Sitting back in the computer chair, I stared at the monitor.
The Google Maps satellite view was of the borderlands of Tipperary and Offaly, to the west lay Clare, to the north-west lay Galway. Touching the mouse, I moved northward, trying to find a place that I had passed on 29th July 2011. I remember the date because it had been the occasion of a friend’s civil partnership,
The spot I sought couldn’t have been in Westmeath, we hadn’t crossed the Shannon. Maybe it had been somewhere on the borders of Roscommon and Galway.
At a crossroads, there had been a long low building, set back from the road. A car park to the side and at the front suggested it was still in regular use. Its architecture marked it out as one of those buildings found in most Irish towns that now serve as carpet warehouses, or furniture showrooms, or used by various community groups. They are the places that were once dance halls or cinemas now pressed into more utilitarian uses in their advancing years.
The building would have had little use as a showroom, but it must have found a continuing function in the community, for it was well maintained and a sign above the door declared it to be a ‘social centre’. It must once have been a dance hall, a place where Ford Prefects and black bicycles must once have been parked outside.
Perhaps the days of the dance halls seemed happier at the time than they do in retrospect, but there seems sometimes a deep sadness in thinking of those who would once have gathered there on a Saturday evening.
Perhaps the picture is too much coloured by William Trevor’s Ballroom of Romance, but the imagined cast of those who would have lined the walls as the band played waltzes would have probably included not a few who lived lonely and unfulfilled lives.
Men always seem lonelier.
Big fellows with shirt collars that would barely button and suits that served for dancing on Saturday and praying on Sunday, shuffling embarrassedly as more worldly companions passed comment on the young women of the parish: what did they really feel like on the inside?
Meeting such men in the course of parochial ministry, years after their youthful hours spent standing in the corner of the hall, or with lit cigarettes in the cold darkness outside, discussing the prices at the mart, there was sometimes the thought that things might have been different, that life had not needed to turn out the way it did. But, then, such objections might be applied to many of us.
What had the women made of such occasions? Was future happiness about family alliances that ensured the combinations of farms of land? Were potential husbands graded on whether they arrived in black Ford motor cars or old black bicycles? (Being someone who would have arrived on two wheels, I always suspected the world worked in such a way).
It would not be hard to close my eyes and to imagine the sound of voices; the music of a double bass and drums; the chink of crockery; the laughter at the doorway; the sound of tyres on gravel. On a winter’s night with the work done for the day and the quietness of Sunday to follow, the hall must have been an attractive place, an escape from the workaday existence in which nothing happened.