It’s one of the most iconic rock concert venues in the world, regularly attracting crowds of more than 80,000.
It is also one of the most heavily policed events in the country each year.
But forty years ago today when Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy headlined the first ever Slane Castle show, with U2 a down the bill act, things were very very different.
Below all those, performers, journalists, guards, fans and locals who were there on Sunday August 16th 1981 tell the story of the first gig that lit the torch for a cultural phenomenon.
Longford man Pat Farrelly is now a Garda juvenile liaison officer based at Trim station, in 1981 he was one of three Gardai stationed in Slane and incredibly he was given the day off!
He told Meath Live, ”There was another reason for that really, I was playing football with Slane that year and we were playing in the quarter final of the intermediate championship that same day so the Sergeant, John Clarke, told me I could have time off to play the game and sure I might as well go the concert when I was at it.
‘I actually remember the match better than the gig because even though we lost I scored a goal which was unusual as I was a defender.
‘It’s amazing when you look back how naïve everybody was about things, from memory there were just thirteen guards on duty all from the Louth/Meath division, and there was just the one arrest, a fellow got drunk and fell through the window of a pub.
‘He either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for it so he was brought in.
‘John Clarke ran the whole thing with, as I said, a bit of help from locally based guards and it all worked out fine.
‘There was some concern that republicans might form some kind of protest but basically it was a case of we’ll deal with whatever happens on the day, nothing like that actually did happen, and in hindsight maybe its just as well.’
Farrelly who went on to serve in the detective unit in Trim has been back since and accepts we live in different times.
‘I remember sitting on the hill looking down at Thin Lizzy and thinking that the field was so empty with plenty of space to move around that they had probably lost money and wouldn’t do it again.
‘Years later I was there for Robbie Williams and the place was so packed I had to say to myself, ‘Pat you called that one wrong’, and there were so many guards there I was left thinking how did we get away with what we had for Lizzy.
‘The answer of course is it was a different time a different era and nobody quite knew how to handle things, they certainly do now.’
Mick Toner was a guard in Drogheda and covered 18 Slane concerts including the first and says that most local cops had only one previous experience of covering such a large scale event albeit one where the star of the show had a far different fan base than Phil Lynott.
‘Two years before Lizzy played we had the Pope in Drogheda, there were 250,000 people at that gig but it was a little bit quieter than Slane!
‘That said it was the only time any of us would have policed such a large event and I’d say it coloured the thinking of the top brass who were organising the cover for Slane, there was an element of ‘Sure look we handled that crowd so we’ll manage whatever happens in Slane’, about it.
‘There was very little hassle either in the village or on the site and the other thing I remember is how easy going everything was, Lynott arrived in a helicopter right enough, but the guards and the acts mingled with each other and the fans were able to get back stage fairly freely.
‘I can’t say U2 stood out as a band but it was clear a large part of the audience were there for them they had a big fan base even then.
‘I was there for the riots at Dylan three years later and that changed the policing strategy forever, I liked Lizzy but the one act that stood out for me at Slane was Springstein.
‘For the first one I wouldn’t quite say we made things up as we went along but it was a little bit like that.’
As a marker of how things are done differently now, a Garda spokesperson said, ‘From very low levels of policing from the first concerts in 1981, the number of Gardaí deployed currently averages around 400, comprising of regular uniformed members, supported by specialist members including Detective Branch, Drugs Unit, Water Unit, Dog Unit, Mounted Unit and Air Support and Public Order Unit, as required.
‘The largest deployment of Gardaí for a single concert was at Eminem in 2013 when 750 Gardaí were deployed.
‘Local Meath resources will be supplemented by Garda Resources from across the wider Eastern Region and Dublin Region predominately’.
Dragons Den TV star Gavin Duffy was at the initial show and recalls getting an elocution lesson from the Thin Lizzy front man.
‘I was working for a pirate station, remember them, in Drogheda called Boyneside Radio, and had arranged to meet Phil after the gig, in fact he spoke to me straight after he got off the stage and after the formal introduction he immediately corrected me and said ‘It is LY nott, not LYNN ott’, so that was me told.
‘Certainly it was access all areas and nobody really checked your credentials, the other thing I remember is that I was 21 at the time, the same age as Bono and being jealous that he seemed to attract a queue of young lovely young ladies while I didn’t..
‘And he managed to do that while wearing an outfit, including a cowboy hat, that made him look like a Nashville country star rather than a rock icon.’
Newstalk news reader Ken Murray, was also with Boyneside and he has a recollection of an unspoken but underlying fear of an IRA attack on the venue.
‘You have to remember that the hunger strikes were going on, the last man to die, Mickey Devine, passed away four days after the show.
‘So there was a genuine concern that a gig being held by what was seen as a British Lord, in his castle could have been a prime target for an attack.
‘There may well have even been a death threat or two phoned in during the lead up, so there was an undoubted tension underneath everything.
‘The security was non existent anyone could walk backstage, anyone could go anywhere, when you look at it now you have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get press accreditation’.
At least one of the acts discovered the hard way just how slack security was on the day.
Hazel O’Connor was the main support act and had to deal with troublesome fans before she even went on stage.
She remembers, ”This was the first event of its kind and nobody really knew how to run it something I found out the hard way.
‘The dressing rooms for the acts were a series of caravans and mobile homes assembled behind the stage but the problem was anyone could get to where they were.
‘The security was a bunch of local men who armed themselves with sticks but were reluctant to use them!
‘As I was getting changed the window on the caravan started to slide down and I could see a guy trying to clamber through it, now I assumed he was a fan who wouldn’t harm me but I wasn’t prepared to take any chances.
‘Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you I am a fairly straightforward woman, I will tell you what I think, so I turned to this bloke whose head was now through the window and said, ‘F***K OFF just F**** OFF at the top of my voice.
‘The poor lad actually fell back out the window with the fright of me screaming at him, but it was incredible that he could get there in the first place.’
O’Connors next problem was food.
Or to be precise how to get to where she was due to be fed.
She recalls, ‘ The performers were being fed in the Castle itself, and I am sure it was a lovely spread but I never got near it.
‘At the time I was a very popular act and fans always wanted a piece of me, and I mean that literally, they wouldn’t be shy in coming up and touching me, okay it wasn’t done aggressively, but it wasn’t easy to deal with.
‘So when I finished my set I was faced with problem number two. The only way I could get from backstage to the grub was to walk through the crowd and that would have been dangerous, I looked around for the security guys but there was none to be seen so I gave up on the idea.
‘I ended up going for a walk along the river behind the stage to calm down after the show and I bummed a sandwich from a couple having a picnic!’
Following her performance Hazel went on holiday and ended up with yet another food related dilemma.
‘My mate and I went camping in Ballybunion, County Kerry, well that was the intention but we had to change our plan when we got there.
‘What I’d say was the only punk rocker in Ballybunion spotted me at the tent and rounded up a crew to come and see us.
‘We started walking down the town and they followed us so we ducked into a restaurant but they saw where we went and came in after us.
‘We were in a table in the very far corner and I noticed that they were going from table to table staring at diners to see if it was me!
‘Eventually they got to where we were by which point I had slid under the table to try and hide but they copped me so I had to come out and make an excuse that I was looking for some money I had dropped.
‘They chatted with us and left but I decided that as they knew where the tent was they’d be there all night and we’d get no rest so I spent some of my Slane fee on a nice hotel in Ballybunion and we took the tent down the next day.’
The first voice ever heard on a Slane stage belonged to Australian Gary ‘Angry’ Anderson lead singer with a band called Rose Tattoo.
He remembers the shock he felt when their manager first told them they had the gig.
‘We were like, A f****n castle who asks Rose Tatto to a castle’, but when we got there it was just great, the guy Henry who owned the place was lovely he was more rocker than Lord of the manor, and the gig went well.
‘Seeing all the big names that have played there since it is actually nice to have been the very first, there can only ever be one first so yeah that’s nice.’
Andersons post Slane life has, sadly, been marred by tragedy.
In November 2018 his son Liam was beaten to death by his friend Matthew Flame in the Sydney suburb of Queenscliff.
Flame, who was high on drugs at the time, received a minimum five year sentence for manslaughter.
Gary will only say, ‘Three years ago our Liams life was taken……………………it was taken, and three years ago we started a lifetime sentence.’
He prefers to recall the good times.
‘At the time Slane was just another gig but looking back yeah it was special to be the first and now that you got me thinking about it the crowd just went for it when we started.
”I can’t imagine we had a lot of Irish fans, the crowd was there for Lizzy and U2 really but they got into it as soon as we started, it’s a fairly special venue when you are looking down from the stage at a sea of faces.’
Belfast heavy metal band, Sweet Savage, followed Anderson and their front man Ray Haller has an interesting insight.
‘It was brilliant for us but basically it was what it said on the tin, some bands playing in a field that had a stage at the end of it.
‘The following year when the Stones played we were meant to do it again but Paddy Moloney from the Chieftains was friends with Jagger and they got the gig.
‘I went down and it was completely different from the year before it had changed from being a concert into being a festival, and I was left thinking that I’d love to have played it again.
‘Henry Mountcharles had the venue and the idea but for me the promoter Denis Desmond had the vision, he saw Ireland was ready for its own Glastonbury and how right he was.’
Jimmy Smyth, from nearby Navan, was the front man of the Bogey Boys, an acclaimed rock group of the time, and he was there as a guest of Phil Lynott.
‘It was unbelievably laid back in every way, The Bogey’s had played a big rock festival in Dalymount two years earlier and that had all the trappings of a proper festival, back stage passes, security the whole works.
‘Slane on the other hand was, shall we say, different. Myself and the boys were having a beer back stage and a friend of ours from Navan, Davey, ‘Gooser’ McGoona spotted us from the far side of the river.
‘We signalled him to come over, expecting him to walk round the long way and join us but Gooser had other ideas and just jumped in the Boyne swam across shook himself down and had a drink with us.
‘Did anyone try and stop him? No. Did anyone challenge him as to whether he had any business back stage? No. Gooser just swam over strolled up and had a drink with the shows main star,
‘That my friend is how laid back it was.
‘I guess people were trusted to behave themselves and not cause a problem and that is exactly what they did.
‘You have heard of organised chaos well this was disorganised chaos but it was fun, great fun.’
There was one outbreak of violence though, photographer Andy Spearman recalls being caught up in the middle of it.
‘I was at the front of the stage working when U2 were on and some clowns started lobbing bottles at them.
‘Bono stopped singing and said, ‘Behave yourself the media are here and they just want bad news stories’, he meant well but all that succeeded in doing was change the direction of the bottles they started throwing them at the photographers and one fell short but hit a woman on the head and knocked her out cold, there was no security to be seen but they eventually either ran out of bottles or got fed up.’
In this day and age it is possible to buy every possible variety of burgers and chips at the site while food and drink is readily available in the village.
Like almost every thing else this was different back in the day.
Ollie Hoey was a barman in Kelly’s pub and his main recollection is of a rising sense of panic on the day before the gig when staff began to realise there had been a serious flaw in their preparations.
He said, ‘ You have to remember nobody knew what to expect, this was new to everybody in what was a small village, and in the pub I was working in we didn’t know exactly what we might need, we thought we had planned for every eventuality but on the Saturday we found out we hadn’t.
‘Around four o clock that afternoon it began to dawn on us that we were running out of beer, which as you can imagine, was a major problem with the pub absolutely jammed and it was still twenty four hours before the gig.
‘So Mick Kelly the owner had to do a tour of neighbouring villages like Collon and Duleek to borrow kegs of beer cans, bottles, anything alcoholic he could get.
‘He also had to try and get, crisps and packets of fries because the punters were hungry as well as thirsty.
‘A lot of people from Slane made a right few quid from selling sandwiches and even charging for allowing motor bikes and cycles to be parked in their front gardens.
‘The general belief around the place afterwards was it was enjoyable but it was a once off, the following year the Stones arrived and we had lift off!’
Things have never quite been the same since.