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.