Remembering the weird and wonderful delights of 1978’s ‘Ten Knights of Desmond’ festival

Gerard Fitzgibbon

Reporter:

Gerard Fitzgibbon

Mike Murphy of RTE presenting the 1978 Ten Knights of Desmond 'glamorous granny' award to 74-year-old Ita Campbell, Newcastle West at the River Room Motel. The event was one of the highlights of a festival that included parades, pageants and unusual competitions
SCOTTISH knights, dancing grannies and an overworked Garda band - for one week in the summer of ‘78, there wasn’t much going on in Newcastle West that failed to draw a smile.

SCOTTISH knights, dancing grannies and an overworked Garda band - for one week in the summer of ‘78, there wasn’t much going on in Newcastle West that failed to draw a smile.

The Ten Knights of Desmond summer festival has since vanished into local lore, but 35 years ago it was a barmy, entertaining celebration of community pride. With its pageants, dances, parades and exhibitions, the festival took hold of everyone’s attention and refused to let go. Today, it is a place where lost friends and loved ones live forever, mingling with the memories of Mike Murphy quipping about grannies in swimsuits, and Ned O’Dwyer chuckling to himself on the dance floor.

The size, scale and importance of the festival is evident in the fact that the Limerick Leader edition of July 15, 1978 carried a four-page preview supplement. Surrounded by messages of support from antiques merchants, newsagents and hardware shops was a detailed, bit-by-bit breakdown of what would be happening where, and with whom. The list reads like a roll call of almost every hobby and interest under the sky: car trials, a dog show, an ICA craft fair, a barman’s race, Paddy Clancy on stage, multiple appearances by the Garda band, and much more.

As expected, the eponymous ten knights of Desmond competition is billed as the centrepiece of the ten-day festival. In 1978, the contest was given an unusual international flair in the shape of 20-year-old Gerald McEnhill from Ayreshire in Scotland who found himself riding around Newcastle West in full period costume almost by accident.

Gerald, the Leader explains, was touring Ireland on a working holiday and was doing some work for Pat Joe Nash of Dromindeel, “who talked him into joining the Newcastle West ‘Knight’s Brigade’”. The paper said that Gerald, like all proud Scots, was still reeling from the failure of Ally MacLeod’s Scotland side at the world cup in Argentina, and was hoping to restore some smidgen of national pride. “My mother runs a pub, and when I return I will be able to tell them I was knighted in Newcastle West”, he said.

In the following week’s paper, dated July 22, reporter Jimmy Woulfe looks back on one of unexpected highlights of the festival - a ‘Glamorous Granny’ competition at the River Room Motel. During a night of dancing attended by over 200 local senior citizens, the keenly-contested main prize was awarded to 74-year-old Ita Campbell by a RTE’s Mike Murphy. Ita, a widow with four children, 30 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, clearly enjoyed her moment in the limelight. “After receiving her trophy and a bottle of champagne from TV personality Mike Murphy, Mrs Campbell confessed that she still enjoyed to read a nice love story now and again”, the paper said. “Mike Murphy brought gasps from the 44 grannies who took part in the contest when he announced that each would have to parade in a swimsuit”.