Ronan Collins reels in the showband years at Town Hall

THE SHOWBANDS were a truly unique Irish entertainment phenomenon from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s and produced such names as Brendan Bowyer, Dickie Rock, Joe Dolan, Butch Moore, Red Hurley, and Big Tom.

At the time Irish music was only at an embryonic stage of development and the only way a musician had of developing his craft was by joining a group. Among the many internationally famous international musicians who started their careers on the showband circuit were Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Henry McCullough, Eric Bell, and Colm Wilkinson. The Beatles even played support to Irish showbands in their early days.

The term ‘showband’ was coined by Belfast musician Dave Glover and was later popularised by The Clipper Carlton, The Royal, The Dixies, and The Miami. Often the groups included a comedy show in the middle of their acts and their dress sense alluded to a glamorous Las Vegas-style lifestyle.

Ronan Collins was there during the glory days as the drummer of the Dickie Rock Band and remembers his time on the road with fondness. This month he takes to the road again as he joins showband veterans such as Paddy Cole, Sean Dunphy, The Conquerors, and The Swarbriggs for a show entitled Reeling In The Showband Years. As part of an extensive Irish tour they play Town Hall Theatre on January 20 at 8pm.

Collins was born and raised in the Dublin north inner city area of Phibsborough. He grew up just a few hundred yards from Dalymount Park stadium and is an ardent Bohemian FC fan. In his teenage years Ronan developed an interest in music and joined a local beat group called The Others.

The group signed briefly with EMI Records but after limited chart success they decided to disband in the mid-1970s. It was then Collins joined and toured with one of the showband’s biggest stars - Dickie Rock.

“The showbands in recent years have been associated with the Ballroom of Romance-type era where the music was to a very strict tempo,” Collins explains. “However, that’s more to do with the 1950s where there was very little room for creativity and it was a very dark time in general.

“In the 1960s the showbands were the ones who brought pop music to Ireland and in a way they were like human jukeboxes. Prior to that people didn’t have access to pop records or to pop radio because you could barely get Radio Luxembourg and RTÉ were tied to a very strict music schedule.

“The showbands brought music and excitement and a bit of glamour to areas in the country that were still stuck in the past. Bono and Bob Geldof have said that the showbands were ‘crap’ but they never even saw any of the bands in action. It was a starting ground for a lot of people.”

Nowadays Irish rock music is taken for granted in the most part because of the successes of Taste, Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, The Boomtown Rats, and The Undertones on the international circuit in the 1970s. Many of those musicians who broke through, including Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison, served their apprenticeship with showbands.

“You played with the showbands to learn your craft and then you either stuck with that or you moved on,” Ronan says. “Both Rory and Van went on to do great things and actually neither of them were ever critical about their days in the showbands.

“Rory Gallagher was the first guy to really go for it with Taste and he really led the way for others to follow. Van went to America and became Americanised very quickly but Rory always stayed true to his Irishness.

“The next ones to emerge after that were Philip Lynott and Thin Lizzy and then came The Boomtown Rats and then U2 arrived on the scene and they just brought Irish music to whole different level.

“Yet while all this was going on there were still a lot of people who wanted to listen to music for dancing and it continues to this very day. It’s a peculiarly Irish phenomenon and as a result you have a healthy scene with people like Mike Denver and Robert Mizzell and The Conquerors. As a people we’ve always managed to embrace a broad spectrum of music and that includes rock and pop and singer-songwriter and country‘n’western”

Over the past 30 years Ronan has been a very influential figure in Irish music both as a drummer and as a presenter on radio and television. He began his broadcasting career in the late 1970s on the fledgling 2FM and currently presents The Ronan Collins Show on RTÉ Radio 1.

“There are people who are writing music all the time and are trying to expand and I like to get behind them,” he says. “Whether that is somebody like Paul Brady, who has been doing it for 35 years, or a newer talent like Galway’s Noelie McDonnell, who I like very much, it is important that I play their music and that it gets heard. Unfortunately though, I don’t get to play as much new music as I’d like to.”

As he looks over the past three decades and prepares to re-live his showband heyday Collins remembers it with much affection.

“In the 1960s people in Ireland wanted Elvis and The Beatles and Frank Sinatra,” he says. “Night after night in little up and down the country that’s exactly what the showbands gave them.”

Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.


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