From Kenny’s Ballroom to Esker Arts!

While the opening of Esker Arts Centre in Tullamore ushers in an exciting new chapter for the arts in the town, the High Street location of the new centre was a mecca for dance lovers from all over the country during the 1930s and 1940s when it was the site of the hugely popular Kenny's Ballroom.

The woman behind this groundbreaking venture was a gifted local music teacher, Maryann Kenny, who lived with her husband Joe, a native of Ballycumber, and their five children, at Number 12, High Street , right next door to the new arts centre.

Not only did this remarkable woman set up her own ballroom in what is now the basement of Esker Arts Centre, but she also formed her own band, Kenny's Dance Band, which was made up entirely of members of the Kenny family.

The young music teacher came from a business background as her late father, Edward Murphy, was a master baker who ran a very successful bakery on William Street in Tullamore with his wife, Bridget, for many years before it was taken over by the Bracken family.

Maryann Kenny set up her own family dance band alongside her five children, Michael, Rosaleen, Maureen, Bridie and Joe after the death of her husband, Joe, when he was just 45 years old. Despite the fact that the family didn't even have a car the band played music night after night in packed dancehalls all over the country and was one of the most popular dance bands of the time.

Rose Harraghy, who is a granddaughter of Maryann Kenny, says the family travelled everywhere “by taxi” and was “booked out months in advance” such was the popularity of their music, which included waltzes, foxtrots, quicksteps and tangos.

Rose recalls her grandmother being “a wonderful musician” and says the Kenny family home was “filled with music from morning till night”.

As well as her grandmother being a gifted music teacher who taught each of her five children to play music, and teaching many other children in the town, Rose says her grandfather, Joe, was also very musical in his own right, with a “beautiful singing voice” that could rival the legendary Athlone-born tenor, Count John McCormack!

“Granny would accompany him when he sang and they got invited to play at many events all over the town and county when he was alive,” recalls Rose.

The death of her beloved husband was the catalyst for Maryann Kenny to opt to turn her passion for music into a business with the setting up of the Kenny Dance Band and the opening of a dancehall in the basement of the family home.

In an era in Ireland when women were very rarely seen outside their own homes, it was a remarkably bold and brave move, and it wasn't long before the entrepreneurial spirit of Maryann Kenny brought her into conflict with the authorities when she decided to hold dances during Lent.

“She was the resident organist in the Church of the Assumption in Tullamore and when she decided to hold dances during Lent it was regarded as being scandalous and brought her into conflict with the Catholic Church and she ended up losing her job in the church,” recalls her granddaughter.

Rose Harraghy has a huge collection of posters and other memorabilia from the golden era of the Kenny Dance Band at her home in Mullingar which were collected by various members of her family, including her own mother, Bridie, who passed away in 2010.

A quick glimpse at some of the posters from the time shows just how phenomenally successful the Kenny Dance Band was. They played in dancehalls everywhere from Ballymahon to Kilcock, Gort, Cavan, Navan, Ennis, Tuam and Nenagh and described their brand of music in one of their brochures as being “the lightest, brightest, gayest music you ever heard.”

As well as travelling to play at dances all over the country, Kenny's Dance Band was also the resident dance band in their own ballroom on High Street and music lovers from all over the Midlands and beyond flocked to Tullamore to hear their music and to dance the night away. “There never seemed to be any trouble at the dances in those days, people just came to hear the music and to dance and the entry fee would include tea and sandwiches or some other light refreshments on the night,” says Rose.

The golden era of Kenny's Ballroom came to an end when it was sold to Kilroy's in the 1950s but the wonderful musical legacy started by Maryann Kenny has continued right through the generations of her family.

Rose Harraghy's own mother, Bridie, who was one of the five Kenny siblings to play in the family dance band, went on to meet and marry one of the most celebrated musicians in the Midlands, the late Dinny Hughes from Longford, and played alongside her husband for many years in the Dinny Hughes Showband, as well as finding time to rear a family of 13. The huge popularity of the showband meant that they played at almost every wedding in the Midlands including the wedding of well-known Midlands hotelier and businessman, Christy Maye to his wife, Ellen.

Although she now lives in Mullingar, Rose Harraghy has many fond memories of the years she spent in Birr, where she lived during the mid-1990s with her late husband, Sean, and their three daughters, Niamh, Orna and Linda. Sean, who passed away in August 2017, was Manager of the Bank of Ireland branch in Birr and was a founding member of Birr Toastmasters during his time in the town.

The original Kenny home on High Street in Tullamore is still in the family name, and Rose Harraghy says the wider family circle is “delighted” that the sound of music will once again ring out from the basement of what was once the famous Kenny's Ballroom.

“It will be like the good old days all over again,” she says of the opening of the Esker Arts Centre on-site.