For the first seven years (1991-1997) the work of organizing the festival was borne mainly by Martin Cooney, a local man and an outstanding bluegrass 5-string banjo player who was the founder and leader of The Flint Hill Boys.
Current festival organiser Tony O’Brien remembers the origins of the festival this way …
“A bluegrass band called The Flint Hill Boys was formed in Athy in the late 1980s and played a regular session in The Smuggler’s Bar in the town. The owner, Dave Henshaw, was on the council and they were looking for a theme for a festival and hence The Athy Bluegrass Festival started in 1991.”
Richard Hawkins banjo player with Irish bluegrass music quartet, Woodbine, recalls aspects of that first festival ….
“I can remember that the New Blue Velvet Band (Jim Rooney, Bill Keith, Eric Weissberg, Kenny Kosek), Homer Ledford and the Cabin Creek Band from the Lexington area of Kentucky, and there were hay-bales, a busking competition, and an open mic stage in the centre of town. Butch Waller’s High Country from California were there in addition to the host band, Athy’s own Flint Hill Boys.”
We asked Tony about their habit of always booking a US-based band for the festival.
“We have always strived to have a US band on the bill because they draw the biggest crowds. We have had bands such as The Bluegrass Patriots, Butch Waller & High Country, Homer Ledford & Cabin Creek, Bob Paisley & Southern Grass, Sam Wilson & The Kentucky Cardinals, Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, Special Consensus, Patuxent Partners, The Lynn Morris Band, High Plains Tradition, Dede Wyland & Potomac Crossing, Bill Keith & The Blue Velvet Band, and individuals Gary Ferguson, who has played the festival with various partners several times, and Sharon Cort.”
While having a US band on the bill is the desired objective it has not always been possible. For example from 1998 – O’Brien’s first festival – through to 2004, inclusive, only one US band played at Athy; the Bluegrass Patriots, while Pete and Joan Wernick performed as a duo. Sharon Cort participated in 2001.
Other European acts that shone during this era are the English bluegrass veterans Pete Stanley and Brian Golbey (in 1999 and 2000); Andy Glandt’s Fox Tower Band from Germany (1999); 4 Wheel Drive (Netherlands) (in 2001 and 2002); the Blue Grass Boogiemen (Netherlands) (2003); Red Wine (Italy) and Monogram (Czech Republic) (both were present in 2004).
Then in the recent recession-hit years, 4 Wheel Drive and the New Essex Bluegrass Band (Great Britain) have been headliners.
Naturally sponsorship has been varied during the years. O’Brien again ….
“Sponsorship has been good at times and none existing at other times. The Kildare County Council and Athy Town Council has been good to us over the years. We had the local Suzuki dealer on board for three years which was a great help, and a few of the local businesses have helped out a lot.”
How has the recession affected you?
“It hasn’t really affected us all that much as we have a very loyal following to which we are very grateful.”
Just before the recession hit, the July 2008 festival was, according to Hawkins “a red letter year” ….
“Though Greg Cahill has brought Special Consensus to Ireland many times since 1995, this was the only time the band has played at the Athy festival. High Country from California were also on the bill, not to mention Leroy Mack, so it was something of a red-letter year.”
Tony, in what ways has the Athy bluegrass festival affected bluegrass music in Ireland generally?
“Athy was the first ever bluegrass festival in Ireland and was the fore-runner to all the other festivals to have started since.
I have helped with the setting up of other festivals such as Bruff, Co Limerick, Balla, Co Mayo. Ardara, Co Donegal, Mohill, Co Leitrim, and The Dunmore-East festival, Co Waterford, and The Omagh festival in the Ulster-American Folk Park were a direct result of the Athy festival.”
Hawkins stresses ….
“It’s important to note that right from the first it has had an effect throughout the island. Northern Ireland has some of the most dedicated bluegrass enthusiasts in Ireland, and the attendance of Northern fans and Northern bands at Athy (and at other bluegrass events in the ‘South’) has always been good. One of the immediate results of the first Athy festival was that Mel Corry, Sean McKerr, Pete Toman, and Charlie McGorran from County Armagh (Northern Ireland) came away from it and formed a band that played at the second Athy festival. The first Appalachian and Bluegrass Music Festival in the Ulster American Folk Park at Omagh was held in 1992 (the year after the first Athy festival); that, of course, had a very direct effect on bluegrass in Northern Ireland, and I don’t doubt that as Tony says it was a result of the holding of a successful festival at Athy.”
Tony, what have been your personal highlights during the years of the festival?
“There has been many highlights over the years but if I were to pick one or two they would be the Gospel sets performed by The Bluegrass Patriots and High Plains Tradition.
Other highlights were the many fine European bands like 4Wheel Drive, The Blue Grass Boogiemen, Red Wine, Fox Tower, Monogram, New Essex Bluegrass Band and Grassroots who have played the festival. We have also given a platform for every bluegrass band that was formed in Ireland to perform at the festival.
We/I run the festival for the love of bluegrass music. It’s always been for the musicians and the fans on an un-commercial basis.”
To celebrate the event, O’Brien says …..
“We are marking the occasion with an ‘Absent Friends’ show on the Saturday from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., and also having 4 Wheel Drive as they have played the festival more than any other band due to their popularity here.”
Athy is a Heritage town in south Kildare, situated on the River Barrow, less than 50 miles away from Dublin, and with easy access to the airport and seaports of Rosslare and Dublin. It is a principal business and commercial town and the main growth centre in southern County Kildare.