LOOKING at an old photograph from the 1950s and reminiscing about the skiffle group that he formed with his three childhood friends, Tony Mulvey’s eyes sparkle as he recalls the memories.
Tony says the photograph of the group, called the Drifters, was taken by his late brother, Frankie, a priest based in Cardiff since 1959, who died in August last year.
“The picture was taken in the laneway between myself and Tom Quinn’s house at Clonroad, Ennis in 1957, I’d say,” he says. “Skiffle was in vogue at the time and there were a few skiffle groups in Ennis.”
Tony says a skiffle group had a steel washboard that was used for the rhythm section and a tea-chest that was converted into a bass.
“There were a number of skiffle groups in Ennis there at that time around the ’57, ’58 period and there were a lot of skiffle competitions going on,” Tony recalls.
“It was kind of the start really of pop music. A lot of music would have been country and western style songs.”
Did the Drifters do any touring or play any big shows?
“No, we were just entertaining ourselves really,” Tony says. “There were a few more groups in the town. The top one at the time was The Alley Cats. The late Sean Keane was in charge of those and they won a couple of competitions.”
Tony says skiffle groups were popular in Ennis for about three or four years and some of the lads who played in groups in Ennis would have broken into bigger bands afterwards.
“We were four neighbours, Bernard O’Loughlin, Tom Quinn, now deceased; Gerry Bergin, now deceased and myself. We were all neighbours on Clonroad. Tom Quinn’s brother, Patsy, he was a member of the Satellites skiffle group and we used to hear them practising so we said we’d start our own group and that shed that you see in the background, that was where we practised,” he says, looking at the photograph.
“I remember in winter time, when we used to practise, we used to have a prime stove so that was our central heating. I was around 16 and that was around the time I would have started playing. The guitar was sent away for and bought in Dublin. We played for a concert in Our Lady’s Hospital, a Christmas social; that was a big one for us and we played part-time for a few Sunday afternoon dances in the Queen’s Hotel. I remember we used to also play while hula-hoop competitions were going on, which were very popular that time.”
Tony says the Drifters was their own bit of enjoyment while they were going to school in the Christian Brothers and, unfortunately, their big break never materialised.
“I remember there was one big dance we were just about to play in the Queen’s Hotel and we thought it was our big break-through and my late father [George] died. He died in ’58 and I was 16 going on 17. He was editor of The Clare Champion when he died on August 20, 1958 and that cancelled our night in the Queen’s and that kind of put a dampener on the whole thing and I don’t think we played any more,” he says.
Tony says “enjoyment” was always the most important thing when it came to his love of music and he has always loved the social side of music.
“I remember in latter years with The Clare Champion, when we had socials, we used to go across the road to John O’Dea’s pub and there’d be someone getting married or a Christmas-time party or something. The late Tony Butler, he was on the staff here, and I resurrected the old tea-chest again and I played the tea-chest a few times. I remember we went down to Fawls’ shop. It was a grocery shop and we got a tea-chest and we made up an old bass again and I played it over in O’Dea’s. I remember we were there for a good few hours and then we decided we’d bring the show on tour. Myself and Tony Butler were dragging the tea chest down O’Connell Street, down to Paddy Quinn’s pub to continue the session. People saw this tea-chest and us dragging it down and they thought we were mad!”
Tony says he was “absolutely stone mad” about the showbands.
“I was friendly with a lot of them. I used to go to all of their shows and interview them afterwards and I travelled with them. I used to have a column every week in The Clare Champion, a half-page on the showbands. I used to go under the pen name Orpheus,” he says.
“I had many favourites. It started off with the Clipper Carlton Showband from Strabane and I knew all of those personally. The Johnny Flynn Showband from Tuam and, of course, Paddy Cole. He was a great friend of mine and still to this present day. I go down to Cork every year to the jazz festival to meet him.
“Great friends of mine too were the Monarchs from Limerick, Tommy Drennan and Jim Connolly and the lads. But I have showband friends all over the place because I was good with the publicity.”
Tony says he benefited from a lot of free shows in his school days after Paddy Con’s hall opened.
He says their interest in the showbands started around ’53 or ’54, at a time when his sister Rita Murnane, who also worked in The Clare Champion for many years, used to go dancing to Paddy Con’s hall, the new hall ballroom.
“I remember when we were going to school, Sean Mahon, who lives in Tulla Road, he was the doorman and he sent myself and Tom Quinn in listening to the showbands for about an hour, hour and a half and the bands would be there [rehearsing] and nobody [else] was in there,” he says.
“Then when the crowd would come in, he would gently tap us on the shoulder and say ‘time lads’, so we heard all the top showbands and, of course, we were on Clonroad so we were only 200 yards away from it. We were never charged, we’d just sit down on the balcony and listen to the bands. We used to love to hear the Johnny Flynn Showband that time. We used to love the Clipper Carlton and the Monarchs.”
Tony has many high-profile friends in the entertainment industry. “Myself and Brendan Bowyer were great friends and we’re still great friends. He went to Las Vegas with his own band and even though he was out in Las Vegas, we still kept in contact and he’d always send me a Christmas card or when he’d come here on tour, he’d always write to me beforehand and, of course, looking for a bit of publicity as well.”
Speaking about his three friends in the photograph and the paths they took in life, Tony says Tom (RIP) became a head schoolteacher in the Drumcondra area in Dublin, while Ger (RIP) worked in Shannon with Aer Rianta and sadly died at a young age. Bernard O’Loughlin, who he still sees often, has a business and commutes between London and Clare.
Tony still has a huge passion for music and says he is now “crazy” about traditional jazz.
“The late Tony Butler introduced it to me. I remember and then we started going to the jazz festival together down in Cork every year. I like all types of music but particularly jazz; I’m crazy about that,” he adds.
By Trevor Quinn