Those were the days: Documentary looks back at happy nights at Redbarn dancehall

A nostalgic documentary recalls the top stars and magic moments at the famous Co Cork venue, writes Des O’Driscoll.

MILLIE wants a hotdog. It’s the Redbarn ballroom in east Cork in August 1964 and the word has just come through that the international star playing the venue wants an item of food that the staff are only vaguely aware of from American films. 

What will we do? As ever, ballroom owner Jerry Lucey has a solution. “Just get four sausages and put them into a piece of bread and she’ll be fine.”

It isn’t known what the Jamaican singer thought of the improvised offering, but she was obviously happy enough to go on stage and play a set that included her major hit ‘My Boy Lollipop’. 

That performance was probably the first time anybody in the county, and possibly even the country, had heard a live rendition of the bluebeat style that would eventually evolve into reggae.

Sausage sandwiches and amazing music history – it’s a combination that sums up Redbarn in so many ways. The venue near Youghal truly was special place. 

Before it was destroyed by fire, Redbarn was at the heart of the region’s entertainment scene through three decades. People walked from as far away as Dungarvan (17 miles) to get there, and a holiday in the adjoining carvan park could combine days on the beach with nights being entertained by top international stars and Irish showbands.

A new documentary, Wish You Were Here: The Redbarn Story, captures some of the magic moments in that 20-year tale. 

As well as the story of Millie and her exotic hotdog, we hear of visits from the likes of Chubby Checker and Johnny Cash. Even ex champion boxers such as Joe Louis and Joe Frazier appeared.

We hear how the piano for a gig by megastar Jim Reeves was sourced from the house of a local priest. How Marianne Faithfull’s demand for a special dressing room had local holiday-makers pushing a caravan up by the back door.

Many of the best stories in the documentary, however, are from the punters themselves. Classic coming-of-age moments, the buzz of the big night out, boys and girls on either side of the hall, the romances that blossomed on the dancefloor and developed on the nearby beach (“the valley of the shifting sands”). 

Brylcreemed hair for the lads, and there was a perfume machine in the ladies’ toilet where they could pay to spray themselves with various scents.

Michael Twomey (left) writer /director and Kieran McCarthy, camera /producer with Theresa Lucey, daughter of the late Jerry Lucey standing in the grounds of the Quality Hotel where Redbarn hall once stood Picture: Eddie O’Hare

In the documentary, Mary Hurley (later to become showband singer Gina) recalls watching young lives beginning as boys and girls were left out dancing for the first time. “Buses would come from all over Cork to venues like Redbarn. 

The gig would start would and the band would come on and everything would be happy. At the end you’d have 20 minutes to get out of the gig on the bus home, so they’d all be out kissing and cuddling before they got back on the bus saying ‘See you next week’.”

One woman from Kerry who was working in Youghal recalls being home for the weekend and trying to assuage the fears of her mother about a local lad she had met, by telling her that he had a brother who was a priest. “There’s many a blackguard who had a brother a priest!” came the reply. Fortunately, this wasn’t one of them, and the couple are still happily married.

That anecdotal side of the film was also the most satisfying aspect for director Michael Twomey of Complete Control Films.

“People had very little in the way of entertainment in those early days,” he points out. “No TV or phones, and they either went to school or worked hard all week in local factories. They’d have one night to go out and make their mark.”

The film also pays tribute to Jerry Lucey, the proprietor of Redbarn who built the facility in 1957 with his brothers Michael and Murt.

“Jerry was a visionary,” says Twomey of a man who died in 2012. “Absolutely irrepressible, his attitude was there was nothing you couldn’t do. There are also plenty stories in the documentary which show what a generous man he was, which wasn’t always the case in the entertainment industry at that time.”

As Vincent Power points out in his showbands book, Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’, Redbarn emerged from a government scheme to promote tourism and the creation of Butlins-style camps. 

The state promised pound-for-pound backing of such complexes, and the Lucey brothers, already involved in the building trade, bought their eight-acre site.

A full-on holiday camp didn’t quite materialise, but the caravan park and chalets became a popular holiday destination for generations of Corkonians.

The showband era was about to explode and the building of a ballroom seemed like a logical step to draw some of the crowds that would also flock to the Strand Palace in Youghal, or the Arcadia in Cork.

Jerry Lucey and his family would go on to own the Majorca ballroom in Crosshaven, and the Stardust in Cork (later the Grand Parade Hotel). Of course, they also provided a social space for many of the sons and daughters of their Redbarn regulars, as Sir Henrys emerged as one of the best venues and dance clubs in Europe.

When Elvis Costello took to the stage in that South Main Street venue in the late 1980s, he probably didn’t realise the same proprietors had hosted his father Ross MacManus in Redbarn 20 years earlier.

By the time Redbarn burnt down in 1978, both the music industry and Irish society had undergone huge changes in comparison to when the Lucey brothers had first dug their foundations back in 1957. Wish You Were reminds us of that, along the way providing both a trip down memory lane and an important slice of social history.

  • Wish You Were Here: The Redbarn Story will be screened at Triskel in Cork tomorrow at 8pm. DVDs of the documentary are also available via completecontrolfilms.com 


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