Clonoulty, Co Tipperary, Sunday, 11th June 2000
A dhaoine uaisle, a chomrádaithe rince agus ceoil, tá muid go léir bailithe anseo iniu le omós a thaispeánt do Choncubhar O Riain, duine des na daoine ba cháiliúla a rugadh agus a tógadh anseo i gCluain an Ultaigh, agus a fuair bás trí bliana ó shin.
Ladies and gentlemen, fellow set dancers and musicians, we are all gathered here today to honour the memory of Connie Ryan, one of Clonoulty's most famous sons. Indeed, it if were not for Connie, this gathering would not be taking place at all, and the existence of Clonoulty would probably be unknown to the majority of people here this weekend, so it would be fair to say that he has put Clonoulty squarely on the map, at least among the set dancing community here in Ireland and abroad. Connie is gone from us now three years, having passed away on the 7th May 1997, but thankfully the set dancing phenomenon did not die with him, as some people thought it might. All the hard work he, and indeed other, put into it over the years have ensured its survival, and it seems to be as strong now as ever it was, and indeed it is much stronger right here in Clonoulty. Connie, who was so well known in other areas, had somehow escaped the attention and appreciation of his neighbors here at home. He would now be very proud of the fact that it was his name and memory which created, or should I say re-created, the interest in set dancing which has developed right here in his native parish in the last few years.
We have to remember that there is a big turnover in set dancers - there are new recruits becoming addicted all the time, and of course they will only know Connie Ryan by repute, but it is great to see so many of his old friends and pupils here in Clonoulty on this weekend. We, who soldiered with him in past years, have a lot to thank him for, but also those who are new to set dancing, even though they may not be as aware of it as we are, also have a lot to thank him for.
Connie taught so many sets in his time, at classes and workshops, around the country and abroad, but it goes without saying that he had first to learn those sets himself. The Cashel and Ballycommon sets he grew up with and learned without realising it, but the other sets learned in later years required more of an effort and a different approach. Now, an event in which I myself was involved took place in the 1960s in Dublin, and which I believe had some bearing on the subsequent set dancing revival. It was a club which a group of Clare people started, and I was one of their founding members, and its purpose was to provide a venue for Clare people and their friends living in Dublin to come and dance sets, or play or listen to traditional music. As time went on of course many other, non-Clare people came along, including many native Dubliners. The sets we danced in the club were the Caledonian and the Plain Set - we didn't know about any others. The club came to an end in 1967, the year in which Connie came to Dublin, and he visited the club a few times, and presumably danced those Clare sets there for the first time. His presence on those nights went unnoticed, but if it had happened a year earlier, I have no doubt but that he would have left his own mark on the club, and we would probably have been learning the Cashel set from him. Our MC at the time, Josie Murphy from Ennistymon, was a very strong willed and quick witted lady in her own right and there would surely have been a lot of good humoured banter between herself and Connie - I can just imagine it. Anyway, it may well have been his experience there which awakened his interest in other sets apart from the ones he knew in Tipperary, and which nudged him gently along his way as it were. In the following years he befriended Paddy King and Micheál Murphy and other Clare dancers from the club, and danced a lot with them, consolidating his knowledge of the Clare sets.
These would have been the first non-local sets he learned, and when he began teaching in Dublin and around the country, they were among the earliest sets in his repertoire, especially the Plain Set. Through the dancers and musicians from our club the sets very slowly began to penetrate the closed shop of the Gaelic League céilithe, helped along in no small way by Connie. It's a well known fact that if something becomes accepted and fashionable in the capital city, it soon spreads all over the country. Like so many other people, I learned a lot from Connie in the years we spent together, so many sets, even some of them from Clare, like the Lancers and Mazurka sets which I had never seen danced at home. I had very enjoyable experiences in Connie's company, and it gives me a great sense of satisfaction to think that in some very small way I may have contributed something to him in the early days, before we even knew each other, through our club in Dublin.
Of course Connie was always fond of battering and sean nós dancing, but it might not be generally known that he also took a keen interest in the more formal step dancing, and in the early nineties, helped by Betty McCoy, he organised a step dancing class in O'Shea Moran's Hotel in Dublin, in which he was making great headway until his illness prevented him from continuing. His ambition of being able to take the floor and do his solo was almost within his grasp, but time was not on his side.
While we stand here at his graveside today, those of us who were at his funeral three years ago will remember well the sadness which we all felt that day and the tears which were shed openly. While we still lament the fact that Connie Ryan is no longer with us and that he passed away from us far too young, nevertheless we have to look at the positive side and think of the many happy years he, and so many others because of him, spent dancing their cares away, and the rich legacy he left behind for us to enjoy, and so I say a big "thank you Connie" from all of us here, and now it's our turn to continue dancing our cares away. So, let us enjoy the rest of the weekend, for Connie's sake as much as our own.
I measc na naoimh go raibh a anam uasal.
One last word. It's great to see all of Connie's family here today, especially his mother, who hasn't been keeping very well lately, and we should remember her also at this particular time. And now since we have Liam Purcell, another long time friend of Connie's here, Liam and I will play Peg Ryan's polkas in his memory.
A set dancing weekend in Connie's memory was held in his home village of Clonoulty, Co Tipperary, 11-13 June 1999, which was a great success. It was opened by Connie's dance partner Betty McCoy on the Friday night, followed by two full days of dancing. On Sunday, Mass was said for Connie, a memorial to him was unveiled on the street in Clounoulty by Ciarán Mac Mathúna and Diarmuid Breathnach spoke again at Connie's grave.
The official opening by Betty McCoyWhen I was asked to perform this opening I was, of course, very honoured but I thought, 'What could I say that hasn't been already said about the Dancing Master?' I was Connie's dancing partner for 20 years. We travelled thousands of miles teaching and collecting sets and all that the set dancing circuit required.
One that I was always aware of was Connie's great attachment to Tipperary and his love of his home place. He didn't visit often but always knew what was happening.
I remember one occasion being in Luxembourg when a young man, of the type called Yuppies in the late eighties, asked Connie - Did he consider himself a European or an Irishman? Connie's reply was, 'I'm a Tipperary man from Clonoulty - always was, always will be, anything else came after.' Yer man had no more questions.
Connie's routine was to leave Dublin on a Friday evening for his workshops. Before leaving the bank he would collect the Tipperary Star from the paper lady at the bank door in Baggot Street. The paper safely in his bag, he would travel to Oslo, Amsterdam, Inisheer or Portmagee or wherever for his weekend workshop.
When his music gear was safely packed away I would be handed the Start and told to read about the West - for those not from Tipp, it is the Tipperary County Board, West Division. Very often the Clonoulty and Rossmore report would be two or three columns long. I would be thinking about my tea, but should I skip a bit - 'Hold on McCoy, you missed a bit. The game was in centre field and now you're talking about a corner.' Connie, of course, was playing the game in his head so I had to start all over again. This was typical of Connie. Do it right or don't do it at all - a perfectionist.
The same applied to his set dancing when he collected sets. Connie didn't just rush in and look at a set and go. He would talk for hours to his contact, get them up to dance. These sets were not structured. He would have to sort out the bars and music, the figures, the formation - hard work. We had no technology such as videos, just pen and paper. He came back to Dublin and got eight dancers together to teach them and when he was happy he would go back to his contact and ask if it was OK before he would go on to teach the set.
By the way, the Connemara set as we know it was divided into three reels and a Maggie by Connie. The O'Mealoid family from Rathcairn had revived the dance as a one reel figure half set with the Maggie to finish.
Connie treated everyone with the same respect. He would have made a great politician - he could work a room better than a lot of the real ones. He was always the focal point of a room. Connie had made hundreds of friends, many of whom will be here this weekend to celebrate, reminisce, maybe to shed a tear for their Dancing Master.
I would like to pay tribute to Mrs Nora Ryan, Connie's wonderful mother. I hope she soon returns to full health for without her we would have had no Connie.
He was always punctual, always on time - less talking, more dancing. I'm conscious of the many dancers who will be waiting to dance tonight. So with this thought in mind I think it is time to declare this first Connie Ryan Gathering officially open - the craic will be mighty!
A graveside tribute by Diarmuid BreathnachHere we all are in the heart of Tipperary. It's a great county and I was reared on the belief that all Tipperary people are special. Long long ago my father invited me to put my head out the window of the train as Lisduff station. Lisduff, in those far-off days, was the very first stop you reached in Tipp. Any my father simply wanted me to agree with him that the grass had suddenly grown greener: 'the green green grass of home.' He had only two years to live and it was just an adult's enjoyment of a child's innocence and credulity. But this east coast townie has carried that prejudice with him for over sixty years. There have been disappointments, of course. I found, painfully, that not all Tipperary people are special. And not all of them are dancers and hurlers, nor even interested in those two great Tipperary pastimes. More shame to them!
But for me Connie Ryan was the essential Tipperary man. I think of the lines in The Barracks of Rae: 'Here's to the boys of Tipperary who marched through the mountain that day, with spirits lighthearted and airy to burn the barracks at Rae.' Lighthearted and airy. Connie was that and much more - generous, competitive and spirited, homely, easygoing and hardworking, determined but patient. As in many of us, foolishness and wisdom were intricately confused as part and parcel of his nature. How can we be wise without being foolish first?
With all his personal talents, Connie would have been a great TD, although perhaps not too easily managed by party headquarters. With a bit more luck early on, there were many heights he could have reached in a variety of ways of life. As it was he enjoyed huge success, judging that success from the great numbers of people throughout Ireland, and indeed further afield, who learned a lot from and who held him in such high esteem. Only yesterday I heard on radio that Tony O'Reilly's essential requirement for success is that it must be in every country. And couldn't Connie, had he given it a moment's thought, which I know he didn't, couldn't he claim to have had global success, ó neamh go hÁrainn, in the old phrase - everywhere in the world?
Because all my people came from around here, Connie and I often spoke about great characters from the Clonoulty, Knockavilla and Dundrum area who had some influence on him. I think Connie would be pleased, perhaps amused, to be counted one of that surprisingly large number of nationally famous people over the centuries who hailed from here. Connie had cousins, Moynihans, in Upperchurch in the hills above us here who were also topping set dancers, and from that parish came Eamonn Ó Riain a' Chnoic of that great song Cé hé sin amuigh.
A very short distance from here is the remaining wall of Cloneyharp Castle, home of Ned of the Hill's cousin, Seán Ó Duibhir a' Ghleanna in the song which many of us learned at school. Remember the lines 'An sionnach rua ar an gCarraig, míle liú ag marcaigh, is bean go dubhach sa mBealach ag áireamh a cuid gé?' One of Connie's early mentors, Micheál Mac Cárthaigh of Bishopswood, president of the Gaelic League, was able to identify, enjoyably, all the coded place names in the song - Gleann an tSrotha, Sráid na gCuach, Cluain, Stuaic na gColm. He saw that woman lamenting the loss of her geese, 'bean go dubhach sa mBealach,' as being a resident of Ballagh, just beside us here. Somehow the line, 'Counting her geese in Ballagh some woman's heart was sore,' is much sweeter than Frank O'Connor's translation, 'Counting her geese on the highway some woman's heart was sore.'
Connie often spoke fondly of how he had worn himself out in 1964 collecting signatures for the same Micheál Mac Cárthaigh in the 'Save the Language' campaign of that year. Micheál was a great singer of songs of the Déise and wrote the history of Knockavilla. He was a hurler and in 1938 he won a junior all-Ireland medal with Westmeath where he was teaching at that time.
Here in this graveyard is buried another great figure whom Connie remembered well, Éamonn O'Dwyer of Ballagh, better known locally as Neddy Kate. In recent years a memorial was erected to him. Neddy Kate remained a humble farmer all his life organising céilís and feiseanna to the end of his days in 1963. But in the years of national resurgence, from about 1904 on, he was the pivotal figure in the whole of North Tipp as organiser for the Irish Republican Brotherhood. At one point he established two journals in Dublin, Banba and The Gael, and published books in Irish. Eighty years ago is was his ambition to make Cashel the centre of an Irish film industry. It was Neddy too who brought here from Cork John Smithwick Wayland to establish one of the first marching pipe bands in Ireland, the Ballagh War Pipers, perhaps the very first. I hope the song about them is still remembered here. Wayland was from Clonkelly between Gould's Cross and Dundrum. He might be seen by us as the harbinger who announced the coming of Connie. In the description of him in Sinn Féin of 26 October 1912 one can see Connie's personality: 'Mr Wayland is on his way to Australia and, at Toulon in France, Naples in Italy and Port Said in Egypt, he paraded the streets in Irish costume, playing the Irish pipes. The delight with which this novel instrument was heard by people of those cities was, it is said, remarkable. In Toulon a couple of hundred Frenchmen fell in behind the piper and, keeping step to his music, marched with him through the city.' And didn't we all keep step to Connie's music, so to speak, and didn't we all follow him, as children might follow a piper?
You may think I give too much credit to this area in saying it is a special place. The truth is that all Irish places are special. Not only special but magical. That sense of place is an Irish thing, perhaps because we are an island and our people have been here for more than two millennia. When I said that Connie was for me the essential Tipperary man I might just as well have said that he was the essential Irishman or the essential Fermanagh man or Mayo man. Connie's great gift was that he was himself, that he knew how to be himself. Not for Connie all the agonising about Irish identity. This and his very instinctual approach to things enabled him to recognise the validity of other people's traditions. He was at home everywhere, among Orangemen, for example.
Michael Tubridy in his evocative written tribute to Connie cleverly lists all those sayings which bring Connie to life again for us. I can see only one omission in the list and I remember this particular saying of his well because of the place and the occasion. It was about one o'clock in the day and Connie and I were sitting near the door of the Irish Times bar in Washington eight years ago. An American woman of my own age stepped on my foot on her way out. She apologised profusely and, with the few pints on me, I said to her, 'Missus, your stepping on my toes was the nicest thing that happened me all day.' This foolish remark flustered her a bit. But then Connie jumped in with what you'll all recognise as one of his sayings: 'Ma'am, this man is not only free but he's reasonable.' Yes, Connie was always himself.
Ciarán Mac Mathúna was chairman of the Cumann Merriman and director of the summer school, and I was secretary, fifteen years ago when we decided, for a number of reasons, to introduce set dancing as part of the annual summer school. We decided that Connie was our man and how right we were. For the following twelve years he added immensely to the sense of gaiety at the schools and will be counted as part of Cumann Merriman's history as indeed he will be in the history of many other festivals and organisations.
Focal id' chluais, Connie. Thuas sna Flaithis is cinnte go bhfuil na céadta, na mílte deisceabal agat. Ní thig linne na Flathais a shamhlú gan tú a bheith ann i mbun seitanna. Sórt 'Neamh ar thalamh' againn riamh be ea áit ar bith a raibh tú ag spreagadh ceoil ann. Ar nós an phoitín san amhrán: 'Leigheasófá casacht na hoíche agus dhíreofá an seanduine cam.' Táimid lándeimhnitheach go mbeidh tú mar fhear eadrána againne ag geataí Neimhe, ag an rinceoir foirfe, ag an bhfoghlaimeoir go háirithe agus fiú ag an duine nach eol dó a chos chlé a bheith ar aon taobh lena lámh chlé. Ár gcéad slán leat arís, Connie.
A biography of Connie Ryan by Michael Tubridy, Connie Ryan, the Mighty Set Dancing Master, was launched in Connie's home village of Clonoulty, Co Tipperary, on 21 May 1999. Éamonn De Stafort officially launched the book with the following words, and Michael Tubridy also spoke on the occasion.
A book of hopeA cháirde,
I am indeed honoured to be invited to launch the first book on my late friend and former colleague, and Ireland's foremost mighty set dancing master, Connie Ryan. It is fitting also that this publication be launched here in Clonoulty in the heartland of Tipperary, Clonoulty that epitomises the true character of rural Ireland, Clonoulty, Cluain an Ultaigh, the meadow of the Ulsterman, that can boast of all the traditional ingredients that make us a nation apart. Here for the hurler, the music-maker, the dancer and the singer, here for the loyalty to faith and fatherland, here for friendship and happy memories.
This evening we gather to launch a book in memory of one of our own, a man who lived and died in our own time. I am probably at an advantage in that I have read Michael Tubridy's book over the past couple of days and I am an immediate beneficiary of this fine publication. Dear friends, this is a book that embraces an action packed life of a man who died too young and has left us a legacy of great deeds and happy hearts. Straight away let me say that we are indebted to Michael Tubridy for gathering such a vast amount of information on the late Connie Ryan. This is an exciting book that will touch the hearts of many friends, colleagues and acquaintances and those who never met the might set dancing master. It is also a book of hope and one which will find special appeal for those with a disability. It is a book that illustrates how greatness can evolve, indeed erupt, from adversity. It is a book of travel, of humour, of commitment and of great and apparent endless animation. It is a book that digs deep into the traditions of Irish culture, a story of reviving traditions in an age of technology and satellites.
The author has gone into great detail to give us the Connie Ryan we all knew and respected. He has also shared with us the trials and tribulations of any success story. He compare Connie Ryan with the timirí of the end of the last century and the beginning of the current century - ag taistil ó áit go háit ag spreagadh daoine chun gnímh. A man with a mission who gathered around him a generation of activists that touched the hearts and feet of thousands of participants across the world. It is obvious too that Michael Tubridy shared in the success of Connie Ryan and his ability to recall details of events and names associated with such events makes for pleasant reading.
For my part there were two Connie Ryans - the Connie we all knew before he went to Dublin and the one following his taking up employment in the city. It was an illness that led Connie Ryan to leave his native Tipperary and head for Dublin. The Connie Ryan of the early nineteen sixties coincided with a great change in mobility that enabled Irish people for the first time to travel to entertainment. The car was now becoming prevalent and brought great change. Mind you there was another dimension to mobility. The availability of transport also enabled urban and rural communities to develop a greater liaison and in fact helped to bridge the urban rural divide. Nowhere was this more evident than at the popular weekly céilithe, whether it be Dromkeen, Cappamore, the City Hall in Cashel, Dombane or Boherlahan on Friday nights. Within Tipperary at that time there was a great céilí boom and this led to other cultural activities, not least all the Irish language. The Fleadh Cheoil in Thurles in 1959 was the catalyst for the formation of the Thurles-based Cumann Cheois agus Rinnce which attracted urban and rural members in high numbers. The group visits to the Kerry Gaeltacht, organised by Labhrás Ó Murchu were without precedent and were recognised by the generous Keery 'mná tí' as a genuine commitment by people with no vested interest, say a desire to acquire a knowledge of an ancient language. It should also be acknowledged that the so-called 'Muintir Thobraid Arann' were also contributors to the Gaeltacht way of life in that they brought many new danced and not a little craic to the area. Connie Ryan was a popular and regular visitor to the Baile na nGall in the Kerry Gaeltacht, staying with Bean Uí Ghearailt at An Feothanach. His character and warm heart endeared him to all who associated with him. His body, strong in limb and nimble on the dance floor was admirably matched with sparkling eyes and a touch of the rogue. Not for him the inhibitions of a rural boy meeting with new friends and Gaeltacht neighbors. He had the ability to be himself and maintained it right throughout his life. He never forgot his roots and loved his native Tipperary. His reputation was one of excitement and good humour, richly embellished with a sense of the 'matter of fact.'
I recall in 1966 sharing a common pursuit with Connie. I had just been appointed a timire with Conradh na Gaeilge as part of a new national policy by An Conradh to build up the organisation. One stipulation for the job was that I learn how to type. I recall visiting Connie at Christmas 1966 when he too was learning to type and also to read Braille. It was a poignant visit that I recall vividly. Little was I to know that for Connie, great achievements were to follow and from what appeared to be a dire disability evolved a man who was to rescue so many set dances, popularise them, take them with his talent around the world and make him the mighty set dancing master chronicled in this book.
I could hardly do better than repeat the words of Diarmuid Breathnach at Connie's oration just one year [two years] ago when he said, 'He had all the essential qualifications - enough showmanship to keep us entertained, enough discipline to ensure progress, enough humorous patter to keep overseriousness at bay, but above all patience in abundance.'
Michael Tubridy has done a great service to Ireland and to set dancing by writing this book. In particular he has done a great service to Clonoulty and to Tipperary in tracing the life of a man who was dealt hard knocks and who died all too young, but whose life was lived to the full. This publication will give all of us a lift, enable us to return to the action packed days of Connie's set dancing achievements and be a source of encouragement for others to continue the good work achieved by Connie Ryan.
In conclusion could I also quote the poem written by Mary Kelly which appears on Connie's memoriam card.Dear Connie, may you rest in peace,A Dhaoine Uaisle cuireann sé áthas croí orm an leabhar sea a sheoladh. I am delighted to officially launch this welcome publication. I hope it will get the readership it deserves in memory of a great Tipperary man - Connie Ryan, the man who danced with kings and kept the common touch.
For death now gives you your release;
Your mighty heart is still at last,
Your dancing feet their way have passed.
We hardly know how we may bear
The loss of you, the grief we share,
But this we know: the joy you gave
Will shine triumphant from your grave,
And, though a light has died to-day,
The blaze you lit must guide our way.
Go raibh maith agaibh.
Éamonn De Stafort
The central figure of his era in set dancingReverend Fathers, councillors, ladies and gentlemen, I wish to say how pleased I am to be here tonight in the knowledge that my own part of the project, the Connie Ryan Gathering, that's writing this book on Connie's life as a dancer, has reached this stage. It's no exaggeration to say that the books are hot off the press - they were just delivered to me this morning. Writing the book wasn't an easy task, having started out as a little pamphlet, like what engaged couples prepare for their wedding Mass. This was how it was put to me when the committee and Betty McCoy were discussing the possibility of having some such publication ready for the Connie Ryan Gathering here next month. However, it grew a bit since then. I felt I owed it to Connie to do as good a job as I could in the time I had available and I only hope the result will be acceptable to all. When I started out and had reached the point of having all the information I could gather entered into the computer, as a result of speaking to a number of people and going through Connie's recorded interviews, I ended up with about twice as much material as I could fit into the size booklet I was planning, so I had to take out the scissors and start chopping. On the one hand that a very nice position to be in, but on the other I had to start deleting material I would have liked to leave in. And then with all the chopping and changing there's always the danger of accidentally deleting something important. Every time I read through the book drafts I came across things which should, or shouldn't, be there, and I'm certain Ciarán Guinan in Brosna Press was saying nice things about me toward the end. But you reach a stage when you say, well that's it, and you go ahead and take your chances. It just wasn't possible to mention all the people from whom Connie got sets and did workshops for, and even to find out who they all were would have taken a tremendous amount of time.
Throughout the years that I knew Connie, of course it was obvious that we both had a great interest in set dancing and music, and that we both migrated from country areas strong in those traditions, but as I was preparing the book I discovered that there were a lot of other very interesting but less obvious coincidences, nothing to do with music and dancing. For instance, we both had poor eyesight, but luckily for me mine didn't deteriorate to the same extent as Connie's, but nevertheless I've had to wear glasses since I was a teenager. We both had two brothers and three sisters, we lived in the Rathmines area of Dublin for years before marry our respective wives, both of whom were Donegal women, we settled permanently in the Churchtown area of Dublin, and the children in our own families consisted of two daughters. I don't suppose you could draw any revealing conclusions from all of that but I think it's interesting all the same.
Of course the time scale for some of those happenings wouldn't have overlapped very much but there were events and times when our paths may have come very close, unknown to us both. For instance, I was at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil in Thurles in 1959 when Connie was nineteen years old and working in the sugar factory, and more than likely he was involved in whatever dancing events were going on at the Fleadh. Around the same time, late nineteen fifties early sixties, I was playing in a céilí band in Dublin which we called the Shannonside Céilí Band, and somehow or other we got an engagement to play at a céilí in Upperchurch, and it's very likely that Connie was dancing there that night or maybe even doing MC. When Connie came to work in Dublin in 1967 and visited our set dancing club in Bridge Street I'm sure I was there. Then for the remainder of the sixties and early seventies I was involved to a certain extent in Comhaltas activities, but on the music end of things, whereas Connie of course was all about dancing, and whereas our paths must have crossed many times we kept missing each other until many years later, it was 1984 when we first met officially.
Now the set dancing revival didn't happen overnight - it was a long drawn out affair - but from the mid nineteen eighties it really gathered momentum, due no doubt to a very large extent on Connie's involvement. Nowadays one would have to be careful when listening to people say they were teaching sets thirty, forty or even fifty years ago - it's the popular thing to say - but even Connie himself wasn't really teaching sets until the nineteen seventies. The climate just wasn't right for such a movement. What people were teaching in those days were céilí dances like the Siege of Ennis, the Walls of Limerick, the High Cauled Cap and two-hand dances like An Staicín Eornan and so on. Of course sets were danced and passed on at a local level but they weren't standardised like the céilí dances were and so couldn't be taught outside their own locality. And so the changeover from céilí classes to set classes took place very gradually during the nineteen seventies and eighties. Our Mrs Crotty club in Bridge Street, Dublin, might have been an exception but then it was only able to exist because it was frequented by all Clare people, at the beginning at least. I suppose the revival of interest in the old music and dances here in Ireland coincided with an international revival of interest in those arts, and Connie was the right man in the right place at the right time and with the knowledge and ability to steer the revival.
In the new book, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, edited by Fintan Vallely, a flute player from Co Armagh, and published by Cork University Press only last week, and which is the very latest Who's Who in the field of Irish traditional music and dance, Connie is of course listed. Mind you there are a few errors in the description but nothing too serious and Connie's contribution to the set dance revival is certainly well recognised. Connie is described as having been 'the central figure of his era in set dancing,' which I think is a very good description. This publication came too late to be mentioned in my own book. In fact there are some other videos in which Connie took part which are not included either for the reason they are no longer available commercially and I found it difficult to collect the necessary information in time.
I have great memories of Connie's trips to various parts of the country under the general banner of the Slievenamon Set Dancers, and the two trips we made to the States were only unforgettable. The second trip was the more memorable one for me because I was in charge of the music and we had numerous rehearsals in the months leading up to the trip, involving the formation of the Slievenamon Céilí Band - just for the trip. There was a great amount of talk and preparations and meetings and rehearsals - I can tell you the trip lasted a lot longer than two weeks for the organisers. However one of the spinoffs from that time is that the Slievenamon Céilí Band still exists - I believe our next engagement is coming up in October (this year)!
I'm not one who dreams a lot, or if I do I don't remember them, but a week after Connie died I had a dream about him which I did remember vividly the next day and I wrote it down and this is how it went. Apparently Connie and I were in the habit of using a particular place of accommodation any time we travelled together to a certain part of the country. Whereas Connie always stayed in a room with other people, I stayed in a single room. On this particular occasion however I found myself sharing the room normally used by Connie and his friends, and I was going to bed before he arrived in that night.
There was a double bed, two singles and a large sofa. The two singles were already occupied. I assumed that Connie and myself would use the double bed, so I got into bed and stayed on the inside to make it easier for him when he came in. However I woke up in the middle of the night to find Connie asleep on the sofa and I was upset, assuming that he might have thought I wanted the whole double bed to myself. I woke him up and insisted on him using the big bed even though he didn't want to and I said that if anybody was to sleep on the sofa it would be me. He said he didn't want to disturb me from my sleep and that's why he used the sofa and not because he objected to sharing the bed. The dream ended there so I don't know how we got on after that. If the dream has a message, I suppose it is that I always thought Connie was very thoughtful and considerate.
Connie's annual workshop in Dublin, first held at the Green Isle Hotel in Clondalkin and later in the Grand Hotel in Malahide, was a very successful and enjoyable event. Maybe it took place at a bad time of the year but it suited his busy schedule. Following his death we decided to carry on with the workshop in his memory and donate the proceeds to cancer care and research in St Vincent's Hospital where he was looked after so well. We are holding the weekend again next year but it would be our wish that the new Connie Ryan Gathering here in Clonoulty would be a huge success, that it would become an annual event being the most appropriate and rightful focus of attention on Connie Ryan's memory and achievements. If this is the case then we would allow Malahide to gracefully bow out.
Finally I would like to thank all the people who helped me in the preparation of this book, especially Connie's mother and family, by way of giving interviews, written accounts, photographs, providing me with taped interviews of Connie, and those who read through some of the material, and Betty McCoy here who provided a lot of material and ready through the entire booklet for me. I would like to thank Ciarán Guinan and his colleagues at Brosna Press, who were so patient and obliging while doing their end of things, and honouring their commitments in the most pleasant way, including delivering the books at seven o'clock this morning, four hours ahead of schedule. And last but not least, my thanks to Paddy Heffernan and his committee here who provided the occasion and have brought us all together and put on this very nice wine and cheese reception for us.
See The Mighty Set Dancing Master for information about obtaining a copy of Michael's book.
By email, 15 June 1998
Hello Mr Lynch
My name is Shawna and I live in Rhode Island, USA. Back about 10 to 12 years ago I went to Co Clare, Ireland, for a period of about five weeks and attended the Merriman Summer School to do set dancing. I was in my glory - I love to dance. Well, we danced as Connie instructed us and when it was time to break for lunch I went to a little pub outside Lisdoonvarna called the Roadside Pub. Connie and an entourage of people came in just after me. As soon as the food was gone the music started and so did the dancing. There were only seven people though. Connie looked around the room and spotted me watching eagerly. He pointed to me and said, 'Go get the Yank, she can dance.' Of course I danced. After lunch we went back to the school and danced more. It was the same scene that night in the pub. Connie Ryan made an impression in my life that week and I have to say that I'm a better person because of it. I send my sincere sympathies to his family. I know he has been sadly missed.
The church in Inis Oírr, the smallest of the Aran Islands, was a perfect setting for the commemorative Mass for Connie Ryan on Sunday May 10th, 1998. Michael Sexton and his band tuned the musical instruments on the gallery before Mass commenced. One look around the church brought back memories of various workshops I attended under Connies guidance when a smile and a wave was the response from anyone whom I caught a glimpse of. The presence of a dance board just in front of the altar suggested that set dancing would be part of the celebration. The weather was sunny, warm and calm.
Mass began, as gaeilge of course, to the strains of Tabhair dom do lámh. Pat Murphy read the lessons and just before the Offertory the half set took the floor and danced the third figure of the Connemara. You could see Connie smile and hear him say, Jays yere mighty. The congregation responded by giving a round of applause. A glimpse to my right and left reassured me that I was not the only one attempting to use a tissue discreetly. Tears fell in spite of the best efforts of most to hold back. There was a slight tremor in Bettys voice when after holy Communion she read the following piece,Dear Connie, may you rest in peaceIt was an occasion when each of us reflected on the marvelous times we have had and the true friendships we have established because Connie discovered the talent for set dancing in us and gave us the courage and enthusiasm to continue.
For death now gives you your release,
Your mighty heart is still at last
Your dancing feet their way have passed
We hardly know how we may bear,
The loss of you, the grief we share,
But this we know, the joy you gave,
Will shine triumphant from your grave
And though a light has died to-day,
The blaze you lit must guide our way.
We left the church while Michael Sexton played lively jigs. Outside the church people didnt want to disperse, they felt something else needed to be done. Sets were formed, Michael opened the box, and the churchyard was a perfect setting for the first figure of the Plain. The dancers and musicians then went their separate ways knowing we had done Connie proud.
Maureen, Christy, Olivia and Seán Culleton
Camcloon, Ballyfin, Portlaoise, Laois
Gravestones stand hard, cold and grey
Memories are soft, warm and green.
Colours may fade, real things always stay
Connie was the real thing,
time cant take that away.
Real in vision, real in deed
Undiluted and undaunted,
Courage took him beyond the pain;
One year gone, how well we know it
We shall not see his like again.
Set still reach out to many lands,
Music lifts hearts and feet and hands.
His name is called out in many a hall
Tributes still flow, he deserves them all.
Life must go on, rewind does not apply,
Connie will live on while set dancing
Rest in peace in green Clonoulty
Long, long remembered you will be,
Thanks once more for magic moments
Hope your mighty spirit is still dancing
May 1997 . . . May 1998
My first memories of Connie Ryan date back to the late eighties when set dancing was gaining popularity in Dublin.
I had been involved in dancing for some time, both in competition dancing and in classes with Jack Slattery and whenever I met set dancers, once they heard that I came from Tipperary, the next question was, did I know Connie? It appeared to me that everybody except myself had met him. I did, of course, know him by reputation, but we had never actually met.
I knew that Connie ran set classes in Churchtown and that he and his Slievenamon dancers danced in the Merchant, so I decided to go along to the Merchant. I danced there quite a few times before I met Connie, probably because I could only go on certain nights. I got to know quite a few of his dancers during this time and learned that Thursday was the biggest dancing night, when Connie always attended.
Finally, I was able to attend one Thursday. The buzz of excitement when I entered told me that this was indeed different. A set was on the floor, Seamus Meehan, Paul Doyle and Mary Corcoran were in full flight and the dancers were surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd, urging them on to greater efforts. Connie, with a mixture of concentration and devilment on his face, was calling the changes on the microphone, intermingled with colourful advice and admonishments to both the dancers and the crowd. His total involvement and his enjoyment of the dancing and the music was so infectious that literally everybody there was entranced.
I cannot remember who eventually introduced me to Connie that night as another Tipperaryman, but the welcome I received, together with the way in which he immediately got me involved in a set is something I will always remember. He made me feel that I belonged. I realised later that so many people had much the same experience with him.
This first impression of Connie never changed over the years - he didnt just enjoy the dancing, he actually lived it. Of all the people that Ive met through dancing, I believe that this is what made him unique and gave him such great rapport with dancers everywhere. He is quite deservedly known as a wonderful dancing master and ambassador, but it is the way in which he generated such excitement and enthusiasm among his classes that made him stand out - he insisted that everyone should enjoy themselves and, of course, once they were doing that, they were sure to learn.
In the years that followed, I attended Connies classes in Churchtown and was greatly influenced by his approach to teaching the sets and the atmosphere he created among his dancers.
As a teacher he was extremely professional and thorough in his approach, with constant emphasis on the little details that make each dance and its steps and style different from the rest. He managed to get his points across while at the same time having fun and banter with the class. People were made to feel welcome and newcomers integrated quickly.
I have heard it said that some found it difficult to understand Connies accent when they first met him. As a fellow Tipperaryman, I cannot see what they could possibly have found difficult. He sounded perfect to me! He was known on occasion to give "private tuition," sometimes to rather unwilling, embarrassed pupils, but I would have to say that he was unbiased and democratic - everybody was considered eligible for attention, particularly those who thought they had graduated beyond the need for such help!
I had the pleasure of dancing with the Slievenamon dancers on various occasions - at concerts, conferences, competitions and even at television and video recording studios. His influence and authority in all situations was so natural that we eventually almost took it for granted. He took charge everywhere and people seemed to accept this and they responded accordingly. An example of this was an occasion when a group of us were dancing at the R.T.E. Social Club and Pat Kenny, who was passing through the room finished up dancing a figure of the Slieve Luachra set!
When Connie became aware of his illness, his reaction was similar to the way he approached dancing and life in general. He refused to give up or to feel sorry for himself and instead seemed determined to achieve as much as possible every day. The schedule he continued would have been far too much for almost anybody in full health, let alone a man who was seriously ill. He was surely the best example of how to be positive and creative in the most difficult circumstances.
Connies funeral last May and the crowds who mourned him gave some indication of the affection and high regard of his dancers and friends from around the world. His passing has left a vacuum that can never be adequately filled. He has left a wonderful legacy, however and it is the ultimate tribute to him that set dancing continues to flourish. Those who are in a position to continue his work are indeed privileged. When we remember Connie, we can surely say:
"Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís."
From the Irish Times, 12 January 1998
ABOUT 20 years ago my husband and I gave up smoking. To keep off the cigarettes we decided we needed hobbies.
Independently we tried various things but nothing really appealed to us until we found ourselves in De La Salle College in Churchtown, south Dublin, one cold, wintry night and embarked on set-dancing classes.
That night a red-haired, bearded, fast-talking Tipperary man greeted us, and not only did he teach us to be proficient dancers but he became our friend as well.
Set-dancing was Connie Ryans life and once you became as fanatical as he was life was an endless party.
He organised weekends away and I began to discover an Ireland that I never knew existed. I would inveigle my mother to mind my young children and off I would go to Kenmare, Dingle, the Blaskets, Tory Island or Inis Oirr and dance for the whole weekend
An outrageous flirt with every woman who came to his class, Connie nonetheless took exceptional interest in any man who had the courage to come to his class, and he would persevere with the fellow until he was proficient.
It was quite common to see Connie in a waltz-hold with a white-faced male, pushing and propelling him around the dance floor. And when the man became a dancer Connie would give him sound advice on how to deal with the women he would encounter: "Dont let yourself be taken over by any woman. Move around."
His first love was hurling and in fact he ran his classes like a training session. "Tackle up . . . youre over-trained," he would roar if you went wrong.
But even though the classes were fun he took his role as teacher seriously and went to enormous trouble to make sure set were danced in the traditional style. If you started to get "notions" about your dancing prowess Connie would put you back on track in his own inimitable style.
For those not involved in the set-dancing scene it is hard to imagine the social leveller that Connie made it. No matter if you were a top-level decision-maker during the day, once you crossed the threshold of the Ierne Ballroom in Parnell Square, Dublin on a Thursday night, your skill as a dancer was all that mattered.
Connie was always open to new ideas and he opened up a milieu that can be narrow and rigid in outlook. He was unique, a man larger than life, full of good will, courage and generosity with a presence that could lift and transform any occasion. I often experienced a céilí in a dusty, dismal hall with a band play forlornly being transformed into a pulsating occasion with Connies arrival.
Piecing together sets
A word that some elderly person in a parish had a figure of a set was enough to whet his appetite and he would travel to the end of the country to see it.
I watched him piecing a set together once. My husband had been eager to track down the dance of the county we live in and after many attempts had the good fortune to meet Bill Quinn of Glencree.
Visits were made to his home and efforts were made to get the set together; but it was not until Connie became involved that it took shape. He counted out bars of music and assembled a jumbled memory into figures and drove us daft in getting it right. It is now danced throughout the country and in America too.
He was a meticulous organiser. Ten years ago I went on his first trip to America. He brought 57 of us to New York, Washington and Baltimore and whipped us into line as the Slievenamon Set Dancers. We performed at The Glen Echo Festival and that first trip became the first of many for Connie.
When he became ill some years ago he approached the problem in his usual, methodical manner, accepting all the constraints it imposed. He started to raise funds for cancer research. His set-dancing classes now attracted the nurses and doctors who treated him and when he died last May his dancing partner, Betty McCoy, was able to hand over £14,000 to St Vincents Hospital where Connie had been a patient.
For several years, he had organised a set-dancing workshop in January. It had become the event of the year with dancers travelling from England, America and mainland Europe. Everyone expected Connie to have found a new set and they were never disappointed. This year Betty McCoy has taken on the venture as a "celebration" of Connies life with all the proceeds from the weekend going to cancer care and research at St Vincents Private Hospital.
It promises to be a wonderful weekend, beginning on next Friday night at the Grand Hotel, Malahide. Six dancing masters - Aidan Vaughan, Mick Mulkerrins, Séamus O Méalóid, Pat Murphy, Donncha Ó Muinneacháin and Pádraig McEneany - will teach sets, steps, céilí and two-hand dances.
The Michael Sexton and Templehouse céilí bands will play at three céilís over the weekend. Away we go.
Some mens names are carved in marble,
Others are etched out in solid stone;
Connies epitaph is stamped forever
Beaten strongly on many a floor.
Throughout Ireland, England and worldwide
Fear an Tí Ryan will long, long preside.
Loosening them up, or calling them in
With flirtatious word or his winning grin.
A dancing dynamo, a heart of gold,
In Connies group twas hard to feel old.
Tubber in 96, how the magic flowed free,
Little did we know . this year was not to be.
This year a different master was calling
Not advance/retire but cross all the way.
May your gambols be great in those heavenly halls
Round that mighty house, dance the livelong day.
Mighty fine is the legacy you left us
Mighty fun in memories that remain
Mighty sadness to see you on video
Vivid and vibrant but no longer there.
Well tackle up and keep on dancing,
Well keep those sets true to your style,
Well pass the skills to a new generation
In memory of a mighty man we knew for a while.
Kay and Noel ORourke, Co Kildare, 10 May 1997
We the Slievenamon Set Dancers would like to thank all our friends everywhere for their letters, Mass cards, etc, following the death of Connie - our mighty friend and leader.
We know that the many friendships formed through his and our love of dancing will continue wherever and whenever we house around. We will think of him and thank him for the great cultural and social experiences he brought to all of our lives.
From the Tipperary Star, 31 August 1997
The family of the late Connie Ryan, Broadford Drive, Ballanteer, Dublin, and late of Laffana, Clonoulty, wish to thank most sincerely all those who sympathised with them in their recent bereavement; those who attended the removal from Elm Park to Clonoulty Church, Mass and burial; those who sent Mass cards, Perpetual Mass bouquets, letters of sympathy and floral tributes. A special thanks to the doctors, nurses and staff of St Vincents Private Hospital, Dublin, and to his doctor, Dr Aine OSullivan, for their devoted care and kindness to him during his illness. A special thanks also to Fr Peter Brennan, CC, celebrant, Fr Fogarty, PP, Fr D J Ryan, PP, Fr Michael Ryan, CC, Fr Bernie Maloney, CC, Fr Colin Bergin, St Patricks College, and Fr Jerry Lanigan, Divine Word Missionaries, who concelebrated. Thanks to the undertaker Hugh Ryan, gravediggers, sacristan and altar servers, to the ladies who catered in Clonoulty Community Centre on the evening of the removal and to the staff of Rectory House, Dundrum, after burial. Sincere thanks to the musicians, readers, and soloist who contributed to a moving liturgy and to the set dancers whose tribute to Connie after the Mass will long be treasured. Grateful thanks also to Diarmuid Breathnach for his heartfelt and moving oration at the graveside. A very special thanks to our neighbors and friends, to all Connies friends in the music and dancing fraternity and the staff of Bank of Ireland Head Office, Dublin, for their comfort and support. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has been offered.
Connie Ryan, the best known and most respected Irish set dance teacher, was buried on Saturday, 10 May 1997, in Clonoulty, Co Tipperary. The funeral and burial were attended by hundreds of mourners who came from all parts of Ireland and other countries. He died on Wednesday, 7 May, at 11pm in St Vincents Hospital, Dublin, after suffering from cancer for three years. While undergoing chemotherapy, he continued to teach a full schedule of week-long summer schools, weekend workshops and weekly classes.
His influence on set dancing is inestimable; not only has he taught many thousands of dancers in his long career, but many of those teaching sets today were taught by him or by teachers who were taught by him. He was unique among set dance teachers: a countryman from Tipperary who taught sets for the whole of Ireland. Sets from North and South, East and West were taught by him with the greatest skill in every corner of the country, as well as abroad in Europe and the States.
Apart from his dancing, Connie will be remembered for the great atmosphere of fun and friendship he brought to his workshops, his brilliant humour and way with words, the generous way he gave so much of his own time and energy to bring enjoyment to all who came to dance with him.
Paddy and Carolyn Hanafin attended Connies funeral and Paddy describes it in the following portion of an email:
Carolyn and I were at Connie Ryans funeral yesterday in Clonoulty to pay our final respect to a great man. There must have been at least seven hundred people there, with people from all over Ireland making the effort. Geoff Holland and Peter Knight came over from England and two fellows from Denmark came as well. There was a special tribute to Connie on our local radio on Friday night. This show (Kingdom Ceili) is hosted by Maura Begley (sister of Seamus Begley of West Kerry) and Mary Conroy of Galway (sister of Joe Burkes wife). They phoned Timmy the Brit and then me to say a few words about Connie. Then they had a phone link to the pub in Clonoulty and kind words were said about Connie by Ned OShea (The Merchant Pub Dublin), Pat Murphy, Paddy Neylon, Mickey Kelly and Betty McCoy. It was a sad affair indeed.
At the funeral itself, as part of Connies final wishes, he had the first figure of the Cashel Set and the third figure of the Plain Set danced behind the hearse, before it moved off. Everybody was treated to a meal afterwards in a local hotel, which had been prepaid by Connie.
Connie not only was the greatest set dance teacher, according to Paddy, he is the greatest set dance teacher.
Condolences can be sent to the following:
Donations could be sent in his name to St. Vincents Hospital, Dublin, for the cancer care unit.
- Norah Ryan (mother), Laffana, Clonoulty, Co Tipperary
- Peggy, Aoife and Sinead Ryan (wife and daughters), 76 Broadford Drive, Ballinteer, Dublin 16
- Betty McCoy, Slievenamon Set Dancing Club, Bannavoore, Black Glen Road, Sandyford, Co Dublin
Outside the church
At the grave
From the Irish Echo, New York, 14-20 May 1997
From the Tipperary Star, Co Tipperary, 17 May 1997
Connie demonstrating a set at a workshop at Cecil Sharp House, London, 26 February 1996
Photographs by Kevin MacMahon
Tubbercurry, 1989, and with Maria OLeary
Photographs by Geoff Holland
Dancing the lady, Lisdoonvarna, 1992
London, 1992, and Tubbercurry, 1993
Malahide and London, 1996
Mass card produced by Connies family, February 1998
The poem was written by Mary Thérèse Kelly of Belfast.
Contributions to this page are very welcome.
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