This article originally appeared in the print edition of the Irish Independent on September 2nd 2014.
More than 40,000 people descended on Stradbally, Co Laois this past weekend for the Electric Picnic, tents in hand and ready for a three day drinking party. They were willing to forgive the dank mist and grey rolling skies on Friday morning, utterly unbothered by squelching mud paths stretching from campsites to the arena.
I arrived early with a friend, gazing at the sky with a sense of foreboding and preparing myself for the dread of The Portaloo. After the business of tent pitching, we headed to the arena, but while others went to party, we went to work, serving at a bar. Like many staffing the bars we were volunteers, raising money for causes and joining in the festival fun when we had a chance.
Electric Picnic as a sober person is, well, sobering- and the view from the bar offered a sharp slap of perspective.
The pictures in the newspapers don’t tell you the full story, of people coming a cropper on the roots of trees in the dark and children exposed to dangerous, riotous drunkenness, the result of a drink culture that makes people reckless and stupid. The photos look beautiful, but the portaloos covered in excrement and vomit, the men lined up at walls urinating in front of children and the thousands and thousands of empty cups littering the grass all tell a different story. There is a darkness to Electric Picnic.
Throughout the weekend, I mildly refused suggestions of discounts, free pints and kisses (among other things). I got to know some revellers quite well, because they returned to the bar like clockwork every twenty minutes. I watched them stumble across the grass, tripping over their own wellies and spilling the pint they had just paid €6 for. Easy come, easy go.
I didn’t have to make any active effort to sell copious amounts of alcohol- in fact, it was unusual for a person to order merely one pint. The idea of not having a drink in hand at all times seemed inconceivable to most people. A 125ml plastic flute of Prosecco sold for the extortionate price of €7.50 and festival attendees lapped it up. Fifty euro notes rolled in and thousands of gallons of alcohol poured out. Plenty of bar-goers complained at the €6 cost of a pint- but not one person in thousands turned it down. Not one.
We were overworked, slipping in the mix of mud and spilled drinks inside the bar, calculating quick maths in our head as we served one person every five to ten seconds. 90% of people who came to the bar were a total joy, full of cheer and good craic, chatty and polite- but a minority were simply horrible, bullying staff into breaking regulations about bottles, lids and serving requirements. Several people refused to leave the bar unless they got their own way and one or two offered me ‘extra money’ to break the rules, throwing temper tantrums that belong in primary schools.
It would have been incredibly easy to buy drink for the multitudes of under-agers at the festival, simply because the crowds were so huge and the bars so busy. I worried, in my sobriety, for the thousands of girls walking the grass in the pitch dark wearing very little in the freezing cold. I worried at how fragile they seemed, how easy it would be for just one person to prey on them. I worried for the 18 year old ‘men’, lost and wandering the campsite, completely unaware of the streams and dark ditches on the sides of the paths, stumbling into danger.
I settled in on Sunday evening to see St Vincent, where I laughed with a friend about an extremely drunk man who was dancing to his own party, oblivious of the world around him and almost unable to stand. That didn’t stop him from slapping women’s arses as they walked past- and fearful, they simply moved on without saying anything. He teetered close to a picnic blanket that served as a base for three small children- one still in nappies- who played chasing in the dark of the tent. Mom and Dad were close by, but I winced every time I saw bigger feet come close to trampling them in the grass. Meanwhile, festival-goers holding their children’s hands became irate when bouncers denied them access to the bar.
My bar manager was extremely surprised on Sunday when I turned down her offer of free pints at the end of my shift. She couldn’t understand why, at 6pm on a Sunday, a person wouldn’t want to unwind with a drink.