can be no doubt that age has left its mark on Tom, the face more wrinkled than that of old, the voice an octave or two lower and he doesn’t sing every song (one in every three), but he still possesses the quintessential Irish country and western voice and the Castleblaney man’s enthusiasm and gentle manner on stage would put many’s the more youthful act to shame.
Despite being billed as a dance, the mainly elderly audience congregate at the front as if they were youngsters at a pop concert. Desperate to get an acknowledgement or a closer glimpse of their hero he obliges them with waves, nods and the odd point of a finger. Requests are read out and cheered accordingly by pockets of pals. On stage for over an hour he sings all the hits, bringing the audience back to simpler, happier times. Behind the ‘pit’ at the front, married couples twirl and waltz, single men patrol the marquee searching for a dance partner, available women crane their necks whilst the nervous prop up the bar serving only cans of stout, ale and lager, mini airplane bottles of spirits and minerals. To my left, a priest stands on a chair filming the entire marquee, whilst in the side bar, lairy locals sing along.
As the show goes on the crowd swells even more. Like it was in the 60’s, the hardy bucks drinking in the pubs arrive around closing time and by midnight there’s barely room to dance in the fabled marquee. It’s a story that will be repeated on Saturday, when The Aftermath, Joe Rooney and Ryan Sheridan perform and on the closing Sunday night when The Saw Doctors rock the shop.
As Big Tom tired it was time to bring the curtain down on his first marquee appearance in Drumlish in over 40 years. Nerney joined him on stage and made him a presentation of a massive crystal trophy and some local bog oak before joining him for a rousing and impromptu singalong of In the Summertime.
The Marquee in Drumlish festival makes a good point of honouring its local boys made good. Not only was Declan Nerney supporting his boyhood hero on the Friday night, but he was also playing after him, sending the dancers home sweating as he has done for the last number of years. On Saturday, fellow local boys made good, The Aftermath were doing the same thing, supporting and coming on after Ryan Sheridan. In all, close to 6,000 locals would attend all three shows at this most traditional of festivals. Like the bog oak presented to Big Tom McBride, this festival, this carnival, this jamboree will probably outlast us all. It’s a slice of an Ireland the rest of Ireland thought had disappeared, but it’s alive and kicking in the village of Drumlish and long may it last.