Dancing back in time to the Ballroom of Romance

John Byrne

If you were a run-of-the-mill teenage boy back in glamour-drenched early 1980s' Ireland, you probably passed your time as follows. You played Donkey Kong (in urine-scented arcades). You took a keen interest in the juicy 'video nasties' that were whipping up moral outrage across the Irish Sea (while wondering how you might surreptitiously acquire them).

You fetishised digital watches. And, of course, you ceaselessly thought about sex and nudiness.

Screenwriter Eugene O'Brien may have indulged in some of the above, but on Saturday's Documentary on One we learned that his chief teenage obsession was more atypical. In December 1982, a 15-year-old O'Brien sat down to watch RTE's broadcast of Pat O'Connor's The Ballroom of Romance. "Something inside me really connected with it," O'Brien explained. "I taped it and used to watch it all the time. And I got the lads in school to watch it."

In A Backwards Glance At The Ballroom of Romance, O'Brien and filmmaker Eamon Little travelled to Ballycroy, Co Mayo -- site of the now dilapidated Corrigan's Hall (the "ballroom" of the title).

They chatted to locals who'd been involved in the production (like sheep farmer Pat Gallagher, who'd played a bachelor known as 'The Man with the Long Arms'), while O'Brien stood in the abandoned hall and tried to articulate precisely what the film meant to him.


He paid tribute to the music (Tony Chambers' haunting saxophone rendition of The Old Bog Road etc...) and the heavyweight cast, but suggested that at the core of the film is an excruciating and heart-breaking scene played out between Bridie (Brenda Fricker) and Dano Ryan (Mick Lally).

The 36-year-old Bridie (who lives with her crippled father on a small farm) has decided that while she doesn't love Dano, "he'll do" because "he's reliable". But Dano, it turns out, already has an "understanding" with his landlady. All of this is said without being (explicitly) said, through a profoundly awkward conversation that is superficially about farming and eye medicine.

"She's not even going to get Dano," said an emotional O'Brien. "She knows this was her last go... for any kind of happiness."

It was a stirring celebration of an important film's 30th anniversary. A film that "became a cult" for O'Brien and a circle of actor friends who "learned the dialogue off, like saddos". A shame, then, that it has apparently never been released on DVD. Even more upsettingly, YouTube searches for The Ballroom of Romance throw up deeply terrible concert videos of a frisky Chris De Burgh. My eyes! You have been warned.


On Wednesday's Tom Dunne show, another neglected corner of Irish film history was being illuminated. Dunne's guest was filmmaker Marc Ivan O'Gorman, organiser of Carlow's inaugural Taylorfest (taking place this weekend). The Taylor in question was William Desmond Taylor, born into an Anglo-Irish family in Carlow in 1862, and shipped off to Kansas when he was 18.

He ended up in Los Angeles and became an "extraordinary successful" and prolific director, making 60 films between 1914 and 1922. His career took a bit of a dive thereafter, largely because someone (inconveniently) shot him dead in his living room. The case remains unsolved but (a bit like the Fatty Arbuckle farce the following year) it sparked a sensational feeding frenzy for a national press keen to whip up scandalous stories of a wild and licentious Hollywood.

If you fancy knowing more, drop everything and head to Carlow (or stay where you are if you're already there). Two of Taylor's films -- The Soul of Youth and Huckleberry Finn (the first screen adaptation of Twain's novel) -- are being shown, with live musical accompaniment, in The George Bernard Shaw Theatre.

The seductive (percussive) sounds of steel spikes being driven into sodden ground, and 2lb horseshoes thudding onto grass, were to be heard on Saturday's The Curious Ear. Terry Flanagan found himself standing in a field in Wicklow with 50 all-male, die-hard practitioners of 'meggers', the ancient art of horseshoe-pitching. "It's a great pastime," said one player. "A lot of lads are trying to get away from the TV and all that." Understandable. If All Star Mr and Mrs is the disease, then maybe meggers is the cure.