The Beatles once played as the support act for Ireland's Royal Showband, whose singer advised them to stick together.

A Belfast showband called the Witnesses performed for Elvis Presley in the Bahamas.

Van Morrison began his career in a showband.The man who could be Ireland's next Prime Minister made his fortune building the ballrooms where showbands wowed a whole generation.

The showbands, who enjoyed their heyday in the early 1960s, were a phenomenon that transformed Irish society. With their fancy clothes, neat haircuts, slick showmanship, flamboyant stage shows and cover versions of international hits - belted out by powerful brass and rhythm sections - the showbands took the country by storm.

Now, awash in nostalgia for those days, Irish journalist Vincent Power has written a fond memoir of the showbands, "Send 'em Home Sweatin."'

At its peak, the showband boom gave work to about 4,000 singers and musicians.

"Touring bands were paid as much as, if not more than, the Beatles and Rolling Stones during their early days," Power writes.

But what was the essence of this strangely Irish phenomenon, which on big nights of the year attracted almost a quarter of the population to go out to listen to them in packed ballrooms?

"The showbands' raison d'etre was to entertain, pure and simple, and send 'em home sweatin'," Power writes. "Musical abilities were secondary to the stage spectacle. Songwriting flair was redundant (unnecessary) because of audience desire to hear chart hits and dance music."

In this predominantly Roman Catholic country, where farming was the main industry, Power notes, "The showband craze changed Irish courting habits forever. In rural areas, the ballrooms created the opportunity to meet others away from the narrow confines of the parochial hall."

Albert Reynolds, now Ireland's Finance Minister and heir apparent to Prime Minister Charles Haughey, made a fortune as a young man building up a chain of ballrooms around the country that capitalized on the showband craze.

Recalling the big bands that packed them in night after night, Reynolds said in the book: "Showbands epitomized glamour and generated the kind of hysteria that youngsters reserve today for international superstars like Madonna or Michael Jackson.

"How many romances blossomed in these ballrooms of romance? How many marriages followed," asks the former owner of the Cloudland, Dreamland and Jetland ballrooms.

Reynolds moved on from ballrooms to manufacturing pet food before entering politics. But he still retains a rock band manager's hankering for the open road.

"I'd pick (rock group) U2" to manage, he says. "I'd love it. That must be a very exciting job. You could build an international industry behind them . . . Merchandising, marketing, all the skills are there."

In truly Irish fashion, the showbands played to packed ballrooms for 46 weeks of the year. During the religious season of Lent they went off to entertain in Britain or the United States.

Brendan Bowyer recalls the Royal Showband playing at the Empire Theater in Liverpool with a young local band, the Beatles, as their supporting act.

He reassuringly told Paul McCartney the group should stick together.

"We could see that they were talented," he confessed later, "but we couldn't see where the vehicle was going to come from so that they would be successful."

On this deeply divided island, where Irish nationalist guerrillas are fighting to oust Britain from Northern Ireland, the showbands were always non-sectarian, freely crossing borders and intermingling Protestant and Catholic in each line-up.

The conflict, however, still caught up with the industry.

In 1975 three members of the Miami Showband were killed by Protestant extremists. Two of their attackers also died when a bomb went off prematurely.

By then, the showbands' popularity was well and truly waning.

Electric guitars had toppled big bands, ballrooms gave way to discos, television and records made the big hit copycat cover versions redundant.

"The lights dimmed on the ballrooms that are now derelict, demolished or being used as bingo halls, workshops, factories, supermarkets, garages or furniture stores," Power wrote. "Most of the great landmarks of the era exist in memory only."