Funeral of Joe O’Neill draws crowds to Glen’
Funeral of Joe O’Neill draws crowds to Glen’
THE MAN who put Glenamaddy on the showband map of Ireland and for decades drew massive crowds to the North Galway town would have been delighted at the turnout for his last big gig at the weekend.
Thousands came to pay their respects to Joe O’Neill, a towering figure on the entertainment scene during the showband days.
His Sound of Music Club brought the top acts to a small rural town and made it a mecca for dancers. It was immortalised in the Big Tom hit Four Country Roads.
Joe, a native of Abbeyknockmoy, died on Friday after a short illness, bravely borne, and was laid to rest in his adopted home town on Sunday.
He is survived by his wife Bridie, children Mary, Bridie, Anne, Margaret, Tina, Joseph and Gerard, his brother Jimmy, sisters Rita and May, in-laws, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, relatives and many friends locally, all over Ireland and beyond.
This tribute to Joe O’Neill is written by TOM GILMORE, at present in Perth, Australia.
LIKE a reaper’s scythe cutting a swathe through fields of corn the headlights of myriad Morris Minors, Minis, Volkswagen Beetles, buses and other vehicles cut paths through the four dark roads to Glenamaddy to the Sound of Music Club, operated by that doyen of dancehall promoters, the late Joe O’Neill, in the singing 60s, 70s and 80s.
Sadly last week the man who made the Sound of Music ballroom ring with laughter and song every Saturday night passed away to the great ballroom in the sky. His death happened shortly after his great friend, London-based singer-songwriter Johnny McCauley, who was inspired to write the hit song “Four Roads” by Joe’s ballroom, also moved on to sing and compose songs for the heavenly choirs.
“Once in a while I hear the Sound of Music in the winter nights,” states a line from the song about the four country roads that lead to Glenamaddy. Without the Sound of Music dancehall, or its dedicated owner Joe O’Neill, that song would never have been written or become a hit for Big Tom and many others.
Joe’s Glenamaddy ballroom was the scene where many romances began in the halcyon days of the dancehalls and it became one of the most popular entertainment venues of its type in rural Ireland.
But long before his ballroom became so popular Joe had already become known as the “sound man” from Glenamaddy for supplying sound equipment and musical instruments to many musicians, stars and wannabe stars, at his music shop on the Kilkerrin Road.
The Abbeyknockmoy native, and his wife Bridie, replaced Glenamaddy’s former Esker Ballroom with a more modern venue during the dancehall era and it attracted thousands of dancers from all over the West, mostly on Saturday nights.
By hiring the top Irish showbands, as well as some of the leading international stars, Joe made Glenamaddy a dancing hub for decades right up to the declining days of the dancehalls when The Sound of Music Club finally closed its doors.
Joe O’Neill was a man of vision who knew that by having the best bands at his ballroom the dancers would travel for miles down those four dusty roads to Glenamaddy. This was also a boost for business in the town’s pubs and his contribution to the economy of Glenamaddy in those days, and nights, was immeasurable.
All the major music stars of that era knew and respected Joe. He was a fair and hardworking music promoter who did not flinch from paying top fees to ensure that the dancers enjoyed the music of the leading stars at his ballroom.
He befriended Irish Pop chart names such as Big Tom, Joe Dolan, Brendan Shine, Philomena Begley, a young rising star from the end of the dancehall days named Daniel O’Donnell and countless others from the Irish music circuit, as well as personalities from the UK music scene, and radio presenters from RTE, the BBC and the then very popular Radio Luxembourg.
On a business level he forged close links with former Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds as they, and others, tried to make their dancehalls different and more adaptable in the chameleon music scene of the mid 1970s. They saw that it was a changing scene which was moving with amazing rapidity from the “dry” halls of earlier times to the more noisy modern nightclubs, with late drinking licences, where disc jockeys were replacing the previously more popular live bands.
Joe tried to stay away from having alcohol served at his venue in Glenamaddy for as long as possible. Indeed it was only in the final days of the declining dancehall era that he agreed to have a liquor licence at the Sound of Music Club. Eventually as the new era of nightclubs took over the entertainment scene Joe and his wife Bridie played the last waltz at their Glenamaddy ballroom and as the hit song from that era states, “Big Tom (or any other star) doesn’t play here anymore”.
As a community man Joe was active in helping various committees in the town of his adoption and, even up to last year, he was still helping out in a voluntary capacity with the annual Glenamaddy Festival and with local fund-raising charitable events.
Joe had a keen interest in flying and in aircrafts and after getting his pilot’s licence in the early 1980s he and a colleague often flew their four-seater plane to destinations around Ireland and on several occasions to the UK and mainland Europe from an airstrip in Glenamaddy.
His company supplying sound equipment to musicians, for concerts, radio stations and even for churches continues in business. It is a measure of the man’s nature as an employer that several of his employees have worked with Joe for decades. These include sound engineer Joe Cunniffe and electrical engineer Michal O’Hara, the latter celebrating 45 years working with Joe O’Neill’s firm last Monday.
On the music circuit as the showbands of the late 60s were being replaced by Country and Western bands Joe became involved for a time as a financial backer with the transition of one band to this newly popular live musical genre. His involvement was as a backer for The Premier Aces Showband, featuring his brother Jimmy and trumpeter player Johnny Carroll, changing its name and image to become the more Country sounding Murphy and The Swallows.
Later on, in the mid-1970s, Joe was involved again with this band as he, and others, came up with the idea that the group should have a lead singer wearing a light-up suit, and so Magic and the Magic Band was born and this act prospered for several years.
As the dancehall business declined in the following decades Joe identified the fledgling local radio scene in the 1990s as an opportunity for further diversification of his business into the provision of transmitters and other vital pieces of sound equipment. He and his staff have continued to do so, as well as providing sound and lighting equipment, and sound engineers, for many of the major touring acts at concerts around Ireland, especially on the Country music circuit.
But among the wider community it is to the dancers of the ballroom era that Joe O’Neill will be best remembered as an iconic figure. Not that Joe would ever crave such adulation; he was an unassuming man who saw his role as merely that of being a convenor for bringing the biggest and best music stars to entertain the masses at his rural ballroom in the little Galway town where four country roads converge.
His passing, after only a brief illness, is a great loss to his wife Bridie, family friends and neighbours, to whom we extend our sincere sympathy. They will miss him most of all as a good and dedicated husband, father, grandfather and true friend.
To the dancers from the ballroom era the memories of vehicle headlights cutting through the darkness along those four country roads will forever remain etched in the mind’s eye, irrespective of those teenagers from yesteryear still living locally or having moved abroad to places such as the UK, America or indeed “far away in Australia.”
Joe O’Neill helped put this little rural Galway town on the music map for so many – thanks for the magical, musical memories Joe.