Henry Wymbs takes a nostalgic look back to the 1960s when the main form of public entertainment was live music in a dance hall
As I sit back, I find myself reminiscing about the showbands and ballrooms that were so prevalent in Ireland in the 1960s. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing; it can break down barriers and fill your heart with great emotion.
In fact, as I relax, close my eyes and listen to the Irish music of bygone days I can feel myself drift back into the past, sitting by the turf burning fire, Ceile music blaring out of the wireless, and of course the showbands which reinvented the music industry and in doing so, changed the face of music in Ireland forever.
It’s hard to believe that over sixty years have passed since the uniquely Irish phenomenon of the showband first emerged. The Clipper Carlton band from Strabane in Co. Tyrone started the musical revolution that was responsible for the golden age of the showband scene. The fifties in Ireland were a rather repressive time, where the Catholic church dominated its people. Moreover, priests would patrol the dance floor and indeed separate couples that were deemed to be dancing too close.
The power of the priest and church was absolute. It is evident that many of the church’s teachings were very good, but in the entertainment world it had something of a stifling effect.
Sunday night was the big night for dancing. Saturday night was frowned upon by the church as people had to get up for mass on Sunday morning. Never mind having to get up for work on a Monday! Nonetheless, Ireland was starting to emerge from the dark ages of unemployment and emigration, where the choice was either work the farm for a pittance or take the boat to Holyhead.
This was a wonderful period in Irish life, when the showbands generated mass hysteria amongst its followers. It was also a time of optimism, and above all a time to live for today. America had Elvis, England had the Pop groups but Ireland ‘hucklebucked’ and jived to the sound of the showbands. Every county had its own band, the big ones being; The Royal from Waterford, The Dixes from Cork, The Drifters from Westmeath, The Royal Blues from Mayo, The Plattermen from Tyrone, Big Tom and the Mainliners from Monaghan, The Freshmen, fronted by
Derek Deane and Billy Brown, from Ballymena, and Dublin bands, The Capital, Miami and The Cadets. Prior to the showband revolution of the sixties, ballroom dancing and the traditional country house ceilis were the norm.
In its heyday, there were about 600 bands of every size and description travelling the length and breadth of the county, filling the newly created ballrooms, otherwise known as the ‘Breeze Block Ballrooms’ (because they were built with a single concrete breeze block). They were barn-like structures, with a galvanised or asbestos roof) filled with brylcreamed lads and mini-skirted, beehived lassies. Looking back now, these bands and ballrooms played an important role in the social fabric of life in Ireland at a time when there were few alternative venues where young people could meet and enjoy themselves.
My own memories, although now somewhat clouded by age, were of ballrooms like the Astoria in Bundoran (Donegal), the Silver Slipper in Strandhill (Sligo) and the Ballroom of Romance in Glenfarne (Leitrim) Many a night was spent in long queues formed from about 10pm outside the ballrooms where the air smelt of Old Spice and a whiff of Woodbine cigarettes. Pioneer pins were to be seen everywhere. Some of those venues would hold 2,000 to 3,000 people and the only available drink was a glass of milk or a Fanta - if you were lucky.
The Silver Slipper ballroom in Strandhill was one venue that attracted huge crowds. The owner introduced not only the showbands, but the best singers of the day from England and America, including names that people had only heard of through Radio Luxemburg. Although I visited it many times, I couldn’t afford the tickets for the likes of Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers. So many generations met their other halves in the Silver Slipper. Perhaps us fellows were enticed in by the sign above the door which read: ‘Neath these portals tread some of the most beautiful girls in the world’, Hmmn, a slight exaggeration methinks!
This was the era of the showbands that musically electrified the entertainment scene in towns and villages in Ireland. The musicians in their brightly coloured suits and tight trousers were swaying to the beat and heat with the lead singer setting the pace. Apart from a few who enjoyed near mythical status, each band had its leader-in other words, the ‘star’. The biggest was Brendan Bowyer of The Royal. He was Ireland’s answer to Elvis with a Waterford accent.
In those early days we travelled many miles by bicycle or, if you were lucky, by car - usually a black Volkswagen beetle crammed with eight of us. For some reason a person with a car had many friends back then! With such a shortage of transport, it was not uncommon to hitch a lift in the back of a manure-laden cattle lorry - no wonder girls gave us the cold shoulder! To make matters worse, there were no showers or baths in those days so, despite a dash of Old Spice (usually over the shirt), the smell must have been something else!
Looking back with rose tinted glasses, those days and the ballrooms were the forum for what was a bizarre courting ritual – men on one side of the room and woman on the other, each eying one another up – more in suspicion than in hope! The greatest dread, the ultimate humiliation, was to cross the floor and be refused a dance. Many a time I was half way across the floor, only to lose the nerve at the last moment and swerve towards the men’s toilets, as if it had been my intention all along. Success brought the chance to meet the girl of your dreams and rejection brought you back to your mates with your tail between your legs, and the old excuse, ‘I didn’t fancy her anyway.’
The prettiest girls were inevitably snapped up by the smooth-talking city boys, and the not so pretty stood patiently like wallflowers pretending not to care. The names of the ballrooms dotted across the country will live with me forever; the Las Vegas in Tipperary, the Fairyland in Roscommon, the Waldorf in Galway and the Pavesi in Donegal town. The list is endless.
As for the showbands, some are still around today. Sadly, Brendan Bowyer, Joe Dolan, Butch Moore, Larry Cunningham, Sonny Knowles, Brian Coll, Big Tom, Doc Carroll and Brendan O’Brien have passed away.
The stars of the showbands did not use original material, merely cover versions of American songs and one or two did get into the UK charts. Van Morrison still speaks highly of his roots with The Monarchs Showband and Phil Coulter and the late Rory Gallagher have no regrets about their time with different showbands of the sixties.
How many romances blossomed in the ballrooms? How many marriages followed? And where are the ‘Breeze Block Showbands’ now? Sadly, most of them are long gone – that is the Breeze Block Ballrooms not the marriages (hopefully)!
As in so many aspects of life, I look back now with much joy and think: weren’t they wonderful days. We travelled the country visiting what were really hay sheds in the middle of nowhere with not even basic facilities. Heating didn’t exist, despite the cold weather, and ventilation was courtesy of some fecker leaving a gap in the canvas!
What’s more, candle grease and paraffin oil were used to make the floor slippery for the dancers. (No health and safety then!) But who cared - we were all young, full of life, enthusiasm and ‘what the hell’ for tomorrow? F
or me, ecstasy did not come in tablet form, rather it was a sweat-drenched night at a country crossroads, either under a giant canvas marquee in a muddy field or the old breeze block Ballroom of Romance.
I remember falling in love – or what I thought was love – at the tender age of 16. I was at one of the many dances and fell for a girl from Cavan, some fifty miles away from my home. (May as well have been on another planet.) She told me her name was ‘Reilly’, the next day I decided to look her up. To my amusement, I learned that almost everyone in Cavan was ‘Reilly’! well…it was an age of innocence! Oh, happy days…
Towards the end of the sixties, all good things came to an end, and the showband era inevitably ran out of steam. The music scene was slowly taken over by a new breed of entertainment, the Discos. At the time, gossip columnists enthused about its arrival, as the image of the smartly dressed dancers and the suited showband stars were perhaps a little too sentimental and romantic for the less innocent era of seventies onwards.
With the passing of time, I have grown to enjoy many other types of music, but my first love – the sounds of the showbands - continues to hold a special place in my heart. Although I feel a tinge of sadness in the knowledge that this era has gone with the demise of the old-style ballrooms and marquees, a new generation of country singers has arrived and once again, vast crowds of younger dancers are flooding the hotels and music festivals.
Covid has taken a sledge hammer to many activities, and social dancing has been pummelled as much as any of them.