Slane: Behind the velvet rope
As 80,000 pile into Slane this weekend, there's a place most of them won't get near. Concert veteran Colm O'Hare on the highs and lows of the coveted VIP area
Along with the 80,000 or so rock fans who will stream into the grounds of Slane Castle tomorrow to see the Kings of Leon, will be a smaller, more exclusive group, not all there for the music.
You won't find these folk enduring long queues at the main entrance or crowding around concession stands in search of burgers and beer. They will enjoy their own private entrance into the castle compound, with VIP parking and five-star catering facilities on hand. Some might arrive by helicopter.
These are the VIPs, the "special" people, lucky enough to be guests of Henry Mountcharles, 8th Marquess Conyngham (Lord Henry to you!)
Over the years, the VIP area at Slane has come to resemble a sort of a rock'n'roll version of the queen's annual garden party. And with the castle perched high on a hilltop, overlooking the concert site, VIPs at Slane are afforded the privilege of, literally, looking down on the great unwashed, as they scramble for space on the slopes.
As a paying punter in the early days, I can clearly remember a strong sense of envy towards those in the VIP section.
When Bruce Springsteen performed in 1985 I can recall peering through the fence, spotting the likes of Elvis Costello, Pete Townshend and several members of Spandau Ballet, swanning around in spacious luxury under the shade of the castle, while the rest of us melted in the uncharacteristic heat.
How fantastic it must be to be to be among them, I thought. Eventually, I would have the opportunity to join them -- all in the name of work of course!
So, what's it really like inside the VIP compound?
Well, for a start, there are the expected creature comforts such as clean loos with no queues, uncrowded bar and catering facilities and a fantastic view of the stage.
And it's hard not to feel just a little bit smug, gazing out over the vast mass of humanity gathered on the slopes. But there is an element of I-am-not-worthy guilt involved, a, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sort of feeling, if you get my drift.
VIPs are not a homogenous group and come in many shapes and sizes. There's the usual mix of television and radio personalities, musicians, politicians, models and hangers-on.
Then there are the event junkies, a sub-group of well-connected people whose sole purpose in life appears to involve turning up at high-profile occasions to see and be seen.
A much smaller group are the relatives and friends of Lord Henry himself, easy to spot in hunting and fishing tweeds and landed gentry look.
And finally, there are the hardened hacks, usually music journos, with the odd record company rep among them, usually found gathered together in close proximity to the bar. A world-weary lot, they've seen it all before and generally affect a sort of studied indifference.
But not all VIPs are created equal and even within the hospitality area, there are various hierarchies and levels of access, some clearly demarcated but others much more subtle.
At the top are those with entry to the castle itself, where the hospitality is gold-plated (many's the hapless VIP who marched confidently up the castle steps only to discover their wristband was the wrong colour or their laminated pass didn't have the requisite number of gold stars).
The high point in Slane's history as far as VIPs and famous names are concerned came with U2's triumphant homecoming in 2001. It had been 20 years since they'd first played Slane as support to Thin Lizzy. In the intervening years they had become the world's biggest rock band.
Slane was the hottest ticket of that year and the castle compound was filled with A-listers. Just some of those present on that memorable day included actors Woody Harrelson and John Hurt, the then Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam, comedian Lee Evans, Natalie Imbruglia and Eddie Irvine along with virtually every well-known Irish musician including Ronan Keating, Samantha Mumba, Paul Brady, Paddy Moloney, Ronnie Drew and Neil Hannon.
But you never really know who you might bump into at Slane. I once spotted the late Gerry Ryan, deep in conversation with REM bassist Mike Mills, while on another occasion I found myself in the company of Sinn Fein Press Officer Danny Morrison, who, I was stunned to discover, was a close friend of Henry Mountcharles!
My own personal highlight at Slane was in managing to blag a backstage artist pass for Neil Young's headlining slot in 1993.
These passes, which offered unrivalled access to the stage and band hospitality area, came courtesy of Neil's father, Scott Young, who just happened to be living in Howth at the time, next door to my sister!
Sadly, being a VIP these days is not what it used to be. In fact, anyone can be a VIP once they're prepared to pay. VIP packages are now a key element of any festival or concert. For the most recent Slane bash featuring Oasis, the VIP package promised "panoramic views of the concert and grounds, from individual grandstand seating, VIP parking next to the Castle and a selection of some of the tastiest food and treats from the Champagne Restaurant, BBQ Food Court and Coffee Dock, along with a VIP bar in the garden".
Not bad for a couple of hundred quid and, if you were really lucky on the night, you might even have managed to avoid the terminally bland Oasis!