THE Arcadia, the Majorca, Redbarn, and so many other great ballrooms will live on in the memory here in Cork — but there were also smaller occasions and opportunities to dance the night away, down in seaside resorts, or out in some small country hamlet.
Farmers and their wives, hard-working milkmaids, tractor drivers, labourers and shop girls were all drawn as by a magnet to these get-togethers, greeting old friends and making new ones, showing off what finery they possessed, and enjoying themselves thoroughly.
Mary Holly’s family always spent the month of July in Courtmacsherry back in the 1950s, and one of her most vivid memories is of Regatta Night.
“The Esplanade Hotel was where the Regatta Dance was held in the evening,” she recalled. “To our childish eyes, this was the ultimate in glamour, our Ballroom of Romance.
“We pressed our noses to the windows and wished we were old enough to wear glamorous cotton dresses with swirly skirts and wide belts. Would we ever be old enough to graduate to white high heels and nylon stockings? Would we ever see the day when we had perms and wore lipstick? ‘Are my seams straight’? we giggled to each other in the darkness.”
To tell the truth, though, Mary says that to children’s eyes, the men just didn’t measure up.
“Their dark heavy suits were like a uniform, so different to the flowery frocks, and as the night wore on, those red, perspiring faces just couldn’t conjure up the visions of ‘happy ever after’ that books and films had led us to expect.”
In late teens, Mary spent a lot of weekends with her cousins in Bandon, and the whole gang would go to The Lilac in Enniskeane.
For a city girl, she says, that was an experience.
“The men, in those dark, Sunday suits, did not turn up until the pubs closed and usually smelled of porter. I hated that smell. And they had sweaty hands that stuck to your“. Some were quite old (to my eyes) and sometimes I wonder if they ever did find the woman of their dreams, or if they became the sad bachelor farmers that blighted rural Ireland.”
Jean Kearney — who tells me that since last week she has received messages from ‘fellas’ who well remember her as a shining light at the Boat Club — used to rush along with her friends on childhood holidays to the tennis club in Fountainstown as evening fell and a dance got going.
“Us in Fountainstown felt very superior to the kids in Myrtleville who had to come all the way over to ‘our’ hops,” said Jean.
“There was a lot of standing on tiptoe on the wooden benches outside, to look in the window.
“I have a very clear memory of watching, with awe, as Jacqui Darrer demonstrated her skill at The Twist and everyone stood around in a circle watching her.
“I remember the chalk stuff they used to put on the floor to stop people slipping and its particular smell, but I’ve no memory of who actually played the music — it certainly wasn’t live.”
Then there were the country hops, where the whole surrounding townland congregated on a small village hall or tin-roofed shed and danced the night away, to music provided usually by a button accordion, sometimes a piano as well.
Inchigeelagh was especially noted for these occasions in the late 1950s, when Johnny Creedon decided to make the village into a holiday resort, and crowds from the Legion of Mary came down from the city to help him achieve this goal. Two young reporters from the Examiner and Echo, Tim Cramer and Bill O’Herlihy (later to go on to RTÉ) both remembered them vividly.
Tim, in his beautifully-written autobiography, The Life Of Other Days, recalls dancing with a ballerina there, after a performance of The Twisting of the Rope by Joan Denise Moriarty’s troupe.
Bill O’Herlihy chiefly remembered clambering cautiously through a window in the early hours at the cottage where he was staying, after dalliances with local lovelies.
There was another traditional form of public dance at Inchigeelagh too in those late ’50s, the platform, with a local band. This was open-air entertainment at its best, as long as you “got the weather”.
Keith Corrigan had just left Christians and was down in the village for the summer.
“At the time, I had been to hardly any dances and I wasn’t sure if I would have the nerve to ask any girl on to the floor,” he recalls.
“However, after standing at the side for about three minutes, a girl came over and asked me to dance.
“By the end of that one dance, she knew everything about me — where I came from, if I was working, who my parents were, what music I liked, why I was down there instead of being in the big city of Cork, how many brothers and sisters I had. Everything except my shoe size. And I still knew nothing about her. It was actually a very nice experience.”
And still your memories keep pouring in! Richard Mills, long-time press photographer with this publication, recalls the very first dance he was brought to by Joe Sullivan — of the legendary Sullivans pub in Crookhaven, at a tiny hall in Goleen.
“I had just come out of a very strict French boarding school and was completely at sea! All the men one side, all the girls the other, and I didn’t even know how to dance!”
Eileen Barry’s first dance was in the old Christians, with the entrance on McCurtain Street.
“I had just turned 15, and had no high-heeled shoes, which I knew were really a ‘must’, so I got a ‘loan’ of a pair of Louis-heels from a school pal, for a shilling for the night!
“I remember that the Christian Brothers circulated around the dance floor, tapping someone on the shoulder if a couple were dancing too closely.”
Anne Horgan, who went to Dublin to work in the early ’70s, before returning to the Rebel County, doubts if any young person today could keep up with the exploits of 19-year-olds back then.
“Our week went like this for almost two years honestly. People who drank went out two nights, people who didn’t drink went out seven.”
She gives a typical schedule: Monday night. Zhivago club; Tuesday, ceili at the Ierne; Wednesday, Ags night at the Olympic; Thursday, the Television Club; Friday, the Mt Pleasant disco; Saturday, a choice between the Leinster Club in Rathmines, the Crystal off Grafton Street, or Bective.
On Sunday, you had to go to Zhivago’s, to get a free pass for Monday night.
“What’s more, we often went to a film before the dance! said Anne.
“I went to 100 films one year. But we were up like the lark for work next morning and never missed a day.”
Back home again, it was Bantry Boys Club, Dunmanway, or the Lilac in Enniskeane.
“My very favourite country music band was Big Tom and we have followed him to the end thank God.”
It’s rather sad, Anne feels, to see young people today relying so much on social media.
“The dances should be brought back!” she said.
Martha Keohane, born in Leitrim, but a long-time Cork resident, sent in her own memories of growing up in the north-west.
“The mid ’60s and early ’70s were for me a very liberating and wonderful time to be in your teens and twenties.
“Dance halls and dancing was the highlight of the weekend, especially during the summer, when you had large marquees in almost every village and town, drawing massive crowds of 1,000 or more young people all looking forward to a great night’s entertainment.”
Martha’s local ballroom was The Mayflower in Drumshanbo, where most of the big showbands played.
“When the Miami, the Royal, Joe Dolan, the Dixies, were on stage, the place would be packed to capacity — no talk of social distancing then!” she recalled.
There was never any need for security at the door, she points out, as everyone was well behaved.
“There was a raised balcony in most ballrooms where minerals and biscuits were served and you sat and chatted with a boy and got to know each other, often leading to a romantic or long term relationship.”
When the dances were over, girls would try to get autographs from band members, as almost every girl in those days had an autograph book and this too, says Martha, was part of the dance hall craze.
“My abiding memory is of the Dixies. They were one of my favourite bands. Brendan O’Brien had a brilliant voice and his song Little Arrows was a fantastic hit. I learned to jive to that!”
She also remembers the Rainbow in Glenfarne, better known today as the Ballroom of Romance, from both William Trevor’s book and Nathan Carter’s hit song. “It had a superb maple floor, which I was told had tyres underneath to make it springy.”
They were carefree, fun-filled days, recalls Martha. She voices a fervent wish that the youth of today could enjoy the simple pleasures, enjoyed by many of us in the mid 20th century.
We want to hear your stories! If you have memories of long-ago ballrooms, platform dances, ‘hops’ in village halls, or lively evenings during Gaeltacht stays, then let me know!