An Irishman's Diary


FLICKING channels the other night, I chanced upon a documentary about the Swarbriggs, the Cavan brothers Jimmy and Tommy, who twice represented Ireland in the Eurovision during the 1970s.

The programme was part of a series on the showband era, described by RTÉ as a “golden period in Irish life”. This is a controversial opinion, I must say, although no doubt there are many who have affectionate memories of the time. My experience was limited to the very end of the era, by which stage it had reached a low ebb, artistically and commercially. We still await a retro-fashion fad that will make the clothes and hairstyles of late 1970s Ireland look good again, however briefly.

The Swarbriggs are now perhaps best known for a Eurovision video, which briefly held the world record for cheesiness (a record that, in fairness, was broken frequently then). And even this might have been successfully erased from memory had the makers of Father Ted not resurrected it years later in the celebrated “My Lovely Horse” episode.

Through the dubious tribute of Dermot Morgan and Ardal O’Hanlon, the Swarbriggs have achieved a certain immortality. And fair play to the Cavanmen, at least they can laugh about it.

But the thing that made me laugh about the other night’s documentary was its recall of an unintentionally poignant attempt to rebrand the Swarbriggs in 1978. Their English record company, EMI, thought the brothers and their band needed a catchier name to bring their upbeat pop music to a wider audience. So some marketing genius at the firm decided to call them – wait for it – “Winter”.

If ever a name spelt the end of an era, this was it. It did for the group’s career what frost does for baby potatoes. The album to accompany the rebranding sank without trace, and the duo split up soon afterwards. For various reasons, they were a Winter of discontent by then anyway. But I wonder what became of the EMI executive who renamed them. Maybe he went on to greater things elsewhere: the 1979 launch of Guinness Light, perhaps.

Names seem to have been a recurring problem in the late showband era. Well known is the unfortunate case of Big Tom and the Mainliners, who acquired that title in a more innocent time, when it did not yet imply intravenous drug use. Then they became Big Tom and the Travellers, which in due course also took on an unintended meaning: albeit not one that would prevent airplay in America.

But next to Winter, perhaps the most sadly apt name from the era was The Indians. What with the feathered head-dresses and war-paint, theirs was not the most politically correct act, even by 1970s standards. It was, however, well-timed. The showbands were a doomed civilisation by then, harassed on all sides by the coming of the white man, or “disco” as it was known. The success of the Indians, arguably, was the period’s Little Bighorn.

ANOTHER NAME from that era still resonates today, but for altogether grimmer reasons. The Miami Showband is now forever associated with one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Troubles: the 1975 murder of three of its members by a UVF gang in Co Down.

It was an incident that encapsulated all the madness of the time. The gang posed as soldiers mounting a checkpoint. Their plan was to smuggle a bomb onto the bus, to explode later and be blamed on the IRA. Instead, the device went off prematurely, killing two of the would-be murderers, whose surviving members then opened fire on the band.

The names of the five dead – and those of more than 3,500 others killed in the Troubles, will be read out in Dublin this coming Friday, in a now-annual commemoration. In fact this will be the 10th anniversary of the ceremony at the Unitarian Church on Stephen’s Green: the only commemoration of its kind in Ireland.

As the organisers explain, the ceremony illustrates “the terrible, random nature” of death in civil conflict, with its list including “British soldiers, IRA volunteers, loyalist paramilitaries, policemen and women, gardaí, part-time UDR men, prison officers, civil rights marchers, judges, businessmen, farmers, taxi drivers, social workers, children of all ages, people killed walking home from the pub, while watching football on the television, while attending church; people killed on trains, out walking and shopping and visiting in London and Birmingham, Dublin and Monaghan, Belfast and Derry and Omagh and a score of other Northern Irish towns and villages.” At noon, the readers will start alphabetically with Anthony Abbott, a soldier from Manchester killed by the IRA in Ardoyne in North Belfast in 1976, and they will finish at around 3pm with William and Letitia Younger, an elderly Protestant man and his daughter, who were beaten, stabbed and shot by intruders in their home at Ligoniel in 1980.

Unfortunately, the list is still lengthening. Chronologically, it always begins in 1966 with John Patrick Scullion, a Catholic storeman shot by the UVF in Belfast, but this year it ends just two months ago with Derry man Ciaran Doherty, killed in February by dissident republicans.

Friday’s ceremony will be preceded by a live broadcast on Lyric FM of RTÉ’s Vanbrugh String Quartet performing Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ. There will also be a reading by actor Denis Conway. Admission is free (with a voluntary collection for the Irish Red Cross’s Haiti appeal). And although those attending the Vanbrugh performance must be seated by 10.55am, people may otherwise drop in any time after noon.