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A Young Person's Primer to the Showband Era

By Eleanor Murphy, Journalism student - Dublin City University, Ireland

We’ve all heard them. Generations of Irish people are reared on them. The Irish parents’ guidebook lists them as a compulsory ingredient of child rearing. Yes, it’s the ‘in my day’ stories.  “In my day, we had to walk to school barefoot....In my day, we didn’t have mobile phones...In my day, things were different.” Throughout Ireland these statements are as well known as the Our Father.

In my house, these infamous words were met with a roll of the eyes. But in January something strange happened, I started to enjoy the stories. My parents grew up in a very different Ireland and suddenly I wanted to hear all about it. RTE’s drama, Showbands II, inspired this curiosity. For me, as a 21-year-old, the show was simply another night’s entertainment. But for my parents, it was a tale from their youth. As the titles rolled, their stories started. It was compulsive listening.

They laughed about the old drunk who would dance on his own by the stage,     wearing a long coat and wellies. My mother recalled the fella who’d pinch her if she wouldn’t dance with him. And they almost forgot the night they went to a friend’s house for tea after a dance and banged on the ceiling with the handle of a brush to wake the occupants. It was all harmless fun, apparently.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, dancehalls were the hub of socialising in Ireland. They were located in the remotest parts of the country. But at weekends thousands would descend on the hall to see their favourite band. The halls were an early version of Cilla Black. Thousands of couples, including my parents, met on the dance floor.

But the gender divide was always clearly defined. Girls stood at one side of the hall and the fellas at the other. If a fella wanted to ask a girl for a dance, he had to be brave. “It was awful when you’d walk the whole way across and she’d say no thanks and you had to walk back again with all the lads laughing at you,” says John Baird from Donegal.

This arrangement caused problems for fellas further south too. “I have some terrible memories. I’d see a fine thing but by the time I’d pluck up the courage to approach her and ask her to dance, somebody else would’ve asked her and I’d be kicking myself,” says Liam O’Reilly from Arklow.

The hall had one bar, a mineral bar. “But that didn’t stop the lads bringing in a baby whiskey and mixing it with a coke mineral or a banana flavoured mineral. We all did it,” says John. The bar allowed the fellas to monitor their progress with the ladies. “If you took a girl up for a mineral you knew you’d scored. But if you were waiting outside the cloakroom and she didn’t come out, then you hadn’t scored. But there was only one way out and she had to come out to somebody,” laughs John.

Many people walked to the dances. But hitchhiking was also popular. John once hitched a lift to see Chubby Checker in Lifford. “One lad would stand out and two would hide so when a guy would pull up he’d be confronted by three instead of one. A black garda car brought us some of the way but by the time we got there, the hall was packed so we had to stand outside listening.”

The crowds idolised the bands. The Capitol, the Royal and the Miami were household names. “They were our stars. They projected the image that we couldn’t see on TV. They were great lads,” says John. And everyone wanted to be a part of the scene. Liam played in a local band but rejected the chance to go professional. This is a decision he has often regretted. “I took my mother and father’s advice and stuck with my good job, which I was often raging for because I missed the few years craic.”

But life in the bands wasn’t perfect. “It definitely wasn’t glamorous,” says Gerry Gallagher, who played with several showbands including Magic and the Kim Newport Band. There were no fancy dressing rooms and sometimes the bands were lucky to have a sink. “So many places were freezing cold and damp. We sometimes changed behind the stage. And the only food within 10 miles was at the mineral bar, a mineral and a bar of chocolate,” he adds.

The journey home wasn’t comfortable either. John helped the bands carry their equipment. He recalls one band’s van. “The bandwagon would have no heater, no nothing and they’d drive in it for four or five hours. One guy told me, you’d fall asleep in the bandwagon with no heater and you’d wake up with your jaw frozen to the window.”

But the bands enjoyed the scene. “It was all I wanted to do. There was no other reason to play music in Ireland at the time. It was magical. There was magic created between the band and the crowd. The idea that the crowd was listening to you and you were somehow contributing to their evening’s enjoyment was pretty exciting,” says Gerry, who now lives in Sligo.

And the bands always had fun. Alan Carr was a member of several showbands, including Stage Two and the Victors. He’s now based in Canada and continues to play music on the casino circuit in North America. There’s one night he’ll never forget. “I was in Stage Two during the time of the streaking. Everyone was doing the streak back in the 70s. We’d be signing autographs at the front of the stage and a couple of nights Joe, one of the lads in the band, disappeared. Then we’d look at the crowd and they’d be shouting ‘look, look, look.’ We’d turn around and there’s Joe streaking from one door to the other behind us on stage,” recalls Alan. One night, Alan and his bandmates decided to have a bit of fun with Joe. “Myself and the sax player said we’d keep an eye on him. So he came out on stage. I grabbed one door and the sax player grabbed the other. He had nowhere to go. He grabbed the symbol from his drum kit to cover himself and stood there with a big red face. He never did it again,” laughs Alan.

But at some point the fun had to end. As time moved on, so too did the music industry. Discos, DJs and a love of alcohol killed the showband scene. “The real death nail in the industry was the advent of lounge bars and hotel ballrooms getting a license to serve alcohol,” says John.

Adds Gerry, "once they served a "meal" (usually greasy chicken and chips), they could keep the bar open until 1 or 2 a.m. The crowds followed the alcohol and without it, the ballrooms died a slow and painful death." 

But the bands and the punters were part of a unique scene that will never be forgotten. “The showbands are a part of Irish historical record that really didn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” says Gerry. And the crowds that danced to Boyer, Rock and Cunningham know they were a part of something special. “I’d live it all over again. I’m very glad to have been around in that time. I drive by the hall everyday and look at it and there are memories there that keep my family alive,” says John.

Many of the ballrooms have been demolished, the bands have moved on and the dancers have grown up but throughout Ireland the memories and stories live on in the hearts of a generation. And some stories really are worth a listen!

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In Loving Memory of Grant Gallagher: Sept. 21, 1990 - Nov. 18, 2006