"End of the road" for Kilkenny Roots without drinks sponsorship

As the drinks industry argues that cultural sponsorship will fall €8.5m due to Alcohol Bill...

The founder of a one of the country's most successful smaller music festivals has made the case that sponsorship from drinks companies is "vital" for its survival.

John Cleere of the Kilkenny Roots Festival told The Pat Kenny Show that Diageo helps fund roughly a third of the cost of putting on the annual event in the south-east city and admitted:

"We don't have a festival without it."

Cleere's comments come as the drinks industry claims that the enactment of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 will see more than 50 arts and cultural events around the country lose up to €8.5 million in sponsorship.

As well as ushering in minimum unit pricing, the new laws would see strict restrictions put on the advertising of alcohol products.


Patrician Callan, director of the Alcohol Beverage Federation Ireland (ABFI), commented earlier this week:

"The severity of the content restrictions means that that images of conviviality – such as a scene in an Irish pub –images of a person consuming alcohol or indeed images of people will be banned. It’s hard to fathom but it will mean the banning of the iconic Guinness Christmas advert...

"Iconic events made possible by sponsorship include the Galway Arts Festival, which had a record attendance of 200,000 people last year and has become a landmark cultural event in Europe.

"Similarly, the Cork Jazz Festival attracted 40,000 fans and 1,000 musicians from over 20 countries in 2016 and has been an annual feature in Cork’s cultural calendar since 1978”.

Kilkenny Roots pulling up?

Cleere's own festival welcomes up to 10,000 people every May Bank Holiday weekend and was named 'Best Small Festival' at the IMRO Awards two years ago.

It put on around 100 gigs earlier this year, with 75 of those being free. Priding itself on identifying and booking international acts as paid headliners before they explode – including the likes of Alabama Shakes and John Grant (pictured below) – they also want to act as a platform for fledgling homegrown acts.

It started under the Carlsberg brand, now operates under Smithwick's and "just couldn't operate" without that investment given the number of free events it offers.

"The history of our festival was that it was put together by a group of publicans," Cleere explains.

"I was running my own pub at the time – John Cleere's in Kilkenny – and we were looking for something to extend the tourist season.

"Back in 1998, Kilkenny wasn't as popular as it is now. We had discussions with Diageo, who obviously we were familiar with from our day-to-day operations and they were willing to come onboard.

"The first couple of years were operated at a loss but we were able to hang in there and now we're on an even keel and growing every year."

That could all come to a sudden halt, he said.

"Unless we come up with some very creative thinking, I would imagine it's the end of the road. We run it on a very tight basis."

"So it's okay to have a drink but it's not okay to have sponsorship?" he pondered. "I don't understand the logic of that. We run a very responsible event."

When the point was put to Cleere that the level of exposure Smithwick's gets around Kilkenny means younger people come to identify with the brand, he said that while it was a reasonable argument, Kilkenny Roots is chiefly promoted as an over-25s, nighttime festival.

As for other investment avenues if the bill comes to pass?

"The other source of funding would be through the Arts Council and ironically I got a letter yesterday from the Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys.

"The line is: 'unfortunately this department does not currently have any funding streams from which festivals could be directly funding.'

"She also suggests I set up a Fundit scheme. 'Get small amounts of money form large amounts of people' – that's her solution."