Camille O’Sullivan made her way to the stage, a blend of nerves and excitement. It was the first time the Irish singer had performed live in front of a crowd in more than 18 months, her touring schedule thwarted by pandemic enforced restrictions. “It is great to be back,” she said on multiple occasions.

And no one among the 400 strong crowd who had gathered at Johnstown castle, the picturesque Wexford estate that has just reopened after a €7.5 million investment, doubted the sincerity of her words. Most of those in attendance were equally happy just to be out once again.

The face that O’Sullivan was performing the inaugural Castle Lake Arts Festival, a celebration of theatre, music and the arts, says much about the journey Ireland has undergone in recent months, as the vaccination numbers have been increased and the restrictions eased. But it also highlighted what has been missing.

But live entertainment continues to move slowly in Ireland compared to other jurisdictions. This week there was more anger in the sector when it was reported that Catherine Martin, the minister responsible, had asked to be invited to the meeting of the cabinet’s Covid sub-committee but she was rebuffed.

For those in the live entertainment sector it was another reminder of how they had been forgotten.

Camille O’Sullivan performs at the Castle Lake Festival. Photo: Patrick Browne

This summer Ireland’s performers believed they had weathered the Covid storm? As the country reopened, they could look forward to performing again, cautiously and safely. Instead, while other countries have moved ahead, they are still looking for an indication that live entertainment can return. They still don’t know what world they will return to. They still don’t know if they can get their old lives back. And they still don’t know how many will be driven from the entertainment industry for good.


Irish singer Julie Hough and her ethereal rock band HAVVK were excited to release their album in early 2020 and go on tour. Then Covid-19 landed in Ireland and with that, stage lights went out, and live performances were put on hold indefinitely.

After some time passed, HAVVK chose to push ahead and release what they were working on, as it was unclear when the threat of Covid-19 would be gone. So, they did it remotely. Getting their music out to fans wasn’t the main problem though, it was finding a way to connect with them.

“Releasing music this year has felt almost like you’re really doing it into a vacuum. You’re really depending on social media more than ever. That kind of gave me, and I know other musicians who I’ve spoken to, a warped sense of who’s really hearing this,” says Hough.

“What I’m really missing is the reward of playing for people and listening to my friends play as well and hearing new music, because that really reminds you why you’re doing it,” she continues.

HAVVK has been able to do some stripped-back music sessions on social media, but this wasn’t sustainable as the music they were publishing on these platforms wasn’t true to the band’s sound. Plus, having neighbours meant it was difficult to remotely perform their type of music to a virtual audience.

“We did some acoustic songs, and it was really nice to show the world that we’re still here and not to forget about us. But it didn’t feel like it reflected our new album or anything like that. It was more of a community thing than anything.

“I think when you’re in a band, there’s a bigger challenge of do we sacrifice what we want our sound to be just to stay engaged with people. And I think a lot of musicians have had to figure out what’s that line that they’re okay with crossing,” says Hough.

Indie artist Maria Kelly has also struggled with being off stage and performing for fans through screens, which she says “is just weird”. As a result, became fixated on her popularity and audience base rather than her music.

“I found myself getting so sucked into the social media and numbers game because it was all I really had to measure the ‘success’ of the work I was putting out. It sent me down a hole of comparison, and feeling like nothing I was making was good enough, like what was the point. I had to switch off from it for a bit,” says Kelly.

As her music is softer than other artists, it was easier for Kelly to do livestreams for her fans at home, but this doesn’t carry the same energy as performing to a live audience.

“I’ve found it very tough not performing, mainly because a lot of the connection that makes music so meaningful is found through live events. I released music during the pandemic, as well as performed on some livestream events, but the difficult thing is that it’s all measured in numbers,” Kelly says.

Like Hough, Kelly spent her time during the pandemic creating her new album, which is being released in October, but that only filled up some of her time. So how does someone, who normally would be preparing for a year’s worth of live performances, cope with a year without events?

“Honestly, a lot of the time, I didn’t manage. There were a lot of days where I stayed in bed, did nothing, watched Netflix. But I guess, in a way, that’s managing my way through a global pandemic,” Kelly says.

“On my healthier days, I tried to get outside as much as I could, to move my body, and to focus on my writing. I also tried to engage with and enjoy the things around me as much as I could, rather than the chaos of the internet and news. In other words, I tried to make my world a little smaller when the world itself was a bit too big handle,” she adds.

Unlike Hough, and many others in the live music industry, Kelly was lucky enough to be able to do one live event in the last year and a half.  It was called Festival in a Van and was organised through Poetry Ireland.

“It’s a van with a built-in stage that travels around to different places in Ireland, showcasing artists with safe, outdoor shows,” Kelly explains.

I was just so happy to be back. The team at Festival in a Van made the whole thing so easy and welcoming. They had all the necessary Covid-19 precautions in place, so it felt like a really safe environment for both the performers and the audience,” she says.

Irish singer Lyra spoke on RTE earlier this week about her return to a ‘sold-out’ live gig in Killarney this year. However, Lyra said it didn’t really feel like it was sold out due to the decrease in capacity and social distancing. She added that “it feels like two different worlds and a different era” as she goes over to England now to perform for up to 50,000.

Slowly returning to the stage

There is still much uncertainty for Ireland’s live performance industry and when it will return, even with Covid-19 precautions. In other parts of the world, live music is back and artists are performing to large crowds. In Northern Ireland, 10,000 revellers flocked to each day of Féile an Phobail, a festival held in Belfast’s Falls Park which took place between August 5 and 15. There was no social distancing required but attendees had to show proof of double vaccination, proof of a negative lateral flow test, or a positive PCR test.

“When we were planning this eight or nine months out, we were never sure whether or not we would have government support and support of the industry but we worked very closely with the Department of Health here, with the Public Health Agency and the local city councils to make sure we were able to put on our event in the safest possible manner,” said the festival’s organiser Kevin Gamble.

The fact that the Republic of Ireland has yet to hold an event of that size dismayed many in the live performance industry, including Hozier who tweeted: “It’s absurd this took place a few hours down the road from Dublin where venue staff, crew, and musicians by the thousands are still left without any roadmap as to how and when they can simply go back to work. Treatment of other industries over music has been stark and senseless.”

“I’m sure if I was running a festival in the south now, I’d feel the sheer level of frustration amongst festival organisers and goers. Especially when they’re looking to the North and seeing the steady progress we’re making here,” said Gamble.

“We had a number of Irish artists who were coming up North to play and you could sense their frustration, when I was talking to them, that they couldn’t play the festivals and events they’re used to playing on a yearly basis but they’re taking on gigs in England and the North,” he added

The Irish government has experimented with holding big events while Covid-19 is still spreading in the community. In June 2021, 3,500 people attended a trial festival in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, as part of a series of pilot events signed off by Cabinet. Unlike Féile an Phobail though, social distancing was enforced. Since then, the Delta variant has swept through the country and there are 1,740 new Covid-19 cases reported on average each day, despite 84 per cent of the adult population being fully vaccinated and over 90 per cent being partially vaccinated. All of this is bad news for the live entertainment industry.

Due to this recent Covid-19 wave, Laois County Council has refused to grant a licence to hold Ireland’s largest live entertainment event, Electric Picnic, this year. The council stated that “under current government measures for the management of Covid-19, events of this nature are restricted to an attendance of 500 people only.”

However, music promoter Ed O’Leary believes his festival It Takes A Village will still go ahead in September in Cork.

“I really am hopeful that by mid-September we’ll have looser restrictions. It would be great for people to be able to dance for the first time in nearly 18 months now and we’d love to be one of the first places where that happened to,” says O’Leary.

This will be the festival’s third time over four years going ahead as O’Leary had to pull the plug on it in 2020 due to the pandemic.

“It was tough, a lot of refunds, a lot of rescheduling, very heavy on the pocket, as you can imagine. The uncertainty about it all was nerve-racking,” says O’Leary.

It Takes A Village has announced their line-up for the upcoming 2021 festival and O’Leary is optimistic it will go ahead because of the Covid-19 safety precautions that will be in place at it. For example, no one will be able to attend it unless they have proof of double vaccination, a negative PCR test, or proof of a negative lateral flow test. Plus, social distancing will be enforced.

“We’re really anxious about it. But at the same time, we’ve got a really good solid safety plan so no matter what’s happening, unless we’ve gone into a lockdown, we should, please God, be able to run the festival in some format,” says O’Leary.

The festival is part-funded by the €25 million Live Performance Support Scheme from the Department of Culture, Tourism, Arts, Gaelteacht, Sport, and Media. The festival could not take place this year without this funding states O’Leary, especially with the extra spending needed to make sure the festival is Covid-19 safe.

These precautions are first and foremost needed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but they also provide peace of mind to the audience that they are in a safe environment, which in turn helps performers get on with their job.

“I am a little nervous of crowds, and just at the thought of anyone getting sick from an event I organise, but all we can do really is take all the safety precautions we can, and hope for the best,” says Kelly.

Hough echoes this by saying although she is fully vaccinated and feels comfortable in a gig environment, she would feel uneasy pressuring friends and fans to come out to live events right now while Ireland experiences its fourth wave of Covid-19.

“I think we’re all going to have to learn to be really respectful of what other people are going through as well,” says Hough.


Although the possibility of live events returning by the end of 2021 is welcome news to the industry, performers will need to need re-learn how to cope with being thrust into the spotlight again. Despite making a career out of live performing, many artists still deal with stage fright and a year away from the stage hasn’t just impacted performers’ pockets, but also their minds.

“The more I tour and gig, the more I find a really comfortable, confident place to perform from and I remember that I have something great to offer,” says Hough.

“It’s such a shame just for me personally. I was just getting really on top of that. I was getting to such a positive place with that. I think that’s such a shame that I’ve now had to take that big break, because I was doing so well. I’ll get there again,” she adds.

Live performance artists face pressure like they never have before as well. People have been cooped up for 15 months and are eager to see and hear their favourite performers, so the expectations are high.

“I think with musicians, when you’re the one playing at the gig as well, it’s your job but to everyone else it’s a social activity as well. So, I think there’s pressure there to try and make sure your quality is back up to scratch,” said Hough.

The pressure is on

Those in live music entertainment expected to get some good news this week during a virtual meeting with Arts and Culture minister Catherine Martin and 15 other groups including the Events Industry Alliance and the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland. A date for the return of live music and cultural events was expected to be given at the meeting but stakeholders in the live entertainment industry were still none the wiser after the two-hour meeting.

The MEAI warned earlier this week that 50 per cent of the industry’s workers are at risk of becoming unemployed in the coming months unless the industry gets some clarity around the future of live events.

The feeling of disregard and abandonment was heightened by absence of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Chief Medical Officer who were invited to the meeting but sent representatives instead. In addition, Minister Martin had previously tried to get Cabinet colleagues to agree on possible reopening dates at a meeting on August 6, which they failed to do.

The Currency requested an update on a possible date for live events to return from the Department of Arts and Culture but did not hear back before publication.

Give Us The Night, an advocacy group for Irish live entertainment run by DJ Sunil Sharpe, recently sent a letter to the government stating that a reopening plan for live entertainment is “long overdue.”

Give Us The Night gave the government a list of suggestions that they believe would help reopen the live entertainment industry. Among them was to expand public testing services, reform licensing laws so nightclubs can stay open longer once they are allowed to reopen, give a starting date for live music events to return (but without social distancing), and assurance that venues and events will not have to close if Covid-19 numbers increase in future.

With case numbers rising again, it is difficult to know when we will all be back in wellies in a field with a sea of strangers listening to our favourite artists. When it does happen, it will be one of the best pieces of normality to return.

“I’m mostly just so excited to perform again. Not being able to do it for so long just showed me how much performing really meant to me,” says Kelly.