By Lucy Watson
In 1958, Sr. Francis, the head nun of the Convent national school I attended, decided to set up a social club for those of us who had just entered our teens. This was to keep us away from the local boys in the area.
She installed a gramophone and a selection of long playing records in one corner of a large meeting room which had marble pillars and parquet flooring.
Under the beady eyes of several framed saintly figures hanging on the wall we danced from 7.30 to 9.30p.m. every Friday night to the music of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, the Everly Brothers, Conway Twitty, Laurie London, Chuck Berry and Pat Boone.
In accordance with Irish custom no boys were allowed to attend as the two sexes were forbidden to mix in the Fifties. Girls danced with each other while the nun sat in the corner with her knitting, watching everything that went on.
Dressed from head to toe in a black habit, her sharp features emphasised by the veil and the harsh lighting, she looked totally out of place among a group of bopping thirteen year olds.
In order to add a little more interest to the Friday night socials, Sr. Francis bought two Hula Hoops, a hip-swivelling toy that was all the rage in America that year. Made of bright green plastic, they were large hoops which we rotated around our waists, necks and limbs by gyrating our hips. The idea was to see how long one could keep it going.
After seeing Australian children use a wooden hoop in the school gym, two young entrepreneurs, Arthur K ‘Spud’ Melin and Richard Knerr, were inspired to invent the Hula Hoop. They called it ‘Hula’ after the hip swivelling Hawaii dance of the same name.
Within a short time the Hula Hoop craze took off and quickly spread around the world. An estimated 25 million Hula Hoops were sold in the first four months of production and by the end of 1958, 100 million Hula hoops had been sold world-wide.
As we only had two Hula Hoops for a group of 35 children, my classmates and I queued up to take our turn. As soon as you failed to keep the hoop rotating your turn was over and the hoop was passed onto the next person in the queue.
Rose, one of the older girls in my class, was fantastic at the Hula Hoop and could keep it going for a very long time. This eventually led to dissatisfaction among many of the other pupils who were not as good as she was. Their turns would be over very quickly while Rose and a couple of other girls could stay on for twenty minutes or more.
Most of us felt that each person should have the same amount of time with the Hula Hoop even if they were not very good at it but the nun disagreed.
We soon got bored with the Hula Hoop as it was the same people who spent most time on them so my friends and I arranged with the local lads to come to the convent grounds where we could meet them whenever we could escape the nun’s eagle eyes.
We would slip out of the room pretending to be going to the toilet but were secretly chatting to the boys from the Christian Brother’s School outside the main door.
If the nun got the whiff of anything going on she would come out to check up on us. We would feign innocence pretending we were just getting some fresh air after all the dancing. As soon as the boys heard the nun’s heavy footsteps crossing the wooden floor, they would scramble like monkeys up into the trees that surrounded the convent.
The nun suspected that they were nearby but she could never find them. For someone so fixated on Heaven, she never thought of looking up!
After the social club ended for the night, we would meet the boys outside the convent gate and go the local chip shop together. That was the height of sophistication back then. Sitting together around a chipped green Formica-topped table, we would share stories, exchange news and have a laugh while eating chips out of the large newspaper parcel we shared.
The Friday night social was an excuse for most of us to get out of the house for the evening as if you told your mother you were going to the convent dance, you could stay out later than usual.
When the new Parish Priest arrived and heard about the Hula Hoops, he hit the roof telling Sr. Francis in no uncertain terms that the Hula Hoop was “indecent and deeply damaging to young girls morals.” Sr. Francis was left in no doubt that the Hula Hoop had to go.