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The Pavesi ‘Isle of Romance Sea of Heartbreak’

by Paddy Meehan

From the Donegal Times, February 9, 2005

Legendary showband, The Clipper Carlton, pictured in 1958. Photo includes Don Shearer, guitar; Hugo Quinn, trumpet; Victor Fleming, trombone; Terry Logue, tenor sax; Mike O’Hanlon, drums; Art O’Hagan, bass and vocals; Hugh Toorish, piano; Fergus O’Hagan and Victor Craig, Manager. Thanks to Ita Barry, Bruckless, for the photo.







It was balmy Summer’s night in June 1963 – I had just turned sixteen and was back from Letterkenny where I had spent the previous year working in the Post Office. I was looking forward to my first ‘grown up’ dance in Donegal’s new state-of-the-art ballroom – The Pavesi. Developed by the late Senator Paddy McGowan, it was opened in 1962 to the pulsating rhythms of Des Smyth and the Collegemen. Prior to this we had gone to dances in the FCA hall at the Mullans. Starring there were the Hayseeds Skiffle Group – Donal (Duck) Gallagher (guitar and vocals); Paddy O’Donnell (washboard); Harry Stewart (guitar) and Walter Espey (tea-chest bass), who we thought were the closest thing to Lonnie Donegan there ever was. Little did I know that years later I would ‘stand in’ on tea-chest bass with the Hayseeds at various concerts and dances.

By the early 60s the showband craze had taken over Ireland. Ballrooms were speedily erected throughout the country, even slatted huts and hay sheds were converted. Prior to this boom Donegal dancers patronised the smaller venues such as the Market Hall, Donegal Town; The Butt, Ballybofey; St Mary’s, Dunkineely; Foresters, Killybegs; Leghowney; Tullyloskin; Frosses; Drimarone; even Meenataggart - and, of course, the Orange Halls in Laghey and Ballintra.

But this was now the swinging 60’s and certain businessmen were quick to grasp the opportunity to cash in on the showband scene – some 700 new bands sprang up in Ireland ranging distance-wise from Buncrana’s Rhythm Boys, to Brendan O’Brien and The Dixies in Cork. The north-west now had 1500 – 2000 capacity ballrooms like the Orchid, Lifford; Fiesta, Letterkenny; Borderland, Muff; Astoria, Bundoran; Palladrome, Strabane; The Embassy, Derry; The Stardust (in the Bogside), Derry – that was a place to watch your P’s & Q’s alright – the cats and dogs out in the carpark even went around in groups!! The Silver Slipper, Strandhill, and, of course, the Rainbow, Glenfarne, which in its latter days was managed by CDW Promotions – a Donegal Town based consortium consisting of the late Michael Cooney, Bob Dore and Terry Woods.

The four of us – my three buddies and I – shoes shined – well half shined – good suits on – hair greased – egotistically assuming that we were God’s gift to all the ‘women that we were going to get that night’ approached the car park where Andy Brogan was busily directing traffic. The queue stretched nearly 100 yards. ‘What was causing this – surely they couldn’t all have heard about us four coming to the dance?’

Pavesi employees Paddy O’Donnell; Patsy Brogan; Mickey McIntyre; John Slevin, Gerry McKeown, all looking resplendent in their tuxedos, white shirts and dickie bows, manned the pay-box and front doors. Having forked out 7/6 each, we entered the hall where a blast of heat hit us as we fought our way into the middle of 2,000 dancers – “where’s the women they’re all talking about we can’t even see the dance floor!!!”

At 9pm sharp, ballroom manager and my Post Office colleague, Michael Cooney, is at the microphone “Ladies and gentlemen would you put your hands together and welcome on stage the sensational Clipper Carlton Showband.” Tumultuous cheers and claps from all.

Us four gombeens stood gobsmacked in the ten deep crowd that surrounded the front of the stage. For the next three hours we were rooted to the spot as we watched eight talented showmen, dressed in white linen suits with tanned faces, hair sleeked back, looking like something out of the movies, as they went through a wide range of popular songs and music of the day. Suddenly the performance that everyone came to see – ‘Juke Box Saturday Night’. Amazingly Art and Fergie O’Hagan become Laurel and Hardy; Don Shearer is Elvis; Mickey O’Hanlon, Charlie Chaplin. Trumpeter Hugo Quinn plays “O Mein Papa” - you could hear a pin drop. Again Mickey O’Hanlon takes the lead, going through a fantastic drum solo, throwing his sticks high into the air.

The Clipper Carlton from Strabane are still regarded as Ireland’s first showband. In 1954 they cast aside the staid music-stands that up till then had been standard and took to their feet playing and entertaining, breaking down the barriers between stage and dancers.

Thanks to astute manager, Vic Craig, a Post Office official from Strabane, The Clippers were the first to secure a percentage of the door takings - the first to go on the road with a custom-built bus - the first to hand out publicity photos - the first to fly out and extensively tour the States. Ok, there were other bands in the north-west at the time – Johnny Quigley/Gay Mc Intyre from Derry, Dave Glover from Belfast, but the Clippers left them all behind with their flamboyant suits, movie-star image and entertaining stage routines. The Clippers were equally as big a draw in Cork as they were in Belfast, often attracting 3000 patrons at a time. Previously known as Hugo Quinn and the Carltons they merged this with a name from a famous Pan American flying seaplane ‘The Yankee Clipper’ which transversed the Atlantic, landing at Foynes/Shannon.

By 1955, the money was rolling in. They were playing at venues all over Ireland touring England, Scotland and the United States. The band attracted 6,300 to the St. Nicholas (boxing) Arena New York in 1958. In today’s equivalent it is reckoned that in 1955 they were earning approximately £7,000 sterling per night.

But time was speedily catching up with the band and, in 1965, they split up. They tried several revivals in the 70s and again in the 80s. When the Clippers split in ‘65, Vic Craig took over managing the Palladrome Ballroom, Strabane, while still continuing to work in the Post Office until his eventual retirement.

In 1987, following the death of founder Hugo Quinn, all went their separate ways, leaving behind happy memories for the boys and girls they entertained and the romances they helped create. Some members tried to form an offshoot band ‘The Santa Fe’ but the old magic was gone. Hugo Quinn, once asked how much money they made, said, that at their peak - on a day off - they could, without a thought, take a taxi from Strabane to Dublin, fly to Paris, spend a night on the town, and fly back the following day. This at a time when the average weekly wage was £3. The Clippers were definitely the forerunners of the ‘60s showband boom.

Back in the Pavesi it is now 1am. Someone asks “hey, what about the women we came to get?”. Yes, those mysterious creatures lined up on the far side of the hall with the men ogling them from a distance. “You go first!! Ah na, you go” So we just stand and watch. At 2am the Clipper Carlton leave the stage, after playing for a full five hours non-stop. The four of us leave the hall on our own.

The ‘swinging 60s and the showband/ballroom craze had just started throughout Ireland.
I hear the Freshmen from Belfast are here next week. Ah sure maybe we’ll get a woman in the Pavesi that night - who knows!!!

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