In this week’s Throwback Thursday, JO KERRIGAN revisits the dance halls of Cork long ago, when Brylcreem, jiving and quiffs were all the rage…
GOSH, did our piece on the great showband nights of yesteryear wake some memories in last week’s Throwback Thursday!
Your experiences came flooding in, every one of them redolent with the excitement, the heartbreak, the sheer delight of those long ago evenings when a spray of hair lacquer, and a whiff of Old Spice, were the keys to unforgettable times and places.
That pair of old reprobates, Tom and Eddie, whom you may remember working ‘scams’ at the Capitol in their childhood days, naturally enough turned to the same tricks when teenage dancing replaced the cinema.
“We found a way to get along to the back of the Arcadia by the old railway line that used to run to Summerhill,” reveals Tom.
“You could climb down to a yard at the back of the Arcadia by a fire door. Somebody would pay to go in, and stand near that door. When the bouncers were well away at the other end of the hall, your pal would swiftly open the door and let you in.
“You had to disappear immediately into the crowd, as an alarm went off when the door was opened, and the bouncers would be over like a shot.”
They also favoured Glenanaar, at a tennis club off the Boreenmanna Road.
“The first time we went, they were playing Connie Francis’ Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool, and the DJ was Rocking Gerry. He’s still going!”
Boat Club they considered particularly good for courting, “because there was a long balcony outside where you could take young ladies for a discussion on important political issues during the evening. At Glenanaar you took them out to the deserted tennis courts.”
Jean Kearney took to Pres dances when they moved to the City Hall. By then it cost an entire half crown to get in, her whole week’s pocket money.
“The reason I remember the price is that for one dance, I didn’t have enough, and the other girls, all of us from St Angela’s, had a whip around for me!”
The next step up was Saturday night in Shandon Boat Club.
“Looking back, that was a disaster waiting to happen — it was on the upper floor, with just one stairs, wooden building and everyone smoking.”
Getting off with a fella who had a car was essential, she remembers, because it was quite a trek back in to town.
Then, between Pres and Boat Club, there were the dances at Collins Barracks Tennis Club. “What I remember most about Collins is the mad dash down that path that led to Sydney Place, to make the last bus home from Patrick Street at 11.15.”
Mary O’Leary used to go to Highfield, Dolphin, the Rest at UCC and The Dinosaurs in Arcadia. “I’d say the students who ran those dances made a pretty penny out of their enterprise,” she says.
“I think back now to being able to walk home from all these places to Wilton Road with no danger whatsoever and no worries on the part of my very conservative parents.
“There was the odd ‘walk’ home by long-forgotten boys. My young sister used to count the cigarette butts in the ashtray in the morning after I had brought someone home and judge how long he had stayed!”
Aidan Barry, an avid Pres fan, now living in the U.S, sent us this charming short story about his early experiences, which deserves to be printed in full. Thank you, Aidan.
A Heart’s Awakening, by Aidan Barry
Ireland, emerging from the grey poverty and isolation of post-World War II, began to see new light and even colour in the early ’60s.
For teenagers, the showbands brought us first-hand experience of the glamour and excitement of Rock n’ Roll, the Blues, R&B, and Country.
Those bands were multi-talented, enthusiastic, and joyful, and we could hear all the wondrous sounds of America right here in Cork. The Thursday Pres dance with the Dukes Showband was the central focus of the week for many teenagers.
It all began for me on Monday in front of Roches Stores and the Savoy. That’s where the third-year girls from St Al’s and South Pres congregated after school, and we Pres boys made a beeline to see if our favourites would be waiting.
Mostly we went in groups, relying on each other for encouragement. Can I get an introduction? What should I say to her? Will she be going to the dance on Thursday?
Finally alone with the girl of my choice, we strolled down the street ‘doing Pana’. I let my hand hang by my side in the hope it would touch her hand. Knuckle brushed against knuckle, but she didn’t move her hand away! Encouraged I reached out my little finger in the hope it would get entangled in hers. Yes it did! She did not reject me, yet still she looked ahead as if nothing happened.
My whole hand tingled. The blood rushed up my arm to my chest. My breathing shortened. Yes, I would risk it! I opened my hand and enfolded hers in mine.
My life had changed. I was no longer a kid. A new world had opened up. Somebody liked me. She was interested in me. She saw something in me that others didn’t. I was desirable and not a loser.
Now I had a girl to go the dance with on Thursday evening. It was early summer, and Cork was enjoying those endless evenings of late May.
I would wear my only dark suit and white shirt of course. And a very thin dark tie. Shoes had to have pointed toes, reflecting the winkle-pickers of the teddy-boys of yore.
And yes, Brylcreem so I could comb my hair back in a DA (duck’s a**) in the delusion that I might look a bit like Elvis. And finally a splash of Old Spice, the male aphrodisiac of choice.
The Imperial was a fantasy world, filled with the romance of history and Victorian glamour, far separated from the dour desks and walls of our schools.
Fearing a ‘fifty’, I was delighted when my lovely date was dropped off by her parents, whom I tried desperately to avoid. She was dressed beautifully with her hair swept up on top of her head in the beehive fashion of the day. God bless hairspray!
I was breathless and could only hold her with the gentlest of touches as we entered the hall. There, of course, as usual, the girls tended to congregate on one side and the boys on the other. My older brother had told me about the Dukes, building them up to be better than many of the top line bands. They certainly lived up to expectations. Suddenly they broke right into hard-charging Rock and Roll:
“Open up a-honey it’s your lover-boy, me, that’s a-knocking,
Won’t you listen to me sugar, all the cats are at the High School bopping…”
Everyone was quickly out on the floor dancing, jumping, twisting, shaking, and jiving. Then after three fast-ones the band launched into a set of ‘clingers’.
Moving in close for the first time, my arms around her waist, her breath caressing my cheek, swaying to the Elvis love songs, a reverie of peace and comfort wrapped my soul. The desire that rose in my breast was simply to stay this close forever and not return to my daily life. For the next three hours some of us lived in a teenage paradise, and others, who could not connect or who had been rejected, lived in a teenage wasteland.
Finally, the time came to head home in the mellow summer’s darkness. Most of us walked home in the safety of Cork’s quiet streets and alleys. There were few opportunities in those days for a couple to be alone and nurture a romance.
Walking home after midnight was one of the few acceptable ways to achieve that, since the buses had stopped and the streets were safe. And so, holding hands, arm around shoulder, head resting on neck, we began the walk to the suburbs, prolonging the daydream.
When we reluctantly reached her doorstep both of us struggled awkwardly for words, not knowing how to part. I asked her to meet me again in front of the Savoy the next day and she agreed. Clumsily I put my arms on her shoulders and pulled her a bit closer. In the moonlight I could see her blush, but suddenly she moved forward and kissed me. My heart fluttered, and breathlessly I had to pull back, not knowing how to react. We quickly said goodnight and, nervous but exhilarated, I headed home, almost dancing the whole way. There was nothing more I desired or needed. This 15-years-old’s heart was fulfilled.
Sometimes in my old age, breathless dreams still come back to me of those innocent days and that moment of self-discovery. Having lived a life full of adventure and having met and loved people of many cultures, why does the entwining of little fingers remain as a seminal thought on my life’s worth?
Perhaps those feelings were so pure and ingenuous that they could not be matched by the other great complex novelties I would encounter in later years.