There was a lively traditional music festival in Killaloe and Ballina last weekend.

Inevitably, between the jigs and the reels and the balladry, there was a deal of talk about the current politicking, and the impact of recent events on the future of rural Ireland.

It was because I met a lively fiddler, named McGivern, towards the close of the craic, that I recalled meeting a magnificent character of the same surname, years ago, who quite literally saved the soul and spirit of his native county with a song and a dream.

The so-called Cinderella County of Leitrim would not be so vibrantly lively today were it not for the great John McGivern.

And that is the pure truth, for sure, yet again.

John McGivern, who emigrated from North Leitrim in the harsh Twenties of the last century, with only a few shillings in his pocket when he arrived in New York, returned, less than a decade later, to deliver more to his native county than any politician of any party did, either before or since.

And he did it his way.

With a song and a dance, and a charismatic line of patter, and a tuxedo and bow tie fronting as shrewd a business brain as was ever deployed west of the Shannon.

I was delighted to meet him, several times, during the halcyon years of his prime, and it was always a pleasure.

He was so famed, in my native region, that his dapper photo appeared every single week in all the local newspapers, and that is something no politician can ever achieve, nowadays.

In a nutshell, what John did, when he returned home to his native village of Glenfarne, was buy a corrugated-iron Nissen hut, equip it with a wooden floor and chemical toilets, and apply for a ballroom licence.

The Catholic clergy, then at the height of their rural power, opposed his application, on the grounds that ballrooms could lead to all sorts of local promiscuity, and create a lovers’ lane in the fields and boreens of Glenfarne.

The canny McGivern still managed to get the dancing licence.

He opened the ballroom, with the light of oil lamps and the music of a small local dance band, and, in this way, started the legendary Ballroom of Romance, which flourishes to this very day.

I came across the border, from home, on many Sunday nights when I was a young fellow, to dance in what was locally called The Rainbow Ballroom.

This was just at the beginning of the showband era, and John was always ahead of the business curve. He brought the biggest of the showbands of the era, like the Clipper Carlton and the Royal Showband and The Melody Aces, to play in his little village every Sunday night.

And his dances were always different to those in the hundreds of competing venues, because of his famous romantic interludes.

Every Sunday night, wearing his tux and bow tie, he would join the band on stage, sing crooner ballads like ‘Have You Ever Been Lonely?’, command the couples to introduce themselves to each other, order the young men to invite their partners to the mineral bar after the dance was over (no alcohol in ballrooms back then, of course) and, through his patter, banish the shyness that afflicted virtually all young folk back then.

And it worked brilliantly.

Believe it or not, towards the end of his 30-odd year tenure, it was publicly acknowledged that he had directly created hundreds of marriages in the region, on both sides of the nearby border, but especially in Leitrim.

As a young reporter, I covered one evening’s celebration of that fact, when hundreds of couples who’d met and married after his romantic interludes created a very special, celebratory evening.

And there he was, in the midst of them, as always.

The marriage rate in his region was, pro rata, the highest in the entire country. 

And then, of course, to crown it all, the writer, William Trevor, was passing through Glenfarne one day, on a motorbike, and saw the sign that said ‘Ballroom Of Romance’, and wrote the story which became the subsequent BBC film and the foundation of the legend. The pure truth, yet again.

The showband era is long over now, but, amazingly, the Ballroom of Romance, in Glenfarne, is still ringing with the sound of music right throughout the year.

It is now owned by the community. They recently spent the better part of a million euros on extensions and modernisation.

Those that dance there now, on Sunday nights, often include many of the thousands who were born in the region because of the hundreds of marriages created by John McGivern’s very romantic interludes.

He travelled away to another dimension, at a good age, a few years ago, but you can be certain his spirit is never far away when the dancing begins and when the couples from modern Leitrim take to the maple floor of his enduring dream.


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