Showbands: Ireland's chance to party during deeply religious 1950s and 60s

If you can remember the ‘mineral bar’, ladies’ choice and bands dressed in identical blue suits and winkle-picker shoes, then it’ll be relatively easy to guess your age. Back in the showband era of the 1960s and 70s, Ireland was still a closed society – deeply religious, socially conservative and with only Radio Luxembourg available to hear The Beatles and the Stones. It was a time when seven-piece bands like The Dixies, The Miami and The Royal ruled the entertainment scene – a period when Dickie Rock, Brendan Bowyer and Butch Moore were the icons teaching Ireland how to party. Everywhere from country villages to midland towns to city dancehalls, it was the epoch of the Ballroom of Romance.

In the heyday of the showbands – dating roughly from the mid-1950s to the late 70s – an estimated 1,500 bands of various musical genres travelled the country, many playing five shows a week in vast ballrooms with names like the Ritz, Oisin, Emir, Flamingo, Majorca, Manhattan and Oasis.

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In the immediate post-war years, it all began with mini orchestras in bow ties and tuxedos, seated on stage and led by maestros like Mick Delahunty, Maurice Mulcahy and Tommy O’Brien, all reading sheet-music while they played. The arrival of the 1960s and the advent of pop music saw a new and more liberal audience wanting more than tangos and old-time waltzes, so the orchestras transformed to seven-piece bands, now dressed in Carnaby Street suits, pointy-toed shoes and delivering a ‘show’ that included Top 10 hits and frequent wacky antics as part of the entertainment.

During that period, when JFK came home to his roots and The Late Late Show went on the air, ballrooms suddenly got their hucklebuck shoes on, with high-energy numbers, crowd-pleasing gimmicks and a new generation keen to dance the night away to The Altonaires, The Blueglows and The Nevada. What began as a handy weekend gig for amateur guitar and saxophone players was quickly transformed into a seven-night occupation, forcing many to consider the dilemma of giving up “the day job”.

By the mid-60s, showbands were ubiquitous across the Irish entertainment scene, an all-male membership with occasional female lead singers like Masie McDaniel, Tina Reynolds and Susan McCann.

While the playlist was largely drawn from American country and old-time ballads, some groups penned their own musical compositions vaulting them into the Irish charts as hit singles like ‘Kiss Me Quick’, ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ and ‘Come Back to Stay’ began to generate additional income streams.

It was around this time that lead singers were forced to dash for their E-type Jaguars, Lotus Elans and Triumph Spitfires to escape the hordes of screaming teenage girls.

Economic revival

Members of the top showbands were then earning up to five times the average weekly wage, and became consumer pioneers leading the country out of the impoverished 50s into the economic revival of Taoiseach Seán Lemass’s new Ireland. Things had come a long way from the days when bands would drive 200 miles to a gig with five of them seated on the floor of a bread van. Hard to believe, but many country towns and villages had no chippers back then, and canny local entrepreneurs would set up temporary stalls outside the ballrooms offering sandwiches, minerals and chocolate bars to the sweat-soaked multitudes crowding the buses to take them home.

In an era when the Catholic Church still held an enormous sway over social mores and behaviour, the annual arrival of Lent dictated a migration to foreign shores for many showbands. Liturgical laws of the time dictated that every ballroom and dancehall had to close for 40 nights from Shrove Tuesday onwards, with the exception on St Patrick’s Day.

The power of the Church was best underlined by the 1960 pastoral letter issued by the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Thomas Morris: “As my office imposes on me a special solicitude for the moral welfare of my flock – no dances are to be held on Saturday nights, eves of holy days, Christmas night, or during Lent.”

Musician Paddy Cole remembers it as a period when the more ambitious bands spread their wings for richer pickings away from Ireland – an annual migration when dollars and pounds added to band coffers.

“An exception was made for St Patrick’s Day and it became one of the biggest nights of the year, everywhere was open and bands were in big demand,” he says.

“Throughout Lent there was a glut of bands travelling to England, and many of the bigger bands went to the States. It was actually a great time, we got to travel and meet with the other bands that were on the road as well. Lent became like a showband holiday to places like London, New York and Miami – cities we might never have played in otherwise.”

Yet, while the showband era had its crowd-pulling leading men like Joe Dolan, Tony Kenny and Johnny McEvoy, one ‘master of mayhem’ stood out for his ability not just to scorch a mean drum rhythm, but also as the class clown who endeared himself to crowds everywhere from the Arcadia in his native Cork to the legendary Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.

Iconic band

Throughout his career, he has been known to the world as simply Joe Mac – a name that instantly conjured up an indelible image of outrageous showmanship for audiences who were always left screaming for more. As the drumming heart of The Dixies, one of Ireland’s most iconic groups in the showband era, Joe MacCarthy recalls a career without any set plan or structure – only the drive and enthusiasm to climb to the top of the entertainment world during the halcyon 1960s and 70s.

“There was never a business plan with The Dixies, we never looked further than where we were playing the next St Stephens night,” he says. “There were weeks when I was making £5 into my hand – ridiculous money in 1954, and especially for a lad of 18.”

But if The Dixies transformed into one of the most musically talented bands of an era whose mantra was “send ’em home sweating”, much of their success rested on the showmanship of Joe Mac himself. “I got the reputation for insulting people and being generally disrespectful, and the more I did it, the more they loved it. It was about attention – the women would be going mad for our handsome lead singer Brendan O’Brien, but I could also get ’em laughing by sticking a drumstick up my nose.”

The band was rarely out of the charts during the 1960s, with hits like ‘Cyclone’, ‘I’m Counting On You’ and ‘It’s Only Make Believe’. Their biggest hit, ‘Little Arrows’, stayed in the charts for 20 weeks. The first showband to appear on television, they broke new ground with hugely successful tours of the UK and US, paving the way for the others that followed in their wake.

“Taking the stage at Carnegie Hall (New York) on September 26, 1964, ranks as one of the career high points, no doubt. The greatest stage in the greatest city on earth. Not bad for a boy from Copley Street,” he smiled.

The Dixies finished off the 60s with an extended residency in Las Vegas, rubbing shoulders with the giants of the musical world. “They were all there – Tom Jones, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, and, of course, Elvis himself. We had a ball while it lasted, plain and simple.”

‘Showbands: How Ireland Learned to Party’ – RTÉ 1, Monday 9.35pm

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