Celebrating 35 years of Féile An Phobail…

Tonight will be the closing concert for Féile An Phobail and tomorrow no doubt the Twittersphere and polemical radio shows will be ablaze with furious indignation. It’s incredible to think that Féile An Phobail is thirty-five years old this year and how far it has come in those thirty-five years.

I was born in the lower Falls in 1967 and in 1970 moved to a house in one of the housing estates clustered around the top of the Whiterock Road, the year before internment was introduced. I don’t remember internment itself but I certainly remember its effects, my father and some of his brothers being among the hundreds arrested and imprisoned without charge. Some for days, some weeks, some months and some years.

For as long as I could remember, internment was ‘commemorated’ with bonfires lit at midnight on the 8th of August and for tens of thousands of others like me in West Belfast these bonfires were to become a feature of our lives throughout the 1980s. I can’t remember an internment bonfire that wasn’t a beacon for negativity and anti-social behaviour with alcohol abuse rampant which would invariably end in stones, petrol and paint bombs and plastic bullets enormously violent rioting on a massive scale. Every year Sprinhgill Ave was like a shooting gallery where groups of rioting youths would take cover in the side streets off the Avenue while British soldiers from the nearby Henry Teggert barracks would decamp from Saracen armoured personnel carriers at JP Corry’s wall at the top of the Avenue and shoot scores of plastic bullets down the wide thoroughfare.

All that was to change in 1988.

The passing of time has dimmed my memory of Féile An Phobail’s inaugural year and I stand open to any correction but I do remember going to see the Basque rock band Hertzainak in the Conway Mill community complex in July or August of that year. I remember there being some community-based events and a smallish procession (to the Dunville Park?) which accompanied the usual anti-internment march but the most notable change was the almost total absence of the bonfires and the inevitable violence and anti-social behaviour which accompanied them.

RTÉ has a good video report on the first Féile An Phobail in 1988. 

1989 saw the construction of a corrugated iron compound on some vacant ground on the Springhill estate, which became Féile An Phobail’s concert sight for the next few years. The first gig I remember seeing here was the Wailers on the back of a flatbed lorry and Dublin musician Brush Shiels was a regular visitor. The new decade of the 90s saw festival events expand to local bars and clubs but the compound in Springill was still the main gig site with a £5 entrance fee to each event. The mid-nineties came and social housing was to be built on the vacant land at Springhill so a new concert venue had to be found with Beechmount Leisure Centre hosting some of the indoor gigs while Brian Kennedy, Mary Black, and Shane MacGowan and The Popes played an outdoor gig on the football pitches in 1998. A professional marquee was also erected on land at Kennedy Way industrial estate which also served as a concert venue. Beechmount and Kennedy Way were the first time I can remember Féile An Phobail events having full bar facilities.

While I’ve spoken here about the gigs, (some of the bands/artists I’ve seen at Féile An Phobail include the Wailers, the Beat, the Selecter, the Proclaimers, Hothouse Flowers, Christy Moore, mano Negra, Mary Black, Brian Kennedy, the Harlem Gospel Choir, Shane McGowan and the Popes, Afro Celt Sound System, the Asian Dub Foundation, the Fermin Muguruza Brigade Sound System, the Buzzcocks, Amparonoia, Alabama 3, the Stranglers, the Undertones), the Comedy Night was another favourite with particularly enjoyable performances from Dara Ó Briain and Jeremy Hardy.

However, for me, the absolute gem in Féile An Phobail’s crown is the hundreds of lectures, debates, exhibitions and discussions that take place. These are the community lifeblood that flows through Féile An Phobail’s veins, informative, immensely enjoyable and absolutely free. I’ve seen every shade of unionism and loyalism at these events as well as people like US film-maker Michael Moore, lawyers Michael Mansfield and Gareth Pierce and politician George Galloway. And just while we’re on the issue of free events, some criticism has been levelled against Féile An Phobail for some of its events pricing out the host community it’s based in, (the Brian Kennedy, Mary Black, and Shane MacGowan and The Popes gig I refer to above was the 11th festival and was the first to have a £10 entrance fee). There’s an element of truth in this but in this context in many ways Féile An Phobail is a victim of its own success. Féile An Phobail is an enormous undertaking with huge behind-the-scenes logistics and professional staff have to be paid,as do big name professional acts and the commercial needs to be balanced with the community. My own personal criticism would be bar prices, which I imagine are set by the brewery sponsors. I don’t think charging Belfast city centre bar prices at outdoor events in West Belfast is justifiable.

So there you have it, happy 35th Féile An Phobail, the festival that took the negative of us being a ‘terrorist community’ and turned it around to a phenomenally successful showcase of what we truly are and what we can achieve. And here’s to the next 35. It’ll be interesting to see if Féile An Phobail can utilise the new proposed Casement Park. Who knows what’s possible?

From strength to strength and divil the begrudgers.

Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger.

While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.