Sunday 23 July 2017

Trevor and the real Ballrooms of Romance

Damian Corless on rural social life in the 1950s

Open arms: John McGivern outside his Ballroom of Romance in Glenfarne, Co Leitrim
Open arms: John McGivern outside his Ballroom of Romance in Glenfarne, Co Leitrim
Look back in anger: William Trevor

The Cork-born writer William Trevor, who died this week at the age of 88, spent most of his long life in England, but he was always quick to remind people that he was "Irish in every vein". He was a master of the short story, and perhaps his best-known tale is one that unflinchingly captured the gloom and despair that encouraged him to take the cattleboat for good.

Penned at the beginning of the 1970s, The Ballroom of Romance was a look back in anger and sorrow at the Ireland of the 1950s, when the nation slumped on to its knees.

Pat O'Connor expertly brought the story to life in the 1982 film version starring Brenda Fricker, Mick Lally, Niall Tóibín and Cyril Cusack.

Fricker played Bridie, a woman who has thrown herself into the courting rituals at the local rural dancehall for years, hoping to bag a decent man for marriage. But things haven't worked out and the horrible truth is dawning that all the best men of her generation are already hitched or have emigrated. It seems she'll have to settle for the surly, feckless drunk Bowser Egan.

Look back in anger: William Trevor
Look back in anger: William Trevor

The real ballroom of Trevor's tale is in Glenfarne, Co Leitrim, an area that was heavily depopulated by forced emigration. Emigration, coupled with stagnation wrought by decades of delusional self-sufficiency economic policies had made Ireland no country for young men, or women. Trevor's tale is set just before the advent of the rock 'n' roll showbands in the late 1950s, who injected much needed energy into what became a live-wire ballroom scene.

From a distance of 60 years, the showbands of the late 1950s, with their cheesy grins, crooked teeth and gorse-bush hair can resemble gargoyle identity parades, but to the ballroom-goers of the day these men were sex-on-legs. They gave American rock 'n' roll a distinctly Irish expression and the draughty, hangar-sized structures which began to shoot up across the country represented fabulous pleasure domes.

This was largely because they were a vast improvement on the parish halls they were replacing. In the type of parish hall which provides the setting for The Ballroom of Romance, it was an occasional practice before a dance to douse the wooden floors with paraffin to keep the dust down. The atmosphere at a Saturday night shindig would often consist, in part, of a nauseating petroleum haze.

With every parish hall, of course, came a parish priest. While some priests sublet the hall to a promoter for the Saturday night hop, quite a few took on the job themselves. This allowed them to combine the role of fundraiser and moral guardian.

In many ballrooms, urban and rural, the promoter priest would personally tour the hall, delivering a curt word or even a whack to courting couples who were getting too het up. One of the most popular dancehalls in the country in the early 1950s was the one at Billy Butlin's new holiday camp at Mosney, Co Meath. Confronted with this threat on his own doorstep, local Fine Gael TD Captain Patrick Giles outlined his objections to this "foreign combine" in an article for the Catholic Standard headlined 'Holiday Camp and Morals'.

"Holiday camps are an English idea and are alien and undesirable in an Irish Catholic country - outside influences are bad and dangerous," he wrote.

But the bad influences were winning out that year, with Senator Feargal Quinn's father, Eamonn, opening a second holiday camp and ballroom down the coast in Skerries.

Unable to prevent Butlin's Mosney from opening, Giles and the bishops secured the concession that a Catholic church would be built right outside its gate, with a chaplain resident to police morals.

Some priests took to the promotion game with conspicuous relish. In the border counties one cleric, long departed, had such a reputation as an "operator" that veteran band members still talk of how every £100 in fees was counted out by him as "twenty, forty, sixty, eighty for you, and £20 for me". This was "priest money".

William Trevor was courting his soon-to-be wife, Jane, in 1951, when a new census confirmed that the state of the country was as bad as everyone knew. With a deeply Freudian typo, the Evening Herald reported that the survey was "the biggest census of copulation ever taken in the State". The survey recorded that tens of thousands of mostly young Irish people were emigrating each year to work in British factories and labour on the rebuilding of England's industrial cities which had been bombed by the Germans. Their less regulated ballrooms of romance would be in Finsbury, Liverpool and Coventry. Deputies tabled a number of questions to ministers in the Dáil under the heading 'Emigration of Girls'. Several Fianna Fáil TDs wanted teenage girls prevented from leaving.

The 1950s were not a period of any great social change in Ireland, but music styles did move on. Before the decade was out, the pop sound had changed, and with it the attitudes of a coming generation. The staple soundtrack of Trevor's ballroom was what we today could best relate to in that mutant mush known as Country 'n' Irish. Jazz and swing were still widely derided by Official Ireland as "race music", and were very rarely heard on Irish radio.

The rise of purpose-built ballrooms in the late 1950s created a scene where promoters could tour international superstars. Incredibly, sometimes these big name acts found themselves playing to half-empty halls because a homegrown showband was playing up the road.

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