You can't miss me, I'm in the front row!! That was the greatest mating call of the sixties in Ireland. As we celebrate St Patrick's Day in Toronto this year we welcome Dickie Rock as our Grand Marshal. During any party at our house the roof is lifted with the sound of Showband music as this music represents the most memorable years of our lives. The Showband craze changed Ireland particularly in the rural areas, where the Ballrooms created the opportunity to meet others away from the narrow confines of the Parochial Hall.
To fully understand the impact of the Showband in Ireland, we have to go back to the late fifties. North Kerry, where I grew up was a very dull and conservative place for a teenager to live. The only music at social occasions was Ceili music in small local halls. The youth were emigrating in large numbers. Little did we know on going to sleep on New Years Eve 1959 that we would wake up to a decade that would change Ireland for ever.
The early sixties was a memorable period in our lives. There was a hint of affluence for the first time ever. Tralee would acquire several factories that made tubes, ballbearings, shoes and knitwear. The Germans came to Killarney and built a crane factory and a number of luxury hotels. All of a sudden young people had jobs and real money in their pockets. The countryside became dotted with Volkswagens and Minis, the car that is. The mini skirt came later. We started to listen to Rock 'n Roll music on our Transistor Radios. We tuned into British Top of the Pops and Radio Luxembourg (mostly under the blankets) as Radio Eireann was not in tune with pop music at that time.
Rock 'n Roll was drifting in from Britain and the U.S.A. The climate in Ireland for the Showband was perfect and the Clipper Carlton Band from Strabane put the show into the band. From there up to 800 Showbands would blanket the countryside in the sixties. For this teenager in Kerry, they brought entertainment, excitement and my sex education. We had 3 major ballrooms in North Kerry. Mt. Brandon in Tralee, where D.J. Curtain and the Kerry Blues were the local favourites. The Las Vegas in Listowel and The Central in Ballybunion, where Maurice Mulcahy was the resident band all summer. The entertainment came on Sunday nights when we travelled to Ballybunion, five or six of us in an Austin Mini. On the way home after the dance, with the sweat, Guinness and chips, if you could harness the natural gas inside the car you could power the vehicle!
Our sex education was provided by "shifting", a term used in Kerry when you were successful in persuading a girl at a dance to accompany you outside where you attempted to have a necking session against the wall. That was sex in the sixties in Ireland. There were no condom machines in the toilets, you were lucky to find toilet paper. My wife visited Ballybunion during the Showband craze and was told by a Kerry man at the Central Ballroom that she was a "nice piece of fluff". She was highly insulted. I tried to explain at the time that was the highest compliment a Kerry man could pay her. Little did she know she would end up with a Kerry man and yes, she is still a nice piece of fluff.
The decision on a Sunday night was a difficult one. First of all we had to find somebody with a car to give us a lift, then we would decide which dance to go to. There was a priority list of the bands we liked. In Kerry the boys followed Brendan O'Brien, Joe Mac & The Dixies also Art Supple & The Victors (not for their music but for their antics on stage). The girls flocked to Dickie Rock & The Miami and Joe Dolan & The Drifters, so the boys followed the girls and we all won. Brendan Bowyer & The Royal attracted all. My first outing was to Sean Dunphy & The Hoedowners at the Las Vegas Ballroom in Listowel where I was warned that I would have to cross the floor (or minefield) and ask a girl to dance. Thankfully it was a success. From 1962 to 1968 Showbands were a religion for young people. We followed the bands everywhere. We were the Rock 'n Roll kids of the day and the media catered to us. The fans had their own magazine "Spotlight", Radio Eireann gave us Ireland's Top 10 and RTE brought the bands into our living room with the programme The Showband Show.
When the big bands came to town they had a huge drawing power and would not disappoint their fans. I remember one night at the Mt. Brandon in Tralee, Dickie Rock did not appear with the Miami. It was the talk of the county for weeks and a local entertainer Denis Condon wrote a song about the incident. Another night at the Mt. Brandon, Jayne Mansfield was to appear, however at Sunday Mass, the Dean of Kerry spoke from the pulpit and banned the congregation from going to the dance, as this form of entertainment was corrupting the youth. That night the boys had to settle for Jack & The Jackpots.
Dickie, when you take us from "The Candy Store on The Corner to The Chapel on the Hill" at the Grand Marshal's Ball, you will be reminding us of all the great entertainment you and your colleagues provided us in the sixties. As a teenager growing up on the side of Stacks Mountain, thank you for bringing the world to my doorstep.
The Showbands provided Ireland with many firsts. They bridged the social and religious gaps. They were our first celebrities and who could argue that Dickie Rock, Brendan Bowyer and Butch Moore were not our first superstars. They created our first entrepreneurs. You had to be an entrepreneur to build a hay shed at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere call it a Ballroom and pack it with 2000 dancers on a Sunday night.
The Showband was the cradle for some of the world's top entertainers. Phil Coulter got his first break when Butch Moore & The Capital Showband recorded "Fooling Time" and when Butch involved Phil in his Eurovision song presentation Phil was hooked. He would later write the Eurovision winner for Britain - "Puppet on a String" for Sandie Shaw. Noel Pearson managed The Chessmen and later went on to produce the Academy Award film "My Left Foot". Colm Wilkinson, who played the part of the Phantom in Toronto and played the lead in Les Miserables on Broadway was a member of the Witnesses Showband. Rory Gallagher played with the Impact Showband and others before forming "Taste" which took him to the top. How many of you remember Rory on U.S. TV on the famous Midnight Special in the seventies? Van Morrison played with The Monarch Showband (Belfast) before forming "Them". Today Van is considered the finest artist in contemporary music whether it be jazz, soul, gospel or rock. Any day in Toronto you will hear "Brown Eyed Girl" on just about any radio station and success doesn't come any bigger than that! Irish groups today like U2 have put Ireland on the map but it was the Showbands that blazed the trails.
In Toronto we have to thank John Gilligan (R.I.P.) and his Maple Leaf Ballroom on St. Clair Avenue for bringing the Showbands to us from the mid sixties to the mid seventies. Stacks Mountain would play an important part in the Showband craze. Local men, John Byrne and Bill Fuller owned ballrooms in Ireland and took the bands to Britain and the U.S.A.
In the early seventies Horslips and Thin Lizzy would seriously dent
the Showband grip in Ireland. They came up with a version of Celtic Rock
that won widespread approval and a new generation of rock 'n roll kids