Goodbye dance halls, hello discos

In the mid 1960s, showbands were challenged by DJs playing records. Will Leahy of 2FM has been charting 50 years of Ireland’s wheels of steel

The way Danny Hughes tells it, the first disco in the country happened like this. It was May 1965, and the 18-year-old was looking for an alternative to the record hops that provided Dublin teenagers with musical entertainment at the time.

Instead of one record player, as was the norm at the hops, to play the popular tunes of the time, Hughes would use two, to ensure there was no break between the records.

He rented a basement on Lower Mount Street from a Mrs Casey for £5, plugged the event with posters around various schools – especially girls' schools in Clontarf – and packed the venue. Records like Buddy Holly's Oh Boy and The Rolling Stones' Satisfaction kept everyone dancing. The Irish disco boom had begun.

Hughes is one of many who get to tell their tales in From Dancehall Days to Boogie Nights, a forthcoming RTÉ Radio 1 documentary on 50 years of the Irish disco. Presented by Will Leahy, the documentary relates the history of the Irish disco complete with colourful, fascinating details.


Innocent days

From those innocent days in Dublin basements in the 1960s to the superclubs and raves of later years, it’s told through the contributions and memories of a large cast of participants and commentators.

Leahy is probably best known as a 2FM DJ; the documentary came about after his show moved from weekdays to weekends, leaving him with more time on his hands. He wanted to do something for Radio 1 – "unlike other broadcasters, like the BBC," he says, "there's very little cross-pollination between the stations here" – and was encouraged by the senior station's boss, Jim Jennings, and editor, Anne-Marie Power, to follow up his idea.

“I’ve spent a lot of my life working and socialising in Irish discos, and I thought it was very odd that no one had documented the story. When I started to play it for people, the reaction was that they couldn’t believe no one had done this before.”

The original plan was to make a longer, two-part documentary, although this was nixed in favour of getting everything into one hour to avail of a plum New Year’s Day time slot.

"I don't think I'm shortchanging anything by putting all 50 years into 56 minutes," says Leahy. "We do rush through the recent years, and there's only Copper Face Jacks and a synopsis of the law included, but I don't think there's any great developments then compared to previous eras. We also got a lot of music in, and it goes from The Hucklebuck to Insomnia."

Although previous documentaries have zoned in on specific periods – such as Aoife Nic Canna's Folklore from the Dance Floor series, on Irish dance music since the disco era of the late 1970s – Leahy is the first to take the widescreen, 50-year view.

“I think it’s important to document these stories while people are still around to tell them,” he says. “That’s what RTÉ needs to be doing, documenting the history of Irish popular culture. There is probably an overemphasis on the 1960s and early 1970s, but that’s because there is lots to be said about those years.”

Some of the stories from the early days of Irish discos are simply enthralling. Christy Maye is the Mullingar man who holds the claim to be the first Irish mobile DJ. Now a successful hotelier in the Midlands, Maye was the man who came up with the idea of using foam and the back seat of a car to house the turntables for his Disc A-Go-Go events in the local parochial hall.

“He said he had to have four fellows lifting the gear around for him,” says Leahy. “I don’t think music was the primary motivation for Christy. He was just interested in electronics. He said if it didn’t exist he’d build it, and it developed from there.”

There are also cameos by people such as the fashion stylist and model-agency owner Celia Holman Lee. As a teenager in Limerick in the 1960s, she was running the mineral bar at the Cavalier Club (as well as working in a boutique by day).

What Leahy captures in the documentary is the sense of change the discos brought to Irish society and what people did for entertainment. People were making it up as they went along.

“When you hear Danny Hughes talk about that first disco you get a sense of all these teenagers trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

“It’s something that came out of necessity. It was like, ‘We know this music is there, we’re starting to see what the outside world is about and there’s no way we want to put our suits on and go to the showband halls.’ ”

Aside from pushback from the musical establishment, which was making good money from the showband circuit, nascent Irish disco operators also had to deal with the reticence of a doubting public.

“It’s obvious from talking to people that those first five or six years were very difficult, because you had to convince punters they could have a night out which did not involve a live band. Their nights out were always the same: they went and danced to a band.

“Going to dance to recorded music took a long time to catch on, as it did for people in the halls to realise you could make money from it. When people saw that you could make money from it, there was a five-year period when the bands and the discos were fighting with one another.”

Church control

The influence of the Catholic Church is also never far from the surface in those early days. “The church controlled a lot of the halls and community centres where you could have these things,” says Leahy. “I know we have a planning process now and all of that, but in the Ireland of that time you probably couldn’t get anything over the line without the backing or support of the church. A lot of the venues which existed in the 1960s involved the church. I’m not sure if they had any financial involvement, but they certainly had a sway over it.”

The documentary also spotlights people such as Danny Hughes, a star of the 1960s scene who is far less well known now than many others from that era.

"He had never documented his story before, and he was the one person I'd never heard of when I began," says Leahy. "Anyone you talked to who was a teenager in the 1960s would tell you he was a megastar. He was the first Irish TV youth personality. You had Terry Wogan and Larry Gogan, but Danny Hughes was up there with them and he's the one person people now don't know.

"In 1968, when he was only 21, he had a prime-time TV show on Fridays, called Like Now, which ran for three years. He was also a DJ in the discos and would travel around the country to play. By pure coincidence, as comes out in the documentary, he was the DJ on the night of the Stardust disaster."

Although much has changed over the 50 years, Leahy says there are some similarities between the experience then and now. “In the 1960s and 1970s you had people travelling miles to go dancing, be it to showbands or at discos.

"In recent years you had people travelling miles to go dancing to DJs like Tall Paul or Lisa Lashes. Thirty or 40 years on, we are doing much the same thing our parents were doing back in 1965."

Leahy is happy with how the programme has turned out, and there is now talk about turning it into a TV documentary.

But there are some questions that he didn’t get to in the documentary that he may come back to in the future. One of them is to do with what used to be the ritual with the last song of the night.

“When did we stop playing the national anthem at the end of the night at discos? I started DJ’ing in Limerick in 1989, and we played the national anthem every night.

"I went to college in Galway and went to the Warwick and the Castle and all these great clubs in the early 1990s. In 1992, if my memory serves me right, you'd have House of Pain's Jump Around followed by the anthem at the end of the night. I think it was around that era when that habit finally disappeared."

From Dancehall Days to Boogie Nights: 50 Years of the Irish Disco is on RTÉ Radio 1 on New Year's Day at 2pm