Dancing the (Sunday) night away.

This piece would have served better as an introduction to the series on the young lives of my mother, Ena Davis, and her siblings, starting out on their independent lives, rather than occurring, as it does, at the end. Following this will be a short piece based on a song which humorously reflects life during this period.

Reco,Ena, Jack and Cecil c 1948.

Ena and her siblings were looking to their futures; their world was opening up. The 1930s and 1940s brought the bicycle, bus, car and taxi to rural Ireland expanding horizons beyond local townlands and parishes. The gramophone, cinema and the wireless brought new experiences in music, pictures and news. These young people were eager to get out there into these new times.

However, the period was seen by the clergy and many national leaders as a time of moral decline and increasing depravity in the general population. The rise in nationalist fervour across Europe, coupled with the Gaelic cultural revival and a religious zeal drove efforts to stop the rot in Ireland. External cultural influences were seen to be the root cause; the very things that fascinated young people at that time, jazz and modern dancing. The inherent racism of the Nationalistic era was obvious in the claim that jazz music, and the ‘suggestive and demoralising’ dancing it inspired, was a black, pagan influence, ‘borrowed from the language of the savages of Africa.’ and foisted on pure Gaelic culture.

On New Year’s Day 1934 Fr. Conefrey and a group of parishioners marched down Main Street in Mohill, County Leitrim at the start of what was labelled as The Anti Jazz Movement.   While the movement quickly ran out of steam, unlike jazz itself, the wheels of opposition were turning and the upshot was the Dance Hall Act of 1935, licensing all public dances through the district courts.

There was another pressure that would see an attempt to stop the young Davis family from taking part in these new recreations, and to row back the coming jazz era in Protestant communities.

If debates about the self-governing Home Rule bills had put the wind up Protestant families in Ireland, the Ne Temere decree by the Catholic church of 1908, brought the first winds of a hurricane. Ne Temere required that all children of a mixed marriage be brought up as Catholic. This was generally supported by the Irish State and legal system. Protestant families in a minority community felt it would be their end; numbers would decline, lands would be lost.  The infamous case, which made international news, of a young couple Agnes (Presbyterian) and Alexander McCann (Catholic) in Belfast, just after the introduction of Ne Temere, confirmed suspicions when Alexander ran off with their two children, after Agnes refused to be “properly” married under the terms of the new decree. She never saw her children again.

So, Protestant communities circled the wagons. The message was simple, marry your own. Anyone marrying outside the community brought shame to themselves and their families and were frequently ostracized. The impact of the decree was felt for decades to come. The whisperings heard in my grandparent’s kitchen were likely to be about these impacts; who had left the fold, what farms that passed to the other side, and indeed stories about their son and brother – my Uncle Wallace – who had been banished from the family for marrying Rita, a Catholic.

Jack, Cousin Corrie and Reco c 1945.

So how did this small community encourage boy-girl contacts that might end in straightforward Protestant marriages.  While some marriages were arranged this practice was dying out. More important were the local socials, Protestant only socials. They took place in church, school and orange halls of the district. Organised by the older men of the community, they who would sometimes have to evict the odd Catholic lad who managed to get in, although some were ‘deemed suitable’. Catholic socials, which were larger and open to all, had an illicit attraction.

The socials were simple affairs with dancing to a small band, servings of tea and buns – non-alcoholic like all such events of the time – and with the appropriate mix of young people including the young Davises. The band played traditional tunes for set dances and games such as ‘The Waves of Tory’ and ‘The Farmer Gets a Wife’ but also more popular music being played on the new Radio Luxembourg. Unlike the Catholic socials and dances they were not held on a Sunday, at a time when strict Sabbath day observance was the norm. Reco and Cecil, the eldest, cycled miles to socials in Lurganboy, Dromahair, Carrigeencor, and Manorhamilton and back, while Ena’s social life was under the watchful eye of her cousin’s family in the Dromahair shop. Phyllis, Alf and Wallace would join them as travel became easier.

After the introduction of the Dance Hall Act, local Garda enforcement was often accompaniment by a Parish priest. There was a sudden growth of parochial halls while many simple structures appeared on the edges of towns and villages, built by entrepreneurs seeing an opportunity. Typical of the time was Glenfarne’s corrugated-iron “Nissen Hut” – of WW1 army design – built in 1934. It would later become The Rainbow Ballroom, and better known as the Ballroom of Romance in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s.  Initially Reco, Cecil and Ena, the older siblings of the Larkfield family, were forbidden from attending these Sunday evening dances.  While their friends dressed up for a night out, a frustrated Reco and Cecil would cross two fields to their neighbours, old James and Maggie Maguire, and spent each Sunday evening with them in their small corrugated-iron three roomed home.

Ironically, the Dance Hall Act put an end to many traditional music activities in houses and at crossroad, forcing them into a controlled and commercialized environment. Thus, the ceilidh – large musical ensembles in big wide-open spaces – was born at the expense of the older traditional culture. As the crowds at the dance halls continued to grow so did the number of dance bands playing around the island. 

Tess McManus and Jack Davis at Tess’ sister Bridie’s wedding 1963.

Phyllis trained as a nurse in Belfast and was independent earlier than her other siblings. The first in the family to own a car, she had enjoyed the fun and excitement of nights out around the City. On her regular visits home, she was instrumental in overcoming her mother’s resistance to Sunday entertainment. Her father Richard was more broad-minded, encouraging Phyllis and a car-load of passengers, to make their first Sunday-night trip to the cinema in Manorhamilton. In Belfast Phyllis had heard Omagh’s showband, The Melody Aces and when they headlined in The Rainbow Ballroom in Glenfarne, she took off with Cecil to dance the night away. The Rainbow was now attracting large crowds and was full of friends and neighbours, with others from Fermanagh, Leitrim and Cavan, arriving by all means of transport.  The Melody Aces would play to packed crowds at The Rainbow Ballroom for many years to come. Phyllis drove home, her car packed. One of the car’s occupants that night was Padraig Fitzpartick, a good friend and neighbour of the Davis family. Padraig would meet his wife Bridget at the same Ballroom of Romance over a decade later. A song from this era, often sung by Padraig, “The Courting of Maggie Long” is presented in the next blog.



  • The Anti Jazz Movement and The Dance Hall Act 1935:


  • Ballroom of Romance at Glenfarne:


  • “The Ireland that we dreamed of? ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ “, an essay by Dr Tina O’Toole on William Trevor’s short story ‘The Ballroom of Romance’.


  • ‘Different and the Same: A folk history of Protestants in Independent Ireland’, Dierdre Nuttall. This works explores the folklore, traditions and narratives of the Protestant minority in the Republic of Ireland. With the support of the National Folklore Collection, Deirdre Nuttall investigates the cultural, rather than simply faith-based, aspects of the group, incorporating folk history, custom and belief and identity. A unique work including memories of socials, gatherings and dances.

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