Barrowlands

Barrowlands

God bless Shannon Airport, Ryanair, Prestwick and the Scottish commuter ‘Dart’ for the transportation of this old fan to Glasgow.  And of course Anne, my lifetime minder who carried the tickets and the water!  The brand new half empty aeroplane with male hostesses got us over in less than an hour.  I even got a whiskey – not a Scotch whiskey – a ‘no brand’ whiskey in a disgusting plastic sachet – strange to relate, it tasted very good.  God bless the mobile phone that works without adjustment in the fair land of the Bravehearted.  The first message was a text from the other brother-in-law, a reference to big beds and ‘mind the thistles’ – thistles in Scotland?  I never saw even one!  Next we get a call from the gallant Paddy.  Cool, soft spoken Paddy tells us exactly how to proceed.  He talks us out of the airport and literally into the train.  He directs us straight to the “Milton” or is it the “Menzies” – no one seems sure.  Right to the lobby where he welcomes us as if we were mini-celebrities.  Later Mick picks us up in his extraordinary mini-bus with tinted dark glass and satellite navigation.  We arrive at the Barrowlands Ballroom two hours before the gig kicks off.

The history of this incredible dance hall building is fascinating.  Maggie McIvor was a Glasgownian hand barrow fruit and fish dealer.  In the early 1920s she set up an open market for fellow traders, barrow dealers and stallholders.  In 1931, fed up of getting drenched from rain she built an enclosed market.  A year later she built on a second floor.  The reason given for this extension was for a Christmas dance and party that was held for the various traders.  The Barras night out became an annual event which it is said led to many a marriage between stall holder families.  This dance hall extension was officially opened on Christmas Eve 1934.  For the rest of the year the Ballroom was let to “Blue Billy and the Blue Birds”.  But when Maggie saw the queues for the regular dances at the hall – she saw a money making opportunity.  She poached the drummer of the band, Billy McGregor, to form a new resident band.   “Billy and the Gay Birds” packed in the fox-trotters, tango turners, jitter buggers and jivers and Maggie never looked back.  The “Queen of the Barras” was on the road to success.  At the time the neon sign on the front of the ballroom was a man pushing a barrow.  It became a famous landmark.
In September 1958 disaster struck, the entire building was gutted by fire.  In 1960 it was completely rebuilt.  The Barrowlands Ballroom as proclaimed by the spectacular neon sign remains an important Glasgow icon 45 years on.

But where are we?
We arrive to an empty hall and are immediately given large luminous “Access to all Areas” badges, and we by-pass the beeping security gate.  We note with amusement the sign that reads “Anyone found throwing drink will be immediately removed from the premises” or words to that effect.  We cross the empty maple octagonal shaped dance floor.  We can see the great man himself advancing towards us.  It takes him several seconds to reach and greet us with his big bear hug.  Next we get a quick Christy tour of the hall and all the dressing rooms, bars and what have you.  We meet the great song writer Wally Page.  We have not been in this amazing building more than five minutes and we are all into a pre-gig session.  Christy wants Wally to sing that song once more.  Like a shot Wally obliges.  Now we are drifting toward heaven………Wally has a passionate voice and belts it out to his own guitar accompaniment.  His style is high pitched, near rock mode.  He finishes and nods to Christy who was quietly soaking it all up.  Wally wants Christy to have a go.  They have a kind of a Bflat conversation and slowly Christy starts.  For a second I think he is singing a different song.  Christy is way low, mellow and folky, the same song but from an entirely different perspective.  What an incredible experience to be in this dressing room listening to these two talented giants.  Pity about the mirrors and make up lights.  All I could see were dozens and dozens of old grey heads and a half a dozen bald ones!!  Four of us with enough mirrors for 100 chorus girls!
The sound check is done and light man Jeff is on cue.  Do we have time for a pint?  I was just thinking it when someone said it – strange how the mind works.  Three of us head to the local.  We have been told, or was it warned, that Bairds is a wild pub – or was the term colourful – another experience not to be missed.  It is a Glasgow Celtic supporter’s pub, noisy, high and full of energy.  The Guinness was OK too.  The place was festooned with paraphernalia, posters, jerseys, emblems, flags, bric-a-brac , everything from H-Blocks to Glasgow Celtic football and of course Guinness.  I talked to a local fan, his first time to see Christy live.  I told him I had just arrived from the west of Ireland.  He shrugged.  The roads, sea and sky are worn out from the toing and froing of the Irish.  The noise levels in Bairds were unreal, we are not used to this in the townland of Knockliscrane.  We head back to the hall, literally next door.  The place is heaving as we flash our “Access All Areas” badges.  The atmosphere is electric.  The bars in the hall start closing, only the bar downstairs remain open.  There are signs asking us to refrain from smoking for this gig. Thank you Christy!  90% seem to heed it – well the ones that don’t …sure doesn’t it calm down the body odours!  And is there not something nostalgic about the smoke drifting into the shaft of spot lights?  One has got used to clean old smoke free Ireland.

Freddy White begins his support and struggles with the first couple of numbers.  But quickly he gets into it and they love him and the more the audience like him the more he keeps reminding that he is NOT Christy Moore but Freddy White from Cork city.
The dance floor is choc-a-bloc with a mass of noisy bopping heaving fans.  Barrowlands has a capacity for 1900 and is FULL!  All 1900 of them without a single chair between them.  One really has to experience this to appreciate it.  It could be compared to an outside gig but with a floor and a roof.  Not alone are the crowds heaving and swaying but the maple floor is doing likewise.  Are the walls and ceiling also swaying?  Not to mention the 20,000 stars on the walls.  Freddy finishes and in jig time Declan and Christy walk on stage.  And without further ado – they go straight into “After the Deluge” with mighty virtuosity.  Declan finishes with his extraordinary “Moving Hearts” style solo lashing it out with gusto.  Now the floor is really moving.  The tempo is slowed down for “North and South of the River”.  Christy Moore is absolutely unique.  Besides being a top notch performer, entertainer, singer and musician, he excels in his audiences.  It really is as if he has a sixth sense in operation.  Instantly he has their vibe and in seconds he is in complete control and has at least 99% of his audience eating out of the palm of his hand!  This is a brilliant skill and a wonder to behold.  In 2003 he himself describes the Barrowlands as:  “last night was sweaty, noisy, loving, exciting and betimes emotional.  It went up a few times but I managed to get it back down.  It was dying in mayhem when I chanced upon “Quiet Desperation” and 100 minutes in and Floyd Westerman’s song chilled the night…..”  Note from this Christy Chat how he says “it went up and back down”.  Too modest to say he was the one who drove it up there and then brought it back down again.  These performance traits remind me of the “Three Skills of Distinction” of old Celtic music or “The Three Magic Thirds” – skills which in ancient Ireland admitted the harper to the ranks of noblemen as of right.  “First he played the Goltrai until their women wept, then he played the Geantrai until their women and youths burst into laughter.  Finally he played the Suantrai until the whole host fell asleep and the harper effected his escape”.
Christy Moore has all these skills and much more.  He also has the hecklers, drunks and screamers to deal with.  His rap with them is also an art in itself and in a funny way it energises him to greater heights.  Half way through the gig someone shouts up for “Quinte Brigada” – “I did it an hour ago when you were in Bairds on your second pint”.  Then he deals with the clappers by shooshing them out of synch or by missing a beat.

For the next two and half hours we heard songs and music to bring tears, laughter, joy and sadness and oh yes even anger.  But we did not fall asleep.  We were wide awake and indeed some of us had a job sleeping afterwards, I must have a word with Christy about lullabies! We eventually, after encores and standing ovations, – hey we were standing anyway!  This gig was a once in a lifetime experience.  This seedy honky tonk formica faced Dance Hall with a million plastic stars was not to be missed.  The nostalgia was palpable.  One minute I am back in the 60s bopping to the Royal Showband on a wooden floor in a dusty old marquee.  Next I am two decades forward during the terrible POW hunger strike with “No Time for Love” and on we go to “They Never Came Home”.   Let all these songs live forever.  They are reminders of past injustices that we should never forget.

The following morning we are again on the road to Prestwick but this time with Paddy and Freddy.  Two hours later we are home in Shannon.  Two days later we begin to slowly come down to earth.

Categories: Davoc Stories, music