The disco proved the catalyst for the club's on-field success. Pic: Mary K Burke
In the midst of Slaughtneil’s GAA success on the provincial and All-Ireland stage, they featured regularly on BBC Radio Ulster’s sports report.
As the attention returned to the main news, the reporter laughed in recognition.
“Oh I know it very well, I used to go to the discos there,” she explained.
That level of cultural reach does not happen overnight, nor without a huge effort from volunteers within the club.
Current chairperson, Sean McGuigan, was on the committee when the disco began in 1985 and said running the disco was a huge undertaking.
“You really had to put your life on hold, because on a Friday night you couldn’t go anywhere,” he said.
“You had to go up the road to the hall. You could have had 25 or more people there. Even if you didn’t go, you felt a bit guilty in case something happened and you weren’t there.
“I can laugh about it now, but it was a very busy time. You were away out about half 8, 9 o’clock and you wouldn’t have got back ‘til nearly 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Keen to enlist parental support in south Derry and beyond, the club pulled out all the stops, placing bouncers on the bus and manning the hall with vigilance.
The plan, on the whole, was a success and reams of teenagers packed the buses every Friday night to make the journey to Emmet Park.
“I think parents knew that their weans were being bussed to the disco and home again,” said Sean.
“There was no drink allowed on the bus, we took it off them before they got on. Parents bought into that, that they were being looked after when they came to Slaughtneil, which they were.
“We had a fella Hugh Convery, God rest him. Standing on the floor he was 6ft 7 or so, maybe more. Once he stood up on to the brown chairs, people came in, saw big Hugh and they never moved!”
Securing reliable transport for the hundreds of young people who attended Slaughtneil was crucial to its success, which surprised many of the club’s members.
“We met the bus people and went with the bus to certain towns,” said Sean.
“I remember one night I saw the lights of the bus showing a sign for Donemana and I said to John Joe Kearney; ‘Jesus John Joe, we’re a long way from home’.
“Henry Kearney used to have to go out some Saturday mornings to Bobby McLaughlin or some of the bus men to keep them quiet!”
On some occasions, Monday night committee meetings were taken up entirely by the business of organising the following Friday’s disco.
In the late 80s and early 90s, two groups of boisterous young men from different parts of south Derry were causing the club a few headaches.
“There used to be a couple of gangs from south Derry,” recalled Sean.
“One was called the Banana Gang and they were from Bellaghy. The other was the Gorilla Gang and they were from Draperstown or Ballinascreen.
“Those two gangs’ names would have been mentioned at our meetings every Monday night! The main part of the meeting was always about the disco and who was on on Friday night.
“There was the odd wee scrap, and we had to throw the odd boy out for misbehaving, but when you think back now, they weren’t doing a wile lot of harm.
“I remember when I was going to dances around Ardboe and the Castle and places like that and there were riots, really bad fights. There was never anything like that at our disco.”
The club’s coffers were rapidly expanding with every passing week, but, as the saying goes, if you’re standing still, you’re moving backwards, and the disco had to evolve.
That evolution wasn’t just focused on what was happening on the stage or in the hall.
“We had to stamp them,” said Sean.
“I remember children coming in saying they were paying for three people, throwing the fiver in, and not even waiting for their change.
“I had to go to Donegal Pass to meet a fella to buy all these stampers, but the youngsters were getting the stamp and going back out and stamping all their friends when it was still wet!
“We learned a lot. We stopped letting the children out until a certain time from the hall to stop it.
“They used to try and spice it up too. Some nights they would have a foam party, or give out free Walkmans – they were £14 a piece back then! Other nights, breakdancers came and danced through the hall.”
Having done a twenty-year stretch, and resulted in several marriages, the disco finally began to peter out in the mid-2000s.
Attendances fell as teenagers’ choices of entertainment became more diverse, and the club eventually pulled the plug.
Sean McGuigan says the club can look back on that period with pride as an era in which their collective shoulder was firmly to the wheel.
“You actually couldn’t do it now. There were some nights in there that the hall was jammed,” he said.
“I’m not sure what took over, I saw some nights where there were only 100 in the hall. Everyone’s batteries got flat and then they stopped it.
“A lot of us were glad it was all over, because it was hectic, but it made us a lot of money. It was only a pound in, which is pittance, but it was that big a crowd.
“You were taking in around £800 a week and on big nights, you could have got £1,000.
“There was a fair wee bit of pride went into it because the only time the price went up was for a late night.
“At the meetings, people used to discuss raising the price, but the attitude was ‘we’re not going to destroy the goose that laid the golden egg’.”
The teenagers of 2020 move in a different era to those that went before them, who are probably glad that the walls of Slaughtneil hall are mute.
“You actually couldn’t do it now,” said Sean.
He’s probably right.
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