The number if married couples in Ireland who met in dance halls is considerable. That is particularly true of people who were married in the '60s and '70s. At that time, dancing was Ireland’s most popular pastime among young people. It was not confined to youth, as many people, including married couples, enjoyed the music, glamour and sheer entertainment value provided by dance halls scattered throughout the country.
Pictured, Big Tom and The Mainliners in their heyday. Courtesy of Discogs.com
Many people made a good living as musicians traveling to play with bands most nights of the week. For some it was a full-time job, while others combined it with a day job. Some amateur musicians made a few pounds on a regular basis, filling in until the main band went on stage. Some of the big outfits went on to international fame. Overseas tours to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain, where there were sizable Irish populations, were good earners.
Most of the big bands became recording artists, turning out singles and LPs. They were featured on radio and television on a regular basis.
A side benefit of dance halls was the revenue they provided for bars, fast-food places (chippers), car dealerships (one needed a car to get there and impress the ladies) and petrol stations. Drapery stores provided suitable dress-up clothes for young people who wanted to look their best. There was a great demand for the services of hairstylists.
Conditions for the bands left much to be desired. The facilities were frequently cold, damp and lacked hygiene. Hall owners did not, as a rule, worry about the creature comforts of the entertainers. The conditions tolerated by the dancing public would not be accepted today. Plumbing was usually rudimentary.
People accepted it because they did not go to dance halls for luxury. They went to enjoy great music, experience some glamour in their ordinary lives and, above all, meet a partner. “Do you come here often?” and “Do you like the band?” were hackneyed ice-breakers that led to many a marriage and new family.
One of the positive characteristics of the dance halls was the fact they did not serve alcohol. A man could treat a companion to a Fanta, 7-Up or Club Orange.
As rural Ireland became more prosperous, hotels and lounge bars began to hold dances at which alcohol was sold. The law required them to provide food as part of the entertainment. The food frequently left much to be desired and was prepared at as low a cost as possible. Temporary licenses were rarely refused by the district courts to the business owners who held those events. They caused the decline and eventual closure of the dance halls.
The more popular bands such as Big Tom and The Mainliners could place a heavy strain on the dance-hall facilities. Parking affected the local residents and caused some friction. While the police had to be on the alert for problems, it is to the credit of the dance-hall patrons that there was very little trouble. What trouble occurred invariably was a spill-over from the time spent by some of the patrons in local bars before the dance. Bouncers (doormen) usually dealt tactfully with known trouble makers.
Pictured, the inside of a dance hall in Tramore, County Waterford.
Female patrons could attend a dance in relative safety. Fewer Irish women drove or owned cars in those times. It seems difficult to believe that many women – perhaps most – got a lift to the dance in the knowledge they were going to meet a partner – temporary or long term – who would deliver them safely home. Those really were different times.
Most of the dance halls have been torn down, allowed to collapse or utilized for other purposes. Much work is required to convert them to an auction house, museum building or theaters. They were usually built on the cheap, with few rules and regulations in place to comply with. Nowadays, local authorities have rightly introduced fire, safety and sanitation regulations that should have been in place from the beginning.
Fortunes were made by dance-hall owners, in part, due to the small investment they made. One needed a piece of real estate, a bank loan and the formality of acquiring planning permission. Build it and they will come.
Some ambitious individuals made some quick money in the building trade in England, and put it into a hall. If they so desired, they never had to work another day in their lives. A handful of temporary staff could run a dance -- a few people to open and close the place, take money at the door, act as bouncer and a teenager to sell minerals (soda pop). Most of the employees performed multiple roles and were adept at dealing with problems as they arose.
For many people, the dance-hall scene was a part of Ireland’s invisible heritage. Few historians, college professors and professional writers were even aware of its existence. Those folks may have wondered what were those anonymous buildings used for anyway. (They rarely had their names featured in lights, though thousands knew them). The dance halls fell under the same blanket as cattle marts, industrial estates and motor-racing circuits. Only the people who frequented them were aware of their existence. The buildings did not register in the brains of academics.
The days of the dance hall are gone and will never return. People in the over-50 age bracket are now going to concerts featuring some of the entertainers they enjoyed three decades ago. They attend the events in modern facilities, with heating, pleasant surroundings and great acoustics. Some of them are accompanied by a partner they met at a dance hall. Their families have been raised, and many are now grandparents.
They are delighted to see some of the entertainers from 30+ years ago still going strong.
One of the great dance hall performers making a comeback is Philomena Begley. She had a hit with her version of Billie Jo Spears' hit song 'Blanket on the Ground’ and will be touring in 2016. Ray Lynam, who sang with Philomena at some events, is another artist fans can see in the New Year. Big Tom is unlikely to make any further appearances. (People who attended his concerts in the recent past were not disappointed.) Margo, the girl from Donegal, will make several appearances if the sciatica does not play up. The Indians, resplendent in spectacular outfits, have a busy schedule. Brendan Bowyer will be appearing at various venues with his daughter Aisling.
It is not mandatory to get to these performances in a Mark 1 Ford Escort, Bedford van or Hillman Imp. But you could.