The Biggest Party in Ireland
showbands hands reunited, says Paddy Cole, not for a funeral
but to recall a golden era
WHO was there? Let's
just say that, in a way, we all were the singers, the
players, the men who managed us all and the recording
engineers who cut the grooves that put it into history. One
hundred and twenty people, a representative slice of an era
of Irish entertainment that, sadly, will never be around
again. It was thanks to President Mary McAleese that we
teamed up after all those years. And, as one wag put it, it
wasn't even a funeral that brought us together.
It's ironic, but
kind of inevitable, too, that those of us who were in the
showbands only seem to meet up at funerals these days.
Ironic, because it's no empty boast to say that we were
privileged to be part of one of the greatest celebrations of
life ever. Eight hundred bands, dancing six or seven nights
a week, hundreds of thousands of people thronging the
ballrooms. The biggest party in Ireland, and it went on for
a decade or more.
Last week, the
President's invitation took more than a hundred of us to
Áras an Uachtaráin to celebrate a uniquely Irish musical
phenomenon. The idea came from Mary McAleese and her husband
Martin. They'd both been showband aficionados themselves
back in the Sixties. They remembered the days, telling us
about cramming into a tiny Volkswagen car to go to the
dancehalls. And the clothes, too: President McAleese
revealed the details of Martin's shiny brown suit, complete
with "a crease in the trousers that you could cut meat
It's not being
sentimental, I think, or even overly nostalgic, to say there
really was something magical about the showbands. President
McAleese quoted Seamus Heaney, his lines about the
prevailing mood in his parents' day, about people "living
under high-banked clouds of resignation." That was what the
showbands changed. They blew the clouds away.
For a time, for a
few hours on most nights of the week if people wanted, the
showbands provided the antidote. Someone said it at the Áras,
that in those days ecstasy didn't come in tablet form. No,
it was just going dancing, a mass of people in a ballroom,
having a ball.
about the showbands, too, that seems to demand a bit of
reminiscence. That was, I think, what prompted the Áras
event in the first place. President McAleese and her husband
had been chewing over the old days. It's like when sports
fans get together and say, "Do you remember such and such a
match?"; for us it's the same, but it's dances and bands
Anyway, she decided
that there was something special in Ireland, something that
had brought a touch of magic into the lives of thousands of
people, and it had somehow gone unrecognised. The Áras
celebration was by way of a thank you, she told us.
"While the showband
world has changed," she said, "and the entertainment world
has moved on, we owe all you people a debt, and this
reception is by way of saying that we have not forgotten."
So who was there?
I'm a bit wary about mentioning names, because I think it's
a little inappropriate to showcase just a few people out of
a time that involved so many. It wasn't just the big-hitters
of the showband era who had been invited, though. The
President had dug deep, coming up with a list that reflected
a true cross-section of everyone who was there. In reality,
of course, there were people who were every bit as talented
as entertainers and musicians as the ones who got the lucky
breaks and made it into the headline bands. That was what
was special about the celebration they were there, too.
SO I'll mention just
a few people, a few names that should strike a chord for
many of you. Victor Craig was there, the manager of the
Clipper Carlton, first of the showbands, along with original
members Art O'Hagan, Maxie Muldoon and Don Shearer. Gay
McIntyre from Derry, one of our finest musicians, was at the
Áras, too, along with another Derry man, Johnny Quigley, who
had one of the best bands on the road at that time.
Big Tom McBride.
Mick Foster. Tony Kenny. Eamon Monaghan and Jim Doherty from
the Capital Showband. TJ Byrne, manager of the Royal
Showband, with band leader Michael Coppinger. Ronnie Drew
turned up, as did Nita Norry, Bridie Gallagher, Eileen
Donaghy, Maisie McDaniels and Eileen Reid. There was a guy
named Sid Shine, 82 years old now, who had a band in Athlone.
A lot of guys from the Mighty Avons were there. So was Des
Kelly, the leader of the Capital Showband, along with Joe
Mac and Sean Lucey from the Dixies.
And dozens more. You
can imagine the wave of reminiscing that swept over us. It
was unbelievable. People were there that hadn't seen each
other for years. Sometimes people had changed so much they
didn't recognise each other. I, for one, was going around
thinking that I hadn't changed a bit, but so-and-so had they
were probably thinking exactly the same thing in reverse.
always about people getting together; about mixing. I
remember years ago, when we were in Las Vegas with Twink and
Brendan Bowyer and the Big Eight Showband. What astonished
us was that all these celebrities from the entertainment
world were coming to the concerts, for the simple reason
that we were the only band who would play absolutely
In Vegas, if you
wanted Dixieland, you had to go to a Dixieland place.
If you wanted
Country, then a country concert was the only option.
Then along came this
Irish showband, doing Dixieland, country, rock and roll,
everything. We even had Irish dancers between the sets, and
we'd play jigs and reels for them to dance to.
So we packed them
in. Mohammad Ali used to come and see us. Elvis Presley
came, twice. They were all people who we idolised, and the
tributes from them were truly gratifying.
That's what made it
doubly gratifying, too, when President McAleese invited us
all to the Áras, because she is also a huge idol of mine.
I really think nothing in Ireland has ever compared to the
showbands. They were innocent days, really, occasions for
happy, carefree fun. People still love to talk about them
(none more so than the musicians!) and that's why, I think,
an official celebration comes as such a pleasing idea, for
the thousands who went to dance, as well as for all of us
who tore around the country from ballroom to ballroom in the
wagons. President McAleese, the thank-you goes both ways.
The showband days
might be part of Irish history now, but what's more
worthwhile than happy memories?
Thank you, for
remembering us, and for stirring our own memories of a