Personal Blog of Mark Hoskins – Anarchist Writer and Community Organiser
There was a cinematic quality to Dublin on Monday evening. The streets were bathed in a kind of luminesscant sunlight, that was at once beautiful and eerie. On the 27 bus, the eerieness was amplified by large areas of shade, the outlines of which shifted as the bus passed up Dame St. It had the feeling of the beginning of an early film of La Nouvelle Vague where they’d colourised sections of the frame, and left the rest black and white for effect.
Stephanie, sitting beside me, was scrolling through the news on her phone. We’d just been at the Greyhound Waste lockout protest at City Hall. The workers and their supporters had marched through the city to demand an end to the lockout and a reversal of the threat of a 35% paycut.
There were two other protests outside the city council meeting that night. One of them, involving twelve people, demanded social housing to end the city’s accomodation crisis, the other, involving one man with a little sign, demanded the, then in jeopardy, then cancelled, five Garth Brooks concerts, be given the planning go ahead. Though the subjects of the first two protests are of critical importance for the people of Dublin, it was the Brooks issue that dominated the news on Stephanie’s phone.
“What the hell is wrong with this country?”, I pondered out loud. “Why is the whole country getting so worked up about some washed up country musician when the place is going down the toilet?” It wasn’t just now that this had become news. For the previous two weeks it had dominated the Newstalk Breakfast radio show, had been front page in both the Irish Times and Irish Independant and was a regular segment on the RTÉ Television news broadcasts.
“Maybe it’s some sort of mass psychosis”, Steph replied. “Like, maybe people just can’t think about the way things are, and if everyone deludes themselves in to thinking that this is important, then they don’t need to sit down and think about just how bad things are. I suppose, it’s quite easy to get angry about this, because it doesn’t really require doing anything that has any meaningful consequences. Like going on strike or whatever. They won’t think of how much they need to do to sort it out, they can just redirect their anger into this.” I thought it was a good summation of what was happening and proceeded to put it all in the back of my mind. As hard as it was, I was trying not to think of Garth Brooks.
The following day, it was announced that planning had only been granted for three of the five concerts that Aiken promotions had been selling tickets for. Reports came in that Brooks was sticking to his guns, saying five shows or no shows and the whole shebang was cancelled. The mainstream media and social media went into overdrive. I wondered if there had been such an incredible public response to the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand one hundred years earlier.
On social media, people were accusing those who objected to the five night run of concerts of costing the country fifty million euro – one commentator inflating that figure to “billions”. The division between town and country was in full view, as comments ranged from, labeling of objectors as ignorant, to pejoritive terms for working class Dubliners. The country’s economic recovery was being put in jeapordy. There could have been jobs, there could have been growth, Garth was coming to save us.
From there, the madness escalated. Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, obviously sensing an opportunity to gain a few popularity points, offered to step in and sort the whole mess. Dublin’s Lord Mayor, Christy Burke, told The Kildare Nationalist newspaper, that the concerts must go ahead “to save the nation from sorrow and misery”. He even talked about getting Barack Obama involved and hinted at an offer of help from the Mexican ambassador to Ireland. Why the Mexican ambassador was getting involved, I don’t know, but it seemed that the country was rapidly morphing into Craggy Island.
While opposition party, Fianna Fáil, renewed calls for emergency legislation to allow the government to overrule the city council’s planning decision (a decision that was based on legal agreements between the council, residents and the Gaelic Athletic Association), those who couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about, sank into despair. That’s no exaggeration, I’ve heard the word despair used several times and that’s how I feel every time I turn on the radio; Edvard Munch, paint me now.
If Stephanie’s assesment of the situation is correct, and I believe it is, it raises the questions; Why now? Why Garth Brooks? Have we reached some sort of psychological tipping point? In the absense of collective action against austerity, have people latched on to the first thing that hundreds of thousands have expressed a common interest in since the battle against the household tax? I think the third question can be answered in the affirmative, but for the answers to the first two, we must go deeper into the psyche of the nation, or at least that constituency to whom this means absolutely everything.
When tickets went on sale for the initial three concerts and rapidly sold out, I was astonished, as was almost everyone I know. Who knew Brooks was so popular? When a further two nights were announced, and the sales continued, we were scratching our heads. Most of the people I know who are under thirty didn’t even know who he was until then. Apart from one celebrity death hoax, I hadn’t heard anyone mention his name in almost two decades. It got me thinking about that time, when he was at the hight of his popularity.
It could have been 1993, it could have been 1994, all I know is I was drunk on a bus. It was a school trip or a sporting event, something or other where I had cause to be with thirty or forty other young lads my own age and a few of us had brought along some sneaky cans. We were singing pop songs, football songs, songs about being from Navan and whatever else we could think of, when, during a lull, one lad piped up with a few bars of “Friends in low places” by Garth Brooks. To my horror, people actually joined in, people my age were singing a country and western song. It wasn’t everyone though. These were the middle class boys, the ones whose fathers owned shops, pubs or factories. Some of them lived in the country, but they weren’t farmers. The farmers liked metal, the townies were into house and techno, ska and soul, indie or whatever was cool at the time.
These people, were the ones who’d gotten the shift to Garth Brooks at the local disco, who listened to him when they were letting their hair down after finishing the leaving cert. They, and the generation ahead of them had Brooks as part of the soundtrack to their years of passage from teen to adulthood. They took over the family business or set up their own, they went to college and became doctors or solicitors and got into property, because property, like Garth Brooks was big in those circles. It might have been a holiday home in Bulgaria, or it might have been multiple apartments to let, and even those who didn’t, bought into the ideology of the Celtic Tiger and the property boom.
In 1998, when the Celtic Tiger was in full swing, Garth Brooks sold out three shows in Croke Park. He’d played Ireland in 1994 and had received such a positive reception, he promised to return. When he did, he was met by a newly confident Irish fan base, a fan base for whom future prosperity was a sure thing. His brand of country pop was the sound of an imaginary American west, a land of prosperity, like Ireland. No one is saying it out loud, no one is thinking it out loud, but for those who basked in the glow of Ireland’s golden years, Garth Brooks is a symbol that signifies prosperity. The government and the media has been talking about a recovery that few can see, it just needs one final push, it needs Troyal Garth Brooks.
It needs people to come to see him from Athlone, Carrick on Shannon, Ballinasloe, Mallow, Nenagh and Templemore, and over five nights spend a few quid in shops, pubs and guest houses in Drumcondra, for the people who receive that money to go out in spend it in shops and pubs and restaurants, creating jobs, a snowball effect that will bring back the prosperity, the Bulgarian holiday homes, the cocaine and the champaign. That’s the theory anyway and with a little help from Enda Kenny, Barack Obama and the Mexican ambassador, it could still happen.
In 1987, another man who wore a stetson, returned. Bobby Ewing had been killed off in the popular soap opera, Dallas, and the following season saw the show plummet from second in the Nielsen ratings, to sixth. In a desperate attempt to revive the show, Bobby was brought back, his death and his subsequent absence for a whole year, was explained away as a lengthy dream on the part of his wife, Pam. Bobby was the human face of capitalism, a prosperous man with a conscience, a man who always tried to “do the right thing”. He was a foil to his unscrupulous brother, J.R., the character everyone loved to hate. Without Bobby, there was no balance to the show, no battle between good and evil. But bringing him back didn’t save Dallas. It was a ridiculous storyline that no one could believe.
The almost ten percent of the population who are clamouring to see Garth Brooks, the thousands more who are outraged enough at the loss of a few extra quid in the coffers up Drumcondra way, who believe that these concerts will bring the boom times back and that it is a matter of political significance, have put their faith in a story that is almost as ridiculous. The feelings of loss brought about by the end of prosperity, the feelings powerlessness to bring it back, have given rise to a psychosis of hope based on the return of a saviour. For the rest of us, who have to listen to the faithful preach, day in, day out, it heralds the pits of despair.
We despair that emergency legislation is being proposed to facilitate a few concerts, when it took twenty years to legislate for the X-Case; We despair that there are so many are roused by the prospect of a visiting country musician, when we are indentured with an odious debt that was created by bankers and speculators; We despair that the political establishment is clamouring to have their voices heard on this issue when there are nearly four hundred thousand unemployed, when the youth have emigrated to find jobs, when homelessness is soaring; And we despair that the Irish media has given so much air time, so many column inches to the whole fiasco, when the Palestinian people are being subjected to an onslaught of airstrikes by the state of Israel.
Mass delusion, misdirected anger and five nights of concerts won’t save the country from going down the toilet. Without actions with meaningful consequences, without thinking of what those actions might be, the inertia will continue. Garth Brooks has a lot of friends in Ireland right now, but it’s a very low place to be.