It was balmy Summer’s night in June 1963 –
I had just turned sixteen and was back from Letterkenny where I
had spent the previous year working in the Post Office. I was
looking forward to my first ‘grown up’ dance in Donegal’s new
state-of-the-art ballroom – The Pavesi. Developed by the late
Senator Paddy McGowan, it was opened in 1962 to the pulsating
rhythms of Des Smyth and the Collegemen. Prior to this we had
gone to dances in the FCA hall at the Mullans. Starring there
were the Hayseeds Skiffle Group – Donal (Duck) Gallagher (guitar
and vocals); Paddy O’Donnell (washboard); Harry Stewart (guitar)
and Walter Espey (tea-chest bass), who we thought were the
closest thing to Lonnie Donegan there ever was. Little did I
know that years later I would ‘stand in’ on tea-chest bass with
the Hayseeds at various concerts and dances.
By the early 60s the showband craze had
taken over Ireland. Ballrooms were speedily erected throughout
the country, even slatted huts and hay sheds were converted.
Prior to this boom Donegal dancers patronised the smaller venues
such as the Market Hall, Donegal Town; The Butt, Ballybofey; St
Mary’s, Dunkineely; Foresters, Killybegs; Leghowney; Tullyloskin;
Frosses; Drimarone; even Meenataggart - and, of course, the
Orange Halls in Laghey and Ballintra.
But this was now the swinging 60’s and
certain businessmen were quick to grasp the opportunity to cash
in on the showband scene – some 700 new bands sprang up in
Ireland ranging distance-wise from Buncrana’s Rhythm Boys, to
Brendan O’Brien and The Dixies in Cork. The north-west now had
1500 – 2000 capacity ballrooms like the Orchid, Lifford; Fiesta,
Letterkenny; Borderland, Muff; Astoria, Bundoran; Palladrome,
Strabane; The Embassy, Derry; The Stardust (in the Bogside),
Derry – that was a place to watch your P’s & Q’s alright – the
cats and dogs out in the carpark even went around in groups!!
The Silver Slipper, Strandhill, and, of course, the Rainbow,
Glenfarne, which in its latter days was managed by CDW
Promotions – a Donegal Town based consortium consisting of the
late Michael Cooney, Bob Dore and Terry Woods.
The four of us – my three buddies and I –
shoes shined – well half shined – good suits on – hair greased –
egotistically assuming that we were God’s gift to all the ‘women
that we were going to get that night’ approached the car park
where Andy Brogan was busily directing traffic. The queue
stretched nearly 100 yards. ‘What was causing this – surely they
couldn’t all have heard about us four coming to the dance?’
Pavesi employees Paddy O’Donnell; Patsy
Brogan; Mickey McIntyre; John Slevin, Gerry McKeown, all looking
resplendent in their tuxedos, white shirts and dickie bows,
manned the pay-box and front doors. Having forked out 7/6 each,
we entered the hall where a blast of heat hit us as we fought
our way into the middle of 2,000 dancers – “where’s the women
they’re all talking about we can’t even see the dance floor!!!”
At 9pm sharp, ballroom manager and my Post
Office colleague, Michael Cooney, is at the microphone “Ladies
and gentlemen would you put your hands together and welcome on
stage the sensational Clipper Carlton Showband.” Tumultuous
cheers and claps from all.
Us four gombeens stood gobsmacked in the
ten deep crowd that surrounded the front of the stage. For the
next three hours we were rooted to the spot as we watched eight
talented showmen, dressed in white linen suits with tanned
faces, hair sleeked back, looking like something out of the
movies, as they went through a wide range of popular songs and
music of the day. Suddenly the performance that everyone came to
see – ‘Juke Box Saturday Night’. Amazingly Art and Fergie
O’Hagan become Laurel and Hardy; Don Shearer is Elvis; Mickey
O’Hanlon, Charlie Chaplin. Trumpeter Hugo Quinn plays “O Mein
Papa” - you could hear a pin drop. Again Mickey O’Hanlon takes
the lead, going through a fantastic drum solo, throwing his
sticks high into the air.
The Clipper Carlton from Strabane are still
regarded as Ireland’s first showband. In 1954 they cast aside
the staid music-stands that up till then had been standard and
took to their feet playing and entertaining, breaking down the
barriers between stage and dancers.
Thanks to astute manager, Vic Craig, a Post
Office official from Strabane, The Clippers were the first to
secure a percentage of the door takings - the first to go on the
road with a custom-built bus - the first to hand out publicity
photos - the first to fly out and extensively tour the States.
Ok, there were other bands in the north-west at the time –
Johnny Quigley/Gay Mc Intyre from Derry, Dave Glover from
Belfast, but the Clippers left them all behind with their
flamboyant suits, movie-star image and entertaining stage
routines. The Clippers were equally as big a draw in Cork as
they were in Belfast, often attracting 3000 patrons at a time.
Previously known as Hugo Quinn and the Carltons they merged this
with a name from a famous Pan American flying seaplane ‘The
Yankee Clipper’ which transversed the Atlantic, landing at
By 1955, the money was rolling in. They
were playing at venues all over Ireland touring England,
Scotland and the United States. The band attracted 6,300 to the
St. Nicholas (boxing) Arena New York in 1958. In today’s
equivalent it is reckoned that in 1955 they were earning
approximately £7,000 sterling per night.
But time was speedily catching up with the
band and, in 1965, they split up. They tried several revivals in
the 70s and again in the 80s. When the Clippers split in ‘65,
Vic Craig took over managing the Palladrome Ballroom, Strabane,
while still continuing to work in the Post Office until his
In 1987, following the death of founder
Hugo Quinn, all went their separate ways, leaving behind happy
memories for the boys and girls they entertained and the
romances they helped create. Some members tried to form an
offshoot band ‘The Santa Fe’ but the old magic was gone. Hugo
Quinn, once asked how much money they made, said, that at their
peak - on a day off - they could, without a thought, take a taxi
from Strabane to Dublin, fly to Paris, spend a night on the
town, and fly back the following day. This at a time when the
average weekly wage was £3. The Clippers were definitely the
forerunners of the ‘60s showband boom.
Back in the Pavesi it is now 1am. Someone
asks “hey, what about the women we came to get?”. Yes, those
mysterious creatures lined up on the far side of the hall with
the men ogling them from a distance. “You go first!! Ah na, you
go” So we just stand and watch. At 2am the Clipper Carlton leave
the stage, after playing for a full five hours non-stop. The
four of us leave the hall on our own.
The ‘swinging 60s and the showband/ballroom
craze had just started throughout Ireland.
I hear the Freshmen from Belfast are here next week. Ah sure
maybe we’ll get a woman in the Pavesi that night - who knows!!!