Off to the Marquee in Drumlish…

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…

The Light­house Fam­ily… Mar­quee in Drum­lish cloakroom

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.

Declan Ner­ney wel­comes Big Tom & The Main­lin­ers to Drumlish

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.

Big Tom at the Mar­quee. No need for inter­nal dress­ing here

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.

Ner­ney joins Big Tom for the last song

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.

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