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).
On Friday evening 27th August, the summer sun warmed our backs as we gathered on the farm of Sean O’Farrell in Cloncannon, Toomevara, Co Tipperary. Sean, Tom Fahy and local friends had erected a platform for dancers and musicians to celebrate national heritage week. Over one hundred supporters varying in age from 4 to 94 enjoyed a superb evening. Local musicians doled out polkas and reels for the numerous sets danced on the bouncy platform. Maureen Culleton did a lovely job as MC, interspersing waltzes and a Siege of Ennis to facilitate all dancers of all ages.
Fresh from the rambling house in Clonakenny the previous night, we had guest appearances by two young musicians. Miriam O’Dwyer delighted us with her harp recital and Sean Mongey charmed us with his tunes on the mandolin. Margaret Carr, also a constant participant in the rambling houses in Templemore and Clonakenny, sang in her clear and melodious voice.
Two local men and one local lady who are in the late autumn of their years joined in the celebrations. Mick Coffey who is 94 years of age sang a traditional song. His friend Michael O’Meara at age 93 danced a waltz with encouragement from Clonakenny lady Kathleen Treacy. Nonie Greene was happy to sit and reminisce of times in the 1940s and ’50s when platform dancing was part of life in Cloncannon.
We had songs from Michael Quirke, Donal Ryan and local priest Pat Mulcahy. Our platform maker Tom Fahy also gave us a song. Young dancer Cadhla Shanahan danced a reel and three young local children Gráinne, Joanne and Aisling danced a jig.
The celebrations on the platform concluded with a mighty Plain Set. Sean thanked everyone for their support. We have been blessed with the weather he said. He thanked Maureen for her expertise as MC. He thanked all the dancers, singers and guest musicians and said, “It was marvellous to celebrate heritage week here this evening in the Toomevara hills with so many talented people of all ages.” Sean thanked the musicians who kept our toes tapping all evening and introduced them to us. Anne Cantwell played the banjo, Eddie Whelan was our guitar player, and on accordion we had Tony O’Rourke, Katie Cullen, Michael Searson and Nora Hutchinson.
Sean then invited everyone to his house for tea. I was among the throng who drove the three hundred yards up the road to his beautiful log-built house. After tea and confectionary we danced more sets, to music provided by Maureen Culleton, with her always mobile CD selection.
Darkness loomed in the Toomevara hills as I headed for home. I could swear I heard music reverberating as I drove the byways for Thurles.
Joan Pollard Carew
The picturesque village of Rathgormack in north County Waterford welcomed dancers and musicians to the seventh annual set dancing festival, on the weekend 10th to 12th September.
Home to the festival again this year was the superb hiking and community centre, situated at the foot of the magnificent Comeragh Mountains. This centre was built in 2000 and is one of many centres built throughout Ireland by local communities to celebrate the millennium. The centre is an all-year-round base for numerous community activities and was purpose-built as an approved hostel with accommodation for twenty people.
As the sun shone on the Comeragh Mountains crowds thronged to enjoy a weekend of music, set dancing and craic. The mighty Abbey Ceili Band from the rebel county of Cork played their hearts out for our first ceili of the weekend. Mary Murphy was our MC and welcomed everyone and advised us of the programme for the weekend. Her beautiful daughter Bronagh called the Moycullen and Antrim Square sets. The very hardworking committee treated us to scrumptious confectionary with smiles all round. The atmosphere was magic. Our selection of sets was a dream.
Saturday morning our set dancing workshop got underway at 10.30am with Pádraig and Róisín McEneany at the helm as our tutors. The Boyne Set was the first set of the morning, then the Ballyduff Set got everyone battering the lovely-bend-your-knees polkas of this little Co Waterford set. The afternoon sets were just as interesting and enjoyable. Firstly Pádraig and Róisín taught the Kildownet Half-Set from Achill Island, Co Mayo. Our workshop concluded with the Melleray Lancers, another lively Co Waterford set, and we danced all seven figures. Pádraig and Róisín are excellent teachers who strongly emphasise attention to detail in their class, coupled with a wonderful sense of fun. To quote Mary Murphy, “We should never forfeit fun for perfection.”
Saturday night the hall began to fill once more with dancers all set for another mighty night’s dancing. Tonight we had the man from the kingdom county of Kerry, the one and only Johnny Reidy and his ceili band. We danced our legs off to another great selection of sets and the Murphy girls made sure everyone was comfortable and happy, giving the odd prompt when needed, and at all times aware of dancers who were not long on the set dancing scene.
We had a fantastic display of dancing with a group of young children from Leeann Murphy’s class in Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny, dressed in their Co Kilkenny colours. One little six-year-old girl sported Co Waterford colours. Mary Murphy joked that she had to get special permission from Bryan Coady (the Kilkenny hurling manager) to wear Waterford colours as she was a staunch Kilkenny girl. The night and the ceili concluded with a speed of light Plain Set.
Sunday morning at 11am we had our last dancing workshop of the festival. Dungarvan dance master John Creed taught us a beautiful selection of two-hand dances. Our first dance was the Peeler and the Goat, then St Bernard’s Waltz, Breakaway Blues, Back-to-Back Hornpipe, Waltz of the Bells, and finished with the Two-Hand Jig. John is to be commended for his many years of dedication to the craft of teaching dancing all over Co Waterford and his hard work in reviving set, step and ceili dances, thus ensuring our traditional dances are kept alive and passed on in their purest form.
Our final ceili of the weekend began at 3pm. We had a superb afternoon’s dancing to the music of Jerry McCarthy and the Curragh Ceili Band. The selection of sets was a delight and Mary Murphy as MC kept everyone comfortable.
It was marvellous to see so many young dancers at the ceilis all weekend. Their standard of dancing was awesome. These young dancers are all pupils of Mary, Bronagh and Leeann Murphy, from their numerous classes in Co Waterford and south Kilkenny.
All weekend we were treated to confectionary, tea and coffee, all made and served by the hardworking, always-smiling committee. Tanks of chilled water were a-plenty to keep us hydrated all weekend. Mary Greene, chairperson of the organising committee, thanked everyone for attending the weekend and also thanked the numerous sponsors of spot prizes. Thanking Mary, Bronagh and Leeann, she said, “Girls, you have as usual done a superb job.” She concluded by thanking Waterford County Council Arts Grants Scheme for their assistance.
Our weekend had come to an end. The committee can be proud of their festival. I bade farewell to old and new friends and journeyed home with jigs, reels and polkas still sounding in my head and my feet itching to dance.
Joan Pollard Carew
Each individual experiences memorable moments in their lifetime, some wonderful and some best forgotten. For me there were many such moments—when I qualified as a teacher and equally when I retired having spent forty years in the profession; when Chris and I got married; when our children Olivia and Seán were born safely into the world and now the arrival of our three granddaughters Méabh, Clodagh and Áine Cahalan.
I have recently had another such wonderful occasion which I can add to the list of memorable moments—my week long celebration of 25 years as a teacher of dance which I organised in Ballyfin from July 26th–August 2nd. There were nine dance events in eight days with workshops for good measure. The joy I experienced each day and night welcoming musicians from all nine ceili bands, welcoming my friends and dancing with them, sharing food and creating great memories. Each ceili was unique because we danced various sets and experienced a wide range of musical styles and because a different team provided food each night.
My wish and hope would be that we will all be hale and hearty at the end of another 25 years and that set dancers will thoroughly enjoy their dancing, and that set dancing and indeed all the dances of Ireland will be celebrated by a new generation who will hopefully continue to promote and enjoy it and most importantly pass it on to each new generation to come.
Thank you most sincerely to all who came to Ballyfin to celebrate with me, to all the bands, all the dancers, my family and friends for their continued support. The great news is that next year’s festival is already organised so roll on July 25th–August 1st 2011. I earnestly look forward to our new local hotel, Ballyfin House, opening its doors for great accommodation and therefore allowing visitors the opportunity to explore the beauty of our picturesque midland county. The hotel is located within walking distance of the community centre, venue for all ceilis and workshops during the festival. Camper vans are very welcome to enjoy safe parking in the car park at the community centre.
Go mbeirimíd beo ag an am seo arís!
Maureen Culleton, Ballyfin, Co Laois
I enjoyed myself so muchHiya Bill,
I would really appreciate if you would print my thank-you to Maureen Culleton for the two super days I had up in Ballyfin, Co Laois, with the Annaly on August 1st and the Abbey (minus Ger Murphy on his honeymoon) on the 2nd. Never having been there before I wasn’t expecting the welcome I was to receive. It wasn’t just the fruit on arrival at the entrance but when I went into the hall Maureen was there to welcome me in person—but that was just the start of it. We went on to dance all sorts of lovely totally different sets—made so easy by how super Maureen made it by the simplicity of her calling the sets. I can’t remember when I enjoyed myself so much. Can’t wait to go again.
The special celebration of the weekend was Maureen’s 25 years of teaching—no wonder she is so good.
Nuala Riordan, Boherbue, Co Cork
Surprised at the dancing brideDear Bill,
Hello! I’m Coco from Japan who danced with you in Killarney, in February 2009. I got married on 8 August and had a party on 4 September at a small restaurant in Yokohama. Many friends helped us to make our party unique.
One of the most fantastic things is my friends from Irish Dance Circle Clare and the ceili band named K:Reunion came to celebrate with set dancing. They danced figure 3 from the Cashel Set and figure 2 from Mazurka Set with live music.
I really wanted to join, but I couldn’t because my dress had a long train. After wedding party, I changed into my dress without a train and danced the Ballyvourney Jig Set which is my favourite! It’s not usual to dance at a wedding party in Japan. Everybody was surprised at the dancing bride!
Then we tried the Waves of Tory, a ceili dance, to involve the guests. For most of them, it was their first time seeing Irish dance. “What a lovely dance!” many guests said to me.
Thanks for sending the telegram. It was a surprise and pleasure for me that I got a message from Ireland!
Our honeymoon is going to be next year. Of course, I requested to go to Ireland! My husband loves to drive, and he has to bring me to the places where I couldn’t go by myself. (I only used public transport when I was in Ireland.)
As you wrote in the telegram, we are also looking forward to dancing in Ireland!
Thanks a million. I received a lot of love from Ireland.
Kyoko (Coco) Harada, Japan
Polish and Irish joined togetherHi Bill,
After a hectic week in Miltown Malbay, Marie O’Sullivan, Mary Cooney, Elizabeth Lane and friends travelled to Tarnów near Kraków, Poland, to the wedding of Marie’s son Aiden and Agnaszka. Marie teaches traditional step dancing in Midleton, Co Cork, as taught to her by her good friend, the late Joe O’Donovan. Aiden is a garda in Wexford where he met Agnaszka and it was love at first sight. Seventy-six Irish people travelled for the wedding, not all of us dancers, I might add. We had the Connemara and Caledonian sets danced to the late Michael Sexton’s music, some two-hand dances where Polish and Irish joined together, and Marie and Mary danced St Patrick’s Day and The Blackbird. I must say everybody enjoyed the Irish music and dance. We also spent a day at the Wieliczka Salt Mine outside Kraków, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where they danced a half-set 165 metres underground much to the enjoyment of other visitors.
Niall Cooney, Midletown, Co Cork
Thirty years in existenceDear Bill,
As a long time reader of Set Dancing News I thought I might avail of the magazine for some small details of history. In January 2011 the Slievenamon set dancers and musicians are celebrating thirty years in existence. The group was formed by the late Connie Ryan from his Dublin classes; his first workshop was forty years ago. During my first twenty years dancing with him we had workshops in all 32 counties of Ireland as well as Europe and the USA. I’m sure that many dancers learned their first set from Connie and maybe got their love of dancing from him. We would love to see these dancers come to the weekend in Malahide, Co Dublin, 14–16 January, to share their memories and have some fun.
The Malahide weekend has supported cancer care and research in St Vincent’s Hospital, Our Lady’s Hospice, Blackrock Hospice and the Children’s Hospital in Crumlin since Connie’s death in 1997. To date we have raised €89,000 for the above. Maybe we can reach the €100,000 when we celebrate our thirty years.
Thanking everyone who supported us in the past and looking forward to meeting again on the 14th of January.
Betty McCoy, Sandyford, Co Dublin
Such a late hourDear Bill,
On August 19th I travelled to Craughwell, Co Galway, to stay with my cousin for five days. I checked listings in Set Dancing News and saw there was a ceili on the Friday night in Clarinbridge with Matt Cunningham. I went along on my own and was made most welcome. I had an enjoyable evening, good music, good hall and a lovely supper. Thanks to Gearóid Mulrooney for his great organization and also giving me a lift home—much appreciated!
On September 4th I was in the northwest of Ireland for the weekend. I went along to the ceili at Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, with friends. Another very enjoyable evening.
The first question I really want to ask is, do set dancers really like the ceilis starting at 10pm? Maybe I am getting old but when I am in Ireland I find it very hard to go out at such a late hour. Maybe I am too used to English times when ceilis here start at 7.30 to 8.30. I am interested to hear what you all really think.
The second question is, why are the same sets danced at all ceilis in Ireland? What about the Victoria, Glencree, Rosscahill, Tory Island, Black Valley Jig and West Kerry? The list is endless and so many beautiful sets are not being danced.
Best wishes to all my dancing friends.
Eileen McGuire, Manchester, England
Still almost palpableHi Bill,
A week has passed since we got back from the weekend of dancing in Birmingham run by George Hook and Linda Reavy, 27–29 August, but the atmosphere of that weekend is still almost palpable—talented bunch of dancers, great range of sets danced, excellent music from the Copperplate Ceili Band, tempo and tunes spot-on, fun workshops from Pádraig and Róisín McEneany, and a nicely-refurbished hall. It all made for a relaxing session, which left us with smiles that have lasted until now.
Many thanks to everyone who made the weekend so enjoyable, and especially to George for his construction of an extension to the dance floor, almost beyond the call of duty, but greatly appreciated!
We are planning more outings to more events over the next few weeks and months, so we look forward to seeing you all someplace soon.
Carol Gannon and Kevin Monaghan, Tadley, Hampshire, England
A big thank-youHi Bill,
Hope you are well. Can you please thank everyone who supported the August weekend in Birmingham? The Copperplate played some lovely music and Pádraig and Róisín did their excellent workshops. Special thanks as always to Kate Howes, Mary McParland and Linda Reavey for their continued help and support and to all those who helped behind the scenes. Also a big thank-you to all who stayed behind after to help pack away the gear and floor—this was much appreciated. Last but not least, thanks to all the dancers who came and supported the event. God willing, we can do it all again next year.
Best wishes to all.
George Hook, Smethwick, England
It is now almost fourteen years since Connie Ryan died. There will be some for whom this name evokes no memories. They will be those who were not amongst the thousands who from the early 1980s to his untimely death in 1997 attended the classes and weekend workshops that Connie held throughout the country to pass on his love of set dancing.
I was not amongst the earliest of Connie’s followers. Growing up in Dublin city the phrase ‘set dancing’ was not only unfamiliar to me, it was unknown. It was a chance encounter one summer’s day in the early 1990s in the south Sligo town of Tubbercurry where I had stopped when returning home from a short holiday in Donegal that this aspect of our culture first came to my attention. Music was coming from a local hall and with time on my hands I followed it to its source. I found myself standing in the doorway of a large hall full to overflowing with couples dancing to traditional Irish music, but dancing in a style that, to my untutored eye, contrasted with any understanding that I had of what Irish dancing should look like. The scene was one of music, energy and happiness and all was under the control of a stocky, bearded, middle-aged gentleman who walked amongst the couples calling out instructions and occasionally halting the proceedings to demonstrate a dance step or a particular movement.
Returning to Dublin that afternoon I toyed with the idea of finding out more about set dancing and about this stocky, bearded gentleman who even from my so very brief involvement seemed to welcome even the most untalented and awkward of aspirants.
Little research was needed to discover that Connie would be giving set dancing classes later in the summer during the annual Merriman Summer School in the west Clare town of Ennistymon. I travelled to Ennistymon that year and took part in those classes. No longer did I watch from the margins as in Tubbercurry. I took part and discovered that with a little effort and with Connie’s encouragement and guidance what had seemed almost strange and alien in Tubbercurry was not only manageable but surprisingly enjoyable and fulfilling.
Beginning in the autumn of that year I regularly attended the evening classes that Connie held in the Ierne Ballroom in Parnell Square, in Wanderers Rugby Club on the Merrion Road or in Blackrock Rugby Club on the Stradbrook Road. Large numbers attended those classes. Some were experienced dancers who knew the figures of the sets and were practised in the associated dance steps. Others, like myself, were quite unfamiliar with even the elements of dance. Connie welcomed and encouraged all.
As a teacher I marvelled at the easy control that he always had in a hall with 160 or more dancers. My admiration increased when I discovered that owing to a hurling accident in his youth his sight was quite limited. When teaching the complicated movements of a set he had the gift of giving the precise amount of information that one could cope with and of allowing the participants to practise it for just long enough before moving on to the next movement. My memory of those days is that, despite the large number of participants at the classes and the various degrees of expertise, everyone felt involved and everyone believed that Connie was catering for them personally.
Sadly illness intervened. Despite his illness Connie continued for some time with the classes. He died in the early summmer of 1997.
Shortly after his death I was reminiscing with a teaching colleague who had also been a regular participant at Connie’s classes. Quite spontaneously I found myself saying to her, “Very few people have ever managed to bring as much happiness to so many people as did Connie Ryan.” Fourteen years later I see no reason to revise that spontaneous statement.
After Connie’s death my interest in set dancing waned. It never completely disappeared but the sense of intense involvement was no longer there. I did occasionally attend a workshop or a ceili, but the interest that I had in the mid 1990s was largely displaced by other pursuits.
In July, realizing that the Willie Clancy Summer School in traditional music was about to take place, I, somewhat impulsively, decided to travel to the west Clare town of Miltown Malbay and to take part. I arrived on the Saturday afternoon, studied the list of available classes and elected to register for a series of classes in the polka sets of Cork and Kerry to be given by Timmy ‘the Brit’ McCarthy. The name was familiar to me from years gone by, but I had never met Timmy or attended his classes.
On Monday morning I had some difficulty in finding St Joseph’s College, Spanish Point, so the class was already in progress when I arrived. On entering the hall I was immediately charmed by what I saw and heard. Timmy did not use recorded music. He provided the music with his button accordion. It was simple, vibrant and forceful. It compelled you to take part.
Timmy explained to us that his aim would be to convey the manner in which the polka sets were traditionally danced in the pubs, halls and the homes of West Kerry. The actual figures he believed to be of less importance. They could always be learned from notes or from books, but an appreciation of the traditional manner of dancing could only be gained by personal contact.
I believe that in the course of the following days he was successful in this aim. He succeeded by showing us the intimate relationship that develops between the music and the dance, neither being complete without the other and the obvious pride that he had in his ability and in his understanding of how the sets should be performed. Timmy would demonstrate a dance step or a movement and then stand back and with unconcealed delight he would exclaim, “Isn’t that marvellous.”
But, almost inadvertently, Timmy did something more. He revealed to us the significant part that set dancing has played and continues to play in the culture of his part of Cork and Kerry. He did this by referring to the enthusism that local communities had for the dancing of sets. They have been around for perhaps 200 years. The Televara Set must surely have been named after the Napoleonic battle of Talavera fought in 1809. The Victoria set is more likely to have been named, originally, the Vitoria after the Napoleonic battle of Vitoria fought in 1813. Despite the circumstances of famine and emigration, which must surely have militated against their survival, despite clerical disapproval and the disapproval of the Gaelic League, the sets of Cork and Kerry survived and are still a vibrant social component. In the course of his teaching, Timmy referred to dancers he had known in his youth, dancers whose skill he admired and men and women from whom he had learned the different steps and figures.
In the course of the week Timmy brought us through several sets, including the Borlin, West Kerry, Jenny Ling, Televara, explaining to us that each was danced in a particular town or village and that the movements and the steps could be quite different and distinct from those of a different set traditionally danced in a town or village little more than ten or twelve miles away.
The encyclopaedic knowledge that he manifested of a multiplicity of sets with their different figures and dance steps inevitably provoked one of the class to ask Timmy how he managed to remember them all and to keep them distinct in his mind. Surely the answer that he gave must rank with the insights and the observations of Pestalozzi, Dewey and the other great educationalists that we learned about when studying for the higher diploma in education so many years ago.
“Well, I had to learn it too,” replied Timmy, “and I didn’t learn it because I’m clever, I learned it because I love it.”
Frank Roden, Dublin
O’Donovan’s Hotel in Clonakilty, Co Cork, was the perfect venue for a workshop and ceili with an international flavour in July. Music was provided by Ann O’Donovan and Pam and Norm Merrigan, members of the Coast Ceili Band from Sydney, Australia. They were joined by Rose O’Brien, Gordon Warner and Rosie O’Donovan, all from Clonakilty, and fiddler Carol Leader. The workshop was led by Carmel Kearns from Wicklow and the ceili which followed attracted local dancers and visitors from all over. A variety of sets and ceili dances were called by Carmel and also by Margaret and Bill Winnett who teach in Sydney. In true Aussie style, O’Donovan’s Hotel provided a barbecue for dancers and musicians. We had a most enjoyable night and hope to be back again next year.
Anita Prunty, Shankill, Co Dublin
I was supposed to go to Fuerteventura. The suitcase I was supposed to take is still full with all the bits that went to Ballinasloe with me. I was supposed to take my dancing shoes out and put flip-flops in. And then I was supposed to spend ten days without set dancing. I was supposed to relax there and take a break. (I was wondering if they have an Irish pub there. Could there somehow be seven people on this Canary Island that could dance a set?) There are papers here and there inside the suitcase still, with notes from last weekend, with ceili announcements, business cards, mobile numbers of people scribbled onto serviettes. All I can think of is last weekend, the crazy sets danced, the laughter that left my throat actually croaking. Ach, I really don't know how I am going to get through this Canary trip without creating a blog titled Confessions of a set dance addict in withdrawal and finally forming SDA (Set Dancers Anonymous). I suppose I could amuse myself with a daily practice of Maureen Culleton's sean nós steps that she taught in Ballinasloe. One of which she called North South West East. I'm probably going to get stuck on the West one . . .
Gerry Tynan's van was parked outside the hotel on Friday 14 May, brightly announcing physiotherapy for canines et al. It begged the question whether he would also alleviate strains and pains in bipedal creatures, which would have been needed, given the pace and amount of dances on offer at his Gateway to the West weekend. Putting on some final touches for the weekend, he was hanging up a few posters in the entrance to Hayden's Hotel near the centre of Ballinasloe, Co Galway. I could sniff the excitement of opening a weekend-it's similar with every organiser. Here, they were perpetual dancers Gerry and Pauline. Known widely, you can find them at oodles of ceilis and set dancing events. This was their own first weekend, and being experienced dancers they know what makes set dancers happy! A good wooden floor, a friendly family-run hotel (staff did a marvellous job, you couldn't get rid of them), great ceili bands, terrific promotion, and there you are. They brought home a huge catch, all fish wriggling happily in the net.
A very informal session kicked off in the lounge on Friday evening with Billy Carr (accordion), Martin Forde (accordion, guitar) and a Czech girl, Jana Vaclavkova (guitar), who lives in Galway. She matter-of-factly handed me her guitar and urged me to just play with them, and why I don't know, but I did, picked it up and tried to remember how to accompany tunes without really knowing them. Oh dear. The accompaniment was very basic, lagging behind at times, so I didn't dare play too loudly which meant I was almost pressing my ear to the body of the guitar. Next, I was handed a bodhrán. I fared a little better with it, feeling marginally more confident that I wasn't about to break it, and coaxed a few beats out of it. Never mind-the feeling of slipping into the musician's world was priceless. There is something unique passing between them, the eye contact, the feet tapping, heads nodding, and a realisation emerged-the lead instrument(s) lead and follow the music, and the accompanying instruments follow and lead, people and equipment co-creating a third entity, the tune. Together, it all becomes a swishy swirl of sound, a language spoken simultaneously by all musical contraptions, every input changing colour and hue, every note in surprise of the last and anticipation of the next. I made up my mind there and then to go to a music workshop somewhere to brush up on tin whistle. Interesting, how at times something comes your way, and you just have to grab it and follow its lead-like the music!
Off then to the first ceili with Micheál Sexton and Pat Walsh. And who pitched up but Liz Ryan, Johnny Duffy and Brendan Doyle from the (former) Lough Ree Ceili Band with their respective partners. We had a mad, frenzied Plain Pet, hardly recognizable as such, I warrant. Staying on the brim of the set dancing majority, we were also on the brim of lunacy-long live lunacy! That's actually when I started to feel a little hoarse, from all the squeaking and laughing, but these are the best moments. They stay with me, and I can pull them out of the remembrance bag when I need to on dull days.
Someone said in a programme about dancing in Cuba that dancing frees him, and helps him to express himself. Does that mean that in the wacky sets all the madness frees itself from rigid embrace of boundaries and gets expressed in movement? It certainly feels like loosening and pushing against rules, dancing outside the box, and most importantly, not giving a hoot about how other people might judge these shenanigans.
Participating in a workshop with Maureen Culleton on Saturday morning and afternoon was a first for me, and this is how she did it-gently, respectfully, inclusively and thoroughly. In the first figure of the Lough Neagh set you don't have much time for the Mazurka-style arches, and Maureen would fire us on with whispered urgency-the opposite of shouting at people. She is a lady, and a teacher who is very self-assured without imposing. She didn't even mind a few people in my set messing big time in the afternoon, thanks to brains withering. This meant that at the workshop I was shaken by laughter, and more of it, and more again, until I could take no more, the facial muscles aching from the strain, and getting a little more hoarse.
This happened again later, at the Sunday workshop, and the culprits actually were Vera Meehan and Helen Kilgallen from Sligo. They were so hilarious that I had second thoughts about going to their weekend-I will most certainly die if asked to dance and laugh the whole time like we did there! The jokes aren't fit to be repeated in a publication at all, but to give you an idea, what could you make of Marine Fourstep, Dinky and "back and forth"? No prizes.
There were a few interesting two-hands, new to me, like the French Reel (sidestep it right first, the way you always wanted to go), waltzes entitled Honeymoon and Hesitation (more crude jokes flying around).
Gerry and Pauline were on the button all the time, although wrecked on all levels, I daresay, but not giving in to it. It takes quite a bit of stamina to run a weekend, keep the atmosphere flowing, get the announcements right, the calling. They didn't lose momentum one iota. Playing a part in that were the social dances, and Micheál Sexton ('The King', as displayed on his sign) played beautifully for it on Saturday in the late afternoon. I never heard him on his own before, and my goodness, the tenor voice that comes out of this man is quite soft and rich. You wouldn't think it after the way he can shake your hand with bone-breaking strength-ouch! Coming out of the workshop, I went straight into the social dance. I lasted a few dances, then had to admit defeat so I could recuperate enough for the ceili. But actually, I danced another bit at a session that went on parallel to our meal. Between main course and dessert I slipped out to hear what was going on, and joined a few people for a set.
Saturday night was a complete knock-out. The Johnny Reidy Ceili Band were driving us around the sets circuit in Formula One style, blimey! Michael Schumacher would have a job catching up with these four letting fly at breakneck speed which extracts the last ounces of strength from feet and all other body parts. You can't but go bonkers, honestly, I am completely helpless once they burn rubber.
At another social dance later at night, I got a great jive and foxtrot, and crawled into bed for a couple of hours, only to be ripped out of dreamland by the alarm that made it clear that there was another day of dancing ahead. I regretted joining Vera and Helen and another two for breakfast, because I was in no position to defend myself from the relentless slagging that went on. At breakfast! Come on, lads! A tired body needs a bucket of coffee in peace! But the carry-on was carried on in the two-hand dance workshop and the afternoon ceili, and by the end I didn't know whether I was more exhausted from dancing or laughing-or a combination of the two.
The Annaly was in this instance joined by Tom Skelly from the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band-I had wondered what he and the ponytail were sticking around for. I think Tom gave them a higher gear. They had speeded up ever so slightly, and I loved it!
We also saw some step displays throughout the weekend at the sessions and ceilis. Marie Philbin called the Moycullen Set and also performed a solo dance, and Gerry himself called the South Galway.
Solo dances-that reminds me. At the end of the Sunday morning workshop someone asked an industrious Maureen Culleton to go over St Patrick's Day. A good few knew it and joined her. She said because she didn't have music, it had to be lilted, and that's what they all did-lilt-dancing. Cool.
And a last little bit of story-two Yanks, Richard and Denise Devlin, formerly of Dungannon, Co Tyrone, joined the Saturday workshop. Richard was taking notes to do a write-up, and had the mobile out to record the workshop sets. Despite all that astuteness, he forgot where to go when top couples and side couples were to do a star together. He insisted on going left, leaving his wife in a three-hand star and formed a five-hand star at the other side. Noticing he was wrong, he ran across trying to catch up while also trying to get into his correct slot in a hasty hamster-in-the-wheel kind of way. Irrefutably comical!
Do you know that sensation of a fully satisfied sigh of "ahhhh"? That's what you got at the end of this weekend, and that's why it has to be doled out again next year.
Ireland felt different this year. It started with a bitter cold winter which gave us weeks of snow and frost in place of the usual mild gloomy drizzle. Usually green all winter, the fields turned brown and were a long time changing once the weather began to improve. But improve it did and though most of the spring we had much more than our usual share of dry, sunny and even warm days. The spell of good luck coincided with the June bank holiday weekend and the annual set dancing weekend in Birr, Co Offaly, where all the factors that make dancing a pleasure combined to form a perfect weekend.
The town of Birr might not jump to the top when you're compiling a list of great set dancing locations, but it's an underrated treasure. The elegant streets of Georgian houses, some of which might be the most beautiful in Ireland, still delight and surprise every time I visit. The narrow high street is full of people wandering in and out of its many small shops or taking a break at an outdoor table in front of one of the cafés. The warm sun in a gleaming blue sky reveals the town at its best, with everyone in holiday mode and gardens ablaze with colour. Anyone in possession of an eye for flowers must visit the grounds of Birr Castle for its vast expanse of wooded parkland and stunning formal gardens. Flowers were everywhere to be seen, growing wild in the long grass or cultivated in mature beds.
Directly opposite the entrance to Birr Castle is the Marian Hall, the community hall where the dancing weekend took place. It appears to be many decades old, built perhaps at an optimistic time when folks had appreciation for spaciousness, good light and fine timber floors. I could never heap too much praise onto a floor which allows me to glide effortlessly, saves me from getting tired, keeps the air and breathing passages free from dust and thereby lets me concentrate purely on the dancing.
The hall is in regular use, as dancers arriving early for the opening ceili on Friday, June 4th, noticed-the adjacent car park was filled and the hall jammed with people. Some worried they were late for the ceili, but Friday night is bingo night in Birr. There was only a momentary mingling of the two crowds as the bingo folk rushed away, most of them clasping clipboards, while the dancers wandered in lugging bags with shoes, shirts and water bottles. The hall was transformed from a bingo parlour to a ceili in minutes as chairs were shifted and the littered floor was swept. Tim Joe and Anne O'Riordan barely had time to set up and sit down before organiser Donal Morrissey called the Caledonian Set on the dot at 10pm.
And we were off! Tim Joe and Anne never sounded better, deceptively relaxed and easygoing while inspiring great expenditure of energy, always playful, responsive and keeping their four eyes on the dancers. I was blessed with great partners, and surely everyone else was as well, even though only half my sets were booked in advance. Several old standards we know and love were danced one more time, along with the not quite so usual Mazurka, Newport and Claddagh.
For the final Plain Set I was able to obtain the partnership of a lovely lively dancer who liked a good spin as much as I do. In the second figure as she twirled at high speed across the set, I noticed she kept her free hand very firmly at her side. On further questioning she revealed that the bright summery outfit she was wearing for the first time was rather too revealing. Indeed, when swinging or doubling she had no free hands to hold it down, and so it would fly up horizontally. From my vantage point nothing was revealed, but there was plenty of enjoyment by the lads in the seats beside us. Of course I should have stopped doubling to avoid further embarrassment, but I have problems with self-restraint in that department. However, I did start holding onto her with both arms, which left her a free arm or two to keep the skirt down. A tremendously fun set for us both, though she did say she'd be wearing trousers or at least a tighter skirt in future, and the new one would never again appear at a ceili.
Sun and warm weather brought a festive feel to the hall for the workshop on Saturday morning by Pádraig and Róisín McEneany. They first gave us polka practice, starting with the basic steps and showing some batters. This was in preparation for the Newmarket Meserks Set from Cork, which was not without its challenges, particularly with its unique variations on the high-gates, line-up and cast-off movements. There was just time before the lunch break to practice one figure of the Boyne Set, which would come in handy as the set was promised for us at the ceili.
Birr's summer glory was ours for ninety minutes, time enough to take full advantage of the cafés at the castle or on the high street, all within easy walking distance, and there were even market stalls beside the hall selling fruit, veg and baked goods. I sat with dancers from Donegal in a quiet courtyard café with kids playing, adults reading papers and the resident cat alternating between sleeping and begging. Several people came back to the hall with punnets of strawberries and other fruit, and some, like myself, had found a few bargain plants for the garden. We continued the workshop with the Armagh Set and then a quick run-through of the South Galway, a personal favourite of mine, and although a Sliabh Luachra dancer disagreed with me, I stand by my description of it as 'the West Kerry to reels.'
Donegal was very well represented among the weekend's visitors, and there might have even been more visiting from Co Louth. Many of them parked their camper vans on the ground of the hall and set up home away from home, so there was always activity inside the hall and out.
The weekend ceili lineup offered the crème de la crème of Sliabh Luachra bands, with the ever-popular Johnny Reidy and his colleagues playing for us tonight. Dancers flock to him for his joyous music-happiness guaranteed without fail! He inspires such good feelings that it never feels like I'm exerting myself at all-until it stops at least and the rapid beating of my little heart has a chance to be heard in the breaks. The promised Boyne Set showed up in the first half of the ceili, though I wondered if Johnny might have thought that the Borlin Polka Set was announced, as he began by playing polkas and it took some persuasion to get him to stop and continue with reels.
During the tea break I was impressed by the friendliness between the band and dancers. Johnny himself wandered around the hall and personally greeted everyone. When I spoke to Johnny, he shared my concern for one friend who appeared to be missing in action. I met her before the ceili began, but she hadn't been spotted since the first set, so we were both worried in case something had gone wrong. Following a bit of research conducted in the midst of the Lancers after the break, I was able to set Johnny's mind at ease. After her first set, the lady in question had apparently split the seams of her trousers so thoroughly that she had no choice but to go home. "That's all right then," we agreed.
My prize set in the second half was the actual Borlin Polka, though my partner for that one hadn't quite the same level of enthusiasm for it, though she went with the flow. A final high energy Plain Set brought the night to a close with Johnny's sweet rendition of the national anthem.
On Sunday morning Mick Mulkerrin and Deirdre Tobin taught a workshop in sean nós dancing, with Deirdre handling beginners in the top half of the hall, and Mick teaching a more experienced group at the back. The day was once again blessed with warm sun and blue skies, and I took my breakfast al fresco at the castle café, prior to a quick visit to the highly recommended gardens within, a paradise of beauty.
Visiting from Sliabh Luachra for our third and closing ceili of the weekend were the Abbey Ceili Band, who share the same sense of pleasure as our previous two bands. Their tunes are so inspiring I can't help myself from lilting along, and quite often my partner at the moment and I would do a nice little duet together while dancing! My first partner for the Caledonian was the lady with the flyaway skirt from Friday's Plain Set. She was in neat white trouble-free trousers today, and had been in a tighter, longer skirt on Saturday night. Next up was the West Kerry (the South Galway to polkas, as I like to think of it) which I danced with the lady who went missing last night after her trousers had malfunctioned. Today she was safely dressed in a baggy skirt, but the numerous seams on it were slightly worrying-a skirt is only as strong as its weakest seam. She wisely carried spare trousers in her car this time. I revealed to her that I had left my belt at home and had been worried that my jeans might end up around my ankles; luckily they never strayed too far from their normal position. Carefree and happy, though close to burning out, we ended the ceili and weekend with the Derradda and, of course, the Plain Set.
A little taste of heaven was available to all this weekend in Birr, where all factors-music, dancers, hall, town, weather, etc-merged to make a weekend as perfect as you're ever likely to see. The atmosphere lingered long after the music stopped, and an ample share of it even seemed to follow me home.
Readers who might like to share tales of their ceili wardrobe malfunctions for everyone's amusement are most welcome to write to Set Dancing News.
Beautiful weather was the centre point of the annual Prince Edward Island Irish Arts Victoria Day weekend, May 21-24. Several dancers from the Nova Scotia dance group, Scaip na Cleiti (Toss the Feathers-named after Pat Murphy's book) made the trip across the Northumberland Straight in glaring sunshine. Since most of the regular organizers of the weekend spent several weeks in Scotland and Ireland earlier this spring, our activities were more informal this year.
Events began on Friday with a session at Dave Corrigan's place in Anglo Rustico, northeast PEI. Since the Rustico area was historically mainly francophone, the part where English speakers lived was given the "Anglo" label. Thanks to iPhone, we navigated to Dave's place electronically. Dave's driveway, a private road that he named himself, Fermanagh Road, now has an official sign and is on Google Maps! The gorgeous sunshine highlighted the startling colours of PEI-the blues of the sea and sky, and the greens and red of the earth. The breeze was strong, but from the south. The warmth must have lulled the dancers, who mostly chatted while the whistle-dominated session ran through a series of jigs.
A bonfire party was scheduled on Saturday at the former Nine Mile Creek school house, also known as the home of Fred Horne and Mary Burke. The bonfire was cancelled because of wind and dryness-too much sunshine, I suppose. Island fiddler Roy Johnstone led the session of musicians from both provinces, and we finally got down to dancing. Two young dancers led the charge. A Nova Scotian boy with his mother, and a PEI girl with her grandfather danced every dance, and wouldn't let time stand still between sets. To more easily include the young people, we focused on social figures, including those from the Derrada, Plain and Mazurka. The granddaughter made great friends with Elizabeth MacDonald, the Nova Scotia dance teacher, and insisted on learning steps, and more steps and then harder steps! There's hope for the future.
On Sunday we celebrated our first Victoria Day weekend event at the newest version of the Old Triangle Alehouse. The original Old Triangle in Halifax is the local of the Nova Scotia dancers, so the PEI dancers were thrilled when Paul and Jill Mansour, previous employees of the Triangle in Halifax, moved to PEI to begin the process of opening their own pub. They took a few years, but their careful planning paid off when they finally opened last year on the weekend after our 2009 Irish Arts weekend, so the Nova Scotians have had to wait almost a whole year to make their mark on the new place. Luckily for the Islanders, they had a lovely new venue for weekly dancing since then, and we've been hearing great things about it. For the first time, the Island dancers and musicians have a stable weekly venue. Paul himself is a musician, and he played fiddle for us most of the afternoon.
We found the pub in downtown historic Charlottetown on a bustling Sunday noon. The menu is similar to the one in Halifax, with special focus on the Island specialities of lamb and lobster. The food was lovely. Like its Halifax counterpart, the pub includes three rooms, Tigh an Cheol, Pourhouse and Snug. There's also a deck, which was very busy in the 25 degree weather, patrons comfortable under the shade of umbrellas. The Tigh an Cheol is set up for performing musicians, and the Snug features snugs (of course) with exquisite details. The Pourhouse is a beautifully-appointed upstairs room, available for renting, or for use on busier days. As in Halifax, dancers and musicians are made to feel at home, or more accurately, at work, by being granted the staff discount.
Playing for dancers is a relatively new tradition among the Island musicians, and they provided a spritely but moderate pace. Sets included the Plain and Skibbereen. An added pleasure was the vocal performance of a gentleman visiting from the province of New Brunswick, who sang an acappella solo, a moving rendition of I Can Almost See Ireland from Here.
Sunday evening's event was a house party at the place of Helen Gough and Gary Conboy. Helen is the teacher of the PEI dance group, the appropriately named Laban Rua (red soil). She and Gary live in a heavily-treed community near Charlottetown named Cornwall. Besides the usual suspects, other guests were members of Helen and Gary's ballroom dance class. Several of them tried Irish set dancing for the first time during the Island favourite, the Monaghan Set. They were paired up with experienced set dancers, and all went smoothly. The ballroom dancers quite enjoyed their new experience, and announced their intentions to try again.
Although Monday was the Victoria Day holiday, there's never anything official scheduled on that day, giving us leisurely time to go home and get ready for the week. After consolidating our friendships, we headed back home, under the bright blue sky.
Adele Megann, Halifax, Nova Scotia
We began our second annual Aranderg Set Dance Weekend on the Friday night, February 26th, with the sweet tunes of the Copperplate Ceili Band in the Melmount Centre, Strabane, Co Tyrone. There was a little fall of snow earlier but thankfully there were enough brave souls who didn't let the weather put them off. In the evening we were busy meeting and greeting all our friends who were booking into the Fir Trees Hotel.
On Saturday morning we began our set dancing classes with Frank and Bobby Keenan at 10.30am. We began with five sets and some more friends arrived on a bus from Kildare and Meath to add to the atmosphere. As ever with Frank, it was a most enjoyable workshop. Simultaneously, Kathleen and Michael McGlynn had sixteen sean nós dancers stepping it out. Kathleen explains it all so brilliantly and her students get so much from her classes. We stopped for tea and refreshments at 1pm and all classes resumed at 2. Everyone went for a siesta at around 5pm, taking the opportunity to build up our energy for later in the night.
At 7pm there was a brilliant music session in the hotel with our good friends from the Craic Group and some members of the Aranderg CCÉ and friends. At 9.30pm I left to prepare for the ceili while the music and dancing were still going on in the lobby of the hotel, much to everyone's enjoyment.
On Saturday night we had the pleasure of music by Brian Ború Ceili Band. There were about sixteen sets and yet lots of room for dancing in the Melmount Centre. Everybody enjoyed themselves dancing the night away. A small number of rebels returned to the hotel for some light refreshment and got locked out of their rooms until the early hours of the morning.
While many people took the opportunity to lie on in bed on Sunday morning, there were some with a spring in their step eagerly awaiting the two-hand dancing with Marie Garrity at 11am. We had between twenty-five and thirty people dancing and I had the pleasure of watching them glide effortlessly around the floor.
At 2pm we had the Copperplate Ceili Band on stage for the final ceili of the weekend. We had a lovely crowd present and as ever their music is so easy to dance to. Of course it's only fitting that a set dancing weekend in Tyrone would finish off with a very good Tyrone band.
On Sunday evening from 5.30 to 7.30pm we had some social dancing with Country Legends. Everybody had a very enjoyable weekend and God willing I look forward to seeing you all next year again.
Is mise le meas.
Liam Gallen, Castlederg, Co Tyrone
Twelve of the Glasgow crowd made their way to Gortahork, Co Donegal, by various means to attend the Féile Damhsa Gaelach weekend, 20-23 May. My wife Audrey and I and a fellow class member, Una, flew to Carrickfinn on Wednesday in glorious sunshine and then made our way to our borrowed house for the week. It may have been 22 degrees outside, but our very first turf fire was lit and sat in front of. Bliss. Two days of walks on the beach and picnics soon made way for dancing.
Thursday night was a mixed dance in the lounge of the hotel. We did some céilí, two-hand, old time and three figures of the Corofin Plain with two sets on the floor. We learned a new (to us) two-hand, the Stack of Barley.
Friday night brought Annaly Ceili Band to the stage and slight sound problems did not prevent a great night's dancing with sixteen sets on the floor. We did a Kilfenora, Cashel, Derradda, Labasheeda and Antrim Square before tea and a big spread of goodies. Full of sweet things we danced our second Corofin Plain, Connemara and finished with a Ballyvourney Jig Set. Hot and sweaty we headed late to bed.
We were up early for Pat Murphy's workshop. I had been hoping for a local dance to be taught and my wish was granted. We learned the Tory Island Lancers along with Victoria Jig, Borlin Jenny and Clare Orange and Green which I had last danced in Sydney where it is very popular.
Saturday's ceili was mighty. Brian Ború played for nineteen sets and we danced the Clare Orange and Green, Clare Lancers, Connemara, Newport, Kilfenora and Tory Island Lancers with more tea and goodies at half time. We finished with another Ballyvourney Jig Set. Is a new fashion being created?
Sunday brought another Pat Murphy workshop and the Drumgarriff Half-Set. Then the Copperplate Ceili Band played their usual brilliant selves and sixteen sets danced their socks off with the Caledonian, Cashel, Derradda and Labasheeda before tea and Connemara, Ballyvourney Jig and Plain to finish.
We had to leave before the final Plain Set to catch our flight, the only one danced that weekend and we had to miss it. Then, to our dismay our flight was delayed due to low cloud and we could have finished our weekend dancing.
We got home still smiling and got the washing on. From heaven in Donegal to hell in the utility room in Paisley in three hours. Ah well, It will soon be time for Willie Clancy.
I would like to thank the organisers of the weekend, Madge and her crew for a smooth event and Madge and Pat for their calling. We are latecomers to set dancing and still need a wee bit of help occasionally.
Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
PS I have been advised by the ladies that while I sweated, they only glowed!
No matter what the reason for visiting Sligo, it's worth whiling away some of your time at the grandiose Victorian Clarion Hotel. The experience can be relaxing in the extensive spa facilities, complete with large pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam room, gym and treatment area where massages, facials and aromatherapy are available. Or experience the adventure of trying to find your apartment (nearly all rooms are actually apartments, so you have an opportunity to self-cater) in this vast maze of corridors, lifts, numbers, doors-bring breadcrumbs. It's an XXL hotel!
The first year the 'Sligo maidens', Vera Meehan and Helen Kilgallen, put on a weekend (the current one from June 11 to 13 being the third) it was held in the Sligo Park Hotel, which proved too small. No worries now in that department.
Staff were ever so patient with helping lost clients. They even gave me a complimentary hydro-therapy session, not because I got lost, but because between us we had messed up the time for a massage. If ever you dwell at this hotel, the hydro is a must. Slippers, robe, towel at the ready, a massive high-tech computer-controlled bath tub, operating a few different programmes of massaging jets and spouts to work on your tired body, accompanied by music and ever-changing illumination, whisking you off to a futuristically different world-fascinating, as Mr Spock would put it!
Standing beside the main complex is a church easily recognized by the same stonework, done up inside to wedding reception standard, high-ceilinged, crowned with chandeliers, housing two bars, thick-tasselled custom-made brocade drapes framing the old ornate windows. Marvel at it as you enter, and dance, in magnificence. The heavy-set stone is of the light-grey coloured variety that says, "Trust me, I can manage mammoths on a rampage."
All the hotel buildings had once been a mental institution, housing people the state didn't know where else to put. Schizophrenics, people suffering from depression, people with autism or intellectual disabilities-in short, everyone that didn't fit inside the box. However crazy people are often highly intelligent-you have to be able to think and creatively imagine things outside that box to produce new, revolutionary, kaleidoscopic ideas; Einstein is said to have been autistic. Is the building haunted by its former use? Hopefully-in a positive way! The joke went round that the hotel was appropriately housing mad-in-varying-degrees set dancers.
The German ambassador plus entourage graced the Clarion at the same time, and two of that group stuck their heads in at one of the ceilis, looking at the dancing somewhat bewildered and wide-eyed, their forward tilting necks suggesting they almost wished to have the courage to try the dancing.
But one particular Irish lady didn't lack courage. I fell in love with her, or rather, with what was one of the most authentic people you could wish to meet. She had never before left her hometown, ever. I mean, never, not ever. This was her first trip to the 'wider' world. When asked how this was for her, she said that from now on, nothing would hold her back. She'd flown the cage.
West Limerick was out in force, a busload of them. There are animated comings and goings between Sligo and west Limerick, and have been for the past three years. Timmy Woulfe, a teacher from Athea, Co Limerick, said something that stayed with me. (He comes up with remarkable remarks-if you get a chance, talk to him and hear from a set dance professor some interesting stuff.) He wanted to invoke the "patron saint of hopelessness" when trying his hands and elbows at jiving with Ger Butler's class.
I don't know how much clout the patron saint of hopelessness had, but victory goes to the patron saint of repartee in the shape of our two mischievous organisers, Vera and Helen. Friends for years and years, they have the game off to a tee. Unfortunately for me, I often found myself at the receiving end of their banter-stick, presenting obviously an easy target. Seriously, I loved their interaction, loved watching their friendship in action, the ease with which they ran the weekend between them.
Where Vera holds sway,
Drama's not far away.
Skirts could be pulled down,
Better laugh and not frown!
De-robing's the slightest dismay.
This actually happened, almost, to a certain middle-
aged woman I know very well. Poor creature is
prone to fall into embarrassing situations. Thank
God I'm not like that, ahem.
Helen's a redneck from Skreen,
To be heard and surely to be seen.
The female answer for plight
To the shining-armour-knight
To the rescue, County Sligo queen!
Once, they went clothes shopping together. In the dressing rooms, Helen heard suddenly a low whinge, "Help! Help!" and recognized Vera's voice. Rushing to her aid, she found Vera stuck in a top she had tried on which was apparently far too small, as if she was wearing a straight-jacket-holy divinity!
Anyhow, this is their third year running a weekend, and Helen and Vera have gotten very good at it. Nothing was left to chance. They served drinks to the musicians, manned (womanned) the door, taking turns with their other female staff, danced nonstop, even at the sessions, played music, maintained good working relations with the hotel, talked to everybody and greeted and included people. They were on deck obstinately, fair dues to them!
Invoking and waking the spirit of dance and music, a session with Vera playing the tin whistle, Padraic Corcoran (bodhrán and singing), Catherine O'Donovan (box, only started three years ago), Maria Keaney and Eugene Cullen (flutes) and a few early birds doing the Back-to-Back Hornpipe, the flow started Friday evening, and I felt myself at the same time lying back and leaning forward and into this timeless stream. All weekend through, we danced high and low. There was dancing at the many sessions. There were the ceilis and workshops. Meeting untamed people (ie Kathleen Martyn, from near Boyle, with sexy white hair, who claims she is 'try-sexual'-she tries everything when asked whether she dances the man or the woman) and talking (to Chris Conroy from Mayo who shone like a diamond with her new avant-garde hair style, Tasmanian tiger meets the three little pigs) and concentrating (to catch the verses from Tubbercurry mega-storyteller Joe Coscadden) and admiring (for instance, young sean nós dancer and tin whistle player Colm McCormick, just brill). And all this was followed by the Annaly Ceili Band playing Irish trad music at its most clean-cut and compressed.
Mr Nice 'n' Easy himself, Ger Butler, taught a Saturday morning workshop, sets and two-hands, (another chance to do the Polly Glide) and out came the flamenco shoes. They are actually red with black polka dots, and shaped quite like the standard set dancing shoes. Fancy, fancy. Wanna wear something different? You can get them in Spain or the Canaries, if ever you're out there, for a tenner.
After another session (Timmy O'Connor from Cork on the accordion) the Copperplate hauled in the music for the Saturday night ceili. There was definitely a friskiness in the musical air, which found physical expression in two bag ladies. Well, two ladies with bags, enormous shoulder bags. For some reason beknownst only to themselves, they kept the bags with them hanging from their shoulders, constantly adjusting them when they slipped down, as the two ladies laughed and tried to waltz with each other. The second day closed to a fair moon hovering above the illuminated church-fait accompli.
Musically, on Sunday the real McCoy was present, embodied in young Nigel Davey on box from the Davey Ceili Band and stand-in Johnny Duffy on banjo. Johnny added oomph to the alive and kicking art of Nigel. I loved the energy that developed between them, and frequently turned my head this way and that, so that while dancing I could still see what was going on. New tunes, and new sets. Timmy called the West Kerry and I danced it while reflecting on the power of the dance. It's therapy alright and can help to invoke healing for any number of ailments, particularly psychological ones. I thought back to a moment earlier in the day when I was lazing in the jacuzzi, gazing into the blue painted waters, and was struck by the movement of the bubbles, the thrust and drive of them surfacing, and poof! They're gone. Their story is like an allegory to the dancing we so love. In a bath (the space of a set), the fury (speed of dancing) in the zigzagging bubbles is determined by the power of the jets (the music). And without people like Helen and Vera, who take it upon themselves to coordinate a weekend of dancing, I'd struggle to find something similar. Maybe there isn't. Maybe this is it! And I found it again, in Sligo!
Many thanks to you both, Vera and Helen. Helen deserves a special thanks for driving me into town on Saturday morning to buy swimwear I had forgotten. "No problem," says she, "I will bring you into town." Where on earth she found the space and time to do this, God only knows. And Vera, a special thanks for teaching me a tune on the tin whistle. Together, both of them constitute multitasking women at their profuse best.
Nestling beneath the historic Rock, the market town of Cashel throbbed with music and dancing on the weekend of 11-13 June. Halla na Féile, the community centre, was once more home to the Connie Ryan Gathering. Crowds thronged to the celebration of the late Connie Ryan, one of the world's heroes of set dancing. Connie was born and reared in the nearby village of Clonoulty and sadly died in May 1997. During his life he revived set dancing all over the world and trolled the length and breadth of Ireland seeking and teaching sets.
County Cork musicians Ger Murphy and Ken Cotter played superb music for the first ceili of the weekend. Club secretary Bridget O'Gorman, welcomed everyone. She spoke of Connie Ryan and his love of dancing. "I am sure he is watching over us this weekend," she said. She commented that it was evident that we were all having a wonderful time dancing and declared the festival officially open.
Thurles dancing master Michael Loughnane, lifelong friend of Connie Ryan, was our MC for the night. We danced a variety of sets, most of the old favourites including the Cashel Set. Two of the more recent introductions to the mainstream of set dancing, the Antrim Square and Moycullen, also got aired. Midway through the ceili we were treated to tea and fabulous confectionary. Tipperary water tanks and beakers got plenty of use as temperatures rose and the craic and dancing went on until 1am.
Saturday morning at 10.30am we had our first workshop of the weekend. Magical tutors Pádraig and Róisín McEneany from Co Louth taught the Caragh Lake Set. I remember dancing it at ceilis in Thurles about ten years ago. It has seven figures and possibly lost popularity because of its length. It behoves those of us organising ceilis and calling and teaching sets to keep these old sets alive. The morning workshop flew by as we enjoyed this old Kerry set.
We were spoiled for choice when it came to lunch. Numerous restaurants all offering sumptuous food and a brilliant selection greeted us.
After lunch Pádraig and Róisín taught the Armagh Set, another set that is rarely danced. Pádraig is originally from Co Armagh. After a short break for tea and cream buns, the class resumed with the Boyne Set. Pádraig and Róisín are very skilled teachers. Attention to detail is high on their agenda coupled with enjoyment and friendship. We had a delightful time dancing all afternoon.
The anniversary Mass for Connie Ryan was held in St John the Baptist Church in Cashel at 6.30pm. Dancers, family and friends gathered to give thanks for the legacy of dancing that Connie has left to us.
Saturday night's ceili got underway at 10pm. We danced to the Abbey Ceili Band. This band has truly earned their reputation of one of the best Co Cork ceili bands of all time. More Tipperary water was consumed as we stepped it out for nearly four hours. Our MC tonight was Jim Doyle. His clarity of calling and humorous remarks gave a homely atmosphere to a wonderful night. Pádraig McEneany called the Caragh Lake Set from the morning class. Bronagh Murphy, fondly known as Miss Waterford, called the Sliabh Fraoch Set. Of course we had a break for more tea and goodies. The final set of the night was the Plain and I slipped away while my legs were still able to carry me to my car.
The farewell ceili on Sunday afternoon was thronged. Dancers seemed to have acquired new energy for the magic that is the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band. Jim Doyle as MC kept us all beating the floor from 2pm to almost 6pm. Consuming more tea and cream buns at the short break gave us time to get our breath back. Jim Doyle on behalf of the committee thanked everyone for attending the festival. This weekend is one of the highlights of my dancing diary each year. The festival is organised and run by a small local committee and testament to their commitment, skill and time is the professional and exciting weekend festival we enjoy each year.
Joan Pollard Carew
May I please express our deep gratitude to the most welcoming and hospitable group of set dancers we met, during our ten-day stay, May 10th-24th, in New York. To say we were overwhelmed by the hospitality extended to us, by people we met for the first time, is putting it mildly. We set out on an adventure, staying in mid-Manhattan, and commuting by subway, metro, taxi and bus to the usual highlights of the Big Apple, as well as to four ceilis and a class.
Our first encounter with New York dancers was at the dynamic Maura Mulligan's ceili and two-hand class at 72nd Street the evening we arrived. Next evening we were invited to a dinner in New York Irish Center in Long Island City to be welcomed by Maureen Donachie. There we met the "incomparable facilitator" Jack Regan, whom we met in March at the west Limerick weekend. The ceili of ten sets and the High-Cauled Cap got under way at 8pm, with wonderful music by Ceol na gCroí Ceili Band. We were welcomed enthusiastically and had a wonderful night.
Next day we headed for Bogota in New Jersey where, after some difficulty in locating our venue, we had once again a brilliant ceili with the Pride of Moyvane Ceili Band, which included Margie Mulvihill from Aughrim, Moyvane, Co Kerry. It was here that we met Peggie and Brendan, Jim and Marcella, Bridie and Jon, Lily, Maureen and Gerry, Dan and many others. Each and everyone of these dancers welcomed us wholeheartedly. May I add that they loved my husband John's style of steps! Again the menu of ten sets was delightfully varied.
During the week we did the usual sightseeing, plus a trip to Amish country and to Mamma Mia in Broadway as well as meeting friends. The weekend crept up rapidly once again and Friday night found us at the Pearl River ceili, thirty miles away, in West Nyack, New York, courtesy of our new set dancing friends. Here we met many from the previous ceilis as well as some new faces. As it was run in conjunction with the Comhaltas Mid-Atlantic Fleadh, there was a plethora of fantastic musicians on stage. Again a super night, with a mouth-watering array of food, all supplied by enthusiastic patrons. This is the norm at every ceili.
Our final ceili was upstate in Fishkill, New York, where I won a raffle prize. This small tight-knit set dancing community runs a great monthly ceili, where all sets are called. The High-Cauled Cap was danced everywhere.
Unfortunately our short stay did not allow us to attend the Yonkers ceili at the highly acclaimed Kerry Society Hall or Jack Regan's renowned strawberry ceili in Rockaway, New Jersey, or Eileen O'Shea's class in Queens. However, we had a most fulfilling and exciting trip, with much credit due to friends, neighbours and especially our new set dancing friends for ensuring it was so memorable for us.
Noreen O'Connell, Listowel, Co Kerry
The second annual Oisín House Set Weekend, Killeshin, Co Laois, started on Friday 2nd July with music by Longford's Annaly Ceili Band. The trio accompanied us through three of the four provinces as we danced the Mazurka, Moycullen, Connemara, Black Valley, Clare Lancers, Ballyvourney Jig, Labasheeda, Ballyduff and Plain sets. This was a return visit from Seán, Brendan and Seán and the dancers were full of praise for their tunes and timing.
On Saturday morning Frank and Bobbie Keenan started the first of their two workshops with the lovely six-figured Allow Set, called after the river near Kanturk, Co Cork, not after the band! Frank said it would be nice to dance the Allow Set by the banks of the Allow River to the music of the Allow Ceili Band. This was the first workshop experience for some of our dancers and what a wonderful introduction to workshops they had as Frank and Bobbie, with their usual patient and gentle style, got us through the Allow in the morning and the Boyne in the afternoon. Bobby got the notes for the Allow Set from her grandmother's collection of sets and songs. I hope this set of three jigs and a reel, slide and hornpipe is taught around the world as I think it would become popular at céilithe. Frank took time to show us the particular jig steps used in this set and it looked like we all managed the "up and up."
Weekend organiser Eddie Whelan had not only arranged a picnic for all workshop attendees but also ensured that the sun was shining as we ate our goodies al fresco and tried to pick out the six counties that can be seen from Oisín Park.
Frank credited Seamus Ó Méalóid with introducing the Boyne Set. This is a great four-figured set of three reels and a jig and I particularly like how the ladies move on to the next gent in the social figure.
Saturday night's music was provided by terrific Tim Joe O'Riordan and mighty Mort Kelleher and what a treat it was to dance to their music. In their honour we started the night's dancing with the Ballyvourney Reel Set. Frank called the Boyne Set and we had great fun with the little Christmas in the second figure. John Sheehan called the South Galway and I did my best to memorise it as I knew I would dance it a few times during the Willie Clancy week. We danced a nice variety of sets including the Newport, North Kerry, Kilfenora, Black Valley and Plain. As the band played some quicksteps, Johnny Brennan wowed us with his wonderful voice. A special treat was also in store for us as Joan O'Connor entertained us with two lovely songs and you could have heard a pin drop as we listened to her.
Maureen Culleton's two-hand workshop on Sunday morning started with a most appropiately named dance. Rogha an Fhile is not only the name of a lovely two-hander danced to hornpipes, but also the name of an anthology of poetry by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, who lived nearby in Maganey and after whom the local gaelscoil is named. We went on to learn the French Barn Dance, a nice progressive dance with three figures; the Hesitation Waltz, not forgetting the bow; the Lilac Waltz; the Marine Four-Step, danced to jigs and including a little kick; the Honeymoon Parade; the Dinky One-Step; and the one that nearly sent me to the home for the bewildered, the Bossa Nova! Thanks to Maureen's gentle encouraging teaching manner and my partner's patience (thanks Jennifer) I finally (almost) got it and left the workshop with a sense of achievement. It is easy to see why Maureen's two-hand workshops are so popular as she gets through so many dances with no bother and plenty of fun.
The weekend finished with a Sunday afternoon ceili with Danny Webster. Our furthest visitors came from Ulster for their second visit to Oisín House and it was great to see them again. We had a lovely mixture of sets and John again called the South Galway, for which I was very grateful. Maureen got us through some two-hand dances and there were smiles all around as even people who were not at the workshop were able to follow her instructions. At the break Danny's wife Mary Webster was presented with a cake baked by John Ryan and flowers to celebrate her "21st" birthday.
Eddie Whelan would like to thank all the callers, musicians, singers and helpers for contributing to making this such an enjoyable weekend.
Hilary Nic Íomhair
The spacious Millennium Hall in the village of Caherconlish, Co Limerick, was the venue for a charity ceili on Sunday 23rd May. The organisers of the ceili were John and Kathleen Roche and their family. John welcomed everyone and said how delighted he was with the numbers who had turned up for the ceili on such a warm sunny day.
The Five Counties Ceili Band played superb music for the afternoon. Mid-way through the ceili we were treated to sumptuous confectionary with tea and coffee aplenty. We had a birthday celebration and cake for Róisín, John and Kathleen's youngest daughter.
The recipient of the ceili proceeds was the well-deserving Milford Hospice in Co Limerick. Sister Phyllis from the Milford Hospice addressed the dancers and said she was very grateful to John and Kathleen for raising these much needed funds. "At the hospice we strive to ensure that the people in our care are as pain free and as dignified as possible," she said. Concluding, she said, "I am amazed at the energies of all you dancers."
John thanked everyone once more and paid tribute to his wife Kathleen who had sold a large number of tickets locally. He also thanked the West Limerick Set Dancing Club for their contribution of €200. He said the local shops had been very generous with the spot prizes. Thanking the hall committee, he congratulated them on their beautiful venue.
I spoke to John just before writing this piece and he was delighted to tell me that the funds raised from the ceili for Milford Hospice were a mighty €1660.
Joan Pollard Carew
Armagh is a city of churches-nearly anywhere you go in the city and its surroundings you'll see a church. Dominating the skyline are two cathedrals dedicated to St Patrick, who based himself and his mission to convert Ireland to Christianity here circa the year 445. He built a large church atop one of the city's two hills, and today the plain, sombre Church of Ireland cathedral stands on the same site. The Catholic cathedral was built on the second hilltop during the Victorian era in an elaborate and highly decorated Gothic style. Both are approached from the city below by impressive climbs-up a steep cobblestone plaza to the C of I cathedral, and by mounting a long, tiered staircase to the Catholic cathedral. Both are the seats of their respective archbishops of Ireland.
I visited Armagh for what was probably its first weekend of set dancing, June 11 to 13, in the Armagh City Hotel, and from my room there I had a compelling view over the city centre which grabbed my attention as soon as I arrived on Friday afternoon. I took a walk around the streets and visited both cathedrals, and was knocked out by the stunning interior of the Catholic cathedral, which is lavishly decorated from floor to soaring ceiling. The full height of every wall is covered in colourful, ornamental mosaics, with dozens of illustrations of saints and angels. Sculptures abound inside and out.
A set dancing couple encountered visiting the cathedral commented that Armagh had churches the way towns south of the border have pubs. They were researching the times for Masses and when they got back to the hotel learned they could attend Mass in a small church just across the road. And such was the top notch organisation of the set dancing weekend that there was no need to leave the premises at all-Mass was offered in one of the hotel bars on Saturday evening.
Back in the hotel after my wanderings, the lobby was buzzing with people checking in and chatting at the busy café there. For an hour before the ceili there was a session, but this was not just any session-it featured the full Striolán Ceili Band visiting from far distant Sliabh Luachra. They were resident all weekend, playing their crisp clear music before each ceili and long into the next morning. Dancers took full advantage of them to dance sets as late as 4am.
A ballroom was installed for the weekend in part of a vast conference centre on the lower ground floor. The room was generously spacious and had what must be the largest custom-built temporary dance floor I've ever encountered. Plywood panels filled the hall nearly from wall to wall, expertly assembled by a dancer from Clare, smooth and even with a comfortable spring and slide. To give a big launch to the weekend at its first ceili, Johnny Reidy came all the way from Co Kerry for a taste of music seldom heard this far north. Nevertheless, his fan base is strong here and he smiled for cameras with many ladies before the ceili. From the first Corofin Set to the final Connemara there was thorough enjoyment and probably as many as 25 sets of dancers filling the floor. With such high energy dancing there was great demand for the jugs of water placed at the back of the hall. Hotel staff responded by promptly filling empty jugs and so strong was the consumption that more were brought out for each table around the floor. The ceili ended all too soon, but fortunately the Striolán Ceili Band was back in full swing in the lobby for the next couple of hours.
The Armagh Set was the ideal way for Pat Murphy to begin the Saturday workshop, and nine or more sets of dancers seemed to agree. We danced the Loughgraney Set just before and after the lunch break. Pat then showed us the Meelin Victoria Set from Co Cork, which has been neglected over the years, he said. It shares characteristics of other jig sets from Cork without the record-breaking long figures found in some of them. We moved through it quickly. Pat then honoured a request for the Boyne Set, to prepare us for dancing it at the Saturday night ceili. A few spare minutes before the scheduled end of the workshop was all that Pat needed to show us the Margaret Waltz, a progressive waltz for two couples.
Surveillance cameras in the ballroom ceiling were turned into "ceili-cams" at the Saturday night ceili. Two huge screens on either side of the stage broadcast live birds' eye views of dancers. I thought it might be a distraction but once we began dancing I hardly noticed, though it was nice to be able to wave to myself between figures. Occupying the stage were Brian Ború Ceili Band in dynamic form. We danced our regular favourites to calling by Thérèse McConnon, our resident weekend caller from Co Monaghan, and the Armagh and Derradda sets to instructions by Pat Murphy. During our breaks the hotel kindly supplied self-service dispensers of tea and coffee, which thirsty dancers drained. The Galmoy Set Dancers visiting from counties Laois and Kilkenny danced their entertaining version of the Slate Quarry Lancers. The hornpipe was a joy to watch as each gent danced around the house with every lady; at the end he tossed her away with such force that the receiving gent stumbled back a few feet with her. After the ceili ended with a Plain Set, the Striolán were only just getting warmed up in the lobby for the late night session of music, song and dance.
On Sunday morning Pat taught us a set which he said hadn't been danced for around fifteen years-the Kilkenny Quadrilles. It was a short, easy little half set, with the final fifth figure danced in a full set. As I danced it I thought it would be nice to do in a full set with tops and sides taking turns and coming together in the last figure, as in the Ballyvourney Jig. Pat continued with a selection of two-hand dances, the first of which was the Waltz of the Arms, or La Valse des Bras. This is a couple dance from France which was suggested to Pat by James Barron from Co Down, and Pat actually learned it from a YouTube video. We danced it to recorded music by Melissa Gallant from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and it was a delight. Pat then taught a rather more complicated Bossa Nova and finished with the uncomplicated Veleta Waltz.
I'd been hoping for good weather for the afternoon ceili, which was promised to take place outdoors if weather permitted. The large bar on the ground floor of the hotel has an even larger outdoor deck, apparently made of timber. It would have served well for the ceili, but light rain in the afternoon persuaded the Copperplate Ceili Band to set up in the ballroom. They happily played music there all afternoon, we were awfully pleased to have a chance to dance with them and generated our own imaginary sunshine. It was just as well, because a heavy downpour materialised after the break. In addition to the popular favourites such as the Corofin, Connemara, Claddagh and even Antrim Square, we finally had a chance to dance the promised Boyne Set this afternoon. Following words of appreciation and thanks from organiser Brian McCormack, we concluded the weekend with the good ol' Plain Set.
Farewells were bid to friends and partners, new and old, and to the friendly little city of churches.
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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