An Irishman's Diary
The revival of the Ballroom of Romance in Glenfarne, Co Leitrim, prompts the question: does anyone remember the curious Irish rural ritual of the annual carnivals? Held in giant marquees between Easter and September, they featured all the big showbands of the era: Joe Dolan and the Drifters, Brendan Bowyer and the Royal, Larry Cunningham and the Mighty Avons and Philomena Begley and Country Flavour, to name a few.
While Carlo Gébler has researched and written about the quixotic world of Irish showbands, no one, as far as I know, has examined the surely bizarre addiction to jiving in a remote field under canvas during what passed then (and now) for an Irish summer.
In my native Co Cavan these jumbo tents – advertised as “six pole, sprung maple floor” – were erected in venues such as Stradone, Belturbet, Butlersbridge and Lavey. Most carnivals ran for a fortnight and provided big-act showbands on an almost nightly basis. There were no restrictions on capacity and no crowd control.
Seven- and eight-piece bands – most then had a brass section – were crammed onto a wooden stage at one end of the tent with an entrance at the other. (I remember once at Cavan carnival the look of sheer disbelief on the face of the English import The Tremeloes as they took to the wooden stage before a 2,000- strong throng of C W aficionados).
Toilets consisted of a hole in the ground surrounded by sheets of galvanised steel nailed to a plank embedded in the ground a short wade from the tent’s side entrance. And wade it was. After the mandatory rain the field became a quagmire. Dancers in their Sunday suits and hush puppies re-emerged from a visit to the facilities covered to knee length in a cake of muck.
When the first strains of Brendan’s Hucklebuck or Joe’s Good Looking Woman erupted, the sprung maple floor immediately became as muddy as a pen in the local cattle market. No one seemed to mind.
Some of the larger marquees could accommodate 3,000 revellers.
Stewards roamed the field outside preventing non-paying interlopers. The better equipped tents had an annex or two providing cloakroom and mineral bar facilities. No strong drink was available inside the marquee.
But outside, on the adjoining roads the springs of the Morris Oxfords and VW Beetles squeaked as farmers, factory workers and apprentices made short work of bottled Dutch Courage in the form of naggins of vodka, rum and whiskey. Despite the drink there were few outbreaks of violence. And even though band members on their slightly raised platform could be physically touched I never recall anyone being pulled from the stage or assaulted in any way.
Once during a slow number with what I wrongly assumed was a sure thing, I cruised past the stage and shouted up at Big Tom McBride in mid warble with his Mainliners: “Howzit goin’ Tom?” He put his hand over the microphone, broke off from Pretty Little Girl from Omagh to deliver the aside “Makin’ a loch of pounds”.
Appropriately fortified from earlier toping, the men assembled sheepishly inside, establishing a testosterone-fuelled Maginot Line waiting for the inevitable charge across the sprung floor towards the ladies.
When Larry or Tom or Brendan announced a quick-step it was every man for himself. A first refusal spelled doom, as no subsequent girl would accept the proffered hand of a man rejected by a sister.
In turn the girls would recite a mantra like “smell petrol”, meaning that at least the last dance should be with a reasonably scrubbed and presentable male possessing car keys and a lift home. As Larkin remarked of sex, drink driving in Ireland was in its infancy and no one seemed to be bothered about climbing behind the wheel carrying more drink than was legally permitted.
The final ritual of all the Cavan carnivals was the arrival on the last night of dancing of my late uncle Jimmy. A printer, he had a neat sideline with the Performing Rights Society. He had to write down the names of the songs performed and ensure that the organisers of the carnival paid the set fee to the songwriters. Jimmy used to say: “It’s the same set of songs every night. I’ll just multiply by fourteen.” Happy days.