The Showband Story:
The Showband story goes back to these simple days of the early 1950’s when unemployment and emigration ravaged the country. The career choices in rural Ireland at the time was generally to inherit the small farm, take the boat out of the country, join the religious life (which had a certain prestigious attraction to it). If the family had means and could afford to pay to have education for their children then there were better opportunities available to this minority of society.
A son who was not too fond of going to school usually inherited the farm. If he was lucky enough he could get married and he, his new wife, father, mother and sometimes, other brothers and sisters lived in the house thereafter. Many young men had to wait until parents passed on to get married and in some cases never got that far as age and a lack of confidence got in the way. The Irish film, “The Ballroom of Romance”, is a great insight into what life was like in a typical rural community in the 1950’s and indeed into the 1960’s
For the people left at home the “wireless” as it was then known was the only piece of luxury in most houses. This “wireless” or radio was off-limits to most family members except for “Hospital Requests” , “The Waltons Programme”, “The News” and “Ceílí House”. Usually it was under the sole control of the most senior male in the household and was on a high shelf away from children who might “turn the knobs” and change the station. It was set to Athlone and was never moved. The older ones had a “wet battery” and a “dry battery” also. It also had an Ariel outside on a pole. The “wet battery” was a glass jar and similar to a modern car battery filled with lead acid and had to be taken to Fahy’s in Athenry every few weeks to be charged. This journey would be made especially if an important GAA Match was being broadcast on Sunday as it would be a crisis should the battery fail in the middle of the All Ireland.
Records & CD’s:
Record players, Television, CD’s, tapes and cassettes were all future technology that would probably never be affordable in the area, or so was the thinking then. Home entertainment was simple: card playing, story telling, visiting, were the usual forms of passing the long nights. Homes hummed nightly to the sound of the Rosary. It was usually said after tea in the evening when all the family were gathered and it would be most unfortunate if you were to go”visiting” later and find that household had a later Rosary and you had to join in. Lent meant that time each night was given by young and old alike to visit the local Church to “do the stations of The Cross”. This practise was a social outing for many people and indeed an excuse for some to meet a boy or girl on “the quiet”. The power of the priests and the Church was absolute. Dances in these days were not allowed on Saturday Nights – in fact the Church in Ireland frowned on any kind of entertainment on Saturday Nights as that night was set aside for preparation for Sunday Mass and this continued well into the 1970’s in many places. Dancing during Lent was strictly forbidden by the Church. There were no exceptions so most showbands and musicians went on tour to the UK and beyond for the weeks of lent to find alternative gigs and dance venues. With the large numbers of Irish in the UK the bands found it easy to get work in the halls and venues there and the Irish flocked to see the bands from home.
The New Bands:
The first half of the fifties was the heyday of the big band orchestra and the front runners were Mick Delahunty (Clonmel), Maurice Mulcahy (Mitchelstown), Gay McIntyre and Johnny Quigley (Derry), Brose Walsh (Castlebar), Johnny Flynn (Tuam), Jack Ruane (Ballina), Maurice Lynch (Castleblaney), Dave Glover (Belfast), Jimmy Compton (Dublin), Dave Moynihan (Wexford), Donie Collins (Askeaton), Jimmy Smith (Navan). Locally we had bands like Jimmy Dullighans Band (Mountbellew), Mickey Devaney (Clonberne) and The Tony Chambers Orchestra from Newport, Co. Mayo. The big band lacked the glamour and excitement that was to come later with the Showbands. Dancing took place in established ballrooms, town halls and parocial halls. The Marquees and Carnivals were to come later in the 1960’s. Over zealous priests kept a lookout for courting couples after dances ….. up lanes and boreens, behind ditches and hedges, in farm outhouses and behind the dance venues. The local priest also patrolled the dance floor and seperated couples whom he deemed were dancing too close and causing scandel. Indeed a priest was appointed parish priest in a parish not a million miles from Skehana in the 1980’s and tried to revive this practise – going out at night and shining his torch into parked cars to see if any sins were being committed but met with a different reaction than older priests did in the 1950’s. He was quickly told to get lost and very quickly took the good advice offered to him.
Each orchestra had 10 to 14 musicians and all sat on stage for the night and played their instruments and read the music from the arrangment sheets in front of them on music stands. In the mid-fifties 8 young men got together in Strabane and called themselves “The Clipper Carlton”. They got rid of their chairs and music stands and decided to put a bit of variety into their music. They stood up and performed and moved to the rythem of their music. Other bands from the North quickly followed them such as “The Melody Aces. The Northern Bands were the kingpins for a couple of years. In 1957, in Waterfford City, 7 young lads calling themselves “The Harry Boland Danceband”were playing the local circuit in the City. They were spotted by a musical instruments salesman from Carlow called T.J. Byrne. He was so impressed by them that after discussions with band leader, Tom Dumphy, he decided he would manage them and immediately changed their name to ” The Royal Showband”. Almost overnight, with their lead singer, Brendan Bowyer and bass guitarist, Tom Dumphy, they became the biggest attraction in the country. They were the first ever showband to cut a record when Tom Dumphy and the Royal recorded “Katie Daly”. Irish record sales were charted for the first time on October 5th. 1962 and the first Irish number 1 was on September 6th. 1963 when Brendan Bowyer and the Royal Showband hit the No. 1 spot with “Kiss Me Quick”. He was to repeat this performance again on December 27th. 1962 with the recording of “No More”.
In 1958/59, Eamonn Monaghan, Paul Sweeney, Des Kelly and the Late Johnny Kelly, (Both the Kelly’s come from Turloughmore, Co. Galway.), as college students in Dublin, formed a local group and were looking for a leader and lead vocalist. Paddy Cole and Butch Moore joined them and thus “Butch Moore and The Capital Showband” went on to have a string of hit records starting with a recording of a song called “Foolin’ Time” which was written by a young student at the time called Phil Coulter who is now an international star in his own rite. To join the Capital Showband, Butch Moore left another band called “The Mellow Chords”. They recruited a new young singer called Richard Rock and changed their name and became “Dickie Rock and The Miami” who became hugely popular in a very short time. More and more bands emerged and soon everyone who could put three chords together was being recruited for some band or other. Loads of band equipment was being bought from Joe O’Neill in Glenamaddy. Any band who had a “Dynachord” 200 watt “Gigant” P.A. amplifier, a “Benson” echo and a pair of “Marmac” Crazy Box Speakers was the envy of all up and coming musicians who could not afford the huge price of these items at the time. Joe O’Neill struck a deal with Western Finance in New Inn who financed many of the bands for their equipment on hire purchase agreements. The crazy box speakers in those days were big and contained 6 x 10” Goodman 15 or 20 watt speakers. The cab could also double as a wardrobe if you were stuck and removed the 32 screws that held the back on each speaker unit. It was most important that each showband had a “sound”. A “sound” in those days to many musicians meant that they had to be heard in the next parish and by God they were ! To many musicians and singers “a good sound” had to have volume and that still seems to be the trend in many cases. I well remember in the 60’s listening to the sound coming from the Carnival in Menlough which was 3 miles away. This would be particularly audible on a fine, calm night during the summer. Thinking back, it is hard to believe that this was the result of 100 to 200 watts of amplification using valve equipment. Today the music output in a niteclub is pushing out 10,000 + watts using solid state equipment.
Some of the big names to emerge over the years were;
Eileen Reid, Gregory and The Caddets
Sean Fagan, Sonny Knowles and The Pacific Showband
Tony and the Graduates
Terry Mahon and the Jim Farley All Stars
Tommy Drennan and The Monarchs
The Donie Collins Band
Doc Carroll and The Royal Blues
Larry Cunningham and The Mighy Avons
Dermot Hegarty and The Plainsmen
Joe Dolan and The Drifters
Brendan O’Brien, Joe Mac and The Dixies
Derek Deane, Billy Browne and The Freshmen
Brian Coll and the Plattermen
Philomena Begley and The Country Flavour
Frankie McBride and the Polka Dots
Big Tom and the Mainliners
Margo and the Keynotes
Kelly and the Navada
The Casino showband (Later to become The Indians)
All of these bands would have played at some time or other at Menlough Carnival while it was run from the mid 1960’s to the mid 1970’s.
County Galway also had its own bands and many were very successful such as;
The Swingtime Aces (Athenry)
Johnny Flynn Showband (Tuam)
Ollie Maloney Showband (Tuam)
The Bermuda Showband (Loughrea)
Gerry and The Ohio (Tuam)
The Raindrops (Galway)
(Jim Bartley who currently plays the part of Bella Doyle in RTE’s “Fair City” was lead singer with The Raindrops for many years,)
Murphy and The Swallows (Glenamaddy)
The Warriors (Portumna)
The Bandits (Tuam)
Johny Regan and The Tumbleweeds (Loughrea)
The Big Time Showband (Galway)
The Philosophers (Galway)
By the mid-60’s the Showband era was in full swing. Bands travelled up and down the Country 5 to 6 nights a week. The experts claim that up to 4000 musicians were employed in the 600 to 700 showbands that toured the countryside.
But there was another side to the Showband story. Fortunes were made — and squandered. The Showband Explosion catapulted young men from poorly paid jobs to big bucks. The average industrial wage in 1967 was £12.47 per week while a showband worth their salt could command £500 to £700 per night. The equivalent figure for a night in the year 2014 would be at least €8914.87p according to the consumer price index. Drink was a Showband accessory that claimed too many casualties. It gave the perfect “lift” before going on stage and again after coming off stage. It was a habit that became a deadly addiction for many musicians. Drink broke up bands, marriages and relationships. It lost friends and money. Some who remember the 60’s only as an alcoholic haze are still paying the price. Greed was a common cause of Showband disputes. Line-ups changed like the weather. In the 70’s the whole scene began to fall apart. The singing lounges were now in full swing and the dancers began to go to the dance venues later and later. The Showbands who used to play a three hour stint now played tapes until the venue filled up and then only played for an hour and a half. Re-Investment in the dance halls was non existent and peoples expectations and comfort demands were not met. Ballrooms in country towns ran buses from major towns to their venues. The punters came in their droves and went to the local pubs.
The Pubs Take Over:
The publicans thought all their dreams had come true and applied for late licences for their lounges. The punters arrived on buses paid for by the ballroom owners and flocked into the local pubs. Smaller bands were playing the local circuit and entertaining the punters. The publicans then had an extension to keep the punters in their venues with the result that the punters stopped going to the ballrooms and left the pubs just in time to catch the bus home. The ballroom which was now empty closed, the buses stopped coming to town and so did the punters. The publicans had just bitten off the hand that fed them. Ballrooms and halls closed all over the country. Pubs and Lounges grew and extended. The Showbands downsized and many of the bigger names began to play the pubs and lounges.
Change Goes On:
Change is an ongoing thing and life moves on for better or worse either with or without us. Sometime after 2003 a change cycle began all over again when the lounge music business began to fall off. Many lounges just seemed to think that a musty, cold and damp venue with well worn carpet, a few four-legged stools and shabby decor with a handful of groups “at the right price” will keep the place full of happy customers. Well just like in the dance halls and ballrooms which are now mostly a monument to a great era when life was simple in Ireland and peoples expectations were few the cold winds of change blew strongly and many of the lounges became part of that Monument of a time long past when bad management prevailed and re-investment and re-inventiveness was non-existent and still continues.
Other Websites on the subject of Irish Showbands & Groups