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).
The United Nations could learn a lot from set dancers about forging bonds of friendship between nations. Dancing is one of the few fields of human endeavour where people from a multitude of countries can join together for a weekend of pure pleasure, sharing what they love with never a harsh word. The foreign exchange in set dancing used to be more one sided, with overseas visitors having to visit Ireland for a set dancing fix. Now the Irish have a well-developed grá for travel at the same time that good set dancing weekends are plentiful abroad.
There's no better example than the set dancing weekend in Erlangen, Germany, operated by Andrea Forstner with the help of her husband Christian and sons Michael and Thomas. Andrea has been a regular visitor to Ireland since 1985, and set dancing has been her passion for the past dozen years. I remember being introduced to her in 1999 at Cois na hAbhna, Ennis, Co Clare. It was her first time at a ceili and we danced what must have been her first or second set. What I still recall from that dance is her clothes—Andrea was wearing some heavy woollens, practical for the winter in Clare, but not for dancing a set. That first ceili must have been a positive experience for her because she's been a regular at it ever since, seeking out classes and workshops at home and travelling to Ireland several times a year. And when that wasn't enough to satisfy her desire to dance, she started holding classes in and around Erlangen and in 2002 began organising annual weekends with visiting Irish teachers. Her weekends became popular with experienced German dancers and those who first discovered the joy of sets in her classes. As Andrea's weekends became well established, her friends from Ireland joined in the fun too, and became committed regulars who would never think of missing them!
Following all this build-up you'd be expecting me to say that Andrea's latest weekend, from February 12 to 14, was the best ever, but there's no denying it—it really was the best ever! She aimed high, bringing over not only Pat Murphy to teach workshops, but also the one and only Abbey Ceili Band to play for ceilis. Pat opened the weekend on Friday evening with a workshop on the Skibbereen Set, which he chose because it's a damn good set, and also because he had superb music for it from the Abbey's brand new third CD.
Only two of the band's musicians were present for the opening ceili, Andy O'Connell and John Coakley on fiddle and keyboards, as the other two, Ger Murphy and Robert Foster (box and banjo) had a wedding gig back home. You'd think with half the band you'd have half the music, but these lads operate by different rules of mathematics because it seemed to me we were blessed with twice the music! With no competition from the box and banjo Andy could really let loose and fly, and everyone on the dance floor soared to new heights along with him. It was new and different and totally thrilling. You know it's going to be good when chills electrify the spine in the first eight bars of the first figure of the first set. Every set was as good as the last, including the Skibbereen and Antrim Square, now ubiquitous even in Germany, all called by Pat. There was no way to sit out a dance and my only regret is that we had to stop! It's a good thing too, or I'd still be dancing there.
Suitably charged up for Saturday, we had a full day's workshop with Pat Murphy, beginning with a few minutes of step practice, and then the Boyne Set. The real learning came with the Lough Neagh, which was said to be a challenging set. Pat made such easy work of teaching it that some of its moves seemed entirely suitable for children to dance, and yet you could only dance it at a ceili by practicing it in advance. We finished up the day with the Newmarket Meserts, another Cork set in honour of the visiting band. During the afternoon a cheer was raised when the two missing musicians arrived direct from Frankfurt airport, a two or three hour road trip with Christian, who made several such trips during the weekend to pick up and deliver Irish visitors.
The venue for the weekend was the Unicum, with a large, lofty, bright ballroom and an adjacent bar and restaurant located about ten minutes' walk from the town centre. The hall was kept clear of seating to maximise the space for sets, while an adjacent room was filled with chairs for people to park their coats and belongings. Refreshments were available at any time, and we were provided with very welcome complimentary morning and afternoon tea breaks. Lunch was cleverly organised—there were four colour-coded choices on the menu which we ordered in advance by taking a matching ticket. When we sat down to eat, our meal was delivered promptly, so we could relax and enjoy it and still resume dancing on time.
With the full band on stage, the mood on Saturday night was even more festive and the music was just as electrifying. Every set was a delight and I had the pleasure of being asked to dance by a succession of German partners, all good dancers, many of whom I didn't know, but it takes just one good set to become friends for life! There were three special events during the ceili, the first of which was the European launch of the Abbey's new CD, Bóhar na Réidhe. Pat Murphy had the honour of performing the launch and spoke in praise of the band, their music and their importance to set dancers. CDs were snapped up afterward. Next there was a special performance by a buck set, which has become a tradition here, with the "ladies" decorated in wigs and aprons. And before resuming dancing, one of Andrea's loyal followers presented her with an enormous bouquet in thanks for the hard work of organising the weekend and for keeping set dancing going locally the rest of the year. With the formalities over, everyone filled the floor for the last sets of the night. After the last dance, the band played the Irish national anthem, as requested by Andrea to make the experience as much like being in Ireland as possible. Those who weren't ready to retire planted themselves in the bar for the next few hours for a late music session. It lasted till 5am with all four members of the band participating and plenty of dancing.
Accommodation was in nearby hotels within walking distance. I was in a clean, warm guest house just around the corner, and many dancers were in a larger hotel two blocks away. Snow covered the city, the sun made only rare appearances and the temperature hardly rose above freezing all weekend but no one took any notice—we had better things to worry about!
Greeting me on my return to the Unicum on Sunday morning was an article about the weekend from the local paper which was posted on a board for all to admire. It made a good case for set dancing as a way of forming international friendships, and helped attract a small number of spectators during the day. In the morning workshop, Pat continued our education with the Clare Orange and Green, a challenging set, but one which provides an immense amount of pleasure.
After another efficient lunch we returned to dance the final ceili with the Abbey. The atmosphere had climbed all weekend and peaked at this delightful afternoon ceili. All the sets of the weekend were chosen as if they had been planned in advance, with minimal repetition and plenty of interesting ones, though I am told there was no master plan—it just happened. Today we danced my beloved West Kerry and repeated the Orange and Green, among others. After the last set and just before the national anthem, Andrea made a short presentation of gifts to the band, to Pat, to Tony Ryan who has taught here himself in previous years, and to some of her helpful friends. There were plenty of heartfelt goodbyes, but only from those who had to head home right away. There was one last item on the agenda for those not rushing away—a night at the brewery.
Erlangen is a big beer town—it's home for two breweries and celebrates a twelve-day beer festival in the spring which attracts over a million people. To let the dancers experience a bit more of the city than just the Unicum, Andrea arranged a Sunday night session in the beer cellar of the Steinbach brewery in the city centre. Here everyone drank tall glasses and big jars of beer and sampled the native cuisine. The fun started gradually with some singing, then some waltzing, quickstepping and a bit of sean nós, some inevitable sets and culminated in the reappearance of the wigs and another buck set. The members of the Abbey were there too and continued playing all night, even occasionally hiding under wigs! This was where those of us remaining made our final goodbyes to friends new and old, and promised to return again next year.
The "best dance floor in Europe" at the Hotel Baren in Aarburg, Switzerland, was given a mighty tryout by over nine sets of excited set dancers from Switzerland and Germany on the weekend of 22-24 January. The event, organized for the eleventh year by Corinne Thor-Wernli, was also strongly supported by André Lichtensteiner and Eva Biedermann from Zürich, as well as nearly every single Irish set and step dance teacher from Heidelberg, the Bodensee and Frankfurt in Germany to Zürich, Basel, Aarau, Bern and Solothurn in Switzerland. Such great support was complemented by the friendly but firm teaching of Tony Ryan from Galway, who led the assembled dancers in the workshops through the Moycullen, East Galway and Paris sets. He also brought everyone forward on the respect for the regional variations and proper dance steps that are learned as a matter of course in Ireland. Well done, Tony!
But the big surprise this year was the arrival of three very fine young musicians from Co Clare: Therese McInerney (fiddle), Siobhán Garrihy (concertina) and Bríd Killeen (flute). These young girls, yet to take their leaving certificates, brought their electric lightning by the name of Tintrí from County Clare direct to Switzerland. Their amazing energy dazzled the experienced musicians who came for the session on Friday night and brought the quickest of steps to the feet of the dancers at the ceili on Sunday. Not only did they show all the continentals the very best of the Irish spirit in playing, singing and dancing, they stole quite a few hearts of the men while charming one and all. Accompanied by our best friend from County Clare, Tim Murphy, who has been regularly attending these workshops for more years than many, they brought down the house on Sunday! Well done, Tintrí!
The best of the Irish set dancing tradition met some of the youngest musical energy of Clare in a mighty storm of dancing and friendship in Switzerland this last weekend. Our thanks go out to one and all who came and created a wonderful weekend that will carry us forward toward the event next year.
Tim Thor, Solothurn, Switzerland
Even after a mild Wisconsin winter there was still a lot of pent-up energy to be expressed, and a weekend of set dancing was just the way to do it. Visiting and local dancers met for the weekend of February 26, 27 and 28th at Milwaukee's Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, which also provided catering services to feed all the hungry dancers for Saturday and Sunday lunch.
Dancing began on Friday evening with music provided on short notice by local band Ceol Cairde, who regularly play for set dances. The original musical guest for the evening, John Whelan, was unable to play for the Friday dance because snow that hit the east coast had left him unable to make the trip to Milwaukee as planned. Milwaukee is fortunate in having so many local bands available to play for set dances!
Tony Ryan was this year's instructor, instructing the group of over fifty dancers in the East Galway Set and the Boyne Set, along with several others. Tony will be teaching in Milwaukee again in 2010 as part of the Irish Fest Summer School in mid-August in conjunction with the thirtieth anniversary of Milwaukee's Irish Fest.
Music for the Saturday night dance was provided by the Capitol Ceili Band from Madison, Wisconsin. These fine musicians also played for the Sunday afternoon dance, following another well-attended workshop by Tony.
Carol King, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
St Valentine looked on in liberal munificence upon the droves of dancers who descended on Solihull, near Birmingham, in England over the course of the two days in February. I can't be sure, but were there more couples than at other events, or was it me calibrated to a romantic air? A great pleasure it is to watch couples swaying, holding hands, dancing together, looking at each other. Much has been said about how the set dancing scene is so good to and for single people, because you can go anywhere on your own and with a bit of goodwill won't feel left out. Likewise, it is a great hobby for couples to share-and groups of friends as well, of course. I'm pretty sure there usually aren't as many couples at ceilis-hey, had you all congregated for Johnny Reidy that weekend? Well, well, well, the number of people (mostly women) who wanted their photograph taken with Johnny says it all. His popularity is rising still, and a weekend like this swells the celeb status that he and the band so obviously enjoy. But we don't mind, do we! Hardcore Johnny Reidy Ceili Band fans will travel anywhere, anytime, following a band that is steadfast at the top of the pack, giving a guaranteed exhilarating performance.
And while I am raving on about Johnny, let me also tell you that the husband sent a grim text implying not to forget that he was my Valentine, and not Johnny! This was, by the way, part of the weekend, chatting to other couples and their Valentine's habits, comparing notes with other partners about how romantic our other halves are—not. Some confessed to last minute bouquet buys, though more had been thoughtful enough in buying chocolates and taking their ladies out. An odd one forgot altogether, scooped up, perhaps, by betting on horses and watching rugby. But every woman that I ever met likes being fussed about—anyone out there wanting to challenge that? Surprise me. Then, of course, there are the female counterparts who go off gallivanting and leave their mates behind-er, that'll be me now, guilty as charged. But whatever way you enjoy or ignore Valentine's, one of the best ways certainly has to be set dancing to the one and only Johnny Reidy Ceili Band. A double whammy at that. What more could you ask for?
People seemed to have their favourite tunes and sets when it comes to this bone-shaking band. For instance, someone said, "Oh, this hornpipe coming up now is fabulous." And somebody else, "Only to Johnny can you dance the Ballyvourney like this." Judging by her way of dancing, she must have meant 'wild'.
Much speculation went on as to why the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band is so popular-apart from the obvious. Between us, we came up with the following reasons. All the band members greet and meet the punters before the ceili starts. There are handshakes, chats, kisses, hugs, the whole lot. They seemed to be really interested in their fans. During the ceili, they will all look at their audience. Johnny continually scours the floor in order not to miss somebody looking. This means that whenever you do look at him, it's likely he'll catch your eye, and smile or wink. During the interval, the band members again make the rounds. After the ceili, more of the same. This interaction makes the dancers feel part of the whole and entirely appreciated. Johnny sits above, yet is not above anyone, and works the crowd in an utterly professional way. In a good-natured fashion, folks will play the fan role, and equally good-natured, the band members willingly play the celebrity role. And so, we all take part in this to a greater or lesser extent, and speaking for myself, I think I could do worse than worship at this band's altar!
Kate Howes, organiser, put together a weekend that paid homage to the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band. Kate now has been seen to do every type of work involved, shifting tables, pouring cups of tea, chauffeuring people around, decorating, sitting at the door, as well as being a lovely hostess. But when it comes to kindness and helpfulness, my hosts have to get a special mention: Pat Crotty and Liz Somers with whom I stayed. From beginning to end, they drove people here and there who didn't have transport, fed and watered different sets of people, printed out boarding passes for folks who didn't have access to computers, copied CDs of music, entertained, looked after more people, made phone calls on behalf of some and texted on behalf of others and then would not take a dime in return, staunchly saying, "It was no trouble at all."
What goes 'round, comes 'round, and on my journey home from the airport, I witnessed a car crash and was called upon to be of service. No problem—having been looked after so well myself over the weekend I had energies and concentration left to do the necessary. Everybody involved had shock and minor injuries only to deal with. A phone call the next day from one of the drivers was amazingly uplifting—how this brought back to him how precious every day is and that nothing at all is guaranteed.
Just to put you in the chronological picture, this was the third year with Johnny Reidy visiting Solihull. First year, Kate had Tony Ryan teaching, then it was Margaret and John Morrin from London, and this year Gerard Butler. During a break, a lady came up to talk to me and we ended up chatting about the workshop. She said that she thought now that Ger is the best teacher around. When questioned why, she answered that she felt at ease and his explaining was making things easier still. I agree that he is able to make folks feel at ease, and he certainly has a way of making difficult moves accessible to everyone on the floor by picking anybody to show a move, but more often by just letting people get on with it and never correcting anyone in front of others. You may call his approach minimalist, and it's working a treat. It seems to spell that if he can do it, you can, too. I am beginning to think that one of the secrets of his success is not only a love for the music and dancing, but also for human beings, a genuine fondness for the groups that gather at workshops, no matter who they are.
On that note, there was an interesting review in the papers the other day. A book called The Music Instinct, by scientist and musician Philip Ball, tries to decipher why music moves us the way it does, how it works. The big message seems to be that listening to music (and therefore, moving to it) engages all of the brain. We listen with more than ears, and music as a whole is much more than just a collection of auditory sensory inputs. It elicits emotional responses, engages the intellect, stimulates the linguistic centre and fires imagination. When we move to it, the motor centres also light up. There seems to be little room left for other types of thought processes, and yet we think, talk and laugh simultaneously, our multitasking brains computing it all. Phew! No wonder Philip Ball calls music a "gymnasium for the mind", and when we dance, too, it must make us mental athletes.
And at the Sunday ceili I did feel like an athlete, go-hopping, while looking at all the red stuff on the floor. Not everyone wore something red, but loads did, and it really changed the image of the masses, dancing into a reddish swirl complete with red heart-shaped balloons floating above. There was quite a large group of Kerry and Cork people, and Kate tells me that they have come over the two previous years as well. They love Johnny, don't they!
I daresay people enjoyed dressing up, so that not only were they wearing red, they were dressed to kill! One gent in particular had a red tie with black upmarket shirt, and ballroom suit, all colour-coded, shoes brushed and gleaming to top it off. He was shyly wondering whether he was overdressed, but I for one liked his outfit very much.
And at that Sunday ceili, three ladies were asked to do some sean nós. Young and older, they stepped forward and stepped it out beautifully in unison. Josephine Murtagh, Barbara Ahern and Kelly-Ann Maguire formed a lovable trio to show the spectators the sean nós way!
Best decision made for the trip-flying out from Waterford. It took all of three hours from A to B. Worst decision—buying a chocolate duck to bring home to the abandoned Valentine. It was crushed during the ceili, so the only thing I could do with it was eat it myself. Oh, the sacrifices that are asked of us at times!
Every county of Ireland shares in the passion for traditional music and set dancing, and in Co Roscommon, one of its most dedicated practitioners is Mildred Beirne. She teaches classes four nights a week, tutors children in music, broadcasts a weekly ceili diary on Midwest Radio and runs ceilis every week during the summer and monthly the rest of the year. She also organises a mostly annual workshop weekend which took place this year on February 6 and 7 in Tully's Hotel, Castlerea.
On Saturday morning Mildred welcomed me to a workshop with Pat Murphy, along with enough dancers to make up five sets. The ballroom in Tully's is a perfect size for a compact workshop and ceili, with a comfortable timber floor. Pat first taught the East Mayo Set, an easy-going one to begin the day with, he said, though still enjoyable and challenging for those in attendance. After that I was happy to dance the Boyne Set, as I hadn't yet committed it to memory. It has plenty of nice moves that flow naturally and just feel good, and the technique of changing partners in the last figure is delightful.
To cap it all off, we finished up by dancing the Valentia Right and Left Set, a gorgeous Kerry polka set new to the Roscommon dancers, who weren't quite used to dancing so fast. Pat told us to dance it in a flat style, saying there was no time to lift the feet and put them back down. "If you dance flat they're already there." He also pointed out the set's similarities to the Plain Set, and raised the possibility that our most popular Clare set might actually be a Kerry set which was brought across the Shannon by a travelling dance master.
Before the ceili that night Matt Cunningham was proud to show me the new accordion he'd been playing for two months, a custom-made 2½ row, 12-bass B/C model by Italian maker Beltuna. I couldn't be sure if it was the box which made the music so good that night, but the crowd loved it and had plenty of lively fun. Always wearing stilettos at any time of day or night, Mildred was modelling a dress tonight which positively encouraged me to swing and double her as much as possible during our sets—deliberately so, I suspect. It covered her from top to bottom in layers of fringes which bounced with every move and stood out straight when spinning fast.
Mildred has been practicing the Moycullen Set in her classes for years, so there was no calling tonight for it and the floor was full—still there was one set bravely attempting it despite their strong need for some extra training. The set of the night was the Valentia, with beautiful Kerry-style music coming from Matt's new box and calling by Pat. After it was finished Mildred was mad to dance one more set, but the sharp eyes of the dancers had spotted a table full of cake and so crowded around for their tea, which wasn't quite ready yet but there was no way to return to dancing without completing the refreshment break. We continued dancing after that, concluding with the traditional final set at Mildred's ceilis, the Connemara. For the final Maggie in the Wood figure, she asked us to form a large circle around the room, which lets us have a few more partners with some extra music. While half of us followed Mildred's directions, the rest stayed in their sets, both coexisting happily till the music stopped.
After breakfast on Sunday morning I had a few minutes to explore the town of Castlerea. The street is unremarkable, but I went through a grand entrance just opposite the hotel and suddenly found myself in a lovely public park with paths, benches, monuments, huge mature trees and a river. It was laid out for the private use of a landowner centuries ago, and now it appears to be Castlerea's best non-dancing feature, available for all to enjoy any time, even on a cold Sunday morning in February.
Pat Murphy knows how to liven up a Sunday morning workshop when we're all still weary following a full day of dancing and a late night—he chooses a high-energy set. This morning it was the long version of the East Galway in which everyone dances continuously in each figure—no standing around! When we finished that, he offered to teach another set but everyone wisely preferred a chance to review the Boyne Set, which we'll surely be dancing at many ceilis.
We had a leisurely 2½ hour break for lunch, half an hour longer than expected because of doubt about the start time of the afternoon ceili. After the opening Corofin, we danced the Antrim Square, which has become a regular favourite. We danced the Moycullen again, more smoothly this time thanks to calling by Mildred. Music was by the Annaly Ceili Band who played gorgeous reels and high-speed polkas and slides for the Cashel and Ballyvourney sets. They held an election twice to let us choose the set we wanted. When they offered the Lancers or Kilfenora, the floor opted for the Kilfenora, and later it was the Plain or Caledonian, which was won by the Plain. We ended again with the Connemara, and this time the whole hall managed to dance Maggie in the Woods together in a big circle.
Mildred's workshop weekend was a hit with her dedicated regulars and an enjoyable diversion for visitors. The hall in Tully's Hotel can't be beat for dancing comfort and atmosphere, and it was a handy place for meals as well. The same fun can be found here at ceilis on the first Thursday of the month, plus every Thursday from June to August.
Ballina, a provincial town in Mayo on the salmon fishing River Moy, was the first town that we got to know when we moved to Ireland nearly twenty years ago. Now, I am asked repeatedly which I like best: Mayo, or Waterford, where we later moved? Germany or Ireland? Set dancing or sean nós?
How can you answer those? Let's say coming back to Mayo was a very personal, emotionally laden journey that incorporated re-connecting with the style of dancing there, the people of Mayo from the set dancing scene, and seeing again a non-dancing friend with whom I was very close.
Lots of little moments spelt 'family' in Ballina at this new weekend that Oliver Fleming has put together. His daughter Jennifer was there throughout the weekend, helping to run the show, and displaying a lovely brush dance with her dad at the last ceili. There was something very right about them dancing together, the father behind his daughter, in the linear timeline that we call generations. The grandson, a sweet rosy-cheeked boy, also made an appearance at the sean nós workshop on Saturday afternoon—Ger Butler took an immediate shine to him.
Then, there was Tracey Mullen, living in London, who had brought her mum over for the weekend. Her auntie and grandmother who live locally came out on Sunday for the ceili, and Tracey would sit with them, and only one look was enough to know that this was indeed one family, not only by looks, but by demeanour and energy.
'Tis said that you can feel like you've been adopted when part of this big set dancing family. Dancing in Ballina felt like being thrown back into the raw face of belonging, and I inched in cautiously, in case the rug was being pulled, the risk we always take when allowing our hearts to open, and realised that it was there for me if I wanted it. You can rest in the lap of belonging, providing the knot is tied loosely, in that space where giving and taking become one. The dancing, the dances belong to everyone, no one owns them, and we belong to them and to the music. So part of this big family sensation is the music and the musicians and the dances, every heel, toe and swing. The minute you're stepping onto the floor, you're a part of it, another missing piece joining the dancing jigsaw. Thus, it is forever completing itself, and the whole becomes bigger than its parts.
And then, I met Eileen McGuire from Manchester, an encounter of the third kind. She had quite an odyssey coming over, on a flight from Manchester to Knock that should have only taken the best part of two hours. She arrived twelve hours later. Why? The plane was delayed coming into Manchester, and when it finally arrived, it wasn't fit to go again because its windscreen had shattered. A second plane that came for the passengers after more waiting decided to break down. The third plane they nearly missed, because the airport alarm went off and they all had to do the security rigmarole again. This one was a scheduled flight to Cork, where they had to alight, go through security one more time and board again to be finally flown to Knock. And if that wasn't enough calamity, Eileen managed to lock herself into a pitch black bathroom at night. She didn't want to disturb her roommate and decided to navigate without lights—big mistake. She had to be rescued by her long-standing friend Brenda, who said that, really, this was nothing new, and would only remind her of the time Eileen got her toe stuck in the plug hole in some other bathroom and needed saving there too. (Mental note taken: Don't travel with Eileen. Dancing with her, fine. Chatting with her, fine. Having breakfast, the finest. Going away together: Make excuses and forego.)
Friday, I met and danced with Bernie, who has an equally not-interested-in-dancing husband, but she started nonetheless when the kids had grown up. Another lady, Brenda Gaffney, lost her son and started dancing a while after. She says the dancing saved her sanity, no less. Her husband plays music, but doesn't dance either. There must be millions of us out there! And we are a little family inside the family, aren't we, the women whose beloveds don't dance, but out we go on our own, co-creating a small heaven for ourselves.
The flow of the weekend was generated by alternating set dancing and social dancing. It worked extremely well and produced no seams, because Ballina has been twinned with the successful November weekend in Enniscrone, Co Sligo, and followed a similar format.
Friday night, after a country and western session with Oliver Fleming at the helm, the Copperplate were joined by Paul Mongan from the Emerald Ceili Band on keyboard as Eamonn Donnelly was best man at a wedding. Paul is known for his inventive keyboard style, adding his own arrangements instead of just accompanying tunes, which makes my ears prick up, and sadly, I don't hear him enough. Marvellous stuff!
The workshop on Saturday with Ger Butler was lovely and funny, so funny in fact that a lady in our set said she couldn't possibly go on dancing because of the pain in her side from laughing so hard. This was particularly in the gallop figure of the Clare Orange and Green, in which our set—alas!—looked more like donkeys scrambling all over the place than an orderly gallop, but after doing it a second time we were (almost) like thoroughbreds. Ger was in great form, and attracted the same crowd back for the afternoon sean nós session. Batter one, batter two, batter three, pause, jump, batter one, batter two, batter three, jump, jump, and batter back and batter back and batter back until the eight bars are taken up, and finish down, down! When done in slow motion to the slowest reel, everyone got it. More speed, and it's lost on a few. More speed again, and it was almost lost on me, but no worries, I could watch the most elegant Madge O'Grady from Donegal dance it in her unique old-style, low-to-the-ground way with such ease (green eye), while I did my steps in a kind of pregnant duck waddle. It's all about enjoying it, right? Right?
Next thing that happened was that Michael and Breege, who were supposed to play for social dancing on Saturday evening, cancelled, and The Duets band stepped in, luckily, so that we could continue. There was continuous dancing if you wanted, great value for money. For the first time, I tried jiving as a man, and I did, er, feel like an octopus trying to sort out the right hand from the left from the right from the left . . .
Saturday night's music was by the Annaly Ceili Band and they are right on target in Mayo. I perceive them as a band that suits the northwest of Ireland mentality-sharp, clear, simultaneously rolling, no cracks between keys and tunes, like the eternally blowing wind from the west. Folks surely must have felt at home dancing to them. I had decided then to head to my room and be sensible, when I was persuaded to go to the bar, where The Duets were playing again, and out we went for more jives, good Lord!
And playing on Sunday then was Swallow's Tail, God love them—no wait, God loves them! On the box, their 'supersub' Barry Brady brought a youthful accordion voice to complement the band. I can't keep myself from going mad when hearing a few of their arrangements. So we had a rather out of sorts Plain Set, with the whole eight of us in the mood for jumping about and screaming just for the fun of it. I had the pleasure of dancing with a girl who was originally from the former East Germany, and like me, she wasn't shy about letting rip, thanks, Martina! That last ceili also saw a few sean nós displays, with aforementioned father and daughter duetting their steps amongst others.
I was struck by how quite a few people still looked the same as they had when I last saw them about ten years ago, whereas I felt I looked like Methuselah beside them. They had maintained their youthful appearance—must be the Mayo air! There were some intriguing tales told. I have become so interested in stories, thanks to all of you who have told me your stories and all of them still waiting to be told. Happiness comes with feeling connected in a meaningful way, and the Mayo people excel at that! They know intrinsically the importance of community and neighbourliness.
After Swallow's Tail, sunglasses on, I headed back over the gap to Boyle, southeast bound again, driving around sheep grazing on the road and gazing lazily, leaving the county where people still know how to share (and sharing their roads with sheep is one bit of it) and remember the time before television when the doors of all the houses were open. That was still the case when we lived there.
North Mayo is on the set dancing radar as of now, and it doesn't look like being in danger of flying under it! Dancing was plentiful in the lovely Downhill Hotel overlooking a little fall in the river on the outskirts of the salmon town. Mayo was wearing its finery as the clearest blue sky supported an equally bright sun for most of the three days, almost saying to me, "See, this is what you left behind."
Ah, don't be like that. I will visit again, that much is clear now, too.
There's something about Killarney. People are said to have been living there for the past 9,000 years, but it is only in the past two centuries that it has developed a powerful attraction for tourists and pleasure seekers. Queen Victoria succumbed to its spell in August of 1861 when she spent four days here. In the decades that followed, her visit probably inspired many others to take their holidays here and today even the merest mortals can follow in her footsteps, even to the bedroom she slept in. In those days nature was the big attraction, the lakes, islands, mountains, forests and wildlife. Fortunately all that can still be seen today, but now there's an even more thrilling attraction which draws people here from around the world every February—the Gathering. In the previous ten years this festival of traditional music and dance has grown to become one of the biggest of the year. Would the eleventh Gathering, 24-28 February, compare favourably to the rest in an economic turndown? Absolutely! It was better than ever.
Opening night in the village of Scartaglen featured an authentic Sliabh Luachra-style ceili in the hall with lively music by the popular local box player Jerry McCarthy, accompanied by Sean Murphy on banjo and Liam Healy on keyboard. Visitors to the Gathering were probably outnumbered by the local dancers, including an impressive quantity of young people. They're energetic dancers who know how to enjoy themselves, and their enthusiasm was contagious. We began, suitably enough, with the Sliabh Luachra Set. My partner, a local dancer, admitted she preferred the Caledonian, though she was certainly lots of fun at the polkas. Our MC Anne Keane kept everyone happy by alternating the Cork and Kerry sets with the Clare and Galway favourites. We generated enormous amounts of heat in the little hall and after two sets I felt as though I'd danced ten, but it was impossible to stop—it was too good for that! In the second half we danced the Borlin Set, one the few sets I never permit myself to miss, and the Jenny Ling, which is one of the longest sets in set dancing, though we only danced three of its six figures. In the final reel figure where opposite gents take arms and dance around each other, Anne encouraged us to double the last two bars of the move—she called this "the tailor's twist." My partner for this one complained of sore thighs—if she'd known she was going to be dancing so much she wouldn't have gone running earlier! The final Plain Set featured a gorgeously moody Tamlin Reel and an extra musician for the last two figures, Eilís Murphy, Sean's sister, on tin whistle. When the ceili was over the music and pleasure of it lasted well beyond my return journey to Killarney, though I wish I could say the same thing about the warmth of the hall! The bitter cold night quickly eliminated all traces of any heat.
With no dancing scheduled till 10.30pm, Thursday was a day for taking it easy and exploring Killarney at leisure. The tonight's festival events included a concert and ceili, which for the first time were held in separate venues in the Gleneagle Hotel, the home of the Gathering. In previous years both took place in the ballroom, so the ceili couldn't begin until the concert finished and the floor was cleared of chairs. This year the ceili was moved to the INEC, probably the largest venue used for set dancing anywhere, but I was concerned we wouldn't come close to filling the space tonight. However, the room was cleverly arranged with tables and carpet on two sides of the floor, which narrowed the space and kept the dancers from being too widely scattered. The doors opened at 10pm just as Taylor's Cross Ceili Band were completing their sound check. Dancing began soon after, ahead of the advertised time. For some reason, I seem to collect partners who like to double. One of my regulars quickly nabbed me for a set tonight, and then booked me for two sets at each of the following ceilis! It's nice to be wanted, even if it is only for my ability to spin around the house at high speed—what bliss! I was able to introduce her to an English couple, dedicated set dancers I know since my days in London, who were the first obsessive doublers I ever met and planted little seeds of inspiration in my brain. There was a great selection of dances tonight, including two of my never-to-be-missed sets, the West Kerry and South Galway, which are rather like identical twin sets that have been separated at birth and raised in different counties. Also on the schedule was the Aubane Set, a Readers' Digest version of the Jenny Ling which has been condensed down to all the best bits. Toward the end of the night I noticed a few late arrivals turning up—they'd been dancing at the weekly ceili down the road in Ballyvourney and showed up here to catch another three sets! After the ceili was done I made my way through the hotel corridors which were alive with loads of musicians in session.
Friday was even more relaxed than yesterday as I spent the time waiting for the 10pm ceili by meeting with friends arriving for the weekend. When the doors opened at 9.30 there was what could only be described as a stampede as people rushed in to claim the tables, which were especially precious tonight. The entire floor was cleared for dancing as many more people were expected, making less room for tables and seats. The Five Counties Ceili Band was ready right on time and applied their big band sound (ten musicians) to fast polkas for the Sliabh Luachra. I didn't think my little heart could take this much excitement for the whole night, but luckily there were plenty of relatively relaxing reel sets between all the polkas. But my doubling partner and I hit the jackpot tonight, with the Ballyvourney Jig and West Kerry for plenty of fast turns! The band took a long break in the middle but there were still plenty of people dancing to recorded waltzes and quicksteps until the live music resumed. Some folks liked to use talcum powder to add a bit of slide to the floor, and when it was relatively clear you could see exactly where they were dancing by the tell-tale white circles on the floor. The night was brilliant not only for the music, but also for the well-planned and varied programme of sets, which included three popular new ones, the Moycullen, the Antrim Square and the Claddagh to finish. On the way back to my room I didn't allow myself to be distracted by the late session—I needed a bit of rest for the full day of dancing tomorrow!
Close to twenty sets attended the workshop with Pat Murphy, and attendance was good at the other workshops as well—sean nós dancing with Mairéad Casey, Cork and Kerry sets with Timmy McCarthy and for children with Maureen Hegarty and Triona Mangan. Pat began the day with a quick review of the Boyne Set which he taught here last year, and then continued with the Lyratourig Set, a polka set from West Limerick. He was reminded of it when looking at a video from 2001 so it's probably nearly a decade since this one has been danced. Pat is giving the Lough Neagh Set a big push at all his workshops, so that was the main set of the day. After that there was still time to dance the Black Valley Jig Set, a local set from near Kenmare, and with just a few minutes to spare before the scheduled finish, we did three figures of the South Galway Set.
Even bigger than the Five Counties, the Allow Ceili Band featured eleven musicians on stage at the Saturday night ceili. They produced a classic big band sound that was as good for polkas as it was for reels. However, the only polka sets were the opening Sliabh Luachra and the Sliabh Fraoch. We also danced three Clare sets, then Pat Murphy did a great job at calling the Boyne Set for us. The band often gave us an extra blast of music after the figures finished, but they inadvertently cut the last figure of the Newport set short. Everyone kept dancing it though and the music quickly caught up with us! The ceili ended with the Connemara Set and the national anthem, and by the time I left the hall, the passageway between there and my room was so crowded with musicians in sessions and listeners enjoying them that I was forced to stop and listen because it was so slow getting through.
Pat woke us up with the Skibbereen Set at his Sunday morning workshop. In the third figure I love the long-distance wheelbarrow—four bars in one direction can cover a lot of ground! The eight bars of preparation for the lead round in figure four is a beautiful move—Geoff Holland named it "the panache" when I was learning it in London. In the last figure the ladies have a nice way of moving on to a new gent. We finished with fifteen minutes to spare, and never one to waste any teaching time, Pat showed us a two-hand dance called the Cindy Swing, a jaunty little bit of fun which was easy to learn but challenging to master.
At 3pm Swallow's Tail began the festival's final ceili with the Borlin Polka Set, and even if they are from Sligo and Mayo, they played it exactly as I love to dance it, in a blazing Sliabh Luachra style! They outdid themselves with every set, and gave my doubling partner and I plenty of satisfaction with our Cashel and Jenny Ling. For the first time we attempted the Clare Orange and Green Set here, which caller Pat O'Brien learned specifically so he could call it for us today. We also had loads of fun with the Corofin, Claddagh and Kilfenora, and then the band really let loose for the final Connemara. Box player Tommy Doherty brought out the melodeon for it which gives the set an undefinable something extra. It was the Connemara to beat all Connemaras! Once that was done and the national anthem under way, the five musicians were finally able to give us a little smile after dedicating themselves very seriously to the music all afternoon. It was a stunning finish to the dancing at the Gathering and certainly made us all want to come back again next year!
Many of the weekend's visitors stay over an extra night so they can unwind at the last of the nightly concerts without the distraction of a ceili. Whenever possible I prefer to dance and even managed to persuade three friends to join me at Bob's Bar in Ballydesmond where there's a little ceili every Sunday night. We arrived just as the Sliabh Luachra Set was underway so we weren't able to join that one (except for the long slide) and were content to watch the regulars dance in set in their unique local style. Music was by a duo on keyboard and guitar, but we couldn't figure out how they were playing polkas—it was as though they were using a recording. After a long interval of songs for waltzing and quickstepping we danced another set—the Sliabh Luachra again! The beauty of the local style is that any notions of position are irrelevant. Tops and sides don't matter; you can begin in one place and end up somewhere different at every turn. It's a refreshing way to dance. After another round of waltzes and quicksteps we stood for the national anthem, satisfied after a good day's dancing.
Except it didn't end there. Back at the hotel sessions were in full swing and with no reason to go to bed early we could enjoy it. We sat by one in the bar where there was a bit of floor available, and while an odd couple got up to dance, there were no sets. So one dancer arranged for the box player to give us some polkas and after rounds of reels, hornpipes and jigs, we finally heard what we wanted, jumped up and began the West Kerry. The music never stopped between figures so neither did we. After the last figure, I signalled to the accordion player that the set was over and still they continued. I am forever thankful to Pat Murphy dancing opposite me who suddenly suggested we continue with the Borlin Polka! All my dreams came true at once, my two favourite polkas back to back! A fitting end to five days of dancing bliss.
There's a lot to like about the Gathering, but top of my list is the selection of sets, which were planned in advance over the whole weekend to minimise repetition and increase variety—we did over twenty at the ceilis. The crowd was superb—local dancers are enthusiastic, fun-loving, energetic, youthful and experienced, and this rubs off on the many visitors who showed up from all points of the set dancing compass. Music was excellent and well suited to the Sliabh Luachra emphasis. The workshops and their teachers can't be beat! The INEC is unique for its size, and the festival is popular enough to fill it with dancers, probably close to eighty sets this time and never crowded at that.
There's no better reason to come to Killarney!
West Limerick Set Dancing Club celebrated twenty successful years of set dancing with their annual set dancing weekend on March 5th to 7th. This year they returned to the beautiful family-run Devon Inn Hotel in Templeglantine, Co Limerick, where they held their first weekend festival twenty years earlier. Part of the magic of this club is the warm welcome that greets everyone. The organising committee did a tremendous job to ensure that all who attended the weekend had a superb time.
The weekend kicked off on Friday evening at 7pm with a sean nós workshop given by Mairéad Casey, one of those brilliant natural dancers who imparts her knowledge and style with ease. Her large class of fifty dancers had a marvellous evening. I just stood in awe of the progress dancers made under Mairéad's tuition.
Music filtered through the hotel as sessions strummed up in the lounge and foyer area of the hotel. These continued from early till late all weekend. I gathered myself for the first ceili of the weekend. The Allow Ceili Band took the stage and without delay we were dancing to the brilliant music of this nine-piece band. It was wonderful to see such a huge attendance on the first night. Organiser Josephine O'Connor welcomed everyone and wished all an enjoyable weekend.
Saturday morning Pat Murphy and Betty McCoy began their workshop with the Skibbereen Set. It has five figures danced to polkas and slides and I hope that now that it has had an airing it will return to the mainstream of set dancing.
The second set Pat and Betty taught was the Lough Neagh Set. Pat told us that he got it over twenty years ago from Pete Brett who lives in Philadelphia. The set has four figures, two reels, a hornpipe and a reel. The first figure is similar to a section of the third figure in the Williamstown Set and the arches are similar to the third figure of the Mazurka. This is a sweet little set with nothing too complicated.
After lunch on Saturday we danced the Boyne Set, which was introduced to Pat by Séamus Ó Méalóid at the Galway Bay Set Dancing Festival in November 2008. Pat has taught it at many of his workshops since then. I believe we will be dancing this lovely set at most ceilis in the near future. Pat and Betty finished Saturday's workshop with the East Galway Set (long version). This set was danced for a time a few years ago. West Limerick dance master Timmy Woulfe used to call it during the club's ceilis but, it seems to have lost favour at the moment. Perhaps dancing it again at a workshop will popularise it again.
I was privileged to share a table at dinner with Pat, Timmy, Betty, Mairéad and Kevin Larkin from Galway. The conversation was electric, with reminiscences of dancing days with the late Connie Ryan, competition and travels. I was taken on a cultural tour of times past and present, everyone at the table had some tale to contribute.
Saturday night our ceili got underway at nine o'clock. We had the wonderful Abbey Ceili Band on stage and danced the Skibbereen Set from the class and the West Kerry, both called by Pat. The huge crowds attending revelled in the music and dancing. During a short break we had a demonstration of sean nós dancing. Mairéad Casey led the way, then the Murphy sisters, Bronagh and Leeann, from Rathcormack, Co Waterford, stepped it out. The exuberance and panache of these dancers is a joy to watch.
Sunday morning at 10am dancers gathered for their final workshop of the weekend. Pat called the Monaghan Set and we all danced it with little effort. Then he and Betty did the Connemara Jig Set, three jigs, a hornpipe and a polka. Pat told us that it was originally danced as a half-set, and is sometimes also called the Frères Nantais which is also the name of a Connemara polka tune. The workshop concluded with Pat teaching a beautiful little two-hand dance called the Cindy Swing. Pat should be crowned king of the set dancing masters—his knowledge of each dance and its history can't be matched and his teaching style is gentle, thorough and precise.
Mairéad Casey held her final sean nós workshop from 10.30am. The large gathering attending was loud in their praise of her class. She had a gentle style of teaching that nurtures her students while at the same time perfecting style and steps.
Sunday afternoon our ceili saw crowds getting sets organised on the floor well before the band was ready to play. Today we had the magic of Donie Nolan and his band Taylor's Cross. The music they doled out was energising. We danced a superb selection of sets including the Boyne from the earlier class, and the Borlin Polka also got an airing. Pat kept us foot perfect. Not one set was repeated all weekend-variety was the key word
We even had a demonstration of the Priest and His Boots by John Creed, Shay White and Ita McQuinn. It was a joy to see this old dance performed so beautifully.
Club chairperson Ann Curtin thanked everyone for their support. She said she was delighted with the attendance all weekend. She thanked the bands for their wonderful music. Thanking Pat, Betty and Mairéad, she said, "You are a treasure." She wished everyone a safe journey home. The weekend closed with a seisiún mór.
Long after the festivities finished, compliments were flooding in from everyone who attended the weekend. The workshops were brilliant, tutor's la crème de la crème in their field. The ceili bands gave us tunes to lighten our feet. The organisers treated us all like one big happy family. The hotel was warm and welcoming and the cuisine on offer was superb.
Next year the West Limerick Club will celebrate their 21st birthday. Mark your diaries for the 4th to 6th March 2011. You can't miss this very special celebration of set dancing.
Joan Pollard Carew
I popped into my nearest neighbour—in country terms that is a couple of fields away. Once sitting I just said straight out, "I am going to Mulranny, Co Mayo, set dancing this weekend. I have booked and my friend can't go. Would you be interested in coming?" My neighbour has no interest in Irish music or dancing of any kind. But as I was there last year while I was ill and could do little but enjoy watching the fun, I felt sure she would too. I told her about the lovely Park Inn Hotel and its wonderful helpful staff, the splendid views and scenery all around the area—romantic Ireland alive and well. It was a weight off my shoulders when she agreed to accompany me.
We set out early on Friday on the satnav's shortest route, which we knew would take the longest time to travel. We saw a lot of Ireland's byways. We travelled over mountains, through bogs, along the lakes and if you could believe the satnav, we travelled on rivers. This modern apparatus (a lady) forever tried in vain to reroute us. All my life people have tried rerouting me to no avail. She was no different. We had our plan to enjoy the countryside. Looking down on the highways, we declared why should we go the same way as everyone else at this stage of our lives? We stopped in Mountbellew and had a nice lunch in the Malt House, which we highly recommend to anyone passing it. Our adventure brought us to our next designated stop in Newport where purchases were made from Noreen in Sheridan Fashion clothes shop. A ladies' paradise, as I made a wee stop there last year also. Someone once told me if you find a shop that stocks your style then it's your duty to go back. Well, these theories have to be tested and retested. Our total travel time set the scene of the fun weekend.
We got a very pleasant greeting at the Park Inn. When we settled, we relaxed our bones in the pool and leisure centre. We sampled the food in the bar. There was an anticipation of fun in the air. My companion saw happy faces; I saw friends and acquaintances, all laughing, chatting, hugs and kisses, cheek to cheek. The organisers were shaking hands, patting on the back, hands on the shoulders as we arrived. At the door we got our weekend ticket from more smiling friendly organisers. Taking a table where my friend could see most of the dancing, she watched in awe and wonderment when the music started and people rushed onto the floor. She asked if there was something wrong. I explained we were here to dance. Copperplate Ceili Band played lovely tunes and the people of Mayo and surrounding areas made us feel right at home. Dancing as a man or woman I enjoyed every one of the dances. We continued being sociable in the bar till our eyes gave way, leaving the stronger warriors to continue.
Saturday I surprised myself—I was ready for the workshops. Pat Murphy put us through our paces and a lovely lady from Donegal helped me to put it into practice. Now that a week or two have gone by, don't ask me what or how we did it. But in my defence it would come back with a few hints, I hope, or Pat's books.
After lunch my friend and I had to check out the hair and beauty salon. We made appointments and there was no need for us ladies or the men folk to spend time at home preparing, it was all here in the Park Inn. Catherina had me looking and feeling as best she could for dinner—heavens above, I could get used to this! We sat at a round table of ladies and one gentleman for dinner and enjoyed the good food and company, shared some stories and all agreed the cheese cake was to die for. The food was well presented and tasty, chefs and waiters take a bow. Matt Cunningham's band gave us a real treat with the young ladies on fiddle and box, Matt's daughter Ita and Veronica Murray—now that's what I call music! Because I hadn't heard the box player before (she was substituting for Matt who was under the weather) I was mesmerised. She gave something different to the tunes, lifts and turns that sat well with my ear and feet. I was conscious my non-dancing friend was sitting all the time. She assured me that she enjoyed everything so far, and now informs me her husband who doesn't dance would love this. She will be back with him for the atmosphere. I was comforted to know she was also getting enjoyment out of being here in Mayo. There were tea and scones with jam. The Red Cross had iced water at the ready. Another night in the bar had singers go lore agus go an maith, music from pipes to mouth organ. The bed called us before dawn.
Sunday morning Pat was extremely kind to our overstretched bodies and heads. That would explain why there were so many at his workshop. He had a plan for the whole weekend. It worked extremely well and was considerate to sense of place and its people. There was more food and chat at lunchtime before we checked out of the hotel. Ready for one more hurrah, the Brian Ború Ceili Band struck up and we were off again. I have to admit sitting one or two out and truly enjoying a few waltzes. Thanks to all those who danced with me and around me. We said our goodbyes as we danced for the last time this weekend.
What better way to spend Mothers' Day than with the mother of all weekends in Mayo? We travelled home via the highways; it took us two hours less.
Noreen Uí Laighin, Killanure, Mountrath, Co Laois
The Stackstown Golf Club Set Dancing Group meets every Wednesday evening to dance at the golf club made famous internationally by the exploits of its best known protégé, Pádraig Harrington. On 5th-7th March, a group of about ninety participated in the annual weekend away at the Four Seasons Hotel, Carlingford, Co Louth. Under a clear blue sky and with the majestic snow-capped Mournes as a backdrop, Carlingford was the perfect location for our set dancing weekend.
On Friday night, after a splendid meal provided by the friendly and welcoming Four Seasons Hotel, there was a seisiún of the three C's-ceol, caint agus craic. Oh and some ol as well! The genial Paddy Mee, a stalwart of traditional dance and music, introduced a group of fine young musicians from the area and they led the festivities.
The Saturday workshop was hosted by the shy and retiring Séamus Ó Méalóid in his own engaging way and was enjoyed by all, except for those who stole away to participate in the alternative attraction, the Tain walk.
Saturday night was ceili night and we danced to the lively music of the Triskell Ceili Band. We were delighted to be joined by dancers from Dundalk, Hilltown, Blanchardstown and the local enthusiasts. The ceili was over late but too early for bed, so the hardy revellers again sang, danced, told stories, recited poems and drank a few pints, to the accompaniment of Donal Corrigan on guitar and concert flute, Michael Sheerin on banjo and box and Abina on bodhrán.
We departed from Carlingford on Sunday, reasonably wrecked but certainly contented with what was a wonderful weekend.
Liam Bane, Stackstown, Co Dublin
Saint John, New Brunswick, is Canada's oldest incorporated city, where Irish history has always had strong roots. They are also known for the celebrations around St Patrick's Day, and that is why Eoin and I decided to drive the 900km round trip to attend the ceili where we met old and new friends.
The local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ) and the Irish Canadian Cultural Association (ICCA) hosted a St Patrick's Day ceili on Saturday, March 13 at the Royal Canadian Legion on Wilson Street in Saint John. CCÉ chair Rick Clark and ICCA president Owen Boyle made everyone feel welcome. There were over 200 people who attended the ceili.
In the afternoon, Pat Loughnane of Coldbrook, Nova Scotia, taught a few ceili dances (I tried to assist) including Shoe the Donkey, the Walls of Limerick and the Haymakers Jig. A number of the dancers had never seen or experienced the joy of Irish dancing. In addition to local members of the Irish community, about thirty people from the Vietnamese community in Saint John joined in for the fun and returned to the ceili in the evening to show off their newly acquired dance skills.
The evening was filled with lots of entertainment. It was great to see everyone out enjoying themselves. Before heading back on Sunday, we attended the fund raising breakfast for the Belfast children vacation fund where we enjoyed more music by the CCÉ musicians. Thanks to all for making it a great time!
Anne Duffy, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Just a note to say many thanks to all the people who travelled from all the different parts of the UK, Ireland and Europe for the weekend with the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band in Solihull, England. I'm sure everybody had a terrific time and without all your support it just wouldn't happen. Thanks to Johnny Reidy, Eddie Lee, Tom Skelly and Emma O'Leary for their wonderful music and Gerard Butler for teaching sets and sean nós at the workshops. Thanks also to my band of helpers, Betty and Pat Quinn, Ann Marie Rooney, James Levis and George and Linda Hook for doing a great job with the sound equipment. Let's hope next year will be as successful—18th to 20th February!
Kate Howes, Solihull, England
The Step to the West Weekend and I would like to thank everybody who came to the Falls Hotel, Ennistymon, Co Clare, for what was a very successful weekend. A big thank you to all the bands for great music, to Gerard Butler for three wonderful workshops and also calling at all the ceilis, to the hotel management and staff, to the session musicians, and to Chris Eichbaum from Set Dancing News who worked so hard all weekend taking pictures. We are looking forward to January 2011. Our dates for your diary are January 28th to 30th.
Sean Longe, Inagh, Co Clare
Discussion pointHi Bill,
I sometimes think Swallow's Tail Ceili Band would be better off as two bands as sometimes it just isn't economical for all five to go out. That's for three hours solid playing and maybe seven hours travelling. It's time ceili organisers started charging realistically. In most places it is €10 (and that's cheap) to see a one man band and the same for the Tulla or the Kilfenora. It doesn't make sense, and in the not too distant future, bigger bands with four or more players (and real drummers) will only be seen in competition.
This would not happen in any other musical genre, and even within traditional music, groups, as opposed to ceili bands, command far higher fees, and for a two-hour concert with no tea tickets are seldom less than €15. The ceili bands are in danger of losing all the best musicians.
It looks like we are heading for a situation where there is no choice of bands, except the combination of accordion and keyboards with a drum machine. Even the three pieces will ditch the banjo/fiddle/flute player, unless it's his gear or van! I would say most people would not want this. I think the answer to this is to charge a realistic economic door entry, and charge more if the band is dearer or there is an unrealistically large amount of food.
Do you think this would stir up anything approaching controversy, or is it just common sense?
Michael Hurley, Swallow's Tail Ceili Band, Ballymote, Co Sligo
At a ceili in Igoe's in Doonbeg, Co Clare
A catastrophe happened that shocked all was there.
In set dancing news it has spread world-wide
How dancers swinging a Christmas fell on their backside.
Thomas B and Marian brought down when they fell
Mary Flanagan and Vincent and two more as well
And with two from the next set forced to somersault
We thought the whole ceili would be brought to a halt.
With Mick Connors and Bridget on top of the pile
Said Bridget to Mick, "We'll stay down for a while
For there's money in this for you and me"
And when Vincent heard this said, "I want a new knee."
Now the Brian Ború band have played ceilis all o'er
Never had seen a full set topsy turvy before
Now their next performance booked to make
Is Moyasta fundraiser American Wake.
It only happens once every four or five years, so it’s a reason for celebration when the Abbey Ceili Band releases a new CD! The band got their start in the Abbey Hotel in Ballyvourney, and for the past decade have made Cork-style reels, jigs, slide and polkas popular with set dancers all across Ireland and well beyond. Their new recording, Bóthar na Réidhe, is their third and has music for a superb selection of sets—the Antrim Square, Moycullen, Skibbereen and Sliabh Fraoch. The Skibbereen is a classic Cork set, while the other three are all recent additions to our repertoire of sets. All four are sure to get a boost in popularity as the band’s music is used in set dancing classes everywhere. The title of the CD refers to an ancient road near fiddler Andy O’Connell’s home place.
Apart from the selection of sets, the CD stands apart from the others because it was done in a studio; the previous two were recorded live at ceilis. It also features a real drummer, Martin Leahy. While you might miss the crowds cheering, there’s a beautiful purity about the new recording and the music is absolutely stunning, full of exciting tunes and a genuine joy for dancing, as always. On Bóthar na Réidhe the band have also included four songs, two by well-known Cork tenor Seán Ó Sé and two by Donnacha O’Connell from Cill na Martra, who has never been recorded before.
The new CD is available from box player Ger Murphy. There’s only one thing better than a new CD by the Abbey Ceili Band, and that’s to dance at one of their ceilis—in that case pick up a disk from them in person!
Ger Butler’s name is synonymous with sean nós dancing. Many of us have seen him dancing a few steps at ceilis, and attended his workshops in numerous locations across Ireland and around the world. Now you can learn Ger’s steps in the privacy of your home with his new DVD Learn Sean Nós Dancing with Gerard Butler. In it he breaks down twenty different steps, ten of which he labels for beginners, and ten advanced. Each is explained and shown close up, and then danced repeatedly, from slower to faster. At the end of each step there’s an opportunity to press the back button on the remote control to repeat. Ger also dances through all ten beginners steps to music, both slow and fast, and does the same for the advanced steps. Vigorous music is played throughout the disk by Tommy Doherty on box and Stephen Doherty on piano.
The DVD also includes some entertaining extras. Ger dances a sean nós jig to music on tin whistle by his brother Jim, and also does a dual brush dance with brother Colin. The highlight is a demonstration of the Roscommon Lancers Set by a young mixed team of dancers from Abbeyknockmoy, Co Galway, who dance with confidence and pleasure. Contact Ger to get a copy of his DVD.
John and Martina Breen are a brother-sister duo from Kenmare, Co Kerry, who are known as Uí Bhríain. They play regularly for ceilis and other dances in Kerry and Cork, John on box accompanied by Martina on piano. On their CD, Martina and John, they demonstrate their versatility by playing a variety of waltzes, quicksteps and rock and roll, in addition to tracks of reels, hornpipes and jigs.
The influence of set dancing is spreading around the world in unexpected ways. Paul O'Grady is a Dubliner settled in Croation who teaches set dancing in Zagreb to an enthusiastic and young crowd of dancers. He is also involved in teaching dancing to mentally handicapped people and earlier this year this activity came to the attention of television in China. A Chinese film crew visited Paul's class for a report on how dancing, Irish style, gives people with mental and physical impairments new confidence and coordination. The video report is available via the Internet-search in Google for Irish dancing helps disabled people.
In January, Emma came top in the Comórtas Chóilín Sheáin Dharach, the annual Connemara sean nós jig competition held in Rosmuc, Co Galway. The hall was packed with a standing room only crowd to watch the twelve competitors; music was by Paudaí Tom Bán Breathnach and the adjudicator was Marie Philbin. The winners of the junior competition were Ríona Ní Fhlatharta (primary school) and Natasha Ní Fhlatharta (secondary).
Jim 'Elvis' Monaghan was also in competition on TG4's Glas Vegas programme where he made it through the first round. For his second appearance he brought along 'Priscilla', his favourite pink brush decorated in polka dots, and danced a polka with her. While Jim had the support and cheers of the audience, one of the adjudicators voted him out of the competition.
Jim commented on his experience—"The judges were looking for a star, and after reading what they had to say, I agree with them, I think. They all agreed that I was good craic and entertaining, but not to win Glas Vegas. The audience were with me all the way. It was a good experience; however we move on."
Ominous weather forecasts and doomsday news reports about flooding left me wondering, and Ger Butler nervous, if people would brave the roads that Friday, 20 November. After all, drivers were cautioned to travel only if absolutely necessary.
Bypassing Clonmel, which was in parts cordoned off, and snaking our way up the country through pools, extended lakes, diversions and suchlike, we did make it to the powerhouse that is the Sean Óg Festival in Longford, phew!
Checking into the Longford Arms Hotel felt like arriving at a haven, a sanctuary from the heavy rains. Just shut the doors and heed no nightly noises from wind and downpours!
Then people slowly started trickling in, and with them tales of their respective journeys. One couple, for instance, suffered two punctures driving through a flooded part of the road that hid a sharp-edged pothole.
More people arrived, and then more again. The hotel filled with dancers, becoming a hub of activity and greetings and hugs and kisses. In a way the bad situation outside intensified a sense of victory—can we go to a set dancing weekend despite awful road conditions? Yes, we can! Folks came in droves, having conquered their worries, conquered the roads, fully determined to get on with the job in hand of enjoying the weekend and leaving thoughts about the journey home behind for the moment. Carpe diem!
And this is the weekend that is worthwhile travelling to through any kind of weather. No way would they miss it, people said. No way at all.
The Sean Óg magnetism worked and pulled in an amazing number of bodies considering the circumstances. You see, it's simply the best. So many aspects about it generate the overall impression of superlatives.
These are some of my favourite things that came to mind—
Surely, this was the best jive I ever had. And the last figure of the Plain Set the wildest. The tunes for that hornpipe the most uncommon. The friendliest reception from oh-so-many people. The most touching contacts. That line dance was the most enjoyable ever. The session never as magical. I never met as many people and seemed to chat to them constantly. The highest ever jump in the Connemara Set. The longest I have ever danced almost continuously. And never before was there a barefoot brush dance at 4am!
If I had tried to break my own record of nonstop dancing, I surely would have. That's partly due to the sheer amount of ceilis, workshops and social dances on offer. Let me see. It kicked off with Ger Butler's jive workshop, vigorous as ever, pumping iron from the elbows. My dance partner was trying his hand (arm) for the first time at jiving and was really enthusiastic about it. So we danced nonstop for the class, and kept going (the best quickstep ever, thanks Denis!) for the live music with Carmel McLoughlin, who has a great voice and repertoire to match. At that dance, Gabrielle Cassidy, co-organiser of the weekend, presented her son Jonathan with a bouquet of flowers to mark the recent arrival of a grandchild. Congratulations! You can expect to see the little one dancing shortly.
Soon after, the Abbey played at night. Mighty, mighty stuff, could have been the best I've ever heard them. Colossal sound, a tidal wave of music that swept me away to get lost in its surf—the epitome of ceili music to begin the weekend on the highest audible note for humans; after that, wolves would dance with us.
The session after was great fun, all still revved up, with lovely music by Brona Graham (banjo), Leo Logan (guitar), and Tommy Doherty (box), later joined by Jim Butler (flute and uilleann pipes—it takes ages to put them on, whoever invented such a funny instrument?) and a member of the Johnny Rocks band from Scotland, who brought forth the piano accordion. Some young folks were inspired to show their steps, like Peter Hanrahan, and sing songs. Gabrielle Cassidy was dragged out to do a bit of sean nós, and she did a fine job—there is photographic proof of it!
Half-four AM, I decided to head for the laba (bed), but such was the buzz that I couldn't sleep, the music still circulated through my veins, lilting inside my head diddledee, diddledeedum, yabadabadoo . . .
The morning then—well, I didn't pull the curtains to keep out that nasty weather. I went straight to Pat Murphy's workshop. It was so nice to see him again and catch up.
Something interesting about the Boyne Set, which Pat was teaching then. It's down in the notes as having a circle in the first figure, but actually it's a crossed hands advance and retire with your partner. So if you are teaching it, please check with Pat about that. Similarly, in the second figure, you are supposed to house around crossed hands and dance around each other again at home, which would make four turns, but apparently it's enough to get three turns done, because that's what Séamus Ó Méalóid, who revived the set, now says.
Just before 2pm a limousine arrived, bringing in two VIPs. There had been a radio quiz show, with the winner and a friend being collected
by a limo and driven to the Longford Arms Hotel where there would be a champagne reception and dancing to Patrick Feeney after. The two ladies, Anne Sheridan and Mary O'Connor, grinned from ear to ear and said it was brilliant to have won. They appeared in their finery and looked terrific, and I saw Anne jiving later on having a great time.
Also at 2pm Johnny Rocks started playing for an hour-long ceili before Patrick Feeney started. The young people all loved them, whoever I spoke to said they were 'real cool'. Ger and Gabrielle gave them the opportunity again to play here in Ireland, after they were such a hit last year. This time, they even had the opportunity to play for a ceili, and they wove an unusual fabric of notes to hit the ears, which continued as a rich tapestry by the melodies and resonant voice of Patrick Feeney and his band straight after at the ensuing social dance. Patrick, dressed all in white down to the shoes, looked dashing, and his singing was no less so. Novice that I am at social dances with live music, this was the most enjoyable yet, I even got weak in the knees. Um, that was from lack of fuel for the body, which meant leaving a tad early to get some food, and changing for the night ceili.
Mass then was cancelled because of the flooding, and we headed over to the Annaly Hotel to listen to Carmel McLoughlin, who gave a second performance and no sitting down much then, although I was pretty knackered.
Following that, the Annaly Ceili Band played from 9pm in the Annaly Hotel. People like their music because the beat is sheer precision engineering, as clean as a whistle. Dancing to them feels effortless, which is what was needed at that stage of the marathon!
Gathering another bit of energy then for the staggered ceili which started an hour later across the road in the Longford Arms Hotel, it must have been delivered to the veins straight through the amplifiers. Swallow's Tail had a fantastic night. Divine Brona Graham joined them on the banjo to add another spice and the dish transformed into a whole new and exciting creation, and their combined might sent the dancers rocking. Just before the end of the ceili I felt I had reached the end of one of the tethers surely, I was quite dead, but then they played a blast of reels designed successfully to resurrect the dead, and here I was, alive again, bouncing about the place—CPR musicwise!
I don't think I've got nine lives, but I must have nine legs, and I used more than a couple of them that day for sure. I even managed to stay up a while for a Johnny Rocks session, but then succumbed to the bed for a couple of hours of sleep.
Sunday started with a two-hand workshop by Pat Murphy. A gorgeous little progressive one called Imperial Two-Step worked its way into my heart, and also the Lomond Waltz from Scotland. Can't wait to try them out in class at home. Two-hands are a supreme way of getting flailing bodies through the morning's dancing—just sway along, dear!
Next up, Johnny Reidy. Oh Lord, more stunning stuff, it lent wings to feet. I felt compelled to tell the band that one of these days there is going to be a casualty on the floor—I am just totally unable to not flip out to his music. A couple of breaths later, we caught dinner in the bar to the lovely singing and guitar playing of Fergus Harman. I was kidnapped and forced to dance a waltz and had to abandon my food, and at the end of a series of waltzes that saw us going up and down and down and up the walkway of the bar, my poor dinner had gone cold, and so I got up again for a jive, might as well, I thought. Not any old jive—Fergus, you have a lot to answer for—because someone after said to me, "How did you manage to stay on your feet for a twelve-minute solid jive?" The answer is you just do, don't you? Once out, that's it, you're committed. I hobbled back to my seat after, my feet miserable all right, but the rest of me electrified—there must have been a sixty-watt glow about me!
And then on Sunday, the last ceili with the Lough Ree Ceili Band. Take note, everybody: no more overpowering sound from the drums and no more tenth-gear burning-rubber playing. Actually, they did a great job for the last Plain Set, the last Clare Lancers, the last Connemara, with Brendon Doyle on the accordion not wanting to play a tune twice—but, ach, it all did come to an end, crickey! For the hooley after the last legs were being used, the last gimmicky songs, the last Galway Girl line dances, the last mop dance—what? A mop dance? Yes, two still-wired-to-Mars ladies got up and danced creatively around and over and under two mops.
There were seans and ógs galore, despite the floods, such is the calibre of this magnificent festival. It has accomplished the task set for all of us to bring young and old together on the dance floor. Hats off!
It has become obvious to the most languid observer that the coordinators of Sean Óg weekend are meticulous in their desire to be more than good, more than very good—to be top dog. The partnership between music, dance, craic, session, variety, professionalism and presentation works; it could serve as a template with ease. Gabrielle Cassidy, Ger Butler, Rosemary Suzin and Bill Quirke have pulled it off, again. And coming up, the ten-year celebrations in 2010. Better get into shape for it.
And now of course we know that neither wild horses nor wild weather will keep anyone from coming.
PS Not to forget the birthday girls: cakes, candles, flowers, the works were presented to Anne Mangan, Maggie McGibbon, and Marie Garrity. It was also the birthday of the wife of another set dancer, who ushered his good woman to the stage as the birthdays were announced.
And one lady, having forgotten her swimsuit, went to buy one, but there aren't any to be had in November. So she got black underwear instead and went for a swim in the Leisure Centre. Did anyone notice?
Also, the twins must get a mention, Una Moore and Ita Molka. Una lives in Dublin and Ita lives in New York, and as she was home on holiday, they went to Longford, of course!
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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