It was with some amusement – tinged with sadness – that I read Gerry Molumby’s article about Brendan O’Brien. (no relation) I hadn’t realized Brendan was dead; he was, as Gerry pointed out, one of the superstars of the Irish showband scene in the 1960’s.
Brendan O’Brien and the Dixies were up there with Brendan Bowyer and the Royal Showband, The Clipper Carltons, (the best in my humble opinion) The Plattermen, Joe Dolan, Dickie Rock and The Miami, and had legions of followers prepared to travel the length and breadth of Ireland just to watch them perform.
My amusement came about with Gerry’s description of them ‘threading the boards’; prompting visions of showbands furiously at work on stage with giant needles and thread! They certainly treaded them Gerry, but ne’er a one ever ‘threaded’ them in my dancehall days!
Learning of Brendan’s death brought back long forgotten memories of the night we understudied the Dixies at the Olympia Ballroom in Waterford city. It was sometime in the mid 1960’s. For yes, I treaded the boards briefly myself with a band called the Royal Dukes in those far-of days. And one of our first gigs was to play as relief band in the Olympia, while Brendan and his band had their ‘tae and sandwiches’ backstage. To watch Brendan belt out all the Buddy Holly classics, Peggy Sue etc, backed up by the demonic Joe Mac was indeed memorable.
Our own efforts in the Royal Dukes were more forgettable than memorable. I was the bass player for my sins; the other six comprised lead & rhythm guitar, saxophonist, drummer, trumpet, and trombone player.
Derived almost equally from two neighbouring towns, Kilmacthomas and Portlaw, it was a miracle that we formed an alliance at all, as most of the two towns get-togethers were usually wars of attrition on the football and hurling fields. I suppose it helped that two of us ‘Kilmacians’ worked in the tannery in Portlaw alongside our brass section.
We used to practice at the Rainbow Hall in Kilmac during week nights; weekends the hall doubled as a cinema/dancehall. One weekend you might hear The Cossacks or The Davitt Brothers, filling the air with the sounds of Lets Twist Again, or The Hucklebuck, the next it would be Audie Murphy or Randolph Scot chasing Indians across the Kansas prairie. I dread to think what sound we filled the night with on our practice nights!
Practice makes perfect they say, but I don’t think the word ‘perfect’ every entered the vocabulary in the same sentence as ‘Royal Dukes’. I was certainly no musician; I don’t think I had a note in my body, and my bass playing depended on which chord our lead guitarist was playing at any given time. I just followed him; if he was out of key then so was I!
However, our biggest problem was our trombone player; every note he blew sounded like a jackass braying. In the end we decided he should mime it. (He was our lead singer so we couldn’t dump him!) However, we had a competent trumpeter and saxophonist and reasonably concluded that his miming wouldn’t be noticed.
Despite these handicaps we had several things going for us; we were young, we looked good, and we moved well on stage. And we looked even better when we got our new jackets. Christ they were beautiful, those jackets. Beatle style, they were rich blue with broad grey stripes running down them, with their gold buttons standing out like mushrooms. You could die happy in them!
The Rainbow Hall was bursting on that first night. Curiosity I suppose. The Davitt Bros, who we were supporting, seemed bemused by it all. They were a competent band, who had been around the Munster circuit for years, and were, I suppose, used to sedate crowds of Macra Na Feirme and Muinter Na Tire supporters. Nothing like the high excitement that was in evidence here. As the dance began, and we listened to them play, we realized how much better than us they were.
It didn’t seem to matter. As they took their break and we replaced them, the crowd went wild. You would think we were the Beatles; they had solidified into one heaving mass, and were packing the dance area. It was obvious there would be no dancing; they just wanted to watch and listen.
Looking into the sea of faces I could see many I recognized; Jim Kiersey, his black hair slicked back, with a crease so sharp it could split timber; Vince Power, giving me the thumbs-up sign; Shirley Mulcahy, on shoes so tall she must have used a step-ladder to climb into them; Tony Casey, Elvis quaff dripping oil. I closed my eyes briefly and said a prayer.
We needn’t have worried. We could have banged tin cans together and they would have cheered. ‘I Can Get No Satisfaction’ was our opening number, and it nearly brought the house down. (The following Sunday our Parish Priest denounced the song from the pulpit, and tried to ban us from playing it again. At our next gig we played it several times, so I think he got the message)
Nothing ever quite matched that first night – though the gig with the Dixies wasn’t far behind! Soon we were playing regularly, once maybe twice a week, before dashing home in the early hours to snatch a few hours sleep, then dashing out again to work.
Something had to give – and with me it did. I crashed my Honda motorbike on my way to the Tannery one morning and woke up in hospital with severe head injuries. It took me months to recover. And by then the Royal Dukes had found another bass player. A proper musician this time.
Over the years the band metamorphosed into other groups; some of them became full-time musicians; some are still playing after all this time.
As for me, within a few months I had swapped the ‘wilds’ of County Waterford for the concrete sprawl of County Kilburn. I can honestly say that I have never played the bass guitar since.
THE ROYAL DUKES line-up was as follows
Seamie Brien – lead guitar
PJ Kirwan – rythmn guitar,
Tom O’Brien – bass guitar
Tony O’Regan – lead singer/trombonist
Paul Gorman – Sax/clarinet
David Hallissey – trumpet
Brendan O’Shea – drums
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