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).
To further the frontiers of set dancing to
various localities and pastures new
Followers of this tradition should endeavour and strive their best to do.
One such story I will now relate,
Sunday October the 10th was the date.
The Heritage Hall in Wotton-under-Edge was the venue.
It was their first workshop and ceili, which we hope will now continue.
Wotton-under-Edge is a Gloucestershire town of panoramic beauty and scenic delight,
And rolling hills left and right.
Situated in the southern end of the Cotswold Way,
It is a town that tourists visit every day.
However to view the sights we were not there at all,
Instead our rendezvous was the Heritage Hall.
The workshop was scheduled to start after ten.
It was attended by an almost equal number of women and men.
Maggie Daniel was the dance teacher and caller too.
She soon organised the class without any ado.
She is a lady from Devon who teaches the steps in a style that is easy and free.
Soon the beginners had mastered the one-two-three.
The art of swing, house and dance on the spot,
By break time they had mastered the lot.
Lead around and square the floor
The Black Valley Jig Set she taught and some more.
County Clare she did not forget—
She also taught the Kilfenora Set.
Soon it was time for that midday break.
We visited a local pub for some sustenance to partake.
For the afternoon ceili we were now energised and ready to go.
The music that afternoon was far from slow.
The Polka Dots were the band and their music was of the best,
The stamina of the dancers they put to the test.
The experienced dancers and the beginners blended together—
Dare I say so sometimes it was hard to tell one from the other?
House around, slide and change, house again, and with the previous continue,
The Sliabh Luachra Set was also in the menu.
The Mazurka Set with its tricky highgates we also danced,
Whether to open or close them I can never tell.
I don’t dance it very often, it is just as well.
Tom Dee from County Kerry gave a sean nós dancing display.
He is over seventy and doesn’t look a day.
Michael Flatley look out, you had your chance,
When it comes to the hornpipe Tom is lord of the dance.
By now it was getting close to the end of the day.
Some more sets we danced before homeward we made our way.
I don’t have much more left to say,
Only thank Sue and Pete for organising the day.
It took a lot of effort and also time,
And that’s the finish of my little rhyme.
Sheamus Garry, Bristol, England
In August 2009, Jim Monaghan ran a workshop for us at Trévou Tréguignec, and we had the great surprise of meeting a good number of Irish friends who had joined him, among them a dozen young girls. We were so happy to have them that we decided to have a few of them back this year, on the last weekend of July, in Trégastel.
They all flew to Brittany, about twenty of them, some of whom were young dancers with their parents. The youngest girl was just eight! Catriona Lott, their Irish dance teacher, organised everything for their visit, raising funds to help finance part of the trip. We were also delighted to meet the musicians of the Sean Norman Ceili Band, who shared their skills with the local musicians attending the music workshop, and of course played on stage for the ceilis! Mary Gilsenan, a dancer from one of Jim’s classes in Ireland, also took part in the workshops.
No sooner had they arrived on the big coach than they began performing at the seaside festival in Ploumanac’h, the Sean Norman Ceili Band playing on stage while the young Irish girls danced outdoors. Meanwhile, Jim was already involved in a workshop for kids at the community centre in Trégastel, where most events were taking place. Children and young people enjoyed that friendly and warm time spent together. Then, an hour or so later, Jim was on his feet again to run a beginners’ set dancing workshop, followed by a casual dinner and a night in a pub with our local band, the Tregor Gaelic Ceili Band. “Never again,” they must have thought, exhausted as they were! Next time, time to relax first.
On Saturday and Sunday, the young girls and Catriona taught and showed participants (children, teenagers and adults) how to practice their steps. They were so good at it that people want more next year! Meanwhile, Jim taught set dancing for two days, with a pinch of sean nós and of course, the brush dance he loves so much. The Sean Norman Ceili Band musicians shared some of their music and tricks with a few musicians who were interested in learning some tips and style.
Saturday night had great moments of warmth and fun. After a well appreciated Guinness beef stew, the night included a dance by parents and children led by Jim, a presentation by the young Irish dancers, a brush dance with Jim and some participants, sean nós by Jim, and of course, the traditional cup of tea with cakes made by a few friends of our group. The two ceili bands, Tregor Gaelic and Sean Norman, played in turn, conveying a good happy feeling for the whole night. The next day, as the sun was with us, Jim, another Irish dance teacher and the Irish girls gave an outdoor performance to the delight of people who had gathered on the seafront. And finally, after a good meal offered by a holiday centre, the final night took place in the centre’s converted chapel, with a great finishing touch by Sean and his lilting.
Thank you so much to all the participants! We intend to do it again next summer in mid-August and we hope that more Irish people will join us!
Dany O’Neill, Perros-Guirec, France
In August a group of young dancers from my sean nós dancing classes in Carrick-on-Shannon encouraged me to enter RTÉ’s All Ireland Talent Show and follow in the success of other sean nós dancers the show had found. I thought to myself, why enter just myself when I could enter a group of sean nós dancers from my class, something Dáithí Ó Sé has never had before to represent the West! I gathered eight dancers from my class and along with my boyfriend, Michael O’Rourke, and we began planning routines that we hoped would impress the judges. Little did we know a huge, exciting adventure of fun and friendship was all ahead of us.
After practicing for hours upon hours in St Mary’s Hall in Carrick-on-Shannon, we set out to our first auditions in Galway city. We called ourselves Sean Nós ar an tSionann. Over 2,000 acts auditioned that day and only forty qualified to attend the next round of auditions. We were one of those lucky acts. Families and us ecstatic, we headed back home and back to the drawing board for the next audition. Parents rallied together to organise costumes, shoes, accommodation and travel, and before we knew it, four weeks had passed and on the 25th of September the next round was upon us. We arrived at Griffith College in Dublin at 8am with sleepy, nervous and excited heads on us! We knew we had three judges to impress and it wasn’t going to be easy. We had a great advantage though—the dancers in Sean Nós ar an tSionann are from Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon, with a blow in from Kerry. We truly are representing the West!
After meeting lots of others acts and making lots of friends, our number was called to come before Dáithí Ó Sé and two other judges. Cameras all over the room and zooming around us we danced our best performance. The judges told us to come back tomorrow. We went on to make it to the final sixteen acts but Dáithí could only pick eight acts to represent the West. We knew we were up against tough acts so we really had to convince Dáithí that we are the most talented act in Ireland. We told him Kerry didn’t bring home the silverware for him this year but Sean Nós ar an tSionann will bring it home to the West!
The tension in the room was at an all time high. I thought Dáithí was never going to give his verdict. As I looked around at my group, some were nervous, some shaking slightly with their fingers crossed, others grinning crazily at Dáithí, willing him to pick us. And finally the words came—“Sean Nós ar an tSionann are going to represent the West!” Through jumps, screams, thank-yous and shouts of joy we raced out to where the parents and family all waited for the news. We nearly knocked them over we came in the door so fast running towards them and with tears of joy, cuddles and kisses we all celebrated our achievement.
I am every bit as proud of my group as the parents are of their children. They are a fantastic group to work with. Our dance practices never feel like work to me; we always have lots of fun and laughs and even though we range in age from 8 to 26, we are all the best of friends.
We told Dáithí Ó Sé we won’t let him down and our supporters won’t let him down either. So please text your vote for Sean Nós ar an Sionann when we appear on the live shows on RTÉ on Friday 31st December. We want to make our dancing friends, towns, counties and the West proud.
A box player and a set dancer were joined in matrimony when Ger Murphy of the Abbey Ceili Band married Moira Skehan. The ceremony took place at Moycarkey Church outside Thurles, Co Tipperary, on July 23rd, and the reception was held in Dundrum House near Tipperary town. The celebrations lasted for the full weekend.
Best wishes to Ger and Moira!
Pat (Pakie) O’Hanlon’s life ended suddenly in Labasheeda, Co Clare, the place of his birth, on Saturday September 4th. Pat had made his annual trip home for the Dan Furey Weekend and was busying himself enjoying the dancing, chatting to neighbours and friends and attending local football championship matches prior to his sudden death at the ceili on Saturday night.
Pat’s love of all things Irish travelled with him wherever he went. In his young days in Labasheeda he was a noted goalkeeper and he anchored the Shannon Gaels junior football championship winning team of 1959. Pat was also an accomplished accordion player performing at house parties in the locality and later on in sessions and on stage in London where he lived for many years. He played football there also with Seán McDermott’s and became an administrator in the club.
While in England he met his beloved wife Margaret and in the mid-nineties they retired to Fermoy, Co Cork, Margaret’s home place. Pat again became immersed in many community activities and was particularly associated with Fermoy GAA Club where he worked in administration and coaching underage teams with great success. The esteem in which he was held in Fermoy was very evident at his funeral. Huge crowds were in attendance and an impressive guard of honour was provided by the GAA club.
Pat’s good natured ways were particularly admired by all, as was the great care and attention he showed Margaret, especially through her illnesses. We offer our sympathies to Margaret and to his sister Anna Marie. Pat’s life, well spent, should be an example to us all and he is sadly missed.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.
Liam Woulfe, Labasheeda, Co Clare
She worked hard for the first half of this year. For years, Ane Luise Madsen had been coming to Ireland, but now, being a student, it wasn’t easy to get the money together. Buying clothes was out. Holidays were off the menu. Anything, but saving for a backpack trip to Ireland in the summer. Ane Luise is one of those amazing people who heels over head taps it out to traditional music, who revels in dancing, who is unable to wipe that smile off her face when in the set dance zone. Consequently all things to do with that interest her—sean nós, trad music and where best to buy dancing shoes. And that is not easy either if you are a tall girl, just over six foot. Someone at the summer school immediately asked her, even before he knew her name, whether she played basketball? In and around that incident, the nickname “Great Dane” was born. Not that she would mind. She’s cool in a Danish kinda way. She stumbles a lot, slips, slides, but then lands on her feet and finds people willing to drive her and take her in. A Danish girl on her own, hitchhiking it through Ireland? That pulls all the right strings with me, and we jump into action.
So she had her private chauffeur lined up for her impending week in Drumshanbo for what was their 22nd year of the Joe Mooney Summer School, July 17–24. Coming up from Cork by bus, she was to meet with her chauffeur at a filling station, and, both waiting, finally met after finding out that they were not at the same filling station. She also had accommodation lined up thanks to a generous lad in Carrick-on-Shannon who took her and the chauffeur in for the week. The chauffeur also proved a good guide to introduce her to people. A few from Glasgow, dancers from Westport, people from France, Russia, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Australia. By the way, the Russian girls are deadly dancers, most easy to bring around, picking up things on the double, light on their feet. The same is true for the Great Dane. She is able to learn sean nós steps in quick time, really disgustingly fast, and she only started learning it a year and a half ago. Maybe it’s that she is not a bit intimidated, but open and experimental about it.
She also met loads of Irish and local people, like some of the organisers of the summer school. Nancy Woods, one of the summer school’s mainstays, told of how the summer school evolved to what it has become over the years, with changes at the moment in the committee personnel. Young Aoife Heeran for example is now a member, and being only sweet sixteen, you can be sure that she’ll bring in fresh ideas and hopefully more and more young people.
It is impossible to pinpoint exactly how the “Great Dane” nickname came about. “Scooby-Doo” was added and is also a goer, but “Great Dane” seems to have stuck like superglue, and in true Ane Luise fashion, she laughs and falls down some ditch. How can someone be so elegant when dancing, and so clumsy walking? Well, you can watch her in Longford next, so figure it out for yourself!
Ane Luise thought the world of Drumshanbo, listing her favourite features as she was sitting outside the Ramada Hotel, sipping coffee and chewing one sugar cube after the other. The atmosphere; the craic with people, so different to how the Danish are with each other; and meeting lovely guys like Pat Murphy, the gentleman, Ger Butler, the charmer. Janice Ward, teacher of two-hand dances, was able to convince the Great Dane that they are worthwhile trying. Ane Luise marched into her workshop with an ice cream, and halfway through the class spiced things up by shaking booty doing the Caribbean Calypso. Bossa Nova? Show her once, and she’s got it. Tiara Tango? Anniversary Waltz? Not a bother!
Another remarkable class for her was sean nós with Rónan Regan, whose different approach suited Ane, and she couldn’t stop practising the steps. Heel toe toe, heel toe toe, and shuffle shuffle down! Gerard Butler taught her a step that the Devane brothers from Connemara do, which looks real cool. She practised with her friend until the small hours, welcoming the rising sun, the only step that she would actually have needed to practice. Another night, she was engrossed watching television clips featuring Willie Keane and Dan Furey, the Oireachtas sean nós competitions and various bits from the old RTÉ trad programme, The Pure Drop.
Again, a new day, a new dawn, before she found her way into bed, just to be up and ready again for a morning workshop in sets with erudite Pat Murphy. In these classes, she got a chance to try out sets she hadn’t danced before, for instance, the north Mayo Tyrawley Set, three figures, jigs, polkas and reels, similar in make-up to many Mayo sets, but most like the Derradda. She bore witness to and was astonished by the video recordings of the sets that Pat Murphy always takes during the set dance classes of the Joe Mooney Summer School.
In Denmark, she wouldn’t get a ceili every day, or every week, or every month. Neither would she be able to go to workshops all the time, or soak up the atmosphere of an Irish session, drink Bulmers pear cider, talk shop with like-minded people, speak English all the time or watch dancing on the telly, meet all the bigwigs in set dancing or find set dance safety in huge numbers. Coming to Ireland is extra special to her, like so many other dancers and musicians from other countries, and Drumshanbo rings a particular bell. Here, the timelessness of what encapsulates Irishness can be still experienced. Generous charm and helpfulness, old-worldly get-togethers, stories told and tunes idly announcing all that is generically good about Éire. And it is thus being preserved as well by the many that come hither from abroad, continued and honoured in all their home countries. The Joe Mooney Summer School is probably the most welcoming in this respect. The Great Dane knows and feels this. She can immerse herself here in these musical dancing waters and float on top. Drumshanbo provides authenticity because it isn’t trying to be authentic. It just is.
One morning, she danced the Clare Orange and Green in class with a set full of funny people. And coincidently, one of them happened to be the mother of well-known dance teacher Patrick O’Dea’s, Mary O’Dea, and another his sister, Karen Feerick. Later on, Patrick’s nephew, Daniel Feerick, nine years old, did a bit of a brush dance at the break. Ane Luise co-organises the Copenhagen workshop weekends, and Patrick has been there to teach more than once, and she couldn’t believe her luck in meeting some of his family.
Pat Murphy gave a little hint for dancing the contrary correctly in the Orange and Green for the Great Dane to bring back to Denmark for her teaching. As the gent and lady go under the arch of the contrary, it helps things along if the gent holds the lady’s hand close to his heart. It was tried, and Ane Luise thought it a good tip, just that her useless dancing partner more often than not forgot to do it!
And then there were nights full of sessions. For her, it’s like Christmas and birthday thrown together—so much dancing, so much music, tentacles reaching out and grabbing her heart! One night, Brendan Doyle and Johnny Duffy, formerly of the Lough Ree Ceili Band, played outside on the high street, and a set was danced. Joining the dancers were Edwina Guckian and Michael O’Rourke, and Ane kept saying, “Oh my god, I am dancing with them in a set, wow!” Mesmerized by their footwork she was. Spellbound by the music. And then her sandal strap broke, she took her shoes off, and danced in her socks on the concrete that appeared littered with glass. Everybody quickly tried to flick the splinters away, and leading such a charmed life in Drumshanbo, she got away with it. Yes, you guessed it, she is slightly mad, so she fits right in.
She also secured herself an invitation to a barbecue hosted by Jim and Catherine Curren. Catherine is part of the furniture of the summer school and dances in the demo sets for the week with Pat. Ane Luise was up for all the craic, trying to ride a wacky bike. Turn handlebar left to go right, just like the cross chain in the Claddagh Set. Back in Copenhagen, she rides her bike everywhere and anytime, even through inches of snow in the winter. So she thought she could conquer this easily. Ha! She didn’t. This beat even the Great Dane. It had to be a little old Irish wacko bike to move Denmark.
On the Thursday night there is no ceili in Drumshanbo, but a concert, so she, having to move, decided to join two others to go to Mildred Beirne’s ceili in Castlerea, Co Roscommon, to see the Glenside Ceili Band. Mildred is an experience in and of herself, and the two of them dancing together resembled chalk in a ballroom gown with highest heels and cheese in denims. A bunch of holidaying Chernobyl children added colour and esprit, and Ane Luise looked on as they were taken out to dance the Siege of Ennis, big big smiles suddenly on little faces otherwise subdued.
In total, all the ceilis were a wondrous treat for the Great Dane. Any dancing partner that she had lined up had no problem finding her, and dancing with her is also not a problem, because she does it beautifully and light-footed, shoes on or off. And all the ceili bands, a different one each night of the week! The variety stretched from the trad trad trad Annally (“real music,” according to Marie Garrity) through Heather Breeze (no better CD to use in class, and they are seldom heard now beyond the realms of County Mayo), the Copperplate (oh so popular, they pop up everywhere), Swallow’s Tail (the mighty) and the Glenside (fast, inviting music, surprising Ane Luise with new tunes and arrangements).
Another lucky strike was an invite to a Kilfenora Ceili Band performance in a Boyle, Co Roscommon, nursing home. Kilfenora at their purest, no amps or props or drum machines. A special delicacy for her, she thought they were sheerest class. A set dance display with young dancers topped it, and she could see the old folks feet, some in wheelchairs, unable to move a muscle normally, tapping on their own accord to the beat of the music, this “wall of music” that John Lynch (banjo) talks about as the only embellishment of Irish trad.
The Lord bless us and save us from this heinous set dance affliction. It has spread like a virus and has become a deadly challenge for all peoples of many countries to follow its call, while simultaneously trying to keep a job down, remain anonymously hidden and unidentified in the masses, and avoid pointing fingers that say ‘set dance maniac.’ Alas, there is no known cure. Drumshanbo is a place that has a lot to answer for when it comes to contributing to the lethal mushrooming of the dancing bacillus. Ane Luise, the Great Dane, was helpless when she contracted it some fifteen years ago and is utterly blemished. Her soles have hardened, her English Irished, her ear cocked towards trad, her vocal chords completely attuned to saying “ceili,” “house around” and “Tommy Doherty”, who with the rest of Swallow’s Tail on Friday night caused hell for leather!
The Joe Mooney Summer School suited Ane so well because she neither drives nor has a driving licence. But the compactness of it means that once you are in Drumshanbo, you don’t need a car, everything is adjacent to everything else. Finding people and sessions is also easier than, say, in Miltown Malbay. Particularly for foreign folks who come to Ireland for the first time, Drumshanbo means less wasted energy trying to find things or trying to get from A to B to C. In comparison to Miltown, Drumshanbo is a perfect beginners’ turf for travellers from abroad in search of an Irish experience that is manageable.
The Great Dane went home also with some solid advice on men from an Irish lady, who met her partner through dancing—if you meet a man, look at his feet and the way he moves. Do you think he can dance? If you do, proceed further. If you don’t, give him his walking papers. Might come in handy!
At the end of her stay, she knew it was going to be hard to change back to the Danish way of living. No more “Hi, howaya” to strangers. No more on the go banter. Back to the bench, exams, study. Gone the mountains, rivers, Irish hares, ceilis and workshops on tap. But beware her fortitude. Saying it with Arnie Schwarzenegger’s Terminator-certainty, “I’ll be back.” As we speak, planes are being booked, and money saved for more Irish adventures.
PS Three reasons to hate her: 1 She has the stamina of a wildebeest migrating 1,000 miles. 2 She picks up steps with innocent warp-speed. 3 She eats like a draught-horse, but not a bone to pick on her. And to add a fourth, she has the likability factor, big time.
Church is probably the last place you’d find me on a sunny afternoon, but that’s where I was on Friday the 13th of August, happily doing what I liked best. Mary Clancy was teaching us the Antrim Square and North Kerry sets in a workshop which began the dancing at the Traditional Music and Set Dancing Weekend in Kilrush, Co Clare. The church was once St Senan’s Church of Ireland, but after years of neglect, it has now been beautifully restored and transformed into Teach Cheoil, a venue for music and dancing operated by the local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. The original fabric of the building—its walls, windows and carvings—has been carefully preserved even with the installation of a dance floor, stage, balcony, stairs, toilets and a kitchen.
The church is one of the many historic buildings in Kilrush which are a legacy of the Vandeleur family, who were major landowners and did much to establish he town in the nineteenth century. After building a home here in 1808, the Vandeleurs erected the church in 1813, beside an ancient church which was said to have been founded by Saint Senan, the patron saint of west Clare who was born near Kilrush in 488. Monuments belonging to the family have been retained inside the church and their mausoleum dominates the graveyard outside.
Today Teach Cheoil makes a delightful venue for dancing, with lofty arched windows letting the daylight flood in and an air of tranquility still remaining after two hundred years. Mary Clancy’s workshop attracted dancers from France, New Zealand and Colorado, plus a few local regulars. She conducted it specially for the beginners among us so they could enjoy the weekend’s ceilis along with more experienced dancers.
It’s the ceilis which always make this weekend a special treat—all of them are conducted in the open air in the heart of Kilrush. A timber floor and gig rig are parked in the middle of the Market Square beside the old town hall built by the Vandeleurs. Much of the town was developed by them and today it retains many of the same buildings and the same general appearance as it had 150 years ago, which is why it has an official designation as a Heritage Town.
None of this was in our thoughts on Friday evening when Johnny Reidy came to town. Johnny and his band have the awesome power to focus minds exclusively on dancing; so enormous is the pleasure that our puny brains have no room left for thoughts of reality! After a few words of welcome from the town’s mayor, Johnny started his magic and only released us from his grasp after the national anthem. Mary Clancy called most of the sets, including our two workshop sets, and had the challenging job of filling all the sets and finding places for everyone who wanted to dance.
Downtown and outdoors, these ceilis attracted a lot of spectators, most of whom enjoyed watching enough to remain for the full duration. Some even brought their own chairs. With a packed dance floor surrounded by a big crowd, the atmosphere was as good as at any ceili in a hall. There was no charge, but volunteers went around with buckets during the break to encourage people to toss in donations to help with costs. Local businesses also provided contributions.
This was only the second year of the traditional weekend, which took over from the Éigse Mrs Crotty weekend after it closed. The Éigse established the August ceilis here in 1996, and they were so enjoyed by all that the Kilrush branch of Comhaltas took on the job of organising this new weekend as a replacement. It went so well last year that they were able to expand the programme this year to include music workshops, a singers’ club and even a boat trip to Scattery Island, St Senan’s base in the Shannon River where he established churches and a monastery. I’d have been there myself if the cruise hadn’t clashed with Mary Clancy’s workshop; she wanted to go too!
As the festival continued on Saturday, Aidan Vaughan taught two sets in the morning workshop, including my favourite South Galway, and the Four Courts Ceili Band played for the afternoon ceili. This was the only time when there was any concern about precipitation all weekend, but there were just a few short minutes of light drizzle; all the rest of the weekend was dry. In previous years when I danced outdoors in Kilrush, I always got wet at one ceili at least, perspiration excluded.
Kids in Clare are keen dancers, from tots to teens, and many of them showed up at the weekend’s ceilis. In fact the age range of those on the floor went from 6 up to 86. There aren’t many occasions when such a broad range of ages are having fun together. Some of those attending from other parts of Ireland didn’t come to Clare specially for the ceilis but happened to be holidaying in the area—or perhaps it’s why they holiday here!
After a sold out grand concert in Teach Cheoil on Saturday night, activity moved on Sunday afternoon to the Vandeleur Walled Garden. This is the old garden of the estate which has been rescued, redesigned and opened to the public as a beautiful attraction. It’s located just beyond the town, through a grand entrance and down a long drive. Kilrush House, the Vandeleur’s mansion, is long gone and its elevated site with views over fields to the Shannon is a car park today. A local told me that there’s a marble ballroom floor buried under the car park. Much of the estate is wooded as the land was controlled by the state forestry department since the 1920s. The trees around the walled garden provide shelter from winds blowing across the Atlantic and up the river, and the walls, about 5 metres high, provide further protection. Tender plants can thrive in this microclimate, and the garden has been planted to take advantage of this. It was ablaze with colour.
The garden is entered through a smaller walled area where there was a session today on the patio outside the café. An army of local musicians sat in a big circle trying to shelter themselves from the sun under big umbrellas while blasting out tunes one after the other. A mist of music drifted into the far corners of the garden and made the perfect accompaniment to wandering along the floral displays. Many came along to listen, sitting at tables, on the lawn or under trees, the weather, music and setting proving irresistible.
Above the café there was a museum exhibition on the Vandeleurs and their estate. As landlords they were notorious for evictions of their tenants, some references quote as many as 20,000 being evicted during the famine. Today this past seems largely to have been forgiven and the family is remembered for their estate and development of the town. The sole surviving family representative lives in Australia and has been welcomed to Kilrush and the walled gardens on a visit.
Five Counties Ceili Band closed the weekend at the farewell ceili on Saturday evening. We had the benefit of the best weather of the weekend and danced in sunlight at the start and streetlight at the finish, and by that time it seemed as though we had both the most dancers and spectators of the festival. The music was bouncing with lively vigour and many of us on the floor tried to match it! I marvelled at dancing under a clear blue sky accompanied by swallows and gulls. The ceili ended with a few words of thanks from the organiser, a Lancers Set, the national anthem and a feeling of complete satisfaction for everyone.
Worth a visit at any time, Kilrush is the place to be on this special weekend in August.
Once upon a time, a few Czech people affiliated themselves with Irish music, dance and language. They studied it, played it, danced it, embraced the mystical, mythical folktale that became such a hugely successful, if somewhat romanticised, export article Riverdance, and started what has now become Bernard’s Summer School. For the past decade, Czech and other nationalities, notably Poles and Germans, have come hither to obey the laws of step dance, set dance, sean nós, trad music and song, and the Irish language.
Yet, nothing about Prague is one-dimensional, and it is clad in its own legends, for instance the familiar Good King Wenceslas, but for a king for today, meet Václav Bernard, ringmaster of the Irish summer school. With the support of his lovely wife Lenka and two daughters Marketa and Tereza, this summer school has grown into a multi-stranded spectacle, at the pinnacle of which is the last night’s extravaganza that will not suffer a rival in central Europe.
What do a fraction of Czech and Irish people have in common? Why on earth would some Czech people want to learn Irish? What is it that makes them search for commonalities in both countries’ histories? Why would some eleven German girls come to Prague to participate in a gruelling week of step dance classes, followed by sean nós, and for the ones still standing, set dancing? Why would Tereza Loužecká Bachová, teacher at the summer school, hobble onto the stage on crutches and do a few steps?
It’s the music, ain’t it? Or the dancing? Or maybe it’s what’s created when playing music while dancing—plugging into an age-old communal activity, which is both peaceful and meaningful. Meaningful, because humans are able to create music and are able to express themselves through rhythmic dancing—it’s what we are supposed to be doing innately. No, we weren’t meant to fly (no wings) or smoke (no filter in lungs), but all human bodies made of flesh and blood were meant to move and dance—and they can’t lie. Bodies tell the truth. So if the activity of dancing releases feel-good chemicals, it tells you that you should be doing this in order to fulfil a purpose. And the purpose could well be that of being happy and feeling empathy, which encourages teamwork, which in turn has led, according to British scientist Richard Dawkins, to evolution as we know it.
But there is also an inexplicable element, something that eludes analysis. Back to the mythical, aren’t we? There is much yet to explore about the symbiosis of Irish music and dance and the adaptations by people around the world.
Tereza Bernadova, co-organiser and daughter of summer school manager Václav Bernard, Emma O’Sullivan and Máire Bríd Ní Mhaoilchiaráin were pondering those questions together. Is it to do with poverty? Or the history of Ireland, a land that has never been a colonial power? Can other nationalities relate to that easily? Or has the diaspora simply taken all their Irishness with them and preserved it abroad? Maybe the melancholy of the slow airs and the joyousness of the fast slides represent both the highest and the nether regions of the soul. Maybe trad music and dance can re-invoke lost and missed depths of human togetherness.
Máire from Connemara was invited this year to the tenth summer school of Irish music and dancing in Prague. She is a sean nós singer and spent a year in Prague teaching Irish to Czech people. She says there were eighty students. (There’s the evidence, again.) She was teaching the first ever sean nós singing class of Bernard’s Summer School, which was well attended, and on the final night, when all classes performed, they stood out in their uniqueness. That must be due partly to Irish born and bred Brian Devaney, who came over to learn the banjo from Czech banjo player Marek Zienert. Why not? says you. He then also went to the sean nós singing classes, and on another occasion was dragged out on the floor to dance a set, his first ever, and then, another! Brian recorded a polka from his first class and played it back for us on his iPhone, asking whether we knew the name of it—’twas the Kerry Polka. He can be excused for not knowing, because he is only from Listowel.
The emphasis in the set dancing classes was technique. Václav ordered “more technique,” and what the boss says goes, so Ger Butler, who presided over the sean nós and set dancing classes, started the week with the Connemara step, danced to the Connemara Set. Everybody with a partner was asked to dance in one big circle, and using the Connemara step they had to lead around, lead back, advance and retire and dance at home. As soon as Ger felt that the dancers were able to put movement and step together, they were put into sets, and keeping the step going, danced the first figure of the Connemara Set. Then, practice again and on to the second figure. The same scheme was applied later on in the classes for Clare battering. People practised on their own first, then with a partner, then in a big circle, then in a set (Labasheeda and Caledonian). None flailed, none gave up and none complained. It was dry stuff, and they had to be so concentrated at all times. On the night of the show, they all held their own and most were able to dance the steps while moving about. I know they were all nervous, but conquered that anxiety masterfully.
Prague, the city, looking on benignly, throws a few noteworthy sites besides the summer school venue into the mishmash. Everyone can find their niche here, can find something here. Multicultural, classical, regally red-roofed, beer-gardened, operatic, many-spired, dotted with parks, coffee houses, museums, art and historical buildings—metropolitan Prague is the perfect place on the threshold of east and west for sprucing up those long-lost desires to learn about a different culture, and not just to skim the surface. I went to the library and got a book on history of architecture; the hubby bought one on the German occupation during Nazi times. And don’t worry, there was plenty of hedonistic stuff, too!
For something a little deeper and thought-provoking, try the Franz Kafka museum. All black, moody, haunting, and in the end you feel as if you have been right there with him, and understand his words now, which are beginning to make sense in their darkness. All over the globe, the books of this famous Jewish son of Prague are well-read and have touched people with their gloomy philosophical stories on the helplessness of ordinary people when confronted with an ominous overpowering bureaucracy, government or institution that remains anonymous, hence invincible.
Prague’s own soul lies exposed for those who wish to see, if you open your heart to take in the historical magnitude, the melting pot of architectural grandeur, the beauteous glow of the revealing sun on the Vlatava River, the graves of great composers like Smetana and Dvorák.
And Dvorák himself could have created music to underlie a mother of a thunderstorm one night. Cloud formations usually reserved for the Hubble telescope, reminiscent of far-distant nebulae, warned of it. Groans in the heavens rumoured it. And then a huge earthquake in the sky, lightning slashing the dark of the night violently. It went on for ages. We gathered in an almost forlorn group, exclaiming “Ah” and “Oh” every other second. How small we truly are! How insignificant! And stupid! Standing on a metal balcony!
But the true challenge is not Kafka, or Václav Havel, or Jan Hus, but whether you can bear the beer. Beer consumption is 50% higher than in Ireland. Beer is cheaper than water, about €1 for a glass. Beer is everywhere, anytime (just like goulash), but that doesn’t mean that they are a nation of red-nosed, staggering drunkards—far from it. The Czech Republic has suave culture, haute cuisine, designer labels and shopping centres, and is laced with coffee shops. Take the one in the Municipal House, an art nouveau golden palace, richly garnished with designs by Jugendstil artist Alfonse Mucha, whose creations are still used today, and whose zenith epic work was an accolade to his people. The interior of what can only be described as a coffee “hall” is mind-boggling, chandelier upon chandelier, a piano playing softly in the background, waiters dressed to the nines rolling up glass-encased trolleys for you to check out the scrumptious selection of cakes and tarts—it can’t get any more 1920s stylish than that.
Whisk back to modernity by taking a look at the dancing houses, supposed to resemble Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, contemporary asymmetrical monstrosities amidst all the historical buildings that vie for your attention. It’s all gorgeous though, all of inner city Prague. Venture to the outskirts and find the pre-fab estates where you would have difficulty in locating your flat after a few pints.
There is also the eccentric Prague. Amidst all that civilised culture, all of a sudden you can find an array of plastic penguins, a torture museum, a tethered hot air balloon, buskers playing saxophone, the museum of sex machines, the museum of Communism, haunted places (you can go on a ghost tour) and the Krizík Fountain, a spectacular water illumination show with music and dance.
If you had enough of all the sights and sounds, head down to the old town near the merchant’s quarters to Ebel Café. No fewer than 25 different jars of coffee beans originating from all the coffee-producing countries worldwide are lined up for you to choose from, and a wide selection of teas, too. How do you choose? The girl behind the counter takes out a jar you’re interested in, gives it a good shake to release the aroma, then opens the lid and you stick your nose in. Like it? Okay, then you choose which way you want to experience your coffee—latte, espresso, cappuccino. And after the refreshment, you might want to have a look at Vyšehrad Citadel, an oasis in all the hustle and bustle, and said to be the birthplace of Prague and the Czech nation.
Take a stroll through at least one of the many parks, and don’t forget bread for the ducks. In Letna Park, you can also keep the kids entertained with a fun fair, and at Petrin Hill enjoy some wonderful views over the river and city on top of a hill after a funicular ride up.
Getting around in Prague is a doddle. You either walk, Segway it, or go with a sightseeing old-timer car, horse-drawn carriage or five-way bicycle. Just put your teenagers on to the last one, it’s cool. Public transport comes cheap at €3.50 Euro for a 24-hour ticket that gives you unlimited use of the efficient metro, tram and bus. They go frequently, with the last metro around midnight, after that it’s bus or taxi.
As we walked solemnly near the river viewing an open-air nature photography exhibition, looking at nothing stranger than eagles catching fish in mid-air, polar fox cubs and grass-plumes, who would we bump into but Andrea Forstner from Erlangen, Germany, who runs a set dancing weekend there in February, with her husband and son! The two husbands recognize each other immediately as fellow companions of wives for whom it’s “set dancing first, husbands second.” Oh, please! Andrea and I squirm, but recover and quickly lay out our dancing plans.
So, at some stage though, you must go to dance. Or play music. Or both. Or simply watch the show of all the summer school groups on the Friday night. Raise the druidic innuendos, the scent of turf and sweat from cutting it, the trancelike powers of sean nós singing, the hooded black long-coats and sombre faces of the students dressed up to sing and recite, and on to thrilling reels and jigs in between which you could observe the audience in a packed hall for the big show. And for this special occasion, being the tenth anniversary of the summer school, they had a few celebs flown in especially for the occasion—Emma O’Sullivan, sean nós dancer from Connemara of notoriety, box player John O’Halloran, and James Devine, the top-class dancer and holder of the world record for most taps per second. He actually took my breath away. He has stage presence. At times comical, it is such that you want to look at his face, too, and struggle to find a balance between watching his feet, expression and demeanour.
Classic also was an impromptu rehearsal of a sean nós show bit by Ger Butler, Tereza Bernardova and Emma O’Sullivan, outside the cultural centre where the show was on. Right there on the sidewalk in the urban jungle, with cars zooming past behind them and illuminated road signs overhead, they started dancing and John played the box, and passers-by started to gather and watch, their heads shaking in disbelief, mobile phones recording what they were seeing.
Eamonn McLoughlin had also come to Prague to do a documentary for Dublin South FM about the summer school. After doing a few historical documentaries, the latest on the burning of Darkey Kelly at the stake near Stephen’s Green in 1746, he felt in need of doing something unusual and contemporary! Yeah, you can just about imagine that. From the Hellfire Club straight to Irish dancing, seems by no means a big leap. Of course it wasn’t long before he was roped into the dancing and proceeded to try out a few sean nós steps and a set, in his socks, for lack of proper footwear.
Inevitably here, bits are left out with the struggle to condense experiences and limit the writing to under 50KB. Those will be the ones that you must experience yourself and fill in the blanks. If you do just one city-break cum dancing, do Prague. This little mother not only has claws, but she purrs as well when stroked, and meows a long wailing invitation to engage with her.
A language everyone understandsI never really have a plan for any set dancing workshop, as some people may already know some of the sets I may plan, so I prefer to give the students a choice of what they will learn.
When I arrived at the venue we had our normal dancing chat, then Václav said to me, “I want technique, technique, technique!” Ha, after he said it three times, I knew he meant steps for sets as opposed to just teaching them new sets, so for the five classes we spent all the time working on steps, and then dancing the sets they knew using the steps they had learned throughout the workshops. At the start of the week using very slow music, and as the week progressed the music speed increased. This was my first time in nearly twenty years of teaching I concentrated totally on steps for sets for a summer school and I have seen a major improvement in the dancers at the end. It was great to see them all battering the Caledonian towards the end of the week!
The feedback was brilliant, they were so delighted to have new steps, some of them said they are looking forward more to now coming back to Ireland for the Willie Clancy so they can dance like we do in Ireland.
I’ve been teaching many years in Europe, and over the years I’ve learnt to slow down when it comes to communication with (foreign) students. The great thing is that your feet do the talking, so if you’re teaching one to one with a student you can show and also let them listen to every beat you want them to get—by just dancing nice and slow beside them. The beat of the feet is a language everyone understands.
The aspects I enjoyed apart from the progress of the dancers was to meet people I made friends with last year. We had a great connection this year as we knew more about each other. I understood their style of dancing more and they understood my style of teaching more. The only thing I found hard was the walk to the Metro every evening after teaching!
Well, I asked the set dancers what set would they like to dance for the show (the final night) and they simply answered, “You’re the boss!” The sean nós dancers were happy to let me choreograph their piece but I let them make a choice on the steps they wanted to dance for their solo piece—this way, everyone was happy and comfortable on stage for the performance that night.
I really, really do feel made welcome. The first welcome I get from the summer school committee starts in Dublin airport from Tereza Bernardova, she is a daughter of Václav Bernard and lives in Galway and travels to Prague with the teachers and her banjo playing partner Brian. When we arrive in Prague we get a huge welcome from Václav, and then it’s down to the summer school, and this year it was deadly as I was being welcomed back by people I’ve already met before.
The passion of the dancers is amazing, at times I forget that they are not Irish people dancing the dances from Ireland. In Ireland, we have hundreds of teachers, and we have set dancing seven nights a week. In Prague, when they get the chance to dance sets or sean nós, they just love it, and you can see that. I don’t see any difference to be honest, when you look at all the nationalities that attend our set dancing weekends in Ireland, we are all the same, dancing sets and having a ball!
The Bernard family run an amazing summer school, everything is so well arranged, I got a look at Václav’s planner for the summer school and he had entered to the minute things he had to do on a daily basis throughout the week! They have someone on reception to answer questions from either students or teachers, and that’s 24 hours a day, and they have a shop with all the latest CDs, DVDs and even the Set Dancing News was available there. I would love to see more people from Ireland and Europe come for the set dancing and also maybe a band from Ireland for a few ceilis, the way the school is going I can see that happening soon.
Ger Butler, interviewed by Chris Eichbaum
Never having been before, we approached Portmagee, Co Kerry, after a long drive from Dublin with some trepidation, and thinking, “My God, I hope this weekend [30 April–2 May] is worth the long trip.” Of course, by the end we realised, it is for that very reason that the weekend is held on a bank holiday.
We creaked out of the car and into The Moorings guest house, next door to the Bridge Bar, both under the management of the extremely friendly and professional Gerard and Patricia Kennedy and the hub of the weekend’s activities. The guest house was spotless, very comfortable and provided all the B&B trimmings. The sea and little harbour is literally outside the front door and looks across on Valentia Island—we soaked in the views thinking it could be lashing tomorrow.
I received that terrible text asking had I heard that RTÉ radio host Gerry Ryan had died—could not believe it. As we strolled to get our bearings we bumped into one or two familiar set dancing faces who confirmed the news about Gerry—total disbelief all round.
With the weather so lovely we decided to take a spin and see what Valentia had to offer. Much to my dance partner Sam Morelli’s amazement, I picked up a local hitchhiker thumbing on the bridge to the island. He was obviously a little the worse for wear but I didn’t mind as he repeatedly told me what a lovely ‘girl’ I was! I paid for that lift though—every time I got into the car over the weekend, the smell of his fish, which must have been lying in the heat all day, came out the door to meet me!
Valentia is truly beautiful. Anyone I’d told that I was going told me the landscape was stunning—and it truly is. Around every corner another vista opens its arms, from the local church architecture to the Skellig seascapes—the sort of scenes that remind you what the tourists see in Ireland and what a beautiful country we have. After an amazing upwards journey with breathtaking views for miles into the Atlantic, we came upon the slate quarry. Maybe it was because dusk was settling in but the whole area was so serene and peaceful. It was obviously a place of great activity once upon a time and it felt as though it had been abandoned, but not so. We came upon an enormous cave which serves as a grotto, with a statue of the Virgin Mary way up high in the exposed black slate. Definitely a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere, whatever one’s beliefs.
We oohed and aahed (and sang) all the way back down at “the sun declining beneath the blue sea” into the high spirits of old friends having a drink and catching up on their year’s news. The South Kerry Set was being danced in most lively fashion to the band Autumn Gold. We did try to stay up for what was reported the next day to have been the usual fantastic session but the sandman got the better of us.
Next day we were up early—another beautiful, sunny, warm day. Had a lovely breakfast with fish on offer for anyone that cared for it! We threw a picnic together and headed for a spin to Waterville and listened to the radio tributes to Gerry Ryan along the way. The radio seemed to heighten our awareness to ‘live in the moment’ and we soaked in magnificent, bright, sandy beaches and unspoilt mountain landscapes.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch as they say, Betty McCoy gave her workshop and taught the Moycullen and the Portmagee Meserks, followed by Josephine O’Connor who taught some two-hand dances. Autumn Gold played for sets in the bar for the afternoon.
The evening meal (all included in the cost of the weekend) was first class. There was a good choice on offer with fish the speciality. The fact that everyone taking part in the weekend sat around together was good fun and Ger Kennedy did a fine job of fear an tí making everyone feel at home. A while later Tim Joe and Ann O’Riordan played in the bar with another couple of sets out the back. Great fun, great atmosphere. At 10.30pm or so the ceili took off a few hundred paces down the road at the community hall. Paddy and Gearóid played there for a typical country ceili—it went flying, the dancing and the time! Everyone had the same thing on their mind—a good night’s dancing. No posers in Portmagee!
Sunday—up early again, blessed with the fine weather, we went exploring on Valentia. I think everyone and their Granny descended on the one coffee shop. Management didn’t know what hit them. Back to The Bridge Bar for the afternoon ceili. There was an awful lot of sniggerin’ behind hands among some of the men. I was sure all would be revealed in good time and so it was. That evening, again at the Bridge Bar ceili, the All-Ireland Ladies Champion Set Dancers calling themselves Maggies in the Wood gave a resounding demonstration of their capabilities in their performance costumes and wearing their most professional smiles. As sure, the craic was mighty.
All round a terrific weekend. A treat during these recessionary times but most reasonable rates and top class quality. I hope Betty keeps her promise and teaches her Dublin class (Thursdays, Ripley Court Hotel) the Portmagee Meserks. I want to know it for May 2011. Can’t wait!
Ailish Finegan, Dublin
It was with great sadness and regret that the set dancing community heard of the untimely death of Micheál Foley, Carraig na bhFear, Co Cork.
Micheál had been ill for two years. He faced his illness in his own quiet way with good humour, courage, and determination. Micheál lost his battle and died as he had lived, quietly, on April 23rd.
Our Irish culture played a huge part in his life. He loved nothing better than to listen to Irish music, especially the music of the Abbey Ceili Band and Matt Cunningham. Indeed music was a great source of comfort to him during his illness.
Micheál was well-known and well-liked by all his set dancing friends around Munster and beyond. He regularly travelled throughout the area to ceilis, weekends and workshops in Killarney, Tralee, Clonea, Cashel, Listowel, Carrigaline, Meelin, Newtownshandrum, Ballinhassig and Watergrasshill. He was always eager to learn and dance new and old sets. He had a great knowledge of the sets and was always willing to share that knowledge and give a helping hand when someone new came on the scene. The reel sets were his favourite, in particular the Plain Set.
The high esteem in which Micheál was held by his set dancing friends was very evident for all to see at his removal and funeral, when dancers gathered from near and far to pay their final respects and say their good byes to their friend and one of life’s true gentlemen.
A monster fundraising ceili in memory of Micheál will be held in St Finbarr’s Hurling and Football Club, Togher, Cork, on Saturday 6th November with music by the Abbey Ceili Band and proceeds to Marymount Hospice.
Tim and Ber Sheehan, Carraig na bhFear, Co Cork
When our group of sixteen, “Sets in the Sun,” boarded Ryanair Flight 223 at 7.25am on Tuesday 31st August, we were off on the second stage of a project which had started nine months before. By a circuitous route, an invitation found its way to me last November from the organisers of the Folclore Festival Internacional do Alto Minho in Viana do Castelo (31 August–7 September) on the northern Atlantic coast of Portugal. Although the committee of our Belfast Set Dancing and Traditional Music Society didn’t feel able to sponsor a trip, I spoke to our guru Peter Woods and we both decided it was worth a try.
By mid-January, Peter had contacted ten enthusiastic set dancers but I was having problems finding musicians who could spare the time and be willing to perform for free. The Festival is organised under international rules which mean that groups cover their own travel to the host country after which accommodation, food and transport is provided—along with a daily subsistence of €2.50! We were on the verge of admitting defeat by mid-March when I was directed to Donal Savage, a Belfast student and concertina player, who subsequently took second place in the 2010 All Ireland Fleadh. Donal liked the sound of it and recruited student sisters Paula (flute) and Melanie (fiddle) Houton from Inishowen. It was green to go! Viana do Castelo lies 50km southwest of Porto so there was a hasty booking of sixteen separate return flights from Dublin.
I signed a very official looking contract as “director” of Sets in the Sun, which was returned to festival president Alberto Rego, father of Mafalda who was already a new best friend as festival email contact. She had apparently been trying to get a group from Northern Ireland in previous years without success. However, she became nervous when I explained that we would be demonstrating social Irish dancing which was not costumed—this was not Riverdance! So, picking up the Portuguese vibes, there was a “try-on” in Madden’s Bar before one of the Monday night practices and simple but attractive outfits agreed for the ladies and men. Under the expert tutelage of Sean Leyden and Tim Flaherty, a combination of sets and tunes was devised which would be adaptable to the ten, twenty, and thirty minute performances required by a demanding one week festival programme.
After a nine hour journey from Belfast we were met at Porto Airport by guides Candido (17) and Gina (not much older) from our host Alto Minho district—Castelo Neiva. Our resident bus driver Domingos ferried us to our accommodation for the week—the gymnasium of the local secondary school kitted out with metal dormitory beds! When some wag shouted, “Welcome to the Big Brother House!” we decided we’d just get on with it and, in the event, there was some great craic in that gym over the week. That first day was an endurance test—leaving Belfast at 1am, sound check on stage in Viana Square at 4pm and the opening gala concert at 9.30pm. Regardless, our first ten-minute set of the Festival went down well. The journey back to the gym gave time for planning further refinements so that Irlanda do Norte would really hold its own alongside what we subsequently learned were full-time professional groups from Cuba, Kenya, Mexico, Peru and Turkey!
Over the week, Sets in the Sun gave four morning performances in various schools and elderly institutions and six evening performances (mostly thirty minutes) in town theatres and plazas across the Alto Minho region. Although the itinerary was taxing, the group polished its performances during the week as the social dancers in the team became seasoned stage performers alongside the “auld hands” who had done it at competition level for years. There were highs and lows (off stage) in the process of team-building and a few intense moments over evening drinks as Sets in the Sun adapted to the combined demands of large audiences, daily travelling and, not least, the “Big Brother House”! Nevertheless, the ladies alternated between blue and green skirts (well pressed before each performance) and the men chose blue or brown shirts depending on which had dried from the previous outing. The combined effect on stage never failed to impress.
However, it wasn’t all work, and relationships with the other groups really took off at the traditional games on day 4. When Sets in the Sun lined up for tug of war against the (slightly younger) Kenyans, the Turks opted to support us as the perceived underdogs. But after an intense briefing from anchorman Gerard Marsden, and although pulling uphill, we could have hauled them all the way to Mombasa—much to the delight of our new Turkish friends! The only hitch that afternoon was Ashley Ray tweaking a hamstring in the bike wheel event—however after a session with the Peruvian physio and regular application of an ice-pack he was able to perform most dances for the rest of the week.
And so, as the week drew to a close, performing groups were scheduled to prepare lunch for their respective host districts. In our case, this involved ordering the ingredients for Irish stew, soda bread, apple and blackberry crumble and Irish coffee and taking over our school kitchen under the expert tutelage of Patsy Fitzsimmons and Gerard. The resulting (excellent) meal was served to fifty delighted locals, serenaded by Donal, Melanie and Paula—after which we adjourned to the playground for an afternoon of Irish and Portuguese music and dance.
The conclusion of the festival was marked by a reception at the Viana city hall for all groups and an exchange of gifts with the festival and the mayor. Our engraved Belfast crystal plaques were well-received and the reciprocal trophy (along with others presented throughout the week) pushed us well beyond Ryanair’s baggage weight limits! That evening, each group gave a final ten-minute performance to a packed Viana Square before all performers assembled on stage for the release of scores of coloured balloons into a starry Portuguese sky.
Now that the dust is settling, the unanimous consensus is that this was a fantastic, highly successful week which did Irish set dancing and music proud. Yes, lessons were learned for any future repeat venture and ideas spawned for adding dimensions to the stage performance. However the project outcome was a tribute to every individual member of Sets in the Sun. A local Portuguese press review summed it up with the headline, “Autenticidade da Irlanda do Norte e um Exemplo para o Folclore do Alto Minho,” which means, “Northern Ireland’s Authenticity is an Example for the Alto Minho Festival.”
William Duddy, Belfast
Only a short while ago, if you were playing a word association game and someone said “Cavan” to you, there would probably have been a long pause while you dredged the deep recesses of your consciousness for something to say. Most of us who hadn’t been to the great town and county of Cavan, or hadn’t spent much time there, probably wouldn’t have had a strong image of the place. My response to the game would probably have been “traffic jam”, due to the many times I found myself in a queue waiting to get through the town on my way to somewhere beyond. More recently I would have replied “bypass”—now you don’t even have to make any contact with the town on your way elsewhere.
But today if you played the same game, everyone’s response to the word “Cavan” would be the same—”fleadh”! Our collective impression of Cavan changed during the week in August when Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann came to town. In fact so good was the advance publicity that Irish brains were buzzing with thoughts of “Cavan Fleadh” long before it actually took place beginning on Sunday the 15th. So many were interested in visiting Cavan and its Fleadh that it turned out to be the biggest Irish trad music festival ever, and the town had surely never seen so many people before!
The Fleadh wasn’t my first time in Cavan—I’ve danced at ceilis in the town hall and at the first Dancing in the Drumlins weekend—so I was entering slightly familiar territory when I arrived here on Friday, August 20th. I travelled under a deep blue sky with brilliant white clouds and deliberately took some long and winding roads via Carrick-on-Shannon and Killeshandra to avoid contributing to congestion on the main roads. I was still miles away when Fleadh signs in blue and white began to appear, and as soon as I entered the town, it was like I’d been transported back in time before the bypass was built—traffic jam! Fortunately I was near my accommodation, but parking was now my main worry. I regretted passing by one empty space on the street, but soon found another and was landed!
Cavan was gleaming in the sunshine. Never before had I seen so many signs at a Fleadh, making it easy to find your way. Big baskets of flowers hung from poles, railings and facades, and there were banners and bunting along and across the streets. In addition to all the regular shops which were trading as usual, every empty building had been converted into a café, snack bar or music shop. Casual traders sold food in archways, car parks and a marquee. Clever temporary shelters on the main street kept people dry in case of rain. Even the streets themselves seemed freshly paved and painted. I liked Cavan’s transformation into a Fleadh town.
Kids were busking all over the streets, seated on steps, accordion boxes, borrowed chairs or just the ground, while their grown-up counterparts filled the pubs. The rest of us wandered from one group to the next, listening in doorways, hoping to hear something to stop for, while keeping an eye out for friends. Walking was the best way around town, as on foot we usually outpaced the cars, but there were also buses shuttling regularly between the centre of town and the distant venues for a fixed price of €2. Some enterprising geniuses offered rides for two on the back of a pony cart (€5) and a big tricycle.
As always, the main point of my visit was to go dancing, and the Fleadh offered up something different for the weekend—where else would you attend ceilis on an army base? The O’Neill Barracks are located about 3km from town on an elevated site overlooking Cavan. Whether arriving by car or on foot via the shuttle bus, everyone was stopped at the main gate and directed to the gymnasium at the far corner of the site by friendly army personnel. There was ample parking around the helicopter landing pad. The gym was enormous, with plenty of bright overhead lights illuminating a glistening varnished timber floor.
An army man welcomed us at the start, pointing out the facilities for gents and ladies (specially installed beside the entrance for the weekend) and even inviting us to make use of the nearby bar. The members of the Copperplate Ceili Band found the hall a challenge to play in because of its bouncy acoustics, but if you danced near the stage they sounded better than ever. The crowd was good and nicely filled the space with plenty of room for all. During the break tea and biscuits were served efficiently by army staff at a cost of €2.
My second day at the Fleadh began with more wandering around the streets. Main Street and most of its side streets were closed to vehicles and were full of pedestrians. In places there were so many gathered around a session that the crowd took up the full width of the street, blocking passage for all except those bold enough to force their way through. Short spurts of rain sent people indoors or under the Fleadh’s temporary canopies. Car parking was provided along the main roads on the edge of town, and people shuttled in on buses. There’s an abundance of car parking in town but one lot was taken over by the gig rig and another had several mobile food stalls parked there with tables and chairs, rather like a food court. The tallest building in town was a multi-story car park with fifteen levels, which cars can enter at the bottom or top, as it borders a hill. From its top I could see the whole town below, nestling in a hollow surrounded by hills. I only had a short stroll over the hill to find myself out in rolling countryside.
Competitions are the raison d’être of the Fleadh, which awards the prestigious All-Ireland awards to top traditional musicians, singers, groups and bands to adults and children. All the competitors here had already won county and provincial competitions earlier in the year to qualify to compete in Cavan, so they were the best of the best, making any of the more than forty different competitions in venues all over town superb entertainment for spectators. Children always get special attention at the competition as they compete in three different age groups; all adults over 18 (referred to as seniors) are grouped together. The skill of young players is astounding, even in the under-12 category.
Set and ceili dancing competitions are a popular part of the Fleadh programme, and I spent an enjoyable couple of hours watching the set dancing with a packed audience in the Cavan Crystal Hotel on Saturday afternoon. I caught the last two senior ladies’ performances and witnessed the cheers when the top prize was won by the team from Killarney trained by Ann Mangan which had danced the Roscommon Lancers. The most anticipated competition was the mixed seniors (adult gents and ladies) with five teams from Westmeath, Monaghan, Meath and two from Clare. It was a thrilling end to the set dancing competitions, but at the end rather than wait half an hour for the announcement of the results, I opted for dinner and hoped the news would reach me later.
I didn’t have long to wait. Tonight’s ceili in the barracks featured Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band and a floor even fuller with dancers than last night and all in a festive spirit. After the tea break the winning senior set dancers showed how they won their prize with a demonstration of three figures of the Caledonian Set. They call themselves The Rhythm of the Banner, and are based in Lissycasey, Co Clare. Their dancing was worthy of the award, precise and perfectly timed, yet they had fun while doing it. And because they chose a set we all know and dance ourselves, it was easy to imagine any of us enjoying it along with them.
Briefly wandering around the centre of town after the ceili at around 2am, I was amazed by the difference in atmosphere when families and kids are in bed. The pubs and streets were packed with drinkers and the accumulation of discarded cans and cups was astounding. By the time I was back out on the street on Sunday morning with busking kids and grownups everywhere, there was no trace of the litter—Cavan’s cleaners had cleared it all overnight.
Sean nós dancing hasn’t before been included in Fleadh competitions, but one was held on Sunday afternoon in the Cavan Crystal Hotel, and it went so well that you’ll probably see it every year. It was totally open and free of an entry charge to compete, just a €5 admission fee for everyone. Some competitors decided on the spot at the last minute to dance. The three young age groups were uniformly excellent, all of them showing a clear passion for dancing as well as great skill and energy. Everyone had two minutes to strut their stuff, more than thirty in total, and the amiable MC Ger Butler kept the show moving efficiently without delays. All skill levels were represented by the senior dancers, all of whom had more courage and skill than I could ever muster before such a large crowd!
There was no need to go back into town for sessions—the hotel was full of them, so after my supper I sat on the patio in evening sun listening to music till it was time for the ceili. For our last visit to the Barracks we had the pleasure of dancing to Micheál Sexton and Pat Walsh, who encouraged us to dance beside the stage for the best sound. I followed their instructions for nearly every set and enjoyed the music immensely for its easy pace and lively fun. To close the Fleadh tonight fireworks were scheduled for 11.30pm, which would neatly coincide with the tea break—the view from here would be ideal. However, the sky was dark when I went out for a look—they had been cancelled because of safety concerns due to the exceptionally large crowds in town. The traditional gig rig performance by the new champion ceili band—this year from Templeglantine, Co Limerick—was also cancelled for the same reason. When we resumed I was delighted to be dancing up a storm far from the madding crowd. The army lads were even drawn into the spirit of the occasion. The two who had been serving tea and selling bottles of water over the weekend volunteered for duty in the final Lancers Set and performed admirably. The barracks gym has probably never seen such activity before—and the glistening floor was only a distant memory, the gloss removed by hundreds of dancing feet.
Many say that Monday of the Fleadh weekend is the best day of the festival, and I agree wholeheartedly after my trip to Cavan. Good music was everywhere and I just followed my ears. I heard some gorgeous very trad accordion coming from the front of the Tesco store and went over to listen more carefully. I was expecting to find an old master, but instead it was a young lad of no more than 11, Colm Slattery from Nenagh, Co Tipperary. For an hour I stood there entertained by a diverse selection of nonstop tunes, flowing effortlessly one after the other, his left and right hands equally skilful on both box and melodeon. To my ears the music was fully mature, yet he was only a child, chewing gum, dodging wasps, horsing around with his sister and brother, who occasionally joined him on fiddle, all while never losing a note or beat. He and the family went away after the hour, but when I passed the spot three hours later, there he was again, still playing away!
All weekend I’d noticed signs on the street for Cissy’s Kitchen but never managed to come across it, but on Monday I had such a good recommendation for it that I had to find it. I knew of two different signs pointing the way so explored the area between them. At the far corner of a little hidden car park, across a tiny bridge over a river stood an old stone building, a former mill, that you’d hardly notice among all the other buildings around it. In its yard were a blacksmith at work and a few domestic animals, and the old style farmhouse kitchen just inside was packed with folks enjoying a session. While I was watching there was music by Cavan fiddler Antóin Mac Gabhann, steps by John Murphy from Dublin and Peggy McGovern, Glenfarne, Co Leitrim, and a song of Percy French sung by a man with a fine tenor voice. I suspect none of this entertainment was planned and just depended on whoever happened to show up. Cissy was the lady of the house, accompanied by her husband and granny, all three of whom were dressed in period garb from 1954, the time of the first Fleadh in Cavan, and acting their parts to the hilt, arguing, telling stories and welcoming everyone. They were here all weekend, and lucky I was to find them on the last day. I came back twice after that, each time with new performers and audience in the kitchen. Upstairs there was a trad cafe serving tea and scones where Cissy’s husband visited every table handing out sweets. I hope I’ll find Cissy still in her kitchen when I’m next in Cavan.
I could have enjoyably spent loads more time in town, but the farewell ceili was beckoning at the Cavan Crystal Hotel. This was the most comfortable ceili of the weekend, thanks to the hotel’s fine ballroom, and the Brian Ború Ceili Band provided sets and tunes to keep us happy on a high all the way home. But before I could hit the road after the ceili, there were irresistible sessions all over the hotel, including one by the All-Ireland ceili band champions from Templeglantine. Every time I took a few steps nearer the door, there was another batch of musicians to keep me listening a few minutes longer. Once I made it to my car I had been topped up with enough music to last the rest of the year!
One of the pleasures of set dancing is how you can meet a stranger, dance a great set together and then become friends for life as your reward. Similarly, after a great weekend in an unfamiliar town, you end up with a place you can now call your home away from home. Cavan, we’ll look forward to seeing you again next year!
Experience a few moments of the Fleadh by watching videos from Cavan on the Set Dancing News YouTube channel—www.youtube.com/user/SetDancingNews.
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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