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, 75, 76, 77, 78—2012, 79—2012-2013, 80, 81, 82, 83—2013, 84—2013-2014 (Index).
Monday 9 February 2004
Johnny O'Leary, the well-known box player from the Sliabh Luachra area of Cork and Kerry, died this morning. Johnny spent his life playing music for dancers, most famously at weekly ceilis in Dan O'Connell's pub in Knocknagree, Co Cork. He began playing there in 1964 and continued for nearly forty years.
Removal is tomorrow and funeral Mass on Wednesday.
I'm considering trying something new in Set Dancing News magazine. I'd like to offer free small personal adverstisements to subscribers. This would be for any message, not necessarily related to set dancing, and not for dancing events, as they're already listed elsewhere in the magazine. You could send birthday greetings, look for a ride or place to stay, sell a pair of shoes. Anything within reason will be considered. I wouldn't publish anything received anonymously and will include the advertiser's name in the ad, plus a phone number or email address if replies are requested. If interested, send ads to me by Monday, 26 January, for the February-March issue.
Friday 19 December 2003
Michael Sexton died today at 3pm in hospital in Galway. Michael was from Mullagh, Co Clare, and led one of the most popular set dancing ceili bands since 1992. Michael played with ceili bands for most of his life and was with the Kilfenora Ceili Band for several years. Michael was passionate about music and loved playing for set dancers as much as they loved dancing to him. Deepest sympathies to Michael's wife Betty and his two children, Michéal and Miriam.
Michael's body arrives home in Mullagh tomorrow evening, Saturday. The body will be removed from Mullagh Funeral Parlour to Mullagh Church on Sunday night at 7.30pm. The funeral mass takes place on Monday morning at 11am.
Tuesday 13 January 2004
Note that Michael Sexton's ceili band will play for the Saturday night ceili at the Shindig weekend at the Earl of Desmond Hotel, Tralee, Co Kerry, 24 January 2004. Micheál Sexton will play in his father's place. This would have been Michael's tenth appearance at the the Shindig weekend and it was one of the few bookings he didn't cancel when he became ill. A memorial mass for Michael will be celebrated at 6pm in the hall with members of his family attending. The Shindig's organiser, Paddy Hanafin is dedicating the entire weekend to Michael - "a true gentleman [who] will be sadly missed by his many followers all over the world."
I'm planning a page or two in memory of Michael in the next Set Dancing News. Anyone is welcome to contribute an anecdote, tribute, poem or any piece in his honour.
The picturesque village of Labasheeda, set on a peninsula on the banks of the river Shannon twenty-two miles west of Ennis celebrated its ninth Dan Furey Weekend from Friday 5th September to Sunday 7th September. The sweet sounding name of Labasheeda originated when a sea captain sought shelter in the bay during a storm and was so impressed by its calmness that he likened it to a bed of silk, leaba síoda. With the passing of time the anglised version was given to the village.
The chairman of the Dan Furey Weekend, John Malone, in his opening remarks thanked the large gathering for attending. "This festival is a tribute to the memory of Dan Furey for his life's work and dedication in the promotion and preservation of traditional dance and music of the Labasheeda area. The committee have worked hard to give as much variety as possible to all who attend the festival. We have music, dancing, Gaelic games, swimming, fancy dress, and float parade, with a barbecue each evening. . . . On behalf of the committee I would like to welcome all visitors to the festival and hope they return home safely with everlasting memories of this weekend. I am privileged to hand you over to Kilmurray McMahon man, Brother Sean McNamara, who will officially open the festival. Sean was awarded Clareman of the Year this year for his tremendous contribution to the communities of County Clare, particularly our Gaelic games."
To my delight Brother Sean addressed the large gathering bilingually. "A cháirde Gael tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo anocht i Leaba Síoda. Friends of Dan Furey and James Keane it gives me great pleasure to be here tonight. Firstly míle buíochas to the festival chairman John Malone and all working with him on the organising committee. They deserve praise and support for keeping this cultural event alive, part of our rich heri-tage that we should never allow to die.
"Dan and James were privileged to be reared in an area steeped in traditional music, song and dance. Dan got a violin from his father when he was only six years old and Dan's sister taught him how to play. He was dancing the plain and reel sets before his first holy communion. Dances were frequently held at Keane's house from around 1920 to 1930 and at the Battery Point, Kilkerrin Cross, Spellissey's, Maloney's and many other venues too numerous to mention. For decades he travelled in his Morris Minor to many parts of County Clare teaching dancing. His name has become synonymous with dancing.
"His life long friend James Keane was about eight years younger than Dan. James played violin, concertina and melodeon but dancing was his favourite pastime. James revived the local Labasheeda and Paris sets and taught numerous people traditional step dances.
"Finally, tá súil agam go mbeidh deire seachtaine sona sásta agait anseo i Leaba Síoda, the home of set dancing. Without further delay I declare officially open the ninth annual festival in memory of Dan Furey and James Keane - so as Din Joe O'Mahony used to say, please take the floor. Míle buíochas to one and all."
Chairman John Malone then invited Michael Tubridy to play the Priest and his Boots as his wife Celine gracefully stepped out Dan's favourite dance.
The Emerald Céilí Band had their instruments set up earlier in the evening and by 10.30pm the newly varnished floor in Saint Kieran's Centre was packed with eager dancers for the first set of the night, the Connemara. The young energetic and brilliantly talented band set the tone for the weekend's dancing. Musicians and dancers joined together for a short break mid-way through the céilí for tea and delicious freshly-made sandwiches. The night was just a promise of what was to come.
Saturday morning John Fennel started his workshop with steps for sets. This young Clare man has become a legend in Clare battering and enthralled beginners and advanced students alike. John concluded his class by getting everyone on the floor to dance the old Caledonian Set in which all four couples dance together.
In the adjoining room called the Long Aisle, Celine Tubridy taught An Gabhairín Buí, a little step dance done over crossed sticks. Crosses of masking tape were stuck to the floor for the class. Michael Tubridy told me, "This step dance is danced to a slow polka. It is a version of a Scottish sailor dance. This was Dan's dance-he always danced this in the Battery. I am honoured and delighted to have the sticks that Dan used in my house. All the dances that Celine teaches came from Dan."
Celine's afternoon workshop included Single Time, a version of Maggie Pickens from Donegal danced in single jig time. Celine concluded her workshop with the Priest and his Boots.
The afternoon workshop in the main hall was hosted by Mike Mahony, another Clare man with magic feet. Mike began his workshop with the Kilfenora Set. The first time I saw Pat Murphy teach this set in Longford last year I predicted that it would be popular. Mike taught the set to beginners and experienced dancers, and with his guidance and expertise everyone felt at ease with this gem of a set. The Louisburg Set from County Mayo was the second set of the afternoon. This is a short set with three figures-jig, reel and polka. Mike Mahony has a special talent of imparting information, style and a sense of achievement in his workshops. I was privileged to be one of his pupils for the afternoon.
Throngs of dancers and visitors partook of the sumptuous barbecue. Everyone retired to freshen up and change for the céilí and the commemorative Mass, which was held as usual in the village church.
At 10pm Cork's own Abbey Céilí Band graced the stage and never sounded better. I learned later that Ger Murphy had recently found an old accordion belonging to his father and had it fixed up and was playing it on the Saturday night. Ger also relayed that the band had tuned all the instruments half a tone higher to heighten the ambience. The enjoyment was clearly visible on the dancers' faces as they danced through the night.
Sunday morning rain started to dampen the little village but nothing could dampen the spirits of the festival committee or the throngs of visitors. After 11am Mass the cortège began for the visit to the graves of Dan Furey and James Keane. The procession continued on to Kilkerrin Battery Castle where celebrations included set dancing, step dancing and waltzing. The Kilmurry musicians provided their usual magical music.
Last year the owner of the fortress, Barney Maloney RIP welcomed the visitors and described the history of the building. Afterwards he danced his usual waltz. This year once again Barney's niece and granddaughter, Noreen O'Sullivan and Deirdre Fitzpatrick gladdened the ears and hearts of the gathering with their beautiful melodious singing. In failing health for some time Barney bore his illness with great dignity and was out and about up to a few days before his death. In Ireland's Own magazine, Mae Leonard very appropriately described Barney as "King of Kilkerrin."
The village came alive as the colourful parade of fancy dress and floats arrived down the street. This small community had made a tremendous effort, with children in all sorts of regalia and the most imaginative floats I have seen for many a long day. The floats were in two categories under the headings, topical and cultural. The "Hospital Crisis" float was awarded first prize in the topical category, with a local drama group depicting an operating room scene with high hilarity. A "Kitchen of the Forties," complete with dresser, tin bath, washing lines and a half-set, scooped first prize in the cultural category.
The afternoon céilí and barbecue got underway around the same time. Dancers however decided to wait until the céilí finished before eating-no sense in wasting good dancing time especially with Longford's Glenside Céilí band on stage. Once more the beautiful Saint Kieran's Centre came alive to the sounds of music and dancing. Halfway through the céilí, Tom Flood announced that the band's very popular keyboard player Liz Adlum had just got engaged to Shane Ryan from Clonoulty, Co Tipperary - another romance to add to the growing list in céilí circles. The afternoon céilí concluded with the Plain Set.
Some visitors had to begin their journey home; others were lucky enough to remain for Michael Sexton and his band. Many were expecting a quieter ceili but it was every bit as lively as those which preceded it. The calibre of music and variety of tunes doled out by the four brilliant bands over the weekend would set your feet tapping and your heart soaring no matter what sets you danced.
This weekend was about more than dancing. Michael Tubridy gave lessons on the flute, Dympna O'Sullivan on the concertina and Joan O'Halloran on the fiddle. With swimming competitions in the Shannon, football matches and art exhibitions, everyone in the village and surrounding areas including visitors to the area were catered for.
In early July Labasheeda had a very special visitor. The President of Ireland Mary McAleese visited just before their successful village reunion celebration. Many emigrants returned home for the festivities. Committees compiled displays of old photographs and memorabilia. Locals danced their own Labasheeda Set to the delight of our President. The first lady loves set dancing and visits Donegal every summer to dance. On her own admission her husband hasn't got a step in his body. I am told that during her visit she said she should have married a Labasheeda man.
This west Clare village with its sweeping fields and spectacular views overlooking the estuary has a population of fewer than three hundred and fifty. Its people are proud and strong in their heritage. Anyone who visits Labasheeda at any time of year will attest to this but more so for the Dan Furey Festival each year. The hard working and dedicated committee believe in attention to detail. This is one festival that can be described as sheer perfection.
Joan Pollard Carew
Féile Fhearmui is an annual traditional music festival held every August in Fermoy, Co Cork, which took place this year from the 15th to the 17th of August. The town is beautifully situated on both sides of the River Blackwater. A stately stone-built bridge crosses the river and the streets rise steeply up the valley on either side. The main road to Dublin passes through so the place is always bustling, in contrast to the tranquillity of the riverside just a moment's walk away.
Féile Fhearmui's musical events took place in the pubs and pavements on the street, but dancers were fortunate to have the use of a hall located on a peaceful riverside location. The Fermoy Rowing Club's hall even has a balcony overlooking the river-some of the dancers spent as much time there as on the floor inside. There were three ceilis and a workshop here over the weekend.
The Clare music of Michael Sexton got dancers moving at the Friday night ceili. A programme of ten sets and a waltz was posted around the hall and the band followed it faithfully all night. It included some Cork favourites like the Sliabh Luachra, Ballyvourney Jig and Borlin Polka sets. The Kilfenora Set was popular here as it was danced at all three ceilis and taught in the workshop.
I always marvel at how remarkably sensitive a set of eight dancers is to even the most imperceptible slope in a floor. You could walk a floor a hundred times and never notice it wasn't perfectly level, but dance a figure of a set and if there's the slightest drop you'll find yourself well away from where you started. On the lovely timber floor in the Rowing Club dancers have a tendency to move toward the band, and we returned to our starting positions after each figure. Unusually, the sets at the back of the hall seemed to drift the opposite way, except at the far back corner where there wasn't any drift at all.
Bertie and Annie Moran from Schull conducted a workshop on Saturday morning. They taught the Black Valley Jig Set, and by popular demand, the Kilfenora Set. Instead of an afternoon workshop, dancers met in Kate O'Brien's pub for a lively session with a group of young musicians. There was music outside as more young players stationed themselves along the street for a busking competition.
When I arrived at the hall for the Saturday night ceili, I studied the list of the sets for the night only to discover that it was the same one as last night! Matt Cunningham followed it as faithfully as Michael Sexton did the night before, varying the programme to play for two solo dancers in the second half, Donncha O'Dwyer and Pat Gleeson. Sport was dominating the minds of the all Cork-onians this weekend, due to the Munster hurling final on Sunday with Cork versus Wexford. The numerous and loyal fans were clearly visible at the Saturday night ceili, thanks to the bright red and white Cork colours they wore. Cork's anti-cipated victory, as well as the great music, put the dancers in the best of spirits.
In previous years the Sunday ceili at Féile Fhearmui was held outdoors in the park and attracted a huge crowd. The high cost of insuring such an event brought the ceili indoors to the Rowing Club this year while the beautiful weather kept many people outdoors. The dedicated dancers who came for the joyful music of Tim Joe and Anne O'Riordan had a brilliant time. This time when I checked the posted list of sets, I was delighted to find that it had been changed. It had a few sets which had been missing, such as the Cashel, as well as some danced all weekend, like the Kilfenora. I danced every one with the greatest pleasure, just as I'd done for every set at this enjoyable weekend.
Our regular correspondent from New York reports on a few notable events of the summer.
The incredibly damp weather we had on the East coast in June (10+ inches over the usual average) certainly put the skids on nearly all of our area's annual festivals. Although none of them were cancelled, it did not appeal to most of the dancers-even the die hards-to trudge through ankle-deep mud and then spend hours under a dripping, soggy tent for an evening of dancing. Although, there were some who did just that! However, that meant that we had to make the most of the fewer opportunities we had.
On July 11th, the Mid-Summer Nights Swing series, held annually from June through August, held its Irish Night. Weekly concerts and dance lessons are held, open-air, on the plaza at Lincoln Center in New York City, and the Irish Night has been a part of the series for eleven years. It is quite an impressive venue, with grand opera house style buildings on three sides of the plaza, with their crystal chandeliers and their very formally-dressed patrons standing on every level of balcony during their intermissions to watch us!
The first event I attended there was in July, 1997, when the Kilfenora Ceili Band made its first trip to the US. My friend and I drove down from Hartford, Connecticut, to dance and drove home again that night, as we both had to work the next morning-early! I found it quite amazing that we were performing dances that were a hundred, or two, maybe even more years old to music that was even older, in a setting as glamorous and modern as any you might find anywhere. It was a magical night, just the first of many there.
The Irish Nights that have followed have been just as unique, and this year was no exception. The John Whelan Band played high-energy music for a very appreciative audience. John certainly knows how to put together a mix of traditional and more unconventional instruments for a great sound! The combination of musicians and instruments is a testament to his musicianship. There was a ten-minute torrential downpour that cut the dance lesson short and briefly delayed the start of the ceili while the dance floor was attended to. However, the high humidity was not conducive to drying, and small puddles remained scattered around the painted wooden floor. It seemed a little too slippery for me to chance it (my Mother calls me "Grace," and I own my own crutches).
So, at first, I decided to remain on the plaza, outside the dance area, with a number of friends. I soon realized that a set had formed behind us, and a woman was attempting to call it while she danced. Since she seemed somewhat unsure, my friends urged me to "go over and help them out." Which I did-to their great appreciation! When one of the women dropped out before the fourth figure of the Plain Set, I was pulled in to replace her. And then I had eight new friends! The woman who was first calling the set had just met the rest of them, too. The other seven are volunteers together in Brooklyn. Each has a dance background, but each has studied a different type of dance, and they teach each other. One, originally from Kansas City, had obviously studied Irish dancing and was quite talented, too. The others caught on quickly and were able to follow the terminology when the set was called.
My friends and I enjoyed talking to our new friends and realizing (again) what diverse people are attracted to our music and dance. I forgot all about going up onto the dance floor and enjoyed the rest of the evening out on the Plaza. And yes, at intermission, the patrons of the three grand houses lined every level of the balconies to watch us dance.
A ceili for a worthwhile causeOn Friday, July 25th, the St Brendan's Ceili Group held its monthly event. This ceili always donates the proceeds to a pre-determined charity or worthwhile cause. This month it was held in support of the young musicians who will be travelling to compete in Clonmel at the All-Ireland Fleadh in August. Last year more than ,000 was raised to offset some of the expenses incurred by the musicians and their families. Surely more than that was raised this year, judging by the turnout for the function. Eileen and Dorothy, who devote so much of their time to this ceili every month, and the other volunteers are to be credited with running a hugely successful event.
The music for the St Brendan's Ceili is always provided by the Green Gates leader Eileen Clune Goodman and band members John Kennedy, Pat Casey, Rose Conway Flanagan, Denis O'Driscoll and Brendan Fahey play consistently great traditional dance music. However, for this occasion, their considerable talents were augmented by further considerable talent: Felix Dolan and Linda Hickman on flutes, Eileen Ivers and John Reynolds on fiddles, John Nolan, John Whelan, Kevin Killeen and Annmarie Acosta on accordions, and assorted music students of various ages and sizes. Every time a different student sat down at the keyboard he or she was smaller than the one before!
This may sound blasphemous to some, but there are times when the music is too good to dance. Last Friday night was one of those times for me. The musicians were feeding off one another, almost daring one another to play with increasing energy and passion, and the music just took off to a higher plane with each turn of a tune. I sat and tried to absorb what was taking place. It was an incredible and tremendous blending of styles, of compromising individuality for the group, for the music, for the tune. And I marveled at the number of students who were able to keep up with the band.
That the students would even attempt to play at all with the number of well-known musicians present is a credit and a tribute to their teachers. Eileen Clune Goodman, Rose Conway Flanagan, John Kennedy, Kathy Linnane, Patty Furlong, Annmarie Acosta and John Nolan have devoted much time and energy, both as individuals and as partners, to sending students to the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh to qualify and now to the Fleadh Cheoil in Clonmel. If this ceili was any indication, the future of traditional music in the US is secure. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to each of the teachers.
Clare honour for JackJohn "Jack" Whelan, of Miltown Malbay and New York was honored on July 27th for his 25 years of service and commitment to the Clare Association of New York City. Quite fittingly, a ceili was held at (of all places) the Kerrymen's Hall in Yonkers, with nearly 100 of his "closest friends" in attendance. Music for the ceili was provided by the Green Gates Ceili Band, and the crowd enjoyed every minute of it.
Jack joined the Clare Association in 1978 and served as its President in the mid-1980s. His VP at the time, Margaret Shannon, was unable to attend the ceili, but sent her congratulations and warm wishes to Jack from North Carolina. Cathy Hogan, current President of the organization, presented Jack with a plaque. Jack, as always, began his greeting in Irish, and went on to thank his family and friends. More importantly, he gave us a brief "history lesson" of the Clare Association and urged each of us to support our own county organizations.
Jack grew up in Miltown in a home where music and dancing seemed to be always present. Theirs was the house where the musicians gathered. He started set dancing at about the age of 11. When there were only seven dancers for a set, Jack was recruited. His sister, Nora (Flanagan), taught him the basics. As he gained experience, he became quite a good dancer. Jack remembered the time when Nora needed a partner at a dance, and when she asked her brother he said, "I think I'll find my own partner!" He said that his family still teases him about it! Nora now resides at St Patrick's Home in the Bronx, where Jack visited her before the ceili, and they danced a bit of the Caledonian together.
Jack emigrated to New York City in 1955. Although there was great traditional music in the city at that time, there was no set dancing. He met, courted and married his wife, Mae, who was born in Kildysart, Co Clare, and raised in New York. Jack's time was devoted to his family. Their children became involved in both music and dancing, but none of them continued the music into adulthood. There were simply too many other alternatives, Jack said.
Jack joined Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in 1974 and, with Mae's help, has been one of the most active members in the New York area. When set dancing finally made a re-appearance here in the mid-1980s, Jack helped to organize the first sets danced at the Killoran-Clancy Branch of CCÉ. He has been going strong ever since! He doesn't mind telling you that he is 77 years 'young.' Last summer, while he was in Miltown during Willie Clancy Week, he danced a good bit. When he came off the dance floor, his 'old-time' friends asked, "What's wrong with you?" Jack said that he thought to himself, "What's wrong with you?!" Here's to another 77 years of dancing, Jack!
Maureen Donachie, Floral Park, New York
All through the day and night [during Irish Week at the August Heritage Center, Elkins, West Virginia, 20-25 July 2003], I heard lovely Irish music in my ears coming from great Irish musicians and from mighty good student musicians. But all I could hear when I put my tired feet to rest at night (actually, in the wee hours of the morning) was "Lift, two three, lift, two three." Oh, but did I have fun getting those tired feet!
Our fabulous teachers, Mick Mulkerrin and Mairéad Casey, taught us the following sets in our classes at Augusta Heritage Center's Irish Week: the Kilfenora Plain Set, Clare Lancers, Connemara Reel Set, Borlin Jenny Set, Williamstown Set, Fermanagh Set, Kildownet Half-set, and by special request, the Caledonian Set. We had classes for four and a half hours a day and then danced what we had learned each day at the ceilis at night. Pure fun, and some hard work too!
Since a lot of the people in our class were experienced dancers, Mick was able to show us some footwork for the dances as well as the sets themselves. Some in the class might be able to put that footwork to good use while dancing, but as for me, I've only had three weeks of set dancing in my life, am 65 years old, and have tired, worn-out feet from taking ballet lessons all my childhood and young adult years. I do well to "Lift two three, lift two three!" Once I tried to do a beautiful, little step that Mairéad does so gracefully and I nearly fell on my face.
We are so fortunate each year to have Marilyn Moore come from Maryland to help with our dance class. She is a set dance teacher "at home" in the Washington DC area, calling ceilis and leading workshops. She was teaching at the Milwaukee Irish Fest, Kansas City Irish Fest and the Philadelphia and Baltimore Irish Festivals. Last summer when I was a rank beginner, she danced with me a whole lot, patiently telling me "what came next," the correct holds, how to improve steps, etc. It was like having a private tutor. And she is so kind, quiet, and forgiving-even when "someone" steps on her foot or keeps on and on making the same mistake. Patience and kindness go a long way, believe me. And of course, Mick and Mairéad have these same qualities.
We had a special treat in our classes this summer-two delightful young ladies eleven and twelve years old. They were like a breath of fresh air! They even danced barefoot on the sprung wooden floors without getting a splinter or a foot stepped on the entire week. Though neither had set danced before, they were young and determined. They threw back their heads, smiled, and "set to" set dancing.
As for Americans attempting to Irish set dance, I can pass on a few tips that I observed at the Fleadh in Listowel in 2001 and from asking some Irish folks. We (Americans) should not clap to the music like we do in square dances. We should stand and watch quietly while waiting our turn. We should also remember that the Irish are the authentic set dancers. They don't "batter" loud and constantly like we tend to do; they know how and when to do that footwork. Also, if you ladies feel yourselves being jerked around or lifted off your feet while set dancing, know that you're dancing the American style, not the Irish. And please don't twirl 90 miles an hour while doing the little Christmas. Keep the squares small and the steps close to the floor. The Irish way of dancing is brilliant.
Here ends my epistle on set dancing!
Barbara Brice, Decatur, Georgia
Tipsy House, an Irish band from San Francisco, California, has recently released a CD with music for set dancing. One of the band's founding members, Jack Gilder, explains here how they came to start playing for dancers.
Our band, Tipsy House, would play at the Plough and Stars pub in San Francisco on the odd Thursday night. These folks would show up in a small group and would dance every now and then whenever we played a reel or jig. I didn't know they were from the local Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branch, and that they were coming from a regular Thursday night set dance class, but they were really nice and we wanted to play for their dancing.
It seemed we were always going too long or too short for the dances, and one night I asked one of them, Jim Belcher, if he wouldn't mind sending the bar counts to me. He seemed delighted to be asked and sent them right away. When I received them I sat down and tried to figure out which of our medleys fit into which figures, and ended up with quite a few to choose from. The next time we played on a Thursday night I asked the dancers to clear some tables out of the way because we were going to have a set dance.
That evening was a blast for the band and the dancers alike-we were playing our favorite medleys of tunes, and the dancers were completing their figures, and the craic was great! It took a little while for the bar staff to understand what had just happened, but when they did we ended up playing every Thursday night. The Plough and Stars was now a home for set dancing. This tradition is working on its third year.
The way this relates to the CD is that, even though the band Tipsy House never thought of itself as a 'set dance band,' the set dancers found the music to be quite danceable. They were impressed with the way the medleys fit into the figures perfectly for the most part, and that's what gave them the idea to approach us about making a recording of it. They raised the money and made the whole thing possible, and Tipsy House has its first CD. I'm not sure how it will compare to the genre of set dance recordings available today and whether or not it will 'cut the mustard,' but it does document what happened at the Plough and Stars with the local Comhaltas set dancers and Tipsy House.
The band who had been supporting the dancers before they stumbled onto Tipsy House, is the Shannon Céilí Band. They have been playing the first Thursday of each month for some time, but at a different pub. That pub became unfriendly to the dancing and had decided to discontinue it. Meanwhile, Tipsy House and the Comhaltas dancers had established set dancing every Thursday night at the Plough and Stars, (except the first one of course,) and the Shannon Céilí Band was invited to do the first Thursday night at the Plough too. The result being that now every Thursday night has set dancing at the Plough and Stars pub.
Jack Gilder, San Francisco, California
Tipsy House's Sets in the City has music for the Corofin, Plain and West Kerry sets. To get a copy see the band's web site, www.tipsyhouse.com.
The way to describe Ellie's style of set dancing was like watching a puppet on a string tapping out the steps to the Irish music that she loved so much. It is now two years since she passed away on the 10th September 2001, RIP.
Down the years, she was responsible for organising an annual ceili in the GAA Community Centre, Roundwood, Co Wicklow. During the months before the ceili she taught set dancing to many people. She travelled far and wide to set dancing sessions. While she was ill in St Vincent's Hospital she got permission from her doctor, Mr O'Donoghue, to leave her hospital bed to go set dancing and return late in to the night. Her last ceili was 27th July 2001. Since her death a committee of friends and family have organised a July ceili in her memory, for cancer research at St Vincent's Hospital. This year it was a wonderful night of set dancing to the great music of the Glenside Ceili Band. It raised €4,000. The committee are very grateful to everybody that contributed to making the night such a huge success. What tremendous support! Thanks to every one.
The day that Ellie's shoes stopped dancing was a very sad day for all of us, but her memory will live forever engraved within our hearts.
Maura Gaskin, Roundwood, Co Wicklow
Another Indian summer's day was just starting when I arrived in Karlsruhe by the Rhine early in the morning for a workshop weekend [20-21 September 2003] with Patrick O'Dea. A good number of German set dancers met in the hall and people from Switzerland and France as well. Most of us know each other quite well from workshops and ceilis everywhere. After a big hello, hugs and kisses with friends, Patrick O'Dea gave us a loud shout: "Everybody out and form your sets!"
There was no chance for any hesitating and sets were on the floor in a minute. A glorious day was starting outside and the big hall was filled with fresh air flowing in through the large open windows. We started off with the Armagh Set this morning, followed by the Ballagh Plain Half-set.
These sets were quite unknown to most of us. We danced every figure correctly, and a little demonstration set was necessary only for complicated parts. Patrick let us dance every figure two or three times and when we had done the last figure, we immediately danced the whole set through. After a short while, everybody was very well warmed up and by lunch break T-shirts were soaked and had to be changed.
We were a little bit late starting off in the afternoon because all of us enjoyed the wonderful warm day, having the chance for an open air dinner in one of the Karlsruhe beer gardens. A quick cup of coffee or tea-sponsored by the organizers, the Slaughterhouse Set Dancers of Karlsruhe-made us fit for learning the Shramore Set now. Patrick O'Dea kept us going all the time and any time he spotted a mistake, he immediately ordered a second go.
We all needed the break before the ceili started at about 9pm with music by An Tor, a very experienced Irish band from Frankfurt. As the evening went on, we danced the Clare Lancers, Cashel, Mazurka, Ballyvourney Jig and Plain sets and a selection of reels to finish. The band An Tor also played lovely waltzes, mazurkas and dances from France and Brittany.
Sunday morning Patrick taught us the Donegal and Hollymount sets. This day was even warmer than the day before; around midday it was 31 degrees and we had another chance for an outside lunch break. In the afternoon Patrick let us repeat the five sets we learned during the weekend-a great idea to help us remember them.
A sportive weekend was coming to an end and it was time to say goodbye. Most of us were making plans where to meet next for more dancing.
Many thanks to Patrick for two enjoyable days!
Andrea Forstner, Erlangen, Germany
Dancers who live around the Washington DC and Baltimore area can boast that there are several locations on almost any given day where they can double a hornpipe or batter a reel step to their heart's content. The newest location is in Frederick, Maryland, located just an hour's drive from either Washington or Baltimore. The Frederick Coffee Company has been host to weekly Irish set dancing since December 2002. The building was an old gas station renovated into a coffee shop and café. Navaho clay paint covers the walls and a hodgepodge of antique oak tables and chairs give the place a cozy atmosphere. There is an old wide planked wooden floor on which to dance.
For several years a core group of dancers have been dancing together informally in Frederick County, Maryland. They first met in the fall of 1999 with Yutaka Usui as their dance instructor. Long after the lessons ended the dancers continued to get together, dance informally in private homes and continue learning the many sets. When the desire to find a public place to dance was discussed, Cheryl O'Brien organized the details with Trueman Bronson, the proprietor of the Frederick Coffee Company. He wanted to see what kind of interest there was in this type of evening entertainment and set aside the month of December 2002 to see how dancing would do in his café. It has been a fabulous success ever since.
On any Tuesday evening there will be at least eight people ready to dance a set. Though the dance floor is cozy, there is room enough for at least two full sets. Quite often the tables and chairs are arranged and then rearranged to accommodate the ever expanding group. Dancers from the greater Washington and Baltimore areas join the regulars for dancing and a bit of craic. There are always the 'First Timers' who have never seen or heard of traditional Irish set dancing. These are unsuspecting customers who thought they were just dropping in for a quiet evening to enjoy a hot cappuccino and a slice of Mile High Chocolate Cake. Soon they find themselves joining a set and dancing the North Kerry or maybe even the Jenny Ling. Quite often a few of them return eagerly to learn more about Irish set dancing the following week.
On the first Tuesday of the month live music is supplied by the Common Ground Ceili Band. The band includes the multitalented Martin family along with several other gifted musicians. Jeanean Martin who organizes the band said, "We have been inspired by Irish enthusiast and banjo player extraordinaire, Betsy O'Malley. She and Jesse Winch helped us get started and helped us with our first ceili for the Blackthorn Ceili Dancers." All three of the Martin children have competed and won medals for their playing, and they are busy performing at festivals in the metropolitan area.
In Frederick, Maryland, there was a need for a public place to dance regularly. Also, a ceili band was looking locally for Irish set dancers to play for. 'Twas almost magical how everything worked out.
The dance session at the Frederick Coffee Company and Café, 100 North East Street, Frederick, Maryland, is from 7.30 to 9.30pm on Tuesday nights. Live music with Common Ground Ceili Band is on the first Tuesday of the month. Contact Susan Boon and Cheryl O'Brien.
Susan Boon, Middletown, Maryland
There was plenty of room to dance the first night of the Fleadh in Clonmelly. In fact we almost had a half acre to ourselves. Dugo was taking medication between sets as he had a very bad stomach. He's a guy who takes the tablets without reading the label. He's also a guy who takes off his dancing shoes without ever opening the laces. In other words he's always in a hurry. Rushing down to Tipperary we swerved taking a wrong turn and ended up in a farmyard. Suddenly lights shot on and four people charged out of the house. Two had brushes, one had a saucepan and the other had a frying pan.
"More hillbillies!" shouted Dugo.
"Let's get out of here right now," I said.
"Will we not ask them which way it is?"
"No, just get out of here, okay!"
The back wheels screeched around in the mud. We quickly rolled up the windows as the frying pan clangered down on the back bumper. "Get off our land! Get off our land!" they roared. The wheels finally took grip as we rocketed to the gate and just before we turned the corner a stone bounced off the roof.
"You and your fecking driving!" I said.
"You and your fecking directions!"
"A nice little unexpected diversion, don't you think?" I asked
"You're a bit of a hillbilly yourself aren't you?" said Dugo.
"I know I am. I just can't help it, I like being a hillbilly."
"Don't hillbillies give good directions?" he asked.
"Follow the telegraph poles okay!" I shouted.
"Are you threatening me?"
"I wouldn't threaten you. I know you're mental!"
Dugo is a very hard man to shock. In fact some dancers say that he is the most unshockable man at ceili. He is more used to people following him with pitch forks than with brushes, saucepans or a frying pan. Needless to say we make sure to leave our mobiles off when we are leaving our hairy home town of Ballygogooley.
The best dance of the Fleadh was on Saturday night in the hotel downtown where they had six accordions in the band along with flutes and fiddles. They nearly lifted the roof and when I was airborne I thought of Fliff who I had bumped into earlier on the street. She had been selling her colourful caps. She had also made a new friend at the Fleadh who plays a dodgy bodhran with a penknife. When I got back home I met her first cousin Floss.
"I met Fliff at the Fleadh and she asked me to say hello to you."
"Oh that's nice, how is she?" asked Floss
"She's great! But she's so very grand isn't she?" I replied
"Oh yea? Pity you're such a hillbilly!"
It's Thursday night, 8pm, at the Celtic Furrow, Ballintubber, Co Mayo, close to Ballintubber Abbey, well known to tourists. Chris Oates our dynamic lady dancing teacher from Taugheen is present, along with Jo the caretaker and Ann, both of whom are from the locality. There are lots of cups and food on the table.
First to arrive are the Japanese students, five girls and four boys. Their presence provides an exoticism in this rural scene. They giggle and laugh and jig-act about. Chris orders them onto the floor and they quickly respond-no hanging about here. They are so full of energy and so willing to learn the steps of Irish set dancing. For half an hour Chris teaches them the steps, timing, swings, holds and figures of the set they are learning. When the music is put on her efforts come to fruition and it is a delight to see them dance with Jo, Chris and Ann. What a great legacy of Irish culture to take with them back to Japan.
At around 9.30pm a tall Englishman arrives, bringing biscuits to have with the tea. It is good to see another non-native having such interest in Irish dancing. The indigenous Irish soon arrive, mostly from some distance away. There is, of course, a hardcore of local experienced dancers who provide the backbone and have a cohesive effect on all present. Very soon the sets are full, and all is in full swing. What fun we all have taking it in turn to dance with the students. They are so full of life, and some of us have a job to keep up with them.
Between two and three sets are gone through at each session. Each figure is meticulously taught-what patience Chris must have. By eleven o'clock we are glad to break for the tea. Most of us by now sweating terribly, proving how unfit we really are. With tea finished and cleared we again take to the floor and attempt, with some success, to dance the sets we have been taught, with the help of Chris calling the various moves.
As we move from spring to summer, the Irish Nights begin for the benefit of the many tourists that visit this part of the west of Ireland, who join in with gentle persuasion and dance the Connemara and Newport Sets. Singing by local people in Irish and English adds a tremendous atmosphere to the proceedings, as do the young musicians and dancers. We have visitors from all over the world, joining in with all the craic.
Great credit must go to Ann, Jo and Chris for their efforts as we look forward to the classes that start again in October.
John Handel, Ballintubber, Co Mayo
Dear Bill Lynch,
In July we went to the Labasheeda reunion and really enjoyed it a lot. My grandfather came from there, but I had only been there once before, in 1980. During our stay-July 11 through the 20th-we became very interested in set dancing and so we took several side trips thanks completely to the material you made available on your wonderful and helpful website.
It won't be 23 years until our next trip. While we were there in July several people in Labasheeda said that since we liked the Irish music and we wanted to learn set dancing we should come back over for the Dan Furey Weekend. At the time we thought maybe in 2004. After we got back to Florida we decided to go to the Dan Furey Weekend this year.
During the reunion week in July we tried to absorb all the set dancing and instruction we could because it is fun and because we didn't want to be beginners forever. During the reunion week we went to Willie Clancy Summer School classes at Miltown Malbay and to dancing at the Armada on Saturday during the day; to classes taught by Maggie Hutton at the Roslevyn Arms in Ennis on Monday night and at the Royal Spa Hotel in Lisdoonvarna on Tuesday night; to a great dance with Johnny Reidy Wednesday night at the Grand Hotel in Killarney; to another dance at the Abbey Hotel in Ballyvourney on Thursday night; and to an all-day workshop in Abbey Hall at Clarecastle on Saturday with Mike Mahoney (who we liked a lot and who is also doing a workshop at the Dan Furey weekend).
Obviously we would never have found out about those places on our own. Even after all that we still had to always be sides to have any hope of not breaking the set down. It must take years to know the figures well. We'll keep trying. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be any set dancing around Orlando, Florida, where we live. We will have to make our way down to Pompano Beach and Boca Raton some weekend (thanks again to your website).
Terry and Mary Burke, Winter Garden, Florida
A frantic dash
Enclosed is a picture taken at the Nevele weekend last spring showing some of the Glastonbury, Connecticut, set dancers plus some of the Four Courts Ceili Band members. As you can see we are all dressed up for the Saturday evening banquet. After the banquet there was a frantic dash back to the hotel rooms to change into dancing attire for the 9pm ceili with the Four Courts.
Your August-September Set Dancing News issue omitted the Connecticut heading and the USA heading.
John Droney, Glastonbury, Connecticut
Thanks for pointing out the mistake in the class listings in the last issue. A number of classes in Canada and the USA were accidentally omitted.
By the way, John is the brother of Chris Droney who plays concertina with the Four Courts.
So why not Florida?
This year eleven of us from the south Florida set dance group went to the Catskills for Irish Arts Week and as usual, we had a great time. You should see our youngest dancer, Brenna, do the sets with us. She's a whiz. Under the able instruction of Patrick O'Dea and Brendan and Glenda Brown we learned the Kilfenora, Valencia Right and Left, Skirdagh, Shramore and Hollymount sets. We also learned some fine points to perfect the Televara and Caragh Lake sets. A highlight of the week was when we were overwhelmed by the fantastic fiddling of Seamus Connolly, a Clare man who received a wild standing ovation at one of the evening concerts.
Enclosed is a really exciting bit of news that we'd like to share. For months we've been talking about developing our own set. Counties and towns in Ireland have them as well as Paris and Valencia so why not Florida? After all we do dance twice a week year round and although they're not all memorized we do about fifty sets now.
Well, while we were in the Catskills for Irish Arts Week our wonder boy, Anthony Belotto, and friend Jeanne Hakala put their heads together and in one day wrote the Florida Forward and Back Set. When Anthony returned home he perfected it and selected the jigs that would fit each figure. It works! We've done it! The fun aspect of the Florida Forward and Back Set is that many of the moves are unique. We've never done anything like it before and we hope that somewhere in Ireland, or the world, set dancers will try it and enjoy it as we do.
Happy dancing. All the best.
Carol Hieronymus, Pompano Beach, Florida
A comment overheard
For the attention of Bill Lynch
The Dundrum Arts and Cultural Festival as part of its full and varied programme held its annual set dance workshop in Airfield House with Betty McCoy doing the honours. There was also a céilí and set night with Ann O'Donnell and Kevin Cosgrave as fear an tí and excellent music provided by Tom Flood and the Glenside Céilí Band. A highlight on both occasions was the attendance of visiting dance group Reusegom from Leuven, Belgium. A comment overheard from the Belgian group after dancing the Cadhp an Chúil Aird (High Cauled Cap) was, "this is training in the form of dancing."
The photo shows Maurice Nagle and Katrien van Slambrouk enjoying the music of the Glenside Ceili Band.
Best regards to you,
Christine and Kevin Cosgrave, Ballinteer, Dublin 16
Thanks to friends
If you would not mind, I would like to thank all my friends on the set dancing scene for their sympathy in the recent death of my father in March. There were so many Mass cards, phone calls, and people who attended the funeral and met me at ceilis afterward that it is impossible for me to reply to them all.
Áine Barrett, Enfield, Co Meath
Shy or egotistical the old fashioned traditional dance class students and former students at Tigh Ghearóid's in Óran Mór, Co Galway, are expected to get out on the floor and show that they can actually do a few steps next Monday night the 10th of November. A regular feature of the Monday night dance classes for the last year has been to conclude each dance course with a live music night and invite in all who would like to do a few steps themselves to get out on the floor. This particular "graduation night" is the conclusion of an eight week hornpipe class so it would be expected that many fine demonstrations of finesse and intricacy in this particular rhythm should be seen, but the night is more of an Oíche Airneán. Not only would jigs, reels and hornpipes be expected, but the odd Stack of Barley, Haymakers, Old Time Waltz and the like are usually thrown in as well. Any man, woman or child capable of putting voice to song would not be denied either. The party atmosphere runs during the regular class times of 8 to 10pm so it's an early night. Be there early!
On the following Monday night, 17th November, a new traditional dance class will begin focusing on the close to the floor Connemara style of dancing to the Connachtman's Rambles tune, a popular traditional jig. This jig class will run until the end of January.
Risteárd Mac Aodha
Hundreds of dancers converged on the little town of Miltown Malbay on the coast of Clare in the first week of July looking for the best dancing of the year. Our expectations were very high, thanks to the brilliant dancing experienced last year and in previous years. Fortunately we were not disappointed as the ceilis and workshops at this year's Willie Clancy Summer School and Armada International Week of Set Dancing exceeded every expectation for enjoyment.
If you've never been to Miltown, it might be hard to imagine the pleasure of big crowds, difficult parking, traffic gridlock and scarce accommodation, but believe me, it's worth it. The ordinary little town of Miltown Malbay, located a couple of miles from the Atlantic Coast, is transformed into a bustling metropolis for a week. The main attraction is the Willie Clancy Summer School which offers six days of music and dance classes to hundreds of students. Many more people come just to enjoy the music in the pubs and in daily concerts. Probably even more dancers come to Miltown for the week than musicians, and for most of them the only place to dance is the Armada Hotel beside the sea in Spanish Point, which is like a suburb of Miltown. The Armada's week of dancing is not part of the Willie Clancy Summer School, which offers its own ceilis in a hall converted from a disused factory in town called the Mill Theatre.
I can only speculate about why the dancing is so special here, but the real magic of Miltown is in the people. They travel from every corner of Ireland and the world purely for the joy of dancing, free from the usual distractions of life. Nations mix on the dance floor as they do nowhere else, as warm and genuine friends. They have a remarkable relationship with the musicians in the band. Dancers express their pleasure in spontaneous shouts and cheers during the figures, and when the music stops an emotional ovation often rises from the floor and overwhelms the musicians. The bands love this and get a thrill of delight when a tune change brings forth a roar from the crowd. This happens at other ceilis the rest of the year, of course, but never as freely and strongly as at the Armada.
The opening ceili at the Armada on Friday night, the fourth of July, gave only a hint of what was to come. It felt quiet, with around a dozen sets of locals and visitors renewing friendships and dancing to the Four Courts. People kept coming into the hall all night long and every new face brought a greeting from someone on the floor. Near the end of the evening Dermot Halpin took the microphone for a few good natured words welcoming everyone. He's the fear an tí (mc) for the week but usually stays in the background to let the band and dancers run the ceilis.
Michael Sexton's two ceilis on Saturday at the Armada gave us exactly what we'd come here for. Afternoons in the Armada are always special for the lighter crowd, beautiful sea views, relaxed atmosphere and thrilling dancing. It might seem repetitious to dance at a second ceili with the same band in the same hall, but those two ceilis were as different as night and day. That night the music poured out of Michael Sexton and his band as I've never heard it before, blazing with passion and pure excitement, and the sets filling the floor roared their approval all night long. Michael himself loved every minute of it and was beaming with delight at the reaction to his music. It was just the second night of Miltown and already my week was made!
On Sunday afternoon the Abbey Ceili Band continued with their own special music which generated more cheers from the dancers. Fiddler Andrew O'Connell brought a special visitor along, his lovely toddler daughter. She loved the ceilis, dancing with her mother or sometimes sitting on her dad's lap while he played.
The biggest crowd of the first weekend showed up on Sunday night for the Glenside Ceili Band and another highly charged ceili. The Glenside has a strong rapport with their dancers, who get exactly what they want and plenty of it. The band didn't take a break during the evening, and didn't wait long between figures, so they packed in a lot of dancing. The only delay was in filling the last couple of gaps in the sets, usually ladies requiring gents, plus a brief break when the solo dancers were urged out for a step. Patrick Gleeson, Sinéad Bray and Bronach O'Neill were the only brave souls to venture out on a bit of floor surrounded by a solid wall of spectators.
The late dancing on Sunday night made it hard for those starting the summer school classes at 10am on Monday morning, but sleep is not the top priority at Miltown. Nine classes were on offer, most with a strong emphasis on steps. There were three levels of traditional step dancing taught by Celine Tubridy, Patrick O'Dea and Margaret Wray, a large class in sean nós dancing expertly handled by Mick Mulkerrin and Mairéad Casey, and Aidan Vaughan taught a mixture of Clare battering steps and sets. There were four set dancing classes - one for complete beginners with Paddy Neylon and Geraldine Connolly, and three suitable for improving dancers taught by Mary Clancy, members of Brooks Academy and Larry Lynch.
I decided on Larry's class to do some different sets, dance to live music and escape the crowds. His sets are truly different as nearly all of them are variations of the sets commonly danced in ceilis and taught elsewhere. He teaches only the sets he researched himself on his travels in Ireland in the eighties. His sources were the old people who still remembered how they danced decades before and now Larry takes great care to pass the sets on exactly as they were described to him. He stresses the style of the old dancers and encourages everyone to dance that way.
The best advantage of the class was the live music by cheerful Timmy O'Connor from Cork on box, who plays here every year. Larry began with the Victora Set and spent most of two classes on it, continuing with the Clare Orange and Green after that. He teaches with plenty of repetition and very little calling, so everyone had to think, remember and help each other out. With all the dancing we raised phenomenal amounts of dust on the small floor in the Spanish Point Golf Club, more in one class than you'd ever see in a whole week of ceilis! Larry requires attendance from the start of the week and refused to let a couple from another class join us on the second day, even though we were short a couple for our third set.
When Paddy Hanafin from Tralee was suddenly unable to come to Miltown to teach his class in the smaller hall at the Armada, local teacher Mary Clancy stepped in to keep everyone dancing. She taught standard sets like the Ballyvourney Jig and new ones like the Kilfenora to a group with mixed experience and ages. Actually the Kilfenora is becoming something of a standard as it was done at half of the ceilis in Miltown. Last year this class was so crowded that dancers took turns to get onto the floor; this year there were just enough that everyone could dance at once.
Paddy Neylon and Geraldine Connolly educated eight sets on the basics of set dancing in the Armada's main hall. During a break, Paddy was asked to dance a sean nós step and gave a brilliant show as always. Then there was a surprise visit from Joe and Siobhán O'Donovan from Cork who taught the first dancing classes at the summer school in 1982. They visited each class to encourage dancers to perform on stage at the dance recital the next evening. Paddy and Geraldine rehearsed a figure of the Caledonian with their volunteers, and Mary Clancy had enough for a set of adults and a set of children dancing the Ballyvourney Jig.
The sean nós dancing class was also rehearsing for the recital after class on Thursday morning. Mick Mulkerrin and Jimmy Noctor provided music while around twenty practised steps for the performance. Attendance at the class continues strong, and Mick and Mairéad Casey had new steps to show this year.
The Brooks Academy class had an unusual interruption on Wednesday. The circuit court was in town, sitting in a room beside the hall where the class is held. This apparently happened in previous years without any problem, but this year a new judge was unable to proceed and asked the gardai to silence the music. The class took an extended break and when it appeared they wouldn't be able to continue, everyone went to join Mick and Mairéad's class up the road.
Two ceili bands made their first appearances at the Armada this week. Johnny Reidy's superb Kerry music is well known to dancers in Killarney, and his popularity is spreading after three successful ceilis during the week. The first of these was in the Mill Theatre on Monday afternoon where the band played last year. Even though the Mill is fitted with a sound system, Johnny brought along his own equipment which sounded great. Afternoons in the Mill can be quiet but Johnny attracted around a dozen sets plus some spectators. The music was delightful and was cheered by everyone several times.
Johnny's debut in the Armada on Wednesday afternoon was a surprise revelation to the dancers. Normally it might take a while for dancers to warm up to a new band. As soon as the band began the first figure of the first set we knew this was something special. When the first figure finished there was an immediate and long-lasting ovation from the floor with applause, cheers and stomping. Johnny Reidy was an instant success with the dancers. One delighted dancer described them as "a breath of fresh air" and another fellow asked why I hadn't told him about them before this!
Some people were worried that Johnny would only play Kerry sets, but as I saw in Kenmare a few weeks earlier, he plays a standard selection of sets with the Sliabh Luachra and Ballyvourney Jig the only ones from around Kerry. The polkas and slides may be fast, but that's the right speed for dancing sets in Kerry; the speed of his reels and other music is perfectly appropriate for the standard sets.
The ovations continued all afternoon and afterward I heard Johnny had numerous enquiries about bookings and was asked back to the Armada next year. When he played again on Friday night in the Armada's small hall the place was packed.
Mort Kelleher was the second band playing their first ceili in Miltown. Mort, his wife and five kids are already well-known to set dancers thanks to regular ceili appearances at home and abroad. They have a smooth, polished Cork sound which is as lively as any of the bands from that part of the country. They too had a good reception and provided an afternoon of great dancing. A couple of the sons, Kenneth and Colin, were highlighted when each of them played one figure on the box accompanied by Mort on piano while the others rested. Both showed themselves to be powerful players. Mort's wife Noreen took a break from the fiddle to sing a waltz and before each of the last two sets she promised to speed up the music for us. By the time the last set ended everyone was on a high and it was past 6.30pm; the previous afternoons all finished by 6.
The Tulla Ceili Band once again proved themselves to be the favourites at the Mill Theatre, filling the floor on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Caledonian Set lovers were in luck as they played it five times over the two nights. For some variety I made a request on Thursday night for the South Galway Set, a set they often play, and to my surprise my wish was immediately granted. There were a couple of waltzes each night with rousing old favourites sung by J J Conway, the band's spokesman and flute player, and everyone was inspired to sing along as we danced.
The Cashel Set was back again on both nights thanks to Aidan Vaughan, who took over the drumming from Michael Flanagan. Myself and three friends now have an established tradition to dance this set together on the Thursday with as much vigour as we can muster. Before the set we discussed how we'd be unlikely to recreate the same excitement of our very first Tulla Cashel Set two years earlier and since we weren't quite as youthful as we were back then we'd permit ourselves to take it easy for our third annual one. When the music started any such thoughts completely vanished and we seemed to expend more energy dancing this set than we did dancing both of the previous ones! The excitement proved to be contagious as the following Corofin Set was danced in a similar style.
Playing along with the eight regular members was Martin Hayes, who still sways as he plays and brings a special touch to the already special sound of the band. On Thursday night he performed a beautiful and lengthy selection of tunes backed on piano by Jim Corry. Listeners in the hall gave their undivided attention and were equally entranced by Martin's encore.
The Kilfenora Ceili Band both opened and closed the week of ceilis in the Mill Theatre and appeared on Monday night in the Armada. They do a nice Cashel Set played at a healthy speed which the full house in the Armada was enjoying that night. When the third figure stopped short, the most almighty roar erupted from the floor - there was never anything like it heard before! It was a humbling experience but the band quickly continued with the next figure. There was no such problem at their ceili in the Mill on Saturday night, as there was no Cashel and any unusual sets, such as the Labasheeda, were called by Eileen O'Doherty.
Eileen also called a few old favourites at the ceili with the Emerald Ceili Band in the Mill on Friday night. Their stunning music brought new life to the Clare Orange and Green, Caragh Lake Jig and Paris sets and would wake up any other neglected sets. Eileen had to put the brakes on for the polka figure in the Orange and Green - she asked the band restart at a slightly slower pace. The Emerald were missed at the Armada this year, and several dancers were on their first visit to the Mill to see them at back to back ceilis on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. They featured a new musician, Matthew Ward on button accordion, replacing Ronan Warnock who is studying for his final year at university. The music was as beautiful as always. They take great care with their sound so went to the trouble to set up their own equipment in the Mill.
There were fewer ceilis this year because the summer school no longer had the use of the Quilty Tavern. I was interested to see that the Bellbridge Hotel in Spanish Point scheduled three ceilis during the week, all with music by Michael Sexton in a newly refurbished hall. The first of these was on Sunday night when hardly a set was in attendance. I thought they'd get a bigger crowd on Thursday night after I heard advertisements on local radio, but at short notice it was cancelled because of a double booking with Larry Lynch's Clare sets ceili for the summer school. I'd say there's probably room for more ceilis in Miltown as long as the dancers are informed of them.
The week's weather was the usual mixed bag which makes up every Irish summer. There was rain and high humidity in the first half of the week so we sweaty gents had to change shirts often. The second half was drier and more comfortable for dancing, especially those days when gale force winds came in from the Atlantic at the Armada. With all the windows and doors open (and guarded by staff) the breezier parts of the hall were quite comfortable for dancing, though there were occasions when we were reminded of the hotel septic system outside. The Mill's ventilation was supplied through just two doors, but with a high ceiling it was usually comfortable. It was cool enough during the final ceili with the Kilfenora Ceili Band that the doors were closed.
For those who haven't been to Miltown before, what's keeping you from joining us next year? I have a few tips for newcomers.
It's recommended you line up your accommodation well in advance, especially if you want to stay in Miltown or Spanish Point. However, I heard stories of people getting rooms at the last minute, so it can be done, especially in the nearby, attractive resort town of Lahinch. Access from there to the Armada and Mill is easy, taking twenty minutes by car. Wherever you go, try to stay by the coast; if you're on the wrong side of Miltown you might get stuck in gridlock trying to pass through town, especially at the Square where the Ennis, Mullagh and Spanish Point roads meet.
Parking can be atrocious, especially around Miltown and the Armada during the second weekend when cars line the roads for a mile in every direction. The solution? Come early and you'll always get a place near the hall. Use the time to have a meal, drink and chat. The Armada has a handy all-day carvery; from the Mill it's a five minute walk to the pubs and restaurants on Miltown's main street.
If you don't like crowds, try the afternoons in the Armada, for the same electric atmosphere without the full floor. Or go to the Mill, where even at their busiest, the ceilis are relaxed, airy and spacious. The second weekend at the Armada is extremely popular and not for the claustrophobic.
There's a huge amount of dancing in the week, but you can make your own pace. It's hard to take a class and two ceilis totalling ten hours every day. Don't try to do it all. Take a class and just one ceili and use your spare time to swim, sightsee, listen to music, socialise or just relax.
For anyone worrying they might not be good enough to dance in Miltown - you must be joking! Dancers of every ability are here. There's practically no calling so some familiarity with the standard sets is recommended. Bring crib sheets if necessary, or just dance sides and have a word with the tops before each figure. The summer school classes are perfect for beginning and improving dancers, and you'll gain more confidence at every ceili.
Don't be afraid you won't know anyone. If you're already a regular dancer you'll probably be pleasantly surprised at how many familiar faces there are. Ceilis and especially classes are a great place to meet people. I'd encourage ladies to ask gents for a dance.
You can't beat the dancing in Miltown, so be there yourself next year!
Patrick O'Dea is a young teacher with a strong reputation and following in Britain, America and Europe who spends most of the year giving workshops in places where other set and step teachers never reach. His workshops in Ireland are usually limited to the Willie Clancy Summer School, but when his schedule brought him home to Roscommon for a weekend in June, his sister Karen Feerick took advantage of this to organise an afternoon workshop and a ceili for charity.
June 14th turned out to be one of the finest days of the Irish summer, unusually warm and sunny. Dancers were slow to arrive at the Kilbride Community Centre in Four-Mile-House, Co Roscommon, but Patrick began the dancing as soon as a couple of sets were in place. He began with the Skibbereen Set, teaching informally with a quick run-through of the figures and helping us practice the more complicated moves, without the need for a demonstration. He has a powerful vocal presence and only took advantage of a microphone when music was playing. There was no misinterpreting his instructions - piercing calls, such as "Eeeeey-everybody house!" eliminated any doubt and reluctance in even the slowest dancers about what to do next. His manner was engaging and easygoing. Patrick kept his eye on everyone and made sure each person was able to dance the figures, giving extra help where needed.
Soon there were four and a half sets enjoying the Skibbereen, practicing each figure at least twice. The fourth figure is a gallop to slides which Patrick said would be danced through once or twice depending on the music and custom - when we tried it he didn't stop the music until we had repeated it four times to some long slides intended for the Ballyvourney Jig. After the last figure we danced the whole set again before continuing with the Ballagh Half-set from Co Tipperary. When that one was done we were already close to the scheduled finishing time, but Patrick insisted on dancing through the Kilfenora Set. We were having such a good time we were glad to delay our departure for another set. And of course we couldn't leave without seeing Patrick dance a step.
The Kilbride Community Centre is a well-equipped facility with two halls. We were dancing in a small, intimate room with a stage and bar, and beside it there was a huge sports hall which could probably accommodate fifty sets with ease. The smaller hall was perfect for the dozen or so sets dancing at the ceili that night with the Woodlands Ceili Band on stage. The large hall was split in half - the top section provided overflow seating and extra dancing space, and the other half was probably the most spacious room ever used to serve tea at a ceili.
We thought we were doing well when six sets filled the floor for the first set, and folks kept coming in all night, with twice that many dancing the Connemara and more watching from their seats and standing by the bar. Patrick was on hand at the ceili to call a couple of the workshop sets and dance another step, this time with his sister Karen. All the proceeds of the day were being donated to Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Dublin so the strong support was especially welcome. The big and generous raffle offered one prize that everyone in the room was trying to win - a mobile phone! In the end, a total of €2,345 was raised, an impressive amount for a day of dancing. Karen has good reason to organise fundraising for the children's hospital - her young son Daniel had successful open heart surgery there a year and a half ago.
It was memorable day of dancing, thanks to the beautiful music of the Woodlands Ceili Band and the excellent workshop with Patrick O'Dea. Now based in Four-Mile-House, Patrick was born and raised in London, where he started learning step dancing at an early age. His mother Mary has long been a keen set dancer and once brought young Patrick along while she attended a London workshop with Joe and Siobhán O'Donovan. There was a gap in a set that day, nine-year-old Patrick was persuaded to dance and he took to it like a duck to water. In his teens he was teaching classes in London and Miltown Malbay and today in his twenties has the confidence of an old master. He was studying psychology at university in London when he decided to take a year off to travel the world teaching dancing, and he's been at it full time ever since. While his departure from psychology is undoubtedly a great loss to that profession, the benefit to dancers around the world surely makes up for it. Perhaps if everyone was dancing sets, we'd all be so contented that psychologists wouldn't have anyone left to treat!
A small group of perhaps sixty people gathered together at Tí Gearóid's in Oranmore, Co Galway, on June 10th for the first ever Three Sea Captains Convention. Joe O'Donovan, who had travelled up from Cork not only danced his set piece, but actually "told the story" of the Three Sea Captains with his feet. This party-piece of folk tradition was something that he had inherited from his own father and was reminiscent of other great folk artists such as the piper, Séamus Ennis, and the Donegal fiddler, Johnny Doherty, both of whom often rendered a story line to a particular tune.
As Joe danced each phrase or figure in his set, he narrated the description of the ships in the sea battle of Navarino in 1827 for which the tune, the Three Sea Captains, had been composed. For example, as he executed a tidy heel-toe sidestep to the right, he described the ships lining up in formation for battle, as was the prescribed order of the day during the age of sail for "ships of the line". He then "came about" and returned the formation to the left, "ready to engage battle". With a double-batter, a precise cut, and a flourishing stomp, which he executed in succession on each foot, the audience was able to imagine and visualise the battle as he described the cannon fire from opposing fleets. Ní bheith an leithéad ann aríst! Joe O'Donovan is truly the master of the dance tradition and his knowledge and experience is unsurpassed. He is also a great showman!
Joe explained how the music for this set has been slowed down over the last sixty years to accommodate the "ballet-like" movements and excessive trebling of the Coimisiún Rince Gaelacha style of feis dancing. His point was further dramatised in performance on the dance floor as Máire Áine Ní Iarnáin's hard-shoe, intricate, tipping, battering and toe-stand style of competitive feis dancing sharply contrasted to the flat-footed, heel-oriented performance of Risteárd MacAodha dancing to the same tune. Both dancers received warm applause for their respective performances, but whereas Risteárd danced at normal jig time the Three Sea Captains had to be slowed to a snail's pace for the feis style of dancing. Describing himself as a pure traditionalist, Joe praised both dancers, but described the normal jig speed as being more "authentic".
All of the learners from the recent seven-week Three Sea Captain's dance class performed their step and set piece together as a group, but the evening was not limited to this one dance. Eddie Beatty from Inis Mór danced his close-to-the-floor, sean-nós reel steps with style to Miss McLeod's and he was followed by Máire Áine Ní Iarnáin of Leitir Caladh, Leitir Móir. Gearóid Mulrooney, the owner of Tí Ghearóid, who is a great supporter of céilí and set dancing, performed the brush dance to great applause. These individual performances were interspersed with two-hand dances, céilí dances and old-time waltzes, a factor which facilitated involving the wallflowers, the visiting tourist and those recalcitrant husbands into actually getting off their seats and onto the dance floor. One of these featured interludes included a short class on the Donegal Schottische in which Joe O'Donovan steered the dancers through the movements. Plans are currently being laid for future traditional solo dances classes to resume in late September.
Máirtín Ó Brosnacháin, Barna, Galway
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, 75, 76, 77, 78—2012, 79—2012-2013, 80, 81, 82, 83—2013, 84—2013-2014 (Index).
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