Open Ear is the perfect antidote to the “big festival blues”. Marketed as an escape from humdrum everyday life, the festival brings an eclectic, experimental line-up of musicians to Sherkin Island in West Cork. With a year-round population of less than a hundred people, Sherkin is a picturesque little rock which sits between Baltimore and Cape Clear – just a ten minute ferry journey from the mainland.
Open Ear is the passion project of Chris Chapman. A couple of years ago, he was camping on the island with a group of friends when the weather forced them to seek shelter in the North Shore hostel owned by Kathy and Mike O’Connor. The hostel is located on the far end of the island, overlooking Roaringwater Bay. Since taking over the hostel, Kathy and Mike have turned it into a relaxation sanctuary with regular yoga retreats and art workshops.
Understandably, Chris fell in love with the spot and they got to chatting about running a mini-festival in the hostel and the adjoining land. A year later, the first edition of Open Ear brought a crowd of three hundred along with a stellar line-up featuring Toby Kaar, Sunken Foal, Sias, Spaces and loads more. The entirely Irish line-up featured an array of beatmakers, producers, DJs and bands from right across the musical spectrum. By all accounts, it was a massive success so a second year was inevitable.
For 2017, the line-up featured Eomac, Simon Conway, Automatic Tasty, mynameisjOhn, Naive Ted, Paudi Ahern, Ambulance, PCP, Cáit and loads more. Now, to be honest with you, I had heard of one artist on the line-up before the festival but that’s quite understandable given that Irish electronic music wouldn’t be my strongpoint. It really doesn’t matter if you haven’t heard of anyone, though, because Open Ear has a “one audience, one stage” philosophy. Since there’s only one act playing at a time, you can hear everyone and not have to worry that you’re missing out on another act.
The organisers had painstakingly chosen the acts to suit each time slot. Everything Shook and February and Mars played fantastic electropop daytime sets on the Friday and Sunday respectively. On the other hand, JP Hartnett eased everyone into Sunday afternoon with an acoustic piano set at the Jolly Roger bar while All City’s Olan could be heard playing afrojazz on Saturday in the main tent. DJs kept the party going late into the night with techno, house and hip-hop sets throughout the weekend. My highlights from the weekend included an industrial techno stormer from Automatic Tasty (he’s a folklore expert by trade, obviously), a crazy curveball set from PCP, techno time with Cignol and a delicious house set from Cáit.
Aside from the music, the true attention-grabber of the weekend was the island itself. I’ve been visiting Sherkin my whole life and it’s a law unto itself so I can’t imagine how bizarre it must have been for the Dubliners visiting for the first time. While the weather was far from perfect for the three days, the periods of sunshine showed off some of the most beautiful sights Cork has to offer. Not only that, we were lucky enough to get beautiful mornings on Saturday and Sunday so swimming in the ocean was the perfect way to detox before more mischief. There are two beaches within a stone’s throw of the campsite (one is a bit of a secret, though) and they were like little strips of paradise when the sun came out.
Credit has to be given to the crowd as well, who were the soundest bunch of festival-goers I’ve ever come across. I had a couple of volunteer shifts during the weekend and they were an absolute pleasure thanks to the people. Campsite patrol involved chatting to people and being offered cans on a regular basis! Without much effort at all, I got to know loads of new people during the festival. The campsites themselves were fantastically spacious so you didn’t end up camping on top of someone else and the ground stayed good and firm until Monday morning. The food options were good, too, with three different catering vans offering all sort of options from crepes to veggie stir fries and exotic curries.
After the success of this year, I’d be amazed if Open Ear doesn’t return bigger and better than ever next June Bank Holiday. Early bird tickets started at €75 (excl VAT) in February this year so keep your eyes peeled (Open Ear website). General sale tickets went up to €130. If you don’t want to gamble with the weather, the glamping tents offered a nice bit of comfort during the showers. They came in different sizes but could be had for approximately €75 per person for the weekend.
As I’ve said, Open Ear is a great alternative to bigger festivals. In the last few years, I’ve gone to Longitude, three Electric Picnics, a Forbidden Fruit and Glastonbury. Obviously, they’ve all been fantastic experiences but the massive crowds can be exhausting (I needed a full week to recover from Glastonbury!) At Open Ear every day started with a swim in the ocean and a nice breakfast. The afternoons were spent sitting on the cliffside with a few cans, listening to the stage only twenty meters away. The nights were reserved for pounding beats and lots of dancing. It’s the first time I’ve come back from a festival feeling fresher than when I left!