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).
Some of our group, the Dolmen Set Dancers, Carlow, had a great afternoon on Wednesday the 20th August. For once the sun shone as the special guests arrived. The Rose of Tralee contenders made this special visit to Carlow during their tour around the country on route (a long one) to Tralee. The venue was the recently restored walled gardens of the Duckett Grove Estate. The gardens are now open to the public and are well worth a visit.
We danced a figure of the Sliabh Fraoch and of the Antrim Square, and had some of the Roses dance Maggie in the Woods with us. It was the first time that we were presented with some Irish coffee at a set dancing venue! Hope that this idea catches on!
The Rose from New Zealand danced solo and as you can see above Peter O’Neill did a ‘Gay Byrne’ by assisting with her shoes. Also in this picture is Dave Sheridan who played for the dancing.
Máire George, Carlow
Long-term exchange projectDear Bill Lynch,
First, I will introduce myself. I teach English at a secondary school (7th to 10th grade) in Tarbes, near Lourdes in south-western France, near the Spanish border. I regularly dance traditional French, Breton, Spanish, Basque, Italian dances and salsa in various festivals in France. I am very fond of Irish set dancing and have been in Ireland twice, first in Glencolmille and then in Miltown Malbay.
For years, I have wished to set up a long-term exchange with an Irish school, based on Irish set dancing, and to start a set dancing club in my school for that purpose. Two of my colleagues, also English teachers and keen on dancing, are ready to take part in this project as well. Most of our pupils are taught English.
From a practical point of view, as we live near Lourdes, I think we could easily fly from Tarbes-Lourdes-Ossun airport where a lot of Irish pilgrims come and go. Our region is worth visiting. We live in a mountainous country with most of the highest mountains in the Pyrenees. It takes about one hour to go to the Spanish border and an hour and a half to go to the ocean and Biarritz.
So far, I have failed to find an Irish teacher interested in my project and ready to take part in it. I wonder whether any teacher would find my project of some interest for his or her pupils taking dancing, French or music. I would like to hear from anyone interested in participating in or discussing this project.
Sylvie Marty, Tarbes, France
Kind and cordial peopleDear Bill,
On behalf of Irish Maiden set dancing group from Croatia, especially on behalf of nine of us participating at the Willie Clancy Summer School this year and our dance teacher Paul O’Grady, I would like to thank you for the great photos of us and for mentioning us in the article in the August–September issue of Set Dancing News.
We spent the great week in Spanish Point and Miltown Malbay. It was a week full of dance and entertainment, of meeting very interesting people and learning many new things (sean nós, for example). We learned and saw so much beauty all over your amazing country, had the pleasure to meet numerous kind and cordial people wherever we went, and were honoured to be a part of the traditional Willie Clancy Week again.
Our ambassador, Veselko Grubiši, was delighted with the spirit and the good vibrations he felt on Thursday night, July 10th, in the Community Hall, Miltown Malbay, as well as by the great dance show.
Let me express our gratitude to you, to the organizers, particularly to Muiris Ó Rócháin and Harry Hughes, to the class teachers, and to the citizens of Spanish Point and Miltown Malbay, for all your kind hospitality.
We look forward to seeing all of you again next year.
Best regards from Zagreb, Croatia,
A lovely reminderHello Bill,
Thank you for giving such splendid coverage in the August–September issue to the Luxembourg set dance weekend! It’s a lovely reminder of the weekend and of all the people who attended! I can’t wait to show it to the Comhaltas committee members at our next meeting!
And what a super magazine! It makes for great reading, covering as it does so many events which results in me getting itchy set dance feet and wondering how many workshops can I get to! I particularly enjoyed the article on Canadian traditional music and dance.
In reel time,
Mary Butler, Luxembourg
Passion and enthusiasmDear Bill,
As a member of Fay and Morgan McAlinden’s Killarney set dancers, I recently enjoyed our Céilí Mór weekend in Port Fairy, Australia. It was a huge success with Pat Murphy as our instructor. I still can’t believe how lucky we are for him to come all this way. He impressed us with his passion and enthusiasm for set dancing and his knowledge is amazing.
Marguerite Drysdale, Killarney, Victoria, Australia
Lifted everyone’s feetHi Bill,
I hope you are well and things are all right for you. Can you please give a big thank-you to all the people who supported the recent weekend with Copperplate and Pádraig and Róisín McEneany [in Birmingham, England, 29–31 August].
We had a good turnout for all the workshops due in no small way to a couple of great teachers and the Copperplate played just as well as ever—their music lifted everyone’s feet. My grateful thanks to Mary McParland and Kate Howes for their help and support, and last but not least to Linda Reavey who supports and helps me in all my grand ideas I have from time to time.
My thanks to all, and hopefully we can do it all again next year.
George Hook, Birmingham, England
Helen Crotty and Paddy Kealy were wed on August 2nd in the Clonea Strand Hotel outside Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Helen is a popular teacher and organiser, and Paddy shares her passion for sets. They shared their special day with over 200 friends and family. After the meal Danny Webster fired up the accordion and fourteen sets took to the floor, and there was a special musical appearance by Liam Brennan, who joined Danny on saxophone. When the ceili finished, a country band took over for more dancing. Congratulations to Mr and Mrs Kealy!
Sets from Oz, steps from Boston
The active set dancing scene in Australia is beginning to exert an influence on dancers all the way back in Ireland. Recently, the hot new set at Irish ceilis has been the Antrim Square Set, which was devised by Des Jackson from Sydney. Des has composed other sets, and now another downunder dancer has published a booklet with two newly composed sets. Fay and Morgan McAlinden head a club in Port Fairy, Victoria, and run an annual weekend. It was at the Port Fairy Céilí Mór Weekend see page 16 that Fay launched a slim wire-bound volume called Dances from the Green Triangle, which is the name for this area of Victoria. The booklet includes instructions for two progressive ceili dances, two waltz cotillions and a set. The Port Fairy Set is in three parts, two reels and a hornpipe. To obtain a copy of the booklet, please contact Morgan and Fay McAlinden.
Speaking of Victoria, one of the bands playing for set dancing there is Trouble in the Kitchen, a four-piece group based in Melbourne. They released a new album in January, but news is only filtering into Ireland following a visit by them this past summer. The CD is called The Next Turn, and is their second one following When the World was Wide in 2003. The band are Adrian Barker, Kate Burke, Joe Ferguson and Ben Stephenson on fiddle, guitar, banjo and flute. The fourteen tracks include both trad tunes and compositions by the band. A year ago Ben recently married Alarna Fitzpatrick, a set dancer and teacher from Sydney, so the band has a close connection to the sets. For more info and to order the CDs see www.troubleinthekitchen.com.
Sean nós dancing is taking off in the States, and one of it strongest proponents is Kieran Jordan of Boston. She was raised in Philadelphia where she was involved in competitive step dancing, and continued her education at Boston College and the University of Limerick, where she pursued her special interest in sean nós by studying the style of Aidan Vaughan. She teaches classes in Boston and workshops around the States and dances as a solo performer and as a member of several groups. In September she announced her new DVD, Secrets of the Sole, 66 minutes, in which she features Aidan’s dancing as well as her own and that of her dance partner Kevin Doyle from Rhode Island. Filmed in her living room in front of a small audience, Kieran informally interviews Aidan and Kevin, who is a tap dancer as well as an Irish step dancer. They perform individually, in duets, as a trio and in a half-set. Live music on fiddle and box is provided by George Keith and Sean Gannon. See a sample of the DVD on Kieran’s website, www.kieranjordan.com, where it is available for purchase.
Linda Welby is a singer, songwriter and musician from Roscahill, Co Galway, who has a big hit single on her hands with The Galway Fiddler, currently being played on radio stations across Ireland. The song is one of twelve included on her new CD, A Story to Tell, which was launched in September. Linda and her band Cois Tine play for social dancing around Galway and was a popular favourite at Fleadh Ibiza in April. In the band she sings and plays piano, and off-stage also plays fiddle, banjo and drums and even dances the sets. The CD is available in shops in Ireland, from her website www.lindawelby.com and from cdbaby.com.
Glenside family expansion
The newest members of the musical Flood family enjoyed some entertaining dancing, great music and surprisingly dry weather on the Sunday of the Tullamore Fleadh weekend. Tom and Marie Flood’s son Thomas was born on April 25th, and little Maeve, the daughter of Aidan and Sandra Flood, arrived on June 27th. Both dads are part of the ever-popular Glenside Ceili Band from Co Longford, Tom on box and Aidan on drums. Congratulations!
And while we’re in a congratulatory mood, please give a warm welcome to Ríona Davoren, the third daughter of Martin and Tara Davoren, Kilfenora, born on May 14th. Tara is the hard working and totally invaluable secretary, office manager, bookkeeper, personal assistant, etc, for Set Dancing News, who also happens to be a first cousin to Sandra Flood—it’s like we’re all one big family!
Nearly 200 kids dancing on stage at once is what you'll experience at the new Hell for Leather shows coming to Doonbeg and Ennis, Co Clare, in October and December. The show is the creation of John Fennell, a teacher from Kilrush who has probably taught many thousands of kids in Clare to batter their way through the sets in his 25 years of teaching. He first produced the show in 2004 with 160 kids aged seven to seventeen. They performed around Ireland for two years before John took a break. Now they're back with even more kids this time, 180 from five to thirteen years, only one of whom was in the previous cast! The two-hour performance includes all types of Irish dance, set, ceili, sean nós, brush, step and more, backed by the Lough Ree Ceili Band. You'll see sets as you've never seen them before, with amazing patterns and formations. There's even a choreographed faction fight between a group of forty boys with hurleys! The kids also sing and perform music—there are no adults on stage this time. Hell for Leather plays for two nights at the Community Hall, Doonbeg, on 11–12 October, and in Glór Theatre, Ennis, on 29–30 October and 19–21 December. Book seats at Glór well in advance as the show usually sells out quickly. Contact John Fennell for further info.
The historic town of Cashel hosted for the first time the tenth Connie Ryan Gathering on the weekend from 6th to 8th June. The weekend got off to a brilliant start on the Friday night with crowds gathering in Halla na Féile to dance to the superb music of Ger Murphy and Ken Cotter. Launching the festival and welcoming everyone, club chairperson Margaret Slattery said she was delighted with the new venue and added that another piece of history has been made here in Cashel this weekend with Halla na Féile becoming the new home for the Connie Ryan Gathering.
Michael Loughnane from Thurles was our mc for the night. It was a pleasure to dance a good variety of sets, with the Antrim Square and Sliabh Fraoch included in the list. Tea, brack and buns aplenty were served at the tea break. Chilled Tipperary water was freely available for everyone all over the weekend. The well sprung maple floor added to the enjoyment of the dancing. The first ceili of the weekend closed with a smashing Plain Set.
Pat Murphy and Betty McCoy began their workshop at 10.30am on the Saturday morning. Betty told us that herself and Pat had been up the famous and historic Rock of Cashel at the early hour of 7.30am, and that she was still recovering from the climb and onslaught of Tipperary air. They chose the Limerick Tumblers Set, which was compiled by Terry Moylan from Dublin and commissioned by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin of Limerick University to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the establishment of Limerick as a city in 1996. In his usual meticulous fashion that we all love and respect, Pat had us all dancing and enjoying this set. The second set of the morning was the Aran Set. Pat mentioned that he got it from Séamus Ó Méalóid who recorded it on Inis Mór.
It was time for lunch and as dancers left the hall they were spoiled with the choice of numerous restaurants close by. Standard of both the food and service in these restaurants was commendable.
The afternoon workshop gave an airing to the lovely Clashmore Set from Co Waterford, which has many similarities to the Ballyduff Set from the Blackwater Valley of Co Waterford. Pat and Betty then taught the Inis Oírr Set. The first three reel figures are traditionally danced as a half-set with four couples joining up for the final polka figure. The last set of the workshop was the Kildownet Half-Set from Achill Island, Co Mayo. The large group of dancers who had gathered for Pat and Betty’s workshop were loud in their praise of the selection of sets and the professionalism and attention to detail.
Saturday night’s ceili began at 10pm with the Co Longford band the Glenside on stage. Pat Murphy was our mc for the night and we had a fantastic night’s dancing, again with a good variety of sets. After everyone had feasted on sumptuous tea and goodies, by popular demand we had a performance of hornpipe dancing by John Creed from Dungarvan, Co Waterford. In his introduction Pat Murphy said dancing and dancers owed John a lot for the contribution that he has made to dancing all his life, and paid tribute to him for giving us the Melleray Lancers Set.
Sunday morning at 11am crowds gathered in Halla na Féile once more for Maureen Culleton’s two-hand dance workshop. We danced the lovely Evening Three-Step, Keel Row, Ideal Schottishe and the workshop concluded with the Waterfall Waltz. Maureen is an excellent teacher and everyone enjoyed her class.
Sunday afternoon crowds gathered long before the appointed time of 2pm. Johnny Reidy provided the exuberant music and Jimmy Doyle was our mc assisted by this correspondent. Again the variety of sets danced was nicely varied.
During the ceili Margaret Slattery addressed the huge crowd, thanking the dancers for their attendance, and said she was delighted with the weekend. Margaret then paid tribute to the late Paddy Troy of the Thurles branch of Comhaltas who had been involved in this festival from its inception. She said he was always encouraging, supportive and of immense help over the years. A group of the committee had done a charity walk and cycle a few weeks earlier and they now presented a cheque for €4,000 to Paddy’s wife Noreen who in turn handed it over to Stefan Grace representing the National Council for the Blind of Ireland. Stefan said he was delighted to be here and was energised with the music and dancing. He thanked Noreen, Troy and the committee for their cheque. He told us that visually impaired people lead full lives and that he had just completed a cycle of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. This money will be put to good use to educate and rehabilitate the visually impaired in Ireland. He spoke of the cost and training of a guide dog and the difference these dogs make in people’s lives. The ceili concluded with a lively Connemara.
The weekend still had another night’s dancing on offer. Crowds of visitors and more locals gathered to dance to Danny Webster, and a large busload of Co Offaly dancers stayed over to dance the night away. We had a few waltzes and quicksteps with plenty of sets. We danced our only West Kerry and Borlin sets of the weekend courtesy of this correspondent and Jimmy Doyle took care of the rest of the night’s dancing, providing humorous remarks and keeping everyone in a party mood.
This was the best Connie Ryan Gathering ever, thanks in part to the setting in the shadow of the Rock of Cashel with its well-preserved ecclesiastical remains, once a centre of royal and religious power and one of Ireland’s most spectacular landmarks. This weekend, it was a town of brilliant music and fantastic dancing.
Joan Pollard Carew
As the plane took off from Cork on Thursday, 19th June, to fly to Munich, my excitement was mixed with an odd sense of belonging to different parts of different cultures. I’m German but have lived in Ireland for almost seventeen years now. I learnt set dancing in Ireland and feel a part of that community, and now was going to Germany to dance Irish set dancing there for the first time with mostly Germans. What would it be like? Would I feel an outsider? Would I be able to understand the people in Bavaria? They have a strong accent and I was never there before. Would I be able to keep to the right side of the road driving? Would this part of the country feel truly foreign to me?
As it turned out, those concerns were superfluous. It was fantastic and absolutely worth the trip. This was a magical, festival-like, welcoming and fun weekend in every way.
As we arrived on Friday (after a night in the foothills of the majestic Alps) at the rustic Ziegelstadel Guesthouse in a rural setting on the outskirts of Augsburg, we were greeted by warm sunshine that stayed with us throughout the weekend. After familiarising ourselves with the place and chilling out under a huge chestnut tree sipping cold drinks, we got ready to dance for the night.
So on that Friday evening the first ceili got underway at 8.30pm (ish)—all events started early which I thought was a good idea. A marquee which was erected for the occasion hosted an amalgamated band of fourteen local musicians who played delightfully different tunes for a very enthusiastic crowd with many young and fit people that were well able to keep going and going. Ger Butler was mc for the night, and in his professional manner made sure that sets were filled and everything ran smoothly.
If I hadn’t known it, these could have just as easily been Irish people dancing, and laughing, and blaggarding. The Bavarians know how to enjoy themselves, no bother! And they folded me into their ranks without any hesitation, so that getting a partner to dance with was no problem at all. As in Ireland, women were the majority, but there was no shortage of any willing and able to dance as men. One lady actually wore a badge with a man on it—no mistaking which position she dances in!
After a while we were treated to the performance of a German dancing the Appalachian flat-shoe on a small square platform, a battering solo dance from America, a cousin to the clogging, the dancer said. Lovely to watch and exciting—as he danced faster and faster and we were clapping faster and faster too. As the first ceili came to an end, it was already clear that coming here had been an excellent idea. With the dancing plentiful, and warm and welcoming folks, it was a great night.
Saturday morning I went for an early walk because the weather was so lovely—not to be wasted! Nearby there was an archery club getting ready for a tournament, with big marquees and small tents. At 7am the place was buzzing with festivities as barbecues were set up, bows polished and people started their practice. Well awake when I got back, the breakfast buffet was ready and I had a chance to polish my not-so-great-anymore German.
I heard that the local class meets about every second week, and is taught by Sabine Surholt. She has done other types of dancing and that is evident in the most elegant way she dances. Some of the class members have never been to Ireland, and so it was a treat to get Ger Butler over for the teaching. At the same time, all the dancing that I witnessed was precise—these guys knew their stuff! And fair play to Sabine for training them so well!
It is a marvel to think that a lot of people from other countries have learned Irish set dancing and never set foot on the green isle or indeed met anyone Irish. Some folks there said that they would like to come at some stage, and as a matter of fact, six lovely ladies were planning to come to the Willie Clancy Summer School. A lot of other people simply go to their nearest classes and attend the weekends throughout the year in Germany, with the south being the stronghold of set dancing.
So, this being Germany, at 9.30am all the dancers were well ready to start the first workshop of the day. When Ger finally arrived we started ‘Irish time’. He put us through our paces as the temperature rose, with the sets that he’s been teaching this year: South Sligo Lancers, Claddagh, Moycullen, Atha Caoire and Roscommon Half-Set, and a selection of two-hand dances like the Charleston, Flirtation Two-Step, Circle Waltz and Mazurka. This last one is a wonderful little gem of a dance, given to Ger by Edie Bradley. It’s like a reverse Shoe the Donkey, because instead of going up, down, down, you dance down, down, up. It was difficult for me to master, but I persevered since I liked it so much. By request, Ger also taught some Clare battering steps, and a good bit of sean nós.
A lot of people at the workshop hadn’t met Ger Butler, so when asked people said they enjoyed his style of teaching, particularly his pacing. A very good ambassador to have for Irish set dancing.
During a break, we were invited to watch and listen to three people playing the Alphorn, a curious looking musical instrument, handmade from fir wood and blown into like a trumpet. Because it is so big, more than three metres, one end of it has to rest on the ground. The tunes they played in harmony were slow and solemn, and you can easily imagine how the sound would carry if played from a mountaintop. Someone told me that in former times it would have been used to convey messages, like smoke signals!
Dancing so much in such warm weather makes you thirsty and is hard work, so the homemade cakes and Bavarian-style sandwiches that were on offer all day were much appreciated, accompanied by coffee, and coffee, and coffee, and some tea.
The old-world country guesthouse offered a set menu as part of the weekend package was which was very reasonable. So with Käsespatzen (a tasty type of pasta made from coarse semolina), Schnitzel (pork chop without the bone) and mass beer (a full litre), we sat in the Biergarten under big deciduous trees, wearing sunglasses and generally having the craic. Divine.
Michael Sexton and Pat Walsh were the band who played their excellent music for the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon céilithe, and it seemed that the connection between musicians and dancers flowed effortlessly, rising to new heights according to atmosphere and the craic was truly mighty! Saugut, I would say in German. A few German dancers treated the audience to some solo steps, Henning Brouwer being one of them, a set dancing teacher and organiser of the Heidelberg weekend in October, and of course, our own Ger Butler—class.
Every available branch and rafter and pole, every table and post was decorated with colourful ribbons, flowers, bunches of rye, candles in glasses, fairy lights and more. A few tree stumps had been drilled to make a hole, filled with petroleum and set alight. What a lovely atmosphere all this created!
If I’d had any energy left that night, I would have stayed up longer, like a lot of others did. When I asked a lady next morning at breakfast what time she went to bed, she simply said she couldn’t be sure but it must have been half past!
Sunday the temperatures soared to 32 degrees—good thinking so to start the workshop early again! Ger stoically kept going and didn’t lose concentration in that heat—how does he do it? It really shows a high level of professional commitment.
We had freshly picked strawberries and homemade Bailey’s cream liqueur as a special treat in between sets as we danced away the last ceili early Sunday afternoon. At that stage we were all well cooked but we just couldn’t stop dancing. Hmm, actually I was knackered and did stop before the last set, but only reluctantly, because it felt as if I had made new friends in Germany and deepened the contact with some that I had met in Ireland before. And the slagging that went on was as Irish as it gets!
As my husband and I were getting ready to leave, it seemed as if we had got much more than a trip abroad—rediscovering the land we had left, very much liking what we saw, reconnecting with the language, touching into our roots and at the same time seeing new aspects to the country.
Alas, the weekend had to come to an end, and we hit the road down south in the late afternoon. As the skyline of the mountains came closer with magnificent scenery and breathtaking heights, we travelled on to the Alps on Sunday evening, compensating a bit for finishing the dancing.
The next day, as we looked down from Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze (3000m), the distinct feeling of being ‘on top of the world’ came over us. Just like the slightly dizzy sense of a high when dancing—exactly like it. Down the mountain in an underground cog wheel train, we alighted halfway and walked the rest. Little did we know that having to break our speed continuously would affect our poor calf muscles. No amount of dancing prepared me for it, it seemed.
But it was so worth it. There is a particular scent in the air at that altitude, that changes dramatically once you reach the woods, fresh and unspoilt and a complete absence of sound. Naturally, we had earned a good meal and went down to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a well known winter ski resort. The Partenkirchen part of the town especially is so lovely, no concrete buildings spoiling the quaintness of wooden upper story houses, often with romantic paintings, depicting hunts, religious scenes or picnics, on cobblestone roads. We tried game, stag to be precise, and found it delicious. And just inside the guesthouse restaurant where we were eating, a traditional Bavarian band started playing and two boys in those cute leather shorts and caps danced the Schuhplattler, which involves stamping and clapping all sorts of parts of the body! As in Ireland, this being a touristy area, traditional dancing in costume and karaoke-like singsongs are organised regularly throughout the season.
And then Tuesday came and it was time to drive back to Munich airport. Ach, it wasn’t easy to leave! With this trip to Germany, the word ‘fullness’ comes to mind as what it is that lingers. Everything came together. Nice weather, great atmosphere, lovely people, good food, lots of dancing, brilliant music, a wunderbarer teacher, thoughtfulness and plenty of laughs!
It occurred to me again how set dancing truly is a universal communicator and translator. When the language barrier is bridged by dancing, we can come to other places of understanding and create bonds that don’t have to have anything beyond the need and desire to enjoy, to move and to be the communal animals that we are.
I was told that there will be another weekend next year, oh goodie! Please God, we’ll travel to Germany again in 2009 for more of the same.
Slán and servus!
Chris Eichbaum, Rathgormack, Co Waterford
Every May long weekend, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, hosts the Blue Nose International Marathon. But no truly dedicated set dancer has ever attended. Why not? Because that’s when our annual run to Prince Edward Island takes place. As Canadians celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday (don’t ask) on the nearest Monday to May 24, the Prince Edward Island dancers hold a weekend of dancing and music-making. Great craic is only a bridge away, as we traverse Nova Scotia, zip into New Brunswick, and cross the 13km Confederation Bridge to the island province in the Gulf of St Lawrence.
On Friday evening, a number of the Nova Scotia and Island dancers gathered in Charlottetown for the Benevolent Irish Society Hall’s weekly traditional music concert. There we met the first surprise treat of the weekend—a honeymooning Irish-American couple. (He’s Irish, she’s American.) Bride Rhiannon Giddens from the African-American string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, was demonstrating Appalachian flatfoot dancing to PEI fiddling. Rhiannon and her new husband, Michael, were thrilled to learn about the weekend and promised to join us.
Another surprise awaited us at our billet’s house—a fiddle session! Helen Gough, the Islanders’ set dance teacher, and Roy Johnstone, their session leader, were flexing their bow elbows at the kitchen table, along with our host, Karl Thomson. Obviously dancing and music were going to be everywhere and anywhere this weekend.
Saturday morning the formalities began, and the Islanders had arranged something a little more formal this year. Since Nova Scotia’s set dance teacher, Elizabeth MacDonald, had returned to Canada after a four-year absence, they asked her to conduct workshops for the day. After a review of steps for sets, we began with one of the dancerly sets of which Elizabeth is so fond: Seit Doire Cholmcille. All hands enjoyed the elegant set, with its lovely pass-throughs and the arches all-round in the third figure.
Sure enough the honeymooners showed up, and they fitted in wonderfully. Rhiannon is an accomplished dancer, and not only did she learn the reel step in no time, she had mastered several variations for the advance and retire. She had also brought her fiddle, and turned out to know many Irish tunes.
A run was made to the grocery store, and shortly after we settled down to a hearty lunch of sandwiches, fruit, veggies and biscuits. Steps and tunes were exchanged, so we didn’t get as much rest as we could have used, but it’s only a weekend and we have to use every minute!
In the afternoon, we learned another lovely set, the Williamstown. We were struck by the charming heart-shaped pattern danced after the arches in the second figure. We are familiar with the ceili dance Haymaker’s Jig, so we had great fun doing the same movements in the last figure.
After the set dance lesson, Elizabeth taught us four Connemara-style sean nós steps. Since she was having difficulty finding music slow enough for a beginners’ class, three dancers grabbed their instruments to provide live music. This style of dancing is new to the Maritimes, so we were pleased that almost everyone stayed for the class. In Nova Scotia, only the ladies have taken to the sean nós so far, but the Island men joined right in, although someone commented that their hips were rather stiff.
Saturday night was concert time. Back on February 1st in Halifax, several women musicians had performed at a concert in honour of St Bridget. The same group was invited to perform in Charlottetown. Personnel changes included the addition of one man. The ladies-plus played, danced and sang for an appreciative audience.
After a decent opportunity to sleep in on Sunday, we headed to the local local, Brennan’s Pub and Eatery in Charlottetown, housed in a 19th century chemist’s shop. We reviewed the new sets we'd learned and danced many others. Acclaimed Island fiddler Roy Johnstone led the music; Island session-playing has greatly improved under Roy’s guidance, and the music was more than appropriate for dancing.
Sunday evening found us at one of our favourite Island destinations: the Nine Mile Creek Schoolhouse. In fact, the former school is the home of dancers Fred Horne and Mary Burke. The old saying “mind the dresser” warns us of the dangers that lie in dancing at close quarters; dancing in the kitchen at Fred and Mary’s provided a couple of examples. First, a small grate in the floor was sprung out of place by vigorous dancing, leaving a hole into which a couple of ladies’ heels landed. Duct tape saved the day. Next, the vibrations from dancing feet noisily liberated an aluminium pan from the counter unto the floor. Twice. Then, several men tried their hand at sean nós dancing. They did well, with help from the ladies, although their attempts to swing their hips were in vain.
On a happier note, Rhiannon gave us a song before the newlyweds took their leave. Smiling at Michael, she sang I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again. Off they went, leaving us astonished that a weekend with us was romantic enough for a honeymoon.
Romantic or not, the weekend was brilliant. As we straggled home Monday morning, no one doubted that we would be back next year to visit our Island home away from home.
Adele Megann, Halifax, Nova Scotia
As May turned into June, a wonderful set dance weekend got under way in a beautiful hotel just outside Luxembourg city. It was the first set dance weekend here in seven years. From my home in Erlangen in Bavaria, it is a long way to Lux but the trip was well worth the drive. In beautiful weather I left various counties in Germany behind me and crossed the Rhine and Mosel valleys before entering little Luxembourg.
Right at the hotel door I got a great welcome from Gerrie Paulus, one of the three lovely ladies who organized the weekend for the Luxembourg branch of Comhaltas. Gerrie, Mary Butler and Rose McCabe are the most warmhearted ambassadors for set dancing. Rose and Mary are both Irish living in Lux for a long time and Gerrie is a native. They invited top class teachers, Pat Murphy and Tony Ryan.
Before the workshop started, the ladies carefully checked the wooden floor which was laid out on carpet in a spacious room of this big hotel. The floor was bouncy and soft, the same way dance floors are often provided for set dance weekends in Ireland. Regular dancers know how important a good dance floor is: a well-built floor saves energy, avoids accidents and is good for your knees which is most important for your continued ability to dance. Anybody who has suffered knee problems after dancing on inappropriate floors knows that.
After a nice light meal, dancers gathered in the hall looking around to spot well known faces. Participants from all over Europe attended the weekend. Many dancers came from Brussels and Antwerp and from Germany and Switzerland. There were couples from as far away as Paris and a big group from Galway and other corners of Ireland. I thoroughly enjoyed the company of many dancers that I had never met before and became friends with during the weekend.
Tony Ryan started the Friday evening workshop with the Cuchulainn Set, one of the sets which came ‘new on the market’ in recent years. After this set we were well warmed up and ready for more. Pat Murphy now continued with the Seit Doire Colmcille, a beauty from County Derry. Each set has parts which are tricky and in the Doire Colmcille this is in the second figure where ladies can easily move too far while going under the arch. Pat explained the difficulties effectively and with charm so that everybody had good fun.
After the workshop dancers gathered in the hotel bar on Friday night for a chat and some singsong. One of the dancers found a piano in the bar and performed some talented entertainment for everybody.
Saturday morning, it was Pat’s turn and he started with the popular Antrim Square Set. Tony Ryan continued with the Fermanagh Set, another great set containing many different interesting parts. In the afternoon we continued with the Inis Oírr Set from the smallest of the Aran Islands. This time we were provided with live music by James Hogan and Colin McGill from Ireland, two polite and friendly young men. They used the opportunity to set up the sound for their accordion and keyboard—a great boost for all of us. Our hosting ladies had invited them to play for the ceilis. A great choice!
What a pleasure to see James and Colin back on stage again Saturday night! The mixture of people from all over Europe made this ceili a great success. We danced all the workshop sets plus another interesting selection of sets like the West Kerry plus many common sets. James and Colin played powerful lively tunes which suited dancers very much. To everybody’s surprise, James put on his dancing shoes and came onto the dance floor. He gave us a mighty sample of solo steps! To great clapping and cheering, this talented young man went back on stage to provide us with more tunes.
So that I could enjoy a sightseeing tour with two friends in fine sunny weather, I skipped the Sunday morning workshop. We did a little walking tour through the romantic Müllertal region very near to the venue and took a drive to the historic town of Echternach, well worth another visit.
Just back in time for the afternoon ceili, we once more danced to our boys’ music and again we were rewarded with a great selection of sets before the final applause. The lovely weekend slowly came to an end. I have met good old friends and made many new ones thanks to the dedicated organizing work of Gerrie, Mary and Rose.
I was one of the lucky visitors who didn’t have to leave until Monday morning. The three ladies took mighty care of all those who could stay on, the teachers, band and a few more. A group of about fifteen was guided through the town of Luxembourg, and what a most charming town it is! We had great fun together, chatting all the way. We finished our tour in a lovely Italian restaurant with pizza, pasta and dessert. And the evening was not over: back in the hotel, participants from Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany gathered in the bar to sing Irish and German songs, reciting poems and playing music. We finished the evening with a polonaise through the bar.
The weekend felt like a family gathering!
Andrea Forstner, Erlangen, Germany
Thunder and lightning made a dramatic start to my weekend in Birr, Co Offaly. The pyrotechnics happened as I arrived in town on Friday evening, May 31st, for the annual Comhaltas dance weekend. I was reminded of my younger days in the States when storms like this were a common occurrence on summer evenings. They’re rare enough in Ireland that they never fail to give me a thrill, if only for a few minutes. Fortunately the sound and light show, and its accompanying rain, had vanished by the time of the weekend’s opening ceili.
Marian Hall is the spacious old hall with a beautiful floor opposite the entrance to Birr Castle, the home of the Earl of Ross, where the weekend’s dancing takes place. It is also home to bingo every Friday evening and those of us arriving to dance had to wait outside while hundreds of players finished their game. While they filed out of the hall, the chairs were quickly carried away and the floor cleared of a vast amount of rubbish. It wasn’t long before the hall was ready and the Copperplate Ceili Band started with the Corofin Plain Set. Sets can generate summer heat even in the depths of winter, and with the good music, plenty of lively dancers and a warm evening it felt quite sultry. Despite this, the Copperplate gave us a full evening of ten delightful sets, including the Newport, Claddagh and Derradda, plus three waltzes and a quickstep.
June arrived on Saturday morning and rewarded us with the hottest day of the year. Teachers Pádraig and Róisín McEneany had a keen group of six or seven sets for the morning workshop, which he began with the Ballingeary Set. Before each of the first three figures Pádraig had everyone practice polka steps, adding in a batter and jump as we progressed. The Williamstown Set gave an opportunity to practice reel steps. Pádraig and Róisín danced each figure in a demonstration set and then we danced them through once or twice. Pádraig even asked tops and sides to swap places when repeating the third figure so everyone could do it either way.
At lunch we sampled the cafés a short walk away in town or across the street at the castle. There was even a stall selling fruit in the car park beside the hall and several people shared the first strawberries of the season. When the workshop resumed we had the same number of sets so everyone was clearly enjoying Pádraig and Róisín’s class. We carried on with the Tory Island Set, and for some of the figures we split up into half sets so tops and sides could practice the moves together. At the end of the afternoon there wasn’t time for another full set, so instead we danced the first figure of each of the day’s three sets and Pádraig insisted we dance with a different partner each time.
Saturday night’s ceili with the Abbey Ceili Band was full of great music, partners and sets, beginning with the Caledonian and ending with the Plain. In between we also danced the Sliabh Luachra and Ballingeary, and during the second half, my favourite polka set, the West Kerry, was followed by my favourite reel set, the South Galway—I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before! Nearly all the sets were called in all three ceilis so there was no excuse for sitting any out.
During a break in the ceili presentations were made to two men who played important roles in traditional music and dance in Birr. Willie Smith, age 84, taught ceili dancing in town for many years, and Paddy Meade (1908-1993) started the local branch of Comhaltas in 1954. Branch chair Jim Kinsella presented a medal to Willie and a crystal vase to Paddy’s daughters Marie Morrissey and Helena Spain, and grandsons Donal and Ronan Morrissey, organisers of the weekend.
After the ceili I had a few words with Jerry Kavanagh from Kilkenny, who said he was a new dancer, and a very keen one I noticed. He’s training to be a psychotherapist and so has to undergo psychotherapy himself. He claimed that set dancing is better than any psychotherapy! I’d agree—no contest!
The Birr heat wave continued on Sunday morning when John Creed from Waterford taught the Priest in His Boots, which is quite suitable for people having their first attempt at traditional step dancing. My own first attempt was years ago and I keep attending these workshops in the hope that one day I’ll perfect it, or at least feel as comfortable doing it as I do with set dancing. John taught the five parts one at a time with plenty of practice. At the end we must have done the full dance to music at least half a dozen times before John felt we’d learned enough. And it might not look quite as strenuous as set dancing, there was plenty of perspiration generated this morning.
The Five Counties Ceili Band was a great choice for the Sunday afternoon ceili, as they have a good following among younger dancers. They bring a burst of energy to ceilis and successfully overcame any lethargy caused by our weekend of summer weather. Pádraig called the South Sligo Lancers as our most adventurous set of the ceili. When it came to the Plain Set at the end of the ceili, I spotted a lot of partner swapping in some of the sets, with Pádraig and Donal splitting up a couple of ladies dancing together for one figure, then moving elsewhere for the next. We went into overtime after that when the band played a rake of reels so we could dance what we like. I would have liked to join the set which danced the first figures of the Clare Orange and Green, Claddagh and Williamstown sets nonstop!
Everything seemed to be right about my weekend in Birr—fantastic music, great teachers and gorgeous weather! It’s a mystery how they manage this every year but my congratulations to Donal and Ronan.
Some of us don’t always want to remember our birthday, but when one reaches the prime age of eighty years, that’s certainly a cause for celebration! Vincent Lewis, Coalisland, Co Tyrone, reached this milestone birthday in June, and some set dancing friends decided a party should mark the occasion.
On Sunday 8th June, Vincent was joined by family and friends in the Armagh City Hotel for dinner, which was followed by an afternoon of well-wishing, singing and dancing to Vincent’s delight in the Fisher Suite of the hotel. Songs from Mary McCormack, Eilís Fox (age 10) and Dessie McGartland were followed by a couple of figures of the Plain Set by the Galbally Junior Set Dancers. Then all at the party took to the floor for various kinds of dancing—sets, ceili, waltz and others, even the Walls of Limerick was slotted in.
From 5 to 8pm Vincent and his family were joined by a large selection of his set dancing friends from all the counties around, even Galway was represented. Everyone enjoyed a mighty ceili to the great sound of the Oriel Ceili Band. Many set dancers packed the pleasant venue at the hotel with sets called by the ever popular Joe Farrell. After the tea which was provided by the Armagh City Hotel, John Joe Brannigan and I exhibited a range of sean nós steps and the crowd were treated to a spectacular brush dance by John Cassidy. Ann Marie Harte and Vincent performed a cajun dance as a party piece.
Vincent with his generous nature had asked for no gifts or presents, but instead requested that all the proceeds of the ceili be donated to Marie Curie Cancer Care Nurses. Nurse McVeigh from Killyman, near Dungannon, Co Tyrone, accepted the sum of £2,218 from Vincent, who then thanked all the dancers for their kind subscriptions towards this important charity. He also thanked the management and staff of Armagh City Hotel for organising their lovely venue so well. Some people asked Vincent to run another day like it next year, but he said that from now on, he’ll be getting ready for the next eighty!
A big hearty congratulations on reaching this birthday and best wishes for many more years on the set dancing circuit.
Fidelma Brannigan, Galbally, Co Tyrone
Over the weekend of 24 and 25 May the Sydney Irish Ceili Dancers celebrated their fiftieth anniversary with a series of dance workshops and a celebratory ceili.
The group was formed by Peter Paul McKenna who came to Australia from Ardee, Co Louth. In 1958 he began teaching ceili dancing at the Irish National Association’s Cultural Centre Pádraig Pearse Branch and was the leader until his untimely death in February 1992.
When my husband Bill and I travelled with Peter to Ireland for our first visit in 1989 we began our education in Irish set dancing. Together with traditional old style step dancing and ceili dancing the group would now have all facets of Irish dancing to share in Australia.
The dance workshops over the fiftieth anniversary weekend reflected this—there were workshops in step, ceili and set dancing as well as Cape Breton step dancing. Jennifer Strutt from Newcastle has visited Cape Breton Island on a number of occasions and attended summer schools where she has learned this form of dancing. Her two workshops were well attended and enjoyed immensely.
Marie Brouder, a native of Nenagh, Co Tipperary, flew up from Melbourne and presented the set dance workshops with Flight of the Earls, Inis Oírr and the Paris sets. Marie’s attention to detail and fun nature made her workshops so very enjoyable.
Bill and I commenced the weekend by teaching the Killarney Waltz which we in turn learned from good friend Dennis Harkins of Philadelphia. We also taught the Humours of Bandon, Three Tunes and High Cauled Cap, which were well received by all the dancers and most appropriate given that the dance group began with ceili dancing in the very same premises fifty years ago. I taught An Gabharín Buí, a very lively solo dance which is performed over crossed sticks. I learned this from Dan Furey and James Keane and paid tribute to these two wonderful gentlemen who were able to leave such fine dances behind them for so many to enjoy.
The Saturday night fiftieth anniversary ceili brought past and current members of the group together as well as many others who just wished to help celebrate. The programme included set and ceili dancing and a number of two-hand dances.
During the evening I launched a cd on behalf of the Coast Ceili Band who regularly play for our group’s classes and performances. With the title Set Dancing Down Under, there is no doubt that it has an Australian flavour—two of the sets have been written by Des Jackson, a member of the Sydney Irish Ceili Dancers since the mid 1990s. One of his sets, the Antrim Square Set, has become very popular in Ireland (even Matt Cunningham has recorded music for this set) and the second is yet to be published—the Southern Cross Irish Set. The third set, the Australian Half-Set, danced in Australia for the past fifty years would have been the only set Peter McKenna knew when he arrived in Australia. It is possible it began life as the Louth Half-Set. The last set on the cd is the Plain Set—recorded by the musicians as it is the one set that is always danced at céilithe where they play. To complete the cd there is a waltz selection long enough to dance a Waltz Cotillon or a few rounds of the Pride of Erin.
The Coast Ceili Band consists of Pam (keyboard, whistle, guitar) and Norm (accordian) Merrigan, Ann O’Donovan (whistle) and Shayne (fiddle) and Roz (mandolin) Kerr. Two tunes, Humours of Antrim and Reel of Twins, were written by Norm, the first especially for the Antrim Square Set and the second to mark the birth of his twin granddaughters. For the Australian Half-Set the musicians have used, wherever possible, tunes that are typically Australian but have been derived from or have a connection with Irish music.
Another highlight of the evening was the attendance of Irish Vice Consul Louise Kelly who presented commemorative medals to past and current members of the Sydney Irish Ceili Dancers.
By late Sunday afternoon the dancers were well and truly ready to hit the road back to their homes all over Sydney and Canberra whilst others headed straight for the airport to catch their flights to Melbourne and Brisbane. Nowhere is really that far in Australia!
Margaret Winnett, Bexley North, NSW, Australia
Miltown Malbay, Co Clare—After class one day during the summer school, a regular visitor from Australia said, “The thing about the Willie Clancy is that it’s always good.” When you’re travelling to dance on the opposite side of globe, you’d want to be pretty sure you’re going to have a good time. There’s no doubt about it, the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Armada Hotel’s week of set dancing are the best dancing of the year. Everyone who offered me an opinion about it agreed. My words and pictures can only convey a tiny fraction of what it’s like to be there, but it might help you relive the fun of your own visit or encourage you to come next year!
Shoe friendly floor
The Armada Hotel, the week’s most popular set dancing venue in Spanish Point, Miltown Malbay’s beach suburb, presented a new appearance to those of us showing up for the first afternoon ceili on Saturday, July 5th. Rolling up in my car, I was first surprised to find that the hotel car parks had been reorganised, forcing me to develop new parking habits during the week. The yellow-painted exterior was gone, replaced by a subtler shade of creamy white. Otherwise from the entrance to the ballroom the hotel looked the same, and it was only days later before I noticed that a huge new three-story wing of 26 bedrooms had been added on the opposite side of the building.
However, on that first day we reserved most of our praise for the brand new temporary floor which was only built today—the chippies were in at 7am and finished not long before the doors opened before 3pm. Covering nearly every bit of carpet around the hall it was an inviting expanse of smooth timber, free of any surface brackets as in previous years—break out the new shoes! While most dancers preferred the permanent dance floor, now painted black, there were many who danced only on the new boards. When the new floor had released its grip on my attention, I then noticed the rest of the room had been renewed as well, with new lighting, carpets, curtains and wall colour to match the exterior.
But we’re set dancers, not brides and grooms, oblivious to the finer points of interior design as long as we have good music, partners, atmosphere and big glasses of water to quench our thirst—all this is pretty much guaranteed at the Armada. The Copperplate Ceili Band took great delight in opening the afternoon ceili and my first partner and I took equal pleasure in christening the floor with the Corofin Plain Set. Thumbs up! We danced the usual selection of sets, but there was one new one which has now become commonplace—the Claddagh Set—and another new one following close behind—the Antrim Square Set. The Copperplate played both beautifully, without calling or explanation, and there was a lot of consultation ’round the hall for each figure of the Antrim Square. Luckily my partner from Germany knew it perfectly. The two sets popped up all week at the ceilis here.
I spent the rest of the night in the hotel, taking a meal in the carvery and then dancing to the Five Counties Ceili Band, a ten-piece band of young musicians from Cork. Plenty of young dancers came along to support them, so there was a wide range of ages happily dancing together in the ballroom. The music pleased the crowd with its bright liveliness and the band was rewarded with spontaneous cheers after all the best figures. During the break it was apparent that the new floor was suffering after the day’s dancing—sections had separated in a couple of places.
The floor was back in one piece again for the afternoon ceili on Sunday, July 6th, with Johnny Reidy, but before I could actually enter the hall I had to wait behind more than a hundred others in the queue ahead of me. Such is Johnny’s popularity that everyone wants to be early so as not to miss a bit of his music. We were early forming sets on the floor as well, long before the first dance was announced. When the first figure finished there was a cheer, and we cheered regularly all afternoon. Someone told me it was “the Olympics of set dancing.”
Johnny appears to play his box without any apparent effort at all, motionless on a high stool, contemplating all before him with the calm relaxation of a Buddha. Yet his music has the power to exhaust you without even realising it—he makes the dancing so effortless that it’s only when the ceili is over that you realise how much energy you expended. Any little aches and pains vanish completely while the music is on, forgotten till the end of the ceili. The dancing climaxed with a wild exciting Lancers, and when it was over, the band played the national anthem so sweetly that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
I surveyed the floor afterward and the power of set dancing was clear—one little section adjacent to the stage had drifted so far out of position that it pulled metal brackets out of the wall, distorting and breaking them. Another section had been battered, scored, scuffed and cratered by some serious dance shoes. Set dancers can age a floor mighty fast, but there were no problems with it the rest of the week.
On Sunday night I went dancing to the legendary Templehouse Ceili Band in the Mill Marquee, a large temporary dance hall erected on the edge of Miltown Malbay in the car park of a playing field. The comforts here are basic, a wooden bench around the perimeter and a few tables and chairs, but there was a new bit of luxury this year! A line of upholstered armchairs and sofas were the best seats in the house, leftovers from a furniture auction put to good use. The music of the Templehouse sounded as refreshing as it did in their heyday back in the early nineties. These days their appearances are very rare, just once or twice a year—it would be lovely to dance to them more often!
Home away from homeOn Monday morning, July 7th, summer school classes began all around the area. Once again I attended Timmy McCarthy’s class for the gorgeous Cork and Kerry sets, for the powerful live music, for his jokes, stories and words of wisdom, and for the comfortable venue. The former chapel beside St Joseph’s Secondary School in Spanish Point was spacious and light, featured a good temporary floor and had a kitchen where I could help myself to a cup of tea on arrival. It was probably the only dance venue in town offering free Internet access, at least until later in the week when the school got wise to it. We began dancing with the Ballyvourney Reel Set, which works even with five-couple sets so that everyone was able to dance, and then the Sliabh Luachra Set, complete with the old way of dancing some of the figures. I’ve done them many times before but they’re always fresh in Timmy’s workshops.
An afternoon class of two-hand dancing at the Mill Marquee attracted a mixed crowd of both new and experienced dancers of all ages. Marie Garrity of Omagh was patient and thorough in her teaching, working through the steps and moves in great detail with plenty of slow practice. Almost no one sat out and with a few progressive dances like the circle waltz and Boston two-step I was able to dance with half of the dozens of participants.
Monday was an exceptional night in the Armada with the Abbey Ceili Band. The ballroom was packed from the start and after a couple of great sets, I was thinking I might transfer over to the quieter ceili in the marquee before the sardine experience became too intense. Then I was asked to dance a set in ‘Barney’s corner,’ the spot farthest from the band but closest to the Atlantic Ocean. It stayed amazingly crush-free for the entire ceili so I made it my temporary home. It’s called after a very wise Cork man who dances nowhere else when he’s here. Actually most dancers tended to claim their own section of floor and stay there all night.
Tonight I thought myself very lucky that the band called the Borlin Polka Set just when I was booked with my favourite doubling partner. As I was spinning around the house I noticed a group of Japanese dancers arriving and seating themselves around the corner. Initially they smiled at our spinning, then applauded, and soon we had an active cheering section spurring us on to ever more prodigious doubles. Some of them joined us for the following sets, including the Claddagh, which they had danced before but were still unsure enough at it to have a lot of fun. The band played stunning music thoughout, making this night the Armada experience par excellence!
Standing room only
Despite a late night I managed to get to class on time on Tuesday morning, July 8th—it’s funny how the more I dance the less I sleep. Timmy continued with the Jenny Ling and Sneem sets and guest musicians Andy O’Sullivan and Dave Baker-O’Sullivan from Kenmare visited to play for us. During a break Timmy popped outside and then popped back inside to have us come out for a look. Assembling in the car park beside the chapel and school for a photo were around three or four hundred summer school fiddle students and their teachers, a most impressive sight.
I took a bit of a dancing break in the afternoon to attend a tribute to Michael Tubridy, a man of enormous reputation and influence in both traditional music and dance. The packed Community Hall in Miltown was testimony to this. The tribute was presented by his old musician friend, Mick O’Connor, and consisted largely of video interviews of Michael and his friends. He spoke of Michael’s Clare origins, his playing with the Ceoltóirí Chualann and the Chieftains and his role in reviving Clare sets and the step dances of Dan Furey and James Keane. When Mick finished, Michael played music for the Priest and His Boots while his loyal group of followers danced it. He then partnered up with Betty McCoy and three couples of friends to dance two figures of the Plain Set. Michael graciously received the warm wishes of the crowd and spoke many nice words of his own.
After the lecture I still had time for three sets in the Armada. On arrival I heard Swallow’s Tail in full flight with melodeon blazing and everyone was dancing up a storm in the Claddagh Set. In the following Kilfenora Set I went astray in the first figure and caused my opposites to go wrong as well. Thereafter I made further deliberate attempts to cause mistakes but try as I did they didn’t let me mess them up again. I enjoyed the final two Ballyvourney and Connemara sets just as they were intended to be done.
A big crowd was expected for the ceili by the Tulla Ceili Band in the Mill Marquee on Tuesday night, and it was probably their biggest night ever. The marquee has a capacity of 600 and when it reached that level, cars were turned away at the gates. It pays to be on time for the Tulla, and early if you want a seat. One person told me how he took a break for a set and walked around the entire marquee searching in vain for a seat—not only was the floor full but so was every seat! As soon as the Tulla started playing the opening South Galway Set, it was easy to see why they’re so popular. The music is as sweet and steady, with a strong yet subtle lift powerful enough to send you through every set with the greatest of ease. I love their waltzes as well—a few trad tunes followed by a medley of songs by J J Conway. Most of us have heard them so often that about half the dancers on the still full floor were singing along with him. Just before the last set there was a welcome fiddle solo by Martin Hayes, son of the late band leader P Joe Hayes and probably Irish traditional music’s best known performer. Everyone crowded around the stage to listen and watch in reverent, rapt attention. Martin is an important factor in the popularity of these ceilis and does the summer school a huge favour in helping to fill the marquee on two nights.
Driving through town on the way home after the ceili, I spotted people exhibiting the characteristic ‘Miltown stagger’, which seems to be caused by listening to too much music in pubs.
Wednesday, July 9th, was an eventful day in Timmy’s class. Firstly, the dishwasher in the kitchen, full of yesterday’s cups, flooded the floor and shorted out the electricity. No early cup of tea for me! Word was sent back to headquarters and a fellow came along to restore power, drain the dishwasher and dry the floor. He pronounced the machine dead. Meanwhile, a special guest teacher, Noel Burke from Bantry, Co Cork, visited the class to teach the Borlin Jenny Set which he helped revive. And Timmy was delighted to welcome his first ever dancer partner, Eilie Buckley from Millstreet, Co Cork. She helped him through the Sliabh Luachra Set and inspired a love of dancing which has been his passion ever since. One other visitor showed up in the break, a very friendly black kitten! After class I noticed classmate Filip Kristensen from Zagreb, Croatia, happily washing all our cups!
Making their debut in Miltown at the Wednesday afternoon ceili were the Lough Ree Ceili Band, named after the lake bordering counties Roscommon, Longford and Westmeath, where the four musicians are from. They were intent on pleasing the crowd and played highly energised music with a few quirky tunes and flashy flourishes not often heard at ceilis. There was a clever use of the band’s break in the middle of the ceili when a recording of reels was played for a display of sean nós dancing. Leading the charge was Dermot Halpin, who walks with the help of a cane but was well able to batter the floor. Some wild brush dancing was done by Ger and Colin Butler and by young local teachers Peter Hanrahan and Owen Marrinan. After a Ballyvourney, a perfectly executed Claddagh, and a Plain Set, we finished up with a rousing rake of reels. During the ceili the skies darkened and a terrific downpour failed to stir us from our sets. There was said to be thunder, but it didn’t stand a chance of being noticed against all the music and battering!
The Kilfenora Ceili Band had their turn in the Mill Marquee on Wednesday, and while they don’t attract the same number of dancers as the Tulla, the music and dancing were just as enjoyable, plus no one was turned away! My best set of the night was the Cashel, when I was shyly asked to dance by a Japanese woman who told me her name was Lyn. She’s a good dancer and we had plenty of fun in the Cashel—more than she was used to I’d say! Later another partner and I joined a set where Lyn and three of her friends were already waiting. They all got the giggles when we showed up, so I was in doubt about the impression I must have made. However, she kindly thanked me again later so must have had a good time.
International observerIt was a day of review and rehearsal in class on Thursday morning, July 10th. All the summer school dance classes perform on stage at the dance recital and Timmy solicited twelve volunteers to dance a figure of the Sneem Set followed by one from the Jenny Ling. The gents would dance both figures while the ladies would each do one, changing over in between. In fact, volunteer gents were scarce enough that two ladies were helping out. I hesitated to volunteer to give others a chance at it, but Timmy quickly added my name to the list.
There was a fun afternoon of dancing with Brian Ború Ceili Band in the Mill Marquee. Some kids were out on the floor with us, enjoying the sets as much as we were, and Marie Garrity was on hand to call a few interludes of two-hand dances. Marie also called the Claddagh Set and Bernie Collum, just arrived from Longford, assisted with the Kilfenora.
The Willie Clancy Summer School had a special guest at tonight’s dance recital in the Community Hall—the Croatian ambassador to Ireland. A large group had travelled over to the summer school from Zagreb, where Dubliner Paul O’Grady teaches set dancing classes to well over a hundred enthusiastic young dancers. This is the fourth year that Paul and some of his group have been in Miltown. My classmate Filip told me that he phoned the Croatian embassy in Dublin earlier in the year to enquire about accommodation for the group. The ambassador heard about his call and wanted to see for himself what his countrymen and women were up to. He arrived to the fanfare of photographers and the attention of the organisers. A front row seat in the audience was kept for him where he was probably able to see Croatians dancing in nearly every group on stage. Afterward he very kindly took them all out for a Chinese meal!
Meanwhile, Timmy asked our group to meet in the hall by 9pm in advance of our performance sometime before 10 o’clock—we were on last! Our two ladies dancing as gents had taken their roles seriously enough to sport caps, braces and even moustaches, and also to give themselves stage names—meet Pat Joe and Adolfo! All went well at the appointed time—how could it be otherwise with Timmy playing and calling out the moves for us? Most of all he wanted us to have fun and show it! We did have great craic—which is why we got such a good response from the audience.
I had to get over to the Mill Theatre urgently—the Tulla Ceili Band had already been playing half an hour and I didn’t want to miss any more of it! The crowd was just the right size tonight—quite full, everyone who wanted to attend got in and it was possible to find a seat during a set. Martin Hayes gave another memorable solo performance, and afterward the crowd moved aside a bit to let a few sean nós dancers strut their stuff, including Kitty Leyden, Aidan Vaughan, Kathleen McGlynn and Peggy Doherty.
The plain people
Friday morning, 11 July, I arrived about 2½ hours late to Timmy’s class because I first went to visit several other dance classes. In the Community Hall, Eileen O’Doherty was teaching the South Sligo Lancers, and Mick Mulkerrin and Mairéad Casey were looking after experienced and beginning sean nós dancers in the Mill Marquee. Three traditional step dancing classes were underway in changing rooms beside a playing field, beginners with Noel Devery, advanced with Patrick O’Dea and in-betweens with Margaret Wray. Margaret taught her group a dance she devised herself, the Hurling Boy, during the week and today they were practicing an old dance from the north to very appealing reels. In the Armada’s main hall, Mary Clancy had her enthusiastic, appreciative group dancing the Derradda Set. Everyone in Timmy’s class was having fun with the Ardgroom Set when I arrived, and I just watched them for a few minutes comforted by a cup of tea.
I felt very positive about the week after my morning, and in the glorious afternoon sunshine I could only think that it was the best week ever. Dance classes all seemed to be a bit fuller compared to last year, and the crowds at ceilis were as big as ever—every night in the Armada and on the two nights with the Tulla Ceili Band in the Mill Theatre. I met organiser Muiris Ó Rocháin in the street and he seemed totally pleased with his summer school, and everyone everywhere was in the best of spirits!
We were treated to another new band today—the Curra Ceili Band led by Jerry McCarthy on accordion and featuring Micheál Creedon on piano and Liam Forde on banjo. Jerry may have been making his first appearance at the Armada, but Micheál and Liam had been here in the past because they were half of the founding members of the Abbey Ceili Band. Their lovely Cork music was a delight right from the opening Connemara Set and the dancers’ cheers confirmed what I was thinking myself. Here was music as light and bright as the day was outside! I gave Jerry plenty of plus points for choosing interesting sets when he announced the West Kerry second, followed by the Clare Mazurka and Labasheeda. He had a ready supply of amusing chat between sets and figures—after the break he announced, “We’re back with the Plain Set, for the plain people of Ireland.” At the end of the afternoon we were rewarded with a long rake of reels to dance what we wished; when that concluded everyone cheered and battered the floor in an ovation of genuine appreciation.
After a meal in town I wandered into the Friday night concertina recital in the Community Hall and considered myself lucky to see a performance by Mary Ellen Curtin from Ennistymon, Co Clare. She played the instrument in youth, but has only taken up it again recently in her eighties. Her tunes were gorgeous, played with natural grace and perfect rhythm. Then I spent the rest of the night at the ceili in the Mill Marquee where the dynamic duo Micheál Sexton and Pat Walsh did their best to warm us up now that it had turned quite chilly.
Drinks declinedSaturday, July 12th—it was a busy day at Timmy’s last class of the week. One of the Croatian dancers celebrated her birthday and ‘Pat Joe’ made a delicious strawberry and cream birthday cake for her. Then there was a presentation to Timmy from the class. Opening the card he was halted mid-sentence, flabbergasted to receive a wad of us dollars for his trip to the States the next day. We had a free raffle for a cd of music from last year’s summer school. And finally, Timmy was delighted and honoured to be asked to bring a group to dance on stage again, this time at the grand concert, which he said is the best concert of traditional music in the country. New and old volunteers were enlisted, including four non-female gents, one of whom was Timmy himself. We had a quick rehearsal to refresh our minds, and arranged to meet this evening.
In the last hour of the last class of the summer school, dancers met for a short ceili in the Mill Marquee. At the same time Mary Clancy’s class stayed in the Armada and just gathered chairs into a big circle for a lovely session. Mary herself began with a beautiful song, and many of the others followed with songs, tunes and steps.
It was another afternoon of perfect weather when people were enjoying the beach, sea and other outdoor delights of Spanish Point, and still a good crowd came along to the afternoon ceili in the Armada with Micheál Sexton and Pat Walsh. There was nowhere else I wanted to be at the time, but still I quite often admired the glistening sea through the windows. The sets included a West Kerry and a Newport, my first of the week. When the band took a break, they put on some recordings of country music, and naturally dancers took to the floor with quicksteps, jives and one lad even did some flamboyant line dancing—a few tried to copy him but further practice was needed! When Micheál and Pat returned, they subtly played along with the recording and then continued seamlessly with their own music—clever! After the final Lancers Set everyone lingered a long time in the hall or just outside enjoying the evening sun.
When my lingering was over I headed to the Community Hall to be on time for the concert performance by members of Timmy’s class. We all felt rather privileged to enter the hall by the artists’ entrance and help ourselves to drinks and sandwiches laid on in a waiting room for the numerous famous musicians playing on stage tonight. The concert lasted over four hours beginning at 7pm, and luckily we were on early in the programme. Timmy was restless until everyone arrived, and then we managed to do another rehearsal in the narrow passage beside the hall. Mick Mulkerrin and Mairéad Casey immediately preceded us and we shared their musicians, members of the Mulcahy family from west Limerick. I can’t remember what Timmy said to the audience, but the music was ideal, the dancing exciting and each of the five ladies I danced with, my partner in the figure of the Sneem Set and all four in the Jenny Ling, danced perfectly wearing their biggest smiles. Timmy was pleased and proud, and the summer school was grateful enough to give him a cheque for €100 to buy us all drinks! Since most of us wanted to go our separate ways we had to decline the kind offer.
That left me time to get to the Armada early and park conveniently for tonight’s ceili. The night was fine and the moon was making occasional guest appearances between clouds. The main act was the Brian Ború Ceili Band, their last of a welcome series of appearances in Miltown. In the smaller adjacent hall where I had lunch earlier in the day P J Murrihy was performing his Irish country songs accompanied on piano by the versatile Micheál Sexton. Here it was the second last ceili of the festival, and I was just meeting some friends for the first time! That’s by far the greatest pleasure of the week, meeting friends old and new for a dance, a meal or a chat. Whenever I made an advance booking with a partner, I asked her to find me near Barney’s corner, which even tonight was still airy and relatively crush-free.
As long as it’s needed
I slept as late as my dance-obsessed brain would allow me on Sunday morning, July 13th, my first lie-in since the summer school classes began last Monday morning, though it would probably take another week to catch up on all those missed hours of sleep! The sky had clouded over by the time I arrived at the Armada for the afternoon farewell ceili, but when Johnny Reidy started his magic music, we had all the sunshine we needed filling our ears and minds. This might have been one of the happiest ceilis I’ve attended, with smiles on all faces and a carefree atmosphere. The crowd showed their appreciation to the band with cheers and shouts after nearly every figure. Michael Kearney from Sixmilebridge, Co Clare, expressed his own homemade thanks when he presented Johnny with a picture of an accordion painted on a piece of slate. Claire Burke, the owner of the hotel, took time during the ceili to express her own thanks to the bands, dancers and staff. She pointed out the new floor installed at the start of the week; it was looking about twenty years older after all the wear and tear of the week! Claire had been asked to respond to rumours that this was the last year of the set dancing festival—she said it would continue it as long as it’s needed. We were then able to dance the final Plain Set with no doubt about being back here again next year!
For a good while my husband has wanted to go to Brittany. These days, though, it is difficult to get me to go anywhere without the carrot of set dancing. So when I saw a set dance weekend in Brest advertised in the Set Dancing News, we negotiated a treaty. We would go to France, by motorbike and ferry; he then could drive around to his heart’s content, while I could go dancing.
The boat was booked for Thursday, 22nd of May, from Rosslare to Roscoff, with the return journey on the following Sunday night. When we got soaked on the way to Wexford, we agreed to think about it as an adventure. Then my husband discovered that he forgot his passport and lost his wedding ring. I lost my travel purse with everything in it on the boat. Thank God some angelic soul recovered it. I also realised I lost a good deal of the French I learned in school many years ago.
However, when the ferry arrived on Friday morning in Roscoff a beautiful warm and sunny day greeted us. We were able to stretch and loosen our stiff limbs and have our first café au lait (milky coffee) in one of many street cafes.
After losing our way a few times travelling to Brest, we discovered the gorgeous hinterland and thoroughly enjoyed riding the windy country roads, rolling hills, lush woods and small quaint villages that seemed utterly deserted. Several cafés au lait later, we arrived in Brest and after losing our way (hey, a pattern emerges) found the accommodation that had been recommended to us.
This was my first time riding a bike for many years. Since my husband is very tall, the bike is tall, and only the tips of my toes touched the ground. Without him behind me weighing it down, the bike would have been impossible to drive. It’s a Honda Africa Twin Enduro made for both on and off road, and because off road riders might stand up now and again, the driving position is upright rather than aerodynamic. So here I was, conquering this too-big-for-me-bike in France (saying to myself, “stay right, stay right,” like a mantra) along gently winding country roads in that upright position, feeling like a million dollars—that had a wow factor! We were fast discovering the buzz of travelling combined with dancing as the ideal way of life—so what if it rains a little at times?
By Saturday I was ready to do some dancing and was glad, after some more coffee, and losing our way, and buckets of rain, to find the workshop venue, a lovely purpose-built dance studio with a mirror-clad wall, big enough to hold maybe six sets. Finally, I got to meet with Marie-France and Joël Perchoc, who organised the weekend and with whom we had only email contact. They had some English, so we could communicate a little.
Ger Butler was the teacher for the two days, and the language problem was overcome by some French people who spoke English and who would quickly translate Ger’s instructions for the ones who didn’t. There were no beginners, simply folks who had done a lot of dancing and some who had done a bit of it, but enough to follow sets like the South Sligo Lancers, Claddagh and Moycullen without a bother. Two sets and a half took the floor, and I ended up dancing in the half set and was challenged to do the South Sligo Lancers with five people, doubling up all the time. (Imagine doing the fourth figure with five people? Mice at the crossroads!) There was also a good bit of sean nós and two-hand dances, like the Charleston, Mayfair and Flirtation Two-Step. At the end of the workshop, Ger got everybody out in a circle to pick a step of sean nós and dance it solo. One by one, people danced what they were taught earlier to eight bars of music. I was amazed how well they were able to do it and didn’t seem to suffer from performance anxiety—a great way to get people out and dance sean nós without much tension.
Overall, the participants effortlessly seemed to pick up the teaching, and were easy to bring around. I suppose because I was the only one from abroad, save Ger, I was more able than usual to observe the dancing. What struck me was how little practice everybody needed and how committed they were to learning and dancing the sets and sean nós the right way.
And, everything started on time—as I discovered when I arrived late for the ceili that night (I had gotten lost) and found the doors locked. Of course it was raining. Throwing stones on the window finally got someone’s attention and I was graciously let in. The ceili was nice, just like the workshop in some way, as Ger played cds and called the sets, with the exact same people as attended the workshop. At least I started to get to know them! Many thanks to the gorgeous women who folded me into their ranks!
It occurred to me that there is something special about dancing in another country, and on further investigation discovered that I am really proud to be part of something that has spread over the globe. It brings me joy to see people of different nationalities loving what I love.
When I got back to the place we stayed in, my husband was already in and had the swipe card with him that would have opened the main door. I was locked out again and had to ring a number to get the manager out of bed and let me in. Oh dear. Is that why the croissants tasted stale in the morning?
On Sunday, we drove through lashing rain to the venue again, and I had a full day’s workshop of set dancing, sean nós and two-hands, whereas my beloved got a full day’s drenching. He kept stoutly smiling, though. At the end of the workshop on Sunday afternoon, I found myself contented, having had my fill of dancing and adventure. That last bit though wasn’t quite over yet.
On the return journey during the night, the winds speeded up and there was a touch of sea sickness. On arrival in Rosslare, the ferry was unable to berth, and the captain decided to sail to Dublin harbour. Five hours were added on, and of course, after disembarking and trying to navigate Dublin on the motorbike, we got lost and ended up at the airport (don’t ask). And just as we were on the right road down south, it started lashing from the heavens and didn’t stop until we arrived home. Yes, yes, we got the point!
Chris Eichbaum, Rathgormack, Co Waterford
Roads from all directions leading to Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, were busy on the evening of Saturday 29 March—the reason being a weekend of set dancing in Dorrian’s Hotel. The weekend’s entertainment started with dinner on Saturday night, followed by a ceili. The enthusiasm of the dancers in the packed hall was encouraged by our popular caller Joe Farrell, as we danced to brilliant music from the Copperplate Ceili Band. A number of Welsh dancers, amazed at the liveliness and vigour of the occasion joined the sets and thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
Despite a late night, Sunday morning found many dancers ready for a two-hand dance workshop given by the very able tutor, Edie Bradley. After lunch, dancers assembled for another ceili and enjoyed sets and two-hand dances throughout the afternoon to music from Bernie and her family in the Oriel Ceili Band.
The organiser of this successful event was Hugh McGauran. Unfortunately, Hugh had injured his back, and partnered for the weekend by a pair of crutches, this aficionado of set dancing was unable to take part in any of the dancing.
Rosleen Murphy, Saintfield, Co Down
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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