Buckle up for a quick step back in time at Cork's dance halls...

See you at the dance tonight? JO KERRIGAN revisits the great days of the old dance halls in Cork and recalls stars like Brendan Bowyer and Rory Gallagher
Buckle up for a quick step back in time at Cork's dance halls...

STAGE STARS: A flyer for The Fontana Showband, with a young Rory Gallagher at the front in the white jacket — Jo Kerrigan remembers them as a warm-up band in the Arcadia

It’s Friday night, time to go home now,

Get yourself so smartly dressed.

This is the night to look your best,

So see you at the dance tonight!


THAT opening song lyric from the hit film The Young Ones, back in 1961, struck an instant chord with its audiences — and their parents too.

For a good half of the 20th century, romance, fun, and adventure all revolved around going to a dance, hearing the latest hits, perhaps even finding true love.

Well before the dark, crowded atmosphere of clubs and deafening recorded music became the norm, the weekend meant eager preparations, careful dressing up, a walk, a bicycle ride, or a bus trip to the local Ballroom of Romance.

Usually you went with a crowd of friends, and then, if you didn’t hit it off with that special someone, you always had someone to walk home with.

The Fifties and Sixties saw the emergence of a very special phenomenon, the showband era, when smartly-garbed young men (with the occasional woman) took to the stages in halls across the country, belting out lively country and western numbers or romantic ballads which had their audiences dancing till they dropped.

With the sad passing of Brendan Bowyer last week, an era can be said to have ended.

In his day, Bowyer and the Royal Showband were in demand everywhere, and in Cork they played at every venue from the Arcadia and the Majorca to Redbarn and the Lilac in Enniskeane.

So did our own Dixies, Butch Moore and the Capitol, the Freshmen, Dickie Rock, Eileen Reid, Joe Dolan, and so many more.

They made hit records, they travelled to the States, they became household names, but most of all, they played the music we wanted to dance to.

LEGEND: The Royal Showband, including singer Brendan Bowyer, back left, publicise ‘The Hucklebuck’ single at the Bowling Alley in Grand Parade, Cork, in 1965.
LEGEND: The Royal Showband, including singer Brendan Bowyer, back left, publicise ‘The Hucklebuck’ single at the Bowling Alley in Grand Parade, Cork, in 1965.

The Arcadia (d’Arc) was the place to go dancing right back to the 1930s, and by the 1960s it was welcoming the children of those first attendees.

At weekends it was packed to the roof, with often 1,000 tickets sold even before the box office opened, and queues stretching down the Lower Road.

If you got there early, you could enjoy the warm-up band — often the Fontana, led by a young Rory Gallagher. He and his fellow musicians would play favourites like Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, and Shake Baby, Shake. Sometimes Gallagher would step out front and do a guitar solo like the haunting theme from Lolita. That’s where our Rory learned his trade, in the packed dance halls, before he moved on and up into another sphere.

The Dixies learned their trade here too, as a warm-up band, watching the top bill closely afterwards and practising all week to get the same tone.

And it was here that Joe Mac first unveiled that incredible high leap from the drums, which always produced screams from his watchers.

ALL ABOARD: People queuing up for the special busses at Grand Parade, Cork taking them to the Dixies at the Majorca Ballroom, Crosshaven in 1968.
ALL ABOARD: People queuing up for the special busses at Grand Parade, Cork taking them to the Dixies at the Majorca Ballroom, Crosshaven in 1968.

The Majorca, which opened in Crosshaven in 1963, became hugely popular with the young set who were fortunate enough to have use of a car. For those without such luxuries, there was a special bus service from the Grand Parade which brought you down to the door of the dance hall and took you home again afterwards. Queues formed in the evening at the South Mall end of the Parade, everyone dressed up to the nines, girls tottering on stiletto heels, boys uncomfortably fingering their too-tight ties, but all looking eagerly forward to the evening ahead.

Joe McCarthy of The Dixies. Picture: Eddie O'Hare 
Joe McCarthy of The Dixies. Picture: Eddie O'Hare 

Down in Crosshaven, the music from the ballroom drifted over the hills behind the bay until old timers pottering around Weaver’s Point lifted their heads to listen, and perhaps remember their own dancing days.

Right across from that Grand Parade bus stop was the Stardust, which also attracted crowds, especially with its convenient city centre location. Here they had top bands, and hosted such major events as the choosing of Miss Cork, to go on to the Miss Ireland and Miss World contests. This was run by the Lucey brothers, who also had the biggest dance hall in East Cork down at Redbarn near Youghal for many years. People walked from as far away as Dungarvan to attend that. The hall is remembered with great affection, and many met their future spouses there.

The Regal Showband, of Cork, with their new single, Love Me, in 1964
The Regal Showband, of Cork, with their new single, Love Me, in 1964

Sheila Lane, a niece of the Lucey brothers, recalls the happy summers she spent at Redbarn as a child, helping Granny Lucey to run the popular shop on the nearby caravan site.

“I was too young to go to the dances of course, as I was only ten or eleven, but I would tiptoe in beforehand when they were setting up, and it was magical.”

Sometimes, she was able to peep in as the band got going and the dancing started, but then had to go to bed. “I could hear the dance going on though, and later the sound of cars starting up and people heading home. Next morning, I would be up and out early to search around in the grass for any money that had been dropped. But I wasn’t the first one there doing that, I can tell you!”

All the big bands played at Redbarn, including of course the Royal. As we spoke of the late great Brendan Bowyer, Sheila revealed a secret from the past. “One night he split his trousers when they were practising before the crowds arrived, and my uncle Jerry’s wife had to sew them up for him quickly!”

Perhaps not surprising, as Bowyer was always an energetic performer in the Elvis Presley style!

These were the big dance venues, but there were so many smaller ones. Boat Club, Glenanaar, and Dolphin for city dwellers, and further afield the Montrose in Macroom, the Star in Millstreet, the Boys’ Club in Bantry (where the parish priest patrolled, checking that no close dancing was occurring), Inchigeelagh, and even a tin shed in Kealkill known colloquially as Spatters.

The lure of dancing drew crowds to all of these on long summer evenings. Afterwards, the lanes were good for a romantic walk, or, more practically, a girl might be offered ‘a crosser’ home on the bar of a boy’s bike.

In the city, Pres and Christians held dances too, for which you had to have a membership card. CBC’s were held in the school itself, but Pres was grander and hired the ballroom of the Imperial Hotel. The Dukes Showband played at Pres dances, opening with Blueberry Hill “to get things going”, and always signalling the end of the evening with the Peter Gunn theme.

Highlight of the dance was Jerry Lee Lewis’ High School Hop, for which every boy seized a girl who was known to be good at jiving. The ballroom floor fairly quaked and shook during that number.

Conveniently, the ballroom featured tiny balconies outside the floor-length windows, where many a swift kiss was exchanged.

THE PLACE TO BE: Redbarn Ballroom in Youghal, in 1962.
THE PLACE TO BE: Redbarn Ballroom in Youghal, in 1962.

TV was in its infancy in those days, and few young people had their own flats or bedsits. You lived at home, you worked hard all week, and at the weekend you made the most of what was available. That meant going to a dance wherever possible. How else would you meet the boy or girl of your dreams?

And so, across the city and countryside, young men carefully combed and Brylcreemed their hair, girls put on their best petticoats and full skirted frocks, lipstick was applied, perfume sprayed on, and everybody set out to have a night to remember.

This would be the night, when you “got every dance”, met someone wonderful, got walked home (or if you were really lucky, a lift in a car), and made arrangements to meet up next week.

Do you have memories of those glory days when the band and the music carried you away? When you sang along to The Yenka, Little Arrows, I Ran All The Way Home? We want to hear those memories. Email me at jokerrigan1@gmail.com

Here, for a starter, is a short anecdote from Jim McGrath, the Blackpool jam jar man from last week himself:

“Went to the Arc one Saturday night with the buddies. Had a few pints in The Killarney and a game of rings first, then went into the Arc about half past ten.

“You had to be careful going in, as you could be stopped and told to go for a walk and come back later if you had too much to drink.

“Ten bob it was to get in. Joe Dolan and the Drifters were playing. Boys on one side, girls on the other, sized up the talent. Spotted a lasher and decided to ask her out for a dance and she said yes!

“The first dance was a clinger, then a quick step. Went for a bottle of orange upstairs. Had a great night, asked could I walk her home and she agreed. I told the buddy I got a shift, and he had got one too.

“It was only then I asked where she lived, and she said Spangle Hill. That was a long walk for me, but we got up there anyway, and had a stall on the way.

“Got to her house and were having a chat outside when this fella came up the terrace well steamed, a rough-looking diamond. “Who are you,” he says to me. “I hope you’re looking after her.” It was her father!

“Where are you from,” he says to me.

“Ballypehane,” I said, ‘the hane’.

“Well I tell you now, shag off back to the southside boy, and don’t have any more to do with your wan or I will break your face.”

“I bolted before he said any more, but I had arranged to meet her on Pana the next night. We were going to the pictures but she never turned up, I got a fifty.”

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