It was billed as an ‘earth shattering dance celebration’, but in the end it barely warranted a tremble.
On Saturday September 30, 1995 (25 years ago today), Tribal Gathering Ireland was supposed to take place at Cavan Equestrian Centre, with a lineup boasting the best of Irish and international talent – as well as headline acts such as The Prodigy, The Orb, Carl Cox and David Holmes, the event was also due to play host to an Essential Selection Tour stage, featuring Paul Oakenfold, Sasha and Pete Tong.
Except it never happened, with the planned shindig scuppered by the local authorities just two weeks before the event was scheduled to take place.
However, the writing may have been on the wall some time before that, with the original venue of Rostalla House Farm in Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath having been spiked a few weeks earlier by local residents.
Following on from the success of Tribal Gathering in the UK, which in May 1995 played host to its third outing – Orbital, The Prodigy, Moby, Chemical Brothers and Plastikman among the headliners – the organisers had high hopes for their inaugural jaunt across the Irish Sea.
‘Tribal Gathering 95 will be Ireland’s first ever legal all night outdoor dance party,’ an enthusiastic preview put it that summer. ‘A 17-hour mesmerising musical marathon set on a panoramic 10-acre site near Mullingar, 70 miles west of Dublin in the beautiful Westmeath countryside.
‘With your support, we plan to make this an annual event. We will be erecting four of Europe’s largest circus tents and filling them with state of the art productions, including crystal clear quadraphonic turbo sound, ultra high tech lighting, lasers and different themed decoration in each tent. […] Commence countdown and prepare yourself for an exhilirating voyage into house hyperspace and beyond, at Ireland’s most outrageous, orgasmic organic orgy of underground dance music ever’.
Having already worked on three successful UK editions, the event saw Tribal Gathering pioneers Universe again team up with Vince Power’s Mean Fiddler organisation, the team behind the Reading and Phoenix festivals, as well as the annual Fleadh event in London.
“What we’re aiming for is a set-up similar to the Tribal Gathering which took place earlier this year in Oxfordshire, and attracted 25,000 people,” Universe’s Andy Bloor told Hot Press at the time.
“Basically we’ll be producing the show with the Mean Fiddler taking care of the site and providing the technical know-how. We’ve taken a look at the Irish scene and the impression we get is that people are desperate for this sort of thing to happen.”
Mean Fiddler’s Melvin Benn, now the managing director of Electric Picnic organisers Festival Republic, was similarly confident, telling the music paper that the Gardaí and local authorities had been “extremely co-operative” in the planning for the event.
“[Rostalla House] is obviously rural, yet relatively well-serviced by road, and we’re leasing with the dozen or so residents living nearby to make sure any fears they have are allayed,” he said. “Vince Power’s attitude is that he’d like the Tribal Gathering to become a regular event in Ireland, so it’s in everyone’s interest that we get it right first time.”
The dance music press were similarly enthused, with M8 running an extensive preview feature – the publication was set to be one of the organisers of the Planet of the Cyberpunks tent, featuring hardcore legends Lenny Dee, Technotrance, Dougal & Vibes and Mikey B.
“Make sure you get a ticket soon, or you might be left campin’ in the ditch outside,” they wrote. “This is the chance for the Irish techno fiends to show us how they can party hard, and party long!”
However, the tragic death of 19-year-old Stephen McMillan at the Dance Nation event in the Point Depot in June 1995 (not to mention a young woman sustaining serious injuries as she fell from a balcony) would cast a negative spotlight on the dance scene that summer, and raise questions about the viability of large-scale dance events.
As then Minister for Justice Nora Owen told the Dáil, “It is important that we learn the facts as to what occurred at this Dance Nation function, as it was called.
“The dance was advertised in the Point Depot, which is licensed for public dancing. It was a fully licensed dance rather than the so-called unlicensed rave discos about which we are aware. Supervision and medical personnel were in attendance at the event. I will await the Garda report and will then take the necessary action.”
Tabloid coverage about illicit raves in the Irish countryside can’t have helped the event’s cause either – a Spiral Tribe event in September 1992 earned page 3 coverage in the Sunday World, bearing the sensationalist headline UK Cult Plans Marathon Open-Air Irish Rave.
Following Tribal Gathering’s relocation from Westmeath to Cavan, the line-up was trimmed down, with the cut-off time moved forward to 4am (instead of the original 7am), but this wasn’t enough to satisfy local authorities.
On 12 September, following the decision that Tribal Gathering would not go ahead, Mean Fiddler issued a statement, blaming a refusal to grant planing permission on the hostile reaction from the Cavan County Council and the Gardaí to “the kind of people who they thought might come to the event”.
They said that the ruling discriminated against dance music, arguing that the festival would not have required planning permission if it was a country and western show – in fact, the Cavan venue had been used as a musical venue in the past, with no need for planning permission.
“The Mean Fiddler have big Irish roots and so it seemed that this could work – but then it just fizzled away,” Universe’s Alon Shulman told 909originals.
It would be four years since Ireland got to sample a proper dance music festival, with the arrival of Homelands Ireland in 1999.
But for the local authorities in Westmeath and Cavan, Ireland might have had a few Tribal Gatherings under its belt by that stage.