'Five or None'
In July 2014, Carlos Eugenio Garcia de Alba Zepede, Mexican Ambassador to Ireland, called the Lord Mayor of Dublin to offer his assistance in preventing the cancellation of five Garth Brooks concerts.
This is the part of the movie where the record scratches and the narrator says "You're probably wondering how I ended up in this situation."
Of course, the narrator in this case is the entire island of Ireland, the small nation where 400,000 people — roughly 10% of the entire population at the time — spent a cumulative €28 million or so on tickets to see Garth Brooks play in Croke Park. The country music singer had been scheduled to play in Dublin's historic GAA stadium on July 25th, 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th. And then the whole world fell apart.
On January 30, tickets had gone on sale for what was originally supposed to be two Garth Brooks concerts at the place GAA people call 'headquarters'. They instantly sold out, and two nights became three.
By February 6, three nights had become five, and the 82,000-seater had sold out five times over with no signs of slowing up. What started as a weekend of Garth Brooks was beginning to look like an indefinite Garth Brooks residence at headquarters.
Croke Park is steeped in history and meaning. It opened in 1884 —just 32 years after the famine ended. Its official capacity is 82,300. It's the third largest stadium in all of Europe. The arena has a contentious relationship with the community that surrounds it. When it comes to concerts, there are hundreds of homes well within earshot of the blaring speakers and amps. Hundreds of gardens that are inevitably turned to rubbish tips by the comings and goings of over 80,000 people. There are traffic disruptions, damaged property and the threat of anti-social and criminal behaviour.
Garth Brooks has a long history with Ireland. His 1997 concert in Croke Park is the stuff of legend. He loved us and we loved him. In the interview where he announced the five gigs, Brooks said of Ireland, "A concert in this place is as good as it gets. These people know how to have a great time, and they know every word of every song, and they come prepared. They can call it working all day long, but this ain't workin', this is eating ice cream for a living."
The residents who lived near Croke Park had understandable anxieties about the disruption that came with major events at the stadium, but surely Garth Brooks was different. Who could say no to If Tomorrow Never Comes?”
But the disruptive element became a factor. Taking those problems into account, a decision was made to grant an event licence for just three of the proposed five nights. And just like two became three, and three became five, five became three, and then, somehow, three became none at all.
I hesitate to use the phrase "Only in Ireland", but let's be very real with ourselves. This didn't happen anywhere else. It only happened in Ireland. And it will probably never happen anywhere else again. How is it that, in a country as small as Ireland, Ticketmaster could possibly break its own record for most money ever refunded?
We may never know, but we have to ask.
"He hadn't got a fuckin' clue what An Bord Pleanála was"
The former Lord Mayor of Dublin Christy Burke remembers 2014 very well.
"I think what irritated the whole community around Croke Park was Garth Brooks' arrival on the pitch," he says. "First of all it was two concerts. Then it was three. Then Garth Brooks arrived in the middle of Croke Park, on the Six-One news, with his hands like high-fives for five. And that blew the local community to bits."
Speaking at the time, Labour TD Maureen O'Sullivan reinforced this view in the Dáil, saying, "Nobody objects to the fact that it is Garth Brooks, but to the fact that there are five concerts one after the other. The residents heard about it through the media. First there were to be two concerts, then three, four and five. A sixth concert could have been scheduled but for the outcry by people about this."
When An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for the redevelopment of Croke Park in 1993, there were conditions.
Condition No. 11 allowed for the holding of three special events such as concerts in the stadium each calendar year. Any such events were subject to the approval of an event management plan which must be submitted by way of compliance submission to the planning department of Dublin City Council.
Like many Irish concerts, when the Garth Brooks shows were announced they were "subject to licence." Subject to licence is the kind of small print white noise static that comes at the very end of an ad, after we've all stopped paying attention. We don't really hear it. We put our faith in a higher power and trust that our enjoyment will never be subject to licence.
In the case of Garth Brooks at Croke Park, those three words proved to be all-important. Aiken Promotions, in a move that was par for the course at the time, put tickets for Garth Brooks on sale before Dublin City Council had granted a licence for any of the gigs — let alone all five.
It's also important to note that by the time July came around, 2014’s allotment of Croke Park concerts had already been filled. One Direction had sold out Croker for three consecutive nights in May. It did not bode well for Brooks' five-night extravaganza.
Burke believes that there was some struggle by Brooks' team to fully understand the red-tape that bound each decision: "People were telling him about An Bord Pleanála, but sure your man's American, he hadn't got a fuckin' clue what An Bord Pleanála was."
As Croke Park residents prepared to take legal action in order to prevent the gigs, the hopes of hundreds of thousands of fans were left in the balance. Irish radio was overwhelmed with the stories of Garth fans from America, Canada, the Netherlands, who had all bought tickets and booked accommodation to come see Brooks play in Dublin. One Irish superfan by the name of Avril had bought tickets for all five nights. “I had arranged different things for each night, I was going to go with different people each night,” she says.
Elsewhere, a street vendor named Bren had ambitiously forked over €15,000 for 5,000 novelty cowboy hats to sell to punters. Hearts were in mouths across the world.
So much chaos and confusion now surrounded the gigs that Garth Brooks fansite Planet Garth set up a whole discussion page for matters relating to Croke Park. Protests and counter-protests were organised, and Dublin City Council was left scrambling for a solution.
The former Lord Mayor talks me through the reasons why many of the proposed solutions to the problem were never truly viable. "They were going to do three afternoons and two evenings, but the logistics of that... You take 83,000 coming out of Croker at 6pm and you've got 83,000 coming in for 8pm the same night. It would be a disaster."
Burke also discussed the possibility of other venues.
"The manager of the Aviva rang me and said 'Christy, you can have the Aviva' but they only hold 40,000 so it wouldn't have worked."
What many will remember from the Garth Brooks saga was the seemingly inexplicable intervention of the Mexican Ambassador to Ireland, Carlos Eugenio Garcia de Alba Zepede. Fortunately, Burke is able to explain how that detail came about.
"He was a great fan of Luke Kelly, you see, and we became great friends. I used to go over to his residence on Raglan Road and a band would be brought over and we'd have sing-songs. The ambassador said to me, 'If there's anything I can do, I'll do it, in order to try and facilitate the five concerts.' He said 'I'll even speak to the people who reported.' Now I gave that to the media, and of course that ran like a train. The people loved it."
Dublin City Council came to three conclusions that would ultimately seal the fate of all five Garth Brooks concerts. In a statement released on July 3rd, the council wrote:
"The scale, magnitude and number of the concerts with an expected attendance of in excess of 80,000 people per night over five consecutive nights, three of them being week nights, is unprecedented for Croke Park Stadium."
"Three consecutive concerts have already taken place in Croke Park from the 23rd to 25th of May 2014. Given that Croke Park is situated in a heavily populated residential area, five shows in a row following on from the three concerts already held there that year is considered an over intensification of use of the stadium for the holding of special events/concerts. It would be in effect permitting an increase of 100% in terms of the maximum number of concerts that had previously been held in Croke Park in any given year."
"The cumulative effect on residents and on some businesses in the Croke Park and surrounding neighbourhoods, of licensing five shows in a row, three of them on weekdays, would lead to an unacceptable level of disruption to their lives/livelihoods over an unprecedented and prolonged period caused by, concert related noise, access restrictions, traffic disruption, illegal parking and potential antisocial behaviour. The City Council would also be concerned with the precedent that would be created if five consecutive concerts in a row of this scale were licensed."
"Having regard to the submissions/observations received and given the number of mitigation measures proposed by the applicant it was considered reasonable and appropriate that three of the events should take place and these had been licensed for the nights of Friday 25 July 2014, Saturday 26 July 2014, and Sunday 27 July 2014."
Concerts have been cancelled before. Concerts will be cancelled again. But what happened after Dublin City Council gave licence for only three of Brooks' five gigs remains the most shocking twist in this bizarre saga. In the style of a true performer, Garth dropped a bombshell.
"I can’t thank the people of Ireland enough for how welcome they have made me feel. I have faith that Dublin City Council will make the best decision for the people of Ireland. For us, it is five shows or none at all. To choose which shows to do and which shows not to do, would be like asking to choose one child over another. However this plays out, Ireland has my heart and always will."
Christy Burke, who dealt directly with Brooks' management, chalked it up to hubris on the American side. "Garth Brooks couldn't even fill a stadium in his own hometown. I felt the management were trying to compensate for that reason, so they could go back to America and say 'Well, we got five in Dublin. The people were out the doors, we couldn't give them enough.' So there was a lot of that stuff going on. PR stuff, macho stuff. Ego."
As the dust settled on Brooks' devastating announcement, the buck was passed from desk to desk. Aiken maintained that they had approached these concerts the same way they approach every concert. Dublin City Council maintained that they made their decision in keeping with the An Bord Pleanála agreement. Croke Park residents maintained that eight massive concerts in one year was a clear breach of the terms under which Croke Park had been allowed to be redeveloped.
All of that was indisputably true. None of it explained why all the concerts were cancelled. Three concerts could have gone ahead. In the end, only one man pulled the plug: Garth Brooks. Once he made his mind up, not even Garcia the great Luke Kelly fan could salvage the shows.
Ireland was left reeling.
And that was that.
Then, the fallout.
Bren, the street vendor, recalled the nightmare moment that he learned he had wasted €15,000 on thousands of novelty cowboy hats.
"Basically, I bought 5,000. I had the money spent. It was a disaster, got them shipped in from China or whatever, and it came out the morning after that he wasn't coming. It was like a bad dream. I was screwed then. Didn't even have anywhere to put them."
"I was gonna sell them for €15 a pop and it cost me about €3 per hat. Three days of 80,000 people. Even if I'd sold 1,000 of them I'd have made my money back."
Luckily, Ireland's healthy abundance of Garth Brooks tribute acts saved the day.
"I ended up going down to tribute acts in Westmeath and Carlow. Eventually I got rid of them all. I got away with it in the end. Didn't want to be stung with them for 10 years. It is what it is."
But street vendors weren't the only ones whose pockets were hit by the cancellation. In fact, the whole country was set to suffer the consequences of the calamity. When Dublin City Council approved just three of five proposed gigs, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce estimated that the boost for Ireland's economy would drop from €50 million to €30 million. When Brooks made good on his ultimatum, that €30 million crashed and burned into a big fat zero.
At the time, Ireland's economy was still putting new notches in its ever-tightening belt. To lose €50 million seemed like a major blunder. To lose it over a publicity war with Garth Brooks was a farce.
Aside from the economic burden, the depth of pain felt by Brooks' fans was searing. Avril, who had purchased tickets for all five nights, refused to blame Garth after the train came off the tracks.
"Anyone that knows him in Nashville and on the scene, they'll all tell you he's a genuine fella. He's not going to say 'Right, let's take two nights off the show.' I actually have more respect for him, even though I was heartbroken."
A visit to the Planet Garth message board threads from 2014 reveals the agony that some fans went through in the wake of Garth's announcement.
"The true fans are the ones who are hurting tonight."
"I hate being Irish."
"I know Garth said the Irish people shouldn't be embarrassed, but I disagree."
Unfortunately, Garth Brooks is a hard man to get a hold of, particularly from this side of the pond. He's represented by Bob "Major Bob" Doyle. Doyle's contact details are public, but he won't respond to any of my emails or phone-calls. And even then, Doyle would only be the gatekeeper. It's Garth who we need to understand.
Four years on, the most fundamental questions at the heart of the catastrophe remain unanswered. What I remain most fixated on is what kind of man Garth Brooks is.
In today's money-driven society, what kind of musician walks away from a €10 million pay day for three nights of work? Surely if somebody is motivated by greed, then they'd say to hell with the Monday and Tuesday fans who got screwed, play the weekend nights and celebrate with a new private jet or whatever it is that rich people buy.
Does that mean, as Burke speculates, that Brooks was instead urged onwards by an insatiable ego? Always wanting more? A five-night residency in Ireland's grandest and most historic venue, playing to hundreds of thousands of his slavishly devoted worshippers. Once he learned that he couldn't beat the system, was his pride so wounded that he took his ball, burst it and stomped off home?
And what if Dublin City Council had given in? What if we had let 10% of the entire population ride roughshod over Croke Park and its surrounding neighbourhoods for those five nights? Would Brooks have added a sixth date? A seventh? If things hadn't gone down the way they did, maybe Garth would still be there, belting out 'The Thunder Rolls' and only taking short breaks on the weekend to let Dublin play football.
During a Nashville press conference after the cancellation announcement, Brooks said "If the prime minister [Enda Kenny] himself wants to talk to me I will crawl, swim, fly over to him. I will drop on my knees just to let those 400,000 people see me." Dropping to one's knees is not exactly the calling card of pride.
So maybe it wasn't greed, and maybe it wasn't ego.
Maybe it was heartbreak.
Garth's long history with Ireland meant these weren't simply any other shows. Eating ice-cream for a living, that's what he'd told us right?
Eating ice cream for a living is an understatement. Garth Brooks could have comfortably collected a cheque for €10,000,000 paid for by the Irish public and done it all while performing to a total of 240,000 screaming fans over three nights. He'd have been a martyr too — sharing in the pain of his 160,000 loyal subjects, deprived of joy by resident petitions, the paperwork of faceless local authorities, licensing laws and other things that his fans would have been happy to blame.
It's important to understand that by 2014, Garth Brooks hadn't released a new album in 13 years. From 2004 onwards, he reserved his live appearances for special performances only. From 2009 to 2013 he almost exclusively played residencies on the Las Vegas strip, the ultimate retirement move. He hadn't toured or released new music in 10 years.
Desperately seeking a comeback, he came to the one place where he knew he'd be loved, where he'd be welcomed back with open arms and no tough questions. A place where he could sell concert tickets to 10% of the entire population without even breaking a sweat beneath his cowboy hat. Maybe when he learned that a failure of bureaucracy had upended his hopes of a five-show comeback special he simply couldn't believe it. In a tailspin, he gave us the ultimatum of "five or none" and since it couldn't be five, that meant it had to be none.
On July 14, just 11 days before the first of his concerts was supposed to take place, Brooks released a new statement. This one had none of the former's "five or none" defiance. This one was weighted down with unblinking sadness.
"I have always been advised to never send a message in the moment," he wrote. "It is said it is best to take a walk, wait a while, and think about it. With that said, I just received the news the Irish council cannot change their earlier ruling to not allow the licenses for all five shows. To say I am crushed is an understatement. All I see is my mother’s face and I hear her voice. She always said things happen for a reason and for the right reason. As hard as I try, I cannot see the light on this one."
Avril, Garth's number Irish fan, has since been to see him in Las Vegas, and reported that Garth still talks about Ireland when he's onstage in the US. "He straight up brought up Croke Park. He said 'You'd wanna see Croke Park, you'd wanna see the Irish people, you'd wanna see Ireland.' He had nothing but love for us. And he didn't know there was Irish people in that audience."
By the sounds of it, there's no bitterness nor begrudgery from Brooks. Just love. But it's four years later and there's still no suggestion that Garth's return is anywhere on the horizon.
As for Ireland, the Garth Brooks-shaped wound on our heart is slowly scarring over, but is still tender to the touch. Whenever we hear "Bruce Springsteen" or "The Rolling Stones" and "extra date added" in the same sentence, we'll instinctively flinch. Before Garth-gate, Brooks' most recent three studio albums had reached chart highs of 4, 6 and 1 in Ireland. Shortly after the Croke Park collapse, his Man Against Machine album failed to break into the Irish top 10.
Like an old war veteran with a missing limb, we can still feel the twinge where our Garth Brooks concerts were supposed to be. Until we understand exactly why it happened, we probably always will.