1961 was an important milestone in my life. In January of that year I left Athy to work in Naas. Nowadays the county town is just up the road, a short car distance away, but back 47 years ago it seemed as far away as Cavan town is today. That same year two Daly brothers left their hometown of Athy, one having disposed of a business which his parents had established in Stanhope Street, the other closing the door on a butchering business which he had carried on from a small premises in Leinster Street. Tom Daly’s shop in Stanhope Street, separated from Noonan’s pub by the curiously named ‘Garter Lane’ was where the Taaffes bought their daily ration of milk. I remember Tom Daly quite well and can picture in my mind’s eye the thickset man who took over the business which had previously been operated by his father Laurence Daly. Tom’s brother Joe was the butcher who in 1961 moved to Bray in County Wicklow. I don’t remember Joe who at 17 years of age enlisted in the Irish Army during the second World War and while there became apprenticed to the butchering trade. When he was demobbed at the end of the European hostilities Joe opened his own shop at No. 65 Leinster Street where he carried on business for approximately 12 years before migrating across the Wicklow Gap to the seaside town of Bray. Joe passed away on 21st March last at 82 years of age. He had maintained contact with his home town over the years and as a keen sportsman followed the stumbling progress of the Lilywhites each year in the league and football championships. Sportswise, one of Joe’s proudest moments came about when his greyhound ‘Cheeky Robin’ won through to the final of the Coursing Derby in 1960.
While the Daly brothers and a gawky red-haired youngster from Offaly Street were moving away from the familiar streets of Athy in 1961, a somewhat older but still relatively young man was busily planning on extending his ballroom empire to the South Kildare town. Albert Reynolds was his name and although working full time for C.I.E. he still managed with his brother to build up a formidable array of dance venues around the country, including the aptly named Dreamland here in Athy.
I think it was the summer of 1961 when Victor Sylvester and his orchestra featured on the opening night of Dreamland Ballroom. I was there that night, having travelled from Naas courtesy of Carmel Fitzpatrick’s trusted Ford Prefect accompanied by several girls from Kildare County Council. It was a great night, so unlike the dances previously attended in the Town Hall or the Social Club Hall in St. John’s Lane. Dreamland was the real thing, what with a revolving crystal ball hanging from the ceiling casting it’s reflected light on the semi-dark interior of what was essentially a gentrified barn. But it was a barn with a difference. For that night, and am I right in believing that it was for that night only, a revolving stage was employed to glide Paddens Murphy’s Sorrento Band backstage as the London maestro Victor Sylvester and his men came into view playing the same tune as the departing local musicians. I can’t ever remember the revolving stage being used again, but then of course it wasn’t needed as relief bands only came into vogue at the end of the showband era which came many years later.
I was reminded of Dreamland and the part it played in the lives of every local man and woman over 55 years of age when I heard of the Nostalgic Showband night planned for Wednesday, 7th May. The venue this time is to be the Carlton Abbey Hotel, but I am told the bands performing will recreate for us the atmosphere of the sixties and the exciting times we had in Dreamland and the other smaller venues which came on stream towards the end of the ballroom era. Back in the 1960’s and the 1970’s almost every provincial Irish town had its band. Musicians of an earlier era had been encouraged in their musicianship by the plethora of marching bands which were once a feature of Irish life. The emergence of the showbands ushered in by the Clipper Carlton from Northern Ireland brought with it fresh outlets for young musicians. Here in Athy, which had bands to rival the Mick Delahunty’s of this world in the Sorrento Band and the Stardust Band, young fellows were gravitating to guitar playing, and to a lesser extent to other musical instruments. If Dreamland was showcasing the best of the Irish showbands of the time, many of the smaller venues in and around the town were offering their version of the then current music. The Town Hall, the Parochial Hall in St. John’s Lane which was previously known as the Social Club, the Oasis in Meeting Lane and the Band Wagon in Offaly Street were just some of those local venues where aspiring local musicians played.
I can’t say which of the local bands emerged first but amongst them were the Adelaide Showband, the Albtros Band, Harry and the Escorts and The Spotlights. Later still as the showband music scene waned and musical tastes broadened Athy had several new combinations including Woodbine, the Flint Hill Boys and Wordworm.
The musical evolution which started with the showbands continues to this day and many of the current local musical groups have links extending back over the years. It might perhaps be invidious to mention just some of those involved as inevitably someone worthy of mention might be unintentionally omitted. Rather than doing so therefore may I simply pay a well earned tribute to all those local musicians and musical groups, all of whom have contributed so much to community enjoyment since Albert Reynolds and his brother first opened the doors of ‘our Dreamland’.
On Wednesday 7th May the Carlton Abbey Hotel will host the Nostalgic Showband Night which is being organised by Robert Chanders and his colleagues to raise funds for the Irish Wheelchair Association in Teach Emmanuel. That night many of the local bands of the past will come together for perhaps the last time to recreate our fading memories of a time when the showband was king. Sadly one of the local musicians who entertained us for many years and who was an original member of the Adelaide Showband is now wheelchair bound and availing of the excellent services provided at Teach Emmanuel in the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Support for Teach Emmanuel and the Irish Wheelchair Association is very important and the forthcoming showband night on 7th May will give all of us an opportunity to give that support, while reliving the romantic nights of yesteryear enjoyed in Dreamland Ballroom and elsewhere.
On Tuesday 29th April in Trinity College Dublin the memoirs of Professor Bill Watts will be launched. Born in Barrack Yard, Athy from where he attended the local Model School, Bill later became Provost of Trinity College Dublin. The local Council graciously gave a civic reception for the former Provost a few years ago which was attended by many of his former school pals and family friends. I know that the Town Fathers gesture was greatly appreciated by Bill and his family and the forthcoming memoirs which will be launched by the poet Brendan Kenneally has, I believe, a chapter devoted to the Watts family’s time in Athy. It’s a book which will surely be of interest to readers in Athy.
Finally, anyone wishing to contact me in relation to these articles can do so by logging on to www.athyeyeonthepast.blogspot.com. The Eye on the Past articles appear on that blog and as always I would welcome hearing from anyone in a position to help me better understand and interpret the ever unfolding story of our historic town and it’s people.