2008rainbow

Museum to recall showbands' glory days

By Peter McDermott

First there was the dancehall. Then there was the short story, which led to the film. In the years that followed, visitors came from all over the world. Now there are plans for a museum.

The village in question is Glenfarne, Co. Leitrim. It was there in 1934 that John McGivern, an emigrant who'd returned from the United States, opened McGivern's Dance Hall. Almost 40 years later, the County Cork-born, County Devon-based William Trevor, one of the most admired of living Irish writers, was passing through the village when he spotted the sign over the door -- "The Ballroom of Romance."

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

Trevor adapted his story of that title into the screenplay for the 1982 BBC-made, Pat O'Connor-directed film starring Brenda Fricker, who would win an Oscar later in the decade. It struck a chord and became a big hit. It also sparked huge interest in the Leitrim village and its dancehall.

The parish council, though, would like visitors to linger -- and with that aim in mind it's planning a €500,000 museum of memorabilia of the showband era and its predominant country & western style of music.

"It would capture a vital aspect of the social scene that's long gone," said the Echo's New York GAA correspondent Frank Brady, a native of Manorhamilton, which is seven miles away.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was a regular as a young man, Brady's favorite performers were Joe Dolan, Brendan Boyer and Dickie Rocke. By that time, the McGivern-run dancehall had undergone several renovations. It was renamed "The Ballroom of Romance" in the 1950s.

"It was ideally situated. The catchment area was North Leitrim, West Cavan and Mid-Fermanagh," said Brady, who is on the faculty of Long Island University. "There was a friendly ambience to it, more rural. They were from a similar cultural background."

At two popular alternatives -- in Bundoran in Donegal and Strandhill in Sligo - the clientele was more diverse and pubs were much nearer to them than in Glenfarne. For the latter reason in particular, Brady recalled, parents were much happier that their young adult children were seeking romance in the Leitrim village.

The Ballroom claimed other advantages, too. "There's a special bounce in the dance floor. We're told that there are tires underneath it," said Seán McDermott of the Glenfarne Community Development Group, which is raising the money for the museum. "That's why Frank Brady is such a good dancer. He learned in the Ballroom of Romance."

McGivern's "romantic interlude" was part of the entertainment. "He would get up and belt out a song," Brady said.

The proprietor retired in the 1970s, but the ballroom went on, adapting when necessary to changed times.

With regard to the latest chapter in its story, McDermott, a Fine Gael member of Leitrim County Council, said he's confident that the community can raise €100,000 to qualify for matching funds. The development group is organizing a Restoration Fundraiser Draw, which has €20 tickets and more than €4,000 worth in prizes.

"A considerable amount of work has been done on it in Phase One," he said of the venue, which is officially known as the Rainbow Ballroom of Romance.

And it's being used. Brady was at an event there on a recent trip home that attracted more than 800 people. The star attraction was country & western legend Big Tom. "There was a demand for more chairs," he said, indicating that the average age had gone up since he was a regular there.

A liquor license can be obtained for such special events. However on other occasions, such as the "old tyme dancing" event, which features a mix of musical genres one Sunday a month, only tea is served. "It's from 9 until 11:30. So you're home early if you need to be up for work on Monday morning," McDermott said.

Back in Brady's day, it was lemonade or orange. And men were on one side of the hall at the outset and women at the other.

"You could say I got my sex education in the 'Ballroom of Romance,'" Brady said, laughing. "Someone might say I couldn't have learned very much."

[PHOTO BY JAMES MOLLOY]

For more information about the Rainbow Ballroom of Romance, contact the Glenfarne Community Development Trust at info@glenfarnecommunity.com or visit www.glenfarne.com or call 011-353-71-985-6831.