Jackie Delahunty - The Big Band Years

Margaret Rossiter
The recent death of Jackie Delahunty evoked memories, sweet and sad, happy and nostalgic, all of a time and an era.

The recent death of Jackie Delahunty evoked memories, sweet and sad, happy and nostalgic, all of a time and an era.

It was the time of the big bands and the era of ballroom dancing, and Mick Delahunty’s band was the biggest of them all in Ireland, and indeed had established itself in Britain and the United States. Jackie was the youngest of three brothers, the core of the band. There was the middle brother, the late Paddy, and the late Mick, the oldest brother, was the maestro, the leader of the band. Their music brought joy into the lives of many young people, and indeed into the lives of many who were not so young, but who enjoyed dancing.

It was a time when ballroom dancing had a structure and a certain formality, totally unlike the do-it-yourself-shuffle, the make-it-up-as-you-go, disco dancing of today. Quicksteps, foxtrots, waltzes, all had distinct rhythms. Whether the occasion was the formal ball, or the less formal dance, or the casual Sunday-night hop, Mick Delahunty’s band presided over all; tuxedo-suited, shining instruments, debonair, thoroughly professional. The big band generated a sense of occasion.

The Delahuntys were born and brought up in Old Bridge, and were loyal citizens of their native town. While the band became nationally and internationally famous, they chose to live in Clonmel, although it may not have been a convenient centre for their widespread travels. It was common for people going to work in the morning to meet the band returning from distant cities and towns, having performed at functions into the night and early morning. It was not an easy working life. But Clonmel was their town.

It was good, therefore, to note that the local authority marked that loyalty by naming the former borstal development as Mick Delahunty Square.

The Collins Hall was located in the nearby Market Street, and this really was the venue from which the band launched itself into public acclaim. Mick Delahunty himself, and his brothers, were naturally talented musically, and they interpreted the popular music of the time. And it was the time of the big bands, the dance orchestras: Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington. The music was sweet, melodic, memorable. It is still singable and hummable, and its interpretation required skilled musicianship, unlike much of the anarchic punk which replaced it, in which the only skills required were the plucking of a few guitar strings.

When Mick Del played in the Collins Hall, the music would spill out into the street, and passersby would stand outside Rowe’s Shop and the old “Nationalist” office, and listen and enjoy. A school-friend lived in the nearby Emmet Street, and she would regale us, schoolgirls, with the band’s version of “In The Mood,” or “Don’t Fence Me In” - whatever the current hit. She would be lulled off to sleep in her third floor bedroom at night to the nearby strains of the big band. And she, and we, at that remove, loved it.

But there was something more than just good entertainment and happy dancing, associated with the Collins Hall in Clonmel, and no doubt with other ballroom and big band venues throughout Ireland. It had a function in what we now called social-networking. It was the locale and the opportunity for boy meeting girl.

The number of marriages, and ultimately families, resulting from such meetings is incalculable, all of which started off with the opening gamut - the question that didn’t require an answer: “Isn’t the band great tonight?”

And now, Jackie, the last Delahunty link with the famous band had died. He was predeceased some years ago by his beloved wife, Chrissie. She was also very talented, as a make-up artist, and was responsible for making-up and putting “in character” thousands of young people involved in theatrical and amateur stage productions in the town. Indeed, such was her talent, that she was frequently called upon by professional companies visiting the town. She also played an important role back-stage in Feile Chluain Meala, an annual event which, for many decades, encouraged young people in the development of their musical and acting skills.

Jackie lived a long and very fulfilled life. He was a modest and very kind man, who loved his family and his town, and will be remembered for the joy which he and his brothers brought into the lives of ordinary people.

Shakespeare, marking the death of one of his most distinguished characters, Hamlet, wished that flights of angels might “sing thee to thy rest.” What more could one wish for that percussionist and drummer in that most musical of bands - the late Jackie Delahunty?