By Sean P. Feeny
WHEN the Fiesta Ballroom first opened its doors to the public on
October 5th, 1962, it was exciting times for the people of
Letterkenny and Donegal who eagerly awaited the opening of the new
venue, the name of it being a secret until the night of the launch.
Speaking to the first man to set foot onto the Fiesta Ballroom
dance floor, Letterkenny man Liam O'Neill recalled the opening night
and other fond memories.
"The opening of the Fiesta was a big deal back then and its name
was kept a secret until the last moment when the ballroom's name was
finally unveiled," said Liam.
Curious people of all ages flocked to the opening to witness the
dawn of a new meeting place that would become a place music,
entertainment and match-making for many years.
Liam said: "I was 19 at the time and young people my age would
have been looking forward to the big bands coming to the town
performing in the new venue with a capacity of 2000.
"Before the Fiesta days we had to travel as far as the Borderland
Ballroom in Muff or the Butt Hall in Ballybofey, which were the main
established ballrooms, or parochial halls around the county,
everywhere from Donegal Town to Gweedore.
"There was a lot of travelling involved in going to dances, we'd
share a taxi between two or three couples, but then all of a sudden
this new venue opened right here in Letterkenny.
"It wasn't just young people going to the Fiesta, but people of
all ages including my mother who also went along to the opening
night. People were just curious to see what this new venue was like
on the inside," said Liam.
"The Fiesta was so much more modern than any other ballroom at
the time and had facilities that you may take for granted these
days, but you could sit down and have a cup of tea and a sandwich
during the night."
Liam said back in those days in was all about the dancing and the
big band music: "There was no alcohol served in the Fiesta and if
the bouncers got a smell of drink off you, you weren't allowed in
and the owners, the Keeney brothers, were very strict on this
Liam admitted that he was, "with some reluctance", the first man
to set foot on the Fiesta dance floor on the opening night.
"There was a well-known singing group from the town back then,
The Pattersons, and their mother Chrissie and she said to me 'Come
on Liam, we'll get out on the floor' as nobody else was making the
first move," he laughed, "Thinking back now I was probably a bit
reluctant to go out first as everybody would be looking at you."
The very first big showband to grace the stage of the Fiesta on
the opening night was The Capitol Showband from Dublin.
"The band started at 9.30pm and didn't stop playing until 2am,"
said Liam, "you wouldn't get a band playing such a long set
Many more great names of the Irish showband era with household
bands such as The Royal Showband, 'The' band at the time according
to Liam, The Cadettes, Larry Cunningham and the Mighty Avons, Derek
Dean and the Freshmen, The Clipper Carlton Showband, Brian Coll and
the Buckaroos, Big Tom and the Mainliners and many more.
Liam said: "As well as all the great bands from around the
country we also got to see big name bands from the UK such as The
Searchers from Liverpool."
The Fiesta also became a venue for local talented to strut their
stuff, including Letterkenny band, The Vampires (later known as The
Marines) whose line-up included none other than Liam O'Neill on
"We got to play relief for big bands like the Freshmen, as well
as playing our smaller gigs in the parochial halls of Donegal, which
Liam mainly played guitar in the band, but would also sing on
occasions: "Well, you could say I tried to sing," he laughed,
"People used to say to me you're a 'brave singer' O'Neill."
Whereas the Fiesta was the beginning of the end for the Devlin
Hall, it was the discos and other licensed premises that signalled
the demise of the big ballrooms, including the Fiesta.
Liam said: "During its time the Fiesta was the best thing going
and it certainly had its day and lasted longer than others, but when
the parochial hall dances started fizzling out the larger dance
halls were soon to follow."
Many things have changed since the demise of the ballrooms, said
Liam: "In the Fiesta days you had to cross the floor to ask a girl
to dance and if you were refused you crawled back," he laughed, "But
that very rarely happened as the girls were very polite and ladylike
and would dance with you."
One thing was for sure, according to Liam, you never went home
from the Fiesta with an empty stomach: " You were well fed when you
got home because of the chippie vans outside, and the best and most
popular was, without doubt, Charlie McGee's."
Liam has many fond and funny memories from the Fiesta days and is
glad to see things coming full circle and showbands coming back by
popular demand as he always "preferred live music rather than
listening to a record".
However, there is one that stands out for Liam: "Well, I did get
asked to leave the floor on one occasion when I was dancing with my
future wife Agnes.
"There was a massive crowd in the ballroom and the Keeneys didn't
like you putting your arms around one another and when we were seen
doing so, there was a tap on the shoulder and we were told 'dance
with one arm around or leave the hall' so we left in protest," he
laughed. Those of you who danced in the famous Fiesta Ballroom will
be happy to know that the 46th anniversary of the famous stamping
ground will be celebrated in October.
On Tuesday, February 26, a meeting will be held in the Ramada
Encore Hotel, Letterkenny at 8pm and anyone interested in finding
out more is welcome to attend. Do you have any stories, any old
photographs, posters or anything else about the Fiesta? If so the
committee and its chairman Johnny McCollum would welcome you along.