Ballroom of Romance exhibit opens at Mayo’s Linenhall

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Mary Callaghan and Fiona Neary are curating the Terry O’Brien photography exhibition, which runs at the Linenhall Arts Center until the end of May. PHOTO: ALISON LAREDO

A BIT of Hollywood came to Ballycroy in the early 1980s when the movie The Ballroom of Romance was filmed there.

It starred stars like future Oscar winner Brenda Fricker, Tourmakeady native Mick Lally, John Kavanagh, Brendan Conroy, Niall Toibin and Cyril Cusack, and recruited many locals as extras.

Photographer Terry O’Brien, who was then based in Achill, stopped by on set during filming and now, 40 years later, will be taking fans on a behind-the-scenes tour with a fascinating new photography exhibition that has opened at Linenhall Arts Centre take the film with you to the Schlossbar.

The film, set in 1950s Ireland, tells the story of Bridie’s search for a husband after she’s overcome the first tide of adolescence. In terms of romance, there is little choice in the local hall. But of course there’s always a possibility, even if it doesn’t seem very suitable – the alcoholic Bowser Egan.

O’Brien’s exhibition opened last week and even once it was on the walls it aroused much curiosity from visitors to the centre. It can be seen until June 30th.

After the exhibition, Terry is keen for this unique Mayo archive to find a permanent home in the county.

The exhibition, he explained, features 48 previously unreleased images from the film, which was shot in Ballycroy in 1982. This includes the main actors as well as many more well-known local faces who were extras.

The prints were produced in what was then Terry’s Dark Room – an old cowshed in Achill.

There are also 23 black and white photos taken in the Achill area in the 1970s showing everyday imagery such as dinghy racing, local fishermen and still life such as lobster pots.

Terry was living in Achill at the time and went to the Ballroom set to do some recording. The film was a RTÉ/BBC co-production.

Coincidentally, John Kavanagh, who played Bowser Egan, was a neighbor of his in Dublin and he had no problem getting on set. “Nobody bothered me and I walked around and had fun with everyone,” he said.

He showed the film’s director, Pat O’Connor, a few printed photos to see if he could sell them. Kenneth Trodd, producer at the BBC, asked for photos of boys on bicycles and they were eventually used in the film’s media promotion. This image can be seen on a color poster in the exhibition.

Terry reunited with Pat O’Connor in Ballycroy five years ago when the acclaimed director founded Film Mayo and spoke with great affection of his working days in the county in the 1980s.

The madness on camera was as good as some of the action on it.

Terry recalled that the local sergeant played the role of bartender. In order to get extras for the film, some locals who were on unemployment benefits had to opt out for the period.

“The sergeant was the local welfare officer who signed the forms. So people had to go in and sign out and then go to the next room to get their hair cut for the film,” he explained.

Most of the people involved in the production stayed in Achill, and after filming, there was two hours of free drinking every day.

Once Mick Lally, John Kavanagh and Kenneth Trodd were at the Amthyest Hotel in Keel and took Terry out for a drink. He suggested they pay a visit to the Bunnacurry dance hall.

There was some reluctance that he “set it up”. Terry just wanted to show them that dancing hadn’t changed in the 30 years since the ’50s movie they made – the women on one side of the hall, the men on the other.

Bridie may have been looking for love in the Ballroom of Romance, but Terry certainly has a long love affair with Achill, dating back over 60 years.

At 13 he was holidaying with a Dublin boys’ club at Currane House on the Currane Peninsula.

He said: ‘I used to walk around Currane. I came across the Fallon family at Ards in Currane and they saved the hay which I had never seen before. I helped them. I made friends with the Currane people and went back the next year.”

An epic journey west followed at the age of 17 when he cycled from Dublin to Achill. That was in 1968. The journey took four days.

The move became permanent for a few years when he set up a studio and photography shop in Tonragee in the late ’70s.

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