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Fond Fiesta Memories.....

By Sean P. Feeny

WHEN the Fiesta Ballroom first opened its doors to the public on October 5th, 1962, it was exciting times for the people of Letterkenny and Donegal who eagerly awaited the opening of the new venue, the name of it being a secret until the night of the launch.

Speaking to the first man to set foot onto the Fiesta Ballroom dance floor, Letterkenny man Liam O'Neill recalled the opening night and other fond memories.

"The opening of the Fiesta was a big deal back then and its name was kept a secret until the last moment when the ballroom's name was finally unveiled," said Liam.

Curious people of all ages flocked to the opening to witness the dawn of a new meeting place that would become a place music, entertainment and match-making for many years.

Liam said: "I was 19 at the time and young people my age would have been looking forward to the big bands coming to the town performing in the new venue with a capacity of 2000.

"Before the Fiesta days we had to travel as far as the Borderland Ballroom in Muff or the Butt Hall in Ballybofey, which were the main established ballrooms, or parochial halls around the county, everywhere from Donegal Town to Gweedore.

"There was a lot of travelling involved in going to dances, we'd share a taxi between two or three couples, but then all of a sudden this new venue opened right here in Letterkenny.

"It wasn't just young people going to the Fiesta, but people of all ages including my mother who also went along to the opening night. People were just curious to see what this new venue was like on the inside," said Liam.

"The Fiesta was so much more modern than any other ballroom at the time and had facilities that you may take for granted these days, but you could sit down and have a cup of tea and a sandwich during the night."

Liam said back in those days in was all about the dancing and the big band music: "There was no alcohol served in the Fiesta and if the bouncers got a smell of drink off you, you weren't allowed in and the owners, the Keeney brothers, were very strict on this matter."

Liam admitted that he was, "with some reluctance", the first man to set foot on the Fiesta dance floor on the opening night.

"There was a well-known singing group from the town back then, The Pattersons, and their mother Chrissie and she said to me 'Come on Liam, we'll get out on the floor' as nobody else was making the first move," he laughed, "Thinking back now I was probably a bit reluctant to go out first as everybody would be looking at you."

The very first big showband to grace the stage of the Fiesta on the opening night was The Capitol Showband from Dublin.

"The band started at 9.30pm and didn't stop playing until 2am," said Liam, "you wouldn't get a band playing such a long set nowadays."

Many more great names of the Irish showband era with household bands such as The Royal Showband, 'The' band at the time according to Liam, The Cadettes, Larry Cunningham and the Mighty Avons, Derek Dean and the Freshmen, The Clipper Carlton Showband, Brian Coll and the Buckaroos, Big Tom and the Mainliners and many more.

Liam said: "As well as all the great bands from around the country we also got to see big name bands from the UK such as The Searchers from Liverpool."

The Fiesta also became a venue for local talented to strut their stuff, including Letterkenny band, The Vampires (later known as The Marines) whose line-up included none other than Liam O'Neill on guitar.

"We got to play relief for big bands like the Freshmen, as well as playing our smaller gigs in the parochial halls of Donegal, which was great."

Liam mainly played guitar in the band, but would also sing on occasions: "Well, you could say I tried to sing," he laughed, "People used to say to me you're a 'brave singer' O'Neill."

Whereas the Fiesta was the beginning of the end for the Devlin Hall, it was the discos and other licensed premises that signalled the demise of the big ballrooms, including the Fiesta.

Liam said: "During its time the Fiesta was the best thing going and it certainly had its day and lasted longer than others, but when the parochial hall dances started fizzling out the larger dance halls were soon to follow."

Many things have changed since the demise of the ballrooms, said Liam: "In the Fiesta days you had to cross the floor to ask a girl to dance and if you were refused you crawled back," he laughed, "But that very rarely happened as the girls were very polite and ladylike and would dance with you."

One thing was for sure, according to Liam, you never went home from the Fiesta with an empty stomach: " You were well fed when you got home because of the chippie vans outside, and the best and most popular was, without doubt, Charlie McGee's."

Liam has many fond and funny memories from the Fiesta days and is glad to see things coming full circle and showbands coming back by popular demand as he always "preferred live music rather than listening to a record".

However, there is one that stands out for Liam: "Well, I did get asked to leave the floor on one occasion when I was dancing with my future wife Agnes.

"There was a massive crowd in the ballroom and the Keeneys didn't like you putting your arms around one another and when we were seen doing so, there was a tap on the shoulder and we were told 'dance with one arm around or leave the hall' so we left in protest," he laughed. Those of you who danced in the famous Fiesta Ballroom will be happy to know that the 46th anniversary of the famous stamping ground will be celebrated in October.

On Tuesday, February 26, a meeting will be held in the Ramada Encore Hotel, Letterkenny at 8pm and anyone interested in finding out more is welcome to attend. Do you have any stories, any old photographs, posters or anything else about the Fiesta? If so the committee and its chairman Johnny McCollum would welcome you along.



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In Loving Memory of Grant Gallagher: Sept. 21, 1990 - Nov. 18, 2006