Music / June 14, 2021

Iveagh Gardens: Lame-duck events aren’t going to cut it

James Vincent McMorrow on stage at the Iveagh Gardens. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times
Music / June 14, 2021

Iveagh Gardens: Lame-duck events aren’t going to cut it

Words: Dylan Murphy

Despite all the optimism surrounding the return of live music, the government missed an opportunity to accelerate the return to normal gigs with their pilot event.

If there’s any silver lining in the past 15 months, it’s my reduced screen time on Twitter. With everything going on in the world, I didn’t need the additional negativity of the timeline ruining my evenings. So for the most part when I finish work, I log out of Twitter.

However, alongside pictures of terrible pints, there are other instances that require considered attention. Usually, my rule of thumb is to give myself a cooling-off period of a day or so and if I’m still angry I’ll return to it. You never want to be the one pissing on someone’s parade, but it’s been four days since James Vincent McMorrow headlined a 500 capacity gig in Iveagh Gardens and I still feel irate.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted for James Vincent McMorrow, Sorcha Richardson, their bands and the rest of the staff involved in the gig. Especially given many of them have been out of work completely for over a year. Additionally, I’m not questioning the validity of any punters experience either, I’m sure it was very emotional for a lot of people and they genuinely enjoyed getting to see live music for the first time in over a year. In fact, I think it’s essential that people get some sense of catharsis from live music, it’s long overdue.

But I’m still scratching my head as to what this ‘test event’ was testing. Attendees at the event were placed in separate pods of up to four people outdoors and were required to wear masks when not in their designated areas. There were no COVID tests beforehand and the rules were stricter than what we are seeing at the moment in wider society – more people can gather outdoors already than what was seen in the pilot event. Additionally, there was no alcohol on sale. Not that it is a dealbreaker, but I’m failing to see how the event replicates any normal conditions or provides any data or results moving forward.

We’re either ready for test events and should plough ahead with them in order to get results that can inform a return to the shows we all miss and love or we’re not, it’s really that simple.

5,000 capacity pilot event in Liverpool, with no masks or social distancing.

Spain’s first test event was in December of last year and saw 500 people undergo rapid covid tests. In the period since then, Barcelona was able to throw an even more ambitious 5,000 person event, testing all the attendees, getting the necessary negative results, then letting them crawl all over each other for a few hours only to return findings that there were “no sign” of higher levels of infection.

That was in March.

Fast forward to June and we have a blueprint provided by Spain and the UK, who had 5,000 attend a non-masked rave with no social distancing in Liverpool. It’s an easy home run, they don’t even need to go as far as 5,000 people, just use the international learning to provide an event that will give people hope for the future and an opportunity to obtain invaluable data that can be applied for more ambitious events if we have any hope of returning to any semblance of normality.

Socially distanced outdoor festivals were piloted in England in the summer of 2020

Speaking to RTE at the tail end of last week, Professor Paddy Mallon, a consultant in infectious disease said the event was a missed opportunity to use antigen testing. He said, “Although the overall risk is low in this setting, I’m surprised we’re not using this event as an opportunity to at least test feasibility, logistics of use of pre-event testing for these types of activities going forward, because obviously, as the months go on, we’re not always going to be able to do everything outdoors”.

To people saying “it’s a step in the right direction”, I’m not so sure.

These pilot events can’t be looked at in isolation. The pandemic doesn’t exist in a vacuum and even though there were seven other events planned, one of which will now no longer go ahead. The nightclub event in Jam Park has been canned and is yet to be rescheduled after we discovered earlier this month the venue became another in a long list of cultural hubs to close.

Moreover, the pilot events proposed cater to older, middle-class audiences. Music is experienced in a myriad of ways and enjoying it looks different to different people. For all the young people who sacrificed so much in the pandemic and missed out on their rite of passage to get drunk in a field with their mates once they leave school at the likes of Longitude they’ve been rewarded handsomely – with an opera gig in Limerick, an indoor Christy Moore show and their first chance of hitting a nightclub being axed.

If the Iveagh Gardens gig is anything to go by, I wouldn’t get excited at the prospect of the 3,500 capacity fully-seated day festival either.

Sure, it got a lot of people back in work for a day, which is great, but this type of event is not sustainable and the more I look at it, the pilot event at Iveagh Gardens appears to be a short-sighted PR exercise for a government that left an industry on its knees.

The half-assed approach provides more questions than answers. If Ireland’s epidemiological situation is secure enough to host test events and this is all we are getting, it is a missed opportunity. Conversely, if it is genuinely only safe to host events in an overbearing and hyper safe way then things are far worse than we imagined.

The optimist in me is glad we had live music even if it was in a strange sanitised version. However, given the lack of intent or desire to get any serviceable data our outdoor summer is looking increasingly toothless.