Romance endures in Leitrim ballroom
Hall immortalised by writer William Trevor now reinvented as tourist attraction
Ballroom of Romance: Caretaker Clement Maguire puts the finishing touches to the Rainbow Ballroom, Glenfarne, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell.
On a sweltering hot day this week, a group of bikers from New Zealand screeched to a halt outside the famous ballroom in Glenfarne, Co Leitrim, and whipped out their cameras.
Many years ago, the writer William Trevor was passing on a motorbike when he too was captivated by the sight of the hall, incongruously located on a quiet country road, a few miles from the border with Northern Ireland.
“I really loved the name Ballroom of Romance, but the rest I left to my imagination,” he said of his famous short story, later a film directed by Pat O’Connor and starring Brenda Fricker, John Kavanagh and Cyril Cusack.
After a €750,000 refurbishment, the “Rainbow” will reopen for business, offering visitors the “Ballroom of Romance” experience. Hopefully, it will be happier than the “will we go into the field, Bridie” version so heart-breakingly portrayed by Fricker and Kavanagh.
Yesterday William Trevor recalled that at one stage early in his life he passed the Ballroom of Romance almost daily in a car and was struck by “the rather romantic title”.
“There is no great story behind it – I am not saying it wasn’t a great story,” he joked.
The name of the ballroom “caught my fancy”, he added and what followed was “just the ordinary stuff of writing. That is what we writers do. That is what we are here for.”
Trevor said he was aware that in Ireland he was very much associated with that story.
“It was not my theme. It was the theme of human nature – very interesting to explore. I explored it and explored it again.”
Speaking from his home in Devon the 86-year-old, regarded as one of Ireland’s master short-story writers, explained that because of his father’s job in the Bank of Ireland, the family had moved many times.
He stressed that he was still writing. “I am writing – more slowly, more slowly, more slowly. I am very old. That does slow your pace.”
Few bob Gerry Finneran worked in the ballroom for John McGivern, the local legend who having returned from the US in 1934 with a few bob in his pocket, decided to build a hall in his parish.
Comparisons with another Leitrim man, Jim Gralton, who also returned from the US in the 1930s and reopened a hall in another part of the county, are inevitable. Jimmy’s hall, as the much-anticipated Ken Loach film recounts, was burned down and he himself was deported, having fallen foul of the Catholic church.
McGivern’s hall prospered, claiming credit for more than 200 marriages, but Finneran, a local historian, said that the clergy did put some obstacles in its path. When McGivern first applied for a dance licence in Kiltyclogher court, it was refused after objections from the clergy “who did not want people out gallivanting late at night”.
“That judge said he had no hesitation in granting the licence because it was a well-known fact that the folk in Glenfarne spent their nights out smuggling goods across the Border, and they would be better off dancing than smuggling,” said the historian.
He worked in the mineral bar in the Rainbow in the 1950s and has other insights into how McGivern managed to stay on the right side of the clergy.
“Every year on Corpus Christi and Ascension Thursday, two very important dates on the church calendar, he gave the hall to the clergy for fundraising. He was a businessman way ahead of his time.”
Seán McDermott estimates half the clientele came from the North. They came even when Border crossings were blown up.
“They used to carry their bicycles across the craters.”
The ballroom may have a sprawling car park now, but Finneran remembers a time when most patrons came by bike. “The men used to roll up their bicycle pumps in their overcoats, in case they were stolen, and carry all into the hall.”
The Rainbow’s “romantic interludes” were famous when the owner, dressed in tuxedo, white shirt and dickie bow, took over from the band, performing songs such as the Jim Reeves classic Have You Ever Been Lonely.
“The lights would be dimmed, but it was a very amateur dimming, with a few lights switched off or coloured bulbs used,” recalled Finneran.
“John would make an announcement about the number of engagements since the last dance and would stop the music, tell people to shake hands with their dance partner, and urge them to go to the mineral bar for a cup of tea,” he added.
“They do say it was responsible for 200 marriages and he was proud of that,” said Seán McGivern.
His parents actually met at the Rainbow themselves, after John opened the hall, having returned from New Jersey where he had worked, first as a lift operator in a hotel and later on at a radio station.
Seán McDermott, chairman of the Glenfarne Community Development Trust, which spearheaded the refurbishment project, says the hall was famous for its “bouncy” dance floor. Four-inch squares of the original maple floor are being sold for €5 each as mementos, along with fridge magnets and badges.
“We have one busload coming from Kerry next Thursday,” says McDermott, who expects country music stars Nathan Carter, Brian Coll and Big Tom to attend the official opening.
Manager Eugene McLoughlin explained that the ballroom was already a thriving community facility in an area hard hit by emigration.
“John McGivern would probably approve of the fact that we are now an official venue for holding civil marriage ceremonies,” he said.