Sunday, December 31, 2017

Irish Dance Halls - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Flared-frocks and Brylcreem

Irish Dance Halls, London, circa 1969. I spent some interesting periods of my younger life in London, in the sixties. I first went there in the late sixties. Like most Irish people I became immersed in the social outlets of the huge Irish population in that great city at the time. These outlets were basically the Gaelic football and a vibrant pub culture for men, and the Irish dance halls for both men and women
The London-Irish Dance-Halls:
It is somewhat odd, that, for a person who never really got to grips with the nuances of the dance floor I regularly explored the London-Irish dance halls. It was one of the great diversions for young Irish émigrés who had few other social outlets.
My first 'room' was in West Ealing, so, very early in my stay, I visited the Innisfree dance hall in Ealing. It was my only visit and it being a Sunday night it was a muted affair. It suffered a premature end in a fire in the middle sixties and was not restored which was an inconvenience for us in West London.
'The Garryowen'
Most of London seemed to have enclaves of Irish people living in them, two notable areas being, Shepherd's Bush and Hammersmith. Oddly 'the Bush' did not have an Irish dance hall in my time though I have heard of one called 'The Carlton' up the Uxbridge Road, close to Shepherd's Bush. Hammersmith, however, had one of the iconic dance halls in The Garryowen. Close by was another famous dance hall, a mainly English one, The Palais, where Joe Loss and his orchestra were kings. I worked, for a short time, in a bar on Hammersmith Broadway called 'The Swan' and the orchestra members socialised there. Sunday afternoon dancing was a feature of a number of dance halls, the Palais being one, though it was more of the Ballroom variety and while interesting in a glamorous way it was way above my head or my feet. Also in Hammersmith was The Emerald, which I seem to remember as being in the middle of a roadway and opposite Hammersmith Hospital. Another Sunday afternoon dance hall was very conveniently located in the centre of London at Tottenham Court Road, where, when you exited the Tube, your eyes were diverted sky-wise by the high-rise skyscraper just then completed, Centre Point, I think it was called. Like a number of halls it was downstairs to 'The Blarney'. There is reference somewhere to these afternoon dances being referred to as 'Tea Dances'. Alcoholic drink was not a feature of some dance halls.
In Fulham, there was The Hibernian but I only remember one visit though a nearby pub, 'The White Hart', had a reputation for fine traditional Irish traditional music.
Catholic Charlie Mack's:
My sister Carmel was a great lady for the dances and for a time favoured Charlie Mack's in Victoria or Bayswater. It had a reputation as being a very Catholic establishment with the possibility of having to pass some test to prove your religious ethos, to the supervising 'matriach', to get in. This presented no problem to us at that time! I remember it being close to New Scotland Yard with its rotating geometrical sign and to a street named Strutting Ground!

The Galtymore:
As the Carlsberg ad might say, the most famous Irish dance hall in London and a survivor of sorts, was 'probably', 'The Galtymore' in Cricklewood. It was, I was told, originally a Bingo hall, owned by a Mr. Beirne, who turned up in some respect at one of the Dublin Tribunals. It was located in one of the most identifiably Irish areas and close to the famous drinking emporium called 'The Crown'. I was rarely in the Galtymore, which I recall as having twin halls like Dublin's Mansion House. There was a common admission, with one being a Ceili dance hall frequented by mostly west of Ireland people but not me.
What is now Sainsburys of Kiburn was once 'The Banba'. In the 70s' on Kilburn High Road there was 'The National' run by Kevin Flynn from Sligo. I also heard of one called 'The State' in Kilburn.
Generally I never knew or cared who owned these places and my challenges were, to get in with the even greater one of making my way 'home' to the 'room' of the time. The London Transport system had little sympathy for the late night reveller and 'taking a girl home' often posed insurmountable logistical problems. So, one had to attempt to compromise desire with London City geography. Few seemed to have cars and the using of a taxi was only for emergencies or when a full shared load presented itself. There were odd times when the irregular night buses or even 'the Green Line' was resorted to. Like many, I tramped many a long mile home, in the late night, without much anxiety, in innocent immaturity.

'The Buffalo', Camden Town:'The Buffalo' was an apt name for Camden Town's Irish 'dance hall'. This was a 'lively', sometimes explosive venue, usually 'packed to the rafters' and with a decent variety of artists. While London's Irish dance halls may have a legendary reputation for being rough or being fighting venues I rarely encountered this. One of the occasions I did was in the Buffalo and it was wild-west stuff as the Victoria Line miners from Donegal and Mayo (the elite of the labouring Irish in late sixties London) tried to 'sort out' some intractable insult by an unfortunate 'wee gobshite'.
The pre-dance foundations in Camden town could be laid in 'The Mother Red Cap', having escaped the labyrinthine exits and odours of Camden Town's black tube line and past the walls polished by the eternal queues of Ireland's youth as they waited to be selected for the 'shtaart' (sic) to board 'the Green' or 'the Grey' Murphy wagons to be transported to the outer regions of London to pour concrete or for the big cable pull.
Not far from here was a less contentious and later hall called 'The Forum' in Kentish Town, opposite Murphy's yard, which was re-named 'The Town and Country'.
'The Gresham':
In the pecking order of stars the number one hall was 'The Gresham' at the top of Holloway Road at The Archway. 'The Gresham' had illusions of grandeur (as its name implies) with an imposing foyer and modernism (if such was possible with these establishments), a fussy dress-code (ties could be rented for the night) and fussier 'bouncers'. The main night appeared to be Monday night, which presented a many- faceted challenge. Was it that 'the tubes' ran later on Monday nights? If one could gauge accurately the last intercepting Central Line train at Tottenham Court Road it could be worthwhile. Monday nights had a reputation of having present, to use the terminology of the time, the classier Irish ladies or those who thought themselves to be such. Near 'The Gresham' were the Whittington and Royal Northern Hospitals with their population of Irish nurses and their English colleagues. On Monday nights there was a special concession on admission to these ladies, so, if one could cope with the Monday night aspect of things it was an acceptable experience. Saturday nights there was a free-for-all in a very different sense!
Generally before The Gresham I found myself in the adjacent 'Archway Tavern' or 'The Half Moon', a cheque-changing bar, with an acceptable piano-playing Dublin entertainer, some way down the Holloway Rd. Like in Ireland, if one required 'Dutch Courage' before the dance encounter (and many did not, being pioneers), one had to visit the nearby or strategically located bar, which rarely presented a difficulty.
A couple of the rare surviving 'snaps' from this period of my life in London, were taken by the Gresham's resident 'snapper'. One is a group of us bar 'men' from the Queen Adelaide, on The Uxbridge Road, near Shepherd's Bush, who had made the odyssey in our mohair suits and ruler width ties. We were united by a camaraderie of innocence as we waited for the County names of Roscommon, Longford and Leitrim to come around on the green neon strip- light in the mineral bar. I had remembered these halls as not having bars but after discussion with a fellow enthusiast discovered I was wrong. Not all of them had bars but The Gresham had two bars one upstairs and a smaller one downstairs for the inner circle. One would have thought these would have added to their volatility.
'The Gresham' 'imported' the best bands from 'back home' which necessitated more expensive door charges but still resulted in packed houses. Some dance-hall owners owned a string of halls in London and in other English cities like the Reynolds brothers did in the Midlands of Ireland. Thus 'big' bands were restricted or contracted to play in their halls only, which left the smaller 'Independents' with the crumbs.
Despite my best efforts in The Gresham, I was puzzled that I was not more appreciated in its precincts! Perhaps it was my profession of 'shovelist' in response to the lady's 'typist' that let me down! One of the small pleasures of these halls was the occasional meeting of someone from home as when I met Jimmy Coyne a barman in The Gresham around '66.

Lesser Dance Halls:
By way of diversion and research on my way home to 'the room' off Camden Town Road I once or twice found myself in an undistinguished hall, called 'The Round Tower', at the junction of Holloway Road and Seven Sisters Road, where, if I remember correctly, there was a major pub called 'The Nag's Head'.
Once, on a prospect, I made the long journey to, and longer journey back from, 'The Harp' in New Cross; Peckham country, made famous later by Del Boy. I was no Del Boy and South of the Thames held few rewards for me. Near here too was 'The Shamrock' in The Elephant and Castle.
My cousins hung out for the most part around Leytonstone, which had a small hall called, I think, 'The Inisfail'. This was an interesting place as nearby was the large Whipps Cross Hospital, which, like all hospitals, had a considerable Irish nursing population. Near this was the landmark bar, 'The Green Man', standing in splendid isolation as a lighthouse to the weary!
In Wimbledon was the simply titled 'Wimbledon Dance Hall' where the out-of-towners made their way to meet their city-domiciled cousins.
In South -West London, in Balham was the 'Aranmore' and at the opposite end of the compass was 'The Shannon' in Finsbury Park near Stroud Green Road. ...These latter three I only heard of!
Not far from The Jubilee Clock in Harlesden was 'The 32 Club'. John Grehan told me of it having a previous Irish name which I did not record. He may have said 'The Tara'. This reputedly had a Kerry, Dublin clientele but I remember being there with Cork people, it being near their first disembarkation station, Paddington. There was often a whiff of danger about 'The 32 Club'.
I have been told of a 'St. Olives' hall at Manor House though I've heard this referred to as just, Manor House Dance Hall and also reference to a 'Four Provinces' hall in the same area, with mention of another hall in Ilford. In Tooting Beck there was another Saint represented, was it 'St. Barnaville'?
In Romford there was an Irish Club, which people like Pat Carton, working down near the Thames estuary, frequented. It, too, was near another hospital with a big Irish nursing population. Pat mentioned a Glacamorra Club as well but while I'm familiar with it in Finian's Rainbow I never heard of it in this context. It sounds like an apt dreamy, nostalgic name though, for a London-Irish hall of the time.
I'm told of another Carlton, the Carlton Rooms, in Willsden, with many Irish dances but know nothing of them. Later many Churches had adjacent Church clubs but I suppose they were of a different hue with a clientele more settled and mature, long after their 'Buffalo' days were over. These Church halls were there for a number of reasons including the financing of Church buildings. These halls too are in decline.

Decades On ...the Legacy:
In the mid 80s' there was another surge of emigration and new names appear such as 'Dicey Reillys' in Neasden run by Kevin Flynn from '89 to '98. In Hamstead in the early 70s' was the more exotically titled 'The Purple Pussycat'.

These represent a cultural sea change from the 'The Harp', 'The Garryowen', 'The Emerald' and their contemporaries, which proved such magnetic attractions and distractions for that generation of young Irish who flooded England's capital city in the 50s' and 60s' They are now part of a kind of folk history for their patrons but whether they deserve to be or not they are remembered with nostalgia and fondness by thousands of their patrons for whom they provided an invaluable social and emotional outlet. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Reflection on the passing of my friend Dr. Bernard McGuire

 Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile” Albert Einstein. This was the sentiment which adorned the back cover of a NUIG Magazine for former students which, ironically, came in the post just last week. In considering an opening for these lines I thought how apt they would be to encapsulate the life of Dr. Bernard McGuire who passed away at his home in Felton, Boyle last Friday.
I first met Bernard in U.C.G. in the late sixties and became a member of the boxing club there for which Bernard was an active recruiter. It is a validation of the activity and adventures of that small club that a number of  members from that time were present at Bernard’s funeral this week almost fifty years later. His Donegal friend from then and always Ciaran McFadden gave a telling account, at Bernard’s funeral Mass, of how they met and the bond that emerged and continued. Ciaran spoke of the qualities of Bernard or Mac, as we first knew him, laced with anecdote and reflection of a good, generous man with a unique personality. Bernard would have been pleased with Ciaran’s summations and would have smiled at some of the evidential anecdotes.     
Of course it was easier for me as both Bernard and I ended up in the same town and our friendship matured. Not alone was he a friend but he was a caring compassionate doctor to our family and to many families in the region of Boyle.
Bernard was not just a fine medical doctor but was a man with a variety of talents as an active brain grappled with numerous projects down the years. In more recent times a major project of his was the harnessing wave power and that continues at a third level institution presently.  
I remember being with him when he first showed me what was become the site for his home of recent years. The site had been a mill, possibly with a hydro power history.
All that remained were some heavy sleepers crossing the river and the relic of an industrial building on the opposite bank.
He was to build a fine house there with which he had a major involvement. It was a fine achievement in a challenging location. As Ciaran said ‘Bernard was as much at home on a building site as he was as a doctor’. The final piece of that jigsaw was the Bailey bridge which he acquired, if my memory serves me right, near his North of England home of early years. He was rightly very proud of that bridge and liked to relate the story of its journey from Liverpool to Felton.      

He loved traditional music and challenged himself with the construction of some instruments, one being a concertina. I was aware of its progress and completion and last August I brought a connection of mine, concertina player Conor Tivnan, out to Felton to ‘launch’ the concertina as it were. Conor did the occasion justice and the concertina got his seal of approval. So Bernard could tick the box on that project. It is something Conor and I are so pleased now that we did that as you can imagine.

On a recent visit he talked of times in the north of England around Liverpool and his progress in education mixed with his experience of working on the motorways and an adventure with a dumper. I seem to be using the word ‘adventure or adventures’ fairly often in speaking of Bernard! He also told me of how he ended up in Galway. He talked of his original home in Sligo and reflected on a picture in the room of his brothers one of whom had died just a short time ago in Sligo.
 In retrospect it was a wider conversation than usual and his handshake as I left had a quality of finality. But I did not know or realise that then of course. Perhaps he did though. He certainly fought the good fight.  

 In conclusion I return to Ciaran again where he said “ Bernard took the cards that were served to him (in difficult times) and through his intelligence and discipline pursued a career that allowed him to do what was at the core of his persona, To Try Help Others.”  That he did in spades.

While it is an oft-used phrase I think it is truly reflective of Dr. Bernard McGuire. Ni fheicimid a leithead aris ann

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Boyle’s All-Ireland Fleadhs:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Boyle’s All-Ireland Fleadhs:

“I was in Boyle once… many years ago now. It was during one of the great Fleadhs… the best I was ever at…I remember it well…great days, great music.” I have had this reaction more than once whenever I mention that I’m from Boyle. The Fleadhs of Boyle live on in the memories of the thousands who visited the towns on those memorable weekends nearly thirty years ago. They act too as markers in the memories of those involved.

Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann had been founded at the turn of the fifties to nurture and promote Irish traditional music, song and dance. This promotion culminated in the great annual festival of Irish music, the Fleadh Cheoil. These had begun at Mullingar in 1951 and had been held, through the fifties, in towns such as Athlone, Ennis, Loughrea and Longford. Boyle’s turn came in 1960.

Surrounded by Music:While traditional music, native to the town, was scarce enough, Boyle was at the heart of a countryside immersed in music. Among those musicians were Joe and Paddy McDonagh of Ballinafad. They possessed a wealth of tunes which they passed on to the younger generation including Matt Molloy. Also from Ballinafad were Bertie and Michael Joe MacNiff. The sessions in Corrigeenroe revolved around Paddy Nicholson’s. Here was a fine fiddle player, Michael Lyons, who later emigrated to the U.S. while Jim McLoughlin played the whistle. Paddy Nicholson himself played the fiddle, while another great player was Phil McConnon. In nearby Doon were the McGlynns, Eugene, Joe, Pat and Owen and also Peter Gallagher. On the other side of Boyle, in Keash, were Peter and Joe Cullen, Michael Brennan and Mark Walshe. From Killaraght came Mrs. Meehan, Kevin Meehan and Oliver Knott. In Ballinameen there were Eugene Duffy, and Paddy Kenny with E. Lavin in Breedogue. Nearer the town was accordion player Paddy Cregg and flute player Eddie Cummins. From the town were the fiddle players John Dwyer and Paddy Morris and brothers Jimmy and Bernard Flaherty, originally from near Castlebaldwin, both accomplished accordion players. Then there was Kathleen Dwyer Morris who hailed from Ballindoon but became intrinsically linked with Boyle. These musicians flavoured the times as they played at Country House dances, American wakes, occasional concerts and rambling house sessions. They had their own local style dictated by restricted means of transport and local identity. In the fifties this changed and the Fleadhs accelerated the change.

Venue Selection:News of the great gathering of musicians at the All-Ireland Fleadhs, of the early fifties, began to filter back to Boyle. A branch of Comhaltas was formed, instigated by Micheal O Callaghan. He became the first Branch Chairman. Clareman, Garda Joe Leahy was Vice-Chairman; Des Kennedy was Secretary with Paddy Morris and Mrs. Margaret Nicholson acted as Co-Treasurers. Other core committee members included Mr. and Mrs. John O’Dowd; Jimmy and Tess Flaherty, Martin Candon and Kathleen-Dwyer Morris among others. Present, at that initial meeting, to lend encouragement, were Tommy Flynn and Pat Joe Dowd from Lough Arrow. This ambitious committee applied to host the 1960 All-Ireland Fleadh. Because of its youth, it had to overcome the national organisations doubts in its ability to do so at a special meeting in Birr.

Preparation and Anticipation:The town did not know what to expect from the event and could hardly have anticipated the immense size and impact of the occasion. It came as a shock to Boyle but the town rallied and won through on all fronts. The days immediately preceding the weekend were days of feverish activity. Temporary cafes, eating houses and accommodation venues, emerged, responding to the cajoling of the committee’s accommodation secretary, Jimmy Flaherty. Camping grounds sprang up as the town improvised to cater for the expected crowds. And they came, first as a trickle on Friday evening, to a steady stream early on Saturday to a flood on the evening and night and on Sunday morning, until the streets were filled with a happy, jostling throng.

Triumph:The 1960 All-Ireland Fleadh was a triumph for Boyle; a triumph of organisation, co-operation and atmosphere, which left a wealth of memories and established Boyle as a premier venue for the festival. Sunday morning opened to the crash of a thunder storm, which threatened the day. But, having given its salute, it passed on, as the parades and music returned to the streets, while the competitions proceeded in the many centres. Among the winners that weekend were many who were to become household names in the traditional music scene. Joe Burke, Matt Molloy and Josie McDermott were winners as were the Tulla Ceili Band. Locals too performed with distinction, including Frances Grehan, Sean Kenny, and Aidan Sheerin. The St. Attracta’s Ceili Band, Ballinameen; Buion Cheoil Mhuire, Drumboylan and Marian Band, Boyle were successful in the Roscommon County competitions.

A post-Fleadh account went thus “…the memory of it is still fresh in the minds of the thousands…and what memories they are… to try and sort them out is almost impossible for they come crowding into the mind in a confusion of sounds, faces and incidents that prevents the pictures from coming sharply into focus. The skirl of the pipes, the lilt and lift of the dance tunes, the ballad singing and dancing on the pavements, the laughter and noise of the happy laughing crowd seemed to hang over the streets of Boyle.”

Epilogue:The return of the Fleadh of 1966, held in glorious Whit weekend weather, confirmed and enhanced Boyle’s reputation. The opposition encountered by the committee to the Fleadh’s proposed return in 1972, in the nervous atmosphere of the Northern Troubles, was a big disappointment to them. While there were very good County and Provincial Fleadhs in this period, and an active branch, the possible repeat of 1960 or 1966 faded as Listowel took over the mantle. Neither has the number of Boyle musicians grown beyond the traditional families of Flaherty, Morris, Meehan and Grehan. The strongholds are still outside in places such as Ballyfarnon and Castlebaldwin. The local Comhaltas branch is dormant, with little prospect of coming to meaningful life. The twenty fifth anniversary of the 1960 Fleadh inspired the Editor of the Roscommon Herald (and motivator of the first festival, Micheal O’Callaghan) to ask, above a picture of a crowded town; “Will we ever see the like again?” I doubt it very much, so let’s hold on to the memories of ’60 and ’66.
“Ah yes, I was in Boyle once…. “
First published in the important Moylurg Writers Book of essays, on Boyle, Vol. 2, published Nov. 1993.
(Acknowledgements to Mrs. Margaret Nicholson and Mrs. Kathleen Dwyer Morris for their help with this article).

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

In Memory Of My Father

(June 14th 2009)

Though he died over thirty six years ago it seems as if I am still getting to know him. I should have done it then of course but it wasn’t fashionable and I was a younger member of the family. Also I felt I knew a lot more then than I do now. In getting to grips with my father he seems to slip through my fingers. I could not but say that he was a solid, hard-working, farming man. When he arrived at the scene of a problem the rest of us stood back we were confident that he had the answers. Invariably he had.
I know now that having the answers wasn’t quite so simple. He was never demanding or commanding. Indeed he was, for a man of his background, deferential. His solution might be pretty straight forward and we would wonder why we hadn’t thought it through. The answer was from his store of experience. He had his weaknesses of course and it surprises me, in a naïve way I suppose, that a genuinely solid and sensible kind of man drank too much. But I’m not here now to talk of weaknesses.
I have many images of him and think of how the poet Patrick Kavanagh, so effectively remembered his parents in his poetry, particularly his Mother and more obliquely his father in his poem ‘In Memory of My Father’; ‘Every old man I see in October coloured weather seems to say to me I was once your father’. It doesn’t happen thus often to me but I can easily recall pictures of my father at his best. I can see him in the tillage field with the knapsack sprayer on ‘the barrel’s edge poised’ as he sprayed the potatoes. He was skilled in the bog with the slean slicing the turf sods or with the shears snipping at sheep-shearing. He is in the hay-field, in his latter days, winding the hay ropes or in that period also when he had graduated to the end of the threshing machine where he bagged the grain. His forte was in harvesting, from the smaller fairs of Creggs, Ballygar and such places, his kind of cattle which he brought together like a football team for the big fairs held in Roscommon town. In a sense I can only post a flavour of the growing number of pictures, as they drift back, for these paragraphs.
We shared a number of lesser things like the adventures of the Cisco Kid in The Irish Press, and occasional articles on World War Two, like Stalingrad, in the Sunday Press. I seem to remember, in his company, the radio programme ‘The Ballad Makers Saturday Night’ though I shouldn’t go back that far and listening to the Derry Boxer, Billy Kelly, being robbed by the referee’s decision against Ray Famechon. He sang regularly from his small stock of songs such as; ‘I Dream of Jennie’, ‘The Galway Shawl’, ‘Noreen Bawn’ and ‘Lovely Derry on the Banks of the Foyle’ and enjoyed Moore’s Melodies and John McCormack.
He had been part of the Independence movement but spoke little of it. He was ‘a county footballer’ and followed the fortunes of Roscommon from a distance but rarely came to watch us play, which was a disappointment. I accompanied him to his last Roscommon match in Ballinasloe, around 1969, against Galway, when they did particularly badly. ‘Shadows on the wall’ he repeated as we headed back to the car in the Fair Green. There was a dividend in being the son of Pat Conboy. It’s a little ironic that I wrote about Roscommon football and the Independence conflict later and had so little information from him, who had been so involved, on those subjects. Before he went to Roscommon hospital for the first and last time, early in 1973, he had his last drink in Warde’s in Goff Street. He did not seem so ill that he was to pass away within a week. I could have stayed and been by his hospital bedside when he died and of course I regret that. Inexcusably I was to repeat that mistake later. I don’t know what he’d have made of the tricolour on his coffin and the volley of shots which were fired at his graveside. I didn’t rail against his death as Dylan Thomas did in ‘Do not go gently into the dark night’ but I missed him and would have particularly liked him to be around for some big occasions later in my life.
Next Sunday is Father’s Day so maybe some of you might meet up with your own dad in an ‘accidentally on purpose’ kind of way. Perhaps it will be in his local as opposed to yours and you could stay with him and not be impatient in rushing off to see your own friends. Make sure this time that you buy the extra drink in three. Perhaps you could ask him about some story, you’ve heard a number of times before, as if it were new. Maybe you could ask his opinion on something. He’d like that. Just make time, because it may surprise you that he’s probably your best buddy. In his mind he has wisdom to dispense from the well of life’s experience and your wellbeing is very important to him. Engage and be patient even if it is slightly challenging. Years hence you may remember the modest occasion and feel pleased by your awareness in making it happen.