Garthmania hits Ireland

Garth Brooks in concert, 2013 Image copyright Reuters

Country music singer Garth Brooks starts a world tour this July with five sold-out concerts at Croke Park. That's 400,000 tickets - or nearly one for every 10 Irish citizens. Why does Ireland love Garth so much, asks comedian Colm O'Regan?

Depending on who you were talking to, the few weeks of announcements in late January and early February were a series of stages in the journey through the Rapture, or the Decline Of Civilisation In Ireland As We Know It. Garth Brooks was coming to town for the first time since the end of the last recession. First it was two concerts and as the days went it became three, then four, then five. "Go for six!" Shouted some. "ENOUGH OF THIS TORMENT!" said others.

Some of those shouting "stop" were the residents of the area near Croke Park in Dublin, where the five concerts are being held. They are currently locked in high-stakes negotiations with venue owners. If it doesn't go well, they are threatening to prevent the concerts. The country watches with interest. It's Ireland's version of the Fiscal Cliff.

If there isn't an agreement it's possible, though not likely, that the 10% of Ireland's adult population who have "tickets to Garth" are going to be extremely disappointed. One might imagine that as country music fans, perhaps they will throw a wry grin to the bartender, grab their hat and walk stoically to their pickup truck.

But don't bet on it. These are serious fans. Some are going to all the shows, some have camped out overnight to buy the tickets. They care not a whit for the sneering that has come their way from some of the more arch members of the Irish commentariat.

To understand the popularity of country music in Ireland, you would need to steer clear of the paid-a-fair-bit-for-their-hair-cut, dark-rimmed-glasses-wearing, "their-earlier-stuff-was-better"-spouting opinion-shapers and go right into the heart of the country. Where the motorways peter out into single carriageways.

I first realised it when I finished a gig at a venue in County Mayo a few years ago. In the room upstairs we had struggled to muster a crowd of maybe 50 or 60. They tolerated my observations on life with respectful silence.

Image copyright corbis
Image caption Dublin fans wait in line for Garth Brooks tickets

As I was leaving, I passed the door of "the big room" where about 10 times that number were clapping their hands in time to a man singing country music ballads. He wasn't even a big name like I am, but his take on life resonated far more with people than my nonsense.

The popularity of country music in Ireland is not surprising, says John Creedon, who presents a night-time music programme on RTE Radio 1.

"In essence a ballad is a story so, as a nation of storytellers, it's hardly surprising that the Irish are drawn to The Streets of Laredo and other country music ballads, particularly when so many of these stories of regular folk are set to melodies that originate on this side of the Atlantic, many of them Irish and Scottish tunes."

So Garth is really bringing it all back home. And he'll get a welcome. Siobhan Loughman from Dublin is a fan who is going to three of the shows. She has loved Garth Brooks for more than 20 years.

When she saw him back in Ireland, her boyfriend went with her, despite not being a fan, and now he is her husband. She was able to look past his flawed music taste and accept him for who he was. Rather like the men in Garth's songs.

I asked Siobhan if the hype about Garth is somehow a nostalgia for the last time he was here, in 1997, before Ireland's crazy boom and bust. This is typical of the kind of over-analysing question asked during the Garthmania and Siobhan gives it the length of shrift it deserves.

"No. I think it's because the shows were amazing 17 years ago. Even though he has aged and hasn't toured in a long time, his music is standing the test of time. The hits are still hits."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Garth Brooks came to Croke Park in January to announce his 2014 Dublin shows

But it's not just the hits. The fans I speak to talk about the connection he has with them. Creedon agrees: "Despite the scale of his shows, Garth Brooks, like Bruce Springsteen, has an 'everyman' image that transcends the hype and scale of his shows so that fans, rightly or wrongly, feel he is accessible in a way that Prince or The Rolling Stones never were."

Meanwhile Siobhan is looking forward to next July and seeing him three times. Was she tempted to go to every show? "I did think about it. But I thought three was enough. Five might have been a bit excessive."

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