The Kilkenny Beer Festival

Heading for the tents

By John Fitzgerald

The craic to end all craics. That was the Kilkenny Beer Festival… one of the biggest and brightest projects of its kind ever attempted in Ireland. Its main instigator was a Mr. Bill Finnegan, who was elected Chairman of the Festival committee that helped to organise the Marble City’s annual booze-up and carnival-style outpouring of joy and hoopla that became world famous.

Inspired by a similar event in Munich, Germany, Kilkenny’s first beer festival was held from May 10th to May 18th 1964.

Mr. Finnegan had promised that he and his committee would give Kilkenny a week to remember…and he kept his pledge (well, more or less). A German band was flown over from Bavaria to join local bands that would play into the early hours of each morning for the duration of the festival.

What a week it turned out to be. Almost 200,000 people converged on the city. An estimated 50,000 of these passed through the hectic beer tent that accommodated up to 6,000 drinkers at a time if you included standing room.

Smithwicks provided a special brew for the occasion, a lighter beer to suit the drinking taste- and capacity- of men and women not accustomed to wielding double pint glasses of the type used in Munich.

Nobody who sat at a table in the palatial beer tent – or took his tankard of ale standing- has ever forgotten the helter-skelter atmosphere of the nightly sessions. Or the dazzlingly colourful Bavarian costumes that the musicians wore. The band played heart-stirring tunes and haunting melodies, to which the teeming crowds swayed, clapped, and sang. The clinking of glasses became an integral part of the music sessions.

Among the favourites were Roll out the Barrel and Lily Marlene. There was no shortage of beer. Smiling maidens in pretty Germanic attire and dainty aprons swirled about the tent with glasses of frothy ale to keep sobriety at bay and the lads and lassies well tanked up. Their winning ways worked well with the male section of the swaying throng.

They loved the sight and texture of the barmaids who swished past or hovered over them. Attempts to grab the women were gently and laughingly brushed off. Passions had to be suppressed. Wives and girlfriends eyed their men jealously as the lads gaped lasciviously at the imitation Frauleins who really looked the part.

As the night wore on, the mood changed and oscillated as laughter mingled with argument and sobbing; and wild, joyous singing was punctuated by spontaneous though often confused outbursts of melancholy whistling or crooning of sad ballads by severely “under the weather” drinkers. Tears flowed, but these were tears of release and nostalgia. Feelings of gloom and doom had been washed away by rivers of soothing alcohol.

And the patrons of this mega-boozing session hailed from all walks of life. Hitchhiking students and seasoned pub philosophers rubbed shoulders with well-heeled businessmen, off-duty clerics, female office workers and “society people.” A truly democratic drinking experience.

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the city, Kilkenny Castle courtyard echoed to the steps of Bavarian-style folk dancers. Their costumes recalled a more innocent age when maidens and sturdy young fellows danced at the crossroads or in the middle of rustic villages. Accordion music accompanied their elegant homage to the past.

The dancers spilled out of the courtyard onto the Parade and into the network of City streets. Street lighting illuminated their impeccable impromptu performances. Crowds gathered wherever they danced. Delighted revelers lined the footpaths to admire the splash of colour, a rare musical treat, and breath- taking choreography.

Singing and dancing erupted all over the City. Ballad groups played at every street corner, wooing the inebriated crowds with their banjos, guitars, tin whistles, and accordions. Hearty shrieks of “Fine Gerrl Y’are” electrified the already highly charged atmosphere. Continental visitors misconstrued these throaty allusions to the quintessential Irish Colleen as Celtic greetings and ancient Irish battle cries.

(Pictures show: heading for the tents, revelers, and festival dignitaries…)

To be continued…

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