THIS IS THE description of a national festival promoted by Irish tourist chiefs and government to boost visitor numbers here:
“(It) will be a time of pageantry and national rejoicing in which the Irish clans from far and near come together in joyful reunion.”
The Gathering? No – this is the description attributed by President Seán T O’Kelly in 1953 on the opening of An Tóstal festival with a parade on Dublin’s O’Connell Street.
(Click here to see the British Pathé newsreel of the parade).
It had its own flag and EVERYTHING. The flag bore the same harp symbol as the official commemorative stamps of the time, which were designed by Fergus O’Ryan from Limerick. The harp itself was designed by a Dutchman, Guss Melai, who used the Book of Kells and the Brian Boru harp of Ireland as his inspiration:
These stamps are up for auction right now on ebay.ie
The idea came from an airline boss
The initial prompt for An Tóstal came originally from the president of Pan American Airlines who thought Ireland should take inspiration from the 1951 Festival of Britain. (Presumably, the thought that it might lead to more transatlantic flight bookings didn’t cross his mind).
It was particularly aimed at the Irish diaspora in the United States and Bord Fáilte Éireann and the government realised that it would be a good campaign to promote more visits to Ireland in the off-peak season. As such, it was pitched as a springtime festival and the opening parade was on Easter Sunday, 5 April, 1953.
Selection of posters from ebay.ie
Trout fishing, hairdressing and soap box races
Several spectacles were arranged to draw in the crowds over the three weeks of the festival. There was the world trout fly-fishing tournament on Lough Mask. It was won by a Mr J Stack from Westport, Co Mayo who won a large cup and £250. A soap box derby and the best parade we’ve ever seen tore up the streets of Limerick.
There was also An Tóstal Hairdressing Competition. Fantastic commentary in the video clip at that link.
An Tóstal has gone to the heads of many Dubliners.
There was also a major fashion show in the Gresham – all this beautifying must surely have led to…
…The Rose of Tralee
The Tóstal festival was held every year until 1958, when it was phased out (it was not as successful as it had been hoped it would be at causing a major boost to off-peak tourism numbers). But before it did, it gave inspiration to the founding of the Rose of Tralee festival whcih would attract ‘Roses’ from ex-patriate communities.
So it was that the first Rose of Tralee festival went ahead in 1959 with Roses from Tralee, London, Dublin, Birmingham and New York. At the time each Rose had to be a native of Tralee – this was expanded by 1967 to having some Irish birth or blood in you to qualify.
The sash and accessories worn by the first Rose of Tralee (Dublin won) went on display at the Kerry County Museum:
The Cork Film Festival and the Dublin Theatre Festival also owe their genesis to that founding year of 1953. The Cork Film Festival was originally called An Tóstal, and was founded by Dermot Breen who was also general organiser of An Tóstal festival as a whole. The Dublin Theatre Festival came later, in 1957, as a new feature on that year’s An Tóstal calendar.
The book Interactions: Dublin Theatre Festival, 1957-2007, edited by Nicholas Grene, Patrick Lonergan and Lilian Chambers, records a satirical verse made up at the time by a Mr RBD French, a student of English at Trinity, about the new festival:
In the City of Dublin, at no distant date,
We resolved on a Tóstal – a sort of a fete -
In the culture of Europe we wished to take part
So we made it a feast of theatrical art!
And we got a few bob from the Fáilte Bórd too…
As well as putting on local events, towns and villages around Ireland cleaned up their act for the expected visitors. By 1958, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government decided to encourage the spring cleans with the…
…Tidy Towns competition
The first winner was Glenties in Co Donegal. This is Glenties now. Still looking good, folks.
There’s always one
There was a small controversy – tiny, really – about what the choice of title for the festival. On 16 June, 1953, Dan Desmond – a Labour TD from Cork South - asked if the Department for Education had been consulted on the choice of the word ‘Tóstal’. He said people were wondering what it meant and that some school teachers of his acquaintance seemed to think it means “at home”. He added:
Now strange to say I have been checking on an old Irish-English dictionary, by O’Reilly, published here in Dublin in 1821 and the word “Tóstal” comes into it, and the only English definition for the word “Tóstal” in that dictionary is “arrogance, pride, envy”. The word “Tostallach” also appears and is the only word in connection with it, and the English definition is “presumptuous, presuming, and arrogant”.
I think it is totally unfair that any other Department of State should be prepared to use titles for any of our boards without consulting the Department of Education and their responsible officials. That is all I have to say on it but I should be glad if the Minister would tell us about Irish meanings and whether such words were used without his authority or the authority of his Department.
No-one else seemed too bothered in the rest of that Dáil debate, which you can read here.
You can still attend An Tóstal… in Leitrim (and Salthill)
The name lives on in a surviving festival held in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim. As this piece from RTÉ Radio One’s The History Show explains, the pageant continued largely through the efforts of the parents of Senator Paschal Mooney, who is himself the honorary President of the An Tóstal Committee.
A bit of craic from the 2009 parade. The theme was Christmas. (It was held in June):
There is also an An Tóstal currach racing event off the coast at Salthill, Galway which returned in 2011 after a hiatus of over half a century. It was first included as part of the Galway programme for the 1953 An Tóstal campaign.
Sadly, the Bowl of Light didn’t stay on
The excellent ComeHereToMe.com notes that a public monument was erected on O’Connell Bridge to mark the opening of An Tóstal in 1953. It was a massive copper bowl which would have held a flame to welcome home the visitors.
Screenshot with kind permission of ComeHeretoMe.com
Now we have the Monument of Light. (The Spire’s official title). Which would you prefer?