Written by Mark K (Sligo Weekender)
The late John McGivern built the Rainbow Ballroom in Glenfarne in early 1934. John was a native of Brockagh, Glenfarne, and was well-known in Sligo where he lived up to his death some years ago. He managed the Savoy Cinema in High Street up to its closure.In his late teens. John, like so many other people from North Leitrim, emigrated from Glenfarne to the U.S.A.
While there he was involved in the radio and entertainment business. However it was always his ambition to set up his own entertainment business and he returned to his native Glenfarne in the early thirties. He purchased a plot of land at a crossroads in the townland of Brockagh Lower along the N16 Enniskillen to Sligo road, where he built the hall, locally known as the “Nissan Hut”. This had no connection with Nissan cars. It got the name due to the fact that the galvanised iron construction looked like the old British army huts – hence the name Nissan Hut.
The hall opened its doors for the first time in early 1934, know then as McGivern’s Dance Hall. The first function held there consisted of a variety concert followed by the first dance in the new hall with music provided by the local Glenfarne Dance Band.
Over the next two decades or so the hall went from success to success and in 1952 John decided to extend the venue. And with the arrival of rural electrical supply to the area the newly-extended hall became much more modern and a few years later a piped water supply was laid on. Up until this time lighting consisted of tilly and other such oil lamps and the chemical toilets were then discarded.
This more modern hall continued to attract huge crowds of dancers from a very wide area. Dances were usually held on Sunday nights with an odd weeknight dance and with various organisations such as the Garda, nurses, teachers etc. holding their annual dances there. When John re-opened the hall after the 1952 renovations he re-named it the Rainbow Ballroom, the name it holds the present day.
During the great years of the showband era from the mid fifties to the early eighties all the top bands played in the Rainbow. Bands such as Hugh Toorish and the famous Clipper Carlton from Strabane were regular performers on the Rainbow stage. In fact it was the Clippers (as they were popularly know) that introduced the showband scene.
Other bands to come regularly to the Rainbow included Brendan Bowyer and the Royal, Dickie Rock and The Miami, Joe McCarthy and the Dixies, Sean Fagan, Sonny Knowles and the Pacific, The Royal Blues and Doc Carroll, The Black Ages, Maurice Mulcahy Band, Eileen Reid and the Cadets, Donnie Collins Band, Gay McIntyre from Derry, Big Tom and the Mainliners, Susan McCann, Philmeona Begley, Joe Dolan, Brian Coll and the Buckaroos and hundreds more as at that time it was recorded that there were more than six-hundred showbands operating in Ireland.
One of the most popular bands with the Rainbow dance patrons was the great Melody Aces from Newtownstuart and which featured singers David Coyle and Shay Hutchinson.
There were no dances held in the Rainbow or any other hall in the diocese of Kilmore during the seven weeks of lent – except on St Patrick’s Night. This was a rule by the clergy of the diocese. During those weeks of no dancing John would organise concerts and other types of entertainment.
Local bands also played in the Rainbow such as Breffni Dance Band from Glenfarne, The Emerald Valley Band from Rossinver, The Rhythm Swing Band from Glencar, Kevin Woods Band Drumshanbo, Frank Murray’s Band From Carrick-on-Shannon, The Starlight Band, Derrylin, The Red Sunbeam from Swanlinbar, Pat O’Hara and his band from Strandhill, The Golden Eagle from Glangevlin and many more.
It was during those great dancing times in the Rainbow that John introduced what he called “the romantic interlude”. This interlude consisted of approximately fifteen to twenty minutes during the dance when John dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black bow tie, would join with the band on stage and sing such romantic songs as “Have you ever been lonely” the popular Jim Reeves song “He’ll have to go” and others.
In between verses of these songs John would ask the dancing couples to get to know each other – if they had not done so already – by shaking hands, exchanging greetings etc. and he would also give out spot prizes to lucky couples, which were usually admission tickets for future dances.
Also during this romantic interlude session the hall lights would be dimmed and the men folk would be encouraged to take their lady friends to the bar for a cup of tea or a mineral – no alcohol bar in those days – before the dance would end. It is estimated that a big number of happy marriages resulted from meeting at these interludes. From this, John then added “The Ballroom of Romance” to the name of the hall, that is how this name came to be.
Apart from the dance programme John also held many concerts during his years in the business. Many of the top groups and solo performers played in the Rainbow from both Ireland and abroad including The Dubliners, Foster and Allen, Dublin City Ramblers, Wolfetones, Anna McGoldrick, Joe Lynch, Ruby Murray, Bridie Gallagher, Daniel O’Donnell, Eileen Donaghy, Altan (Irish group) Gallowglass Ceili Band and many, many more.
Also from abroad came the Harry Gold Orchestra, Ronnie Ronald, Victor Sylvester Big Band and Scotland’s favourite The Jimmy Shand Ceili Band.
When John and his wife, Maureen, retired from the business in the mid-seventies, he leased the hall to the G.W.D Promotions Group from Donegal and later to Tony Loughman Promotions, Monaghan. Both of these dance promoters continued to have dances in the Rainbow until the parish bought it over about twenty-six years ago.
After carrying out some improvements it continued to be run very successfully with dances being the main entertainment.
However about the mid-nineties most of the well-known showbands had either disbanded or retired and with the advent of the singing and music lounges etc. numbers attending the dances in places such as the Rainbow began to fall away. The result meant that very few dances took place in the Rainbow for a few years.
For the past few years the Glenfarne Development Trust have been organising very successful dances and last year (2004) the group leased the hall from the hall owners, St Phelims Diocesan Trust. The development trust are now holding dances on a regular basis with very good results as the dancing crowds are coming back once again to the Rainbow.
Apart from dancing, many other types of functions take place in the Rainbow such as ceili dances, dancing classes for both children and adults, traditional concerts, variety shows, discos, card games, drama workshops, music classes, fund raising auctions and sales for local and national organisations.
The well-known English writer William Trevor while passing through Glenfarne many years ago noticed the hall with the writing on the front wall “Ballroom of Romance”. After making some inquiries about this name on the hall he decided to write what became a very interesting book of that name.
Sometime later a BBC television producer, after reading the book, decided to make a film, and so the film “The Ballroom of Romance” was screened worldwide. As the Rainbow had by this time taken on a modern look the film directors decided to look elsewhere for a more old-fashioned hall. This they found in west County Mayo and most of it was recorded there.
With over seventy years of dancing at this well-known and famous venue, Glenfarne people are very proud of the fact that the Rainbow Ballroom in Glenfarne is the original and only genuine Ballroom of Romance, not only in Ireland but also in the world. Seventy-odd years of non-stop dancing and entertainment in the same venue must surely be a world record for a rural area. The community say “Thank you” John McGivern for leaving such a great legacy.
The Rainbow is still going strong with many top acts playing at the venue such as recent visitors The Wolfe Tones and Louise Morrissey.
© Sligo Weekender – Thomas Crosbie Holdings, Ireland, 2006.