circa June 1965
If you are ever in Portrush, on the north Irish coast, and you head down Causeway Street from the town centre, just before the Catholic church you will see St. Patrick’s Hall. Now the building was not always connected with the church. In my day, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was called The Palladium and it was a theatre, putting on variety shows during the brief holiday seasons of Easter and summer, when the resort used to be a tourist destination, before the tour companies started offering cheap holiday flights and hotels in the more reliable southern European sunshine. For most of the year The Palladium was shuttered.
Before its transformation to a variety theatre, the Palladium was a ballroom, with a resident orchestra. There was also Barry’s Ballroom. With thousands of soldiers stationed in north Ulster, training for the eventual invasion of mainland Europe, there must have been plenty of trade for the ballrooms and the local girls were very much in demand. That was how my mother met my father in 1942.
I never heard my father speaking of playing at the Palladium. He ended his military service in January of 1946 in Lübeck on the Baltic, having been involved in the fighting from the invasion of Normandy through Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. When he returned to Portrush, he got his professional opportunity as pianist with Ernie Mann’s band, then resident in Barry’s Ballroom. When Ernie was forced to retire, due to ill- health, my father took over leadership of the band.
But by the early 1950’s, musical tastes were changing, with Bill Haley and His Comets and the jive displacing the formal quickstep and waltz and orchestras. And then came Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Beatles and the avalanche of groups with singer, lead, rhythm and bass guitars and drums. In Portrush, the Arcadia Ballroom opened in 1953 and Barry’s Ballroom closed around that time. I don’t know what happened to the Palladium Ballroom, but I suspect that it had already ceased to operate. My father moved his band to the Northern Counties hotel, and for many years they continued there. He became very well-known and many times over the years, when they have heard my name, strangers have said to me, ‘you wouldn’t be Harry Blackwood’s son, would you now?’
I only ever once went to a show at the Palladium. I think it was in the early summer of 1965, but I am not sure. Neither can I remember clearly who I went with. It may have been Trevor Gaston and Martin Williamson, but again it is all a blur. You see, we went to a performance of Edwin Heath. the well-renowned hypnotist, and I fell asleep in the first few minutes of the show, when he was introducing his act and the entrancing music was playing in the background. I was not the only one; those of us who succumbed were led up to the stage and we were the show for the next hour or so.
I recall nothing. Afterwards I learned that the ‘victims’ were commanded to react to many different out-of-character situations: acting as we were different animals, believing that a glass of water tasted foul or another strongly alcoholic etc., and in my case to imitate a well-known singer, singing a hit song.
Now singing in front of an audience, hypnotised or not, for me was nothing unusual; I was the drummer in Bill McKeown’s Group, appearing at various local hotels in the area and further afield in Belfast, Red Bay and the Giant’s Causeway. We even had a six-week, Monday through Saturday, summer booking in a local hotel. In addition to a full-time day job, it was hard work, playing from 20:00 to midnight and often much later. We were ‘cheap and cheerful’ and there was little competition in those days. Bill was a talented pianist and saxophonist, his wife had a beautiful voice, his son was competent on the guitar. In addition to drumming, I sang ballads. When the client had sufficient budget, we included a bass guitar and trumpet, the latter being Tommy Tinkler, who was formerly in my father’s band and is in both photos above.
And in the Edwin Heath show, I sang the Jim Reeves hit song, ‘I love you because’, as I had many times before.
Today Portrush is but a shadow of what it was in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when the holiday crowds filled the hotels and boarding houses, staying for a week or more, when the beaches were crowded in the rare good weather, the amusement arcades were full and in the evening the centre of the tiny town was one big traffic jam and the pavements crowded. These days, many of the former boarding houses have shut or have been converted into flats for the students from the nearby university. And the steam trains that used to shuttle back and forth from Belfast, have long been retired and replaced by a tiny local commuter train, carrying students to their classes at the university in Coleraine.
And all the former ballrooms have disappeared; Barry’s Ballroom was demolished and the area converted to more amusement machines; the Northern Counties Hotel was burned down in an arson attack and eventually replaced by a Ramada Inn; the Arcadia was largely demolished and only a part of the original building remains.
Of the four, only the Palladium still functions, albeit in its new role as a church hall.