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Left to carry the can

County View

County View
John Healy

IT is said to be a measure of a well researched book that it takes a second, or even a third reading, to fully absorb all it has to say. By that yardstick, Paddy McGuinness’s recently published history of the Castlebar Song Contest ranks of the highest order.
This is a thoroughly researched, detailed tome whose contents match its imposing layout and presentation. It makes for a fascinating read, because it is much more than a recital of the facts and statistics behind a festival which for two decades gave Castlebar an international prominence never enjoyed before or since. It is also a no-holds-barred account of how a small voluntary committee managed to play host to a festival which, in terms of media coverage, was matched only by the Rose of Tralee.
A labour of love it may be for the author, whose involvement with the event spans all of its 20 year existence, but that does not inhibit him from recounting the behind-the-scenes activities which the public rarely got to see or hear about. There was the never ending battle to keep the financial ship afloat; the cajoling and arm twisting of sponsors; the soothing of ruffled feathers when the media, business or corporate bigwigs choose to take offence at some slight or other.
The Castlebar committee was never afraid to think big, but in doing so it also meant that the obstacles and difficulties would be equally daunting. For example, the Song Contest had come to depend on the live television transmission of the final night, which had become a popular feature of the RTÉ schedule. Yet, from year to year, there was never complete certainty that RTÉ would televise the show. This in turn meant that potential sponsors – the lifeblood of the contest – could not be lined up until late in the day.
Paddy McGuinness, in analysing the demise of the contest, points to inadequate financing as the major problem. Of the 22 contests, 13 had lost money, some by significant amounts. The struggle to balance the books dominated the running of the festival, meaning other
priorities were neglected.
And in all of this, there emerged a salutary lesson for anyone who might be tempted to tie their personal finances to a voluntary organisation, however noble such a course of action might be. By 1982, after 16 years, the bank overdraft on the Castlebar Song Contest stood at £30,000. Under pressure from the bank, directors Paddy McGuinness and David Flood went joint guarantors for that amount. By 1988, the debt had been reduced to £13,000, even after paying £22,000 in interest charges.
But far from being impressed, far from showing a little leniency to a community group which by then had channelled half a million to the bank coffers, the lenders decided to put the boot in. A letter to the guarantors from the bank’s solicitors demanded ‘immediate payment from you of your liabilities under the said guarantee’. Failure to do so, it went on, would result in the bank seizing and selling off the guarantors’ property.
Years earlier, the astute Michael J Egan, founding father of the event, had advised the committee that it ‘should form itself into a limited liability company, whereby none of the members could be individually sued for any debt incurred by the company’.
It was advice neither taken or acted upon, but which, as Paddy McGuinness would ruefully reflect, would cost him dearly before the final curtain fell on the Song Contest.