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).
Your editor celebrated the holiday season in the USA and attended several Christmas and New Year's ceilis in the New York and Washington areas. You can share the festive experience in the following reports.
Small but perfectly formed
Three hours after landing at Baltimore airport on December 18th I found myself with a couple of friends entering the hall at the Frost Center in Rockville, Maryland, where a Christmas ceili had just started with the Plain Set. Friendly greetings came from the two sets already on the floor and we quickly formed a set with a few other late arrivals. The atmosphere was relaxed and festive, with lively music by a trio on guitar, flute and fiddle. A huge spread of food was laid out on tables beside the dancers who took samples between figures and sets, and in the break after the second set, the Mazurka, everyone crowded for champagne punch and the other goodies.
I thought it seemed rather soon to have a break after the second set, but my friends explained, "That's why they call it a mini-ceili." After the break we danced the Cashel and Ballyvourney Jig to finish up promptly at 10pm-four sets, two waltzes and plenty of grub in a two-hour mini-ceili.
An abundance of sticksThe Blackthorn Ceili has been running monthly for thirty years in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. Recently they've had to move venues and on December 19th were in a remarkable venue in Washington Grove, near Gaithersburg. We followed directions to get there and thought we might be lost when we found ourselves on some dark residential streets full of mature trees. Suddenly we saw the hall shining like a jewel, with a generous number of tall sash windows revealing well-lit dancers in full flight inside. McCathran Hall is a cosy, ten-sided room with a fine timber floor and panelled walls and ceiling. The musicians in the band towered over the dance floor on a high stage, or rather a pulpit, as the building was once a church.
Originally Blackthorn events were exclusively ceili dancing, though sets have been creeping into the repertoire and tonight's ceili included four. The set of the day was the Newport, which was taught by Marilyn Moore in a workshop before the ceili and danced later. The ceili was split in three by two breaks which gave plenty of opportunity for chatting, taking tea and sampling the Christmas goodies. The sets and eight-hand ceili dances were called by Marilyn and the other ceili dances by Erin Lynch.
Santa Claus appeared during the first break. The only child in the hall (apart from three in the band) burst into tears as soon as he appeared and didn't regain her composure until after he was safely out of sight. Five from one family-two daughters, a son and their parents-play together in the Common Ground Ceili Band, along with two friends. The mix of instruments included fiddles, banjo, piano, flute, bodhran and a hammered dulcimer, my first time dancing to this instrument, which adds a jangling quality to the music.
A door prize of an Irish blackthorn stick was awarded by a raffle in the second break. One stick has been given away at every one of these ceilis, so there must be more blackthorn sticks in this area than anywhere outside Ireland. The winner used to give or receive a kiss depending on whether it was a man or woman, but this custom is no longer in practice. It's great to see the dancing at this ceili still going strong after thirty years.
Pay attention to the red list
Philadelphia's Irish Center is in a beautiful old suburb of spacious stone-built houses under towering trees. The center has been in this substantial and historic building in the beautiful Mt Airy section of the city for close to fifty years. The large hall has a spacious sprung timber floor. Their Christmas ceili was on Saturday December 20.
On my arrival I had a friendly greeting from John Sheilds, who taught a workshop before the ceili began. Two couples of beginners were there early and John showed them the Gay Gordons and the standard old-time waltz, which brought me out on the floor too. After more dancers had arrived, he continued with the Mazurka Set and by the time we finished that, the musicians were ready to go with the ceili.
There was a red sheet of paper on the tables with the night's programme of dances, both ceili and sets, starting with the Gay Gordons. No one announced the dance-the music started and people just got up and danced. There was no MC or caller all night, so the dancers automatically assembled themselves for every dance, carefully following the red list of dances. People made bookings in advance for specific dances and even wrote them on the list. I was caught by surprise by this and missed a couple of sets until I started making advance bookings myself.
The music came from four superb players, two fiddles, flute and guitar, later joined by another fiddle and a mandolin. They weren't used to playing for dancers so didn't know the correct pace of the dances. They were capable of playing at any speed and quickly adjusted the tempo according to our instructions. By the second half they were spot-on and the dancing was beautiful.
Food was available all night, with coffee, tea, salads and Christmas goodies. The musicians took a long break when tickets for a fifty-fifty raffle were sold-the sole prize was half of the proceeds and the lucky winner walked away with a fistful of cash. The ceili continued late and by the end many of the dancers had drifted away, but those of us dancing at the end would have happily continued all night!
The mystery set revealedMy last ceili before Christmas was the monthly Sunday afternoon ceili on December 21st in Bogota (pronounced like 'pagoda'), New Jersey, which is run by the local branch of Comhaltas. It's just across the Hudson River from New York City, but the modest streets of Bogota seem very far from the Big Apple. The Veterans' Hall is a non-descript building down by the railway tracks. When I saw kids and adults walking in with fiddles and accordions, I knew I'd found the right place.
Inside a session was underway before the ceili and the early dancers gave me a warm greeting. The hall was bright and spacious, with a patch of parquet flooring in the centre. When the session finished, John Sindt held a workshop on the West Kerry Set with six sets participating.
The musicians on stage were led by Mike Rafferty and included two flutes, two fiddles, a box and a bodhran. They warmed up with a march and dancers got up to do the Gay Gordons. The printed programme showed the North Kerry as the first set but this was switched to the West Kerry following our earlier workshop. Everyone was keen to dance every set, some called, some not. I was amazed to see everyone out for the Borlin Jenny Set from west Cork which was danced without any calling. Some of the sets struggled with the moves but they stuck with it and were dancing well by the end.
There was the usual Christmas feast of cake and cookies I saw at every ceili and during the break everyone drained the large urns of coffee and hot water. At all the ceilis I attended teabags were supplied to make your own tea. Long strips from a big roll of tickets were sold for the fifty-fifty raffle, but this time the prize was distributed among three winners. One winner told me she was delighted to have won back the cost of her two admissions to the ceili at per person.
All evening I was curious about the 'Mystery Set' shown in the second half of the ceili programme and everyone came out to enjoy the Derradda Set.
When I got out of the car in West Nyack, New York, about twenty miles north of New York City, I found myself in an old residential area with a rural feel and the unexpected fresh air of a forest. I attended a ceili in a hall attached to the Fire House there on December 28th-fortunately it was a fire-free afternoon so the dancing wasn't disturbed by sirens.
The Cashel Set was in progress when I arrived and the dancers had already opened all the doors to keep cool. The beautiful music reaching my ears brought me straight back to Ireland and on entering I was pleased to see a hall that was actually crowded with dancers. Friendly greetings came to me from all around the floor.
Frank and Denise Holt called some of the sets, and these were conveniently marked by an asterisk in the programme posted on the walls. I started dancing with a waltz and noticed that the bands here usually play only one round so we quickly resumed set dancing, whereas in Ireland we usually get two, sometimes three, waltzes back-to-back. The first half ended with a Corofin Set and a particularly energetic and enjoyable High-Cauled Cap.
The break included an abundance of food and urns that were always full. I waited a long while for the queue to clear and still found plenty to eat. In the second half I was looking forward to the Aubane and Kilfenora sets. The Aubane is quite a rarity, even in west Cork. I'd heard stories that the Kilfenora Set wasn't being danced correctly in the States, but I can report that my own set, plus the ones I could see around me, danced it as we do in Ireland.
The five musicians led by Patty Furlong on box made such good music that the dancers were moved to cheer them spontaneously. Frank Holt also acknowledged and named them often so they were well appreciated by all.
The only regret is that there wasn't enough time to do every set listed in the programme. The Ballyvourney Jig was dropped and the evening finished with a rake of reels. Most sets opted for the Plain, but I also spotted the Paris and Borlin Jenny sets. My own set chose the Connemara which was danced with the greatest of gusto.
Millennium on 238th Street
On New Year's Eve the country was on orange alert, and I should have been too, but I was looking forward to tonight's Millennium Ceili so much that nothing daunted me. I sailed across the George Washington Bridge and right into Manhattan to meet a friend accompanying me this evening-my first time driving into New York City. Driving was easy but parking was another matter entirely! Then on our way to the Bronx we followed the 'scenic' route, and despite having a local as navigator and dead straight streets to follow, we still managed to find ourselves heading downtown a couple of times when we were intending to go uptown.
Gaelic Park is an Irish club at 238th Street just off Broadway in the Bronx, a quiet street with easy parking. The door was unlocked and unguarded so we just walked in and found a gathering of around a hundred enjoying the last of their dinner. A large selection of hot food was still available from the buffet so that was our first task of the evening.
We'd barely sat down when the music started. Pete Kelly and his ceili band looked like no other ceili band I've seen in Ireland. They were dressed in tuxedos, just like Guy Lombardo used to when his band welcomed in the New Year on TV in my childhood. Pete himself stood up all night while playing the fiddle, to emphasise the special occasion. I found the music irresistible, especially the reels which rumbled with beautiful rhythm and feeling.
The first set was the Caledonian, and this was the time that someone planted doubt in my mind about the convenient parking outside-the parking meters would be checked until 9pm, which I found hard to believe. After the set there was a scramble around the hall for quarters so I could go feed the meter and avoid a parking fine. I stopped worrying after that and enjoyed the dancing. The sets alternated with waltzes, jives and quick-steps, so there was dancing to suit everyone and a relaxed atmosphere to enhance the conversation. There was a special treat when a couple of waltzes were sung by Pat Carr, the fellow who organised the event. I wasn't the only one to be delighted to dance the Kilfenora Set. My partner hadn't done it before, but she picked it up quickly-"It's plainer than the Plain Set," she said.
When it was time for the desserts the music stopped and everyone crowded around half-a-dozen tables of goodies. Pat Carr told us he raided three different bakeries for the incredible selection-Irish, French and Jewish-so again all tastes were covered.
A cha-cha-cha was danced in the second half, though I was rather more comfortable when they called the Lancers. After more ballroom dances and a North Kerry Set it was getting close to midnight. The band played the Gay Gordons which stopped when Pete Kelly counted down to midnight. 2004 was greeted with everyone singing Auld Lang Syne and kisses and handshakes all around. Following another round of ballroom dances there was just time to finish with a rake of reels. Pete Kelly had to finish precisely at 12.30am so the hall could be cleared. We managed to dance three or four non-stop figures of the Plain Set to complete a very good night.
Pat Carr has held a Millennium Ceili every New Years Eve since 1999. A special set dancing gift is given to all participants-this year it was a handy embroidered towel useful for soaking up excess perspiration. I was impressed to see visitors travelling from Philadelphia, Connecticut and even Maine for the unique festivities, as well as the many friendly New Yorkers whom I knew from their frequent trips to Ireland. The night ended beautifully as I found my car exactly as I'd left it and quickly made my way back to Manhattan and then out of the city.
The writing on the wallPreston Clark is a builder with such a keen interest in music and set dancing that he's built his own dance hall. It sits on top of the garage beside his house and has room for four sets and a full band of musicians. He and his wife Diane hold weekly classes and ceilis twice a year. Their home is set in a forest in a rustic corner of Maryland about an hour south of Washington DC. St Mary's County is a quiet cul-de-sac almost completely surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River. Despite the remote location there was a full house on Sunday, January 3rd.
Dancing began with the Mazurka Set as soon as there was a quorum of both musicians and dancers. There was no caller on duty, but anyone unsure of the moves of a set could refer to a huge pad of paper posted on the wall with full notes for most of the evening's sets. The new page was turned at each figure and many dancers studied it carefully before each figure and kept glancing at it during the figures. Toward the end of the night we danced the Corofin Plain Set, which wasn't included in the pad, and everyone managed it with great fun.
The musicians were nearly unstoppable and agreed to every request for a dance. Danny Flynn was the box player in charge, and he was joined by about half a dozen of his colleagues. Danny told me they work at a nearby naval base and have a session during every lunch hour. There were a couple of fiddles and guitars, a flute and a tall, narrow drum, all of which sounded great together. I noticed they checked the speed of the music by using a tiny electronic metronome, and Danny regularly referred to his pocket computer to look up tunes.
There was a fine spread of food on offer, with dishes made and brought by nearly every dancer. There was nibbling all night long, and more concentrated eating when the musicians took a break. We started dancing about 5pm and it was after ten o'clock when the last set finished, so there was enough dancing to satisfy even me. Afterward, Preston proudly gave a tour of the garage below, which housed some of his work in progress, including a 1939 truck. Set dancing turns up in the most amazing places and attracts the most remarkable people!
Longford in the heart of the midlands is tucked away amid beautiful bog lands and impressive lakes, one of Ireland's smallest counties with a population of just 30,000. Its people are proud of their heritage and steeped in tradition. Longford poet Oliver Goldsmith penned The Deserted Village. On the weekend 21st to 23rd of November the town of Longford was definitely not deserted. Hundreds of dancers thronged to enjoy yet another fantastic festival of set dancing hosted by the Sean-Óg Set Dancers.
Anticipation mounted on Friday evening as I greeted friends from all over Ireland, England and Luxemburg. Once more my accommodation was in the Longford Arms Hotel. This family-run hotel is vibrant, relaxing and dates back to the 1790s.
The weekend began at 7pm with Roisín Ní Mhainnín's sean nós workshop. I counted fifty eager students. Roisín explained every tap, step and move and demonstrated with ease. What a treat to watch this young talented dancer so confident and with an expression of sheer joy, willing to pass on her Connemara-style dancing. Soon everyone seemed comfortable with it. Some had difficulty when Roisín put on music but most succeeded to some degree.
Roisín is from Ros Muc, Connemara, in Co Galway and has been teaching sean nós dancing since she was fifteen years old. I was privileged to speak briefly to Roisín who said she was delighted to be invited to Longford to give this workshop. "I'm largely self taught although I'd be greatly influenced by older sean nós dancers, especially Cóilín Sheáin Dharach. This wonderful man passed away about three years ago. We have a full cultural weekend in the Connemara gaeltacht at the end of January each year in his honour which includes an all day jig workshop."
I asked Roisín about the origin of Connemara-style sean nós dancing. She said there are many speculative notions, but photographer Bob Quinn believes that this style of dancing could have African influence, although in the Galway region it is more likely a Spanish influence from the Spanish Armada.
The first céilí of the weekend got underway at 10pm sharp with Swallow's Tail on stage. What a night to remember as this talented band kept us on our feet all night long! Gerard Butler was master of ceremonies and the night passed all too quickly. During the night Gerard requested a minute's silence for Clooney, Co Clare, dancer Margaret Brohan who died tragically in an automobile accident in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Margaret was another brilliant sean nós dancer. Just 19 years old, she had a whole life and career ahead of her. She spent last summer as a resident dancer at the Glór Centre in Ennis. Margaret's talents were noticed by Rhythm of the Dance, a show produced by the National Dance Company of Ireland, and she was invited to join the show for a tour of the USA.
Saturday morning at 10.30am Pat Murphy started his set dancing workshop. Pat began with the Cloghane Set, a little treasure of a Kerry polka set also known as the Brandon Set. John Chambers from Camp near Tralee recently revived this set. The second set was the Longford Set. Pat got everyone in a circle and demonstrated the step. A bit tricky but anyone who can do the Roscommon Lancers or Cavan Reel steps will find this easy as they are similar in style. Pat called the Louisburgh Set to conclude the morning workshop. After the class many dancers were still practising the Longford step instead of having lunch, so eager were they to learn this beautiful step.
Saturday afternoon history was made when Pat Murphy asked dancers what sets they would like to dance, from the following list-Roscommon Lancers, Keadue Lancers, Armagh Set, Fermanagh Set and Kilfenora Set. The majority voted for the Kilfenora Set. I was surprised as I thought everyone was by now familiar with this little gem from Co Clare. The workshop continued with the Ballyduff Set from Co Waterford. Pat recorded it when it was danced in May 2003 at the Connie Ryan Gathering in Clonoulty, Co Tipperary, by four adults and four children from Ballyduff, including their teacher Tom Hyland. It is an exuberant polka set similar to the Sliabh gCua, which is another Waterford Set. The last set of the afternoon was the Keadue Lancers, an old Roscommon set. Polka steps are danced in it apart from a batter in the fourth figure and the jazzing around which is in every figure except the third figure. With only five figures it's a pity that this fun set is not danced more at ceilis.
Mass at 5.30pm was in memory of Margaret Brohan. The ballroom became a place of spiritual offering for the occasion.
With two venues for Saturday night's dancing, dancers were spoilt for choice-the Longford Arms with Cork's own Abbey Céilí Band and across the street the Annelly Hotel with the magic of Mayo's Heather Breeze, both ceilis starting at 10pm. Choices had to be made and I choose to dance in the Annelly to Heather Breeze. Things were a bit slow to start there but the mighty Mayo men started playing and within minutes six sets graced the floor for the Connemara set. More dancers arrived and we ended up with between twelve and fifteen sets at a time on the floor. Excitement grew with the crowd and the music. The Annelly has a beautiful old maple floor and the night ended all too soon. Back at the Longford Arms Hotel numbers were large and some said there were as many as fifty sets at one time on the floor. Dancers at both ceilis were ecstatic with the music and dancing and thought having two venues a brilliant idea.
Sunday morning Peter Hanrahan gave a Clare battering steps workshop. Again numbers attending were high-I counted forty dancers in the earlier part of the morning. Peter gave this workshop last year for the first time at this festival. This brilliant young dancer is in demand to give workshops regularly.
Sunday afternoon's ceili got underway at 2.30pm with The Abbey Céilí Band on stage again. Space was tight as once again the floor hosted in excess of fifty sets. The afternoon was electric as the Cork band kept us all dancing. Midway through the afternoon we had a display of sean nós dancing. This has become a feature of these festivals in recent times. It is encouraging to see so many young people getting out and dancing. Sometimes at festivals of this magnitude one may not notice the large numbers of young people in a crowded hall. Longford and the surrounding area seem to spawn brilliant young dancers.
Sunday night and the closing ceili of the festival was in the Annelly Hotel. The Davey Céilí Band gave us music to bring home in our hearts. What a wonderful night, even if space was a bit tight at times. We danced our first Borlin of the weekend and also the Kilfenora Set-all the usual sets were danced including Tipperary's own Cashel Set. John Davey played our national anthem and the festival closed for another year.
The consensus was that this was another mega weekend in Longford. I spoke with Mary Butler and a group from Luxemburg. Mary told me this was her first time at this festival. "Pat Murphy visited us for a workshop and I asked him if he could recommend festivals in Ireland. Longford was one of the weekends he recommended. This festival has more than lived up to my expectations." Numbers were definitely up on last year. Gabrielle Cassidy, Gerard Butler and their new committee again attained the same high standards we have come to expect at this festival in the midland town of Longford in the bosom of Ireland.
Numbers were definitely up on last year. Gabrielle Cassidy, Gerard Butler and their new committee again attained the same high standards we have come to expect at this festival in the midland town of Longford in the bosom of Ireland.
Joan Pollard Carew, Thurles, Co Tipperary
It's Friday night, November 28th 2003, and as darkness descends outside, the lights go up inside the Sylvan Suite of the Westport Woods Hotel on the Louisburgh coast road. The stage is set for the annual set dancing workshop weekend organised by the local branch of CCÉ.
It's the seventeenth anniversary of the first workshop hosted in Westport Town Hall. Set dancing was only in its infancy here as the first classes were held in 1986. This event was conducted by two acknowledged set dancing experts, Joe and Siobhán O'Donovan. At the ceili on the Saturday night we were delighted to see ten sets on the floor.
Well, back to tonight and committee members are busy organising door personnel, raffle tickets, etc. The ladies in the supper room are busy getting cakes and goodies ready for a tea break later. The patrons are arriving now, checking in and being shown their rooms for the weekend. They come by coaches from Belfast, Omagh and Dublin (Séamus Ó Méalóid's set dancing class), by car from all over Ireland, and some from overseas. From the band on stage for the night, Swallow's Tail Ceili Band, comes an invitation to take your partners for the Newport Set. From there on the floor is packed with dancers until 1.30am with a short break for tea and a raffle.
Bright and early Saturday morning the 29th began the workshop proper. The Glencorrib, Paris, Kilfenora, Ballyduff, Louisburgh Sets and more were explained, practised and perfected under the excellent supervision of Mr Pat Murphy, who conducted the workshop to seventeen sets of enthusiastic pupils, a record attendance. A lunch break ran from 1 to 2pm, and all were back again until 5pm.
Saturday night's ceili exceeded our wildest expectations with upwards of 25 sets on the floor and standing room only on the perimeter area. Many sets taught during the day were danced plus many more to the excellent consistent music of the maestro himself, Pat Friel and Heather Breeze Ceili Band. Sunday morning saw further tuition. The afternoon ceili was a sight to behold, packed ballroom with dancers on their feet non-stop, until the man from Headford, Matt Cunningham, and his band called the last set at 5.45pm.
Sunday 6pm, the coaches are ticking over on the forecourt, car engines purring, farewells all 'round, as people from all over Ireland and overseas leave for home tired but happy and looking forward to next year. The local people with enough energy left, dance more sets, sing, and storytell until the wee small hours at Matt Molloy's pub.
From the time the first set was called on Friday night until the last tune was played on Sunday night the atmosphere was electric, people enjoying every minute of it. So here's to next year, it's an event to cherish!
To the management and staff of the Westport Woods Hotel, for their courtesy and help, our own committee for their trojan work and all those who helped in many ways to make the weekend an outstanding success we say, "Thank you very much!"
Jim Staunton, Secretary, CCÉ Westport Branch
For over twelve years a group of dancers from the Washington DC area has gathered with friends in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a weekend of dancing and friendship. What began years ago as an opportunity to share newly learned set dances continues as an annual event; but as our dance skills developed in both Pittsburgh and Washington the focus is now much more on maintaining the personal relationships we've formed.
The gathering on Friday evening at Sally Folan's house afforded our first opportunity of the weekend to dance, but it was primarily a chance for the travelers to relax and get reacquainted with our host dancers from the Irish Centre, Ceili Club and CCÉ chapter in Pittsburgh.
Things got more serious at the workshop, which always starts at 10am Saturday morning. Jim Keenan is our usual instructor for four hours of set dance instruction. This year Jim taught the Kilfenora Plain Set because it's been so popular at other workshops. He also taught the Fermanagh Set, which the Washington dancers first learned from Catherine Evans ten years ago. Three sets of dancers progressed through the figures, some swapping places with a few extra dancers. Most felt they had mastered these two sets by the time the workshop was over. The Pittsburgh dancers also provided refreshments during the workshop and assisted us with directions to the local brew pubs that have become a part of this weekend. A favorite is the Church Brew Works, housed in a 100 year old former Catholic Church.
After this break to relax and recharge, we returned to the Irish Centre ready for some great music and dancing at the ceili. Onstage was a great collection of musicians known locally as the Session Musicians providing a wonderful mix of tunes for dancing and with Jim doing the calling we all made it through the workshop sets. The ceili ran from around 9 to past 11:30, and included a good assortment of both ceili and set dances.
The Irish Centre is a spacious hall with a large wooden floor and a huge stage to accommodate the musicians. It's a nice facility and was being remodeled to enhance the layout even more. Besides the music and dancing, the admission price includes snacks, desserts, beer and sodas. By the end of the ceili, we were already starting to plan 2004. If you're in the Pittsburgh area next year, mark your calendar for the first weekend in November.
Paul O'Donnell, Silver Spring, Maryland
The first annual Squeal Amach took place in Limerick on Sunday, 16 November 2003, as part of Sionna, the Irish World Music Centre's annual festival of world music and dance. The title reflects the celebratory nature of the event and is a play on the Irish expression scaoil amach, meaning 'to release.' Squeal Amach was created when Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin joined forces with Limerick actor and playwright Mike Finn after he premiered in 2002 Pig Town, a play based on Limerick's pork producing heritage. From the play they created a street theatre spectacular that will never be forgotten!
The performance began outside City Hall with an ominous and foreboding procession, the butcher's march, which made its way through the streets of Limerick. Over fifty evil-looking and bloodstained butchers led by Mel Mercier beat out a menacing rhythm on a variety of percussion instruments, most notably bodhráns and bones, and interrogated onlookers as to the whereabouts of the 'pesky pigs'. The butchers were accompanied by a smoke-belching ispín (sausage) machine, a dark and terrifying contraption, designed and built by Michael McLoughlin, with moving blades under a sign that said, "Place pigs here" and spit out giant sausages. At the same time the pigs, led by Elvis Pigley, began their Pig's Polka procession, which was in stark contrast to that of the butchers. These pigs, having quite a zest for life, danced their way along their own route until they had the misfortune of meeting the butchers, who herded them into the City Centre Car Park, which occupies the former site of O'Mara's Bacon Factory.
The Rí na Búistéri (the king of the butchers), played by Mike Finn himself, addressed the pigs through limericks, announced their fate and offered them one last squeal. The pigs responded by pleading for their lives with The Squeal of Destiny, an angelically beautiful song composed by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and commissioned by Limerick City Council Arts Office. The pigs and Luciano Pigaroitti's (Derek Maloney's) Pig Song melted the hearts of the butchers. They threw down their wield saws, cleavers and knives, and the Rí na Búistéri announces to let the pigs "Squeal Amach into the street!"
The crowd of 300 plus erupted in cheers, Elvis Pigley came forward to thank the butchers for "savin' their hides," and the Car Park Céilí began! The Rince Fada was the first dance of the céilí, which I had the pleasure of calling. There is historical significance to this dance commencing the céilí, because in the mid-1800s Limerick Pork Butchers often marched through the streets to the strains of The Limerick Butcher's March in an event that culminated in a Rince Fada. During the céilí, Irish comedian Jon Kenny made an appearance as Johnny Sausage.
The actors for Squeal Amach were provided by the Umbrella Project, a Limerick-based street theatre company under the direction of Jim Woodlock. The group is involved with the St Patrick's Day parade in Dublin and other street theatre events in Galway and Cork. The Limerick Arts Office gave financial support for the event.
Squeal Amach was a great success in its first year and is only going to get bigger and better as an annual Limerick event. The Car Park Céilí is an integral part of the event, so céilí-goers beware! In fact, the local Conradh na Gaeilge branch has decided to offer a four-week dancing class prior to Squeal Amach, so that the public will have the opportunity to learn the dances for the céilí.
Catherine Sherer, Jackson, Mississippi
Set dancers don't ask for much. Just give us a floor and driving music and we'll dance anywhere: cramped kitchens, dusty church halls, crowded pubs. So imagine the delight of trading up to a 900-year old castle.
Back in mid-November, close to 75 Irish dance and music fans from Germany, Belgium and Switzerland converged on Burg (castle) Blankenheim for a weekend of workshops, céilithe, sessions, and good company. Tucked away in the Eifel Mountain region of Germany, an hour south of Aachen, this imposing castle overlooks the charming medieval town of the same name. Once home to the gentry, today's Burg Blankenheim is a comfortable and well-equipped hostel and meeting centre.
The impressive Rittersaal (knight's hall) was given over to the set and traditional step dance workshops. Here Dublin's Jim Monaghan ably led the set dance workshops and céilithe. With his trademark charm and good humour, Jim guided dancers of all levels through the intricacies of the Killyon and Mayo Lancers sets on Saturday and woke everyone up with the Borlin Polka on Sunday morning.
Traditional step dancers enjoyed the ever-able and patient tutoring of popular return visitors, Celine and Michael Tubridy. Over the course of the weekend, participants worked to perfect the Priest and His Boots and the Easy Reel, while making a respectable start on the Hornpipe.
Modern step dance made its debut in Blankenheim with Irish native and German resident Siobhan Kennedy leading well-attended classes. Music workshops rounded out the weekend, featuring Michael Tubridy (flute), Liam Purcell (accordion) and Jens Kommnik (tin whistle).
Prior to the Saturday night ceili, everyone-dancers, teachers, musicians, and friends-gathered in the Rittersaal for an informal session. Special thanks to traditional and modern step dancer Ingrid Wiesmer and her dancers for a delightful performance and to Jim Monaghan for his ever-popular 'Elvis' routine. You're the one, Jim!
Of course, kudos to Kasia Jankowska and Michael Benden, the power couple behind the Blankenheim workshops. While they make it look so easy, organizing these kinds of events takes time, energy, and commitment. Their passion for promoting Irish traditional culture in Germany is sincerely appreciated by all of us.
Elizabeth MacDonald, Tuddern, Germany
Club Rince Aonach Urmhumhan celebrated the New Year in style at the annual set dance weekend in the Abbey Court Hotel, Nenagh, from the 9th to 11th January 2004. Crowds were significantly up on previous years and the return to our January slot after staging the three previous annual events in November was an inspired move. From 1991 to 2000 all the weekend workshops were held in January and it was decided to change to November mainly because of the uncertainty of the weather in January. While the events were successful, the consensus among our regular supporters was that the January date was preferable.
The gathering on Friday night surpassed all expectations and visitors were delighted with local musician Tom McCarthy, who provided the music for the opening event. The three-hour céilí was a fitting start to a great weekend. Michael Loughnane was in great form for calling the sets and keeping an eye on those of us who are prone to the odd lapse of concentration even when we are dancing sets that we should be capable of doing in our sleep. Over the years, Michael has made a point of ensuring that as far as is practicable no set is repeated at the weekend. This ensures that we get through at least 25 sets over the course of the weekend céilithe. We also danced some of the new sets learned at the workshops on Saturday and Sunday morning at the céilithe.
The main day of the weekend was in full swing by 10.30 on Saturday morning. Pat Murphy had a group of eight dancers centre stage to demonstrate the Borlin Jenny Reel Set. This lovely set from the Borlin Valley in Co Cork is danced to gentle reel steps except for the square which is danced to a lively skip reel step. The set proved to be very popular with visitors and locals alike and will undoubtedly feature at many céilithe in the years ahead. Pat Murphy taught three other sets during the course of the day. The Cloghane-Brandon Set has its origins in the Castlegregory area of Co Kerry. This set is danced to polkas with the exception of the fifth figure when it is danced to a hornpipe. The Ballyduff Set originates in west Waterford and is danced to very lively polka steps in contrast to the more sedate steps for the Cloghane Set.
By way of a change of pace, Pat introduced dancers to the Old Country Waltz, which is a very popular dance in parts of Scotland and one that I danced a few years ago while on a trip to the Shetland Islands. The Armagh Set was the final dance taught at the workshop on Saturday afternoon. This set is being revived after a number of years. It was very popular in the mid-nineties.
Throughout the day the organising committee had their own version of 'reeling in the years' when video footage from set dance weekends from 1992, 1994 and 1995 were on view in the ballroom. There was a huge interest in the videos and there was a big demand for copies. Father Anthony McMahon celebrated Mass in the ballroom for the people who had gathered for the weekend of dancing after the workshop on Saturday evening.
Saturday night's céilí got under way at 9pm with the wonderful Mort Kelleher's Céilí Band from Co Cork. We enjoyed four hours of great music and dancing. We were treated to a performance of the Priest and His Boots by John Creed from Dungarvan during the break as dancers enjoyed the traditional cupán tae. Michael Loughnane was fear an tí for the night and for all the céilithe at the weekend and Pat Murphy called the new sets we learned at the workshops at the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon céilithe.
The final day of the weekend kicked off at a leisurely pace with the Glencorrib Set from Co Mayo. This set has six figures danced to jigs and polkas. It was the ideal set for Sunday morning after the long day of dancing on Saturday. Pat Murphy finished the workshop with a real treat. He introduced us to the Souris Set which he learned from Helen Conboy and friends when he was on a trip to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in 1998. The set is danced to jigs and reels in a smooth slidey style and a hug hold like the Connemara Jig Set and was the ideal way to end the workshop.
The Glenside Céilí Band arrived soon after one o'clock and was set up long before the 2.30pm start time. Band members had the opportunity to see themselves on the 1995 workshop video when they played for a capacity crowd in the Friary Castle Ballroom in Martyrs Road, Nenagh.
This year was no different as they once again played to a full house in the ballroom in the Abbey Court Hotel. The huge crowd received full value for their money as the band got through nine sets during an afternoon that will live long in the memory of all of us who were present. The céilí ended soon after six but people seemed reluctant to leave and it was closer to seven before the last few stragglers left for home.
This was indeed a truly memorable weekend and our thanks to all who helped to make it such a resounding success. We have already set our sights on next year and the annual event will be on the first full weekend of the New Year.
Connie Ryan would have been well pleased with this year's set dance weekend in Malahide, 16-17 January 2004. Organised by his five loyal friends, Betty McCoy, Michael and Celine Tubridy, John and Anne Grant, this was the eighth fund raising event held in his memory with all the proceeds going to cancer care. It is a tribute to this committed team that the weekend goes from strength to strength each year, attracting new young dancers yet bringing back old friends. All the events take part in the Grand Hotel and this year the staff was exceptional with their help in constructing a perfect floor for dancing, ensuring that jugs of water were on hand and serving food and drink.
The weekend kicked off on Friday night with Aidan Vaughan's class-steps for sets. There were over 150 people studiously watching Aidan with envy, awe and frustration as they attempted to master his style. Forming a circle, the class advanced and retired and then brought their new found expertise into the Caledonian set. It was a lively class.
At 9.30pm the Slievenamon group of musicians assembled and played for over three hours at what is described as an informal dancing session. This group was first formed in 1987 for Connie Ryan's first trip to America. Michael Tubridy found himself appointed musical director then and subsequently has had the task thrust upon him ever since. The composition of musicians has fluctuated over time but the music has had Michael's gentle style of playing stamped on it-flowing, rhythmic and typical of his native Co Clare. It was a joy to dance to.
The next morning Pat Murphy was at the helm to teach two sets. Pat sets himself the challenge of teaching sets that don't usually go outside their townland or parish. He fears that if they are not taught they will go out of existence. This weekend he taught two polka sets, one from Co Waterford, the Ballyduff Set and the other from Co Kerry, the Cloghane (Brandon) Set. Pat's teaching style is clear and concise, giving just enough information that dancers will remember.
Mid-morning the tempo changed with Mick Mulkerrin and Mairéad Casey doing their sean nós workshop. I have attended their workshop a couple of times and it never disappoints. They are both beautiful dancers and have devised an excellent routine to impart their steps. Mairéad's numerous pairs of shoes, particularly her winkle-pickers on Saturday night, were a great talking point over the weekend.
The Glenside Ceili Band took over for Saturday afternoon and I think I counted forty sets at one stage. They played brilliantly.
It has become customary to have a Mass in memory of Connie at 6pm on the Saturday evening. Friends and Connie's family gather to share thoughts of him and this year there was an added sadness as prayers were said for the late Michael Sexton.
But the weekend was planned to continue, so fed, showered and rested, the crowd returned that night for more dancing. In the bar over ten musicians gathered to play and Betty McCoy and Paddy Neylon, Mick Mulkerrin and Mairéad Casey danced a lively half-set. It was hard to tear yourself away from such entertainment. But the Brian Ború Ceili Band was scheduled to play and there was a curiosity about them particularly from the visitors from abroad as they had never played for this weekend before. They began the night with the Caledonian set and dedicated it to Michael Sexton whose band had been scheduled to play for this slot. They then took off and played in their own lively and exuberant style. When caller Eileen Doherty asked the crowd to respond to the great music, they clapped and stamped and demanded more. It was a great night of music and dancing.
Sunday saw Celine Tubridy teach St Patrick's Day. Celine learnt her dances from Dan Furey and James Keane, old dancing masters from the Labasheeda area of Co Clare, and this unique style has almost disappeared from dance teachers' repertoires Her class is very special. She breaks down the dance in short phrases, demonstrates each phrase, and eventually pieces the whole dance together. Her class attracts dancers from abroad and indeed Celine has travelled to Japan to teach. This year I met a young woman, called Flora, from Turin in Italy who has learnt many dances from Celine. There is a strange irony that Celine's best pupils are mostly from abroad.
The tempo changed when Séamus Ó Méalóid took over to teach the final set of the weekend. Seamus tends to specialize in sets from the west of the country and this, the Claddagh Set, came from Connemara. It had four figures, all jigs, and the third figure seemed complicated until Seamus broke it down and made it more manageable. It is a very attractive set and it would be great if it could gain popularity.
The weekend was beginning to wind down but the final ceili was yet to come. Matt Cunningham and his band began to play and three more wonderful hours of set dancing ensued.
I met dancers from all over Ireland, England, America, France, Germany and Italy who were tired and happy at six o'clock on Sunday. It was a great weekend. The floor was perfect and the music is still ringing in my ears. Betty, Michael, Celine, John and Anne have already started planning next year's event. It is a mammoth undertaking, but they are driven along by the spirit of Connie who no doubt is keeping a watchful eye from his set dance heaven. Long may it continue.
Deirdre Morrissey, Bray, Co Wicklow
Chicago-land turned up the heat January 16th through 18th for their Third Annual Set Dance and Music Weekend. The barometer indicated a cold spell, but thanks to a hearty westerly warm front direct from Ireland, which carried with it Co Cork musicians Tim Joe and Anne O'Riordan and Co Roscommon's set dance teacher extraordinaire Gerard Butler, the temperature soon began to rise. This westerly front was met by a whirlwind of Chicago's finest musicians including Pat Finnegan, Kevin Rice, Gerald Joyce and the unmistakable Broken Pledge Ceili Band with Sean and Clodagh Ryan and friends. Just when you thought the forecast had cleared, in from New York came a jet stream, in the form of master fiddler, Brian Conway.
Set dancers, being the enthusiasts they are and explorers of 'the next great ceili', must have predicted this storm. In addition to the large Chicago attendance, dancers arrived in from Iowa, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan and Canada. With their dancing shoes on, the mood was set to crank up the heat and have a blast.
The gathering was set in Chicago's Gaelic Park, an exquisite venue, built on the dreams of keeping Irish traditional music, dance and sport alive across the water. With its own sports facilities and pitch, banquet facilities and the Carraig Bar, it certainly houses the spirit of home.
The climate controller of this gala weekend was our friend and fellow set dancer Brendan Houlihan. A Chicago native and set dance teacher at Gaelic Park, Brendan and his team created a magical atmosphere filled with friendly faces, welcoming smiles and a 'kick up your heels and have the craic' approach.
Friday night began with a welcome ceili, and what a welcome it was! Flaming music by Tim Joe and Anne raised the blood pressure of the crowd as they battered out set after set. The floor was built for dancin', the ice water kept a flowin', the teapot kept a brewin' and our taste buds were fed with cakes and soda bread. Mid-evening, Ger Butler grabbed a broom and graced the floor with sean nós. He not only amazed the crowd with his larger than life charisma, he very near brought that old tattered stick to life! While sets were being danced at one end of Gaelic Park, Brian Conway was at the other end of the venue, shining on another gathering with his fiddle. If Friday's force of nature was anything to go by, we were in for an electrifying weekend.
Saturday's music workshops included flute and tin whistle, bodhran, fiddle, and traditional unaccompanied singing. Ger Butler hosted the set dance workshop and what an outstanding event it was. Besides his amazing talent and gift of rhythm, he has a terrific personality that is just contagious. His wit and charm transcended the dance floor and filled the room and everyone in it with energy. That night featured a double ceili with Chicago's Broken Pledge Ceili Band, who got the room alive and jigging, and finished with Tim Joe and Anne, who left the crowd wanting more. We were on such a mighty buzz we were half thinking the ice water was spiked!
Sunday came and went too fast. Brian Conway hosted his second fiddle workshop, while Ger Butler hosted a step workshop. Ger began at 11am and by 1pm he had about sixty of us sean nós dancing. A farewell ceili followed and once again, Tim Joe and Anne exhilarated the crowd. No matter how tired or sore were our feet, not one pair could stay sitting.
All in all, it was a mighty weekend of music, dance, food and laughs go leor (plenty). Dancers that intended to leave early Sunday to get a head start on their journeys home ended up staying until the very last note was played on Tim Joe's accordion. Chicago-land's motto for their set dance ceilis is 'Come Feel the Magic'. Through the friendly heartfelt welcomes and hospitality of Brendan and his team, through the powerful music of all who took the stage including the workshop musicians, and through the grace and wit of Ger Butler, I along with all who attended Chicago's Third Annual Set Dance and Music Weekend without doubt felt the magic!
Go raibh míle maith agat-until next year.
Paul O'Donoghue, Chicago, Illinois
Several years ago Walter Schroeder and his wife Corinne moved from the German North Sea island of Sylt to a farmhouse and a few acres in Doolin, Co Clare. It wasn't long before they started set dancing locally at Vaughan's in Kilfenora and at Maggie Hutton's classes in the Royal Spa Hotel, Lisdoonvarna. Walter developed a great love of dancing and diligently learned the sets, progressing from dancing the sides to always standing in first tops and calling moves for sides. He'd even started dancing his own style of sean nos when called on at ceilis. Instead of leather shoes, Walter danced in wooden clogs, and with his long hair and white beard always made a unique impression. He had no car and often cycled several miles to go dancing. He rarely danced beyond Clare, though he'd teach sets on trips home to Germany. Walter brought Corinne to Blankenheim Castle in 2002 to celebrate her sixtieth birthday.
Walter was an excellent artist and worked from a studio at home. In Germany he had a variety of occupations-teacher, gallery owner, politician and more, and was a foster parent to ten children. He was an avid reader with a library of over 5,000 books in his cottage. Walter died in hospital in Ennis in November and is survived by Corinne at home in Doolin and by two sons in Germany.
I first met Walter about six years ago and over those six years I got to know him and his wife Corinne very well. I always found him to be a true gentleman and always ready and willing to help. When I first started teaching set dancing at the Royal Spa Hotel, Lisdoonvarna, six years ago Walter came every week without fail. No matter what the weather was like he would come on his bicycle and that really touched me. He loved set dancing so much. He would always help me with new beginners, he was so encouraging. He told so many people about the class at the Royal Spa and encouraged them to come along for the craic. He would help me so much with visitors, both with dancing and the language barrier. Three years ago I was trying to teach some French students set dancing in Ennis. Walter and Corinne came down to help me and that meant alot. He also kept my class going when I was on holiday.
I know he will continue dancing in heaven along with other friends who have gone before us. We will miss him. May he rest in peace. Amen.
Maggie Hutton, Ennis, Co Clare
Thanks to set dancers and musicians-
I have always advocated that set dancing friends are like extended family. This belief was epotimised when my mother Annie Pollard died (RIP) last July during the Armada Festival. I will never be able to thank my friends in the set dancing circle for their numerous Mass cards, letters of sympathy, phone, text and email messages. I would particularly like to thank those of you who attended the funeral especially those who travelled long distances.
I found it very difficult to pick myself up from this grief and return to dancing again, but you all kept in touch and encouraged me to resume my life again. Both my parents danced all their lives at competition level and I know my mother is looking down now and praying for you all and delighted that I have so many fantastic friends.
If this world was made up of people like you then this world would be a fantastic place to live in.
Joan Pollard Carew, Thurles, Co Tipperary
J and K's Feather Plucking SetHello Bill,
Back in July at Ellie Brady's cancer research ceili a new set was born. A few of our set dancers reckoned that nobody would dance with them, so Jack Murtagh, Kathleen Barry and Kathy Halpin put four figures of this set together. They called it J and K's Feather Plucking Set to be danced at Christmas time with the ladies wearing red feathers around their necks. The third and fourth figures of this set were danced for the first time at our Christmas Party in Kavanagh's Lounge, Roundwood, Co Wicklow, on 18th December 2003 see photo on page 38. It was great fun and the feathers finished up around the gents necks.
You may have a copy of this Feather Plucking Set for a small donation to cancer research.
Maura Gaskin, Roundwood, Co Wicklow
Eight sets in one shirtHi Bill,
Two items in my last Set Dancing News caught my attention. The first one was a letter from Annie O'Donnell, Bray, where she wrote about herself and friends doing a High-Cauled Cap at a ceili in Dublin. It's a long time since I started dancing and the first dances I learned were ceili dances. It's a sad day for our native dances when set dancers ask, what was that dance? A lot of dancers do not know that ceili dancing was the only form of dancing in Ireland until the French soldiers brought the quadrilles into Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The difference between ceili and set dances is that ceili dancing is quiet whereas set dancing can be noisy.
The other item is from Margaret Winnet, Australia telling us about the Bush Music Club and doing the Clare Lancers in the lovely Clare gliding step. Joe O'Donovan said on TV recently that he often danced eight sets in the night and didn't have to change his shirt. That from a master, speaks for itself.
Thanks for the smashing colour.
Josie O'Rourke, Granard, Co Longford
Great work in San FranciscoBill
I would like to say a big thank you to the members of the Cooley-Keegan branch of CCÉ in San Francisco. When my wife and I were there on holiday recently we had a few great nights dancing with them. A special thanks to Josephine and Michael who kept us posted on all events while we were there. This branch is doing great work in keeping the traditional scene going in San Francisco.
Shay and May White, Donore, Co Meath
Two-hand step-by-stepDear Bill
As a keen set dancer and two-hand dancer I find your magazine very enjoyable. It contains many different topics such as ads, past events and step-by-step guides of how to do set dances such as the Dublin Set in the October-November edition. I find this very helpful but I was wondering if you could do the same step-by-step guide of some two-hand dances in each edition. I know personally a lot of people who would like to see this. I look forward to receiving the next edition and I love the new colour printing.
Leon Duffy, Castleblayney, Co Monaghan
Thanks for the suggestion, Leon. I'll see if I can locate notes for two-hand dances. Bill
Undeterred by snowDear Bill,
Thanks again to Set Dancing News a weary traveler found some Irish dancing. Bill Tormey from Massachusetts arrived at my class last night, he was in the area visiting his brother. Well, being from the north a little snow wasn't going to deter him. Thank goodness because only two of the class regulars showed up, seems no one here wants to venture out in the cold. We had a half set to do a few sets. It was very nice to meet him and had some great dances.
Hope all is well in Ireland.
Colleen Kisielewski, Merchantville, New Jersey
The Christmas flew past without much happening. I wanted to know how Heidi was getting along with her steps after all the encouragement we gave her when she came to the Ballygogooley set dance weekend. That meant we had to go to Switzerland.
There were a few Heidis Dugo wanted to dance with too. Sometimes the way he talked about them it seemed he wanted to do a lot more than just dance. I don't think he cared too much about how Heidi got the chocolate into the Milka Bar.
However he could never resist the Swiss Milka Bar down in his local off-licence ever since he had his first dance with her. Later we arrived in Zurich with a ceili on up the road. "We're ready for action!" he roared. I felt like shouting, "Action speaks louder than words!"
We were on the loose in yodelling country. It was agreed that anything which happened out there would stay out there and not travel back to Ballygogooley by way of spies.
That was after Dugo fell asleep over a bottle of wine and fondue. I got talking to André, our Swiss guide and set dancer.
"We will tell you about the Swiss girls!" he exclaimed.
"Don't you want to hear about the Irish girls first?" I begged.
"That's a deal," he replied.
"Well there's Florrietta, probably the best bet, who is definitely in settling down mode."
"How do you know that?" he asked.
"From the way she takes the turn in the Kilfenora," I replied.
"Really, can she dance?"
"Yes a wonderful dancer, a great cook and she might even operate out here."
"She might be the right woman for you," I laughed.
"Is there such a thing as the right woman?" he joked.
"I don't know but you'd probably have a lot more fun with the wrong woman!"
"I bet you're right."
"And then there's Dugo!" I shouted.
"Dugo, I thought Dugo was male?"
"Yes he is, but he'll make some man a great wife!"
By the third night we knew our way around. Most of the gang were there for the dancing more than anything else. This didn't stop any of us visitors trying our case. "Alle auf die tanzflache bitte!" ("Everybody out on the dance floor please!") was announced.
The last dance of 2003 was the Cashel and as the set dancing maestro told us the last part of the Cashel was called the 'offering up'. You could make a wish during it. I wouldn't have minded a little bit of belly rubbing myself but what Dugo would have wished for would be totally out of the question.
There were more dancers than chancers here as we weren't at home in Ballygogooley. Just as midnight approached I accidentally bumped into one of the Swiss on purpose.
"Any wishes for the new year?" I asked.
"Yea, a right good dance more often," she replied.
"That shouldn't be hard to find."
"Not so sure about that. I don't live in Ireland," she declared.
"Maybe you could visit like Heidi?"
"By the way, where is Heidi? I haven't met her at all," I begged.
"Somewhere still quarrelling over which canton has the highest peak."
"Imagine her missing a ceili like this?" I moaned.
"Are you coming outside?" she continued.
"It's not often I get an invitation like that!"
"I find that hard to believe," she remarked.
"What's happening outside, or is this my lucky night?"
"Maybe, maybe not. There's hot punch and fireworks!" she exclaimed.
"Fireworks, is this when we get down to business?"
"Not really, but 'Gut tanz im 2004'!"
Beside the lake the dancers were jubilant and kissed the Swiss way on that snowy night. I remember Dugo kissing the red haired girl in the band many times. I must say I couldn't really blame him. Just as well Heidi was away!
One of set dancing's most popular and best loved musicians, Michael Sexton, died on Friday 19 December 2003 in University Hospital Galway in the company of his wife Betty. He was buried the following Monday in Mullagh, the Co Clare village where he lived all his life, in the graveyard behind St Mary's Church.
Michael will be remembered by set dancers for his ceili band with an exceptionally lively Clare-style of music and an unforgettable selection of tunes. Many bands today play the Pinch of Snuff and Tamlin Reel which Michael introduced to set dancers. Not only did the Michael Sexton Ceili Band play in every corner of Ireland, they travelled the world to get people dancing. They made regular trips to Britain and the USA, and had been on Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises. Most of all, Michael will be fondly recalled for his love of music and dance-the pleasure showed on his face when he saw the dancers enjoying his music.
Michael spent a lifetime involved with bands and dancers. In his teens, he was inspired to take up the box after hearing Joe Cooley playing in nearby Quilty. He played two years in Junior Crehan's Laichtin Naofa Ceili Band in Miltown Malbay, and served fifteen years with the Kilfenora Ceili Band. In the late sixties he formed his own three-piece dance band, the Bannermen, and kept them going up to his death. The Micheal Sexton Ceili Band appeared in 1992 and soon became the most sought after band for set dancing.
Michael was a friend and supporter of Set Dancing News and spoke freely for an interview in the June-July 1999 issue. He liked being photographed and often said he wanted me to make up a collection of photos for him, something I never managed to find time for. As my tribute to him I included a selection of photos of him in the February-March 2004 issue of Set Dancing News for all to enjoy.
His joy in the musicOn our first trip to Ireland we attended a ceili at McCarthy's, Kilbeacanty (near Gort) for which Michael and the band were playing. The music was 'standard'-terrific! After the ceili, while the band was packing to go home, Marie Philbin was showing some eager young dancers the Roscahill Set. She was counting time for them while also giving instruction. Michael came over with his box, sat on a pub stool, and began playing for them. He played for them to dance the whole set. His joy in the music was evident as well as his appreciation for the marriage of music and set dancing. How wonderful to see a musician who loved playing dance music, whether for a huge ceili or just a single set in the wee hours of the morning. It was a memorable occasion, and we are glad to have it on videotape along with other video of Michael and the band at venues in Ireland and the U.S.
Lenette and Larry Taylor, Stow, Ohio
Michael Sexton-a tributeOn December nineteenth '03 at two-thirty pm,
With Betty by your side, the Lord called you to Him.
It spread shortly thereafter, the sad news far and wide,
That a talented musician, kind friend and good neighbour had died.
Though your leaving us, Michael, was not as planned,
I know you're up there, at the head of the band.
With an accordion to hand, there will be music galore,
And set dancers around you, knocking sparks off the floor.
And if they're farming up there in that heavenly realm,
On weekdays they'll find you right there at the helm.
And weekends it's shooting or fishing you'll go,
As you did when in Moyglass, this green valley below.
Here in tapes and CDs now your music lives on.
The Michael Sexton Ceili Band was your very first one.
Mad to Dance had us 'wallflowers' just tapping our feet,
While set dancers go crazy at the sound of the beat.
You'll be so missed dear Michael, a gentleman true,
By your loving wife Betty, Micheál and Miriam too.
To them and to all your family, my condolences sincere,
At the loss of a loved one who to them was most dear.
All set dancers will miss you, at home and away,
Also all those musicians you met on the way,
As well as lovers of music and dancing and craic,
For, although you were modest, you sure had the knack.
So farewell dear Michael, though we're grieving tonight,
We know you've just gone from our earthly sight.
We will meet once again on that heavenly shore,
Where we'll join those set dancers knocking sparks off the floor.
by a fan
Never to be forgottenThe cover photo of the February-March 2004 issue of Set Dancing News was taken during what must have been one of Michael Sexton's best ceilis ever. It was last year on the Saturday night of the first weekend in Spanish Point, at the third ceili of over twenty danced during the week. Michael had already played beautifully in the Armada that afternoon, so I was expecting more of the same that night. Excuse me for quoting myself, but here's what I wrote about the ceili-
"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!"
Thinking back, there were many ceilis like that with Michael, where the thrill of the music and dance was completely overwhelming. I'm sorry I won't be able to experience that again but I'll never forget the pleasure I had dancing to his music.
Over seven hundred dancers left Dublin, Manchester, Birmingham and Gatwick airports for Tholos on the island of Rhodes, Greece, on Wednesday 1st October for the first ever fleadh there. Some holidaymakers travelled direct, and I was on one of the flights which travelled via Gatwick where we had a stopover for five hours. Gerry Flynn and Enjoy Travel had arranged a luxury coach to pick us up and bring us to the Gatwick Holiday Inn where we joined some of our Manchester dancing friends. We had a céilí and a beautiful buffet meal at the hotel.
When we arrived after placing our baggage in the special room provided at the inn we were greeted with light refreshments. Happy that our luggage was secure we were shown to the conference suite where Dermot Hegarty was belting out lovely old-time waltzes and quicksteps. Dermot sang Slievenamon for all the Tipperary people. Mort and Noreen Kelleher were the first to grace the floor. We all know this couple are talented musicians, but watching them dance we soon realised that their talents go beyond music.
Dermot took a break and the Kelleher Céilí Band took over. Space was a bit limited but some dancers rolled back enough carpet to accommodate three sets at a time. We started the dancing with the Corofin Plain, finished with the Connemara and also had a number of waltzes. Hungry travellers queued for the sumptuous buffet. Rested, entertained and fed we all gathered ourselves for Gatwick Airport and our connecting flight. Our flight was comfortable and we had excellent attention from the cabin crew who gave out blankets and pillows. They served us a beautiful hot meal and we even got a second cup of coffee.
We arrived at our accommodation at approximately 2.30am Greek time. Accommodation was in two five-star hotel complexes, the Rhodos Palace and the Olympic Palace. Checking in was most efficient and courteous. I was even offered porter service for my luggage, which I gladly accepted.
I awoke to beautiful sunshine streaming in my window on Thursday morning and hastened down to breakfast. I was delighted to see a comprehensive buffet-style breakfast. Friendly waiters with the darkest eyes were on hand to serve tea and coffee and to attend to any special needs.
As my hotel was not the main venue for the festival Gerry Flynn and his team had put on a courtesy bus between the two venues. I chose to walk the beautiful ten-minute stretch of coastal streets. This morning was to be relaxed as our welcome meeting was at twelve noon.
Our first céilí on the island was on Thursday afternoon in the dome, a glass building with a swimming pool and a wooden floor beside it, with the brilliant Mort Kelleher Céilí Band on stage. The Co Cork family band gave us a tremendous afternoon and the tone was set for the remainder of the week.
The night-time céilí started at 9pm with the Four Courts Céilí Band from Co Clare on stage. Once again musicians and dancers continued on to enjoy themselves. Sally Glennon came on stage for an hour, followed by the Bogtrotters. Joe Rynne and Peter Griffin from the Four Courts were heading outdoors and I asked Joe if they would be back on stage. He informed me that they would play a few tunes outside if I wanted to organise a few set dancers. Sure enough I approached Breffni O'Brien and his friends, Ita McQuinn and her crew and Bobby Keenan and on the way outside as I passed groups of people I said, "Set dancers follow me!"
Within minutes we were outside by the pool moving tables from the bar area and the Four Courts were playing the Caledonian as eight sets graced the timber floor. The next set was the Connemara and then the Corofin Plain mixed with some beautiful waltzes. The brilliant men from Clare, Joe Rynne, Chris Droney, Peter Griffin, and the beautiful Clare lass Louise Hanrahan, with Tipperary man Patrick Costello on drums, gave us one of the best nights dancing of the week. The musicians had no amplification, just pure unaided music, a real impromptu session. Patrick Costello was drumming with the Four Courts for the first time; their usual drummer Brendan Vaughan was unable to travel because of his work. Pat is no stranger to music and travel, as he is well-known as a member of Shaskeen. Other musicians joined in as the night progressed.
Friday morning by the pool the legendary Mr Mayo-man Mickey Kelly taught the Roscahill Set at a workshop. This little polka set comes from Galway. Next Mickey did the beautiful Saint Bernard Waltz and the Pride of Erin Waltz in his graceful style. He concluded his workshop with the Polly Glide, a Scottish dance.
Friday afternoon we were back in the dome for Michael Loughnane's workshop. We began with a circle dance, a marvellous idea as everyone in the hall can get involved. Michael then taught the Inis Oirr Set and finished with a country waltz with similar moves to the Walls of Limerick.
Dancers were checking out the notice board for arranged trips and I hastened to book the 'Céilí Craic Cruise' to Symi Island on Sunday. Many other trips were also on offer including trips to the old town, Turkey, the Valley of the Butterflies and Lindos.
Our travel brochure described Rhodes as 'the cradle of civilisation' but it's so much more. Rhodes lies in the south-eastern part of the Aegean Sea on the sea-lane between East and West. It is the largest island there and the capital of a complex of approximately two hundred other islands known as the Dodecanese. Several of these including Rhodes itself broke through the surface of the sea in the distant past as a result of earthquakes. The fossilized seashells on the slopes of the mountains confirm this and add substance to the myth of Rhodes' birth. It is also known as 'the pearl of the Mediterranean' and enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year on average. No wonder this island is host to more than 1,250,000 visitors a year. Visitors come to enjoy the island's natural beauty and archaeological treasures and to get acquainted with its long history. Unesco recently proclaimed it as a monument of global cultural heritage.
Rhodes has enormous sandy beaches, picturesque harbours, a sea of impressive depth, crystal clear springs, deeply shaded valleys, green mountains and dazzling white villages. The island is imbued with a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Despite the fact that Rhodians have received almost constant influence from foreign visitors, this has not changed them. They have remained uncomplicated, kind-hearted and hospitable. They have a deep love for their island and do whatever they can to make sure travellers take away a good impression.
On Friday night we had a new venue for the céilí, the Jupiter Suite, a large ballroom with a marble floor. The Mort Kelleher Céilí Band was on stage and 25 sets danced very comfortably to the Corkonians with the magic fingers. No one wanted the night to end. Some dancers went upstairs to the Athena Suite to finish the night's dancing with wandering Wicklow man Pat Jordan and Finian's Rainbow.
Saturday morning, Mickey Kelly held his workshop outside by the pool. The Kilfenora Set was on the agenda to the delight of many of his numerous pupils. Just before the fourth figure, the wheelbarrow figure, Mickey paid tribute to Connie Ryan-"learned most of my dancing from Connie, God be good to him. We see a lot of twists and turns creeping in to the Plain Set. These twists and overhead turns are not in that set at all. If Connie could see this he would soon put it right. I am sure he is up there watching us now, God rest him." In the afternoon Mickey did all two-hand dances, St Bernard Waltz, Pride of Erin Waltz, Breakaway Blues, Boston Two-Step, Peeler and the Goat and the graceful Sweetheart Waltz.
P J Murrihy and Seamus Shannon played upstairs in the Athena Suite on Saturday night, followed by Trudi Lalor. Set dancers danced the night away in the Jupiter Suite to the melodious sounds of the brilliant Four Courts Céilí Band. As in the previous night, throngs of dancers danced comfortably in the large air-conditioned hall.
Sunday was cruise day. We were collected from our hotels at 8.30 and brought by coach to the port of Rhodes known locally as Mandraki. On the entrance to the ancient harbour there are statues of a stag and a doe on two columns on either side of the harbour. Tradition has it that the famous Colossus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, stood on the same site. This was an enormous bronze statue which depicted the god Helios holding a flaming torch. His legs stood on either side of the harbour and ships passed between them.
With the sun gleaming on the blue waters we headed out for Symi accompanied by our guide Julie. We were privileged to have the talented Four Courts Céilí Band on the catamaran with us. Once again these brilliant musicians played their hearts out-no amplifiers or microphones, just pure natural music, musicians and dancers as one. It reminded me of my childhood at home when it was common for musicians to play beside the dresser in the kitchen as my parents, neighbours and friends danced sets in our kitchen. I was always glad to be invited to join in.
Arriving at Symi Island or fondly named 'Sponge Island', we were greeted by stalls and shops selling natural sponges from the island. We reached our first stop at lunchtime and our guide Julie directed us to a beautiful street side restaurant where we dined on bread dipped in olive oil, followed by sumptuous spinach pie, a popular local delicacy. Some holidaymakers were finding the food a bit strange. Rhodians use olive oil liberally in their cooking. The olive tree grows extensively on the island and the oil is the best in the world.
Symi is one of the most picturesque islands in the Dodecanese with mountains that plunge straight down to the sea and form captivating bays. The old town of Chorio is located in one of these-it sweeps up the sides of two hills, to the right and left of the harbour. The quaint traditional architecture, pebbled courtyards and neoclassical houses with pediments are quite impressive.
Back early on board our catamaran the Ilion we started the céilí. Only one set at a time could dance but dancers alternated and everyone who wanted to dance got a chance to do so. We danced the Plain, Connemara, Clare Lancers and Kilfenora sets, the Pride of Erin Waltz and Shoe the Donkey.
We had a very special set when Chris Droney, his wife Margaret, Joe Rynne and Mena Griffin joined in to dance the Caledonian Set. The County Clare foursome enthralled onlookers with their style and panache. Peter Griffin, Pat Costello and Louise Hanrahan provided the music while Joe and Chris danced, surely a first for members of a céilí band.
Dancing continued when we left port for our next destination around the bay to see the Panormitis Monastery located at the southern tip of the island. It is dedicated to the Archangel Michael and its main church has an icon of the saint done in gold. Some dancers took a walk to the monastery but most stayed on board listening to or dancing to the five talented musicians. As our catamaran sped up sailing back to Mandraki, dancers and musicians took a well-earned break and relaxed in the evening sunshine.
Sunday night saw Mort and Noreen Kelleher and family back on stage. I was told that Noreen arrived to the céilí on the back of a moped wearing a mini skirt and showing her lovely legs to the Greek men. Once more the atmosphere was electric as dancers thronged the floor and danced from nine o'clock until 12.30; most then went upstairs to dance to Dermot Hegarty and Nicky Kealy. As the two areas were reasonably close dancers could move freely and alternate their styles of dancing.
Monday morning once more by the pool Michael Loughnane taught the Clare Orange and Green set and the Rakes of Mallow. In the afternoon we had a short céilí with four sets danced, including the Clare Orange and Green.
The Four Courts were back again in the Jupiter Suite for the night céilí. Frank Keenan was fear an tí (MC). I was told that Chris Droney was a brilliant sean nós dancer and had a word with Joe Rynne who confirmed this. I asked Frank Keenan to request Chris to do a few steps, and after a bit of coaxing Chris obliged. What a superb style Chris has, almost a floating step. Everyone in the hall was amazed as very few knew how talented this most unassuming man is. This was definitely the highlight of my week.
Tuesday morning Mickey Kelly did the Fermanagh Set and finished off his session with two-hand dances, including the Military Two-Step and Shoe the Donkey. By popular demand once more he taught the Pride of Erin, St Bernard and Sweetheart waltzes. At another short afternoon céilí with the Mort Kelleher Céilí Band we danced four sets including the Fermanagh and Kilfenora.
A new set was born on the plane from Dublin. John Chambers from Camp near Tralee in County Kerry passed the flying time putting a set together which he named the Rhodos Set. This set is a work in progress as John has only two figures put together. These are danced to reels. John asked Mickey Kelly if he would consider trying out these two figures and Mickey being the most approachable and gentlemanly of souls was delighted to oblige. I was thrilled to be John's partner for this set. I believe when John has all this set together it could easily become one of our regular sets at céilí. Later everyone adjourned outside to the brilliant music session by the pool where a variety of artists were performing and numerous types of dancing ensued.
Tuesday night was the grand finale and fancy dress night. Dancing was from nine o'clock till late and everyone's perception of late is different but then it was our last night in Rhodes. There was a brilliant air of anticipation as dancers arrived in all types of colourful attire. The Mort Kelleher Céilí Band was back on stage for the last time and dancers thronged the floor once more. There was a real party atmosphere and excitement grew when it was announced that the fancy dress parade was on its way. There were approximately thirty participants in the parade. People had put in enormous effort to the joy of onlookers. The parade then went upstairs to the Athena Suite where Dermot Hegarty was master of ceremonies. After the participants paraded around the hall, Seamus and P J played a few waltzes, then the winners were announced. The decision of the judges was unanimous-Amelia MacDonald from Turkey and Tony Kearney from Waterford scooped the prize of a holiday. They were dressed as Saint Patrick and his helper. The grand draw took place for holidays and vouchers galore for winners from Meath and Mayo.
As dancers relaxed two young South London girls, Katie and Sarah Flannery, entertained us as they danced the brush dance and a two-hand reel. What grace and style these two young girls have. Their parents Donald and Helen Flannery must be very proud of them. They hail from Ballina in County Mayo.
Everyone danced late into the night. The next day some were still trying to stay going without sleep, especially the session players and their friends. Every night during the week a number of groups met in several locations in the Rhodos Palace complex for a few hours session of music, song and dance, otherwise known as a good old Irish shindig.
Wednesday morning holidaymakers were busy packing. Everyone had a wonderful holiday and, as usually happens, no one wanted to return home. Most however had some marvellous experiences to take with them.
This was the first fleadh in Rhodes and I have no doubt that it is the first of many. The entire atmosphere one finds in Rhodes bears witness to a refined aesthetics and a highly developed cultural sensibility. One can easily envisage this Fleadh being adopted by Rhodians. Since antiquity these people have been adept at literature and the arts in all forms.
Congratulations to Gerry Flynn and all in Enjoy Travel for organising yet another brilliant festival with such a fantastic line up of musicians and artists in this superb location. I sincerely hope the fleadh in Rhodes will be an annual event.
Joan Pollard Carew
Set Dancing News, Kilfenora, Co Clare, Ireland
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