“There is a unique micro-climate here – it is a few degrees warmer because the quarry is facing south and the heat from the quarry face reflects around the amphitheatre.

There is a lot to be learnt here from nature. We have the hills, the rocks, the woods – flora and fauna that are unique to quarries. We did a feasibility study and the result is that there is more to be gotten out of Ballykeeffe than just music. We certainly see potential for an all-year-round centre.

Long-term, we would like to employ someone here who could focus on the educational aspects and in the summer could work with us on the concerts.

Creating opportunities

The group was set up in 1986. Officially, our name is the KBK Group: Kilmanagh, Ballycallan and Killaloe community enterprise group. That is too much of a moniker so we tend to go by Ballykeeffe Amphitheatre.

At the time, there was a lot of unemployment; there weren’t many opportunities. We decided we’d get some kind of a FÁS scheme going. We did various things – we tidied up the place; the village and graveyard. We started up a parish newsletter, The Acorn. That was going for about 25 years; it’s still going once a year for Christmas but people have moved on with digital news.

That brought us up to the millennium and we wanted to do something to mark the turn of the century.

We were wondering what is in the middle of the parish to bring us all together and this quarry, now amphitheatre, is right dead in the centre. It just seemed appropriate.

There had been a limestone quarry here for over 100 years, that stopped in the 1950s. It was wild; it had become a car dump and it needed to be looked after.

Gold amongst the rubble

Nora, one of our group, suggested at a meeting to turn this area into a park. We then got in touch with Desmond FitzGerald, who worked as a landscape architect and lectured in UCD. He came in, looked around and said: ‘Wow, the acoustics here are phenomenal.’

He started quoting Cicero [Ancient Greek] to see how it sounded. So, from that day forward, the seed was sown.

LEADER, St Canice’s Credit Union and the county council were so important to us. It was a bit of a daft idea at the time, but they backed us. That was 1999 and the first concert was 2001. It was a free concert and about 700 to 800 people turned up.

The voluntary group behind Ballykeeffe amphitheatre are looking forward to opening the gates for a summer of events. / Caitríona Bolger

As we kept going, we started adding to the amphitheatre. We extended the steps to make it easier to walk up and down. We stoned them to make seats, put back rests on them, got a stage canopy in 2012, installed an accessible viewing platform with lift and we created sheltered canopies for the sound crew.

We started off with one concert a year, then we went up to three or four; now we are up to about 10 and that wouldn’t count the smaller events.

Can’t package the atmosphere

We know what we have is good, but it is only as good as you make it. A big part of coming out here [to Ballykeeffe] is the atmosphere and that is due to the volunteers.

We’ve a really good group of people. We did have big promotors come out and put on gigs and it works differently.

As a group, we are a community and while we are a commercial venture for the benefit of the locality, we aren’t a commercial venture in the traditional business sense.

It wouldn’t be fair on our neighbours if we ‘sold out’ commercially. The farmers across the road give their fields for parking and on event days, we have 40 to 50 people volunteering for the car parking, setup and smooth running of the gigs. There is an ownership there.

We’ve had bad nights here, too. I remember back in the early days, Andy Irvine – who I have great time for – was due to play. It was a wet night, a small crowd turned up and it felt miserable. We had an old canopy, not the one we have now.

Andy came on stage and asked us all to come in under the canopy. It turned out to be one of the best nights I have ever had here. It was so intimate. A guy who happened to come out to that event who was visiting Kilkenny said that gig was the highlight of his holidays.

Generally, the place disarms the musicians. I’d say there hasn’t been one act who has faulted the whole set up. They have minders and managers – people who have to make their presence felt – but in fairness, over the years, we’ve learned that we don’t do things too badly; people tend to come out of here happy.

It probably took us about 10 years before we felt a change. The Saw Doctors played one night, there was about a 1,000 people here, it was raining and nobody minded a bit! That night put us on the map.”

Read more

Diversifying for the future of the family farm at Ballykeefe Distillery

Consolidation is not just for agriculture, it pervades everywhere