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Just one last dance in Tara ballroom

An aerial view of the Tara Ballroom in the 1960’s.

Unknown Author

It is almost 60 years since construction started on the Tara Ballroom in 1946, yet a part of Courtown’s history looks like being consigned to just that - history.

When The Echo broke the news four weeks ago that the owner wanted to demolish the former ballroom and replace it with apartments, many people across the county recalled its golden era with nostalgia.

Once the ballroom first opened its doors in 1947, boasting the largest dance floor in the whole of Leinster, busloads of young people arrived there from far and wide - all eager to put their dancing skills to use.

The golden era of ballroom dancing lasted through the 1940s and 50s, and when the Tara Ballroom was in its heyday, it played host to the likes of Val Doonican, The Royal Showband, The Cadet Showband with Eileen Reid, the Smith Brothers from Waterford, Brendan Bowyer, Dickie Rock, Mick Tuohy, Mick Delahunty, The Clipper Carltons, and Jimmy Cawley and his band to name but a few.

It was built by localman Peter Redmond to replace the The Tara Hall which had been used as a dance hall since it was built in 1914. Originally a handball alley built by Lord Courtown, it was converted into The Tara Hall by Mr. Redmond’s father.

Due to the dancing craze which had been imported from America however, the original hall was deemed too small for requirements, so Mr. Redmond - who also owned the Taravie Hotel - embarked on the ambitious project of building the Tara Ballroom.

The Courtown native hired Dan Tomkins, a contractor from Esmonde Street in Gorey, to build the dance hall with the biggest dance floor space in Leinster.

Localman Jim Dowdall, who lives opposite where the The Beacon is now, worked as a carpenter on the site. “They used to do everything by hand in those days,” he recalls. “Even the blocks were made on site. Everything was handmade, so it was a major project to build it. And when it was built it was huge - there was nothing big here in those times!”

When it was finished and it first opened its doors to the public, it was a very modern, sophisticated ballroom. The dance floor was the big attraction - a maple sprung floor which remains today. It was sprung on big coil springs, down in barrels of oil. Dancers at the time recalled how the floor would swing with them, compared to other venues which had concrete floors with no give in them.

It was an immediate success and its popularity meant that it had to be extended shortly after it was built. The Tara Bar flanked it later on, but since then there have been no major changes or alterations, and the building has remained practically the same down through the years. The biggest changes were made when it became The Beacon in recent years, and the likes of Abrakebabra was added.

Once it opened it became the dominant attraction in the north of the county, attracting the best showbands in the country to the venue, and bringing scores of young people to Courtown to share in the excitement.

People came from near and far, from a radius of around 30 miles away and even further. The ballroom brought a lot of people to Courtown and created a lot of spin-off opportunities for the town, with hotels and shops getting a boost from the extra visitors.

People would get lifts where possible, either by bus or by a hackney which would take seven people. Some visitors to the town would stay overnight.

“People didn’t mind travelling 30 miles, and you’d book your seat in the hackney,” recalls local historian Anna Kinsella. “I know of one fella who missed his lift home, so he walked back to Wexford after a disco, and another who carried a girl back to Clonegal on the crossbar of his bicycle. They were good strong men in those days, reared on hairy bacon and cabbage!”

She adds that they would have been dancing until three o’clock in the morning.

“The dances went from eight to three o’clock, so it was really a marathon effort. And you would have to get up to go to work after that, and you could have three of them in a week! It was mad, but so enjoyable.”

The Tara Ballroom played host to company dances as well, for the likes of the Old Leather Factory - now long gone. Supper would be included in the entrance price for these events. There was very often a dance in aid of a local group such as the Gorey footballers or the Gorey Pipe Band.

The Gorey Craobh of Comhaltas held weekly céilís there during the summer season, which had many educational benefits for the youth of North Wexford.

Dances took place through the week during the summer, while things quietened down a bit in the winter, with perhaps the odd film being shown on one night a week.

The big attraction during the winter was the Island Hunt Ball after Christmas every year, when locals would gather to see the fashions worn by people going in. Tables were set with a full meal and it was always a great night for anyone involved in the hunt.

The dance craze was not restricted to Courtown however, and anyone who has ever found himself before Judge Donnchadh O Buachalla will be interested to know that dances took place in the Courthouse in Gorey.

There were also dances hosted in the Old School House, and the old picture-house, where Murphy’s Funeral Home is now. Of course the Gorey Town Hall, which was situated on the Arklow Road, also serviced the town as a dance hall for many years.

Nothing could compare with the Tara Ballroom however, which could hold around 2,000 people. It had a central globe, a mirror-ball, which put spun stars around the ceiling when the lights went down. This was the opportunity for close dancing between young couples.

“It was very innocent at the time,” remembers Anna Kinsella who wrote about the history of the area in The Windswept Shore. “Yet it was an occasion of sin - the church objected to it at the time. And then when the 1950s came in, and rock and roll came with it, we were damned altogether! We were the rock-and-roll kids.”

Old-time waltzing was very popular in the 1940s, as was céilí dancing before the more modern dances took over, such as the foxtrots, sambas, rumbas and tangos.

“Those were for the real dancers,” Anna points out. “We used to practice and all, and the thing is that you would know who the good dancers were, so some people were more popular than others. You’d always want a good dancer for the night.”

If a girl refused a dance and was seen dancing later on with someone else, it was a terrible insult, and the girl could be thrown out of the ballroom.

It was in the Tara Ballroom that many couples set romantic eyes on each other for the first time, according to local historian Michael Fitzpatrick, and many ended up in lifelong marriages.

Licensing laws were very strict at the time - there was no alcohol available in the Tara Ballroom. Even in the likes of The Taravie, drink was only served through a hatch - there was no bar or counter there at the time.

Dancers had to make do with minerals - if they could afford them after paying their way in. “Club Orange was the strongest thing you could get,” remembers Jim Dowdall. “If you could get a Club Orange you were a wealthy man! They were about 4 pence at the time.”

Peter Redmond offered a season ticket to locals which represented the best value for keen dancers. When the big bands came to town, however, the prices went up. Supper would include tea and a slice of cake.

“If a fella bought a mineral for a girl that was a big deal,” Anna explains, “that meant he was declaring an interest. If he bought her supper it was really serious! That would be followed up with a date.”

The popularity of the ballroom lasted through the years until disco started to take over in the 60s and 70s. Nothing else could really compare to it when it was going strong, and its demise is heartfelt by many.

“They were great times. It was a totally different world. It’s like everything else, the wheel keeps turning you know,” Anna says ruefully.

In November 1995, the building was sold at auction for the sum of £425,000. It was decided by the new owners to invest £750,000 to restore it to its former glory, and there were massive tax incentives granted under the sea-side resort renewal scheme.

If the application to demolish the old ballroom and replace it with apartments and shops is successful, it will consign part of Courtown’s history to the memory of so many people who may have met their wife or husband there.

The old Tara Ballroom would be replaced with a development ranging from two to five storeys, containing 34 apartments and nine shops, and including a 1,125 square metre supermarket.

As Elvis once sung: “Life goes on and this old world will keep on turning.”


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