Raymond Fennelly

Dance Hall Days

Believe it or not, but there was a time in Abbeyfeale when local band, The Western Star, were every bit as popular as The Beatles. And indeed, it was even thought that Dickeen Prendiville, was a far better drummer than Ringo Starr, because Ringo couldn't play for a Kerry Polka or a Siege of Ennis to save his life!

Abbeyfeale was then the dance capital of Ireland, and Tom Tobin`s Hall was the most famous and popular dance venue in the country. Bus loads of dancers arrived from such diverse and distant places as Dublin, Galway and Cork, and by nine o'clock on a Sunday evening, Main Street was as busy as Piccadilly Circus in London or Time Square in New York. At that time, young ladies were shy, graceful, genteel creatures who neither drank, nor smoked, nor used bad language in public places. They rarely frequented bars, preferring instead to amble arm in arm along the main boulevard, whispering and giggling together, and casting their eyes demurely downwards whenever a strange male hove into view.

And the lads, faced with such nubile apparitions of loveliness, all painted and powdered, and with the promise of smouldering inner passions and provocative allurement, followed their natural instincts and did what men have been doing in similar situations since time began. They turned tail and headed for the nearest boozer!

Abbeyfeale had a plentiful supply of public houses in those halcyon days, supplying young men with copious amounts of Dutch courage before facing the dance hall.

Willie Rourke`s bar (now Flamingo's) was a popular haunt with dancers. Willie himself has long entered into the folklore of the locality, having uttered one of the most historic and profound statements ever made by a member of the licensing trade.

A customer had called in to Willie and, noticing that business was slack, remarked that there seemed to be a lot of cars in town.

Willie sadly surveyed his empty premises. "Cars," he pronounced, "don't drink porter."

Having acquired the necessary supply of Dutch courage, it was time to head for the dance. Inside in the hall, segregation of the sexes was strictly adhered to, at least in the early part of the evening. The ladies draped themselves elegantly along by the side of one wall, while the lads congregated like sheep on the opposite side.

The experienced dancers were always the first out onto the dance floor. These were the guys who were good at the foxtrot, the tango, the paso doble and the old time waltz. They always picked the best looking girls to partner them, and strutted and pranced around the dance floor like preening peacocks. The lads on the sideline were rarely impressed by these shenanigans, and the occasional derogatory remark, hurled from the anonymity of the crowd, often resulted in fisticuffs.

As the hall filled up, more and more couples ventured forth, until the floor became filled with a seething mass of moving bodies, all swaying to the seductive strains of `Are You Lonesome, tonight` ` He'll Have To Go` `Beautiful Dreamer` or the all time favourite, `From The Candy Store On The Corner`.

And, of course, the chat-up lines were as many and as diverse as the song titles. "Do you come here often?" was the one most often used and, strangely enough, it was the one that most often worked. Other lines included; "Have they any more like you at home?" "What is a fine looking thing like you, doing in a dump like this?" "How many cows have ye?" "Would you like to be buried with my people?" and "Was it you or your brother that was kilt over in London?"

A positive response to any, or all, of the above approaches and the next step was to invite the object of your desire to partake of a little something from the mineral bar. (All alcohol was, of course, banned in the hall.) And if she consented to go next door with you to Dan Donoghue`s shop, and sip at a bottle of Nash`s red lemonade whilst devouring an O`Neill`s cream bun, why then you were half way to becoming engaged!

Of course, behind all the glitz and the glitter, there was also a certain amount of heartache and grief. In the dance hall, the laws of the jungle prevailed. It was very much the survival of the fittest, and the weak went to the wall. (in every sense of the word).

Perhaps I can recount here, a little story that perfectly illustrates what I am rambling on about. It is a sad little story, but a true one nevertheless, for all the sadness of it.

In a previous existence, back in the early seventies, I masqueraded for a time as a trainee male nurse in St Joseph's Hospital in Limerick. One of my most abiding memories of that time is being eternally short of shillings. And, judging by the miserly pittance that is paid to our nurses today, very little seems to have changed. However, I digress.

It was our custom every Saturday night, to go dancing in The Royal George. This was the biggest dance venue in Limerick at the time and attracted all the best bands such as Dickie Rock and the Miami, Butch Moore and the Capitol, Brendan Boyer and the Royal, Kelly and the Nevada, Eileen Reid and the Cadetts, Joe Dolan and the Drifters. A veritable galaxy of stars. And on one unforgettable occasion, a barefoot Sandie Shaw - fresh from her Eurovision triumph - came on stage and strutted her stuff! (be still, my beating heart).

Mick was a second year nursing student at the hospital and he came from Mayo. He was an only son, and as nice a fellow as you could ask to meet, but very quiet and shy. He didn't drink, smoke or bother a whole lot about women. However, he was one of the gang and tagged along with us, wherever we went.

We were this night in The Royal George, eyeing the available talent and letting our hair down after a long (and poorly paid) week of nursing, when suddenly, Mick spoke. And, as Mick rarely spoke, unless he had something important to say, we all listened.

"There is a girl over there," said Mick, "and she keeps looking at me."

Of course, we all turned and craned our necks to see what kind of a deprived and obviously short-sighted female could find Mick so fascinating. And, do you know something? She wasn't too bad at all! Sleek, jet-black hair, thigh-length boots, and a mini-skirt meant to reveal rather than conceal. We had been out with worse - so we had.

"Go over and ask her to dance." we said.
Oh God, I couldn't do that," said Mick. "She might think me too forward!"
"Please yourself, so." and off we went, about our own business.

We came back to Mick several times during the course of the evening. "She is still looking at me." he said, but he refused to budge.

The evening moved towards it's predictable conclusion and the last dance was called. At that time, bands always had a few minutes break before the last set. It gave those who had not been paired off, one last chance to salvage something from the evening.

We went back to Mick. "She is still looking at me." he informed us. We entreated, begged, threatened, cajoled and eventually lifted him bodily from his seat and pointed him in the right direction.

He paused momentarily, gazing across at the girl of his dreams, and her beauty beckoned to him like a beacon, drawing him helplessly towards her (this is for all you romantic types).

Making up his mind, he squared his shoulders, straightened his tie and marched purposely across the empty dance floor and stood before her. He gazed deeply into her blue eyes and in a firm, clear, polite voice, he asked her if she would do him the great honour of partnering him, if not for life, then at least for the final dance.

And she gazed back at him, and a shudder of barely-contained emotion seemed to course through her whole body. And then, loudly, succinctly, and in a voice that carried to the four corners of the hall, she said; "Would you ever feic off outa that and let me alone, you quare-looking eejit you!"

The callous cow! Mick turned a beetroot red and, wishing that the ground would open up and swallow him, he made his lonely way back across the dance floor, while a thousand pairs of eyes watched him in silent sympathy.