IN today's celebrity-saturated world, it is difficult to imagine the phenomenal impact of showbands on the oppressed Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s.
But piano player Eamonn Monaghan (72) witnessed it first hand.
He rode the crest of the wave that engulfed the country in the late 1950s and 1960s with the hugely successful Capitol Showband. And although, unlike many of his contemporaries, he turned his back on showbiz in the early 1970s to pursue a business career, Eamonn never abandoned his beloved piano.
Over 50 years later, he can still be found every weekend tickling the ivories for appreciative audiences at the Clyde Court Hotel in Ballsbridge. "I never left the music totally. It still gets me out," he laughed as he headed off to meet fellow Capitol Showband member and long time friend Paddy Cole for breakfast a few weeks ago.
In their heyday the Capitol Showband were to Ireland what Elvis was to America or the Beatles to England. The original line up included Eamonn on piano; fellow Donegal man, Paul Sweeney on trumpet; Johnny Kelly on drums (RIP); Jimmy Hogan, lead guitar and banjo; Butch Moore, lead singer and rhythm guitar (RIP); Pat Loughman, trombone (later replaced by Don Long (RIP); Eddie Ryan, sax (later replaced by Paddy Cole); and Des Kelly, bass, vocals and musical arrangements. Police escorts ferried the bemused celebrities through thousands of screaming, crying fans who queued for hours before the shows began to catch a glimpse of their idols.
Eamonn, then a 19-year-old agricultural science student from Mountcharles, Co Donegal looks on those heady days as though they were part of another lifetime. "The whole thing happened so suddenly. I think the whole era brought Ireland out of the dark ages. The band really took off and I suppose we were so young we were never aware of exactly how big we were. We were a bit gobsmacked by it and we spent our money as quickly as we made it," he recalled.
Resplendent in striped ties, sharp blue jackets and white slacks, the eight talented young musicians who made up the Capitol took the country by storm. Fronted by a handsome and charismatic Butch Moore, they toured the country packing venues with their eclectic mix of music that ranged from dixie jazz and country to chart toppers and ballads. Among their most popular hits were 'Down Came the Rain', 'Born to be with You' and 'The Black Velvet Band' which dominated the charts for 25 weeks.
They were as popular in the US as they were in Ireland, touring during Lent when dances were prohibited in Ireland and thousands of emigrants flocked to the airports to greet them. "This was during a time when people couldn't get home. Air travel had just begun and it was terribly expensive. I suppose we were country fellas and we brought a bit of Ireland out to America," he said.
The band toured the US around 20 times playing to packed venues in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and of course Las Vegas. They were the first band to appear on the new Telefis Eireann and the first Irish showband to have a weekly slot on Radio Luxembourg. They were also the first showband to appear on 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium', one memorable night playing in a line up that included Roy Orbison in a performance that reached millions of viewers. They even had a fan club, which was generating over 1000 letters a week.
At the weekly 'Ag' dance in the Olympic Ballroom every Wednesday night up to 3,000 people showed up to dance to the Capitol Showband. "The showband days were magical days," said Eamonn softly. "We didn't realise just what an event it was until we went into a country town. The girls got their hair done and maybe got a new outfit. There was great excitement. Businesses got a huge boost," he said.
When front man Butch Moore returned after coming sixth in the Eurovision song contest in 1965 over 5,000 fans showed up at Dublin airport to welcome him home. But a year later Moore quit the band to pursue a solo career, leaving a void that proved too difficult to fill. By the end of the 1960s, Eamonn and another band member Jimmy Hogan left to form the Cabaret All Stars and later the Spotlight Showband but it was the beginning of the end of Eamonn.
By 1972, he had left show business behind turning to pursue business interests, first with a builders' providers company and eventually owning a successful bathroom accessory business called Elegant John Bathrooms with his friend Paddy Cole lending a hand.
"It just comes along naturally. You don't think about it. You don't say I'm changing, it just evolves. In the end I had enough of the road and I just gradually worked into business," he recalls.
The demise of the showband era in the late sixties coincided with the Beatles explosion and the emergence of ballad and country and Irish groups on the Irish scene. "People's tastes changed and that was it," said Eamonn matter of factly.
Earlier this month the surviving members of The Capitol Showband reunited on stage at the National Concert Hall in a fundraising event for St Luke's Hospital. Eamonn proudly joined Paul Sweeney as guests of Paddy Cole to invoke the music of a bygone era once more.
Eamonn and his Mayo-born wife Mary live in Terenure and have two adult daughters and five grandchildren.