A forthcoming book will tell tales of London’s dance halls and its author and publisher would like to hear your stories
By Fiona O’Brien
Whenever the Galtymore is brought up over here in conversation everyone seems to have their own funny, heart-warming or dark tale to tell, whether from first-hand experience or from a friend or family member.
Now a new book will collect all of those stories so they can be looked back at from one place, as two Irish documentary makers have decided to publish ‘From the candy store to the Galtymore’.
The idea came to PJ Cunningham and Dr. Joe Kearney last year when they were making a radio documentary for RTE to coincide with the 70th anniversary of rural electrification.
“We did an oral history of people’s memories of electricity coming into rural areas. The more we heard about it the more the same stories came up about the change parochial halls and dancehalls,” says Joe.
“It meant that they could be fitted with amplifiers and electric guitars and sparked a whole new cultural transition. The ceili and orchestral bands were moved to one side, while musical influences that were coming across the Atlantic and Irish sea, stemmed the birth of the Irish showband scene.
“There were so many resonances we thought it was important that these stories were recognised and collected while this generation were still around.”
The book aims to provide a mirror into this unique time in the life of rural and urban Ireland through the stories of the young men and women who religiously went to their local ‘Ballroom of Romance’ each weekend.
It will detail the experiences of ordinary folk who attended the hundreds of venues which mushroomed around the country at that time.
• If you would like to submit your story for consideration, email Joe and PJ at: firstname.lastname@example.org who promise they will respond to each one.
Joe himself recalls his own experience of the showband scene, having grown up in rural Ireland before making the move to London.
“I grew up on the Kilkenny-Tipperary border and would have gone to dances and to see show bands in the late 1960s before I moved to London for three years.
“I lived in Kilburn and Cricklewood so was around all of the classic ballrooms there, and it was so familiar. It was almost like I walked out from my own parochial village and shut the door behind me, and when I walked in through the doors of the Galtymore the transition seemed seamless.
“It was the same music, the same environment and the same people. But it was also liberating time as it was missing three big influences from home; the church, your neighbours and your parents.
“In my day, many of us spent our time in poor accommodation in Cricklewood and Kilburn, while others migrated to Manchester, Liverpool and places further afield.”
“We lived for the visits of the Irish showbands to provide a flavour of the life we had left behind and provide an escape from the humdrum of ordinary living.
“The Galtymore, The 32 Club, The Gresham and the Hibernian in London were meccas for us. They were packed to the rafters every time Irish showbands played there.”
He notes how this fitted in with a more liberal time that transcended from California’s ‘summer of love’ in 1969 as Irish people over here moved away from ‘a pretty Catholic conservative Ireland’.
“It was a great time to be alive. I remember my first trip to the Galtymore very well. The first thing I had done when I moved to England was to change the whole wardrobe that I had. My clothes became more colourful.
“It meant I was regarded in high suspicion by the bouncers on the door. Some very heavy-set gentlemen didn’t like the look of my get up, so I was sure to dress a lot more conservatively after that!”
And he recalls the balance of the work and social life in London at the time as he, like thousands of others, found himself working in construction after his arrival.
“I worked as a navvy for sub contractors at the time. It was good money but exceptionally hard work, it was quite a machismo environment.
“It was hard drinking and hard living, from the pubs like the Crown before you drifted up the road to the Galtymore and it felt like being back home again.”
The co-editors only started their ‘shout-out’ for stories of this time last week, and have already been inundated with tales, although they are not exclusive to what happened over here, Dr. Kearney notes that the dancehalls over here are vital to the collection.
“We have spoken to survivors from the showband era and at any given moment in the 60s and 70s there were up to 800 professional and semi-professional bands and artists crisscrossing the 32 counties every weekend. And they of course would then go to the UK and pick up huge audiences there.
“Most of the material we have got so far, in just a week, has come from a few local radio station and newspaper shout outs. They are drifting in at a rapid rate, and so far there hasn’t been too much commonality, there is a rich diversification of stories.”
His colleague PJ says that because the same bands played at the same venues, the book would become too repetitive if every story mentioned seeing the Drifters, the Royal or the Miami showbands.
“What we want are the stories of romance, of chance meetings or tales that are funny and maybe even mischievous,” he says. “All human life gathered for the weekly dances in what was a cultural shift away from the more formal ceili dances which held sway up until then.
“We want the stories of romance, of chance meetings or tales that are funny and maybe even mischievous”
“The showband dances were modern and slightly more brash occasions than the country had been used to but if anything the number of stories of love and loss, rows and ructions, fun and games grew in the new cultural and entertainment environment.”
In order to deliver a rounded collection Joe says: “Ideally there should be a bit of tension or drama involved in what people send in to us.
“When you consider that there were maybe 200 or 300 bands traversing the country every weekend and there were dancehalls sprouting up all over the place, then a serious amount of interaction was inevitable.”
So far two such stories have stuck out in Joe’s mind. The first is of a chance escape from tragedy, and the other typical of a life before 21st century technology.
“One lady recalled her and her friends going to a big marquee concert in Meath. Two of them went across the road to a chip van and were queuing up before they heard the band strike up their favourite song inside so they rushed back in.
“As they did they heard an almighty bang outside and a car had crashed straight into the van, killing one person and injuring many more. They believe to this day that the Roly Daniels band saved their life.
“They we heard some quirkier stuff. One was about three guys in a bar on a Friday evening where they lived in Belfast and deciding on where to go for the weekend.
“They spotted one of the bigger bands, let’s say Joe Dolan for arguments sake, was playing in Letterkenny so said they’d drive up to it.
“They had never been outside of Belfast before and it was a whole new world to them. They had to drive through the Glenshane Pass on the way to Donegal and a fog came down. They thought that their engine had shut down, but they didn’t realise it was just the elevation from passing through the mountains.”
He says those are the typical stories that the book would like to include, of when life was there to be experienced before technology took over.
“They were less complicated times. Today we can satisfy the solution to most questions just by looking down into our hands had a device. It was different then, there was no GPS, and that translated into the culture.
“The pace of life was a little slower then. Even though the showbands brought amplification to the dances, you could still get to speak to your dancing partner under the glitterball light, which you can’t really do in nightclubs now.
“The dances were the high point of the week for people. They would live through the experience for much of the rest of the week, whether it was a memory of love or of disappointment, and then by the time Wednesday hit they would be dreaming ahead to their next night out. “And the whole experience was different, down to travel. Transport would have been fairly sparse. There may have been buses laid on for big events but often, and myself included, you would cycle there or thumb a lift.”
Joe and PJ are specifically looking for firsthand accounts from the mid 1950s to the mid 1980s.
“That was the real start of the showband era, and until it started to fizzle out. Everyone has heard the story of when Larry Cunningham played the Galtymore and attracted 7,000 people! I’m not sure how they all would have fitted in, but I know myself was turned away that night.”