Celebrating our Dance Halls of Romance

Willie Deery's latest book hits the shelves this week. (1811JC10)
Willie Deery's latest book hits the shelves this week. (1811JC10)
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The North West’s dance halls hold special memories for many who met their future wives or husbands while jiving the night away! Now a superb new book being launched this week, ‘Derry’s Dance Halls of Romance’, captures many of these stories for the first time.

Written by local author Willie Deery, author of last year’s hit ‘Springtown Camp’, this latest offering from the city’s premier publishers, Guildhall Press, will no doubt take many readers on a nostalgic waltz down memory lane.

Across a crowded dance floor . . . Included among these dancers in the Embassy in 1967 are Derry City, Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers mid-fielder Stevie Wilkinson with his old neighbour Seamus Callaghan. Also included are Philip Johnston, Richard Kelly, John Coyle and Billy Spratt. (2211JC1 Dancehalls 1)

Across a crowded dance floor . . . Included among these dancers in the Embassy in 1967 are Derry City, Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers mid-fielder Stevie Wilkinson with his old neighbour Seamus Callaghan. Also included are Philip Johnston, Richard Kelly, John Coyle and Billy Spratt. (2211JC1 Dancehalls 1)

Speaking to the ‘Derry Journal’, Mr Deery, from Derry’s Hatmore Park, spoke of the inspiration behind his latest project.

“I’ve been working on the book for about a year. Every time I was out socialising, the conversation would always turn to the dancehall days and the showbands. I suppose for people of a certain age, they always enjoy talking about it and remembering this and that.”

“Writing about the dance halls was always a wee idea in my head while I was writing Springtown Camp, and Guildhall Press thought it was a great idea and they really pushed me to do it,” he says.

Entertainment options were, of course, plentiful in the 1950s and 1960s - along with several quality picture houses, the city and North West boasted great dance venues such as the Corinthian, Memorial Hall, Criterion, Guildhall, Embassy, Cameo/Stardust, Borderland, Pallidrome, Fiesta, Plaza and the Castle, all hosting top-class showbands on an almost nightly basis. The very mention of these dance halls today still brings a smile to anyone who spent their youth waltzing or jiving on their highly polished floors.

These young ladies are hoping to catch the judges' eye in the 1970 Miss Derry competition in the Embassy. Front: Lily Hanlon, Margaret Hogan and Eilish McCafferty. Back: Hazel Caldwell and Philomena Doherty. (2211JC2 Dancehalls 2)

These young ladies are hoping to catch the judges' eye in the 1970 Miss Derry competition in the Embassy. Front: Lily Hanlon, Margaret Hogan and Eilish McCafferty. Back: Hazel Caldwell and Philomena Doherty. (2211JC2 Dancehalls 2)

“I spoke to about 40 or 50 people for the book,” Mr Deery reveals. “It was great hearing all their anecdotes and all the stories behind how they met their wives and husbands - and how some of them went to elaborate planning to accidentally run into people they liked! Some of the stories are hilarious, but they’re all true and we used as many of the stories as we possibly could. We also have stories from people who married sailors and who are now living in America or England, Sean Coyle from Radio Foyle gave me a great hand tracking people down.”

Mr Deery says that sourcing the stories for the book was easier than imagined. “People found out about it mostly by word of mouth. Word got around and people contacted us saying they wanted to tell their story! There’s even one who tells of what happened on their honeymoon night, it’s hilarious, but you need to read it to believe it!”

“I’ve talked to people involved in entertainment too, showbands, band leaders, van drivers, bouncers, anyone who was involved in the dancehalls really. And people from all over the place and from across the divide gave me photographs to use, and so there are some fantastic photos in the book of so many people, like myself, who are around 60 now but who were just teenagers in the photos.”

Mr Deery is grateful that so many people shared their personal stories for the book. “Someone even showed me their receipt for their wedding, and it cost £53 pounds for their wedding reception at the time! It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? So that’s used that in the book too.”

“The feedback has been fantastic so far, and I’m over the moon,” Mr Deery enthused. “Some people have seen the book and its photographs and they were delighted with it.”

“Local people should enjoy the book,” he went on, “there’s a good possibility that their photograph is in there somewhere - photos that they didn’t even remember being taken at the time!”

Derry’s Dance Halls of Romance contains hundreds of unique images of those carefree dance-hall days and the showbands who brought them alive with their music and their energy. And some of the couples who first met in the dance halls tell their own fascinating stories of finding true love and lasting friendships.

Willie Deery’s ‘Derry’s Dance Halls of Romance’ will be launched this coming Thursday, November 24, in The Delacroix Bar from 8.30pm-11.30pm. The launch is free to attend and will feature music by the four-piece band, Midnight.

n ‘Derry’s Dance Halls of Romance’ is available from local bookshops, priced £11.95, and from the Guildhall Press website at: Guildhall Press