Francis Beirne remembers a hobby from the 1950s and ’60s
The period of Lent brings to mind a time when up to 3,000 young musicians were prevented from earning a living when Irish bishops banned dances for the six weeks leading up to Easter.
The Most Reverend Thomas Morris, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, issued the following pastoral letter on dancing in 1960: “As my office imposes on me a special solicitude for the moral welfare of my flock – no dances are to be held on Saturday nights, eves of holy days, Christmas night, or during Lent.”
In an era when the Catholic Church still held an enormous sway over social mores and behaviour, the annual arrival of Lent dictated a migration to foreign shores for many showbands. All ballrooms and dancehalls had to close for 40 nights from Shrove Tuesday onwards, with the exception of St Patrick’s Day.
That in turn reminds me of a popular hobby from that era, between the late-1950s and the early 1970s. Every one of Ireland’s showbands, criss-crossing the country five or six nights each week, had to have a handout photograph of the band.
Just as much an important part of the night, like the playing of Amhráin na bhFiann to signify that the dance had ended, was the rush to the stage to collect a handout souvenir photo of the band. Usually postcard-size and in black and white, these cards were collected by many.
It might be for a teenage sister who was too young to go dancing, it might be for a mammy who read about the stars in the evening newspapers or in Spotlight magazine or it might be to add to the dancer’s own collection or scrapbook.
The publicity photos varied quite a bit in quality. The most basic ones would feature a photo probably taken by the band’s manager or a friend and the band-members could be dressed in anything from sheepskin coats to hand-knitted pullovers.
Others might feature the band dressed in snappy suits and Beatle-boots, with or without their instruments.
The more successful bands distributed full-colour photos and almost all would have an address or a phone number by which the band’s manager could be contacted.
The backs might be blank or show the line-up of the band and the instruments played. Some would have blank spaces for autographs.
The purpose of the handout cards was twofold. One was to build up a fan-base by getting the names, faces and contact details out to as many people as possible and secondly, to hopefully get more bookings in the area.