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).
Congratulations to Isabel Woods, who celebrated her eightieth birthday on Monday 3 November. And what was this remarkable lady doing on her birthday? Those of us who know Isabel well were not in the least surprised to find her participating in the weekly sean nós and old-style traditional solo dance class held in Rosemary Hall in Belfast. But many of you may not be aware that before developing her interest in set dancing and indeed sean nós dancing, she was a champion cyclist in the 1950s. In 1954, she set a new record for the fastest bike ride of the length of Ireland from Mizen Head in County Cork to Fair Head in County Antrim. She held this record for 52 years until 1 July 2007 when it was broken by Rose Leigh from Zimbabwe, although Rose’s route was more direct and 18 miles shorter.
Isabel and her husband Peter had travelled to Fair Head that morning to congratulate Rose. While waiting for Rose’s arrival at Fair Head, the timekeeper became interested in Isabel’s experiences and emphasised the importance of writing these down. So, we have now discovered that Isabel has another great talent. She has just finished writing a book which was launched on 26 November in the Island Civic Centre in Lisburn. Cycling obviously plays a major role in her story, but as her friend May Farrar says, “The book touches on many aspects of her life, making it a gem of social history spanning the last eighty years. It contains interesting tales of growing up in Belfast during the Second World War; stories of ancestors, whose characters are brought to life. Sorrows and joys are intermingled, good times and bad and the story is seasoned with a dash of humour throughout.”
This is an autobiography of a lady who, two days before her eightieth birthday, was up at 6am to bake scones in preparation for the set dance workshop in Carryduff during the Halloween weekend. Isabel insisted on providing this service, as she has done for many years now. I suspect people arrive early on the Saturday morning so that they have time to make their way to the kitchen, where they sample Isabel’s truly delicious scones and homemade jams. Not only was she up early baking scones, but she attended the set dance workshop with her husband Peter during the day and was back for more dancing at the ceili on Sunday afternoon. The Johnny Reidy Ceili Band provided the music, and Johnny has a reputation for playing fast music—no problem for Isabel!
So when did Isabel and Peter get involved in set dancing? In the late ’80s or early ’90s, their delightful cottage outside Lisburn was used for a wedding party. Mary Fox and her All Set group had been invited to dance at the wedding. A platform had been set up in front of the cottage. The intention was that the group would demonstrate a set and then get all the guests involved. Unfortunately, rain started after the demonstration, preventing Isabel and Peter from getting involved at that stage. It wasn’t until 1994, after coaxing from friends Fernanda and Don Crawley, that they ventured into Ashley Hall, “just to sit and watch.” Mary Fox was teaching sets and needed another couple to complete a set. Isabel and Peter were cajoled into getting up—and they haven’t stopped since! In their own quiet way, both contribute a lot to set dancing. Peter’s scones may not be as good as Isabel’s, but he has been chair of the Belfast and District Set Dancing and Traditional Music Society for many years.
Their fiftieth wedding anniversary provided us with a golden and magical time in their cottage and garden, as we danced the night away to music from the Gleann an Iolair Ceili Band. The Woods’ hospitality is genuine, and their cottage is a dream.
I’m looking forward to reading Isabel’s book. She has such energy and youthful zest for life, I’m sure it will be a gem.
Rosaleen Murphy, Saintfield, Co Down
Wheels of Change is published by Shanway Press. Contact Michael Shanway or www.shanway.com.
A new book of photographs captures the atmosphere and spirit of the Willie Clancy Summer School over the past fifteen years. Music and Light presents 140 photographs capturing the full range of activities in Miltown, classes, sessions and ceilis, as well as studio portraits of musicians and dancers. The book abounds with familiar faces, and it is a special treat to be reminded of those who are no longer with us.
Photographer Tony Kearns from Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, was inspired to photograph the Willie Clancy on his first visit there in 1991. Every year since then he documented the summer school as its “self-appointed” official photographer, entirely self funded, creating a priceless collection of images.
In Music and Light each photo occupies its own page, drawing the reader in, with just a brief caption. Informative notes on each picture are given at the back and two introductions provide background on the school and Tony’s work.
Music and Light is available directly from Tony.
Eight years in the making, a new set dancing book by Pat Murphy is being published in December and launched at the set dancing weekend in Malahide, 2-4 January. The book is called Apples in Winter after one of Pat's favourite reels, and it features detailed instructions for 47 sets and forty two-hand dances, most of which have never been published before, except perhaps in Set Dancing News. Pat's previous books Toss the Feathers and The Flowing Tide have become the definitive manuals for set dancers around the world and Apples in Winter is certain to do likewise.
Unlike the first two books, which are published by Mercier Press in Dublin, Pat is publishing the new book himself. It will be available from him at his workshops in January. Those interested in ordering the book will find full details in the next issue of Set Dancing News. Pat is no stranger to self-publishing as he has also produced his own DVDs of dancing in recent years, doing the entire job of filming and editing himself as a labour of love.
Speaking of DVDs, a new one is available with an inspiring selection of dances from Cork and Kerry. The title tells you exactly what's inside-Traditional Sets from Cork and Kerry Danced by Local Dancers. Captured on screen are five sets, the Jenny Ling, Ballyvourney Jig, Beara, South Kerry and Newmarket Meserts, as they were danced by regulars at ceilis in Aubane, Schull, Castletownbere, Portmagee and Newmarket. The sets are the real things, danced by ordinary people having fun and making mistakes, presented without any commentary or text. Music for all five sets is played by Kevin Lynch, Marie Twomey and Jayme Lineham. For more information on the DVD contact Marie Twomey.
For more audio-visual entertainment you can't beat the new Hell for Leather DVD, which documents the new show by producer John Fennell and his cast of nearly 200 young dancers. The show was first produced back in 2004-5, but has taken a hiatus of a couple years. The show has a new cast and new choreography which is more inventive and beautiful to watch than ever. For those unable to see the shows live an evening at home with this DVD will be the next best thing. Contact John to get a copy.
The Lough Ree Ceili Band have been playing for a year now and achieved a lot of good bookings for a new band, with trips to the States and England already. They passed another milestone in November when their first CD Keep 'em Lit was launched at the Longford weekend. The music was recorded at their ceili in the Armada Hotel during the set dancing week last July, so there's great energy in it. The CD is not arranged for dancing, but that shouldn't stop anyone trying! Get your copy from the band or from Gerard Butler.
Spreading set dancing in Japan
Irish Dance Circle Clare is a club based in the Tokyo area of Japan which is active in traditional Irish dance and music. In November they made good progress in spreading the word about set dancing when they performed on stage in an elementary school before 500 pupils below. After the demonstration, children were taught the sixth figure of the Cashel Set.
Socially, the club has been a great success for its members, as five marriages have been inaugurated thanks to set dancing. The latest of these couples are due to marry in December and were honoured at a ceili in November. On behalf of the club, Naohito Sudo presented Junko Takahashi a bouquet of flowers and a homemade tiara, which was placed on her head by her fiancé Takashi Saito bottom. The couple met set dancing; both are also tin whistle players.
Best wishes and congratulations to them from set dancers everywhere.
For a while, there wasn’t any certainty whether going to the Joe Mooney Summer School in Drumshanbo, Leitrim, 19–26 July, would be possible for us this year. Luckily, we were invited to stay in a friend’s house, only ten minutes from Drumshanbo, who didn’t need to know beforehand when exactly we were coming. As it happened, we travelled up on Sunday evening from the southeast and landed in Carrick-on-Shannon just in time for a session in a local pub.
The musicians, some of whom we knew and others who we were introduced to, were warming up in this first pub and later on moved to a second pub where the atmosphere electrified. This was some session. Not in a long time had I listened to and was carried away into that particular zone of music in a universe far far away. The bodhrán player looked as if he was nearing a heart attack, dangerously red-faced, sweating it out, giving a secure rhythm to the two accordions who bounced off each other accompanied by the clear ringing of a banjo and one or two guitars. Above, a flute singing, below, the tapping of many feet . . . ah, I wonder, do instruments take on a life of their own? As we went home that night, we thought that this in itself would have been reason enough to come to Leitrim.
On to the dancing the next morning—Pat Murphy’s workshop lived up to expectation. He was his awesome, patient, gentle and quiet-spoken self, passing on his learning and recording sets via video camera, keeper of records. The minute Pat takes the floor, a confidence settles over us that we are in such safe hands without pressure to get it right or not being good enough. He must be one of the most non-judgemental teachers I have ever met. Never have I seen him being cross or short with someone, but always open to answer questions and spending extra time talking shop. When observing Pat teaching, I often marvel at his vast store of knowledge of sets and their history as well as his thoroughness and persistence to do the job in hand as best he can. He seems to be entirely ‘there’, entirely focused, entirely dedicated. We are indeed lucky to have someone who does all that researching, recording and collecting so that what is known now will be preserved. (I can hear him say at this point that others also do so much work—he truly is slow to take credit.)
I enjoyed doing the Aherlow Set, Co Tipperary, as I hadn’t come across it, and it is similar in its format to the Cashel Set with a hornpipe in the middle. Pat said something that has stayed with me about doing workshops. Some people question the benefit of going to workshops in the first place, if they then don’t get to dance the sets. Pat reckoned that it can be fun just to dance a set you haven’t danced before, for the sake of it, instead of thinking of future benefits. For me, that is exactly right, as I do enjoy workshops for that very reason. Also, I enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, meeting people and picking out bits of teaching to incorporate for myself. And as I am a slow learner, I do need to be reminded of the newer sets, so when we did the Antrim Square again on Tuesday, it certainly helped me memorize it better. That is also what Drumshanbo offers: time to observe, take in, process things, because the pace is slower in comparison to Miltown Malbay. Once I can surrender to that pace, Drumshanbo becomes a really beautiful experience of a meandering stream rather than the frantic rapids of the Armada Hotel!
After morning workshops, we usually went for lunch somewhere in town or the Ramada Hotel, which is a quieter place. Sustenance is needed after the morning dancing, which starts at the early time of 9.30am and goes until 1pm. Then in the afternoon there were different dance workshops on offer, which I think is a lovely idea, because I like two-hand dances and sean nós.
Afternoon slumps are quickly forgotten when you go to Edie Bradley, who taught two-hand dances on Monday and Tuesday afternoon. She tells you how it is, and also how it’s not! How on earth she can remember all these little dances, is totally beyond me. Fair play, Edie! And she does know how to get the energies up again and waning concentration back. I got the chance to go over some of my favourites, the White Heather Foxtrot and Fiona’s Polka, and others I kind of know, but not well enough, as well as ones I hadn’t danced before, like the Royal Windsor Waltz and Millenium Barndance. “No notes, no, no,” said Edie when I asked her about them.
If you’re lucky, you can catch some good sessions in town around lunchtime and after; they seem to be springing up here and there.
What’s guaranteed though is the nightly ceili, 10pm to 12. They all start on time, because they’re only two hours long. Must put my wish out at this point for longer ceilithe! They are good enough to be endured for another hour, so they are. Monday the Annaly Ceili Band rose to the occasion, and speeded up a tad as the dancing energies were heating up proportionally. The Copperplate, so reliable, good humoured and interactive with the crowd (smiles all ‘round) on Tuesday, were delivering wholesome music to dance to. On Wednesday Micheál Sexton and Pat Walsh were in mighty form! But wait till you hear about the session . . .
Luckily, we managed to get into another great session after that Wednesday night ceili. Micheál Sexton went on to play in a local pub alongside a few other musicians, amongst them Brendan Doyle from the Lough Ree Ceili Band. So two box players side by side and at times they seemed to play with each other, then they seemed to be in competition, and that provided the energies to really rock the place! The aforementioned bodhrán player was also there and a zesty guitar. The pace was fast and furious and I almost got more of a kick out of it than I had dancing! Which is a first. Those two sessions had the unwanted side effect that from now on, I will not only have to look for and go to set dancing, here and abroad, but also sniff out those magnificent music sessions. Gee, better start cloning myself . . .
We were blessed with lovely weather, balmy evenings that invited us to go for strolls. So I found that between dancing and walking there wasn’t much time for anything else—apart from chats, of course, with all the people we knew and met on the street. At some point, we had a lively conversation going with about six people in a local grocery shop. Someone suggested that we should be seated and served coffee and scones. Yeah, Drumshanbo becomes a small town of homeliness, with familiar faces everywhere.
On Wednesday afternoon, I had a look in at Ger Butler’s steps for sets workshop. There was a good crowd chanting the mantra, “One two one two two one two two, one two one two two one two two.” Mostly women, and one of them actually wrote the step on her forearm and read it aloud while practising—priceless! So, 12122122, or was that 2112211? 11212221? Clare battering in mathematical terms. I remembered Peter Hanrahan teaching the same step, saying, “Down batter, down batter, down, down, batter, down.” Ger reckons that this would be the same step but starting on the off beat. Yeah, translating it into numbers, the mantra would be: 21212212. Are ye all following? Ger was very good going round the circle and patiently going “12122122” with all those women, one by one—very funny. But jest aside, Ger is generous, warm, easygoing and fun when teaching.
Then all of a sudden it was Thursday morning and I had to leave. Which felt awful and at the same time I was glad that I had been able to spend half a week there. Looking forward to being there again next year . . . and the year after . . . and after that . . .
Chris Eichbaum, Rathgormack, Co Waterford
Rainfall records were broken across Ireland in August, as heavy rainfall throughout the month led to flash flooding in some places. Met Éireann, the Irish weather service, reported that sunshine was down by 20 to 40%, and while overnight lows were higher, the daily maximum temperatures were cooler than usual. Welcome to the height of the Irish festival season!
One of the many events that makes this month such a pleasure is Éigse Mrs Crotty, a music festival in Kilrush, Co Clare, held this year from Wednesday the 13th to Sunday the 17th. In defiance of the weather there were six outdoors ceilis on the programme, all to be held on the town square.
On my way to Kilrush for the opening ceili I only encountered moments of rain but had to cruise through occasional rivers and even a pond gushing across the roads of west Clare. Somehow I never thought that the ceili would be affected—the weather wouldn’t dare upset my set dancing plans! Not only was there no rain in the air when I arrived, I found a lovely dry dance floor all set up and ready to go. Unfortunately, the gig rig was closed up tight and the absence of dancers and musicians inspired me to phone an organiser. Fearing I’d have to return home, I was relieved and delighted to learn that they had decided to shift the dancing indoors.
At the other end of the main street inside the Youth Centre, a former school house, Jerry McCarthy and members of his Curra Ceili Band were getting ready to play as I arrived. Word of the change of venue had filtered out and dancers showed up gradually, and were encouraged to dance by MC Mary Clancy from Mullagh. Even though he’s from the heart of Sliabh Luachra, Jerry played a fine selection of Clare sets, including Caledonians at the start and finish, though he got through them all in slightly less time than it would have taken a local band. The friendly atmosphere was helped by the many visitors who came along to watch, though there would have been many more if we’d danced outside. All ceilis at the festival are free of charge so anyone could come and go. The organisers did allow us to show our appreciation for the great music and dancing by collecting donations during a break near the end of the ceili. By the end of the ceili I don’t think a drop of rain had fallen all evening, but it’s hard to imagine that we’d have had a more enjoyable start to Éigse Mrs Crotty if we’d been dancing outside as planned.
Thursday evening’s ceili was bravely held outside on the square, though bets were hedged by raising a canopy over the floor. The big tent is normally used to shelter a weekly market and was nearly large enough to cover all the sets, though luckily no rain appeared during the dancing. Music was once again from south of the Shannon courtesy of the Five Counties Ceili Band, so it was more lively reel sets, plus a North Kerry Set, the ever popular Ballyvourney Jig and another pair of Caledonians. The open air setting attracted a strong crowd of spectators who stayed with us throughout. Many overseas visitors on holiday enjoyed the spectacle, some of whom were dancing with us. There were plenty of local kids too, teenagers and younger, enough to make up at least one set, and they were well-trained enough to demonstrate a great delight in battering and swinging. Mary Clancy called a two-hand reel for the less experienced kids and adults. A good time was had by all.
We danced the Ballyvourney Reel Set in a workshop with Mary Clancy on Friday afternoon. She chose it as an easy set for beginners, though some of the moves still proved challenging for them. When the workshop finished up around 4pm it still wasn’t clear whether the ceili at 7 would be in or out, but the weather at that time was damp and threatening. After a meal I went round to the outdoor floor and found it uncovered, wet and deserted and so made my way back to the community hall. There was regret at dancing indoors but with music by the Four Courts Ceili Band from the correct side of the Shannon it turned out to be the best ceili yet. A dozen sets filled the little hall without overcrowding, though we left little room for the spectators who were with us the evening before. The band wisely played the Caledonian in the middle of the ceili rather than at the start, so that the latecomers didn’t have to request it a second time. My perpetually recurring dream for a South Galway Set came true tonight!
Aidan Vaughan had his work cut out for him at his Saturday morning workshop on the Labasheeda Set, with perhaps half of his dancers all beginners, but he gamely steered them in the right direction and managed to dance all seven figures in the three hours. Paraic Ó hOibicín from Connemara taught sean nós dancing morning and afternoon in a beautiful new venue on the edge of town. Now called Teach Cheoil and operated by the local branch of Comhaltas, it was once St Senan’s Church of Ireland. The transformation to a 140-seat venue was done with the greatest care—the fabric of the building and its windows were restored and left undisturbed by the installation of a modern kitchen, staircase, balcony and toilets. Paraic taught his steps as thoroughly as I’ve ever seen them taught before, with seemingly endless practice repeating a single step—just the kind of practice I need to master them! Over thirty dedicated dancers stayed for the full day and even missed part of the afternoon ceili, but I wasn’t one of those.
Saturday’s ceili was in the afternoon to avoid clashing with the big evening concert and we ended up having both the best and worst of weather in one ceili. We danced in the full open air on the square without a tent over our heads to the music of the Abbey Ceili Band. That decision was looking doubtful when we were splashed by rain in the first figure, but then in the next the sun came out, followed by clouds and cold winds. It’s often said in Ireland that you get all four seasons in a single day, but today we got four seasons in a single set! After that first set we were free from rain and were able to enjoy carefree dancing to the Abbey, who had brought along a big crowd of dancers. We danced both Ballyvourney sets, reel and jig and just one Caledonian. The band announced a Borlin Polka Set by request, but only three sets emerged, so it was converted to a Cashel Set to fill the floor. The dry spell wasn’t to last—more rain came down in the last hour and only a few kids were left behind when everyone ran for cover. The rain didn’t last long, but it had soaked the floor till it was slick and we were advised to stay off till it dried a bit. The band played a few waltzes and people even danced on the paved part of the square. Before long the floor was deemed safe for a set, but after a couple of figures the rain returned and the ceili ended. Pity about the beginning and end, but in between it was as good as it gets!
We were blessed with afternoon and evening ceilis on Sunday, both held outdoors under the canopy. The rain was heavy when I left Kilfenora but Kilrush was dry when I arrived for Matt Cunningham’s ceili at 3pm. He played something for everyone, sets, ceili, two-hand and waltzes, which brought kids and spectators out to dance, as well as the regulars. When the rain came most of us hardly took any notice and just made sure to move under the cover toward the centre, away from the wet, exposed edges of the floor. Those who rested their coats and bags on railing had to scramble to bring them under the tent, where a big pile formed around the central pole.
There’s a long tradition of rain for the final ceili on Sunday evening, which has always featured the Kilfenora Ceili Band. This time they were away at the Irish Fest in Milwaukee, so here for the first time was the Tulla Ceili Band. There was hope the new band might break the spell and keep the rain away, but the Tulla are too traditional for that. After a dry hour of dancing, the rain fell, umbrellas opened and the fun just continued. When wet, it became a bit more crowded under the tent, and when dry we could spread out again. The band was generous with their Caledonians and waltzes, playing two of each, in addition to all the other favourite sets. In the end we hardly noticed any precipitation with all the heavenly music and inspired dancing.
A fun and friendly festival for dancers, Éigse Mrs Crotty has even more to offer to musicians and music fans, particularly to lovers of the concertina. That’s the instrument that Elizabeth Crotty (1885–1960) played in her pub beside the square and made famous on the radio in the 1950s. Her legacy thrives in Kilrush with concerts, sessions and workshops devoted to the concertina. And I suspect she may have had a fondness for set dancing as well, judging from the popular and well-organised ceilis here.
Year two of the All-Ireland Fleadh in Tullamore, Co Offaly, 22-25 August, was better than ever for set dancing—some Fleadh veterans even said it was the best one ever! I first noticed things were looking up on learning that the weekend’s ceilis were to be held in the Tullamore Court Hotel beside the town centre. Last year we danced in a hall half a mile further out, so the new venue was much more convenient.
When I came to the hotel for the first of the weekend’s ceilis on Friday the 22nd, I was most impressed by the spacious, pleasant ballroom. A beautiful temporary floor made of smooth, sturdy panels filled the room to three of the walls, with just a small area of carpet for tables and chairs at the back end. Just looking at the floor was enough to tempt me to dance!
Also this year the Fleadh broke with tradition and included new bands in the line-up of set dancing ceilis, beginning with Copperplate Ceili Band on Friday night. There was a buzz in the ballroom as soon as people started filtering in and when the music started there was delight all around. While I didn’t count the sets of eight dancing (I’d estimate as many as thirty), I did count nine sets that the Copperplate played for us, plus two generous selections of waltzes and quicksteps. The Antrim Square Set was one of the nine, danced with confidence by all and a few helpful prompts from the band. Theresa Hughes, banjo player with Brian Ború Ceili Band, was herself enjoying the dancing, but sacrificed one set when she was invited to trade places with the Copperplate’s Brian Ward. She fitted in perfectly with the rest of the band, and Brian had an unexpected chance to do the Lancers.
The rainy August weather didn’t make any exception for the Fleadh, so on Saturday after a brief, moist exploration of Tullamore town centre, I sheltered in the Court Hotel for the afternoon and early evening. Fortunately there was good entertainment on offer at the set dancing competitions. I particularly enjoyed the half-sets for their simplicity, though the excitement of the full sets, climaxing with the mixed seniors (men and women over 18), was what filled the ballroom.
Even more excitement developed soon afterward at the Saturday night ceili with Johnny Reidy. Many of his fans followed him to Tullamore for the night, making a grand total of around fifty sets all having a blast. Also present were two winning teams from the set dancing competitions, and everyone was keen to see their winning form when they danced during a break in the ceili. The winners of the senior half-set competition from Cuilmore near Westport, Co Mayo, danced a figure of their local Kildownet Half-Set. The champion mixed senior set was a group from Killaloe, Co Clare, who demonstrated their winning form with the fifth figure of the Plain Set. Johnny’s music inspired everyone to dance in championship form, and even spectators got into the act. Rugby player Trevor Brennan had been watching and bopping around from the sidelines when Eddie Lee, the band’s pianist and MC, asked if there was anyone who could offer Trevor a place in a set for the next figure of the Caledonian. One of the champion dancers gave up his place and his partner bravely directed Trevor, who towered over the entire ceili, through the figure. After the frenzy of the last set, Johnny brought everyone back down to reality very gently with Ireland’s sweetest version of the national anthem.
On Sunday everyone was rewarded with the best weather of the weekend, mostly dry with just a splash or two of rain, and some spells of sunshine brightened all spirits. This was most welcome at an afternoon of outdoor dancing demonstrations in front of the Bridge Hotel in the town centre. Just before 2pm a square floor was quickly installed and sitting beside it were members of the Glenside Ceili Band, Tom and Aidan Flood and Moyra Fraser, plus veteran piano accordionist Mick Foster, the famous half of the chart-topping duo Foster and Allen. I was early enough to get a place on the balcony directly over the floor for a bird’s eye view of the dancing. The first two hours were demonstrations of sets from Offaly and neighbouring counties Westmeath and Laois. It was a great opportunity to devote our full attention to some unusual sets. Watching from above all the moves were clear and several times I heard the remark, “Ooh, I’d like to try that!” The sets included the Killyon and Ballycommon sets from Offaly, the Durrow Thrashing, Ballyroan and Clonahadreen sets from Laois and the Westmeath Set. In addition, a set of All-Ireland winning under-12 youngsters danced the Cavan Reel Set and volunteers from the audience did the Plain and Newport sets.
After two hours the Glenside retired and a new group of musicians arrived to play for sean nós dancing. Up first were the Butlers from Roscommon, followed by the Cunninghams from Connemara, and then a succession of others. MC Noel Cooney danced some steps himself and brought a touch of humour to the afternoon. One lady came forward to dance something different, flinging her legs out while crouched down as low as humanly possible. When she’d finished, Noel commented, “Last time I did that I was on the toilet!”
When a half-barrel topped with a smooth board was brought out, most of the dancers came up again to show how well they dance in such a confined space. The youngest of them, a girl of 6 or not far from that, had to be helped up onto it. Then the barrel was moved aside, a square board laid down and Noel challenged all the dancers to do their steps together on that! One by one they came out onto the square until there were about a dozen dancing in a square metre—and a new world record was claimed!
Back on main street I was fortunate enough to catch the end of a parade of marching bands. Music seemed to spill out from every open doorway, especially from around St Mary’s Church where teams of ten musicians were practicing for their appearance at the ceili band competition. I attended the start of the competition, but listening reverently in a hushed church without dancing is not for me, so I headed back to the Court Hotel for the Sunday night the ceili with the Fódhla Ceili Band. These true veterans of the Fleadh have been playing for set dancing here for as long as I’ve been attending, a dozen years, and no doubt long before that. Their music seems as if it comes from another age, one with more grace than our own. After the ceili I ran into a Sligo lady who was unable to contain her excitement—two Sligo bands had taken the two top places in the ceili band competition!
Monday after the Fleadh is a day to relax and wind down. Musicians are still around and gather together in some of the best sessions of the weekend. Some serious rain materialised overnight and refused to give up all day long, so I stayed put in my lodgings where I enjoyed a private session by my lovely hostess and her guests. There were surely house sessions everywhere across Tullamore and surroundings that day. When I finally made it into town I had the great good fortune to get my best parking spot of the entire weekend—in front of the main door of the Court Hotel! There was good parking there all weekend, but I was always at the far corner of the distant overflow lot.
As if that wasn’t memorable enough, the Glenside Ceili Band were playing for the fabulous fun farewell Fleadh ceili. Spirits were high, the music was worthy of an All-Ireland prize and dancing was a blast. The band were three at the start, Moyra, Tom and Aidan, and in the second half they were joined on bodhrán by John Gaffey, one of the Fleadh committee, and for the last set by Mick Foster on piano accordion. At the end there were satisfied smiles all ‘round. Each of us took home a lovely dancing high that kept us feeling great all week and dreaming about the Fleadh’s return to Tullamore next year.
My name is Anthony Belotto, and I am an Irish set dancer. This is the story of finding myself as a dancer, one filled to the brim with the joys of laughter, excitement, adventure and the memories of a journey that covered 1200 miles that I will remember until my last dancing step.
Nine years ago, my neighbor Carol Hieronymus introduced me to set dancing after her trip to Ireland—and as luck would have it, a group met twice a week not far from our houses in south Florida. This was only the start of my love of set dancing. I expanded my exposure of dances and dancers by attending the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York, and the Cape May Weekend in New Jersey. But everywhere I went, I was asked the same question, “Have you ever been to Ireland?” The answer was always said with a hint of regret, “No.”
Fast forward and I am now in medical school, hitting the books and wishing I was able to dance more often. When it finally struck me that June and July 2008 would be the last expanse of free time I would have, it was time to call up Carol and book my pilgrimage to Ireland. I felt I needed to find and experience the source of something that is so dear to my heart.
June 8 was a most emotional day; not realizing the level of anticipation, emotional investment, or lack of sleep, I found that as we began our descent into Shannon airport, flying over the green hills and blue lakes, tears began to well up in my eyes. I was finally beginning my journey—one, as corny as it sounds, of self discovery.
We began in Kilfenora, County Clare. Carol was first exposed to the dances in Vaughan’s Pub with the famous Mary Doorty, whom I had heard so many wonderful things about. Arriving on the Sunday was such a great experience, starting the trip out with a fantastic night of set dancing and great music by the Four Courts. The atmosphere was infectious, surrounded by everyone having a great time dancing, tapping their feet, or just laughing at a story recounted over a pint of Guinness.
After saying our farewells to Mary and Kilfenora, our travels took us north to Galway City and beyond. As we crossed the rich countryside of beautiful expanses of farmland dotted with the shells of once sturdy stone homes now standing as reminders of slower, simpler times, I thought how different my life is, how fast paced and complicated. We stopped in to visit friends along the way, some met through dancing and some not—but something everyone we met had in common was the warmth with which we were welcomed and the fondness with which we were bid farewell and “Safe home.”
The second set dancing experience occurred in Carrigaline and it was much larger than Kilfenora’s small intimate gathering. Upwards of 22 sets were on the floor kicking up their heels and swinging to their hearts’ content to the fabulous music of the Brian Ború Ceili Band. Carrigaline offered me a chance to see other styles of footwork and to dance with a number of people, helping me to gain a new appreciation for the more regional footwork and styles that is difficult to fully appreciate when learning in the States. The way one houses, dances at home, and advances and retires can tell a lot about where someone learned to dance—something I was finally able to comprehend. At the end of the night, it was also amusing to see that Carol and I had travelled the furthest—all the way from Florida and Washington DC. But this would not be the last time I would be able to dance on this trip, nor would it be the most memorable.
“Anthony, Anthony! We found him! We found Timmy!” were the words shouted as Carol caught a glimpse of the famous set dancing instructor Timmy “the Brit” McCarthy. He and his lovely wife Rhona invited two unannounced visitors in for a cup of coffee and a lovely visit sprinkled with laughter, stories and a tour of his many awe inspiring projects—one of which is restoring an old stone farmhouse. This gave me a new appreciation for Timmy, not just as one of my set dancing instructors, but as a human being—one with a wife, a dog, a cat, hobbies and a life away from dancing.
The “magic carpet,” Carol’s nickname for our rented red Chevrolet that drove us over 2,000km across Ireland and lost a hubcap in the process, then took us to the town of Portmagee. This stop was probably one of the most memorable, unexpected experiences of my life. We heard there was traditional music in the local pub, the Bridge Bar, and decided to give it a go. Upon arriving, there was no one dancing and we were glad to have gotten two nights of dancing in already. Somehow word got out that we set danced and then, before we knew it, we were on the floor. It is impossible to express the friendly nature of the people that we danced with that night. The smiles, the laughter and the people are what I will remember about Portmagee. Dancing the South Kerry, the local set with local people was what I so desired at the outset of this journey—experiencing the origins, the roots of a set, and letting it fill me the next time I dance it with the memories of the sights and sounds, the people and the stories, the smells and atmosphere.
As I write these words from seat 12D on the 757, whisking me away from the Emerald Isle, I am flooded by the memories I have collected these last ten days and find my mind day dreaming of the next time my dancing feet will meet that fertile Irish soil to once again embark upon a journey to find the heart of set dancing and in the process learn a little more about mine.
Anthony Belotto, Georgetown University, Washington DC
Pat Murphy made a second visit to Australia this year for the fourteenth annual Céilí Mór Weekend at Port Fairy in Western Victoria. He arrived in the district on Monday the 11th of August and almost straight away was dancing.
Pat conducted two children’s workshops in Port Fairy, a town previously called Belfast by the way, at two schools on Wednesday and Thursday. Both sessions were terrific and the children whose ages were from 10 to 12 years participated to the full, obviously really interested and raring to go. Some even asked if Pat would stay during the lunch break and teach some more dances.
A day-long workshop for teachers and budding teachers on the Friday was really successful with thirty attendees, some experienced, some learners and some completely new to set dancing. The event was a most relaxed but intensive teaching session, with Pat talking about the history of various dances and styles of dancing, demonstrating steps and dances from the various strongholds of set dancing in Ireland, and most importantly, teaching techniques and methods. There were many questions, interesting discussions, the occasional debate and lots of fun during the day! Dances discussed and performed, were the Paris, West Kerry, Armagh and Clashmore sets.
An Céilí Mór commenced on Friday night with about eighty dancers arriving from all over Australia—Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, all over the state of Victoria and a lone ranger all the way from Perth, Western Australia. After registrations and a welcome dinner, there was a “how-are-ye” ceili. Callers were recruited from many of the up and coming dance teachers in Australia and we danced a myriad of well-known dances during the night. Fay McAlinden, the Céilí Mór organizer, called two of her new dances, the Port Fairy Set and the Ceili Mor Half-Set, both challenging dances but very enjoyable. After a lively night of getting to know each other and becoming reacquainted with old friends the ceili wound up at about midnight and people retired in readiness for the challenges of the morning and beyond.
The Saturday morning session saw Pat teach two sets, the lovely Sliabh Fraoch Set and the East Galway Reel Set (long version). These dances were new to the majority of those in attendance. The morning and afternoon tea cakes, biscuits, etc, were again baked by Marguerite Drysdale, one of the Killarney (Victoria) set dancers—always a highlight of the weekend. The group broke for a beautiful lunch of ham on the bone, pastas, various salads, fresh fruit and desserts. Feeding the inner being was essential, given the amounts of energy used in the morning session. After the lunch break, Pat started the afternoon workshop with the Armagh Set and finished with the Glencree, again dances not normally performed in this region and all received with great enthusiasm. The teaching day finished about 5.30pm and people went home to refresh and prepare for the evening’s activities at 6:30.
While pre-dinner drinks were served, Dances from the Green Triangle, Fay McAlinden’s new book of her own dances composed in the past few years, was launched by Pat Murphy, a light hearted and memorable occasion. The evening programme progressed with a sumptuous dinner of caramelized onion tartlet, fillet steak, lemon cream pie, cheese and biscuits and coffee. Once the appetites were satisfied the night continued under the humorous and skillful guidance of the mc Una McAlinden, with much dancing and plenty of craic. The callers were many of the former “Feature Teachers” at the weekend, including Marie Brouder, Trish McGrath, Alarna Stephenson, Paul Wayper, Fay McAlinden and Pat himself.
During the ceili the battle for the annual Hillee Cup was held. This is a series of performances following a theme—this year the theme was green. Skits were contrived and performed by the various dancing groups attending the weekend. Standards vary and often the actors have more fun than the audience, but there is an esteemed panel of judges who select the winner. Usually the announcement is met with derision by all of the other contestants. The standard of performances this year was extremely good and very innovative. The winning team from Adelaide produced singing frogs! The Geelong act was second with a performance about garbage collection and the Canberra group choreographed a set dance comprising six figures from popular sets and the audience had to guess the names of the various figures—very challenging and clever.
Ben Stephenson from the young traditional band, Trouble in the Kitchen, which recently toured Europe and Japan, was joined by a former band member Caroline Frawley and they played some great tunes during the evening. Kevin Hassett from Clare, who is visiting Australia at the moment, did a traditional brush dance to the amazement and delight of the audience.
Sunday started bright and early with another workshop at 10am. This time Pat slowed the tempo slightly and taught the Cuckoo Waltz, the Clashmore Set, the Antrim Square Set and he finished the weekend dancing with the East Mayo Set, much to the delight of Mary McBride, a native of that part of the world.
A farewell lunch followed and the eighty happy and contented dancers departed to all parts of the nation, rejoicing and amazed at what they had learned from truly a great dance teacher and in the company of such a happy and fun loving group of contemporaries.
Morgan McAlinden, Port Fairy, Australia
The Dan Furey Weekend in Labasheeda has become a fixture in my year’s dancing calendar, the first ceili weekend to start the season. The summer was long and wet and “pure misery,” as my friend put it, and she should know, because she’s Irish and into everything Irish, weather included. With little enough dancing going on, in terms of classes and regular ceilithe, I felt a bit rusty. Labasheeda marks the beginning of classes and a return to routine, which is just so reassuring.
I travelled to Labasheeda on Friday, September 5th, through the rains and traffic jams, to arrive at my landlady’s house an hour before the first ceili started. I stayed with her last year, and the welcome was such that there was no question about staying with her and her family again.
That night, the Abbey did us the honour of playing for the ceili, and their music was sizzling! But just before our dancing started, we had the privilege of seeing Céline and Michael Tubridy dance the Priest and his Boots together, which I thought was so lovely to see, and local dancers performed the first figure of the Labasheeda Set. Well done, lads!
That was a great ceili, with plenty laughs and wild dancing. It proved so hard, too hard in fact, to try and mind my back and not dance too vigorously, but I had an electric blanket to look forward to, which probably saved me from limping around. Moving out into the adjacent Long Aisle, I found it cooler and the floor nice to dance on, although one can’t see the band.
That night, I slept like a log, electric blanket and all, so I was ready for action in the morning for Mike Mahony’s workshop. There was a small crowd that gathered as learners, and Mike started the workshop with a little footwork for beginners and then proceeded with the Clare Orange and Green, one of my favourites! And handing it to him, he did make the teaching simple, or let’s say he made it sound simple, which resulted in beginners being able to do intricate figures without any big problems. He did say at some stage that you can teach a set in a simple way or a difficult way, and that seems to be the secret of his teaching. He is a gentleman, very likable, and obviously resting in himself easily, so we can all relax and make mistakes without worrying about it. Next up was the Antrim Square Set, which apparently is very popular at the moment. Thanks, Mike, for a really pleasant, but short, workshop.
This year, there was an additional ceili scheduled for Saturday afternoon. It would be interesting to hear what people think about workshops getting shorter and more céilithe thrown in. I like going to workshops so I noticed both in Tralee and now in Labasheeda that the workshops felt incomplete, that there did not seem to be enough time. When speaking to Timmy Woulfe about it, he told me that first the weekends were all about the workshops, and by and by more céilithe appeared and that now the workshops are declining. Well, it is my hope that the pendulum will swing back into a more balanced middle.
Anyhow, the Glenside Ceili Band played for the extra afternoon ceili, and for once, it wasn’t thronged and was most enjoyable to dance with a little space around you. Their music helps me to float around the floor, such is their quality. I always look forward to seeing the Glenside, not only hearing them, because they are such likeable folks!
Then, you had a choice of eating dinner in the Long Aisle or the marquee outside, with a selection of meals to choose from, and they were so huge, I shared mine with my friend. The meal was on offer at the break and I only missed the first set after the break because of it. But I did feel somewhat heavy with all the food, and so was glad to get back to the house around half six. Actually, I fell asleep then (electric blanket, you are to blame), woke just in time to get ready for the night ceili and didn’t miss a thing with Micheál Sexton playing in his cowboy boots. It was at that ceili that we danced the first not so common set (apart, of course, from the Labasheeda), the Antrim Square, called by Mike O’Mahony. Great stuff.
For Sunday morning, which dawned bright and mild, I met with a friend and we went along to the cemetery where Dan Furey and James Keane are buried. Michael Cassidy, an American man who grew up with James Keane’s brothers in the States, said prayers and delivered details of the dancing history of Dan and James. Apparently, Dan mostly was responsible for spreading old style step dancing beyond the confines of Labasheeda, and nowadays there are more people dancing and learning it than ever before. Michael reckoned that without Dan, old style step dancing would have died out. A film crew from TG4 was on hand to capture some of it, and when Michael Tubridy proceeded to play the tune for the Priest and his Boots at Dan’s grave, they were filming it as well. An almost eerie kind of gathering it was, with a handful of people, television crew and a well known musician playing the flute by the graveside—spine tingling.
After that, there was a session in Battery Castle, which was packed this year. We heard the story of the fort told by Martin Fitzpatrick, who is the son-in-law of Barney Maloney who bought the castle. Young local musicians played for a group of children dancing the Plain Set, who were then presented with a cup in memory of Barney and a golden star each. And then, they had to do it all again, because the film crew asked them to. Deirdre, daughter of Martin Fitzpatrick, then gave us the brush dance and not a bit phased she was, cool. For me the highlight was a local man Tommy Brown, who danced a jig in a way that I hadn’t seen before, really brilliant. Fair play to all for getting up and dancing in front of the camera, and no mishaps at all. We danced only one set then, the Caledonian, and a group of people strutted the Priest and his Boots.
We all headed back then, across the field and strand and down the lane to the village, where the parade was getting ready. I got caught in it, so I sat back in the car and enjoyed watching. The standard this year was the highest I have seen so far, and the float I liked best was two girls driving a trike—awesome. A trike is a motorbike with three wheels, and as such counts as a car with no roof or doors, so no need to wear a helmet, but fastened seat belts are required—wouldn’t mind trying that one myself.
At three o’clock the Sunday afternoon ceili started, after various ladies posed for photographs with Johnny Reidy—ah, Johnny, you’re obviously the man! What can I say about his music?—all the good words, great, brilliant, superb, etc, have been used up! The first two sets were glorious. My partner for the first one, a young girl from Labasheeda, Aoífe, is a dancing force to be reckoned with! In the second, there was a lot of fooling around going on, so not only did we dance like mad things, but laughed hard at the same time, which I am sure uses up loads of calories! And my partner in that second set was in great humour; must have been because she got her picture taken with Johnny Reidy.
And then, sadly, I left as the last set was played, simply because I wanted to catch a ceili in the band hall in Thurles with Ger Murphy and Ken Cotter playing, which proved to be a lovely wind-down after the excitement-packed weekend. They were marvellous together, and the céilithe in Thurles are worthwhile going to even if you only come for the tea!
Summary: Labasheeda, go on ye good thing! You have it down to a fine art, as far as I am concerned. Unrivalled in terms of community involvement and variety of events. Many thanks to the committee’s Trojan work of organising the whole happening. It’s one of those places that still spells out what is Irish about the Irish—the hospitality, the community spirit, the support and engagement of the folks that live there, not to mention the green fields.
Chris Eichbaum, Rathgormack, Co Waterford
Le Grand Bal de l’Europe, “c’est la vie!” Taking place in Gennetines 300km south of Paris every July, Le Bal was founded almost two decades ago by a passionate philanthropist and dancer, Bernard Coclet. Beside teaching technology in a secondary school near Gennetines, Bernard devotes his spare time to collecting stories on the daily life of farmers and actively involves himself in dance workshops and classes locally or abroad—in particular on the French bourrée. He regards Le Bal as a life project as well as an artistic one, based on tolerance and respect of everyone and their own music and dance and above all to serve the dance community. As stipulated in Le Bal’s charter, this European festival celebrates a universal language of gesture through the shared pleasure of dancing. With such a unique ethos, Le Grand Bal grew in popularity to the point where it attracted over 3,500 like-minded dancers daily last year. To save it from suffocation, a sister Bal was born in August this year, in the central location of Saint-Gervais d’Auvergne.
Auvergne—it rang a loud cast-iron cattle bell echoing with my childhood memories. Images of bucolic holidays projected me to a hilly countryside refreshed by clear streams flowing out a genuine tranquillity of life. I contacted the person in charge of the Irish group going to France, Peter Knight from Nottingham. Along with two other English dancing pals, Peter first attended Gennetines in 1993. Asked by the festival organisers to show set dancing, he saw hundreds of people pour in on hearing Irish music played for a demonstration of the Plain Set! The success was immediate: Peter was invited to bring a whole group over the following year. This is how, prompted by its fervent leader, the group House Around first introduced set dancing at Le Grand Bal de l’Europe, with live music provided by a ceili band from Manchester. Many zealous Irish dancers and musicians followed one another ever since, but Peter didn’t willingly miss a single festival—nor a chance to attend a second one in a row! Bernard reiterated his invitation for the première of Le Grand Bal de l’Europe II. Delighted, but unable to stay for the entire week due to work commitments, Peter gathered eight other set dancers to meet up in Saint-Gervais: on the gents’ side Micheál Lalor from Co Laois, who teamed up with Peter three years ago, Tim Flaherty and Michael Walker from Belfast and Charles Kiely from Manchester; on the ladies’ side Joanne Riordan from Lahinch in Clare, and two French dancers, Annie O’Donnell living in Bray, Co Wicklow, and Eva Coombes in Limerick. What a pleasure to hear from Peter that I could complete the set, as the least experienced but most determined French lady from Donegal!
After a family pilgrimage in the north, I reached the centre of France on a high-speed train which made the landscape change in no time from coal slag heaps to mountain chains. I had my first connection in Lyon where I changed to a normal train. Getting off in Saint-Germain-des-Fossés I had about fifteen minutes to check the departure screen for my second connection to Riom—there was no mention of it! I soon realised, like a dozen other disorientated passengers, I was holding a ticket for a regional express train which did not exist! What a diabolical idea I had to travel on 08/08/08! Well, travelling with the French railways brings you, as the SNCF is proud of advertising, ‘further than you can imagine.’ The cold sweat evaporated once an employee blasé by this computer trickery shunted us onto the next train. Thankfully the final delayed kilometers on the railway to the ancient royal city of Auvergne crossed hectares of glittery sunflower fields, which forecast a radiant dance festival. Indeed three shining dancers’ faces were waiting for me on the SNCF bus eventually connecting to Saint-Gervais—its railway station closed last December. Charlie, Annie and Eva arrived after different long journeys hooking up with relatives. Putting back my seat I comfortably let my imagination board a steam locomotive on the last bendy 39km through hills, crags and woods falling sharply, more and more precipitous, somehow dramatic and austere.
725 metres higher, the bus driver kindly dropped us at the campsite entrance. Peter warmly welcomed our half-set with the most attentive care and a spacious rented car, carrying our luggage to the Irish quarter. A lovely surprise was waiting for us: our tents had already been put up in a sheltered part of the field, thanks to both Peter and Micheál who arrived the day before; credit was also due to Bernard’s obliging team who transported lots of camping gear from Gennetines to Saint-Gervais for us. Our chauffeur promptly took us first to the Halle Coeur des Combrailles, the heart of the festivities, to get our pass bracelets—eight minutes walk uptown. We were then invited for dinner in the canteen of the Vocational Agricultural Secondary School where meals would be served all week—another eight minutes walk downtown. Formalities over, back in the field I had very little time left to, hmm, remove some organic fertilizer from my shoes and polish them for the first ceilis. In the glow of a promising twilight I carefully guided my steps up town to the first dancing night.
Friday night’s dancing offered a tasty assortment. On the most capacious and commodious dance floor I savoured a spirited French waltz, a melting French mazurka and a schottische delight with three very singular but most appetizing dance partners. As I was leaving before the end, filled to satisfaction, I had an early look at the next seven days’ program taking place on five floors detailed on four boards. About twenty different workshops (ateliers) were served à la carte between 10.30am and 7.30pm whereas the nights consisted of fifteen different ceilis (bals) of from one to two hours between 9pm and 3.30am. How to become a festival gastronome in 250 possible lessons? Sampling almost everything, almost any time of the day or night, parsimoniously but scrumptiously. A third of the dances were rooted in France, a third in Europe and a third elsewhere. Here is just a selection: Basse Provençal quadrille, Auvergnate bourrée, Breton gavotte; Renaissance bransle, Baroque dance; Wallon schottische, Swedish polska, Italian correnta, Irish set or ceili dancing; Canadian, Cajun or Québecois square dances; Gipsy, Turkish, Israeli, Argentine; tango, rock, hiphop or yoga for dance. Are you ready to order?
All the dancing took place in the Halle Coeur des Combrailles. All year round its four rooms welcome all sorts of events: canine or equestrian exhibitions, flea or Christmas markets, organic food or craft fairs in one of the two halls; weddings or parties in the upstairs restaurant room; concerts or plays in the cosy 450 seat amphitheatre. From the upstairs middle room, wide windows on each side allow a view of both halls. I liked glancing at the two spacious floors where light colourful skirts were elegantly swirling in a pulsed silence—each venue was quite well soundproofed. After such beauty, hard though to imagine these two halls were inaugurated in 2002 mainly to host agricultural fairs and competitions, like the famous Charolais Herd Book.
Another beauty the festival offered was live music for all events. Amplifying accordion, bandoneon, melodeon, fiddle, cello, hurdy-gurdy, guitar, dulcimer, recorder, silver flute, pipes became a technical challenge in such impressive halls. However instruments had a round, full tone close to acoustic, never too loud to prevent simultaneous adjacent workshops from interfering with each other. At a mid-week forum, Bernard suggested hanging parachutes to absorb and control the sound better in the biggest halls.
It was Claire Vallet, French accordionist and melodeonist of the family band Cire Tes Souliers (Polish your Shoes) who recommended a Parisian group of Irish musicians to Micheál in Gennetines. Claire, her husband Dominique on fiddle and their son Baptiste on guitar also play Irish music and organised a ceili in Saint-Gervais as well. The Paris-Irish connection was agreed a few days before the festival, but on Friday evening, Peter and Micheál’s minds began working on ideas for Plan B—no sign of our musicians yet! For our very first two-hour workshop the next morning, Annie and I could still pick our flute and fiddle out of the very handy, safe and free instrument deposit, but who would demonstrate at our ladies’ position then?
Saturday morning—I had no nails left going to the vast marquee outside the Halle. Thankfully Plan B was abandoned when the three members of the Rolling Notes Ceili Band showed up, an hour in advance for the sound check. The trio consisted in Gilles Poutoux on melodeon and accordion, Catherine Renard on accordion and Frank Brunel on flute. When they started tuning up on bits of jigs and reels, a welcome light breeze from Co Clare cooled the air of a hot summery day. Amazing how a few familiar notes can touch the right chord: feet, heart and soul ready to dance! By 11am a nice crowd had sheltered in the venue. Its uneven dance floor must have kept the imprint of millions of feet stamping on it since the early years of Gennetines—Bernard took note of its lack of quality and offered to hire a more decent one next summer. Yet Micheál counted nine sets at the start and one more by the end. Peter, in charge of the class, surveyed the assembly to learn who was a complete beginner in set dancing. No one put their hand up—perhaps the question asked in English didn’t make an impression on European minds. But it seemed that most dancers could perfectly understand and follow Peter’s introduction to reel steps or basic moves like dance at home and swing—a gradual, successful preparation for the Corofin Set. Since two set dancers of House Around, still catching connections, would only arrive in the evening, Peter spotted an experienced lady who didn’t mind filling in for the demonstration. Each figure was always demonstrated to live music first, then walked through with emphasis on harder moves. The demonstration over, each of us would tutor a set and guide the dancers through the figure, sometimes repeated to be more in time with the music. I can’t recall so far in my Canadian and French peregrinations any other social square dance with such precision between moves, beats and bars as in Irish set dancing. What a delight when the three fuse into one! By lunchtime most had mastered the Corofin Set without much difficulty, and all were invited to join the ceili the same night to have one more go at it.
Freed from duties until the evening, I pushed the door of the middle room upstairs and the scenery changed: to delicate trills and grace notes couples were walking around the floor on a tranquil promenade. At the far end of the room, most appropriate for such intimacy, two violinists on stage were interpreting harmonious duets. A lady courteously led us through polkas and schottisches from Landes and Alsace, showing us chassé steps with delicacy. Who said that gallantry is by gone? More gentlemen attended this workshop on Couple Dances at a 19th Century Ball than ladies!
Strolling in town afterward I wondered if I had gone back in time: the whole village, so quiet the night before, may have actually been active emptying lofts, cellars, nooks and crannies in every house and shed to set up so many stalls loaded with century-old memories! The annual flea market was spread around the Oak Tree of Liberty, a vestige of the French Revolution on the main square. Appealing display windows of some old-fashioned stores revealed here a fine cheese monger, there a creative hatter. Traditions and know-how are very much respected and present here in the Pays des Combrailles, located north of the department of Puy de Dôme and named after an extinct volcano of 1465m—high enough to be visible from the harvested fields outside the village on that summer day.
Right on time for a beautiful sunset and our first ceili, Tim Flaherty and Joanne Riordan arrived to fill our House Around set—Tim had just been teaching at the Interceltic Festival in Lorient, as he has done for the past four years. Both were quite familiar with Gennetines already. Back in the same marquee, the trio was ready to play long before 9pm. At ease beside the musicians our mc Peter announced the Corofin, and the band rolled out rhythmic reels. Their steady music at such a high standard delighted the dozen sets gathered. As if the lights on stage and the heat inside and outside the marquee weren’t enough, warm applause rose after each figure to encourage our meritorious musicians! The Connemara Set followed, called then with precision and a pinch of humour by Micheál. Since set dancing moves can be complex, House Around briefly demonstrated every figure of both sets—it may break the usual flow of a ceili, but allowed everyone to get the swing of it! Thus there was no time for another set when the next band appeared for the next bal. Departing the next day to be back to work on Monday, Peter thanked and congratulated Bernard and company for a beautiful new festival-to-be. House Around was now in Micheál’s safe hands. Everyone quickly moved on to four other bals already in action. I ran up the stairs, curious to push the magic door of the undoubtedly special middle room. Celestial ambiance: no words, no din filling the air, just the divine silvery tone of a solo flute floating sensually around the floor swept by sliding steps in 5/4 time—the enchanting world of the asymmetrical waltz.
Sunday was another fine day, and since a rest day, I seized the occasion to swim in the Etang Philippe, a pool near the campground. Its warm still water was comfortable like a bath—but not as fun as the invigorating waves of Tory! Sometimes the showers at the campsite were competing with the Donegal sea though. There are lovely hidden water pleasures around Saint-Gervais, in particular the river La Sioule, paradise for fishermen and strollers.
Walking up town I was attracted by an “air de fête” coming from a sheltered corner outside the Halle. Magic punched cards unfolded in zigzags at the nostalgic tempo of an old French waltz. While regularly turning the crank of a beautiful barrel organ (orgue de Barbarie) a man was singing along, as was done in cafés and bals until the earliest twentieth century to replace a dance orchestra. We were lucky the same evening to dance to his music in the cosiness of the amphitheatre. Transported to another time, I acknowledged a sentence I heard at the festival bar, “To understand historical dances one has to understand the society which moulded them.”
On Monday morning I resolved to understand the town by walking its colourful weekly market. My five senses had just enough time for a stretch at the stalls before our second workshop kicked off at 11am sharp—the French reputation for being on time has not fallen down. Tim was in charge of the two-hour workshop. He led no fewer than nineteen sets through the Derry Set, in well polished French he had brushed up on in Brittany the week before! As well as his classes in Belfast, he also teaches set dancing at annual workshops in Paris and Italy. The lovely hornpipe steps of the last figure hopped just to the one o’clock mark, and Tim gave us all a rendezvous for the next ceili in twelve hours!
Energy had to be saved for the long night to come and most of us dozed the afternoon away. Eva and I seized the opportunity of recharging our batteries at a thirty-minute Yoga for Dance workshop in the marquee. While showing easy standing poses, the Italian tutor and dancer, also fluent in French, pointed out the importance of keeping the shoulders, arms and hands relaxed to welcome your dance partner in a tension-free environment. I remembered another of Bernard's numerous quotes about the festival, “There is always someone to catch your hand with a smile when you hold out yours.”
House Around was as alert as possible at 1am for the second ceili of the week. About eight sets filled the floor this time—once more I was favourably impressed by the turnout and the good energy. If Gilles was anxious at the start of the festival, since only a third of the Rolling Notes Ceili Band could attend, the motivation he shared with Catherine and Frank was such that they were able to give their best. The enthusiastic response from the dancers kept encouraging them. To keep spirits high, Tim gave brief explanations in his smart French rather than long demonstrations and managed to call both the Corofin and Derry sets. It may have been after 3am when Micheál proposed finishing with the Connemara, an easy favourite to keep everybody awake. House Around quickly showed its four figures, always to applause by the seven sets left on the floor. After the exhilarating last Christmas, he thanked everyone for their supportive presence and wished us a calm night. I sleep-walked back to the tent, and lay on my mat till the next salutation of the sun.
The golden disc was high in the middle of the sky when I woke up the next day. I quickly swapped slippers for dancing shoes, since an extra workshop had been added to the Tuesday program at 1pm. Annie and I suggested introducing ceili and two-hand dances, and the organisers were pleased to accommodate us in a slot kept free for an express workshop. Having just half an hour, I rapidly started with the Highland commonly danced in Donegal, explaining the steps on both low and high parts while lilting then playing on my fiddle—Gilles, Catherine or Frank didn’t have that type of tune in their repertoire. The little middle room upstairs barely held about 25 couples trying to double the last two bars. Lining up was much easier when Annie took over for the Harvest Time Jig, with the gracious help of our trio. Annie began Irish dancing almost thirty years ago, learning ceili dancing in Armagh in 1979, step dancing with Maureen O’Donnell (her mother-in-law) a year later and set dancing from 1982 with the late Donncha Ó Muíneacháin. She teaches Irish dancing in schools in south Dublin and Bray, and is involved in the Comhaltas branch which opened last year in Bray. Dancers were surprised to hear her switch easily from English to French, not knowing she originally comes from Reims, main city of the Champagne region—no wonder she’s got this sparkling lift! Annie was meticulous on the right way to do the steps, correcting her ever-willing students to make them improve. But the next sound-check at 1.45pm put an end to the discovery workshop. Due to this unexpected success a second longer one would be offered on Thursday. Until then, House Around had free time to experience more dances and sessions, or attempt a journey to the centre of a volcano!
A third and last set dancing workshop was shared by Annie and Charlie on Thursday, August 14th, 3-5pm. Annie concisely demonstrated and called the Derradda Set, before Charlie taught the West Kerry. Charlie is such a passionate set dancer he has house dances most weekends at home in Manchester. Guests and host mainly dance Cork and Kerry sets, but also new ones and any others not danced at ceilis. His first experience teaching a set in Saint-Gervais was memorable for the dancers’ willingness to learn new sets. They might not have the footwork but they quickly pick up the patterns—steps will follow with practice. They love to dance, like new challenges and learn quickly. Although the second discovery workshop was straight after the set dancing one, I was thrilled to see most of the dancers stay—as well as our musicians, generous with their time! They learnt the Long German, for which I played a favourite particular dance tune I got from the band Country Tradition. To suit the Barn Dance, Frank kindly interpreted a lovely tune he remembered from a trip to Glencolmcille. The trio was then invited to join us for the Circle Waltz and the Back-to-Back Hornpipe. In minute detail Annie taught entertaining sequences of the Siege of Ennis. Even if the workshop finished on the dot, everyone agreed to dance two figures of the Connemara called by Micheál as a finale.
In less than a week, set dancers’ progress could be appreciated, judging by the flow at the third and last ceili of the Grand Bal, taking place in the biggest hall again from 11.30pm. Four sets were called, the Derradda by Annie, Connemara by Micheál, Ballyvourney Reel by Charlie and Corofin by Tim. I personally found remarkable the popularity of Irish set dancing at the festival—still a dozen faithful sets that night! Everyone showed so much fervour to step into it. I suppose it is one of the rare social dances featured in Le Grand Bal de l’Europe, by far the most complex and challenging. Irish music kept everyone moving; many thought the trio was Irish—nice compliment! According to Frank, being close to the Irish team gave him the feeling of being back in green Erin. For the same love of this magnetic, majestic music, I moved to Donegal seven years ago, in a way to live every day as on holiday. I remember my first faltering steps in Castletown the first weekend of May 2006, and first meeting Micheál, the event’s organiser. I was amazed to be able to untie my mother tongue there in the company of so many dancers who travelled from France, some even from Italy, just for a long weekend. Here at Le Bal is the French connection! After discovering set dancing in Gennetines, and now Saint-Gervais, lots of dancers are open to visiting Ireland, and Micheál encourages many to come to Castletown. He even invited over the trio who accompanied us in this first experience. There’s nothing better than experiencing true Irish atmosphere in county Laois—and any other counties. And any countries. Assuredly, dancing brings you further than you can imagine.
By the end of the festival, with no posters in town and no advertisements anywhere except in this beloved magazine and Trad Magazine (a French publication), Bernard counted 1200 visitors a day, which doubled the population of the village . 200 organisers, mcs, musicians and sound engineers, and between 100 and 150 volunteers made the first ‘baby’ Bal possible. According to the Saint-Gervais tourist office, positive feedback was expressed not only by tourists, but by the community itself. The event went without a hitch; shops got new clientele and some locals even decided to get dancing shoes for next year! Bernard, supported by his dancing community, released a new spirit which will most certainly settle over the Chaîne des Puys.
In their own wordsI admit I was somewhat apprehensive, mainly because we were just three and I wondered if we'd be able to provide the music. But we couldn't miss it, and I hope in the end we made suitable music. The highlight for me was when some dancers, especially Michael Walker, went into a kind of trance—it was great!
Gilles Poutoux, Paris
One of my best memories was, I think, Wednesday night when Joanne and I got an impromptu session going under the stairs. We had seven or eight musicians, including our trio, who seemed to appear from everywhere and we had two sets dancing on that foyer for almost two hours! Time flew by and I was alternatively teaching or calling. I know we did the Clare Lancers, the Connemara, Ballyvourney Reel, and we were well into the Victoria before they moved us. I think it was getting too crowded. The stairs were full of spectators! If we had had a proper venue, it would have been a full-blooded ceili and might have kept going till dawn! Yes, that definitely was my best memory as many of the dancers had never done much set dancing before and everyone was having so much fun, which is what it’s all about.
Charlie Kiely, Bolton, England
The traditional French musicians playing the Clare style! Their music made me very happy.
Micheál Lalor, Mountrath, Co Laois
Dancing barefoot to the pulsing music of the Gypsy Dance workshop with both hands waving freely—a liberating, challenging change from Irish dancing.
Tim Flaherty, Belfast
The impromptu set dancing under the stairs at two in the morning! What else? Exchanging tunes with musicians from Paris and Grenoble. Judging by the fun our House Around dancers were having teaching sets to lovely Italian dancers and others, it was a success. Another was the great response to our two hand and ceili workshops dear to me since the father of my husband comes from this tradition of Donegal dancing and my mother-in-law taught it all her life. Last and very personal highlight: learning the “St Louis’s Shag” and resurrecting some of the r ock moves I had learned 33 years ago. Ha ha!
Annie O'Donnell, Bray, Co Wicklow
A magical week! The synergy in the team impressed me most favourably. But the discovery of all the other dancing, the friendly atmosphere, how nice people were. I just hope I can go again next year!
Eva Coombes, Castletroy, Co Limerick
I was impressed with the location, close to lovely countryside, mountains and a lake. The town is very pleasant with some nice bars and cafes and of course, the open market, which we browsed around. The facilities for dancing were very good, with impressive halls and very good floors -only the acoustics were a problem in the main hall. There was lots of variety of dance, as in Gennetines. Our French musicians were great: they played very good music and they were very genuine and easygoing.
Peter Knight, Nottingham, England
It was that time of year again, and it doesn’t matter what the summer is like, it always seems to be hot and sunny when Matt Cunningham hits the south of England on tour in July. This year was no exception; the sun arrived to coincide with Matt’s journey from the west. When Matt arrives it is lovely to hear live the tunes we have become so familiar with in the weekly classes, and it seems every year Matt has recorded even more music for the newest or most recently revived sets.
First up was Friday night, 18 July, in Heston. Moira Dempsey runs this ceili every year to kickstart Matt’s tour and her reward is a full house. The hall was soon heaving with thirteen sets on the floor for the Plain Set. It was a night mainly for the favourite old sets with the Antrim Square Set making its first appearance of the weekend.
Matt departed for Braintree on Saturday and then on to John and Margaret Morrin in Wimbledon on Sunday afternoon, 20 July, in the newly refurbished club, complete with gleaming floor complemented by glorious air conditioning. There was a great atmosphere for the afternoon ceili, with the dancers getting regular updates on the scores from two provincial finals being played and Pádraig Harrington’s charge for the Open.
In between the nine sets danced we had the rare experience of seeing Aidan Vaughan being slightly upstaged by a young pretender. Richie Murray, the flute player touring with the band for the first time, took over on the floor from Aidan, who gave his usual fine display of sean nós dancing. The crowd were treated to double the pleasure!
On Monday night Matt headed fifty miles west to Basingstoke before heading north for the rest of the week. The music started at 8pm and the floor was quickly filled for the first set. The crowd of over 100 was comprised of dancers from all over the south of England: Devon, Dorset, Bristol, Oxford, Sussex, Wiltshire, Berkshire and even the adventurous Londoners who braved the wilds west of the M25! The prize for the most dedicated must go to Mike and Maggie Daniel who travelled 140 miles from Newton Abbott, Devon!
A total of fifteen different sets were danced over these three events with hopefully a mix to satisfy both those who love the favourites and those who like a little more variety. It is always good to dance those sets that have become firm favourites, but it is good too to dance those more unusual or different sets that act to refresh the senses.
Our thanks to all those who gave their support over the first weekend of Matt’s tour, and for those who give their time, energy and effort week after week to promote the music and dancing that act to keep alive our great tradition.
Kevin MonaghanTradley, Hampshire, England
How can I possibly write about my own community’s festival, Dance ’Neath the Comeraghs in Rathgormack, Co Waterford, without being biased? I can’t be impartial—in this place, it is impossible. You see, we have chosen to live here, and don’t regret a day. This is one gorgeous location, with stunning mountains, clear streams, magnificent forests and people to match! The community is vibrant, active, connected and ever so welcoming, so from the very beginning we were readily made a part of it.
Driving up to the Community Hall cum Hiking Centre (a hostel upstairs and hall and kitchen downstairs) on Friday night, September 12th, there were still some flags and other hurling paraphernalia attached to houses, cars and walls. Last weekend, of course, Kilkenny beat Waterford in the finals, but that didn’t dampen the festival spirit! (And just one example of how welcoming folks here are: A lady turned up wearing Kilkenny colours at the Sunday ceili, and no one batted an eyelid. She remained completely intact.) Rathgormack had moved on, and now it was time to celebrate our togetherness and common goals of wanting the community to thrive and prosper and to help spread the good news of set dancing with three days of dancing and music.
On that night, three members of the Waterford Comhaltas Ceili Band played for the first of the céilithe, and we had a visiting photographer from a Dungarvan newspaper. It was simply one of those ceilis where you couldn’t quite catch what made the night so funny, but this is how it went: Smiles became giggles, giggles became laughter, and laughter peaked in uncontrollable fits of hilarity!
On Saturday, there were two workshops. The morning saw Bronagh Murphy doing the Three Tunes, a ceili dance which is good fun to do, and in the afternoon, Michael Loughnane from Thurles taught the Antrim Square, Limerick Tumblers and Fiona’s Polka, a nifty little two-hand dance. Try it—if you have trouble jiving, it’s a great alternative and works well with different rhythms.
Saturday night, the Abbey played for the ceili. Their lovely rolling tunes and the roundness of their music delivered me from aches and pains and we danced happily and madly until the Rathgormackian cows came home. One different set, the Melleray Lancers, was danced and expertly called by Bronagh Murphy, and it was brilliant to dance one of my favourite sets again. We ended up in quite a frivolous set and had such laughs when the line-up in the fourth figure went wrong! And fair play to people who didn’t know the set, we all came out the other end!
Sunday morning, despite heavy rain and a funeral in the hall, tired bodies (some of them very tired) gathered in the local primary school to learn the Black Valley Square Jig Set, and thank goodness, it’s none too taxing. John Creed taught it to us in a laid back, easygoing way—just right when you feel that you’re barely awake. I remember seeing John way back on workshop weekends when I still lived in Mayo, and admired his traditional, confident, quiet style of dancing. He is certainly one of the best men to get a dance off, particularly his gently firm way of leading you.
That afternoon, we had the last ceili with Micheál Sexton and Pat Walsh providing great music for it. You can rely on them completely. They always deliver, there is no exception, no off days. I know they are very experienced musicians, but I still think that it is to their greatest credit that you know exactly what you’re going to get. That means that I have always enjoyed their music and dancing to it immensely. There was a good amount of horseplay and fooling and laughing going on—obviously other people felt similar about them!
At some stage, there was a speech from the chairperson of the committee, Catherine Flynn, who acknowledged everybody who helped to make this festival possible. Presentations were made to Mary O’Neill, Ann Terry and Noreen Power, who are special agents within the committee because they are lovely set dancers and know the score! Also, Bronagh and Leeann Murphy were given a bouquet of flowers and chocolates for their contributions to the event.
And finally, I would like to mention Bridget-Ann Joy-Power. She is one of a kind, a hub to the village to be sure. If you want to find out something, it’s her you can call. She floated in and out throughout the weekend, and you will see her with a big smile on her face, talking to people. Bridget-Ann takes the bookings for the hall and hostel.
With a session and more dancing after the ceili in a local pub, I felt wound up, not wound down! Ah, the craic we had there was mighty! Some local ladies were in a particular frisky humour, slagging and dancing spontaneously to some of the tunes played by a big contingent of local musicians.
So thank you, people of Rathgormack, all the ones that worked behind the scenes as well, for setting up the festival and the great efforts that were put in. Such work always brings a community together and it is vital for the spirit of a village to have events such as this one. A most enjoyable way of spending the weekend at home, making me truly proud to live here. Up the Déise!
Chris Eichbaum, Rathgormack, Co Waterford
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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