Gateway to the West is an annual weekend in Hayden’s Hotel, Ballinasloe, Co Galway, organised by Gerry Tynan and held this year from May 18 to 20. Correspondent Chris Eichbaum was there and filed this report on the experience.
It’s a bit like what the husband says when having eaten something particularly tasty—“I don’t want anything else now, I have such a lovely taste in my mouth.” He might even leave the beloved ice cream for much later. The dancing in Ballinasloe was like that, you see, you don’t wish for more or anything else right after it to take away from the lingering sense of satisfaction and fullness of the flavours. The spot-on mix of social, sets and sessions in Hayden’s Hotel with a ballroom renowned for its great sound, was again thanks to Gerry Tynan a resounding success, and why wouldn’t it be? He left a great package alone to work along the same line as last year, and no worries, it worked out really well again.
The session in the foyer that greets folks as they come in, and check in, makes it for you straight away—step in, be in, belong. A few sets were danced on the shiny little floor, different people grabbed different instruments at times to join the musicians, some songs were sung, and some steps displayed—a session as it ought to be.
Particularly for the German contingent from Bremen in northern Germany it meant a display and sampling of all the goodness of Irish trad. For some of them it was their first time at a ceili weekend in Ireland. You can’t beat the feeling of dancing here, according Barney, who was born in Ballinasloe, but moved to Brussels where he consequently started set dancing, and what do you know, this was his inaugural weekend in Ireland. He could not, and would not, wipe that grin off his face, saying, “The energy here is something else!” And that was no big surprise what with the Abbey Ceili Band starting off the Friday night—ah! I hadn’t heard them in a while, and the feeling before they came on matched the one that surfaced in me for the first time on climbing in and riding a Starship Enterprise-like funfair carousel that made you go round on your head! I can still hear my mother screaming from way way below. This time around, it was me screaming at the end of some of the tunes they played because it couldn’t be helped, I was so, um, swept off my feet.
The Johnny Reidy Ceili Band (JRCB) rocked the hall and floor and everybody on it no end on Saturday night—it’s such a surefire way of filling the space to engage this particular band. I even got a dance off the dashingly good-looking (hehe) Tom Skelly, who has his very own way of quickstepping, and by the time the dance was over I had it half figured out. And then Tom Skelly took me out for a quickstep—I am telling you this once more in case you missed it, hehe! It happened during the afternoon social dance—see, it’s a bit like the never-ending story, the dancing just continues. The schedule is workshop first, then social dance, then session, then ceili, then social dance, all on Saturday. Enough? I should think so!
Sunday morning, full to the brim with trad and sets, we headed into Galway, according to a very very hip fella, “the only cool place to live in,” to hear and dance to the Galway Jazz Band, who play there in Busker Brown’s every Sunday for a matinee. I loved them so much in Portugal, here was a chance to hear them again and get a bit of a swing dance demo thrown in, as a few local couples go there regularly to strut red miniskirts and high heels and swing hips and knees seductively. And P J Duggan (drums) and Larry Cooley (piano and guitar) are well-known to set dancers because they also play with Matt Cunningham Ceili Band.
Having come fresh from a modern jive class ourselves, we tried out a few of the moves and dived into this other world, and it occurred to me, that while we all might think of set dancing as the navel of the world, it is of course but a tiny speck in the dancing universe. All too often when I say I set dance, Irish people don’t know what it is, and naturally on the continent, too many equate any Irish dancing with Riverdance and have never heard of set dancing. But when you’re in it, you’re in it, and it is the center of a lot of set dancers’ world, right?
Having had our fill of smooth jazz, we headed back to Ballinasloe, truly the Gateway to the West, where the Annaly finished off the weekend. Dancers and band were enthusiastically photographed by the ingenious Paddy Hanafin from Tralee, who at one point got the whole of the crowd to pose in front of the stage. Satisfaction guaranteed in Ballinasloe, and fair dues to Gerry Tynan for keeping it all together, keeping her lit!
In set dancing, of course we have our very own celebrities, and Maureen Culleton has to be counted as one, going by the sheer experience she has, her knowledge of old-time step, two-hand and sean nós, and her lovely way of teaching—really relaxed, yet getting on with it. The Birr Set was up first, and then a new set, which she introduced as the set that was danced in the area she grew up in, the Ballyfin Set—a nice little set.
And if you want to be a celebrity yourself, the easiest way to do it is to simply associate with one. You could always marry a footballer, too. Failing that, going to the Gateway to the West weekend might be of use here if you’re desperate. Two actors from the English soap opera Emmerdale turned up and were more than willing to pose for the countless cameras and phones with folks going to great lengths to get their picture taken with them. A friend was one of them, and what do you know, after going home, his two daughters thought the picture was the coolest thing ever!
We ended up in the lift with them by chance. Let’s just say that four people in there together is a squeeze. But I had no idea who those two fellas were, so no sweat! So goodness knows who turns up next time in Hayden’s Hotel in Ballinasloe? Indulge in celebrity spotting in 2013!
A weekend of glorious sunshine after a week of sometimes torrential rain, with an additional earthquake: what to do? Dance or be outdoors? Well, we had no contest on the weekend of 8–10 June as two of our favourite bands, the Abbey and Swallow’s Tail were playing at the McWilliam Park Hotel in Claremorris, County Mayo, as part of the weekend run by Ger Butler and Gabrielle Cassidy. We were in the neighbourhood, being on our usual half-term visit to the west of Ireland, so we drove past flooded fields and swollen rivers in brilliant sunshine to the “wilds” of Mayo. We had to miss the Friday night with the inimitable Mr Reidy, but we hear the ceili was as greatly supported as ever, and we also missed the reportedly packed Saturday night in Hollymount with the Annaly, but the reports we had of the event were staggering to us.
There had been perhaps thirty sets at the Saturday evening ceili—a figure we who organise events in England can only marvel at. We were sorry to miss it, as by all accounts it was a spectacular event. However, we had two afternoons of beautiful music and great dancing courtesy of the Abbey and Swallow’s Tail. We were able to revel in the musicality and beauty of the music of both bands. A true holiday experience!
We were also fortunate to meet up with Mrs Bohan from County Galway, who had taught my husband Kevin’s father Noel Monaghan to set dance in the 1980s and who led her set dancing team to victory in the 1984 All-Ireland Fleadh, even appearing on The Late Late Show as part of Galway’s quincentennial celebrations. Mrs Bohan and her daughter still thoroughly enjoy set dancing, and it was a pleasure and delight to meet up with such gracious ladies and hear their tales of dancing “back in the day.” We hope you have many more dancing days to come.
The previous weekend, 1–3 June,we had danced in Birr where Donal Morrissey’s weekend in the Marian Hall in this beautiful town was well attended despite the unseasonal chill in the air and the rain. We had missed the Friday night’s dancing to Tim Joe and Anne, but we loved every minute of Saturday night and Sunday afternoon for our first time of dancing to the Striolán and Deenagh ceili bands.
This little gem of a dancing weekend formed the basis of a beautiful triptych of dance events—two planned and one totally ad-hoc. Dancers in Ireland are so lucky to have a great line-up of dances and music available to them almost every night of the week, whereas those of us who live elsewhere have to wait for sometimes over a month to be able to dance to a great band, and even then we have to travel sometimes long distances. Therefore, we were keen to combine a visit to family in Galway with as much dancing as possible.
Hence, on the Monday night after the Birr festival, we were eating in a tapas bar in Galway City when up popped a note on Facebook about a ceili that night in Midfield, County Mayo. We had no idea where Midfield was, but the band that was due to play were Rise the Dust, who we had been with in Prague in March. We had loved their lively music there and we wanted to meet up again with the band on their home ground. We decided there and then to travel up to Julian’s in Midfield and get in some unplanned dancing. That’s what holidays are all about. Plans have to be made sometimes, but the opportunity to dance to great live music was for us not to be missed.
Thank goodness for technology! Facebook let us know about the ceili and TomTom showed us the way to it. We would never have believed that such a venue would have existed down the boreen we found ourselves on that night! Julian’s is a fine establishment and hosts a ceili every Monday evening with a well-known band every week. We couldn’t believe it—every week! This was the first outing to Julian’s for Rise the Dust, and judging by their reception, I’m sure it won’t be their last. They play a great range of music at a fantastic tempo and are such lovely individuals—they must surely be making a great reputation for themselves. The regular dancers at Julian’s certainly made them feel welcome and showed much interest, and the evening passed swiftly, with sets, waltzes and quicksteps keeping the keen dancers on the floor all night.
We were made to feel very welcome by all the regulars, and some we met again at the end of the week in Claremorris. They are a talented bunch, with all sets being danced with much enthusiasm and no calling. There’s always that tricky moment when new dancers arrive (us, this time). Will they know the dances? Are they any good? Will they request odd sets? Luckily, we passed muster and would love to go back again to Julian’s to experience their very warm welcome. It’s certainly a venue to put on our dancing map and that of anyone else who happens to be in Mayo on a Monday night.
And so we come full circle to Claremorris via Birr and Midfield. I lost count of the number of sets danced, but I know there was a big smile on my face during the entire ten days we were in Ireland. Even now I can’t really believe how lucky the dancers there are.
The numbers in the ceilis we attended were perhaps a little down on the numbers as compared to our experience of previous years, and this seems to be the same in the UK too. There is also no consensus as to why numbers may be down; it could be weather, good or bad, the economic climate or any other such variable. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem to affect the brilliance of the music available, so this is now a personal message to all set dancers.
This is a plea from us dancers who are not lucky enough to get the chance to dance every night of the week to such fantastic music—cherish these players, support these events and count yourselves very lucky that such talent is so readily available, for without the continuing home support we dancers from across the globe will surely miss out on some of the finest and most dedicated musicians anywhere.
Thank you for the music!
On the weekend of the 8th to 10th of June, hundreds thronged to St Michael’s Community Centre in Holycross, Co Tipperary, for the annual set dancing festival to celebrate the late dancing master Connie Ryan, a native of the nearby village of Clonoulty.
This festival was the brainchild of Paddy Heffernan, mayor of Clonoulty. Back in 1997 as mourners gathered at the church in Clonoulty for the funeral of Connie Ryan, Paddy formed a plan to put some kind of celebration together for Connie’s first anniversary. He spoke with Pat Murphy, Michael and Celine Tubridy, Michael Loughnane, Jim Doyle, Matt Cunningham and many other close friends of Connie’s who thought his idea would be a wonderful tribute to the Clonoulty man who had given so much of his life, time, energy and expertise to ceili and set dancing.
In 1998, the first Connie Ryan Gathering took place in a marquee in the village of Clonoulty. That set the template for nine years until 2007 the festival moved to Halla Na Féile in Cashel, then last year it moved again to Holycross. This village’s beautiful community centre is the ideal home for the festival. Positioned beside the thirteenth century abbey, the centre has a superb floor for dancing and perfect acoustics. Holycross boasts numerous guesthouses and the town of Thurles is just three miles down the road.
The longevitiy of this festival is due in no small way to the enthusiasm, dedication and hard work that the committee and organisers put in to ensure that it is a fitting tribute to their hero.
The festival began on Friday night with a ceili after organiser Billy Maher opened the festival by welcoming everyone. We danced to Tim Joe and Anne O’Riordan—this mighty twosome from Co Cork didn’t spare the reels or polkas. Thurles dancing master Michael Loughnane, lifelong friend of Connie, was our master of ceremonies. We danced a nice selection of sets some with prompting and help from Michael. Midway through the ceili, Ollie Moroney from Ardcroney danced a brush dance to the cheers of all present.
The Saturday morning set dancing workshop was directed by Michael, who taught Seit Durlas Eile. This set was composed by Michael and members of Thurles Ceili and Set Dancing Club back in 2005 to celebrate the club’s fifteenth anniversary. Each figure has a reference to either the town of Thurles and surrounds or local sets. The first figure, danced to jigs, is called ‘coming together’ and derives from the sixth figure of the old Ballycommon Set. The second figure is what was the original second figure of the Cashel Set, danced to reels, followed by the cross country hop as danced in the 1970s in competition. West Gate, one of the oldest parts of Thurles, is honoured in the next figure, danced to polkas. The last figure, danced to slides, represents the four bridges around Thurles, the Castle, Ladies Well, Drish and Gold Links.
Michael’s love of music, dance and the Irish language has been an inspiration to young and old. He has worked tirelessly to revive the Irish language in everyday life. Michael is a founding member of Thurles Ceili and Set Dancing Club and teaches ceili and set dancing on a weekly basis all over Tipperary, Kilkenny and Offaly. He has given workshops all over Ireland and as far afield as Utah and Spain. He has been instrumental in reviving many well-known sets including the Tipperary Lancers, Durrow Threshing and Aherlow sets. He is continually searching for newly revived sets to teach. In November 1999, Thurles Credit Union awarded Michael the Thurles Person of the Year for his involvement and dedication to cultural and community activities.
The second set of our workshop was the Port Fairy Set, which was composed by Fay McAlinden, originally from Northern Ireland and now residing and teaching dancing in Port Fairy, Victoria, Australia. This set has three long figures danced to reels and a hornpipe. With the morning workshop over, we lunched in the village cafe on freshly prepared homemade delights.
The third and final set of the workshop was the newly composed Coolnabeasoon (pheasant’s corner) Set from Co Waterford. This set was composed by Dungarvan dancing teacher Helen Kealy, to remember the area where she grew up. The set is danced in four polka figures and a hornpipe.
For our ceili on Saturday we danced to the mighty Glenside Ceili Band from Co Longford. The music was magic and the atmosphere electric. Our master of ceremonies tonight was Jim Doyle. We danced the Coolnabeasoon Set, called for us by Michael.
Sunday afternoon we had an early start with the final ceili at 2pm. County Kerry’s king of set dancing music was on stage, the one and only Johnny Reidy. The Johnny gang all arrived early and there was a buzz even before the ceili started. We danced the socks and shoes off our feet to some of the best Sliabh Luachara music you could hope for. Jim Doyle was in his element on stage as master of ceremonies with a bit of guest calling by this correspondent. Just before the second half of our ceili we had some champion step dancing with a reel by little Ella-Rose Whyerow, who is Jim’s granddaughter. Ella-Rose, together with her friend Shania Gleeson, both living in Fethard Co Tipperary, won first prize in a feis in Cashel on Saturday.
The ceili and festival closed as we danced the Plain Set on borrowed energy, lubricated by cool clear award-winning Tipperary natural mineral water, dispensed all weekend from tanks on the floor. Jim thanked everyone, praising the hardworking committee and organisers and thanking Michael for doing MC on Friday night and directing the workshop on Saturday. He said Michael has been part of this festival since its inception, and is a true friend. After the national anthem it was the usual hugs and kisses with old and new friends as we all made our way homeward.
Joan Pollard Carew
We were finally there! Right in front of the Convention Centre in Dublin!
This very modern building, all glass and steel, was a welcoming sight. It was the 17th of June, and the Parkinson’s Association of Ireland National Patient Conference was about to begin. The hall we were shown to was slowly filling up with delegates, doctors and patients, who had come from all corners of Ireland. We couldn’t wait for the conference to begin, but we were also filled with apprehension, as we had come from Italy with our contribution and we wanted to put on a good performance.
This experience began a year ago, following a meeting with Dr Daniele Volpe who is the head doctor responsible for the Parkinson Centre at a hospital in Venice. He wanted to carry out a preliminary study on the effects of set dancing on patients affected by Parkinson’s disease. He asked Stefania Sossella and Romano Baratella, with their Black Sheep dance group, to experiment and demonstrate his theory while working with a group of patients from the Mestre-Venezia Parkinson Association. These two tenacious teachers accepted his proposal. They began to teach some sets to the patients, as well as specific exercises, to help improve both balance and mobility and reduce the number of falls.
Once a week we met in Mestre where we formed a couple of sets. We overcame the difficulties that constantly cropped up during the sessions with a good dose of determination, in a climate of growing friendship and enjoyment which, almost magically, Irish reels and polkas tend to create.
Dr Volpe followed our progress, recording the results from time to time. He would often enquire about the effectiveness of some new exercises which Stefania and Romano were proposing. Then one night in the middle of winter, he announced that he was going to present his research at the Dublin conference, and he wanted us to give a demonstration.
Our involvement increased with enthusiasm and trepidation to the point of finding ourselves in the vast auditorium of the Convention Center in front of a thousand spectators. As soon as Dr Volpe had finished speaking, we, the dancers from the Parkinson Association and the Black Sheep group, were invited on stage to dance a figure from the Corofin Plain Set accompanied by the rhythmic clapping of the audience. A warm applause greatly repaid us for all the work put into the preparation of this exhibition. The emotion and commotion would accompany us on our return journey to Italy and remain with us for a very long time.
The mass media of Ireland, as well as the Parkinson and set dancing associations, showed great interest in Dr Volpe’s study.
Luisa and Giuseppe Sartori, translated by Mary F Cooney
Leighlinbridge is a picturesque village on the River Barrow in County Carlow in the sunny southeast of Ireland. It features narrow winding streets, grey limestone malthouses and castle ruins overlooking a fourteenth century bridge across the river, one of the oldest functioning bridges in Europe.
During their river festival, 6th to 8th July, Leighlinbridge Parish Centre held a weekend festival with three ceilis and two dancing workshops. Moved here from Oisín Park, Killeshin, where the weekend had been held in previous years, this year the parish centre was an excellent choice. It is a beautiful community space with an ideal floor for set dancing.
Welcoming everyone, Eddie Whelan, committee chairman, said he was delighted to be in this superb hall. The festival got underway with our first ceili. We danced to the three giants of music from Co Longford, the one and only Anally Ceili Band. I was especially delighted with the selection of sets beginning with the South Kerry.
Saturday morning I was privileged to give the set dancing workshop. I began with the Ballycommon Set and followed on with the Birr Set by request from the dancers. Four sets joined in the workshop and we had a lovely morning dancing these two little gems. After a fantastic buffet lunch I continued with the Williamstown Set and finished with the Slip and Slide Polka Set. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed the sets and we had some good laughs also.
The second ceili of the weekend was another great night with music by Tim Joe and Anne O’Riordan. We enjoyed a fabulous selection of sets.
Maureen Culleton gave our two-hand dancing workshop on Sunday morning. She taught us three beautiful waltzes, the Southern Rose, Viennese and Blue Danube. Then she changed the tempo to include Rogha an File (poet’s choice) danced to a hornpipe, and also the Keel Row, Ideal Schottische and Silly Threesome. The workshop concluded with a social dance called Calypso. Maureen has hundreds of these beautiful dances which she plucks from her many years of teaching.
Sunday afternoon we danced to the magic music of Danny Webster. Included in our dances we had a High-Cauled Cap and a Seige of Ennis, the latter including in the fun a large group of students who had joined us for the ceili. We had numerous guest callers including this correspondent and Maureen.
This weekend is a dream for any set dancer who like me cherishes variety of sets. All over the weekend we danced thirty sets with no set repeated. It was marvelous to have this variety and only a few of the usual sets interspersed. The warmth and friendliness of the people of Laois and Carlow is special—you always feel at home in their company. Congratulations to Eddie Whelan, Hilary Nic Íomhair and their team on a superb weekend.
Joan Pollard Carew
During the weekend of 15-17 June, dancers in London and the south of England, and as it turned out, France and Belgium, had the opportunity to dance to the fabulous music of Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band at three ceilis organised in a joint venture by Jim Filgate of London and Kevin Monaghan of Basingstoke and SetsMad fame.
On the Friday night in Slough Irish Club, the sound was beautifully set up from early evening so that the band had no worries and had to do nothing after arrival but play. And play they did, to the obvious delight of the dancers who made a sometimes long journey on a somewhat difficult Friday evening. Top marks must go to two groups of dancers from across the English Channel who came by ferry, tunnel and car to attend all three ceilis and who barely sat out a dance all weekend. In total, twelve dancers from Lille and Tournai swelled the numbers attending, joining in with enthusiasm and smiles, and much knowledge of the dances too. he entente cordiale is well established as Zaya ‘Maya’ Maalem from Lille and Carine Pliez from Tournai have in the past supported events in London, and news of Maya’s first ever ceili weekend in Lille in October has excited many dancers on this side of the channel.
Saturday night’s ceili was held in Haringey Irish Centre in Tottenham, north London, and again there was great sound and a great crowd of dancers from differing classes across London and beyond, plus of course, the French and Belgians. For many dancers, this would have been their first-ever opportunity to dance to the Swallow’s Tail, and from the response that evening, no one was disappointed. The music was perfect, at a great pace for dancers with people saying they could hear every note perfectly. There was much applause as the night ended with many people promising to come along on the Sunday afternoon back in Slough.
There is always something rather special about a Sunday afternoon ceili in Slough. It is indefinable, yet there is something magical in this hall with its beautiful floor, and this Sunday was no different. Dancers were arriving from early on to sample a bacon and cabbage dinner, and so a party atmosphere was being created prior to the band striking a note. Dancers were in Slough to have a party, and boy, the Swallows didn’t disappoint. The rapturous applause at the finale of the afternoon left no one in any doubt as to the impression they were leaving behind, and many dancers took the chance to personally thank the musicians for their hard work over the three events. Because hard work it certainly is—Jim Corry’s fingers almost had blisters after his piano playing over the weekend! It was great to see the musicians smiling at the end of a gruelling three ceilis, and they expressed their pleasure at playing for such an appreciative audience.
For most of the dancers, the Slough ceili was the end of a great weekend, yet for the band and some dancers, there was time for a little rest and relaxation, courtesy of Tom King, formerly of Ennis, Co Clare, and now landlord of the Herschel Arms in Slough. This pub runs traditional Irish sessions, usually on a Monday night, but this weekend, however, special arrangements were in place for the lads to loosen up and sample Tom’s inimitable style of hospitality on a Sunday. Flights were booked for early on Monday morning, and the evening had the makings of a long night. We left them to it at 1am, and as far as we know, they all made their flights after a night of the most amazing hospitality, friendship, laughter, songs and craic. If ever you are in the vicinity, check out this pub. It is unique, and the landlord has to be experienced to be believed! Take along instruments and a voice and prepare to rub shoulders with musicians from who knows where!
So, the weekend came to an end, with dancers and musicians having been able to reflect on a weekend that was really something quite special.
The weekend had been a year in the making, and yet on the following Monday the question was already being asked, “When are they coming back?” Well, these Swallows may have left us a little early this summer, but when conditions are right, we know they’ll return to make another weekend really special for us lucky dancers.
The highlight of the set dancing calendar is the week in July when dancers converge en masse on Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, for the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Armada Hotel’s Set Dancing Week. Your editor first came to Miltown in 1992 and twenty years later was still there. Here is his summary of how he spent his week.
Saturday 7 July
It started with a frantic text message asking if I could locate a pair of size 3 ladies set dancing shoes. My partner for two sets at the first afternoon ceili at the Armada was enroute to Clare from Cork, but had left her shoes behind. If I could find shoes for her it would save her turning back, but the best I could offer was a friend’s size 6. She headed home, promising to be on time for the first of our sets.
Around 2pm I headed to Miltown where I scrounged parking on a back street (full already!) and walked to the Community Hall to register for class. My choice was a bit baffling this year—would I take Clare battering steps with Timmy McCarthy or Cork and Kerry sets with Aidan Vaughan? (Someone had mixed up the signs on the registration desks.) Walking along the street back to my car, I was hooted by a passing car full of ladies and saluted them. It was then I had a brainstorm and texted the driver to ask for the first set. I arrived at the Armada confident of at least three good sets.
As it turned out I had nine delightful sets to brilliant music by Brian Ború Ceili Band, never sounding better in all the years I’ve danced to them. The forgotten shoes lady managed to arrive five minutes before the ceili started—with shoes—and by that time I had seven sets booked. The cool, cloudy and breezy weather outdoors had zero affect on the atmosphere inside, which was as hot as a sauna, and undoubtedly more beneficial. In the Connemara Set I had the revelation that the most important aspect of the week, the factor which makes this the best week of the year and makes me long for it for the other 51 weeks in a year, are the friends! I was unbooked for the final two sets and was lucky to find friends with hands in the air each time. I thanked my last partner for rescuing me, and she said it was me who had rescued her. She revealed she had been watching me dance earlier and told a friend I had beans in my legs. Jumping beans, she explained. I blame the Armada’s unbeatable combination of music, atmosphere, sea views and friends. The appearance of sun and blue skies added to my optimism for a superb week.
After a wander to town for a bite to eat, chatting to a random selection of friends encountered on the street, I headed to the Mill Marquee. Taylor’s Cross sound check made me glad I’d come, music good enough to eat with a knife and fork. The marquee had some useful new dividers this year—long black curtains that stretch across the floor when required and make for cosier dancing with smaller crowds. Outside we could see cars driving past for a look in and then continuing on to the Armada, which was surely heaving with dancers at the ceili with the Five Counties. One of my partners said she did that herself but turned back again. “I’d be waiting ten minutes with my hand raised for a partner,” she said. Here she was asked up for every set, and she liked that there was a different crowd here, mostly visitors from abroad, good enthusiastic dancers, too. After the last set Donie Nolan wasn’t quite ready for the national anthem so he played more delicious reels for a final blast of dancing.
Sunday 8 July
It’s different with Johnny Reidy—you can’t operate by Irish time when attending his ceilis. It’s not just that you can set your watch by his start and finish times, always on the dot and precisely three hours. You can’t just saunter in fifteen minutes ahead of time—that’s when people start forming sets and filling the floor! And if you’re just driving in at that time, you’ll find every parking space filled up to half a mile away! I came an hour and a half early, still worried I’d miss out on the prime parking just outside the ballroom, but I was in luck. It’s easy to wait at the Armada—there’s food, drink and sessions inside, and sea outside. Half an hour before the start I thought I’d join the queue, but just breezed right in—they’d opened the doors early. Just as well, because right on schedule sets started forming fifteen minutes early and on the dot at 3pm Johnny, Martina, Eddie and Tommy appeared with only a few sets to fill before we were off with the Corofin. From there the joy proceeded like clockwork, one set after another, punctuated by roars, cheers, stomping and applause between figures. After the final Connemara, clocks were reset to Irish time as we basked in the Johnny Reidy high for as long as possible.
A different kind of high was on offer on Sunday night in the marquee, thanks to the Kilfenora Ceili Band and their marvellous music. During the sound-check, the black partition curtain closed off the floor—“They only open that for the Tulla,” the sound engineer joked—but it was soon pulled back well in advance of the crowds that filled the space. The appeal of the band crosses all international boundaries, as I danced with one Dutch, one German, two Swiss, two Japanese and three Irish partners during the night. The band is to be commended for announcing the new Ballykeale Set just before the break, but without a caller and with only slight familiarity with the set, I didn’t venture out, and few formed sets. Then with a swift change to the Antrim Square Set, the floor was filled again. We also danced a Ballyvourney Jig that even Cork dancers would be happy with, a welcome Claddagh Set (my second of the day) and the classic Plain Set to finish.
Monday 9 July
My choice of workshop at the summer school doesn’t ever seem to vary—I love doing polka sets with Timmy McCarthy. This year for the first time a friend partnered me for the week, so I had to set the alarm to make sure I arrived on time. A couple of people joined us expecting the Clare battering class, and were redirected to Aidan Vaughan’s class. We danced the Ballyvourney Reel (actually polkas) and the Sliabh Luachra sets a couple of times each. My fellow students ranged from complete beginners to experienced. The keenest among us were four young ladies from Moscow. After class, my partner and I wandered back to my car, already parked at the Armada, where we picnicked for lunch.
Striolán Ceili Band made their Armada debut this afternoon, receiving a boisterous welcome for their rollicking Sliabh Luachra music. During the first set I spotted a friend across the ballroom aiming three fingers in my direction. I responded with four fingers—who needs mobile phones to book a set remotely! The maddest set of the day, perhaps the week, was the Cashel, mainly because at least three of the couples were staffed by lunatics, one of whom agreed with me we’re better off this way. I was somewhat dismayed when I found my partner for the Connemara Set with another gent; the lady opposite was on the ball when she quickly grabbed me before the double-booked lady had a chance to dump her surplus gent. The Striolán’s music for the Connemara is about the most rousing I’ve heard. After the ninth set, the Lancers, they continued playing reels—my set did the Claddagh. There was such a raucous reception when they stopped that they gave us a bonus rake of reels before the national anthem.
Kids are welcome at the Mill Marquee’s nightly ceilis, whereas they can only dance at the Armada’s afternoons. Tonight there was a busload of them visiting from west Cork, who enlivened the atmosphere at Matt Cunningham’s ceili. They appeared to be skilled dancers with fancy steps and moves who were having a whale of a time. I was blessed myself with lively fast dancers tonight, and when a friendly seventeen-year-old girl asked me for a set, I expected to have to tone down my usual antics. I was wrong about her—she was an energetic and mature dancer despite her youth! Matt enjoyed the youngsters too and his lively music warmed us up nicely on a cool evening.
Tuesday 10 July
During the break in the morning class, my partner and I sat outdoors admiring the swallows, who were darting around us so skilfully and with such apparent pleasure that I thought they might well have been dancing. My partner said when dancing she felt as if she was flying. Dancing, I said, is as close as human beings can get to the experience of flying.
In class, Timmy invited me to join him in a set on stage at the afternoon’s tribute to the summer school’s founder, Muiris Ó Rócháin, who died last October. I was delighted and enjoyed dancing a figure each of the Jenny Ling and Sliabh Luachra sets—the Community Hall stage has a floor which feels and sounds like dancing on a drum, especially when dancing to slides by Mick Mulcahy and daughters from Limerick!
This made me late for the Armada’s afternoon ceili, where the great music continued with the Deenagh Ceili Band. I quickly scouted out partners for the remaining five sets, plus the rake of reels, should we be so lucky. We were indeed lucky today, because there was time for extra music, but also because the music was such pure pleasure. Every tune sounded unique, different from any other band. Even the familiar tunes sounded fresh, and there was an abundance of the unfamiliar. They seemed to change with every breath, making for great variety.
When the first set of tonight’s ceili was called, I scouted the marquee for hands in the air and quickly stood in beside a Japanese woman. The Tulla Ceili Band always starts their ceilis with the South Galway Set, and as it’s my favourite reel set and rather rare, there was no way I was going to miss it! I was rewarded with about eight minutes of bliss thanks to the gravity-conquering music and a partner who proved that brilliant dancing has nothing to do with nationality. In fact, nearly all of my remaining partners were also from abroad, but that never entered my head then—when surrounded by the Tulla’s music, we’re all Irish. Martin Hayes joined the band tonight, and when he played a solo, everyone stood around the stage to soak up his rapturous reels and marvel at the bodily movement it takes to produce such beautiful music.
Wednesday 11 July
The gap between the 1am end of a ceili and the 10am start of class was beginning to seem smaller day by day, but I found a way to look forward to getting up each morning—I stopped at a baker’s shop for fresh croissants and breakfasted in the classroom. Today there was a treat when a young Bavarian lad, who chanced upon the summer school after a lucky hitchhike and danced without shoes, was encouraged by Timmy to teach us a romantic Austrian couple waltz called Die Woaf. It was fun for the two chances in each round to make eye contact, left and right, and the ladies’ turn in front of the gent and then all around him, keeping hands held.
There’s always been a Sexton making music at the Armada since I’ve been coming here—Michael senior, who played here until his passing in December 2002, and since then, his son Micheál, who is a stellar box player and all rounder equally adept at ceili (reels and polkas) and country. He played today accompanied by Liz Ryan on piano and their selection of sets consisted of five reels, three polkas (bliss) and a rake of reels. The final full set, the Ballyvourney Jig, was perhaps my set of the week, made so by a sweet, polite lady from the Midlands who turns into the wildest, craziest dancer when the music plays, who reveals every ounce of her tremendous pleasure in her twinkling eyes and I can only respond with more of the same. We thanked each other profusely afterward. I felt lucky to meet her as she was about to return home.
The Kilfenora Ceili Band offered us another chance to dance at the Mill on Wednesday, and more turned out than ever for what was the busiest night of the week here. People were turned away at the main door as the marquee’s top capacity had been reached, and some of those chanced coming around to the rear exit for a listen. The musicians welcomed one of the Japanese ladies on stage to join them on concertina, and she was only elated! After doing five sets and a waltz in the first half, I was feeling the effects of a week of wear and tear on the bones, and so in the second half only got up for two shorter sets, the Connemara and Claddagh, and rested during the longer Caledonian and Plain. I probably left it too late to start pacing myself for the rest of the week!
Thursday 12 July
Today was recital day—Timmy organised volunteers to dance on stage at the class dance recital tonight and enlisted most of the class. We agreed to dance one figure of the Jenny Ling and one of the Ballyvourney Reel, but plans changed when Timmy taught the Borlin Polka Set. The Moscow girls actually knew this one already and danced with such enthusiasm and enormous smiles that it was an obvious choice for the recital.
In my never-ending quest for polka sets I found Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band to be an unexpected ally, despite being a Sligo band. Today they responded to a request for the West Kerry, a precious rarity at ceilis this week, and played it superbly. Their renowned Connemara Set was equally inspirational. By the way, I should note two additional advantages of dancing at the Armada—free tea, biscuits and cake are served at the break, and in the gents’ loo they have the best hand dryers in the whole of Miltown! I also heard a heart-warming comment about the kindness of the locals. A lady came down without accommodation booked and called to a house where she had stayed in the past. The man there was unable to keep her but drove her around for an hour visiting several homes in the area until she found a room, and then he took her back to his house for tea.
Apart from our own performance on stage at the dance recital, which closed the show in style, the other performances we watched while waiting were excellent. Most memorable was a display of step dancing by Nathan Pilatzke from Canada, who dances like a madman, though in perfect time and with powerful steps. A fellow Canadian predicted that his knees would disintegrate by the time he is forty.
I’m sorry to have mentioned knees, as I recall one of mine felt a bit stiff, but I was rather more concerned by my tender tendons. It was just as well then that the recital delayed my arrival at the ceili in the marquee until the third set. The Tulla Ceili Band were back and as near as I could tell it was a close repeat of Tuesday night, though tonight for a change I concentrated mostly on Irish partners. Martin Hayes’ fiddle solo gave us some moments to forget sets, which freed minds to dream a little.
Friday 13 July
Today I took my breakfast croissants to the Community Hall where I visited the Brooks Academy class to take a few photos. They began with a review of the Caragh Lake Jig Set led by Muiris O’Brien, the Kerryman who revived it. I then travelled around to the other set, sean nós, trad step and battering classes, before returning to my own class, where Hurry the Jug was in progress. It’s a complex rarity but one of my all-time favourites, and luckily Timmy had the class dance it again so I could take part. The Russian girls were beaming with broad smiles while dancing it—here was another one they dance regularly in Moscow!
Johnny Reidy played for today’s afternoon ceili in the Armada, which was probably the biggest afternoon ceili of the week. Johnny was only playing here twice this year, rather than three times as in previous years, a scheduling mixup which has been corrected for 2013. I hadn’t expected such a crowd on a Friday afternoon, but as this was the only chance to see Johnny this weekend, many made an extra effort to be here. One of my partners commented on how the week progresses slowly at first and then races faster and faster the closer to the end, which matched my own experience. Even the individual sets pass before my eyes in a flash, as I found myself starting a figure we’d already done. Afterward Johnny asked me what I thought and I said it felt like a three minute ceili rather than a three hour one, which we agreed is the sign of something special.
After a crowded, hot afternoon, the spacious, cool ceili that night in the Mill Marquee with the Four Courts Ceili Band was just what I needed. My tender tendons were forgotten as I danced every set, and made numerous laps around the floor when the band played Shoe the Donkey and a Stack of Barley. Just before the last set I noticed a discussion between the band and some visiting dancers, which resulted in the Mazurka Set being announced, the only one of the week! The band pointed out that those who wished could dance the Caledonian, or any reel set, and one set took advantage of that while the rest Mazurka-ed the night away.
Saturday 14 July
Last class of the week! I arrived early with breakfast, and then we danced through a selection of figures from the week’s sets. All classes finish early today, with dancers meeting at the marquee for the only called ceili of the week. I instead opted to return to my car—earlier in the week I discovered that I could sleep quite nicely in the back seat by folding my legs, and so caught a few badly needed winks.
Sunny weather, a fine happy crowd and the Glenside Ceil Band made for a perfect afternoon at the Armada. The band filled the sets efficiently and wasted no time between figures, so it was no bother to fit in nine sets and a selection of waltzes and quicksteps.
Timmy invited a set of us to dance with him on stage at the big Saturday night concert in the Community Hall. The barefoot Bavarian joined us as well, a last minute replacement for a dancer who had taken ill. After ninety minutes of waiting, we danced for about five minutes, and then I was off to the final ceili in the Mill with Brian Ború Ceili Band. They were still sounding great, thanks to a superb fiddler, Caitriona Sears, substituting for Teresa Hughes (banjo) who is on maternity leave. I hope they keep Caitriona when Teresa returns! In honour of Mickey Kelly’s attendance, the band played the Newport Set, once common, now unfortunately all too rare.
Sunday 15 July
Sleep! I slept in today, only a couple of extra hours, but it made all the difference as it made me feel like it was the start of the week rather than the end. I arrived ninety minutes early but found that all the parking spaces nearest the ballroom doors were taken; fortunately there were still free places beside the Armada’s sanitation plant and luckily the wind was blowing in my favour. Half an hour before the start I joined a short queue at the door, and all I’m certain of after that is that I went home with a feeling of utter satisfaction and relief. The Five Counties Ceili Band played their hearts out for us to make the most exciting music of the week, and I danced every set with several of my regular Irish partners feeling at least ten days (and perhaps twenty years) younger than reality. When the final figure of the Lancers Set was over, no one wanted to stop, including the band who continued playing for an additional five minutes and people just danced the first set that came into their heads, which for most was the Connemara. Then, following the national anthem, many singing along, it was all over.
Audrey and Ian’s alternative viewsIan and Audrey McLaren from Scotland have kindly provided their thoughts on Miltown 2012, just as they did last year with a bit of controversy.
We are just home after a wonderful eleven days of dancing in Ireland. One night in Killarney, another in Ballyvourney and nine blissful nights in Milltown Malbay have passed and we are feeling down. There is little dancing in Scotland in the summer with classes closing down until August.
Just when I thought that things could not get more depressing, I got an (undeserved) parking ticket at work on my first day back and then proceeded to break a tooth on the same evening. An appeal is in against the ticket and a temporary repair has been made to the tooth so it is time to reminisce over the highlights of the trip.
As is our habit, we stopped in Dundrum, Co Down, on the way home and over a lovely dinner and bottle of wine discussed the highlights. For me, a major highlight was the memorial concert for Muiris Ó Rócháin. We were not privileged to know the man but will continue to enjoy the lasting legacy his work has left. I suspect that during the planning stages for the first Willie Clancy Week he could not have envisaged that so many nationalities would come to love the culture of Irish music and dance. During the concert, my mind strayed to the words of our national bard Robert Burns.
“For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the world o’er
Shall brothers be for a’ that”
That certainly is the case for the week in Miltown Malbay.
My second highlight had to be the challenge of learning new sets with Brooks Academy. We recalled the weekends in Ireland, attending workshops and not having the opportunity to dance them in céilithe. (That rings a bell).
I then had a thought. There might be something to be said for one afternoon or evening to be laid aside for a ceili of less danced sets with the programme pre-published in order for some preparation for dancers and band. My dance card would be from Clare Orange and Green, Ballykeale, Boyne, Newport, Borlin Polka, Fermanagh, Birr, Claddagh, Paris and Williamstown.
Overall, it was another exhausting but more than happy week spent in Ireland and we are already looking forward to next year.
Audrey McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
Firstly, the buzz of the entire week was sensational. I think numbers were down slightly on last year but unless you looked, you would not know from the excitement on the floor. Everyone was out to enjoy themselves and succeeded. I did not hear one negative comment all week.
I stuck my neck out for chopping last year with my fashion comments and they appear to have worked. I saw no faux pas and was required to inspect one of my friends from Gortahork (see report SDN June–July 2012) before every ceili. She passed with flying colours. I did not change my dress style as I dress for comfort and did not stick out too much in the crowd.
Audrey and I changed the habits of a short dancing lifetime and did not attend every ceili available. We visited some pubs in Miltown Malbay to listen to sessions and on one evening landed at a pub with social dancing. We did some two-hand and céilí as well as leading two brand-new dancers through the Caledonian. They did well with some calls and hand signals.
We did attend a ceili by the Kilfenora at the Mill and witnessed a funny event. Halfway through the cross chain in the Claddagh the music stopped. All heads turned to the band and Garry Shannon promptly announced that applications were being sought for a new bandleader. The upside was we got to dance the entire figure again.
Now to the negative side of my report. This was our third visit to Willie Week and I have kept a diary of sets danced and the bands we danced them to. We danced to a band this year that have played the same sets in the same order for all three years. All sets are good but there is a certain sense of anticipation of what will be done next. In my opinion, they are relying on their fan base to attend wherever and whatever they play.
As relative newcomers to set dancing, we realised early that, in order to learn, we had to participate. Taking sides and watching carefully was the way to go, says he, stating the obvious. However, we saw a couple at several ceilithe, obviously learners, who took sides but then proceeded to look around and then did not know what to do when their turn came. On one occasion, a woman tried to advise them what to do and was snappily told, “We know what we are doing.” They then proceeded to get it completely wrong, spoiling the set for the other participants. A little attention paid at an early stage improves the set for all.
That’s it. Rant over and roll on next year.
Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
These two idyllic scenes of set dancing from eighty below and 100 above years ago were taken by Irish pioneers of photography, the Horgan Brothers, Phil, Jim and Tom, of Youghal, Co Cork. Initially they trained as shoemakers and from 1892 operated a shop in the town, but soon began working as commercial photographers. Eventually their photo business became so successful that they abandoned the shoes and moved into new premises.
The Horgans used magic lantern slide shows with music to promote their shoe and photography businesses. They’d cycle to a village in the area, take photographs and deliver prints from their last visit, and in the evening their lantern show would present exotic views mixed with their own pictures of local scenes and people.
The brothers obtained a motion picture projector in 1897 for use in their shows, projecting films made by the Lumiere Brothers in France who had invented film the previous year. At that time, the Lumiere Brothers’ own cameramen made films in Ireland exclusively, so for the Horgans to make their own films, Jim Horgan contructed a movie camera by converting a projector and became the first Irishman to make films around 1900. The camera stood on a six-foot tripod. Above at the camera, Jim framed the view and turned the handle to photograph the action, while below Phil rolled up the exposed film with his hands sewn into a large black bag.
Films became so popular that the Horgans began building a cinema in 1910, which because of delays caused by the First World War, didn’t open until 1917. There was seating for 600, benches in front and upholstered seating behind. Among the features on the programme was the Youghal Gazette, a newsreel of local interest produced by the brothers. The equipment was upgraded over the years to handle sound; the cinema operated until 1988.
Many of the photographs and nearly all the films of the Horgan Brothers are still in existence today. The films have been preserved by the Irish Film Archive in Temple Bar, Dublin, which also has the brothers’ original projector and camera on display. Cork County Library has a collection of over 800 of the Horgans’ still images, all of which can be seen at Youghal Library as well as on the library’s website.
We would like to thank everyone who supported in any way the Celebrate Life Summer Ceili on 26th May in Tullamore, Co Offaly, and inform them that we raised €7,000, which was presented to St James’ Hospital Foundation, to be ring-fenced for use in the oncology care unit. This figure surpassed all our hopes and expectations, and we are thrilled with the result and the lovely night we all had.
We would especially like to thank the GAA Centre, Tullamore, for the use of the hall; the wonderful Triskell Ceílí Band from Co Louth who gave their time and talent and provided fantastic music on the night; and all the team in the kitchen and our local friends from the dancing scene in Offaly and beyond who contributed the most gorgeous food for break time! To everyone who purchased a ticket and could not attend on the night and to all those who did make the journey to Tullamore from far and near—we are so grateful and indebted to you all. A special word of thanks to the Cooney family, Tullamore, and the McEvoy family, Co Louth, for all the support, help and encouragement. Also to our sponsors of the wonderful raffle prizes on the night and to everyone who helped in any way—we appreciate every help and contribution received.
Go raibh maith agaibh go leír,
Noel and Anne Devery, Tullamore, Co Offaly
Your hands in your pocketsHi Bill,
On behalf of the Sets By the Sea Weekend, I would like to convey our sincere gratitude to all of you wonderful people who travelled from far and near to support our set dancing weekend in March 2012 at the Bellbridge House Hotel, Spanish Point, Co Clare.
To say that we were overwhelmed by your enthusiasm, good humour, sense of fun and ability to dance and sing from night til morning is an understatement!
We are very much aware of the tough economic climes that we are all in, but all of you can be very proud of your ability to be aware of ones who are in dire straits within our own island, because you not alone put your hands in your pockets to help pay for the bands, musicians and singers but you also helped with huge donations to the Alzheimer’s Society, for which both they and we are very grateful.
We cannot thank you enough for coming to support us. We have made some wonderful friends from this weekend and you all know who you are. A huge thanks also to the fantastic bands, musicians, singers, tutors and storytellers that travelled from all corners of Ireland and beyond to make this special!
I am also painfully aware of how few places I have attended in support this year and for that I must apologise and explain. Some people will already know that I am studying at night time in Limerick and this year has been a particularly tough one. I had to attend class three nights a week and every other Saturday and work to pay for it as well. Due to this commitment, I found it difficult to find time to attend céilithe and my son threatened to ‘divorce’ me as his mother if I didn’t attend to him in my ‘free’ time! I am still at it and will be for another cúpla bliain! So because of that, I have enlisted my wonderful niece, Michelle, to attend as many céilithe as possible on my behalf over the coming months in order to show our appreciation for all your support in March! But never fear, you haven’t got rid of me yet, ’cause I’ll be at as many venues as I can over the coming months!
We will endeavour to make next year’s Sets By The Sea equally as good as this year’s one, if not better!
Tina Walsh, Mullagh, Co Clare
Ring-a-Rosie in that yardDear Bill,
Please allow me through the medium of your magazine to thank all the wonderful set dancers who attended the Booley House ceili in the old school, The Commons, Co Tipperary, on Saturday 30th June.
Dancers travelled from Cork, Kerry, Clare, Limerick, Laois, Offaly, Kilkenny, Waterford and from all over Tipperary. We danced the night away in a purpose-erected marquee to the magic music of Neily O’Connor Ceili Band from Co Kerry.
History was made on the night as it was the first ever ceili in the old school yard. I spent my earlier school days in that school and played Ring-a-Rosie in that yard.
The committee of the Booley House was overwhelmed by the attendance and the superb music. It is envisaged that this ceili will be an annual event. A special thanks to you, Bill, for posting coverage of the night on YouTube.
It was my pleasure to co-host the night with Michael Cooney who teaches step and set dancing in the old school.
Joan Pollard Carew
To see videos from the ceili in The Commons, and many more from ceilis elsewhere, look up the SetDancingNews channel in YouTube.
Donegal thank-youHi Bill,
Our Féile Damhsa Gaelach in Óstán Loch Altan, Gortahork, Co Donegal, 18–20 May, was again a fantastic success. Many of our visitors arrived early on Thursday to enjoy Donegal’s best renowned Irish night, which is run all year round. Friday and Saturday night and Sunday evening’s céilithe were enjoyed with a full house in attendance dancing to the wonderful music by our three ceili bands, the Annaly, the Long Note and Ceili Time. We had three very successful workshops taught by Pat Murphy (set dancing), Marie Garrity (two-hand) and Kathleen and Michael McGlynn (sean nós).
The success of the weekend would not have been possible but for all our loyal friends from all over the country. Many thanks to those who travelled from afar, France, Germany, Italy and not forgetting our camper friends and my lovely set dancing class in Falcarragh and to the management and all the staff of Óstán Loch Altan who gave a céad míle fáilte to all our guests and looked after their needs all weekend.
To everyone mentioned, a very big Donegal thank-you. We enjoyed your company and if you enjoyed your visit, we hope to see you all again next year. Our 2013 Féile Damhsa will take place 17–19 May. Happy dancing!
Slán agus beannacht,
Madge O’ Grady, Falcarragh, Co Donegal
Natural bedfellowsDear Bill,
Set dancing and the Irish language may not seem natural bedfellows, but so it is in Canada. Set dancers are among the most likely individuals to become involved in the Irish language community. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Oireachtas Gaeilge Cheanada, held in Erinsville and Kingston, Ontario. This event is modeled upon Oireachtas na Gaeilge in Ireland, and attracts Irish speakers from across North America. Set dancing is among its various competitions. The winners of this year’s competition, 6–8 July, were the Harp of Tara dancers from Kingston. The chief judge for the competition was Labhrás Sonaí Choilm Learraí, a well known Connemara dancer and member of the judging panel on An Jig Gig, TG4.
Lively ceilis were also held as part of Oireachtas Gaeilge Cheanada, both on Friday and Saturday nights. Musicians were the group Flúirseach, led by Meaití Joe Shéamuis Ó Fátharta, Steafan Hannigan, Meghan Balogh and friends, as well as the Ottawa Ceili Band.
Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh, Kingston, Ontario
Helped make it possibleDear Bill,
Following my recent trip to Kenya with Building of Hope, a Clare-based charity, to build an orphanage, I would like to thank all the people who helped to make it possible, namely the Thurles set dance club who organised and ran a ceili for me, Club Rince Nenagh, Clonmore set dancers, SetsMad Basingstoke and all the individual dancers who gave so generously.
The building project was a great success and you all made it possible for me to go.
Many many thanks,
Michael McGeeney, Ballinderry, Co Tipperary
It was with total shock and sadness
As we stood in Durrow Hall
When we heard the news of Joe’s passing
It really stunned us all
We all know life is just a journey
And someday it has to end
But Joe’s journey, it was way too short
So we lost a true legend and friend
Joe could tell a joke or story
He could dance a step or two
He sure could raise your spirits
Whenever you were blue
He loved everything that’s Irish
The GAA, the music and the dance
He shared his talent with our youth
To ensure he gave them every chance
We are so privileged to have known him
And his passing leaves much pain
It is difficult to see the likes of Joe Monahan
Ever pass our way again
While we are all still wondering
Why this had to be
Joe is planning God’s next concert
And of course he’ll do MC
May he rest in peace.
Noel Cooney, on behalf of Durrow Ceili Club
Joe was involved for years in the Rahan set dancing classes held on Thursday nights. The sets were taught by teacher Nora Carroll but Joe did his own commentary on the quality of the dancing while he sat on the sideline and if you thought you were anyway good, he would probably tell you, “You were crap!”
They were very happy nights spent in Joe’s company by all the Rahan set dancers and it was all fun and craic, Joe was always up for a laugh. Not a Christmas or Halloween fancy dress or end of year class would pass but Joe had everyone up to do a party piece, but on most occasions he ended up entertaining us all.
Joe was a friend to everyone.
We will always cherish these memories.
Rest in peace, Joe.
Vin and Bernie Foran, Co Offaly
If you attended the All-Ireland Fleadh in Tullamore, and if you were at the gig rig, the chances are you heard the phrase, “Up the yard, Julia.” I am of course referring to the late Joe Monahan, a man who became a legend in his own lifetime.
Joe was a man of many talents—he could sing a song, tell a yarn, and although he didn’t do much set dancing because of his “dodgy knee,” he was a great supporter of the set dancing and arrived every Thursday night to the GAA dressing rooms in Rahan to support and encourage the dancers. There was always a laugh when Joe was around and he “adjudicated” many a set and wouldn’t hesitate in giving you a yellow card if you didn’t get it right!
Joe was very proud to be a member of Rahan Comhaltas, and was delighted when the branch started the set dancing in 1995. So as we continue to dance, we will remember you with fondness, Joe.
Rest in peace.
From your friends,
John and Barbara Gaffey, Rahan, Co Offaly
On the 28th June, an evening of dancing and reminiscence in memory of Peter Jackson took place at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) in London.
The evening featured dances from the English, Irish and European tradition reflecting Peter’s own interest which dated back some sixty years to the early 1950s when he first went along to the Cecil Sharp House. It was a boom time for the EFDSS with its membership rivalling that of the National Trust at 20,000 plus. Princess Elizabeth had been seen square dancing in Canada and it had become de rigueur. Princess Margaret was president of the Society and attended often. On at least one occasion, she had been seen with her husband Armstrong Jones dancing on the floor of the magnificent Kennedy Hall. People literally queued around the block to get in. Peter often spoke of these heady times and marvelled at the popularity of the pastime at the time. Society stalwart Brenda Godrich recalls that some callers mainly called square dancing but always with some traditional style English and country dancing.
Peter had an interest in Irish dancing before the revival of set dancing and in the 1980s he was a regular at the Wednesday (fíor) céilí at the Mazenod Centre at Quex Road, in Kilburn. It was here that he first encountered set dancing. For Peter, as for many people from home and abroad, the discovery of set dancing was a revelation. The revival of a unique form of dancing which had been widespread in the Irish countryside at the turn of the century and with historical antecedents going back much further was guaranteed to excite the appetite of someone like Peter.
There was no holding him back. From 1989, he attended as many classes and workshops in London as he could fit in every week. In 1990, he travelled to Ireland to the Willy Clancy Summer School and returned again and again to learn the sets. And learn the sets he did. He had a forensic interest in the details and could soon recall all the popular and many less well known sets.
In the early nineties, Larry Lynch, one of the leading figures of the revival organised tours of Munster and Connaught. Larry had researched set dancing over a period of ten years from the late 1970s and on the tours he introduced people to the older generation he had met then and recorded the sets from. Peter was a regular on the tours and he was delighted to be able to meet the people who had danced the sets a half a century or more before, the people who were the primary sources for the sets described in Larry’s book, in the context which remained largely unchanged at the time.
Peter loved dancing but he also thrived on the history of the dances. For instance, he was intrigued by the notions (right or wrong) that at one stage, set dancing was discouraged by some nationalists on the grounds that it was not Irish because of its origins in the European quadrille and the clergy railed against it because of the intimacy involved and their desire to regulate cultural activity under their ægis. He loved to debate issues and was a formidable defender of the tradition based on his personal experience and gleaned from any text he could find, for which he had a voracious appetite. Of course he was not always right but he would doggedly stick to his guns despite the force of contrary views. He could even be quite mischievous about it. I recall more than one occasion when he deliberately pressed his point knowing it would infuriate his detractors. But he would never allow any differences to interfere with his love for dancing, whatever the outcome of a discussion he would still be one of the first people on the floor!
I have talked to many people about Peter since he died and many recall their first encounter when Peter welcomed them to a new venue or class, or asked them to dance and encouraged them to give it a go despite their shyness or worries about “spoiling it for everyone,” a common refrain from people doing it for the first time. He loved to share his extensive knowledge and experience, talking at length about the history of the sets or explaining the differences and intricacies.
Peter was a good dancer and got to grips with the different steps for polkas and reels at an early stage. One of his strengths was he could lead with the left or the right. Over the years he and I danced together many times, when there were more men than woman in my class or when a woman expressed a preference to dance with another woman. Dancing the man or woman, he would do so without the irony or parody which is so often present when men dance with men.
He was also known for his extreme resilience. It is not an exaggeration to say that Peter died once before. Despite his overwhelming interest in set dancing, he continued to attend the Quex Road céilí keeping up the céilí dancing well into the late 1990s. There on the dance floor on a Wednesday night he suffered a severe heart attack. It was only by dint of the presence of two Irish nurses that he survived. Maureen Noonan, who sadly died herself last year, and another dancer called Susan used their great skills to resuscitate him and get him to hospital. He underwent surgery, was fitted with a pacemaker and was back on the dance floor literally within weeks. Despite the severity of the attack he went on to enjoy another fifteen or so years of almost daily dancing!
Sadly, the loss of his dearest wife Patzy who died in November and his own deteriorating health took its toll. While he continued to make daily visits to his ‘second home,’ Cecil Sharp House, his set dancing friends already felt his absence. I last saw him on 15 December when he was presented with an award by the EFDSS for lifelong involvement with the Society. I gave him a lift to Camden tube station and he spoke about the pain of his loss and the intensity of the feeling. Needing a lift was unusual as Peter always had a little car and was a fearless driver. I asked him if he’d given up driving and he said he had not, but the car like him was getting on and needed some fixing.
Peter Gidlow Jackson (1926-2012) died on 18 February and was buried on the Isle of Wight on 9 March.
The night in his memory at Cecil Sharp House was a great success. It was one of those nights when people say, “Why don’t we do this more often?” It was a fitting tribute to Peter, whose personal interests highlighted the similarities while celebrating the differences. The night started with a newish English circle dance, named Nervous Breakdown called by Dave Kerridge. Tom Kelleher followed this with the Connemara Set and after that Brenda Godrich called Black Nag, an English dance dating back to 1670. Ellis Rogers took up the baton next with a nineteenth century ballroom Caledonian, Dave Kerridge did Jacks Maggot from 1703 and Diana Jewitt followed this with the Waves of Tory, an English dance with an Irish tune. Reminiscences followed.
Jane Pfaff remembered being welcomed by him when she first went to Cecil Sharp House three decades before and how good it was to be “welcomed to a strange place by a perfect gentleman.” She alluded to his generosity both with time and money, time was in the shape of voluntary work for the EFDSS, he regularly stuffed envelopes and tended the garden, and money in terms of his annual donation of a huge Christmas tree to Cecil Sharp House. She also paid tribute to his dancing skills and the contribution he made to social gatherings. I spoke about his great enthusiasm for the history of dancing and his amazing memory for a wide variety of dances, his dependability and loyalty, and all the practical and vocal support he gave to me over the years.
The dancing that resumed after the break included the Clare Caledonian called by yours truly, the Waltz Cotillion with Ellis Rogers, Postie’s Jig, a Scottish dance called by Brenda Godrich, the Clare Lancers with Moira Dempsey, and a French Canadian dance, La Bastringue Circle, a Sicilian Circle named Hallo and a recently composed Big School Circle all called by Dave Kerridge. Brenda Godrich finished off the night with a Circassian Circle. Great music was provided by Vick Godrich, Ian Cutts and other regulars at the Thursday night English dancing session and Karen Ryan of the London Lasses and friends. It was quite a night!
Geoff Holland, London
I first met Owen back in the year 2000. He was from Westport and visiting his brother in Chicago. He got my number from Set Dancing News, as I was an organizer and contact for the Chicago area. He wanted to know if there were any ceilis on while he was in town. He was in luck—there was a ceili in Gaelic Park that Saturday night and I agreed to meet him there. I didn’t know what to think of Owen at first, then he did something that amused me and then we hit it off. What he did was during that very long figure of the Caledonian—we were sides—he went to the men’s room while the tops were up and came back in time for the sides’ turn. He didn’t miss a beat. I said to myself, “Who is this man?” Later on that night, he revealed to me that he was “Highstepper” from the Set Dancing News articles.
Over the years we corresponded and saw each other occasionally. He came to Chicago now and then to see his brother and he came to visit me after I moved to Florida. He surprised me when I was in Ireland one time, by showing up at Dan O’Connell’s Pub in Knocknagree when he knew that I would be there. I had shared my travel plans and he caught me unaware by catching up with me on the dance floor. He liked to surprise me by sending me presents and calling me from Westport.
Owen was very enthusiastic about his hobbies, such as writing, swimming, and dancing. He liked to travel and have new experiences—he liked to explore and meet new people. He was open-minded and enjoyed discussion and new ideas. He also liked women quite a bit.
For the past couple of years he had a new endeavor—teaching English in China, which was a grand new adventure for him. He was there until just recently. The last time he wrote to me was early May from Shanghai.
Owen Hughes was a good friend. In spite of living thousands of miles apart, we managed to maintain our friendship over the last twelve years. He was funny, generous, charming and a good dancer. He will be greatly missed.
Susanna Haslett, Naples, Florida
Set dancer Owen Hughes, Westport, Co Mayo, passed away while swimming at the Quay in Westport on Sunday, June 24th. According to local news reports, he was reported missing that evening, when searchers were assisted by a coastguard helicopter. His body was recoverd the next morning at low tide. Friends said that he had a heart attack in the water. After Owen’s funeral Mass at St Mary’s Church, Westport, on the following Thursday, he was buried in Aughagower Cemetery.
I first met Owen in London in the mid-1990s where we both had recently become converts to the cause of set dancing. I moved to Ireland 1999, and Owen returned home to Westport around the same time and it was then that he proposed writing, Down from the mountain, a humourous column about set dancing, which continued for around five years in Set Dancing News under the name Highstepper. He had a knack for capturing realistic moments from set dancers’ lives and then amplifying them with fantasy and humour.
Owen was involved with a Mayo writers’ group which published a collection of work by 24 writers in 2004. Three of Owen’s Set Dancing News articles were included in it.
I hope you’ll enjoy Owen’s article below from the August–September 2000 issue.
Any old excuse!
Down from the mountainIf you ever want to get out of a ceili in a hurry, just tell them that you’re panned out and there’s a taxi waiting. They will probably think it’s something much more serious and won’t ask any questions. But remember, they are all set dance junkies themselves who binge on it whenever they have a chance, and forget that they can get very weary. In Spanish Point I met Nifty’s sister, who was very lovely, however our star signs weren’t compatible and we would probably have to behave ourselves with Nifty looking on, so I decided to do a Houdini on it and vamoosh out the door of the Armada. It was there I met with another tired, confused set dancer. We got talking and it turned out that she was just after having a bad run-in with somebody, was on the rebound, and had just declared war on set dancing. I thought we might have a ding-a-ling.
“Would you like a bit of an adventure?” I asked.
“Depending? I want to wash that set dancer right out of my hair!”
“How about a splash? The water is still quite warm.”
I was lucky her bullshit detector hadn’t gone off, but later I found out it had self-destructed due to overload at ceili. On the way to the beach she told me that she had completed a first-aid course the previous week. I thought it would come in very handy, but I wasn’t going to tell her that then, was I? Neither of us had brought our swimming costumes along. As we slid into the water, I could see it was a full moon. Swimming after midnight with a beautiful stranger and the fifth figure of the Caledonian just about audible was sheer bliss. We did a lot of splashing and then something happened. I hit my head off a rock and konked it. It wasn’t that bad really, but you know, any old excuse! She dragged me in and gave me a lot of mouth-to-mouth. I needed a really good going over, so I made sure I didn’t recover too quickly.
“Are you sure you’re okay now?” she asked.
“Just another little bit more, to be sure to be sure.”
“To be sure to be sure,” she replied.
We couldn’t find our clothes (another smart set dancer up to his old tricks) so we found a small cave where we kept each other warm. I had always wanted to be a caveman and this Tarzan-and-Jane role suited me more than her. When most of the traffic had died down that night we decided to make a run for it across the fields. In one field behind a big round bale there was a lot of heavy breathing. We weren’t sure what it was, but it was pretty scary. My midnight swimming partner needed a lot of reassuring and it gave me a great opportunity to return all the first-aid I had so generously received. I slept very well that night.
The following morning I had just opened the boot of my car in the car park beside the Armada when a banana skin hit me on the head. It was Clarry on the third floor of the Armada with a long-haired blonde each side of him. They broke into song, Nessun Dorma, but made a very bad job of it.
“Not a bit like Pavarotti,” I shouted.
“It’s Andrea Bocelli, the guy they say that if angels could sing they would sound like him.”
“Sounded more like Joe Dolan to me.”
Later I met him in the bar drinking a pint of his favourite beverage. (Carlsberg! If he has had more than two avoid him like the plague.)
“Even the women were on the prowl last night,” he said.
“That’s not a bad thing. I don’t know who they were after, but it wasn’t me anyway.”
“The music was good. Did you get their CD?”
“Yes, but went home early,” I said.
“A quiet night?” he asked.
“Yes, a very quiet night, but then again you wouldn’t need to believe everything you hear during Willie Clancy week!”
After lots of farewell parties hosted by family, friends and set dancing friends, we left our homeland of Ireland on October 6th last year to begin our new life in Regina, Saskatchewan.
The first few months we were busy setting up here, but, yes, we did struggle as we were very homesick. Coping with the winter weather also was another factor. We had -30 degrees at times and snow but we were told that was a mild winter compared with previous ones—anyway that is made up for now with the fantastic summer weather we are having!
We are both very fortunate to have great jobs here and have adjusted to them very well.
As you all know set dancing was a very big part of our social life at home and we were very fortunate to make contact with the Irish Club of Regina who in turn were thrilled to have set dancers from Ireland join their club. We started with a workshop earlier in the year which was very well attended and enjoyed by all and since then we are teaching a weekly class which is increasing all the time.
Regina is known as the city of music and dance and lives up to this with the amount of festivals, concerts and dances always happening. We were thrilled when invited to have our newly formed set dancers perform at the Irish pavilion at the biggest multicultural festival of the year known as Mosaic. This was a weekend event and we performed on each day and also had an information table promoting Irish set dancing. Truly enjoyable and a great response from the huge crowd attending.
Many of our set dancers are involved in other types of dancing also so we have in turn supported many other dances and have made many new friends. Then we were busy preparing for our first visitors from Ireland, my sister Vera, Liz Hand and Syl Bell whom most of ye know very well. They arrived and we went to Banff in the Rockies for holidays and had a ball. Then back to Regina for parties, football game, Craven Country Jamboree, and then big surprise for Liz and Syl as we performed at Motif Multicultural Festival in Moose Jaw—so excited for the four of us to be dancing together again!
We are so grateful to the Irish Club of Regina for giving us the opportunity to continue with our set dancing which has made our new life in Canada feel more like home. Our dream will be fulfilled when we have a set dancing weekend in Regina in the future and can look forward to seeing some of our dancing friends from home join us. We are now looking forward to more visitors from home arriving in the next few weeks so life is full of joy and adventure for us.
Finally, thank you, Bill, and all our set dancing friends for keeping us updated on events happening at home—love all photos, keep posting them!
Life is good for us here in Canada but Ireland will always be home. Love to all, meet you on the dance floor,
Joe Morkan and June Carter, Regina, Saskatchewan
There's more to read in the collections of old news and reviews, volumes 1—1997-1998, 2, 3—1998-1999, 4—1999, 5—1999-2000, 6, 7—2000, 8, 9, 10—2001, 11—2001-2002, 12, 13, 14, 15—2002, 16—2002-2003, 17, 18, 19—2003, 20—2003-2004, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25—2004, 26—2004-2005, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31—2005, 32—2005-2006, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37—2006, 38, 39—2006-2007, 40, 41, 42, 43—2007, 44—2007-2008, 44—2007-2008, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50—2008, 51—2008-2009, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57—2009, 58—2009-2010, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65—2010, 66—2010–2011, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71—2011, 72—2011–2012, 73, 74—2012, (Index).
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