In the early 1980s I was on holiday in West Cork, visiting relatives. I was persuaded to head along with a few cousins and friends to a dance at the Lilac Ballroom, Enniskeane. I wasn’t to know but this was just before the death throes of the Irish dance hall and the discotheques became the new ‘scene’ for youngsters.
I based a scene in A West Cork Mystery at the Lilac. Here it is.
She stood, mesmerised. The big neon light sign above the hall flashed, promising a great time to all who would pay the entrance fee and come inside. Her friends Roseanne and Mary-Jo, both of whom were old Lilac hands, lit up fags and scouted all around them, taking in the scene.
The lads had gone for a quick drink and they wouldn’t be long, they said. Rory had driven them all out from Dunmanway in no time at all, swinging the Vauxhall Viscount with abandon along the, largely unlit, country roads. There was plenty of parking in front of the hall and, as eleven o’clock approached, the place was getting busier as more cars arrived from the surrounding countryside.
The girls hung around by the car, wrapping their shawls closer around their shoulders against the cold breeze. They fidgeted about, anxious to get inside. Occasionally one or the other would see and greet a friend, mutually admiring dresses, hairstyles, saying ‘hi’ to friends of friends.
Orla knew no one apart from her two friends, and of course Rory and John. She was nervous now, not quite knowing how to act, unsure of herself in these strange surroundings. She had on her best dress, a grown-up dress showing off her pale shoulders and a lowish neckline, though not so low as to bring on more tribulation from her mother. It had been a compromise purchase but Orla was happy with it. She had slapped on the make-up liberally, heavy on the eye shadow as she had seen the older ones do. She now pulled out her lipstick from her handbag and applied a little more, checking in her compact mirror and surreptitiously pursing her lips to see the effect. She sighed. She considered her face too thin, nose too sharp, cheekbones too high. Which boy would ever ask her to dance – a blind one maybe? But already there were admiring glances from both boys and girls at the striking tall girl with the red hair.
At last the local pubs seemed to be emptying and, to Orla’s relief, Rory and John reappeared refreshed and ready for action. The five of them joined the queue which had suddenly formed outside the doors which led into the foyer.
Orla had her half-crown ready, it was double for the men. It was money that Orla could ill afford. All of her group seemed to be paying their own entrance so that way there could be no misunderstandings afterwards.
They paid their money and took a ticket. Mary-Jo reminded Orla to keep the ticket as a pass-out, in case she went outside later and needed to regain entrance. Now they could hear the band, and the music hit them as they pushed through the swing doors into the hall.
At the far end was the band, presently playing an Irish dance-tune set. This was expected early in the night and only two couples were taking advantage to swing each other around the floor.
‘See ya later’ said Rory and John and they wandered over to where the men were standing. Orla followed Mary-Jo and Roseanne across to the opposite wall to join the women. There her two friends chatted animatedly to others they knew, Orla joining in when she could. She didn’t want to be the wallflower that no one talked to. Some, though very few, of the women smoked cigarettes. Orla had never tried one and had no intention of doing so. By contrast most of the men puffed away creating a foggy, slightly mysterious atmosphere over the dance floor.
At the end of each set – three tunes – the band paused for a few minutes and sipped from bottles of water. Some of the women headed off to the toilets or to the café-bar. Orla looked across the smoky room at the men. Almost all men these days had long hair, in complete contrast to the clean-cut looks of the showband who were getting ready to play again. Most had jackets and ties though, and flared trousers were all the rage. The men were laughing, joshing, horsing about, showing off. Just like the church hall after all, thought Orla. But she nevertheless noted that the men would cast their occasional glances across the room, sizing up the women. In much the same way, she fancied, that the farmers would assess the cows in the market square. She hoped that she might catch a nice one.
The band struck up again and, to cheers, the leader announced a set of pop songs. Taking his cue the singer launched into the first number, joined by many of the assembled crowd.
‘Oh Sugar, Oh Honey Honey…’
The girls commenced jigging on the spot; the first of the men bravely crossed the room.
‘You are my Candy Girl…’
The prettiest girls were the first to be asked. And, just as inevitably, they politely refused. ‘Sorry, I’m not dancing.’ The older, more experienced men took the early rebuffs without demur and went along the line until a girl would step out with them.
‘When I kissed you girl I knew how sweet a kiss could be…’
Soon the dance floor became less of a no-mans-land. Some of the women, still partnerless, danced around their handbags. A proportion of the men were now dancing, with varying degrees of style or none at all, cavorting, smiling, inviting their partner to be impressed with their moves.
‘Like the summer sunshine pour your sweetness over me…’
‘Thank you’ the girl would say at the end of the set and would retreat back to her fellows without further ceremony, head high. Even if the lad was a dish a girl wouldn’t risk her reputation publicly by pairing off that early in proceedings.
Orla got a dance on the third song of the set. A young, spotty lad but she supposed she ought to be polite and start to make an effort. She swayed her hips to ‘Bad Moon Rising’, gazing vacantly over the lad’s shoulder, ignoring his efforts to smile and make eye contact and, as the set drew to a close, she retreated back to the line with a ‘thank you.’
‘Come on, let’s get a drink.’ Roseanne led them upstairs to the bar area. Soft drinks only, which explained why the men tended to dally elsewhere before the dance. They bought Tanoras and sat at a table overlooking the dance floor.
‘I hope that Pat fellah asks me out again. He’s gorgeous.’
‘Well I dunno. There’s not many here tonight I’d look at twice. Be as well sitting at home with me Ma.’
The night wore on. The songs became livelier, the crowd less inhibited. Even the most sorrowful wallflowers were asked to dance though even they had the dignity not to cling onto their welcome saviour.
But then the last, slow set was announced and it was all to play for. Though Orla had been ‘up’ a number of times by now she had met no one interesting. Still, she hoped that she might partner a nice lad for this last set and maybe progress to a kiss or two outside before the drive home. At least then she’d have something of interest to say to the others afterwards when they’d be gassing in the back of the car.
But her heart fell when she saw Spotty making a beeline for her. She was sure that one or two other men had their eye on her as well but he was almost at her side. No one wanted to be left at the wall at this stage. Already there were a few stranded and loveless who were making for the exit as if they didn’t have a care in the world. As did many lads who had only been there for the music and the craic really.
Mary-Jo and Roseanne had disappeared. Orla resigned herself to her fate, no one was going to save her so she gave her best attention to her eager beau. Yes, a bit spotty, but not unpleasant, nice smile, teeth, Patrick he said. They one-two-threed around the floor among the other couples. He danced nicely enough, tried to hold her closer. She gently resisted. He bent his head to hers and, as she angled away he nibbled her neck. It tickled and she giggled. He laughed too and planted an unexpected kiss on her unwary lips. She smiled and returned the kiss. It was a nice sensation, gave her the shivers, and Orla thought this was the best she was going to get. She hadn’t had that many kisses from a boy and was quite unpracticed. Certainly at the church hall Patrick and Orla would have been prised apart by now. As the last number drew to a close Orla consented to Patrick holding her ever closer.
The main lights were switched on and the band said goodnight. Orla looked around but her friends were nowhere to be seen. Never mind, they wouldn’t go anywhere without her.
‘Well goodbye Patrick, thank you for the dance.’
‘Thank you Orla, I’ll see you outside. Do you have a coat to get?’
The Lilac is still there in Enniskeane, though it’s now a Skoda dealership.
A West Cork Mystery is available here https://amzn.to/3i3n3w6