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).
Pat Murphy loves the Joe Mooney Summer School in Drumshanbo, a village in Co Leitrim. It has grown from a smallish enterprise with a humble number of set dancing enthusiasts to what it is now—a major player in the summer school listings with Pat teaching there for nineteen years. What Pat loves about it is discernible to everyone, I would imagine—a welcoming homeliness, warm and gentle. And Drumshanbo certainly loves Pat, because “everything I could want for would be provided in an instant,” he said. This is also the place where Pat comes into his own as a steward who records every set danced and tells stories about their revival and origin. This labour of love for set dancing is unsurpassed, and no one cares the way Pat does about documenting and standing witness to the way sets are danced and have been danced in the past. Pat and his long-standing dancing partner for the summer school, Catherine Curren, have certainly put their own stamp on the workshops with meticulous work being done which no doubt is of particular interest to fledgling dancers from all over the world. And of course, it is Pat who takes charge of all the MC work at the céilithe.
Yes, Drumshanbo and Pat Murphy go well together, mirroring each other’s qualities.
Maureen Culleton, Co Laois, a great teacher in her own right, was asked to say a few words for the launch of Pat’s new book, Apples in Winter, and here is some of what she said:
“I have known Pat for 25 years and the first time I met him was at a workshop in Tullamore taught by the late Connie Ryan RIP. Pat was a member of the demonstration team on the day. He danced all day and never lost a bead of perspiration while I struggled to organise my feet, my hands, my memory and tried to play a positive role on this eight person team. Pat you are still that amazing dancer 25 years on.
“To get back to the task tonight, when I brainstormed this topic, two thoughts came to mind immediately—Four Masters and Four Evangelists. The Annals of the Four Masters are chronicles of medieval Irish history, a record of happenings in the order in which they happened. Each dance in this book is chronicled with figure after figure and move after move presented clearly and meticulously. Apples in Winter is a chronicle of events in the world of dance and deserves a place beside manuscript copies of the Annals in places like Trinity College. So in Pat Murphy we have our fifth master who has prepared and produced this book full of knowledge, reliability and usefulness. Pat is the Master of Dance.
“Then we have the Four Evangelists who proclaim the good news because their books claim to tell the good news of the gospel. What good news is contained in Apples in Winter and with people like Pat the good news of the dances of Ireland is proclaimed to the whole world. Pat is our fifth evangelist, canonised before he ever reaches heaven for his patience, good humour, dedication, encouragement and reassurance.
“Pat we are deeply indebted to you for providing us with this masterpiece.”
Say no more—this is Pat Murphy’s year. The morning workshops were filled with old and new, like the Labasheeda, Sneem, Moycullen, Melleray Lancers, Boyne, Borlin Jenny, and the smashing Souris Set from Prince Edward Island, with music to match by Melissa Gallant, to end the week’s teaching with fireworks. Pat said that this set is proof that there is set dancing elsewhere, which has evolved slightly differently to what it has become in Ireland.
The summer school dancing itinerary this year was somewhat different, and the organisers not afraid to incorporate ceili dancing as an additional class on two days. Maureen Culleton led the first two afternoons of the week with two-hand dancing, and I really enjoyed the playful ones like Pat-a-cake. Then, Ger Butler did two afternoons with steps for sets and sean nós, even helping to turn off the fire alarm before it drove us all completely crazy. He was the first teacher capable of extracting from my friend, the one who is not-easily-impressed and rather fed-up-with-steps-workshops, a delightful comment on this workshop, that ran something like: never has she been able before to pick up any steps (true enough), although having gone to numerous steps workshops and different teachers (also true), despite having put in an effort to learn (near enough the mark). But this time, she did! Wow, there is still room for miracles.
Ronan Reagan led a workshop with his sean nós steps on Friday. What he does is this: we walk around the hall. We do different footwork following his instructions while walking around, such as on our heels or skate. Then we all do advances in place. The steps are building up, going from heel-toe to toe-toe-heel-heel and double speed. We then are split into groups of four, told to rehearse, choreograph and stick together all steps or some steps and movement. We know by now what’s coming, but too late now to back out—the dreaded performance. But lo and behold, we all do it. Nearly every single body goes forth in their groups of four and some very adventurous creations are on view. It takes a while since the hall is full of people, and of course, our group is one of the last to go out. We have hard acts to follow, but manage everything fine despite a few nerves and walk off with a sigh of relief plus a sense of achievement. That was sneaky, Ronan, and possibly the only way to get people to perform their own versions and have a creative input, so thumbs up for the idea!
Both Ronan’s and Ger’s workshops attracted an unprecedented influx of young and very young dancers, and that is mighty to see, that’s what we want: Set Dance—the Next Generation.
Maureen O’Leary, a Drumshanbo native home from Toronto, offered her services as a ceili dance teacher to the organisers. So on two days there were these additional workshops with her teaching super ceili dances like the Cross of Ardboe, Glencar Reel, Antrim Reel, Siege of Carrick and Morris Reel. Maureen is someone I was immediately fond of. She seemed completely oblivious to the notion of righteousness, a person whose love for dancing shines through and obliterates everything else.
And the ceilis? On offer were the Annaly, Michael Sexton and Pat Walsh, Copperplate, Swallow’s Tail, the Daveys and the Glenside at ceilis every night except on Thursday when the concert was on—a Saturday afternoon session on the street made up for that. All of which were superb, sadly though, too short altogether. Tommy Doherty, box player with Swallow’s Tail, had a little baby daughter less than a week earlier, and that must have surely put the liveliness into his musical output. The last set that night, the Plain, would have been worthwhile travelling all the way up to Leitrim for, it was simply the best! I ended up in a mad horses set, everyone of us all jumpy-jesty, all yee-haw!
What was so noticeable this year, not only in the dancing arena, was what seemed like thousands of kids, teen and tween-agers equipped with musical instruments, rambling through the streets and pubs of Drumshanbo, and sessions springing up all over consisting sometimes of young people only. But the way they played! To my ears they sounded just as sure-fingered and confident as the old hands. All is well in the traditional music sector. There are plenty of devotees to follow in the footsteps of musicians gone before, judging by that lot. No doubt they will put their own stamp on the music. It will evolve, and what we now call traditional might sound very different to what many might call it in, say, a hundred years time. And the same is true of course for the dancing.
So many familiar faces, but new stories to go with them. A congregation from Glasgow, ever so good-spirited. A group from Russia, with love for set dancing. French folks, self-assured, striding out, dancing away at all the workshops. Switzerland represented by at least one girl, Manuela Moran, who organises the New Year set dancing workshop over there. Andrea Forstner from Germany, barely back from a five-week trip to New Zealand, but hey, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do and go to the Joe Mooney Summer School! Talk about commitment! And then there was Tim Clarke, originally from England, lately of Utah, USA, who bought a one-way ticket to Ireland, a totally devout disciple of Irish trad music and set dancing.
If Miltown is a thriller that keeps you hanging on the edge of your seat, Drumshanbo is poetry. So are the profound sessions encountered everywhere with musicians from all corners of the world. “A river of gold, as someone put it.
One night after the ceili we were sitting in a pub after having done the rounds, finally settling for this one. Something about the atmosphere, who knows, drew us in and we stayed for a while. From the adjacent room, a few notes wafted in to form a backdrop to the session in front of us, just two musicians, playing fiddle and uilleann pipes. The pipes were calling indeed, like a bird’s call, mingling with the sweetish swing of the fiddle to create a unique sound. We were all brought together then, at least five nationalities listening and playing music that transcended all and invited us to suspend every judgment and flicker of assessment, analysis and thought, and join a stream of just-existing-for-this-moment, flowing to wherever the music was carrying its cargo.
Well, that particular session and musings about it were left behind eventually due to fatigue overtaking excitement and the body reasserting its need for sleep. But that is the way with the weekends and the week-long summer schools for me—just putting up with a different kind of schedule and rhythm for the duration of them.
When reflecting back on the week now, looking out onto a wet and windy-grey day with quickly fading light (it is July, you know), and routines back to normal, I miss the good company of cordial people from all corners of this earth, crafty music, bodies dancing around the house in a swirling mass, meeting in a good-natured and jovial way. Drumshanbo has to get a place in the annals of set dancing summer school history as an utterly safe and embracing location that oozes nothing other than polite and harmonious ceád míle fáilte.
My grandfather, Will Clooney, was born in Newfoundland in 1886. He grew up on the outskirts of St John’s on his parents’ dairy farm. As a young man my grandfather loved to dance. A teetotaler, he would show up at a house party with a bottle of rum for the hostess, which she passed along to the fiddler. After a long night of dancing, he headed home. In the winter, when sleighs were the primary form of transportation, horses wore jingle bells to warn others of their approach. After too many neighbours had reported to his father what time he had returned home, my grandfather started to take off the bells before turning into the road for home. Once home, he changed into his clothes for the next day, and fell asleep on top of his bed. Soon after, he would be milking the cows and making deliveries. Fortunately, the horse knew the way.
By the time my mother was a young girl, American popular music had taken over the entertainment scene in Newfoundland. My grandfather liked to reminisce about his dancing days, but my mother never saw the kind of dancing that he was talking about. By the time I came along, my grandfather’s dancing was limited to step dancing, mostly done from a chair, although I could tell that he was good at it.
When I eventually found myself in Nova Scotia at the turn of the 21st century, my sister introduced me to Irish set dancing and the Irish language. The rest is history, as they say. I became a hardcore member of the Irish set dancing community. When my parents came to visit me in Halifax, I was determined to show off my new skill. Afterwards, while we were enjoying a drink at the Old Triangle Pub, my mother asked me if my new hobby involved lancers, quadrilles, swinging your corner and minding the dresser. “How did you know that?” I asked. Apparently, my grandfather had used these very terms to describe the dancing he enjoyed at the turn of the 20th century. My mother also remembered that quadrilles were his favourites, and that he preferred if his partner knew the figures well.
While set dancing all but died out in St John’s, dances were still alive in parts of the island, particularly in the isolated communities of the Great Northern Peninsula on the west coast. One such well-documented dance is Running the Goat. On a recent trip home to visit my parents, I had the opportunity to witness the goat running in my hometown of St John’s.
Newfoundlander Tonya Kearley has been collecting and teaching traditional dances for many years. During my stay, on my last night in fact, Tonya hosted a “Dance Up” at the Yellowbelly Brewery in downtown St John’s. This newly-opened venue in an historic building is a most appropriate venue for traditional dance. The 19th century stone building features five floors for eating, drinking, music and dancing.
At least fifty enthusiastic people showed up for the first set dance ceili at this locale. The fourth floor of the establishment sports a lovely wooden floor, while the fifth floor provides a gallery just right for photographers. Live music was provided by three musicians, including Tonya’s husband Kelly Russell, accordion player Graham Wells and fiddler Maggie Butler. Tonya and Jane Rutherford called a number of dances, but ended the evening with the favourite, Running the Goat.
Running the Goat is a lively dance in eight figures, danced without break. The tunes are polkas, known in Newfoundland as singles. Traditionally, Running the Goat was always danced to a tune of the same name. Nowadays, a set of four singles is played (Running the Goat, All Around Aunt Ruby’s Garden, She Said She Couldn’t Dance, Shooting the Bull) and are repeated until the dance is over.
There are several distinctive features in the dance. For example, there is a pass through when the top couple pass through the opposite tops—three times. After each pass through, the top couple separates and goes outside the set to return home. In the meantime the other six dancers advance and retire.
Then everyone steps out! The women first. The first top lady does a right elbow swing with her partner, alternating with a left elbow swing with each gent. It’s like a Strip the Willow figure from the Haymakers Jig, but in a square. Then the lady swings with each of the ladies. Then it’s the gents’ turn! No wonder they dance quickly—there is a lot to get through.
Another move is the cartwheel. This is an eight-hand star, but each person places their outside hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. It looks quite lovely, especially when viewed from above, as I was lucky enough to do.
Another move characteristic of Running the Goat, and other dances from the Great Northern Peninsula, is the “thread the needle.” All dancers take hands, with a gap between the top couple and second sides. The top gent turns under his own arm and then leads the set under the arms of each dancer. This will work if the set keeps moving, so led by the second side lady, the dancers spiral around the outside of the set. It looks rather artistic. If you’ve done this element before, you know how important it is to lift your arms if it’s your turn to be passed through. And more importantly, keep those arms down, if it’s not your turn. It’s almost impossible for the poor dancer in the middle of this spiral to keep track of where they are supposed to be going.
Although my Grandfather may or may not have “run the goat,” I’m sure that he would be pleased at the revival of his favourite dance form. Thank goodness some of the memories survived. Here’s to the dancers who keep them alive!
Adele Megann, Halifax, Nova Scotia
When Carmen McRae sang, “You are so lovable, so livable, your beauty is just unforgivable, you’re made to marvel at, and words to that effect,” she didn’t exactly have Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, in mind. I never understood when people said that they ‘fell in love’ with a city, say, Paris, Berlin or Rome, as I am not a townie and tire quickly of noise and traffic. Prague though did it—I was smitten!
For one week we rambled up and down its sleek creamy-coloured cobblestone streets and alleys, craned our necks to better see the many historical buildings, sampled the local cuisine (like goulash with raw onion served inside a hollowed rye bread, yum!), panting in the relentless heat of the sun that didn’t really produce any clouds at any stage to speak of, rather, temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius. The warmth penetrated deeper than the skin and dried the very bones of the body. This period of hot weather though was not the norm for the month of August in the Czech Republic, it appears. Our adaptation was slow—for days we rooted out jackets to take with us only to put them back in the wardrobe.
I have no idea how on earth the students of the Bernard’s Summer School, 16–21 August, mainly Czechs, were able to keep up all week doing intermediate or advanced step dancing in the mornings. At the same time, there were music classes in tin whistle, uilleann pipes, guitar, bodhrán, box, fiddle and banjo.
The afternoons then were taken by Gerard Butler, leading a sean nós class for two hours, followed by three hours of set dancing and steps for sets. How he managed the heat and galloping for five hours every day plus rehearsals for a performance is anyone’s guess. Maybe this is how—he said that he never enjoyed a sean nós and set dancing class as much because he could see the results immediately, how much people improved, came to relax those upper bodies and enjoy the dances. No inhibitions here of any kind! The students ventured out on the nights of dancing and simply did some sean nos, obviously without a fear of getting it wrong—fantastic!
Unbelievably, all the students that had signed up for the classes at the beginning of the week showed up and danced every day, their stamina and will to learn so great that the hot conditions did not make them waver in their determination. For instance, they were mad about steps for sets, so some battering was taught to them by a very sweaty Ger Butler, and remained as keen as ever even after nearly spending the whole afternoon on it. My word, whatever else you can say about the Bohemians, and some people from Poland, Belgium and Germany, they certainly impressed with keenness, seriousness and doggedness. A lot of them were young people, I guess because the school for most years of its existence (this was its ninth year) was offering mainly Irish step dancing. Ger’s classes went down very well, with much applause, and Tereza Bernadova, daughter of the organiser, told me that numbers were definitely up this year. Some students from other classes had said that next year they also want to try out the craic with that set dancing and sean nós! (Some of those dancing in the mornings did stay for the sean nós.) This was the second year that sean nós and fourth that set dancing were available. Next year, there might be special celebrations for the tenth year of running the summer school!
They do take their ‘Irishness’ seriously. There were three nights of concerts, a show and a dance during the week on top of everyday classes. Everyone got a certificate at the end of the classes and an opportunity to rehearse and perform their dances and music in at least one of the three public concerts, one being held at a dance theatre. Everything was put on celluloid and the last night had all the trimmings of the Rose of Tralee festival. All was executed proficiently and professionally, including a translator for the non-Czech.
The Wednesday night concert and ceili was the one where everybody danced all the time, all sorts of different dances led by different teachers. There was ceili, set, step, American country and two-hands. Two different groups provided music on stage: a Czech Irish trad band called Shannon with two CDs under their belt, and all the teachers of the summer school music classes.
On the closing night at a grand finale, where all the students and teachers displayed their stuff, including set dancing, a group came forward that had, wait for it, taken a class learning the Irish language as taught by a Czech! They recited a poem and then sang a song, Dulaman na binne bui, dulaman Gaelach and we all had to join in. The words were written on a banner that the class held up for the audience to see, so no excuses! We wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if a leprechaun had started serving up Guinness.
Every step dance teacher plus Ger Butler came on the stage then to strut their stuff, and seemed to really enjoy what they were doing—it’s ever so nice to see them smiling. Most enjoyable and exciting was a Czech step dance troupe, Rinceoirí, performing from their show Swan Legend, a well-choreographed piece that looked a lot like a game of chess, with the two kings as contenders, and one ending up being overthrown by the other—drama galore! They tour the Republic with great success, another offspring of Riverdance, Czech style. And no shortage of set dancing either, the class performed on two nights sets of their liking and also a half-set was danced as an exhibition with Ger Butler in it.
What brought the house down nearly on the night, was a dance piece by arodjky (Witches), a local group, not the least bit Irish, but dancing and singing a parody in workmen’s clothes of what seemed to be 1950s music and lyrics to infuse in listeners the great values of communism, all together now, all equal, all working together, but was lost on us foreigners language-wise.
The language, you see, doesn’t sound or look anything remotely Roman, and that’s no surprise, because, like German, it isn’t. Didn’t look German though, either, so we often looked at something, say the label of a can, and had absolutely no clue as to what it was. We weren’t able to derive a meaning from the root of the word, as it might be possible in Spanish or French sometimes. Poor Ger was put on the spot for the amusement of the whole class when asked to hand out certificates while calling out the names—tongue-twisting involuntary stand-up comedy.
And apart from the dancing, there was this must-see city spread out below us, as we looked down from the balcony of our state-of-the-art apartment onto red rooftops, the Vltava River and green patches of woods, parks and reserves. Dogs were everywhere. I should have asked people to pass on their training methods, because these were the best behaved ones ever to be seen. Often without leads, they’d simply trot in unison behind their owners. No jumping, pulling, running wild or fighting. Wanna get rid of a fear of dogs? Prague’s dogs are the canine equivalent of a church choir behaving impeccably on Christmas Day.
Prague also had its share of epic history. At different times throughout its 1100 year history, it was plundered by the Swedes, was part of the Habsburg empire, has seen its native language and culture nearly eradicated, went through two world wars, was occupied by Nazi Germany during WW2, had a long spell under a Warsaw pact communist regime, which suppressed a movement to humanise socialism in the sixties (the ‘Prague spring’), and after a soft, ‘velvet’ revolution, emerged after the split with Slovakia a strong capitalist democratic multi-ethnic locality—sixth place among Europe’s most visited cities. Its historical buildings are perfectly maintained. Art nouveau sits easily beside gothic, romanesque and renaissance architecture, no eyesores to be found. The only new building, the Dancing House, was so odd that it counts as just another work of art. You can literally wander around for hours and not see a single ugly out-of-place office building or highrise skyscraper. No wonder it is called the Golden City.
What you can’t find are traffic jams, although the city swells in the summer months due to the high influx of tourists, and the roads are not exactly highways. But the system of public transport allows free and frequent movement by tram, metro and bus for very little money. Hats off! We never bothered running after a metro—the next one was sure to be around the corner. Everybody seemed so relaxed, no shoving and pushing anywhere, and at night we felt perfectly safe, even if we weren’t out in the small hours.
In the old town square, every hour on the hour, massive flocks of tourists are shepherded to the astronomical clock to watch a spectacle that was invented there in medieval times. About five metres above ground a skeleton starts ringing the bell, and lo and behold, two small doors fling open to reveal the twelve apostles, each taking their turn to come forward and take a quick darting look at the crowds below. This show was so unique that the lords of the city wanted to keep it that way, so they blinded the inventor. Charming.
Prague Castle, which towers over one part of the city and is illuminated at night, the wow-factor kind of illumination, is the largest in Europe and really comprises of a multitude of residences and a cathedral of great splendour. In several different courtyards there are stalls, exhibitions and craft displays. We watched a blacksmith at work for a while, hammering away with his fiery tools in the soaring midday heat, his body smeared with ash. It was easy to imagine how humans had done this trade for centuries—ah, the lost worlds of the past! But hey, what was that, a ringing of some description? And out he pulls his mobile phone to answer a call, and the spell was truly broken—no snubbing modern gadgets!
Next up we visited a falconry with different birds of prey to see and hold! My God, I didn’t think I would end up in Prague with a hawk on my gloved hand. It wasn’t on the list of things to do and see before kicking the bucket, but nonetheless was a powerful experience feeling the weight and talons of the bird and its eyes—looking as if he couldn’t make up his mind whether to regard me as prey or predator. Yikes!
Easier then was a trip to one of the many parks in Prague. Huge, this one was. Hours could be spent happily moseying the winding paths, ending up at a lake with a swimming area. Just the ticket, after walking in the heat for so long. A sign saying something like nudisky (forgive my bad Czech) was exactly what you’re now thinking it was. Very liberal country this, no hang-ups.
For a different kind of musical experience, one night we ventured to an underground jazz club. The stone vault overhead made the music bounce off it in a lazy fashion, almost cushioned it, and a great band played soulfully with lovely vocals that were merely like another instrument instead of overpowering the rest.
And on a classical note, a cruise along the Vltava would remind us of Smetana, who composed the famous music to go with the river.
Taking all that into account, I fully understood how this man from the Shetlands, who was the fiddle teacher at the summer school, Alistair Edwards, ended up living in Prague. By the way, we met an Irish guy on the plane who was travelling there to look for work. He lived in Prague at some stage for one summer and apparently loved it so much that he chose to emigrate to the place.
But there are more connections between the Czech Republic and Ireland, and one important link has been made to bring Irish music and dance here. The Prague summer school of Irish dancing and music would not exist if it weren’t for one man, whose love of Irish music inspired him so much that he went on to learn Irish dancing and on further to create and furnish the summer school—Václav Bernard, aided by his wife Lenka and daughters Markéta and Tereza, both lovely dancers in their own right. It was the Willie Clancy summer school, no less, that inspired the desire to bring Irish dancing and music to the Czech Republic. And what an awesome job they did. Irish people said, as they would, “Gee, they’d put you to shame, so they would!”
Great job, Václav, I can’t but admire you for it. Full credits at the end of the film, please!
Fancy a city break in the summer with lots of cultural input and dancing? Head to the Czech Republic to be sure.
The weekend of 11th to 13th of September saw over four hundred and fifty people gather by the Irish Sea near Blackpool for the first ever UK festival by Enjoy Travel, the company which runs numerous festivals, including Fleadh Ibiza, Fleadh Portugal, and Mediterranean cruises, to name but a few.
The festival was sheer magic from beginning to end. The large ballroom which housed all of the dancing events had a superb floor, and amplification was spot on at all times.
The festival began at the early hour of 7pm with Irene and Tom who gave us a wonderful selection of country and western music to dance to.
At 8pm Pat Walsh on keyboards accompanied by Martin O’Connell on the accordion kept us set dancing for a solid two hours. We are all familiar with Pat but most had not met or heard young Martin. His playing was amazing. He has his own ceili band called Triogue, and this band scooped third place in this year’s All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil in Tullamore. Martin hales from Brosna, Co Kerry, and I know his parents Martin and Joan who are regular set dancers.
Some set dancers remained in the hall after the ceili to dance to Dermot Hegarty followed by Johnny Carroll. I travelled into town with my friends to see the famous Blackpool illuminations, including the largest mirror ball in the world.
The ballroom came alive at 11am on Saturday morning when Piret Aunus gave her ballroom tuition class. Then Mickey Kelly took charge and we had a lovely set dancing workshop. By popular demand Mickey danced the Moycullen Set. Most of the five sets were established dancers but Mickey welcomed the few beginners who had come along. Some only intended to sit and watch, but with Mickey’s charm in full swing they found themselves part of the fun of dancing for the two-hour duration of the class.
The afternoon entertainment was in high gear at 3pm with a recently formed Co Mayo social band called Saffire. The members of this four-piece band are no strangers to the music scene. The lead vocalist Hilda Higgins has been a member of a band called Ice on Fire for the past sixteen years. Meanwhile Ed Wynn on keyboards, Noel Feeney on drums, and Joe Regan on electric guitar have played together on the social circuit as Sunset. The afternoon’s performance concluded with the magic singing of Michael Muldoon.
Back in the ballroom at 8pm the superb music of the Annaly Ceili Band kept set dancers happy for over two hours. These Co Longford lads are a dream to dance to giving us some wonderful tunes to lift our feet and spirits.
Mary O’Brien was our next artist. She has a gentle style of singing and is a real pleasure to dance or just listen to for a lyrical journey. Mary is married to Sean Sweeney, the banjo player with the Annaly Ceili Band.
Johnny Carroll with his golden trumpet then took the stage, followed by Gerry Walsh, another new artist to these events from Co Waterford. A former member of the Cowboys Showband in the mid-seventies he now plays all around the southeast with his band Dallas. Gerry has a fine voice and is easy to dance to. Dermot Hegarty’s performance closed the night’s entertainment in the ballroom.
I skipped across the pathway to the Old Vic Bar where Mick Mackey and the seisiún musicians had been playing from 9pm. Space was limited but we danced a Connemara, Newport and Caledonian. Mick and the boys with Geraldine McGlynn always ensure that the set dancers get plenty opportunity to dance during their busy seisiún. There is always a long list of performers with singers, storytellers, sean nós dancers and chancers. Mick Mackey weaves these performances together in a most professional manner.
Sunday morning’s schedule of events began in the ballroom with Mass. The sun streamed down on us as we gathered ourselves for our afternoon ceili in the ballroom. We had the Annaly Ceili Band back on stage and Mickey Kelly as MC. When the music began we forgot the blazing sunshine outside and danced our hearts out for two hours.
Mick Mackey and the seisiun musicians were still in full swing when the ceili concluded. This time they were outdoors in the wonderful sunshine and we danced waltzes, quicksteps and, of course, a Connemara set on the decking in front of the Old Victoria Pub. We could have been anywhere in the world—the weather sheer heaven and the atmosphere was tremendous.
Sunday night we began our ceili at the earlier time of 7.30pm and danced to Pat Walsh and Martin O’Connell. Then the social bands took over. Kenny Paul sang a soul searching selection of songs. Set dancers welcomed the slower pace of the social dancing after their weekend of exuberant dancing. Sean Wilson with his piano accordion was the next performer, followed by Saffire and then the one and only Johnny Carroll.
The weekend festival was packed full of magic music, dancing and great craic.
Joan Pollard Carew
Fortune was with us on this one. How likely is it that you happen to talk to someone and find out by chance they are travelling on the same date, same flight to Copenhagen from Ireland? After establishing that neither of us was joking, we made arrangements to meet up and drive to Dublin together, which made the journey so much more pleasant because the company was brilliant. It was coincidentally also the day Ireland had a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and Barack Obama and Oprah Winfry visited Denmark to canvas for Chicago to be the next location for the Olympic games. Our flight was delayed because of restrictions at the other end, and circling later over Copenhagen, we thought that we might catch a glimpse of Air Force One, but no, President Obama had left just before we arrived. The Danish people told us that the news reported on hardly anything else than the Obama visit that day.
Going to Denmark was a lovely experience and reminded me of being there frequently as a kid, because my father had Danish and Swedish connections. He was fluent in both languages, but I never learned them, so it was great to be met at the airport by John Christiansen, who is a member of the local set dancing club, and brought to the hotel (classy art deco style interiors), and later collected again to have the first of two meals together with the dancers. They had ordered different types of Indian food, which was delivered hot and with all the trimmings, dips, naan bread, salads, and for the first time a weekend started sharing an Indian meal with the whole lot of dancers present.
After the meal, it was striking to see the high skill level and use of brain matter in the following workshop. Ger Butler guided the class through the sets with his usual ease and charisma, and on more than one occasion the folks there were able to dance through a figure the second time with hardly any prompting. Impressive! Dancing in Denmark is taken earnestly indeed, and even the few beginners there were able to follow, no bother, being helped along by more experienced dancers. And there were an almost even number of men and women at the workshop! Amazing. I was told that sometimes at the classes they have more men than women and that it isn't unheard of for two men to dance together.
The Copenhagen set dancing club, which came into existence fifteen years ago, has a chairperson (Ane Luise Madsen), treasurer (Jørgen Olsen) but no secretary; members take turns taking notes. They have an ingenious system of being taught voluntarily by six teachers, who can then apply for funding to go to Ireland to update their skills. The set dancing club in Aarhus, which also hosts a weekend every year, supports Copenhagen and vice versa. There are about fifty dancers in Copenhagen, and they are connected via a Google forum and Facebook. Also involved in the organisation of this weekend was the Danish Irish Society (founded in 1968, imagine!) with chairperson Elsebeth Rønne keeping an eye on proceedings.
A number of people there were also involved in other folk dancing, like square dancing and Danish dancing, and they gave us a little display on Saturday night—well, I was dragged out in it before I could say Hopsa! Off we went to Danish music and did something like a polka with a type of house around, but also turning in the other direction, which elicited the odd mystified yell from the only German in it. One dance was called Rheinländer Polka, which sounds German altogether, but I had never seen it. The other one, a two-hand dance called Sønderhoning, involved being locked together, with the lady's right hand on the gent's waist and her left hand behind her back, and the gent's hands around the lady to catch her hand behind her back, um, or something like that. Then you step on both feet going down in a little knee-bend, and then one, two, and unusual rhythm, and I had a hard time trying to keep it up without reverting back to one-two-threes.
In the pub afterwards I had an interesting conversation with Jørn Borggreen, who compiled a monograph on square dances from Cape Breton. He did this as a pure labour of love, his dedication to research shown by his frequent visits to the area and interviewing dancers. The fruit of his work was the preservation and conservation of some of the dances that are actually not danced any more, but thanks to the compilation could be revived. Such people simply take my breath away. What is it that makes them work so hard, voluntarily, only to rescue some form of dancing from falling into oblivion? Great stuff.
Another Dane, Adam Jørgensen, stopped being a teacher to try his hand at organising tours from Denmark to Ireland under various cultural headings, from visiting monastic sites, down to Irish music and dance tours. It was through his own trip that he came in contact with set dancing, and on return to Denmark consequently joined a local class. While on tour in Ireland, he rented a bus and driver for his people, and what do you know, the driver happened to be no other than Ger Butler's father, Seamus. Small world, as they say. Adam, born in Denmark, spent his childhood in Eastern Germany. His parents were communists, and they emigrated there on purpose. He says that he had a very happy childhood, safe and trouble free, though some time later, the family moved back to Denmark. Remarkable.
John Christiansen said that the Danish and Irish have an important commonality that bears on the mentality of both populations. Being of similar size in geographical and demographical terms, they each border a big and powerful neighbour, which had at different times invaded and squashed the country. He reckoned that the Danes are also very welcoming, and he should know, because he travelled extensively and over a long period of time to Ireland. Some of the other dancers had been to Ireland as well, and were planning to come to both Listowel and Longford! The bug has bitten the Danish (not the pastry) . . .
Saturday was spent being tutored in sets and steps all day. Clare battering was a big hit, and after practising with Ger one-on-one, everyone could do it at the end to a good degree. When we came back to the venue after lunch, people had put down a few mats on the floor for a catnap. So much had we danced during the night before and the morning that some bodies needed to refuel by having about eighty winks! It was probably because in Ger Butler's workshops there is almost nonstop dancing. Ger was in fine form just after being back from Gertie Byrne's Mediterranean cruise, and delivered without fail. The sean nós session on Sunday morning was particularly successful in terms of the learning. In a letter from Elsebeth I received the week after, it read (in part): "We liked his way of teaching. He was not in a hurry, he was very easy to understand and very good at simplifying movements, steps and figures. The battering can be very difficult and he took care of that and went around and helped everyone! People appreciated that very much."
Saturday night then after being served Thai food on a long table, we had a ceili with music courtesy of Sonnich (pronounced "sonic," yeah, the hedgehog) Lydom, box, Peter Sørensen, fiddle, Tim Goddard, flute and Bjarne Schmidt, banjo. These four guys have been playing Irish trad since the seventies, and when asked whether they have a name, just laughed and said, "Copenhagen Ceili Band." They played without sound system, drums or piano, and seldom have I heard and danced to that in a hall. Anyway they get three lovelies—lovely, lovely, lovely. Their music had enough sovereign lift and graceful rhythm to make any feet go around the house. It was refreshingly different.
Ger did all the calling, since some people wouldn't have known the sets well enough, interspersed with a few jokes to relax people. There didn't seem to be a fixed time to stop, and since I didn't consult the watch, I don't know how long it went on. By the end I was ready to collapse, so I guess it was longer than three hours, with only a short break and a constant flow of tea, coffee, water, lemonade and biscuits at all times, tak! (Thank you in Danish.) The hair was let down, and many a belly laugh was heard, really enjoyable. Good sports, those Danes!
The red shoes—they have to get a mention. Ane Luise Madsen, one of the organisers of the weekend, always ready to burst into a big smile, wore the most beguiling high-heeled fire-brigade-red shoes for the ceili, accompanied by a smashing black dress. Would they transport her to the next ceili in Ireland, if she clicked her heels three times? She certainly wished for it, as she wasn't able to be there with us on Sunday. That's why she was going to be over for the Listowel weekend, as compensation!
Sunday dawned without rain and the sun peeped through a bit, so I took the only chance for a walk in one of the parks in Copenhagen. I didn't expect to see elephants, but there they were, with a baby one at that! It was actually the back of the zoo's enclosure that can be viewed from the park. Also, I did see many joggers and runners, bicycles in great numbers on their special lanes on the roads, and even a young mum pushing the pram while she was running on one of the smooth paths.
And then I came across something odd. From the distance, I could see a tree, decorated with many colourful ribbons, with objects hanging in droves from every branch. The objects? Kid's dummies, hundreds of them. What happens here is an initiation into the next step of a child's development. The kids themselves will give away or hang up their dummies, often accompanied by a poem, balloons and little toys or gifts in a small ceremony. What an exceptional idea! No trauma here, no temper tantrums. And of course it always helps feeling you're in the same boat with others, so hanging up the dummy on the tree in Frederiksberg Have (Park) becomes something to be proud of.
Coming back towards the end of the sean nós workshop I scooped up a new step, and then we arrived at the closing of the set dancing weekend. Ger was presented with a bag of goodies, luxury chocolates and liquorice. (There was no mention of sharing them, he bagged them straight away!) And lots of hugs, handshakes and thank you so much! Later, we found ourselves shepherded onto the brand new metro (to make sure we don't get lost) and whisked off to the airport.
You have a good thing going in Denmark, a very spirited, steadfast group of people wanting to learn and dance. (One guy took notes of the sean nós steps while dancing them!) There is nothing wrong in the state of Denmark! Hamlet would have been chuffed!
So, like Obama two days before us, we left Denmark again, looking down on off-shore windmills. He mightn't have got Chicago the Olympics, but we got a chance of forging new bonds with people in yet another country who share the same passion. It's One World indeed courtesy of Irish set dancing.
Thank you, kind people of Denmark, for your hospitality. The light seemed to shine that bit warmer from sharing food, thoughts, music and dances.
Organising a set dancing workshop is always some kind of adventure. . . .
When Jim Monaghan accepted the invitation of our club, Trégor Gaëlic, based in Brittany, to teach workshops on the weekend of 21-23 August in Trévou-Tréguignec, we didn't know that he would bring, apart from his skills and amazing kindness, some lovely presents with him—twelve young step-dancing Irish lassies joined the set dancing workshop, plus another group of Irish dancing addicts who took part in the various evenings.
On Friday at 6pm, the first part of the weekend started, which was intended particularly for beginners. Jim taught the reel step for the Connemara Reel Set, relaxed a bit with Pat O'Cake Polka and then showed North Kerry polkas. And the charm worked, for those who had come "just to see" came back the next day to join the rest of the workshop.
After a quick bite to eat, those who wanted to continue the evening could go to a music session taking place at the bar l'Électron Libre, with musicians of the Irish Station band who had come from Brest, and our own musicians from the Trégor Gaëlic Ceili Band. I was still on the threshold of the pub and my feet were already impatient to dance to the irresistible slides of the Ballyvourney Jig Set, but the set was full, and I was wondering what to do as my feet were calling me to dance. The inviting smiles on Finola O'Brien, Jo Jackson and their friends' faces and a look at their feet, calling like mine for a dance, were sufficient ingredients to bring us together to form another set. It is so delightful when people immediately understand each other without words and when they meet through the pure pleasure of dancing together! This first exciting moment made me feel the Ireland of my dreams had crossed the ocean for me! After a few dances, we were all quite warm—thank you, Carmel, for giving me a lovely fan, an indispensable accessory from the perfect ceili dancer.
At 1am we retired; let's be reasonable, for tomorrow will be a long day. I had some trouble finding the way to the hotel to bring my new friends back to it, but their friendly teasing and unflagging spirit touched my heart.
On Saturday, exactly at 10am, Jim warmed us up with the Brittania Two-Step, before explaining the Cúchulainn Set to the eight sets of attentive dancers and then continued with a little bit of battering steps.
At 1pm, time for an apéritif and a meal. A number of us had a picnic on the beach—we are so lucky to live on the coast! And then the workshop continued with the Two-Hand Reel. We then learnt a sean nós step, the Antrim Square Set and the beautiful third figure of the Claddagh Set.
In the evening, we all joined the fest deiz (or Breton ceili) on the seaside and enjoyed an outdoor meal, giving everyone a chance to rest in a festive atmosphere.
The ceili we organized was another opportunity to have Breton people, dancers from the workshop and Irish visitors get together. Apart from the dancers, about fifty people from the outside, tourists or locals, had come to enjoy the event and had the pleasant surprise to be offered a step dancing demonstration by Catriona Lott's young students visiting from Kildare, as well as a brush dance by Jim. No need to say that they were praised and applauded plentifully. And we danced and danced until after 2 in the morning, both the dances learnt during the workshop, which Jim generously called for all, and the inevitable Ballyvourney Jig Set, Plain Set, Clare Lancers, etc. We also introduced three easy ceili dances so that neophytes could participate. It was a great pleasure to see our new Irish friends mix with less skilled dancers and show them tricks and craic! Watching the spectators' happy smiles was enough to understand the pleasure was equally shared.
I would like to pay a tribute to our musicians who were particularly good that night despite their stage fright.
At 4am the hall was clean, the sound equipment ready to go, my daughter Tekla had fallen asleep in the car but was already dreaming about tomorrow.
Sunday, 11am—great sunny day, it's bound to be warm, but we all seemed to be ready for the Military Two-Step to warm up, and then to learn the Black Valley Square Jig Set.
At 1pm the meal took place behind the hall, each one choosing either sun or shade, and then we came to the last part of the workshop with the Canadian Barn Dance, the Sliabh Fraoch Set and the Killyon Set.
At 5.30pm, it was the end of the workshop. The warm thanks of the dancers, their goodwill in helping throughout the weekend, and the appreciation they expressed for Jim's teaching are all a fantastic encouragement to repeat this next summer! Thanks to them all. But the adventure was not over yet!
At the end of the ceili, our Irish friends had expressed their disappointment that nothing had been planned for the Sunday night. Their wish matched ours too much for us to remain deaf to it. So we immediately looked for a place where we could have a dancing night and we found the Pub l'Hermine nearby, where we got a great and warm welcome from the publican and her husband who happened to be Irish! Unfortunately, none of the musicians were available and I wanted to apologise again to our Irish friends. "But never mind," said Jim, "we'll dance to music from CDs!" Once again, we danced and danced all night but also admired the solos and duos, clapped at the songs and enjoyed the great enthusiasm of all those who were so kind in expressing their happiness to simply be there. A great surprise for the usual clients of the pub!
2.30am, the pub closed, after taking our friends back to their hotel, my daughter and I went back home, exhausted no doubt, but so happy!
Tomorrow they will be leaving, which is always a bit sad, but the links have become so strong, yet simple, that their impact on my mind will take a long time, if ever, to fade away. My daughter told me amidst her tears, "I think I had a dream." As for me, I think this is what life is about—deep, sincere and direct exchanges in a fraternal spirit.
And so I want to say, "Long live Irish dancing, for it is one of the ways to share such great moments!"
To finish, I would like to pay tribute to Timmy McCarthy, my first dance master, who transmitted the healthy Irish dancing virus to me!
Annaig Latimier, Trégastel, Britanny, France
There is a special aura in the town of Glenties, near the magnificent Gweebara Bay in South Donegal and its inhabitants are often said to be heartily welcoming. The Highlands Hotel keeps confirming this well-established reputation. You can be reassured of a familial greeting, if not from Johnny Boyle himself, the happily retired manager busy painting nature's beauties yet actively helping out most days, perhaps from one of his seven daughters. Denise for instance would be reputed not only for her cooking skills but the special spice in her bow—her lively playing could make any novice stand up for a highland. Growing up in such a musical palace, she could only absorb the fine savoir-faire of local fiddle masters like Vincent and Jimmy Campbell or the late James Byrne visiting occasionally from Glencolmcille. The hotel was bought by Johnny's father in 1948 and there was a sing along on Sundays a long way back. Indeed, that's where I used to quench my ear canals with sparkling traditional fiddling in the crowded bar most Sunday nights, filling up my repertoire of flavourful two-hand tunes. Since then the musical scene has become more sober, leading this weekly session to an end about a year ago. The lack of encouraging audience in such a fertile traditional part of the world saddened me somehow. Perhaps more seeds of attention and care for a colourful heritage should be sown again in this musical garden of heaven. All suggestions welcome to keep steps and tunes well rooted in Donegal! The door of the Highlands remains open to cultural distractions like the fiddle weekend or any dancing gathering of the Club Ceili na Gleanntai.
"It is the people who make an event happen," stated Connie McKelvey, an active member of the ceili club born thirty years ago, and main organiser of the annual weekend of dancing hosted for the fourth time in the most spacious ballroom of the Highlands last September 18th-20th. The first fifty lucky dancers booked up all the hotel rooms, and since all the local B&Bs also filled up quickly, another thirty from the Armagh folk and set dance community led by Margaret McCann had to stay around the corner of the main street in an independent hostel entirely left to them for the occasion. I was happy to be accommodated further out in the green glen of Glenties, in a homely organic farm where breakfasts and dinners promised home-grown and home-baked goodness to sustain my energy level over the weekend.
On Friday evening, as I stepped down the stairs of the hall at 9.29pm, Connie welcomed me with a pleasant yet unexpected invitation for the opening set. I was sorry to hear his regular dance partner would have to sit tight most of the weekend due to an injury; we wish her many safe swings soon. Not even a spare minute to let my eyes merrily go round the kaleidoscopic views of Gwebarra Bay, the glen of Glenties or Killybegs which decorate the wall opposite the small stage—three iridescent oil paintings that Johnny Boyle made five years ago to tint the ballroom with a fauvist touch. I was agreeably dragged into one of the four sets gathered on the smooth wooden floor as MC Joe Farrell announced the punctual start of the dancing. Although he already had a microphone in hand and a series of moves in mind, he also had to fill in as my corner partner. Indeed, it is the multi-skilled people like Joe, the Triskell Ceili Band on the big stage and Connie in the epicentre who make a festival crystallise around them. Before the third figure of the Corofin, the number of sets on the floor had doubled, and had trebled by the end of the sixth. As if by Japanese enchantment, multicoloured lacelike fans beautifully blossomed around the room soon after the Fermanagh Set, the second of an already quite warm dancing night. In the long lines of smiles threading through the fifth figure of the Lancers were old friendships that seemed to have revived. A sweet cooling down old-time waltz finally allowed partners to share news. I seized this occasion to invite a smiling dancer new to the Glen for a Pride of Erin, someone I first met last August in France! Flutist Andrew O'Connell provided live music at the second Bal de l'Europe in Saint-Gervais for the set dancing workshops and ceilis. Connie himself, his dance partner Sally Sweeney and I attended it as well to pass on our common passion for Donegal two-hand dances at two discovery workshops. What a nice gesture on Andrew's part to pay a friendly visit from Castletown, Co Laois. Similarly, over a hundred dancers had travelled from near or far counties to support the weekend. Derry, Antrim,
Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone were obviously embodied in large numbers, but also the counties of Down, Louth, Meath, Galway, Mayo and Sligo. No wonder everybody's thirst for chat increased, especially when the ebullient Triskell Ceili Band embarked in a presto accelerando two-hand favourite straight after the waltz. For an out of breath second I feared this Shoe the Donkey would bolt for a 24-hour Donkeython, as it did in the same venue a few years back!
Thankfully, in connivance with the organisers, the musicians paused their spirited music just as zealous volunteers fluttered to set tables and trays in the middle of the dancing floor. Treats and tea vanished in a fan flick and a swarm of darting dancers—no time for Japanese rituals here! Soon more hot beverage was poured from bulging pots worthy of the Mad Hatter's tea party. Meanwhile another team flitted around the hall, not only offering each of us more sandwiches and home-baked pies, but fanning a friendly smile here or a kind word there. A tea break well done in full homey ceili club manners. Back to square two, the band fired lively reels for the Antrim Set, and kept the energy up through a High-Cauled Cap familiar to most Donegal dancers, then the Cashel, Caledonian and Plain Sets.
The next morning I got up early, impatient to stretch soles and fan open toes in an earthbound tree pose on the bedroom floor made of natural cork—pure indulgence after a night of dancing and before another demanding day. Cycling down to the Highlands autumnal showers soon washed over the pastel sky. I happily took refuge in the hall where a moist, warm enthusiasm radiated as eleven sets were already in action. From the mezzanine overlooking the ballroom, I was content to glance at lovely back-to-back moves, when all of a sudden a strange ballet evolved in the room—Pádraig McEneany, in charge of the set dancing workshop with his wife Róisín, invited all top couples to move to a different set! Signs of surprise rose in the assembly. However this ingenious stratagem soon became the pedagogic hallmark of the McEneanys—a smooth way of breaking comfortable habits and stimulating confidence. Throughout the Armagh Set taught that morning, all couples became accustomed to playing musical sets, frequently swapping their position from first to second tops, from tops to sides, and from one set to another so that eventually everyone got to try out every position while learning new moves and encountering new friends. By the fourth figure Pádraig joked, "I know the Derry people have the reputation of having eyes in the backs of their heads. But keep looking at the eyes of your partner in the corner while dancing around each other!"
Sean nós dancing was also on the program—mixing various dancing styles at a workshop appears to be a great idea to everybody's liking. Since Kathleen McGlynn had surgery a month before and the doctor insisted that she had to sit and be quiet—a challenge she took up bravely all weekend—Angela O'Connor led the class instead. Constantly encouraging attendees who were joining for the first time, she reminded everyone that no matter how difficult the steps can look at first sight, practice makes perfect and eventually "it all falls into place," if not in situ, once back home. The musicality of her determined voice somehow sounded familiar when Michael McGlynn commented to me in a whisper, "She's much faster than her mother!" His hidden pride is well merited as he and Kathleen both encouraged Angela as a girl to learn Irish dancing, then the sets. Sean nós finally came to her quite naturally and Angela now teaches it weekly near Kilkenny where she lives. Many dancers congratulated her on her first workshop conducted in such a professional manner.
Although the hotel provided tasty lunches, Andrew and I felt like getting a vitamin D refill sharing a table outside the Good Earth coffee shop run by my hosts on the main street. My squirrel eyes spotted golden hazelnuts rolling out of Andrew's jacket pocket. He explained that he was collecting them to sell as seeds. As an expert tree planter he has planted just about 930,000 trees, among them 40,000 in Donegal. What a rewarding feeling such a friendship to Mother Earth must bring when glancing at the twenty-year-old forest of Doochary, nested by the side of the Gwebarra river!
"It's nice when we are in Donegal to do a Donegal set nine miles out the road," commented Pádraig as he introduced the Fintown Set, highlight of the afternoon. Nice also to see one of its creators, Connie McKelvey, taking part in the demonstration. I remember a lovely little Christmas where gents hold hands, ladies slide their arms under the men's arms and let their hands rest on gents' shoulders which allows a smooth, effortless circular motion either clockwise or anticlockwise. We danced the first figure to recorded polkas from the Templehouse and the second to reels from Matt Cunningham—although polkas would suit even better, according to a well informed Fintown man, Connie himself. More sean nós steps were demonstrated and taught brilliantly by Angela before Pádraig showed a few minutes of reel steps and applied them straight away to the first two figures of the Fermanagh Quadrilles. This first workshop with Pádraig and Róisín left such an impression on me that I later asked them to paint a picture of their teaching methods—see their reply in their own words further down.
About twenty sets gathered on Saturday evening for a ceili with the Copperplate Ceili Band, a turn-up clearly showing that the festival was growing. MC Joe Farrell was back with his natural driving enthusiasm. He lives near Belfast in Hilltown, Co Down, and used to liven up four set dancing classes a week, "to keep the mind going," outside his work as a mechanic. He led the Kilfenora, Derrada, Connemara sets, and Pádraig called the Armagh, plus some inevitable highlands and mazurkas. The tea break, as well organised and copious as the previous night, was served individually around the hall by a tight-knit team under the instructions of Anne Connaghan, Olive McKelvey and Una Hegarty from the effervescent kitchen made available by the hotel. There were more two-hands and sean nós galore along with the Cashel, Moycullen, Skibbereen and Plain sets.
The Sunday morning workshop was shortened for me by an early departure at noon and I intended to make the most of this last hour of social dancing. It is always an invigorating pleasure to dance to the live music of the Gallagher sisters, Breid on fiddle accompanied by Moyah on piano. Connie McKelvey and Anne Connaghan led numerous couples through about ten traditional two-hand dances. Wasn't it wonderful to see a young Japanese woman, Kyoko 'Coco' Ichijo, wearing a Clare T-shirt spending two days in Glenties for a Sweetheart Waltz? Weren't Geraldine McCrory and Elaine Cairns of Glasgow kind to give us a whistle duet between the Erin O and a mazurka?
Ten sets stayed in the afternoon for the farewell ceili with the Copperplate, entertained by Joe with another series including the Mazurka, Borlin, Labasheeda, Ballyvourney Jig, Sliabh gCua and Plain sets, interspersed by a few two-hands and jiving.
Since then, inspired by Andrew I planted a dozen hazelnuts with a wish for each one to be as robust and flexible as the willow in the four winds swirling round the Donegal shore. Connie's dance partner Sally is back in full swing around the dance floors in Falcarragh and Gortahork. Kathleen has fully recovered and is looking forward to teaching in Termonfeckin in January. Pádraig and Róisín happily got to refresh sweet memories of their honeymoon in Ardara eighteen years ago. Connie has been asked to start a set dancing class in Dungloe, half an hour from Glenties, for a dozen of complete beginners. He's also been recycling leftover leaflets since the line-up is exactly the same for next year's weekend, adjusting the corresponding dates (17-19 September 2010) by hand.
It is heartening how dancers can lead a fruitful life, illustrating these sayings—
Trees are known by their fruit, people by their deeds. A good deed is never lost: one who sows courtesy reaps friendship.
In his own wordsOur teaching is based on the way we learned the sets ourselves. Most of our sets come from Connie Ryan, who was a wonderful man and really did a lot for the revival of set dancing. Connie was very determined that each set would retain its special points and this is what we try to do also. Unfortunately a lot of sets are danced in a generic way now and the finer points of the sets are being forgotten. For example the Connemara Set is now practically unrecognisable from the set as it was first revived and most people do not dance the Connemara step. So many changes have come into the sets and are so established that when we dance the set people look at us as if we are dancing it incorrectly! We have a liking for teaching people steps before the figures, as this is for us the most essential part of dancing. This can pose a big problem in a workshop because there is such a mix of dancing levels that you need to keep everyone involved. We try to mix the more advanced dancers in with the less experienced. After all this is the way we all learned! So the basics like house, swing and dancing at home are taught and stress is put on the fact that you are dancing with a partner and as part of a set. We try to keep a look-out for people who are having difficulty and as there are two of us teaching, this is easier than when you are on your own. If we see people going wrong, we try to correct them and help them to improve. The most important thing about workshops is to enjoy yourself but it is also an opportunity to improve your dancing and we can all improve! I tell people that when I correct them it is really a compliment, it means that I feel they have the potential to improve. I think also that it is important to be courteous with the people you are dancing with. We would always thank the people in our set when the set is finished."
Driving down the picturesque Nire Valley in the Comeragh Mountains of Co Waterford, I felt privileged to be on my way to another set dancing festival. The Dungarvan branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann was holding their annual set dancing weekend in Lawlor's Hotel on Bridge Street in the heart of Dungarvan, 2-4 October. The harbour lights were shining on sweet Dungarvan as the sun set on Friday evening.
The weekend of dancing began at 9pm at a ceili with the superb music of the Annaly Ceili Band. Local dancing master John Creed had compiled a fantastic selection of sets, including my all-time favourite the Labasheeda. We also danced the recently revived Moycullen. Some of the old favourites like the Plain Set got an airing also. In all we danced nine sets and three two-hand dances. There were no time delays filling sets as John Creed made sure everyone got to dance. Committee chairperson Mary Rossiter welcomed everyone and was looking forward to yet another great weekend. John Creed said he was delighted to see so many of the usual patrons of the weekend return again this year and was especially thrilled to welcome newcomers to the event.
Saturday morning at 10.30am we had our first workshop with Pádraig and Róisín McEneany. We began with the Fermanagh Set and I was delighted to see it being danced at a workshop. It's an easy set and great to get the blood flowing first thing in the morning and no tricky moves to overtax the brain either. It's one of those little sets that should be danced more at ceilis.
The second set was the Clare Orange and Green, one of the older Co Clare sets that has been almost forgotten in the annals of set dancing. It has great variety and style. We got through the first three of the six figures before lunch.
The workshop resumed at 2.30pm. Pádraig and Róisín taught the remainder of the Clare Orange and Green and continued with the Sliabh Fraoch Set. This set is from the area near Rockchapel in Co Cork and was first brought to the mainstream of set dancing in 2006 by Frank Keenan at Fleadh Ibiza and has enjoyed popularity since then.
Our workshop concluded with a lovely little two-hand mazurka from Co Donegal. All seven sets at the workshop had a wonderful day's dancing. Returning to the festival for their second year, a group from Corsica joined in the fun. Their leader Monique Alfonsi told me that they have a similar type of dancing in Corsica, though the style and steps are different to our set dancing. With Pádraig and Róisín at the helm they had no problem executing our different style.
Soon we were back in the spacious ballroom for our night ceili. Tim Joe and Anne O'Riordan were all set to play at 9pm sharp. With a long list of nine sets and a few rounds of a waltz greeting us, we tightened our shoe laces and any other loose bits in anticipation of another magic night. We began with the Cashel Set, then danced the Claddagh, West Kerry and Newport followed by three waltzes. This brought us to break time and lovely complimentary tea, coffee and cakes. The second half of the ceili resumed with the Antrim Square, followed by the Ballyvourney, the Kilfenora and the Clare Orange and Green (called by Pádraig) from the class earlier in the day. The last set of the night was the Connemara. I counted eleven sets on the floor full of energy.
Sunday morning at 11am we gathered back in the ballroom for our last workshop. This morning with energy sapping we were delighted to dance some two-hand dances. The Schottische was first, then the Donegal Barn Dance. Erin O was next and then we danced a Palais Glide. Our workshop concluded with the Bonane Set, which comes from Bonane near Kenmare, Co Kerry. Pádraig thanked dancing teacher Timmy Woulfe from Athea, Co Limerick, for popularising this lovely set. The six sets who had gathered for the class had great fun with it. We were hungry for lunch when the class finished.
Pádraig and Róisín are excellent teachers. Attention to detail features strongly in their method. It is evident that they both love music and dancing and more importantly teaching dancing. Small wonder that their diary is packed with dates for workshops all over Ireland and the rest of Europe.
Our final ceili got off to a brilliant start with Brian Ború Ceili Band on stage. The first set on the list was the Plain, and then we danced the Newport, Ballyvourney, Antrim Square, West Kerry and a few superb waltzes. Tea, coffee, currant cake and brack with compliments of the committee were enjoyed by all and we took a breather before the second half of the ceili. Soon we were back on the floor for the Mazurka Set, Sliabh Luachra and Labasheeda. The ceili concluded with the Connemara.
The floor was nicely packed all afternoon with ten to twelve sets having a good time. Mary Rossiter thanked everyone and said they will be back again next year for another festival. She also thanked all the other hard working members of the committee, especially their resident dance master John Creed for his professionalism and all the extra work he had put in to ensure the success of the weekend.
I left the market town of Dungarvan, where the river Colligan broadens and enters the sea and bade the Deise county goodbye in my rear view mirror as I headed towards the Nire Valley with the sun bouncing off my windscreen. I felt energised and happy as reels and jigs reverberated in my brain.
This weekend was well organised, the ceili bands from amongst the best in the land. The teachers did a brilliant job and the committee greeted us with a wonderful warm welcome and baskets of sweets to keep our energy flowing. Dungarvan Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann you can be proud of your committee and your festival. With over fifty years of Comhaltas in Dungarvan I salute you and wish you continued success.
Joan Pollard Carew
Ha! I knew it. Listowel (16-18 October) would be a great weekend, and so it was. Stop reading now if that is all you wanted to know, and put it into your calendar for next year, done and dusted. However, if you want to know the stories, you'd better read on. . . .
First, we had a fair share of celebrities present, thanks to TG4's An Jig Gig, the traditional dance competition on the Irish language TV channel. A couple of the sean nós dancers as well as set dancers turned up, and surely must have gotten a lot of praise about their courage to stand in front of a film crew and perform for a nationwide audience. Kevin Hassett, who was seen stepping it out on a barrel on TV, said it was "great craic" and enjoyed the day in the studio. Fair play to yeez all who took part and who will now be recognised in a somewhat different manner on the set dance floors!
The quite international flavour to the atmosphere was made up by a big contingent from Italy in their club T-shirts, two ladies from Denmark and more from Germany—one of each had their birthdays, and when called to the stage for cakes and candles, looked around in lost disbelief which melted into delight when they found out what they were called for. There were people from various parts of England, just to mention Kate Howes, et al from Birmingham, and Matthew Mitchell from London. Well, the latter hadn't exactly come over for the dancing; in fact, it was golf he was supposed to play. But sure enough, when confronted with the music and dancing, he couldn't resist trying it out and was hooked immediately. At the sean nós workshop he spoke about the newly found allure of set dancing with such passion that it wouldn't surprise me if he has thrown away the golf clubs and purchased a pair of dancing shoes instead since. He wasn't the first person for whom Listowel was an inaugural weekend by accident. Last year, a guy started out here who hasn't stopped dancing since and settled on calling this year's weekend his "first anniversary." Talking to someone else about how they became involved, it turned out she was pulled out on the floor at some ceili in her flip-flops without a notion of what was going on and managed to stay within the set and upright despite those facts, but after that virgin Clare Lancers hasn't looked back either.
Down from Belfast came Fergus and Tim, well known dancers, and the last set on Saturday night was danced with lots of messing in a controlled way. Didn't Fergus and his partner simply take off into the next-door set! Tut, tut, tut! If it wasn't for chaps like you two though
who are so able to let their hair down (this is just a figure of speech) we wouldn't have half as much fun dancing. And watch out for Fergus' girlfriend, a lovely girl from Monaco, now living in Belfast, who plainly appears to my eyes that she was made to dance. She would be the type of lady to look the part in swing-dancing. During the jiving workshop, she would revert her footwork to rock 'n' roll and looked sheer class doing it.
So here we are talking about other types of dancing. Not a big surprise that this was in my mind, as the weekend opened with a line dancing workshop led by Mark Bryan from Co Cork in full regalia—cowboy hat, boots, eagle-emblem on a white western-style shirt, and a Cork accent to top it all! I got a full workout hoppin' about doing the Electric Slide, Black Velvet and Disco—I had forgotten them, but they came back to me quite quickly and galvanized energies for the first ceili of the weekend, yee-haw! It was Mark's inaugural workshop as a teacher, and he did a fine job, holding everyone's attention, teaching slowly enough for people to follow, and as he was relaxed and enjoying it, transferred the dances to the participants no bother. Mark has people skills, meaning he looks at people engagingly and smiles. Amazing the difference smiling can make!
Then the Abbey took to the stage and their music rolled almost lovingly in and over and between the bodies and the air, creating an atmosphere of cloudy soft springiness. All the ordinary sets were played, sets that all know and don't need to think about much, so all you need to do is go! I do like dancing unusual sets, but the mix of weekends where you get it and some where you don't strikes me as just right. I heard no one complain anyhow. We did do the Claddagh, Labasheeda and Antrim Square, a few sets so that some people weren't as familiar with, but it all went well as far as I could see and nobody got lost.
Too much chat in the bar after made for a rather late night although I had vowed to take it handy and get enough sleep, but what the hell, it was just so comfy, and the company even better!
Rather bushed in the morning then I went to Ger Butler's workshop. Seven more wonderful people in the set made all the difference and with recorded music by Swallow's Tail, Inishfree Ceili Band and the Kilfenora, the feet behaved impeccably, although slightly sore, and glided across the super floor of the Listowel Arms Hotel's ballroom. By the way, it's one of the best ever, having an open view across the racecourse and river, and mirrors here and there where you could watch yourself dancing if you like.
This was Ger's first time working here, and I was interested to hear how the folks responded to him. When someone said they liked his teaching, I asked what about it they liked and was told that he makes it sound easy and doesn't fuss much or complicate things. And he's good value for money as he keeps you dancing all along. Also steps for sets are going down a treat, and Ger did some to finish off the morning.
By now I have seen him teach quite a bit, and feel that I owe a lot of learning to him. The great love he bears for the music, all types of Irish music and dance, is tangible. You can often see that, while calling, a tune or arrangement so grabs him that he starts stepping it out on the spot, and for a second flies away with it, only to return on time for the next movement to be called.
That afternoon, the Glenside Ceili Band played some fabulous tunes in a sun-flooded ballroom, and we glided here and glided there and glided everywhere, so well was the dancing facilitated by the music. Moyra Fraser added her own style of keyboard playing to the overall sound of the band. Someone said how no one ever pays attention to the keyboard—not so with Moyra's playing. She makes you listen. At times, she would play the tunes too, at others skilfully bringing out the highlights. I also really enjoy her singing.
Someone then from Donegal turned up at the ceili. She had been ill, and really wasn't able to go, but came anyway and said she would just be looking and listening to the music, because she felt bored at home. "Oh God," I said to her, "that must be hard, to watch and not being able to dance."
"Well," she said, "I just have to stay put, no way can I dance and survive." About five minutes later I spotted her on the dance floor, and actually at the end of the weekend she was very much alive still. Another young lady from Clonmel popped in during the night ceili, because she also felt bored at home, and was delighted with herself for having made the journey. Hey, all you bored people at home, obviously you have to go set dancing in Listowel to make life exciting again!
And then it was time for dinner, thank goodness, to add much needed fuel in anticipation of the jiving workshop and night ceili. Ger Butler taught his second workshop of the day by getting the basics of jiving across, and afterward, Martin Williams played country and western music for an hour for free where there was ample opportunity to put into practice the learnings from the workshop. Actually, two people spoke to me about tango at the weekend, and here's an idea for next year—I wouldn't mind a ballroom class, or a two hand class with a tango thrown in. But for now, we jived the hour away and in a jiffy it was time for the ceili. I did well on eating a good meal, because all the calories were used up in a flash when Swallow's Tail released their music upon us! They were stunning, simply that, feeding off the dancers on the floor, and they in turn feeding off the fabulous music. On a night like that, nothing else is necessary, there is plenty of everything, manufactured by high notes and low notes pumping through the room. Kicks galore!
Another short night followed, before I breathlessly got back in the morning from a walk along the river bank accompanied by raucous discussions about the ethics of rabbit-culling, deep freezing them and using them as biofuel in Stockholm since they had become a man-made plague after being released by owners who grew tired of them. They multiplied like, well, rabbits, and as we walked along the banks of the river, saw none—they were probably keeping their ears down so not to listen to the debate. Coming back in need of a lighter topic, I marched into the sean nós workshop that had just started with Edwina Guckian.
Let me tell you about Edwina. She teaches in a fun way, being used to teaching kids. She used her hands to simulate a step while also showing it with her feet, and the two together made it very comprehensible for the folks, and everybody seemed to get the points. Watching Edwina dance is like watching a bit of a fairy tale, with a princess-like quality about her—but make no mistake, she mightn't be the tallest or strongest woman, but she is a force to be reckoned with! I for one remembered some of the steps she showed from last year, and if they stayed with me, whose memory is not the, um, sharpest, they surely stayed with others. Michael O'Rourke then showed some steps for sets to finish the morning's teaching. And jointly they taught, Michael leading a row of men, and Edwina a row of women.
Then, we psyched ourselves up for the afternoon ceili. The Johnny Reidy Ceili Band lived up to their reputation, and afterwards a very excited lady, Julie, went up to Johnny and literally shouted to him waving her hands madly in the air, "
!" which is nothing short of the truth. A hoppin' mass of bobbing hands, battering feet, rocking bodies with wild laughs, shouts, jumps, the whole lot of it, and it went on and on, no slacking at all, throughout the afternoon.
Ahh! I thought, that's it, all energies well used up by now, but wait a minute, we had another ceili that night. I imagined getting away with shuffling along with as little effort as possible, but can I do it if the music is so nice? No way, when Ger Murphy was playing with Pat Walsh. And it was the quintessence of set dancing, maybe because I (or we) were at the end of my (or our) tethers. Not caring anymore, sucking up the last of the sets, tunes, swings, I dipped into some reserve I didn't know I had and danced out the weekend in a rather extreme way. So what? It was great, I had a ball.
A huge thank you to Mary Philpott, who kept things together in a television-series-presenter-manner, and her dad, Jerry O'Rourke, and her brother, Michael, who must be pleased with having brought such fun and joy to people over the weekend. Listowel—a big bomb of a weekend this is for you. Unmissable.
On the weekend of 6th to 8th November, hundreds gathered to enjoy a superb festival of music and dancing. Building on the success of last year's inaugural weekend the second annual fund raising Diamond Set Dancing Weekend was held in the Diamond Coast Hotel, located in the picturesque seaside village of Enniscrone situated along the Atlantic Ocean in County Sligo on the northwest coast of Ireland, 7km from Ballina, Co Mayo, and 64km from Sligo town.
The festival is the brainchild of native Bonniconlon man Oliver Fleming and his wife Marie, and was run to raise funds for the Mayo Cancer Support Association, in conjunction with the Diamond Coast Hotel and Enjoy Travel.
The weekend got off to a superb start with a dancing class given by Oliver himself. He demonstrated and taught jiving, quickstep and foxtrot. The large beautiful chandelier-lit and air-conditioned Bartragh Suite was packed from 7pm. Local Ballina group The Duets provided the wonderful music. We danced on until 9pm. The first ceili got underway at 10pm with the mighty Brian Ború Ceili Band. The crowd and the music became one as we danced up to 11.30pm before a break for complimentary tea and biscuits. The ceili resumed until 1am. Energized by the magic music, dancers retired to the Inishaven Bar to continue with social dancing, once more to the music and singing of The Duets.
Saturday morning we had our second workshop of the weekend. Well-known Co Roscommon dancing master Ger Butler conducted the class. He began by getting all the dancers on the floor for a warm-up session by dancing the Connemara Set. Ger then proceeded to teach us the Seit Doire Cholmcille, a nice little set danced to three reels, a jig and a hornpipe. Ger said he had seen some variations of this set being danced, but said he learned it many years ago from Frank Roddy from Co Derry who composed it. The group of eight sets who had gathered enjoyed the morning from 11am to 1pm. The class resumed at 2pm after lunch when Ger taught sean nós steps. Most of the morning's class returned and a group who had missed the morning class came along to strut their stuff.
Mass was arranged in the hotel and at 3.30pm everyone collected for a bit of spiritual time. At 5pm dancers thronged once more to the Bartragh Suite for more social dancing to The Duets, Tom and Kathleen Moran, who celebrated their eleventh wedding anniversary with a surprise cake organized by Oliver and Marie Fleming.
The afternoon concluded at 7pm with a waltzing competition. The standard was superb. The winning couple, Maureen and Edmund Rankin, hail from Co Tyrone.
Back once more in the ballroom our ceili got going at 10pm on the dot. We had the boys from Omagh, Co Tyrone, on stage—the one and only Copperplate. Tonight on keyboards they had Paul Mongan as Eamonn Donnelly was attending a friend's wedding.
Paul is no stranger to the set dancing scene and most set dancers know him from the Emerald Ceili Band. Speaking briefly with Paul, he said that the Emerald plays more for local gigs now as most members have married and have young families. Our night rolled by with plenty of fantastic music and dancing.
We had another celebration and cake tonight—dancing teacher Marie Garrity was celebrating her birthday. Her friends arranged a cake with a coloured photograph of Marie herself on the top of the cake. At first she was surprised, and then delighted that her friends had made such a fuss of this special occasion.
Social dancing in the bar tonight featured Ally Harron and Marian Curry on stage. We danced until the late hours, sometimes on the carpet as the crowds grew. Some started a wild session after that until 5.30am the following morning. I had more sense and went to my bed at 3.30.
Sunday morning our workshop was given by Marie Garrity, a superb teacher. We danced a wonderful selection of two-hand dances which included the Birthday Waltz, Mississippi Dip, Breakaway Blues, Fermanagh Highland, Three-Step, Tiara Tango, Spanish Jive, Circassian Circle, Festival Glide and Charleston. I was asked by one of her friends to get all the class to sing Happy Birthday to Marie. I was thrilled to be asked to do this and took the opportunity to get a nice group photograph.
After lunch, our last ceili of the festival started and the floor was full for the first set, the Caledonian. Copperplate was back on stage and Eamonn was back on keyboards. At the break we had a display of sean nós dancing. First up were local Enniscrone sisters Anne and Sarah Coleman who gave us some traditional step dancing. Next we enjoyed the talented sean nós steps of Veronica Loftus from Crossmolina, Co Mayo, Julianne McEvoy from Co Tyrone, sean nós teacher Kathleen McGlynn from Co Louth, Ger Butler, our set dancing master, and Sean Duggan from Co Longford with his usual enthusiastic display. The finale was when festival organizer Oliver Fleming with his daughter Jennifer and her friend Aisling McDonough danced sean nós in unison.
The big prize draw for a week's holiday for two at Fleadh Ibiza was drawn by Gerry Flynn of Enjoy Travel. He said he was delighted to sponsor the prize again this year for this very worthy cause, and pledged to sponsor the prize again next year. Tom McGinley, chairman of Mayo Cancer Support Group, thanked Gerry for the prize and also the dancers who bought tickets and supported the event.
The ceili finished with everyone on a high. Some dancers were going home but I was among the lucky ones to stay an extra night. We had social dancing in the Bartragh Suite with The Duets back on stage. We were joined by local dancers and once more had a superb night's dancing.
Oliver, Marie and team, you can be proud of your festival and the wonderful warm welcome you extend to everyone. At the time of going to press, €11,000 has been raised over the weekend. I look forward to next year's festival and I know that patrons have already booked their accommodation, so as not to be disappointed by the anticipated demand.
Joan Pollard Carew
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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