Siege of Venice?
Wrong town but a dance that brought the house down
The first live music I ever heard? I like to think it was my maternal grandfather. furiously blowing into a tin whistle, his feet bouncing off a stone flagged floor. More plausibly it was a showband in a church hall.
Showbands specialised in what became known as ‘country and Irish’: a hybrid combining staple Nashville themes (dear old ma, how lonesome I am etc) with jaunty tunes and a pop sensibility. Tony Orlando and Dawn were an Irish showband in spirit, if not accent.
Mellow voices, shiny suits and faces, lame dance steps — it was not a sales pitch to students and/or surly teenagers. But it went down a storm in rural dance halls and at our Sunday bingo nights.
Or rather a cut down version did. Stephen’s Social Club was not going to hire Big Tom, let alone a coach-load of Mainliners. The budget barely stretched to a three piece: of guitar, drums and accordion.
The band liked to announce their arrival with an elaborate soundcheck. This sent the Richter scale soaring: TESTING! ONE TWO THREE TESTING!
Then, as coke bottles bounced across tables, the clippity-clop 3/4 beat and a booming bass vocal would kick in:
Last night as I lay dreaming
Of pleasant days gone by
My mind bein’ bent on ramblin’
To Ireland I did fly
A few older couples in Sunday-best suits had the run of the floor for the first numbers. As they glided, stiff-backed like wheeled ironing boards, the younger kids charged around their whirling feet.
The waltzes morphed into an eclectic mix of current chart hits and old staples:
I said “Hello Mary Lou
Sweet Mary Lou
I’m so in love with you
Toes were now tapping and the pace quickened, with a burst of jigs and reels followed by covers of current chart toppers.
You could bet the farm that Tie a Yellow Ribbon would feature but it was another Dawn hit, Knock Three Times, that got the joint (literally) jumping. Even those averse to audience participation of any kind (me) invariably responded to the orders from the stage: Come on now! Stamp your feet.
KNOCK THREE TIMES stomp, stomp, stomp
ON THE CEILING IF YOU WANT ME.
TWICE ON THE PIPE stomp, stomp
IF THE ANSWER IS NO-OOO
Mixed in with these barnstormers would be numbers designed to lower the emotional temperature, invariably announced in a voice that channeled Elvis: We’re going to slow things down a little, folks.
Later in the evening, the Guinness would kick in and some single men would unwisely attempt moves they couldn’t do with women they were never going to impress.
The atmosphere was convivial and familial, the gossip largely harmless. Many faces were familiar from church or the school gate and the default expression was a half smile of recognition.
As with any communal social occasion there were always self-appointed commissars checking for rule book infringements. These were mostly committed by the more boisterous patrons of the upstairs bar — and you wouldn’t want to be ticking them off as they hoovered up the stout. The children were a much easier target.
My parents would generally bail after the bingo. After much pleading and cajoling they would allow my sister and to stay on for the final hour and return home with family friends. It was an arrangement that suited all directly concerned but earned me sharp stares from the ladies with folded arms and permanently raised eyebrows.
“Where’s your mammy and daddy, son?”
“None of your business, you nosy old bag! Wind your neck in!” I said.
Or rather I’m saying it now. At the time I mumbled something about them having to leave early.
“Did they now?” she said, lips pursed. “Well, could you tell them that unaccompanied children are not allowed on the premises.”
I nodded, face burning. Of course I had no intention of telling my parents anything of the sort.
I can’t remember if what we called the Siege of Venice was the last number but it was the showstopper, the highlight of the evening. Setting it up was quite a palava involving lines of dancers (4 or 8 with much hoo ha about making sure that males and females were distributed evenly). Then we’d go through a complex sequence of moves, or rather try to: In and Out, Swapping, Star Formation and Crossing Over.
The band would be suddenly energised, too. After an evening plodding along to Hello Mary Lou they would launch into a 32 bar reel. On the soundtrack of my childhood they play with the panache of The Chieftains. So does my grandad. Shame it’s not available outside my head.
Until researching this, I had vaguely assumed that the Siege of Venice emerged out of the Napoleonic wars or some such. In fact it it had nothing to do with the fabled Italian city with its fancy canals. Venice was a mishearing of Ennis in County Clare.
Ennis — voted the friendliest town in Ireland in 2017 — doesn’t boast the Bridge of Sighs but does Venice have its own jig? At ease, Tourist Board, we’ll call it a draw.
Historians scratch their heads as to which siege is being referred to. Clonmell perhaps? Doubtless it involved the usual cast ripping each other to shreds: cruel Cromwell, noble Jacobites, all the gang. A grim, bloody business. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which my lovely Aunt Nuala took me to see a few years later, is a better role model.
Even the snootiest parish official helped clear up towards the end of the evening. We kids approached the task with a gusto we never showed in our homes. After all, we would be back in the same hall the following lunch-time to get our gruel, KNOCK THREE TIMES still ringing in our ears.