The Clipper Carlton showband broke the mould in Irish entertainment. They were the band who launched the showband industry here and were influential in the careers of future stars like Brendan Bowyer and Joe Dolan, writes Henry Wymbs.


In the late forties and early fifties, the local dance-halls were the only venues available for dancing in Ireland. This was a world without television, mobile phones or the internet. The horse and cart, turf and the obligatory school walk of five miles or more were commonplace.

The megastars of the day were all American, such as Clark Gable, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Frankie Laine.

Unemployment and emigration ravaged the country and large families had to be fed. Unless you were well connected the simple choice was the boat from Holyhead or work on the small farm at home for a meagre income.

This was a restrained time and people had not yet heard of Elvis Presley and were untouched by rock ‘n roll. But things were beginning to change and people were becoming restless.
1950 saw a group of young musicians gather together in the small town of Strabane in Northern Ireland, with the idea of forming the greatest band on earth. What was to follow changed the course of music in Ireland for ever.

Some time in 2006, I met up with two members of the band, Mickey O’Hanlon and Victor Craig.

Mickey O’Hanlon takes up the story:
‘In 1950 I was working as a carpenter and a small-time musician in Northern Ireland. At the time, the Pallodrome ballroom in Strabane was the big venue for dancing, all the big bands of the day played there. I met up with a few like-minded fellows who could play an instrument – Hugo Quinn, Terry Logue, Art O’Hanlon and Hugh Tourish. We gave it a bit of thought and the band was formed. We played the ballroom the Sunday night without any rehearsing and that was the start of it’

To understand the Clipper Carlton story, you need to appreciate the Ireland at the time. Transport was poor, money was scarce, and poverty was much in evidence. Ireland was an emerging country: there was not even electricity in every hall and bands ran their amplification from large batteries.

The clergy held enormous power over its people, particularly in rural Ireland. More importantly they owned and ran many of the dance halls. Over-zealous priests kept a close eye on courting couples and it was the norm for them to patrol the dance floor and separate couples who were dancing too close to each other.

The power of the priests and the church was absolute.

The big bands at the time were Maurice Mulcahy from Mitchelstown, Mick Delahunty from Clonmel, Johnny Quigley from Derry and Brose Walsh from Mayo. Each band or orchestra had about eight or nine musicians who all sat on stage for the night and played behind their music stands dressed in their black suits and dickey bows. These dances were very formal affairs, and whilst the music played was good, the black attired bands sitting down did not offer much excitement to the non-dancer. In fairness this was the standard practice for all bands at the time.

The Clipper Carlton changed all that.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own