There's more to read in the collections of old news and reviews, volumes 1—1997-1998, 2, 3—1998-1999, 4—1999, 5—1999-2000, 6, 7—2000, 8, 9, 10—2001, 11—2001-2002, 12, 13, 14, 15—2002, 16—2002-2003, 17, 18, 19—2003, 20—2003-2004, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25—2004, 26—2004-2005, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31—2005, 32—2005-2006, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37—2006, 38, 39—2006-2007, 40, 41, 42, 43—2007, 44—2007-2008, 44—2007-2008, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50—2008, 51—2008-2009, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57—2009, 58—2009-2010, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65—2010, 66—2010–2011, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71—2011, 72—2011–2012, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78—2012, 79—2012-2013, 80, 81, 82, 83—2013, 84—2013-2014 (Index).
The wild, wild northwest? Bundoran in Donegal, renowned worldwide for its surfing? Yes, it is so. But fear not, things are civilized and well-mannered when it comes to the set dancing weekend that’s been held annually in Donegal since its humble beginning in 2006. This small funfair-ish seaside town is now going to gather renown as a set dancing location as well. Because of Hugh! Because of his Bash!
It has—no—it had a rather low profile. That is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Big Bash—its profile feels low considering the actual size of it. There was a leaflet, all right, and ads in the magazine, but overall it appeared at a glance to be a smallish event, tucked away in the northwesternmost corner of Ireland.
But go there, and you quickly realise that you have stepped into a big affair. A rustic-coloured meadow-sweet sunset is the first indicator, along with an absence of expected strong winds, of how this is going to shape up.
The Great Northern Hotel, where this year’s Bash was held, 25–27 March, is a big affair of old world splendour. Plunked on a hilltop throne, commanding views over Donegal Bay, it is an assortment of bits (think adding bath foam to your water, and the clusters of bubbles that form) that seem to have been added on by and by. The core of it represents the idea of a fin de siècle establishment, hinting at Titanic interiors, with a massive solid wood revolving door greeting arrivals. Paintings of wild fowl on the walls and curtains and duvet covers depicting pre-World War golfing clothes, gentlemen teeing off in brogues and checkered breeches and ladies wearing hats and corselettes, contribute to the period design. It is like a hunting lodge which has expanded adding luxurious parts like the leisure center, but still retains its traditional character with squeaky staircases and doors that talk to you when you engage with them. A most charming combination!
And why is it that there is such a discrepancy between what you might expect and what you actually get?
Thing is, Hugh’s Big Bash started life as a party. And Hugh McGauran, bless him, still runs it as one. One big bashing helluva party! At some stage during this year’s Bash, for example, he threw spot prizes willy-nilly into the dancing crowd filling the space up to the gunwales.
Initially, in March ’05, this was supposed to be Hugh’s sixtieth birthday party that brought the whole McGauran family together. Hugh’s mum loved this, having them all around. “So in March ’05,” said a chuckling Hugh, “we planned a big sixtieth family birthday party. My mother would sit in the middle and love it all, and I’m the exact same as her!” One of the Carryduff club members suggested calling it Hugh’s Big Bash, and that’s how the name came about. And set dancers turned up as well, many more than were expected. “They highjacked the party!” Hugh chuckled. “It was only supposed to be a bit of a demo of set dancing, and fifteen sets pitched up!” he chuckled. “The life was scared out of them (his family), all those lunatics on the floor!”—more chuckling.
His mum was 89 at the time, fell ill and sadly died before the party took place. Said Hugh, “She was honoured in many ways at the party though! I had a whole pile of stuff I read out about her.” But the party ended up being more of a ceili, with Copperplate playing that first year, and because of that, dancers said, “Hugh, you’ll have to do this again!”
In ’06 then they did Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, two ceilis. ’08 was the first fuller weekend, with three ceilis but no workshops. Finally, the Bash became a proper weekend, workshops and all, in ’09, with Joe Farrell teaching and Fidelma Brannigan and John Cassidy doing steps.
Hugh said, chuckling, “We never got any of the big names in teaching, because this is only a small thing.” I looked at him incredulously—a small thing? Hugh, wake up!
Incredibly, that is the secret here, the very notion of looking at it as a bit of a party, a get together, has now rocketed into a full-blown, floor-filling, bubbling hot-pot with a huge crowd present that can confidently rival any weekend. Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon—all filled to capacity. The session at night rocked until the wee hours. The workshop commanded nine sets in the morning, about sixty sean nós enthusiasts in the afternoon, and the Sunday morning two-hands workshop attracted fifty people despite concerns earlier on of how no one might turn up.
And consider that this was possibly, probably, the finest weather to be had in Bundoran all year. For most of the time a full sun hoovered up the wetness left behind by the waning tide on black layers of rock, baked teeing golfers and dancers at the break alike, made sunglasses a necessity, removed cardigans left, right and centre, and produced welcome tanning. And in surfing paradise, no wind, not even a breeze. Only very close to the shore was the slightest breeze-een perceptible. And despite that, the surf was surprisingly good, and a horde of surfers came to participate in a competition that also had the kids running, the picnic baskets dusted off, foldable chairs unfolded and dogs let loose.
I know all that because I went to see it. I also had a lie-in one day, and an afternoon snooze the next. I spent some time in the sun and some time reading the papers. This time, for the first time, I had time, because I made time. So easy, really, once you get the hang of it. I could never do it before. Always had to attend all workshops, all sessions, all ceilis, all social dances, and if I didn’t, I felt guilty. What happened that brought this change about? To be honest, I’m not sure, but one clue was that I overheard a lady at breakfast saying, “Isn’t this a lovely weekend. So relaxing. No stress!” The ears pricked up, and I thought, Jeez, this is not how I do my rounds! Something gave way and something new surfaced, a confidence that whatever I’d do, it’ll be all okay. I looked out the window onto Donegal Bay. The tide was nearly out, but of course, it would come back, it always does. The moon waxes and wanes, and with it the tide comes and goes. This parable wasn’t lost on me, and just watching the tide in its slow long inhalation made all things seem just right.
Usually, the sound of the alarm in the morning brings forth a curse, a sigh, and a turning over with duvet pulled up over the head. But not this time. The sound and scent of the sea flooded back immediately into the half-wakened mind, and made a leap out of bed possible. A leap! Unheard of. Only in Bundoran!
Hugh asked friend and Carryduff teacher Teresa Quigg if she would come to teach a workshop. Well, what he said was, chuckling, “I said to her, ‘Teresa, I want you to do a set dancing workshop for me.’ And she went, ‘Oh no-ooo!’ ” It took another year to persuade her, but she did pick up the courage. What she has is the big likability factor, and she can “keep the concentration,” as Hugh said, jokes at all times and is ever so encouraging, cheering people on. Like every teacher, she has her own vocabulary for describing moves. Comparing one movement to another, she declared that the “geography” is all that changes. There were giggles among the dancers as she described the movement in the Lough Neagh Set’s fourth figure when the ladies are being turned under the gents arm, once to the inside and later outside, as “flip the lady in” and “flip the lady out”! Her cerebellum most certainly worked overtime, whereas mine, um, went for a vacation, all part of a fresh approach to weekends of this kind.
The second teacher at the Bash was Kathleen Smith, taking the sean nós class for a little while on Saturday afternoon. A similar calibre to Teresa, cute, young, hip-wriggling, encouraging, offering folks sound advice to develop their own style. When she’s on the floor you can’t miss her—just follow the thrill and she’ll be in the middle of it! (Lovely meetin’ ye, Kathleen!)
Now, while I was doing all this relaxing-dancing, Audrey and Ian McLaren from Paisley, Scotland, took a different stab at the Bash. Ian duly took notes of all the sets danced, in which order, at what ceili and what exactly was taught at the sets workshops. He calls these his “dancing cards.” He says he’s doing it also to let friends in Australia and other far away parts know what’s being danced, what’s going here. So to give an idea of an Ian McLaren dancing card, here’s an excerpt—
“The Annaly were their usual great selves and played for a Kilfenora, Fermanagh, Moycullen and Clare Lancers before a break. A Cashel, Williamstown and an Antrim Square, followed with a Connemara to end the night. All sets were called by Joe Farrell with his usual enthusiasm and skill. Saturday we headed into the workshop run by Theresa Quigg. We started with a Cloghan Set which most of us had never danced, then onto the Lough Neagh Set which Theresa has been promoting for some time now. After lunch, there was a run through of the Seit Doire Cholmcille.”
Looking for someone to take minutes in minute detail? Look no further.
But this is not the most exciting thing about Ian, no. He stands out for other reasons, namely the kilt he is prone to dance in, always, at ceilis. Ah, the Scots, great all-kinds-of-crazy folk, and with Ian in particular spiced with a dash of perfectionism. I am getting into trouble here for saying it that way because on one occasion, I said to him, “Ian, you are a bit of a perfectionist, aren’t you?” Catching how he spewed some toxins my way—and I am telling you, looks can kill—I quickly rallied, smiling brightly, “I mean, there is no such thing as ‘a bit of a perfectionist,’ right?” At which point he retorted, “I would have pulled you on that one!” Uh-oh. His humour is the driest, his mind the sharpest, and reckoning by all sorts of criteria, he’ll always fit the label of ‘a character’. You simply have to be fond of him, there is no other option. And then he says that he brought a boogie board and wetsuit with him to “taste the surf,” as he had heard about the surfing in Bundoran. Picture it. A tall, slim, perfectionist Scot, kilt exchanged for a wetsuit, paddling away. You’re not able to picture it? Wait till you meet him so, and chances are good that you will, because the McLarens have gone into the deep end with set dancing.
Another extreme experience was spending lunch with Ashley Ray, a walking, talking specialist encyclopedia on the history of set dancing in Northern Ireland. He so bestowed his knowledge upon us in one never-ceasing outpour, until I, although awed and mystified by Celtic League, political acts, referenda and suchlike, started looking for the off-switch! Ashley, this has to be brought into order! Get your notes sorted and publish! You owe it to your passion to pass it on in a congruous presentation so that people like myself, who are, um, likely to faint from overload, can absorb it in their own, glacial, time!
On Sunday, for the first time I heard the Oriel Ceili Band, and mum Bernie O’Neill on the piano accordion sets a good standard for the two sons on banjo and piano to follow.
So finally, everything comes together, all the party-bits, knitted into one long weekend bash that comfortably slings round anybody’s neck and shoulders, like a scarf, looser, tighter, whichever way you need it! Hugh has pulled this off, almost single-handedly, knitting it steadily longer each year. Just goes to show the pulling power of an organiser and now, surf’s up in Bundoran for set dancers!
PS So nice—first prize in the raffle, a weekend in the hotel or any in the same chain, went to Cathy McEvoy from Co Down. She had spent the night in hospital with a friend who suffered a seizure during the night ceili. The lady was fine the next day.
And so cute—4 and 6 year-old sisters Áine and Caoimhe Gormley showing some steps. You’re never too young, seemingly, to start on the road to some compulsive Irish dancing habits.
Fair dues of the highest order to author Cynthia Neale on her successful book launch at the fabulous venue of Searles Castle at Windham, New Hampshire. On March 19th invited friends were treated to the celebration of Cynthia’s first novel for adult readers, Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York. The price of admission included a copy of her book, five hours of social fun, delectable food, lively set dancing, a glorious sunset and the excitement of the supermoon rising.
A debonair Tim Neale, Cynthia’s husband, greeted guests at the elaborately carved entrance door as lilting strains of nineteeth century piano music wafted to our ears. Pianist Julia Forbes of Hampstead presented pieces chosen because they contained ‘Norah’ in their titles and verses. What an appropriate fashion to introduce Cynthia’s historical novel!
Inside the great hall, a homey warmth emanated from a crackling blaze in the magnificent fireplace. This handsome stone structure was once installed in Napoleon’s own castle. Cynthia, dressed in a lovely nineteenth century style maroon-trimmed gold silk sheath dress that met the tops of her ankle button shoes, captured the essence of Norah. The outfit was complete with a lacy shawl and a wide brimmed hat, bedecked with tulle and flowers. Norah herself could have designed the fashionable hat. Sharply dressed, Tim complemented Cynthia’s outfit in his waistcoat and gold-patterned necktie. The choice of gold silk symbolized Cynthia’s belief that “the golden thread of hope is unbreakable” and “the golden thread of hope dances in the darkness”.
The attendees were invited to freely roam about the three-story twenty-room castle, take in the outside views from the balconies, mingle, imbibe at the cash bar, sample the hors d’oeuvres and the amazing magical Norah’s Dancing Scones—four delicious varieties baked by the author herself. Magical was right! Cranberry orange, cranberry lemon, ginger marmalade and orange apricot marmalade—all delectable to the palate and enjoyed with mugs of tea or coffee.
There was a brief but very motivational talk by the author discussing how Norah came to be, inspiring each and every one of us to fill our lives with hope and chase our dreams along with a poignant, tantalizing excerpt of her novel—whetting our interest for more.
Pianist Julia Forbes played a delightful waltz entitled Norah’s Dream Waltz which she composed to commemorate the novel’s launch. All were welcome to don one of Cynthia’s antique hats and “dance your dreams” on the dance floor or in your heart.
Once dreams were in place, the musicians picked up the pace for lively set dancing in front of Napoleon’s hearth. The Ballyvourney, Corofin, Antrim Square and eleven sets in all were danced with enthusiasm and pure joy to the lively tunes provided by Kevin Sheehan (banjo), Constance Patten (fiddle), Bob Dunlavey (accordian), Tim Neale (fiddle), Howard Winrow (whistle) and Martha Winrow (fiddle). One would swear Cynthia’s feet never touched the ground. Spirits were high with her heart in full soar throughout the day.
As the evening was winding down, the glowing sunset was viewed from the balcony followed by the spectacular rise of the super-moon, the large full moon which occurs once in every eighteen years. The balcony was the consummate vantage point of its ascension from the horizon over the trees. It was a perfect ending to an uplifting day.
Cynthia Neale is familiar to many as a writer and set dancer. A published author since 1991, her work includes the romance series Loving You in Waltz Hold and Can this be reel? published in this magazine since 2001, as well as the first two in the series of Norah novels—The Irish Dresser (2004) and Hope In New York City (2009). Neale is an avid set dancer in both Ireland and the States, as well as a gracious hostess at house céilithe for over a decade, where she is famed for serving her decadent desserts.
Norah’s character, a seed in Cynthia’s childhood imagination, has grown into a woman of vision living in New York during a hostile and tumultuous time in 1857. This new novel continues to carry the theme of hope from the previous two books of the series, compelling the reader to follow Norah’s journey through friendships, joys, romance and harrowing situations in the adult world to which she now belongs. She is spunky and holds her own in a time of adversity and seldom holds her tongue. Gripping intrigue throughout with the burning question, will Norah return to her beloved homeland? Norah is a must to add to your summer reading.
Congratulations and thank you, Cynthia, for planting a seed of hope in all of us through Norah!
Karin A Joyce, Boston, Massachusetts
Cynthia Neale’s new novel Norah is published by Lucky Press, www.luckypress.com. Read her blog at www.cynthianeale.com.
A fundraising ceili for the Blackrock Hospice in Dublin which was held on February 18th in Katie Gallagher’s Pub on the seafront in Bray, Co Wicklow, exceeded all expectations by raising over €6,000.
The night had been inspired by Gretta Mahony, who had been a former chairperson of Rinceoirí Chulainn, Bray’s set dancing club. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer five years ago and given a short lifespan. But under the care of Dr John Crown and the Blackrock Hospice she has managed to enjoy life with her family and grandchildren.
It is a measure of the affection in which she is held that the night was so successful. It came about with a suggestion by her friend, Eileen Murphy, to Angela Barnard, chairperson of the club, and within days, tickets were printed, the venue was organised, the band booked with everyone giving their services free.
The night itself was great fun. The O’Kane family, who live in Bray, played lovely rhythmic music and even novice dancers couldn’t resist taking to the floor. An auction was held and dancer Gerry Gilmartin took over the role as auctioneer, discovering skills he never knew he had. He and his helpers cajoled the crowd into spending much money for this great cause.
Rinceoirí Chulainn was founded almost twenty years ago and enjoys a weekly ceili in Katie Gallagher’s. There is live music every Monday and the club has been responsible for launching quite a few bands, notably the Brian Ború.
Tipperary box player Mick O’Connor and friends play regularly as do the Bass family from Wexford. And of course, the O’Kane family have been playing since the club was first initiated.
Deirdre Morrissey, Bray, Co Wicklow
Organising a whole weekend of dance workshops and céilithe, bringing musicians from Ireland and teachers to teach sets the attendees will like, booking venues, organising transport, hoping the parts become a successful whole—these are the obstacles any first-time organiser will come up against. Václav Bernard need not have worried about the weekend in Prague, 8–10 April. He and his team overcame the difficulties associated with organising an event, and the enthusiasm of the dancers and musicians from Germany, the UK, Ireland and the Czech Republic ensured an enjoyable weekend which will hopefully be the starting point for many others to come.
There have been many points of chance and good fortune associated with music and dancing in Prague. Kevin Monaghan and I had been invited there a few years ago by Joe O’Hara to demonstrate a few sets in a weekend of small workshops solely for the Prague dancers. We both learned our set dancing from Joe, and he in his turn learned his dancing from Connie Ryan. More recently, he taught the Prague dancers the basics of set dancing. A very good job he made of it too. There is courtesy for other dancers, attentiveness and respect for tradition, and keenness to learn holds, steps, moves and routines, new sets, names of musicians, and the history and culture of dancing. Joe recently completely retired from teaching the sets, and we were proud to be invited to Prague to teach at a new workshop and ceili weekend which was open to all dancers.
Brendan Doyle and Sharleen McCaffrey were holidaying in Prague a few months ago and dropped in to Václav’s dance class. Brendan was invited back this weekend to play, along with Liz Ryan and Johnny Duffy, at the Saturday evening ceili and a grand evening’s dancing was had by all. Sharleen called the Antrim Square Set, thereby giving Kevin’s voice a welcome rest, and gave a display of brush dancing as well as some sean nós some steps with Liz’s husband Shane and Václav’s daughter Markéta, illustrating the power of music and dance to unite individuals from different cultures. The musicians brought their partners along with them for the weekend, and fair play to them all, they joined in with the workshops before having to leave for the airport, with promises from all parties that they’d meet again soon.
The power of music to unite had also been in evidence on the Friday evening in the hotel, when a session emerged in a very small breakfast room. Those of us in bed may have been kept awake for an hour or two, but there were no ill feelings and we were sent to sleep with the rhythm of steps and music in our head. Isn’t it great that musicians and dancers can get together for the craic wherever they are? Everyone was on time for the Saturday morning workshop too!
Dancing in Europe has a very different feel to it, as Bill Lynch stated in his article about Erlangen in the April–May edition of Set Dancing News. Dancers like to attend workshops. There is no complaint about early morning starts, as the dancers feel they have much to learn, and consequently, they are attentive, keen, enthusiastic, seemingly unflagging in their energy, and quick on the up-take. There is a buzz of anticipation, exchanges of information, perseverance and true interest. The difficulties that might be expected due to language differences never emerge. The language of the dancing is enough to form cohesion and a camaraderie which will be long lasting, and which forges strong links between individuals from differing countries. Explaining the sets may take a little longer, as moves which are relayed in English are translated within the sets, but nothing hampers the immersion in the process of learning, and we ensured that everyone had a chance to walk through the sets as well as dance them, to ensure they were embedded. We taught the Aran, Glencree, Slip and Slide, Killyon and Monaghan sets.
This may all sound a little romantic, and perhaps to someone who wasn’t there, a little far-fetched, but Kevin and I have noticed a true exchange of cultural awareness on our visits to mainland Europe. Everyone we met had a little snippet of information to share about history, culture or tradition, which enriched our visit and left us wanting to find out more. We feel that we take Irish culture through the dance, and we bring back interesting insights into the life of our European neighbours.
On a trip into the city on Sunday afternoon after the final workshop with two dancers from the UK, we had a late lunch in a grand-looking café, and noticed that the majority of the clientele were well-dressed women, eating ice cream or cakes, drinking coffee, and generally having a good time. There were only a very few men doing anything similar, and we remarked on this, joking that perhaps we had entered a women-only café, but then thought no more of it. However, on the Monday, Kevin had a business meeting in Prague, and so while I meandered about the environs of Prague castle with a UK set dancer, learning about impoverished gentlewomen and a history stretching back for hundreds of years, Kevin met with his business colleague at a small café beneath the famous Charles Bridge, in the shade of a most impressive horse chestnut tree.
His business meeting was about much more than he may have expected. He learned that hundreds of years ago, the café building was used as the city mortuary; being under the bridge, it was always cool. He heard about ongoing housing problems, transport, parking, hotels, the preponderance of cats and dogs of all shapes and sizes (one cat was lurking in the bushes close to the table) and that on Sundays, there are distinct women’s social circles and men’s social circles. In our grand café, we had inadvertently entered into one of these women’s meeting circles.
Kevin may also have found a new recruit for Václav’s class—his business colleague was intrigued by the idea of Irish set dancing, and is keen now to try it for herself! All of which illustrates that we didn’t go to Prague, teach a little Irish culture and come back empty handed—we are taught so much by others, and we both feel enriched and inspired by the experience.
Our friends from Germany also gave us a little history and culture. We learned that the three hour drive home for them was along an old trade route between Nuremberg and Prague known as the Via Carolina, after Charles IV of Prague’s famous bridge, another lovely snippet of information which serves to build lasting ties of friendship.
Thank you to Václav and the rest of the Prague Irish set dancers for inviting us to teach at your first weekend. We wish you every success for future events, and we are proud to have been at the first-ever workshop weekend.
Carol Gannon, Tadley, Hampshire
If ever you find yourself in London at the beginning of the month, and maybe wondering how to spend some time among a great friendly crowd, you could do a lot worse than spend a few hours at the London Irish Centre in Camden dancing the afternoon away at Geoff Holland’s First Sunday.
Geoff has been running these afternoons of dancing to recorded music for more than twenty years (much to his obvious surprise!) and he refers to them as having the feeling more of a party than a ceili or formal class. The format is “nonstop dancing, featuring sets from all the provinces, with music chosen for the region.” Newer sets as well as the older favourites are all given floor space. The sessions originally ran for three hours, but now regularly run for four or five, with two-hand dances, ceili, quicksteps, waltzes and jiving added to the mix for even more variety.
Geoff says he doesn’t have any preconceived program for the afternoons and decides which sets to dance as the session progresses, but he attempts to ensure there is something for everyone. Having said that, he said, “At the end of the day I simply do whatever takes my fancy.” This may all seem a trifle haphazard to the unseasoned dancer, but surely that is part of its charm.
It was during the late 1980s that set dancing began to really take off in London, and Geoff had a regular Sunday afternoon session at the Whittington Community Centre in Upper Holloway. Learning the sets at these sessions was a “collaborative carry-on, with everyone offering their two penn’orth.” Back then, “nobody really knew the sets.”
Geoff was not the first to run a Sunday session at the London Irish Centre, and he says he owes much to those who began them. The first sessions were run by a small group, of which Sheelagh Clayton, Mary Fitzgerald and Pauline Richardson were a part. When they found they didn’t have the time to continue running them, Geoff took over sometime in 1991, and the ethos he had built in Holloway went with him. To this day it’s a good place to hone your skills and extend your repertoire.
The session has run every month, except for July, ever since. The reason for there being no July session is that Geoff was an avid attendee at the Willie Clancy Summer School, and every year he and many others would go there to learn new dances. Today, there is still the call for new or unusual sets to be danced at these sessions, and you may find Geoff calling something you haven’t danced in ages, and there may be a muddle, but not to worry—keep smiling, keep moving, and have fun. You’re among friends here for sure.
In the south of England, at any dance class, towards the end of any month people always ask, “See you at First Sunday?” It’s a great place to socialise, dance and relax, so the answer is very often, “Of course.” Just bring along your dancing shoes and a smile, and you’ll be made welcome at Geoff’s First Sunday.
Carol Gannon, Tadley, Hampshire
The sixth annual Costa del Clonea weekend, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, was as brilliant as all the previous ones and the Sunny Southeast lived up to its name. I was lucky enough to have been invited by Celia Gaffney to stay in her house for the weekend, along with Doreen Corrigan, Liam and Frances Bane and Geraldine and Eddie Ryan. I arrived in time on Friday night to chauffeur Celia and Doreen the entire distance (five minutes) to the Clonea Strand Hotel. All was well until Eddie told Celia that she had locked and alarmed Frances in the house. The laughter that followed was a sign of what was to come as there was much hilarity at both hotel and house.
Friday night’s music was provided by the Annaly Ceili Band from Longford. The trio were in their usual excellent form. The calling of the sets for the weekend was shared by teacher Carmel Kearns, organiser Helen Kealy and yours truly. Only one set was repeated during the three céilithe—the Connemara was danced twice. Throughout the weekend we danced seven sets from the Banner County, Labasheeda, Corofin, Mazurka, Lancers, Plain, Kilfenora, Caledonian; five from the Kingdom, Black Valley Jig, Sliabh Luachra and the three points of the Kerry compass, the North, South and West; three from Galway, Moycullen, Claddagh, Connemara; two from Mayo, Derrada and Newport (Mickey Kelly would be glad to know that hands were behind the back at the appropriate times and partners kept on dancing); two from Cork, Ballyvourney Jig and Sliabh Fraoch; one from Tipperary, Cashel; one from Monaghan, Slip and Slide; one from Australia, Antrim Square; and one from Meath, Boyne.
Carmel conducted the Saturday morning workshop and taught us the South Sligo Lancers Set and the Portmagee Mezerts, both lovely sets. She spent a little time telling us the difference between reel and jig steps and spoke of the lift in the reel step. In the first figure of the South Sligo, as the corner couples house, the ladies start on the left foot and the gents on the right but we soon got the hang of that. The second figure included a seesaw and a ‘bit on the side’ and also its own ‘tap hop one two three’ step. The third jig figure required almost no thinking but this was just lulling us into a false sense of security as the fourth figure put our concentration and memory to the test. Thanks to Carmel’s patient teaching, and the help of the demo set, we managed to dance the fourth figure with hardly any mistakes and felt a great sense of achievement . The final figure was an unusual one, for me anyway, as it started with a chain, gents turning the lady under, followed by a house and finished with a ‘shake hands’ chain. Carmel had very little time to show us the Portmagee but she (and we) got through it. The five-figured Portmagee has a lovely pattern to it which makes it easier to remember. The high gates movement has to be the easiest in set dancing.
The afternoon workshop was a jiving one and Margaret Fitzgerald, ably assisted by Mary, taught us quite a few routines. It was a large class and the dancers ranged from novices to seasoned jivers. Margaret and Mary showed us the moves and then all the ladies moved on so that we danced with many partners, Mary with all the gents and Margaret with the ladies. This was a great idea as we all benefited from dancing with Mary or Margaret. The two hours flew by and before we knew it we were ‘rolling in and rolling out’ and getting our routines in order. Margaret encouraged the gents to move around a bit and not stay in the one spot.
A bonus of staying in the Clonea area was that I was able to indulge in a bit of bird watching by the shore. I spotted oystercatchers, redshanks, Brent geese, heron and I think, whimbrel.
As we feasted in Celia’s on Saturday evening, knowing that we would need plenty of fuel for our dancing that night, we entertained ourselves with anecdotes and funny incidents. The Grand National had been on that afternoon and Lady Luck had smiled on the Clonea visitors. Thanks to a friendly and bemused bookie, two of the women (no names) now know the difference between the jockey’s weight and the odds. Enough said.
Saturday night’s ceili lived up to our expectations. Donie Nolan and Taylor’s Cross kept us on our toes (with feet to the floor, of course) all night. There were fourteen sets on the floor and as we were all tidy dancers none of us strayed into another set. The band played a great variety of reels, jigs, polkas, hornpipes and of course, waltzes and quicksteps. Donie thrilled us with his lovely rendition of Sweet Dungarvan Town. Helen’s gang were, as usual, on hand to dispense tea and coffee and wonderful treats at the break. Fuelled by the delicious delicacies we danced on till after 1am.
Sunday morning—porridge, muesli, cereals, fruit, breads. No need to choose, we enjoyed all of them!
The Sunday morning workshop started at 11am with Anita Prunty, Carmel’s sister, originally from Doonbeg, Co Clare, teaching sean nós in her own gentle style. Yet again, it was a great sense of achievement for the dancers. As sean nós can take a lot out of you, the second hour was devoted to two-hand dances and Helen taught Fiona’s Polka and the Waterfall Waltz, amongst others. It is great to see sean nós and the two-hands becoming so popular.
Sunday afternoon, sun shining, but we had to ignore the fine weather and head inside for our final ceili of the weekend. The Glenside Ceili Band can compete with the sun any day! Nine sets, waltzes, quicksteps and foxtrots, all danced with great good humour. Yet again we indulged at the break with a selection of delicacies. We had a special bualadh bos for the two ‘oldest’ dancers on the floor, Niamh and Sinéad Thornton, aged 8 and 7. It is so nice to see the two of them enjoying themselves at the céilithe, almost as much as one of the ‘youngest’ dancers, Doreen Corrigan, who celebrated her 80th birthday in January.
Helen thanked Carmel, not just for the great teaching at the weekend but also for the sets that she has taught throughout the years. Helen also thanked Anita and Margaret for their workshops and her own classes for the fun they have enjoyed together and the help that they have given her in organising Costa del Clonea.
The Costa del Clonea weekend is characterised by friendliness and fun. Smiles and hugs are the order of the day as Helen and husband Paddy greet everyone coming in and they seem to know all our names. Paddy is not just there to meet and greet, his most important job is to make sure that his never ending supply of sweets are shared around.
Hilary Nic Íomhair, Castledermot, Co Kildare
Do you know the elated, elevated feeling that accompanies witnessing a great event, one that runs through all levels and brushes against the grain, stimulating growth? Switzerland, the small mountain-locked country in central Europe just gave it to me.
We were discussing prejudices about the Swiss, honestly and openly. No, we conceded, we will call them preconceptions, and kept talking and unabashedly opening cans of worms, because they wouldn’t hurt us, the worms. They wouldn’t if we wouldn’t let them.
Eva Biedermann and André Lichtsteiner had given me a book, last time we met, in anticipation of me coming to their set dancing weekend in Richterswil. It’s called Swiss Watching, written by a British ex-pat who basically says that all the prejudices—sorry, preconceptions—about Switzerland are true. Which was nodded to by all the Swiss I interviewed on the subject throughout the time in the air, on the ground and on the water. Like every other world citizen, the Swiss also have their own preconceptions, just as the Irish do. For instance, quickly answer this: What are the Americans like? Aha! Loud, pompous, in your face, inventive, burger-eating, lasso-swinging, frontier-loving, powerful, John Wayne, openly emotional—ring any bells? And the Swiss? Quickly! Er, Rolex, cheese, chocolate, Alps, neutral, rich, rules and regulations, reserved, perfectionist, bankers, clean, clean and clean. Add ‘not hasty in decision making,’ and you’re on the way. These conversations permeated the visit like holes in Emmentaler cheese, and brought up some interesting and unexpected subjects, thought-provoking, deeper thinking, illuminated and questioned. So Swiss!
It was hot, hot, hot—nearly 30 degrees in Zurich on Saturday, ’twas said. The venue, a mansion turned hostel at the shores of Lake Zurich housed all the dancers, and adjacent to it a green space, a snack shop, access for swimming, barbecues and a kiddies’ playground. All were in use. People on towels and blankets picnicked, barbecues everywhere emanating taste-bud-stimulating smoky sausage scents, bikinis, trunks and swimsuits vying for attention, badminton, table-tennis, Frisbee—you get the picture.
And then they danced to selections of Irish tunes chosen by Tommy and Stephen Doherty. Stephen, younger brother of Tom, was a revelation on the keyboard backing his older brother on box. Going from rhythmic underscoring of a tune to adorning it with harmonious melodies, Stephen’s class was just so apparent! His adornments would come suddenly, and creep speedily up the scales. In the back, Ger Butler’s drums were working to escalate or extract notes, eliminating mistakes when taking off for your house around, or when a figure was about to finish, making it easy for the dancers to follow the music.
After being taking by the hand by André and Eva and Manuela Morel, all tickets for public transport were bought for the Irish, who were escorted from the airport to the venue in a little town called Richterswil on the other side of Lake Zurich. I would never be able to navigate ticket machines, timetables, etc, successfully because it was all done for me. I was given a timetable alright for the tram, but instructed to highlight the ones to take and to write in the hours as well, so there was no room whatsoever for error. Swiss, anyone?
We danced around poles. Honest. There were posts in the middle of the dance floor, and some concern was expressed as to how this might impinge on the dancing. Not so, and actually the posts were used for some creative moves, ‘pole dancing,’ by utilizing their slippery round surfaces for primate-like swinging as displayed by Ger Butler, as support to hang onto while calling out movements to dancers in need of coaching by John Sheehan, Co Carlow, and were skilfully avoided by one and all, even by the not-used-to-poles-on-dance-floors visitors from Co Laois, John Sinott and Micheál Lalor.
There was a set danced on a boat—so un-Swiss. André organised it, an indication of how deeply the Irish arrow has pierced his heart. Outdoors at a restaurant in Zurich on the last night, the ground uneven with cobblestones, Stephen Doherty was dragged out by the hair while Tommy played since there was one body missing in a set. I believe it was his first time, and he then swapped with Tommy, who was brought in and danced a set. Wowdy! This, let’s hope, was only the promising beginning of new and long-lasting careers as musicians and dancers!
All of them danced, the Swiss, the Irish, the Germans, the French, the English, the one that I know of, anyhow, the Irish-Germans, the Swiss-Irish, the Swiss-Germans, the American-Swiss, and in spirit, the Danes. The Czechs danced as well, not too far away, in Prague. All over the continent, a network of set dancers is spreading like a nervous system, the endings firing, all interconnecting, talking to each other, supporting one another in lots of places. And you could hear this weird melting pot of languages, most of all, Swiss-German. And no, I don’t understand it all, actually, very little. It’s a bit maybe like someone from the midlands being thrown into the deepest Cork-accent corners. When they spoke fast, it could have been Martian for all I knew, and only at the end of the stay could I pick up a few more words.
Food-wise, of course, there was very good coffee, cake, salads, cheese, and very very good chocolate! This is the Queen of Chocolate declaring that, indeed, Swiss chocolate tops the polls!
Being with the Swiss was easy, even with their directness, which reminded me so much of how people are with each other in Germany. Saying things the way they are can be insensitive on one hand, and a relief on the other. For the longest time I struggled in Ireland to find out what exactly is acceptable when being direct. If unsure, be as indirect as possible, implicit rather than explicit is one of the rules adopted. “Be as inoffensive as you can,” and having almost perfected that one, it was a blast from the past to be confronted with folk who are in general more up-front and unafraid of being so.
And just like Switzerland, canton upon canton, language upon language, rivalry upon rivalry, mountain upon mountain, gets united and unified by commonalities in how they set themselves apart from other nations, all the pieces come together in the dance. Unless you’re the caller, fitted with a headset and all sorts of cables dangling from all the ends, the box clipped too loosely into the skirt top, the headset too loosely fitting the smallish head—perfect recipe for disaster. Not only did the cables get entangled and the headset slide, the whole thing also involved her dancing partner. Did the whole place collapse with laughter? Did the dancers come to a standstill while struggling to take a breath in between howls and sniggles? No way. This was Switzerland. They might have experienced all that, but kept it internal.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter, any of it. Which language do you speak? Set-dance-ish, all moving as one, all national identity falls away, for instance from surrounding states like Germany, which is also called the ‘big canton.’ In the effort to be the best they can be, the Swiss actually are the best they can be, in many different ways. Efficacy, attention to detail, time-honoured attention to time, a high-value work morale, a still somewhat land-locked isolation with fewer foreign influences than perceivable in neighbouring countries make Switzerland unique.
The cleanliness is self-evident. Run around barefoot in the mansion, and no need to wash your feet soon, as not a single bit of dust or grain of dirt will stick to the soles. All this does leave little room in general for quick adjustment, change, expansion, bending rules, haggling or asking for something different than is on the menu. And speculating, maybe that is one reason why the Swiss, like other nationalities, find Irishness so attractive, the proportion of it that includes being laid back, thinking outside boxes, being late for an event and not worrying about it. It took twenty years of living in Ireland to take that worry away, not completely, mind you, but it’s now less likely to precipitate a panic attack. But like the Irish, the Swiss are not hasty. At least not when it comes to decision-making. Everything has to be discussed and weighted, committees formed and meetings undertaken before settling on one choice or another, or deciding that nothing can be decided just yet. This bit of information came from a Swiss banker who sat beside me in the plane. Encouraged to talk about what it’s like being Swiss, he bombarded me for two hours straight with just that. No off-switch that I could find. “We don’t like being involved in conflict. We take time to discuss matters broadly. We do like our cheese, our mountains, our chocolate and are proud of Swiss produce like the army knives and watches. Above all, the Swiss keep doing what works if it works. And our country works!” Concurred.
Eva said, “We are more reserved than other people perhaps, and it is more difficult to get to know us. But once we have made friends, you can’t get rid of us!”
So, do we know Switzerland now? No, I hardly know Germany or Ireland, or myself at times, so there’ll be no claims laid here. Is it enough what we do know? Not at all. The Swiss mystery has only been touched upon, and I have yet to swim in one of the lakes accompanied by red-crested pochard ducks. They do quack, but there’s no telling what they say.
Mystical, mythical Ireland? Switzerland has its own mystique and myths. To find out more and add another few pieces, you will have to go yourself and look at this amazing country and its people.
PS At a new weekend in a new location usually the words ‘teething problems’ spring to mind. Are you joking? Not here, not in Switzerland. It had already matured into an adult with permanent teeth by all the thoughtfulness of Manuela, Eva and Andre. So Swiss!
The 28th annual set dancing workshop took place in St Patrick’s Community Centre, Lordship, Co Louth, on the weekend of 15th to 17th April when we had a spell of beautiful summery weather. As usual the event was well supported, with France, Belgium and England being represented by participants from those countries. The event got off to a lively start on the Friday night with a ceili to the music of the talented Triskell Ceili Band. The night had its share of drama when about 10pm, while the big Christmas of the Clare Lancers was being danced, the place was plunged into darkness and in the distance we could see a transformer on fire. In jig time the fire brigade arrived followed closely by the ESB technicians in full riot gear. A decision was made to have the supper under the emergency lighting system—luckily the water for the tea had been boiled prior to the power failure.
While the supper was being served Plan B was put into operation and our chairman Jim McEneaney quickly produced a portable generator and temporary power was restored when the supper was over. The dancing commenced again with the minimum of delay. About fifteen minutes later normal power resumed and we could again clearly see each other. The dancers went home happy looking forward to the remainder of the weekend.
The workshop on Saturday morning started with the usual cup of tea and lovely homemade cakes. Pádraig and Róisín McEneany were there in good time with their support team Mary Conboy and Donal Morrissey. As is usual for Pádraig and Róisín they put the dancers through their paces showing and practicing the various steps. The first set they taught was the Caragh Lake Set and they spent time teaching the little difficult bits until all the dancers had a good grasp of the figure.
The ladies had lunch ready at one o’clock when we all had a well-deserved break and time to go and enjoy the sunshine under the shadow of Sliabh na gCloch. The dancing resumed at two o’clock with the Kildownet Half-Set, that lovely set from Mayo, being taught. Then followed the Valentia Right and Left Set to conclude the workshop. The usual refreshments were served at 3.30pm and they were very much appreciated by those taking part. The dancers went home at 5pm for a well earned rest to prepare for the night ceili.
Tim Joe and Anne O’Riordan had arrived from Cork in good time and were ready to start at 10pm. We had a wonderful night of dancing to the beautiful vibrant Cork music and all went home happy having been treated to the usual sumptuous supper supplied by the ladies committee.
On Sunday morning the dancers were again supplied with the usual welcoming cup of tea and Kathleen McGlynn was on hand to teach some sean nós steps. As well as beginners, we had some dancers who had attended previous workshops given by Kathleen and they engaged in a bit of revision. Kathleen had also a few new steps for the occasion.
After the usual break for refreshments we had the afternoon ceili again with Tim Joe and Anne. The dancers had a wonderful afternoon and the sean nós dancers gave a display of the steps learned earlier in the day to beautiful rhythmic music. We are grateful to the bands and tutors who gave us such a wonderful weekend of first class entertainment. The dancers all dispersed to their homes tired but happy to have spent such an enjoyable weekend in the Cooley Peninsula.
Michael McGlynn, Riverstown, Co Louth
Bright but breezy weather in the Glens of Antrim welcomed everyone to the Carnlough Set Dancing Weekend, which took place from May 6th–8th. The weekend was later than usual this year, due to a late Easter and we did wonder, would it have an impact on numbers attending? We need not have worried as many familiar faces and some new ones joined us for the session in the Glencloy Inn on Friday night. We were delighted to welcome back the Wicklow and Wexford gang (the weekend would not be the same without them) and first timers to Carnlough, Danny and Mary Crotty, among others from throughout Ulster and beyond. The local musicians provided some great music with solos on uilleann pipes, harp, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, tin whistle and traditional songs from visitors and locals alike. The night could not end without some dancing so the Antrim Square and Clare Lancers were called.
Seven sets took to the floor on Saturday morning and Pat Murphy started the workshop with the Ath a’ Caiore Set, which became affectionately known as the ‘Ikea’ Set by some who had difficulty pronouncing its name! This was followed by the Blacktown Set, with its jazzing fifth figure, which was new to many of us. We approached the Port Fairy Set with some trepidation in the afternoon, as we had heard and read about its complicated moves. However with Pat’s calm and encouraging instructions, we made our way through it and had completed all three figures by 5pm—a great achievement for all.
Between the workshop and the ceili many of our visitors took time to visit local attractions such as Cranny Falls and Glenariffe, whilst others took off to Billy Andy’s Pub for food, music and more craic.
The Cathal McAnulty Ceili Band provided great music for eleven sets at the ceili, with Catherine, his wife, calling the sets in her own inimitable style. Pat called the Blacktown Set, which gave us the opportunity of dancing it through at a ceili for the first time. The raffle again generated much interest , as Steenson’s Jewellers donated first prize and we were delighted but a little envious when the silver pendant with set dancing motif was won by one of our visiting dancers. As always, a fantastic spread of all homemade goodies was provided for the supper and thanks are due to all our own group for this voluntary effort.
Four sets were on the floor on Sunday morning at 11am and Pat taught the Meelin Set, with its train shunting move around the house, and repeated the first figure of the Port Fairy before the workshop ended at 1pm.
The weekend was a great success and continues the tradition of providing a warm friendly welcome to all, along with great Glens hospitality. We hope to see you all again next year.
Emer Gallagher, Carnlough, Co Antrim
April the 29th finally arrived. No! Not the Royal Wedding which I had managed (and still have) to avoid. I neither know nor care what the dress was like.
Our own Glasgow set dance weekend was here. All the practising and studying was over and Audrey and I headed for the hall, arriving about 7.30pm for an 8 o’clock start. We are early bedders in Scotland. Our class had commandeered two tables near the band and was buzzing with anticipation. The hall was very warm and the ventilation system was struggling a bit to cool the air. During the day 24 degree heat had built up which had turned the hall into an oven.
Introductions over, the dancing started to Round Towers Ceili Band with a Connemara, followed by a Corofin Plain, Antrim Square, Clare Lancers and a Ballyvourney Jig set before a wee tea break. I had a wander round the hall and found we had visitors from Germany, France, England, a big contingent from Donegal and elsewhere in Ireland and lots from Scotland including two new dancers who took every dance in their stride. After tea we had a Cashel, Moycullen, Derradda and Plain to end a great evening’s dancing.
Saturday morning dawned and we were back for a workshop with Ger Butler. Starting with a set from Roscommon, the Shannon Gaels Set was enjoyed by eight sets. In the afternoon, the Longford Set was followed by a Seit Doire Colmcille. With a bit of sean nós for the committed, we ended an excellent day’s workshop and headed off to enjoy the sunshine before the evening session.
Saturday evening was soon here and I had received word that we were getting dance visitors from Corsica so I was on the lookout for them. Brian Ború Ceili Band were soon tuned up and we started with a Corofin Plain, Mazurka, Ballyvourney Jig and Connemara before tea. I managed to track down our Corsican visitors and had a chat with them. Some schoolboy French and slowing down my Scots meant we could communicate. As I had my kilt on, pictures were taken with the visitors, then the dancing restarted. A Plain, Shannon Gaels, Cashel and Clare Lancers completed the evening and a happy crowd wandered home.
Sunday morning found me with a bug and on arriving at the hall for the morning workshop, I felt really ill. As the set numbers were down due to a big Donegal Live festival in Glasgow, I tried to stay, and did a Shannon Gaels and a bit of a Clare Orange and Green but soon I was unable to dance and we headed home thinking that the weekend was over for us.
After Audrey had lunch she decided that, as junior reporter, she would return and dance and take notes. What a heroine she tells me she is! I lay down and suffered all afternoon, swallowing Paracetamol and tea. We were off to Australia on the following Wednesday and I wanted to be fit to travel. With Brian Ború again driving the whole afternoon along, we started with a Clare Lancers, Labasheeda and Newport before a break.
During the break there was a display of sean nós by Ger Butler followed by Marie Garrity, Patricia Marshall and James Montgomery. A Shannon Gaels, Connemara, Clare Orange and Green and a Claddagh finished the weekend in fine style.
I would like to thank the committee for their fine organisation, Audrey for abandoning me on my sickbed, not knowing if I would still be with us on her return, the bands for excellent music and to everyone for coming along and making the weekend a success. I am already looking forward to next year and intend to complete the course this time.
Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
The Ballina Set Dancing Weekend took place from March 4th to 6th in the Downhill Hotel, Ballina, Co Mayo. The weekend kicked off on Friday evening with a country and western workshop and was followed by a ceili with the mighty Copperplate.
The sean nós workshop with Ger Butler took place on Saturday morning. Ger broke down the steps in an easy to follow manner and all present enjoyed his workshop. Everyone had some free time at this point to wander around the town of Ballina and have some lunch. We celebrated Mass in the hotel at 3.30pm and the Duets band commenced the evening’s entertainment at 5pm with two and a half hours of lively country and western. This was followed by a ceili with the Annaly Ceili Band at 10pm. After the ceili some of the residents continued with more country and western in the residents’ bar.
Sunday morning saw Marie Garrity doing what she does best in her workshop. Her gentle style allowed all present to enjoy a lovely two-hand session between 11am and 1pm. The Innisfree Ceili Band provided entertainment for the afternoon’s ceili. All present enjoyed the excellent music and there was also some sean nós and Irish dancing thrown into the mix!
There was a representative from Mayo Cancer Support in attendance. She spoke of the service which they provide in the area and she thanked myself and my wife and all those who have contributed to the charity. We have raised over €50,000 to date.
The weekend came to a close with some country and western with Medicine Bow. The weekend was a huge success. A special thank-you to all who attended and took part.
Oliver Fleming, Cloontia, Co Mayo
Around 600 people arrived at the Villa Roma Resort on Friday April 8th for what was advertised as the fiftieth of Gertrude Byrne’s series of Irish music and dance weekends. Gertie used to hold two weekends a year but this was the first one after a gap of a couple of years, so interest was high and dancers from up and down the east coast of the States were keen to meet up. Those in the New York City area travelled about two hours to reach the Villa Roma, which sprawls over a large hilly and wooded site in the southern part of the scenic Catskill Mountains region. A group from the Philadelphia area travelled about four hours, and those from Maine had a seven-hour journey. The longest trips were made by the visitors from Ireland, Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band, Pat Murphy, John Finbarr Crowley from Dunmanway, Co Cork, who regularly travels the Atlantic to dance, and of course, I was fortunate to be here as well. First to arrive in the Villa Roma were the musicians of Swallow’s Tail, who came on Thursday and had plenty of time to adjust and relax before their first ceili on Friday night. Pat Murphy and I met up at the baggage claim in Newark Airport on Thursday morning after separate flights that arrived within minutes of each other. We visited Manhattan for the afternoon, overnighted in New Jersey and drove up on Friday. John Finbarr had arranged a lift to the venue with the band, except that when he flew into New York on Friday afternoon, the band had already been in the hotel for a day and he had to find his own way. I doubted I’d see him on Friday at all!
The drive up to the hotel was a study in contrasts, departing as we did from the extreme depths of New Jersey’s urban jungle and arriving in a wooded landscape as far removed from the modern world as one can get in a two-hour journey from the Big Apple. We broke the journey just about where the suburbs started fading out, tempted by signs for an outlet mall, which was so huge that it’s apparently a tourist destination in its own right. Pat Murphy shines as a dedicated teacher of dancing, of course, but another of his talents is a boundless appetite for shopping! He accumulated several bags in just a couple of shops before our dancing responsibilities took hold again and we returned to the road.
Finding the hotel was easy with my satnav, but I’d despair of making my way there without it! I was glad to have my room sorted in good time for the 3pm arrival party with live country music and self-service tea, coffee and cake. Strong demand for tea, myself included, drained the supply of hot water and quickly consumed all tea bags, while coffee and cake were plentiful. We were excited to meet each other and peered eagerly into the room where Pete Kelly and his ceili band were getting ready for the 4pm ceili. It was a long, narrow space, half-covered by a brand new, high-tech dance floor which snapped together with Lego-like simplicity. Pat Murphy took charge of the sets and calling when we began dancing and was on duty all weekend without flagging. The crowd was small at first but filled up as more arrived. The floor worked well and was actually quite gentle to joints as the underlying structure was quite bouncy. The Pete Kelly Ceili Band, featuring Martin Mulhare on box, Hugh O’Neill on piano accordion, Tommy Brady on drums and Pete himself on fiddle, have long been a favourite of New York set dancers and provided a tuneful and gentle start to the weekend.
After fifty weekends, the programme is well established and understood by the regulars. The opening ceili finished in time to let everyone ready themselves for the 6.30pm cocktail hour in the nightclub. Three buffet lines dispensed hot and cold hors d’0euvres and a bar provided complimentary cocktails and soft drinks. Close attention was paid by the regulars to their seating arrangements for dinner as we kept the same seats all weekend. Most people made a priority of booking tables with their friends as soon as possible after arriving. Pat and I were kindly looked after by two ladies who gave us seats at their table. Just as we were entering the dining room, John Finbarr arrived after driving from the airport in a hired car in good time, full of smiles after his long journey.
The logistics of feeding 600 people at once meant that by the time our waiter was taking dessert orders I was feeling anxious about getting to tonight’s ceili on time. At events like this I’d always rather dance than either eat or sleep, so declined a piece of cake and went straight to the ceili—I didn’t want to miss any of Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band. It’s rare enough when an Irish band visits the USA, and Michael Hurley, the band’s flute player, explained to me some of what’s involved when they travel. Before the visit, all five of them had to travel from Mayo and Sligo to spend a day at the US embassy in Dublin to obtain the necessary permissions, which apply only to this one visit. They also had to go to Dublin for the flight, which brought them out a day early to ensure they’d be here for tonight’s ceili. It took a while for the crowd to build while people filtered in from dinner. Some dancers opted for a comedy show in the nightclub, and by the time that finished the floor in the ceili was packed. The atmosphere was electric—and I mean that literally! While dancing I often felt little sparks of electricity when I took my partner’s hand, due perhaps to a dry atmosphere and all the spinning on the shiny synthetic floor.
Hardly more than two hours later, Swallow’s Tail played their last set to make way for another band, the Pride of New York, abbreviated to four initials by their fans. Four superstars of the US Irish music scene, Joanie Madden, Billy McComiskey, Brian Conway and Brendan Dolan, formed PONY mainly as a concert band, so an opportunity to dance sets to them was especially welcome. Joanie’s brother John joined them on drums. From the start they played immensely satisfying reels, perfectly lively, rich and full, and the jigs and hornpipes were equally enjoyable. As a bonus Joanie served as the hilarious voice of the band, cracking jokes at every opportunity, keeping the dancers in stitches while filling sets. I sorely regret being too busy dancing and laughing to include any examples here, but she was blithely disparaging about herself, the band and their music. I thought, wouldn’t it be brilliant if every ceili band brought along their own comedian! It would be a surefire way to raise the atmosphere in the hall and get everyone in the right mood for a great ceili. In contrast to the first half, the floor started full and gradually became emptier, but the band continued at full force nearly till 2am, even with just a set or two on the floor. When Pat called the Labasheeda Set, I heard someone say, “The Labasheeda? Must be time to go to bed.” We then mustered two sets of dancers for the final set which ended the night.
Breakfast was a more relaxed affair than other meals. We could arrive when it suited us, up to 10am, unlike lunch and dinner when we were all seated together at the same time. Pat Murphy had just two and half hours this morning to teach a couple of sets, the Doire Cholmcille and Blacktown. The floor was packed and the enthusiasm was on a high level. It was hard to leave the workshop in time for lunch so we rushed to the dining room a few minutes late.
For the afternoon ceili we were lucky enough to be allowed to use the hotel’s nightclub, where the cocktail hours and comedy shows were held. It benefited from a stage and a large, smooth timber floor, which, while not as bouncy, easily accommodated all our sets. Even better, we had another chance to dance to PONY, or half of them at least. Joanie, Billy and John were aided today by Gráinne Murphy and Kathleen Boyle on fiddle and piano (bandmates of Joanie’s in Cherish the Ladies) and together they gave us more of the gorgeous music we enjoyed last night. Pat Murphy wisely chose the sets to maintain interest and minimise repetition at all the ceilis. Today we practiced the Blacktown and then he let everyone choose a set for the final blast of reels. Just before that, Paul Keating presented an award to Billy McComiskey honouring his enrolment in the North American Comhaltas Hall of Fame. Paul recalled that it was about 25 years since Billy won the All-Ireland senior box competition.
The remainder of Saturday followed the same programme as on Friday evening, with a cocktail hour, dinner and then dancing till nearly 2am. Many people dressed their best for the two evening dinners, but a few reserved their finest garments for Saturday night. Before the meal began, there was a rousing ‘grand march’. Irish and American flags were paraded around the dining room followed by any number of people waving miniature flags and singing along to patriotic Irish and American songs, while the rest of us stood by our tables waving and singing too. A priest said grace, and then it was back to the serious business of eating, which once again was relaxed enough that it clashed with the 9pm start of the ceili. I’d been so well supplied with food that I had no hesitation about choosing dancing over dessert.
At the ceili, Pete Kelly was responsible for music on the early shift, and Swallow’s Tail took over to finish the night. Pete kept a steady pace during his sets, though he played remarkable hornpipes that knocked the wind out of us they were so lively. The Swallow’s have the benefit of a rotating panel of brilliant box players, and Barry Brady was their star player on this trip. He was delighted to be here and enjoyed every minute of playing. The drummer Daragh Kelly was equally enthusiastic, though tonight he managed to give up the drums for one set so he could have a dance! It was the sound man who took over while Daragh was dancing, and this lad did such a commendable job that Michael Hurley thought there’d be no need to fly over a drummer if they ever came again!
Pat called some of my favourite sets tonight, including the South Galway and the High-Cauled Cap, but for me the best set of the weekend was the West Kerry, the second last with only one set dancing! We had all those gorgeous polkas to ourselves—bliss! I had some great partners as well, all loads of fun, some veritable laugh machines! I remember one asking me what I thought of the Catskills area. Mindful of the remote wintry landscape and the old-fashioned dilapidated buildings I saw on the way here, I asked her, “When did the bomb go off?”
“In the 1950s,” she answered. Of course these comments don’t refer to our hotel, which was an oasis of civilisation, newly refurbished and modern. Many of the rooms were actually suites or apartments, and tonight I was kindly invited to a post-ceili tea party in one of them, which was lovely until I began finding it hard to keep my eyes open.
Sunday began with breakfast followed by Mass. Swallow’s Tail then played an early ceili which was their best of the weekend. Everyone was in a relaxed frame of mind, musicians and dancers, and I think we’d have all been delighted to have skipped lunch and kept dancing if the band didn’t have to board a bus to return to the airport. The whole day was punctuated with goodbyes as people left whenever they found it convenient, while those of us without major journeys ahead of us were able to have one last fling at the final afternoon ceili with Pete Kelly. We danced just three sets but they were memorable for fun with the partners and easy pleasure of the music. Pat Murphy finally took a break from the calling and danced every set. And then in the usual Irish fashion, Pat and I stayed around till the bitter end and were the last to leave.
On the way back to the city there was a mandatory return visit to the outlet mall. On our subsequent visits to Manhattan over the next three days, the Villa Roma was still in mind as we met up for dinner with a couple of the dancers and met more attendees at a class in New Jersey. The pleasure of a good weekend stays with you long after it’s over.
Enjoy Travel, the company specialising in Irish music and dancing package holidays, moved its popular Fleadh Ibiza to the mainland of Spain this year, renaming it Fleadh España. The new venue was a resort called Villaitana, near Benidorm on the Costa Blanca. The sprawling resort complex features two golf courses and buildings arranged like traditional Spanish villages. The fleadh took place from Sunday April 24th to Tuesday May 3rd. Correspondent Chris Eichbaum was there to provide us with a flavour of her experience.
Getting lost has been a steady companion of mine, and mine alone, but being plunged into a resort on the reddish soil of southeast Spain, I was, for once, in excellent company. Everyone got lost here, and found, and lost again, and puzzled by this magnificently mystifying architectural puzzle where the pieces at first were just out of reach to join together. Several investigatory trips later, some of the connections came to light and shortcuts appeared slowly out of the dark guts of the complexity. Infinite views through arches, delicate shapes and forms of rooftops, fascias, windows, doors and hallways, dead ends suddenly turning up out of nowhere, crocheted in a haphazard sort of way at first glance, at second and third became known. This outpouring of a dream, catapulted into waking life, made visitors marvel and wonder whether they had landed in an alternate reality, a slightly surreal, slightly out-of-phase palace. The cultural shock was huge too. This enormous flock of dancing birds descended on a Spanish resort purpose-built for golfing groups. Who are they? What are they about? And what on earth are they doing this dancing for? The Spaniards were somewhat lost, too, I’ll wager!
Down the rabbit hole and out the other end into a Disney dream world, a wonderland that needed special navigational instincts to find ways around without leaving bread crumbs behind. It resembled a country village with plazas, a church-like structure, a clock tower, pastel coloured houses in different hues and shapes, many pools holding luscious turquoise water, conceived by a brain wanting the utmost out of possible architecture. And slowly, it all began to make sense. The place certainly had a wow-factor, and looking at it from the steeple pinnacle that I had climbed at my own peril, especially that windy last leg up a steep metal ladder with the blooming skirt flapping this way and that, the whole of the designer village looked as if it had been dropped onto an arid landscape from a great height.
Declan Aungier was a man to be reckoned with, musically. I sat there innocently on the main plaza of the village hotel complex, minding my own business at half-two in the morning, when the strangest music forced itself on me, reminiscent of Russian, gypsy or French tunes, one of which Declan called Chinese Polka. His instrument was a big five-row button accordion that emits orchestral sounds with a Bavarian tinge. Like Tommy Doherty, who arrived later in the week to play accompanied by Pat Walsh, Declan declares he cannot be without his box. Impossible. Once, he went on a holiday without an instrument. After going insane for two days, he made a DIY xylophone from glass panels. That taught him to never ever go anywhere again and not have an accordion handy. This obsessive-compulsive behaviour will be familiar to set dancers of distinction, and they too know how music can cure many things. Down in Villaitana-wonderland, it helped make dancers smile and kick legs about.
Teaching Tommy Doherty a tune, almost, counts in my book as a lifetime achievement, and it being a twelve-bar tune called The Long German is more than a coincidence, rather, a synchronicity. It should be the other way round, shouldn’t it? I lilted it for him and was then supposed to play it for him on the whistle. First, I had to figure it out myself on the whistle. The very thought of having the Tommy Doherty, the one who is an All-Ireland champion box player, listening to my clumsy attempt at closing the right holes at the right time sent me panicking. So, I really wanted to do it. And I really didn’t want to do it. In a place where the normal laws of physics apply, Tommy should be teaching me a tune, right?
Mister Ger Butler is back! He flew in for a few days and landed without bumps on the outdoor wooden dance floor and, like any good captain, received applause and compliments for delivering a flawless service in a polite and professional way, while at the same time keeping the dance-passengers safe and relaxed. Since a good few dancers commented positively on his calling, it gets another special mention here. Ger calls sparsely, enough to get the gist, enough to allow folks to stay grown-up, clear and well-timed, delivered in a well-volumed voice.
Seamus Melvin held a jiving class which I managed to go to on one of the days only due to three or four different classes on offer simultaneously—kid in the sweetshop! I strolled in late and watched, mesmerized by all the twists and turns, when, oh shock!, Seamus took me out to dance, and with this guy, there didn’t seem to be any bother in doing the fancy turnings and I felt quite the real deal with a winning ticket—so chuffed! Must have grown another half-an-inch on that occasion, in the safe and somehow nonslip hands of Seamus Melvin, jiver extraordinaire. Now, I will have to learn how to do the man, too.
Sheila Gormley called at the ceilis as well and took a beginners’ set dancing class, but the real news here is that she got engaged to Michael Barry! Looking at them, you can see the deep connection, love and friendship they share—I love seeing love, and they show it!
Mickey Kelly, teacher and caller, how can I not be fond of him? He is an institution for sure. So much in Mayo has been initiated by him (the Newport Set, anyone?) and he is partly responsible for my great love of set dancing. Nigh on twenty years ago, he took me out in sets in the famous Derradda dance hall, and me being only a toddler in my set dancing life span, felt encouraged and nurtured by him and others in that place. He doesn’t sit in a chair, but a throne. If you looked up the phrase ‘larger than life’ in the encyclopedia, Mickey Kelly’s name is under it! So between Ger, Sheila and Mickey, the teaching and calling was divided in almost equal portions—what a threesome! And two other callers worth their salt whose names I want to see in print are Hilary Nic Íomhair (threw in a cúpla focal) and Moira Dempsey (can’t be any clearer).
Fíor céilí workshops and céilithe didn’t start until later in the week, and two teachers kindly helped out on the spur of the moment to show some dances—Caoimhín Ó Fátharta from Connemara, with his kids even providing live music for some of it, and Connie McKelvey from Donegal. Some of the mornings I faced a most dreadful decision-making time. Go to the session? The fíor céilí workshop? Jiving? Set dancing? Argh! Ending up doing a wee bit of everything, (‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ shall henceforth be my middle name!) sampling this class and that, I nevertheless increased my ceili dance repertoire, improved on Cregg’s Pipes, intensified knowledge of the Shannon Gael Set, and squealed at being jive-tossed about the place.
Best of all probably was the fíor céilí with Tommy and Pat playing, and dancing on a nice wooden floor. (This hall had been earmarked originally for all ceilis, but lacked somewhat in space, hence the move to a larger hall with tiled floor.) Tommy’s way of playing tunes, marking stops and starts with often slightly prolonged notes, and umph-ing on the first and third beat, allows me to go into a short-term trance while waiting for the next move, and admittedly, a few times I missed the turn—oops. It’s all Tommy’s fault!
And although the Annaly Ceili Band played some fine tunes, easy to dance to, my most memorable experience was dancing the High-Cauled Cap, which featured a few times during the week, with the Annaly’s Sean Thompson. Now, this was Sean’s first time trying his feet at it. And mine. Never have I worked as hard! The relentless slagging that followed on centred around the well-known fact of Longford (Sean’s hometown) being a top tourist destination, and Sean ventured to say that they actually have some fine ducks there. Ducks. Aha. The eighth wonder of the world, no doubt. If you ever try out your wit on him, he’ll probably outslag you with his dryness. A sand dune is like a water reservoir in comparison.
This was my first time listening to Triogue, although only two of the team members, Martin O’Connell on box and M J Mahon on guitar, were there. They played two ceilis a day back to back, as did the Annaly. Two young fellas they are, and their music sounds young too—energetic rolls and triples, the Kerry liveliness sprung forth from Martin’s buttons, and M J worked the guitar to its max. Now I want to hear them again! Where are you, lads? You must come back!
Didn’t I sprain my thumb the last day in Spain! Silly me, trying to take a fancy picture of the band from below, went over on the thumb after trying to get up. Blimey! Next day beside me in the plane sat Josephine Grimes, who also went on the trip and danced days and nights away. But when not dancing, she practices Reiki and reflexology. She offered to do a bit of Reiki on my hand, and here we were, 30,000 feet up in the sky, and I received a heated Reiki treatment. Some people are just kind. Full stop.
Here, I would like to acknowledge those folks for whom the holiday was not what they would have liked, those for whom it held a lot of brilliant moments as well as some problems, and the others who thought the time in Villaitana was altogether a rave, and they’d come back there tomorrow. One of those in the latter category was Mike Wójcik. He stated, “It takes a couple of days to unwind, but then it gets better and better and you forget everything, money, worries. It’s lovely, it’s great. This afternoon, for instance, was just wonderful. The music (by Triogue) was heavenly. I don’t think I could find something else I could be as obsessed about, and I would need something to be obsessed about!”
Also to be acknowledged is that Enjoy Travel tried to rectify some of the problems that arose, accepted that some things had gone wrong and did not dismiss the complainants’ issues.
These trips have been unique in what they offer. There are other organisations offering only social dance tours. But what makes these trips special and sets them apart is the sense of belonging to a culture that pays homage to its indigenous music, song, verse and especially dance in its many forms—sets, fíor céilí, sean nós, two-hands. It’s this sense of belonging, so at the core of human desires and survival instincts alike, that makes these holidays carry more responsibility, more weight than any other for punters, staff, bands, supporters and managers identically.
Everyone on an Enjoy Travel holiday can contribute and is indeed encouraged to do so. The jersey parade shows the pride and dignity, and the enthusiasm in the talent and fancy dress competitions underscores the degree of involvement. No other holiday fires people up to make it their own, to bring their national pride and talents, to shape it and contribute and be creative and musical. Next time, let’s do just that.
PS Three people in particular have stayed with me—Mick, Victoria and Carmel. For their unshakable optimism, positive outlook and sunshine radiance, I would like to pack them into my suitcase for the next trip and take ’em out if a smile is needed. The following words are from interviews with them.
I have a maths brainIt was one of these strange coincidences. I saw a poster for set dancing somewhere, went to it and straight away loved it! The teacher started us on the Labasheeda—to this day my favourite set! I can still picture it all, my first mistake, in the high gates! And then we did the Kerry Set, the body, and I couldn’t believe how wonderful this was, all of us doing this together. Since then, I have not stopped. Not a week goes by without dancing. I wouldn’t do anything to stop me dancing.
It’s partly mathematical. I have a maths brain. Not languages, but maths and physics. There’s a mathematical pattern in sets which I love. I love the fact that you get a group of people doing the same thing at the same time. Everyone in the hall is doing it. You can do this with strangers. I do Ceroc as well, a French type of jive, which is danced to current pop music. But in set dancing, the man doesn’t have to lead.
Timmy McCarthy is my hero. There shouldn’t be an amalgamation of styles. Every set has its own style, which is what Timmy promotes.
Dancing is 1, being in time with the music, and 2, being in time with your partner.
I like dancing with beginners. It doesn’t bother me at all if sets go wrong. If they are enthusiastic, helping them find their way through it is okay. Most set dancers are like that.
Mike Wójcik, Colchester, England
A part of a big groupI am from Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, a place called Ostrava in Moravia. I left in 1968 during the Prague Spring, went to London, arrived on Friday and had a job on Monday! I work now as an interpreter. We have three kids, one is in America, and two in England, and all of them speak Czech.
Yes, I do wear very bright colours, I was told that at my age I should!
Ten or twelve years ago, I went to a festival in North Yorkshire and an Irish set dance workshop was a part of it. I loved it immediately. The music and the friendliness of the people are wonderful. No matter who you are or your skill level, they always help you. Whenever we went sides and asked the set, “Can we join you?” the answer would be, “Yes, of course, we’ll help you.” I always go now to that festival, the Whitby Folk Week and join the workshop. I try to go to other places too, like Birmingham, to dance. Two years ago, we started a club in Cambridge and we found someone to teach, Pat Murphy, a Norfolk chap. We meet the first and third Wednesday of each month and love everyone to join who can! We have one or two sets.
Alan, my husband, is into dancing because I am, but he does enjoy it. We went to Ibiza then and have been back there ever since. You feel a part of a big group. Although I am a bit of an outsider, I don’t feel it. I have nothing Irish in me, and am not Catholic either. It doesn’t matter, the dancing is uniting. And I love singing as well, but I’m no good at it, that’s why I dance!
Dancing makes me happy. I was a morris dancer too! Again, it’s about dancing in a group, you’re together, but morris dancing is a display. And set dancing is top! You get great satisfaction doing it, it’s a square, all working together, it’s a team effort! All sorts of people do it, as long as you can walk, you can dance!
I am not an expert on the music. I can just tell whether it drives me to dancing. Sometimes you are in the ballroom and a band plays that you’re just plodding along to. And other bands that just make you dance although you might be tired—music is a powerful weapon!
I dance every night. Monday, American square dancing. Tuesday, English country dancing. Wednesday it’s set dancing or American square. Thursday it’s ballroom tea dance. In the evening it’s either Scottish or English. Friday is another tea dance afternoon and at night American contra dance. Saturday is always some dance in the evening, either country or ballroom. Sunday is ballroom and sequence dance in a social club with great atmosphere. I enjoy fíor céilí as well.
If I hadn’t my dancing, ach, that’d be very bad! I am obsessed with it. It’s such a big part of my life, and I always discover new things like Argentinian tango, or nineteenth century quadrilles.
Victoria Bursa, Cambridge, England
Great life and great health
I am from Cartron, Kylebrack, Loughrea, Co Galway. I learned set dancing at seven years of age in an old country cottage where an old man was lilting and his son played the mouth harp. We danced the short East Galway and the South Galway sets. All then were house dances, and no polka sets at all! I played the fiddle as well, hung it up then, there wasn’t as much music played.
I danced all my life, and then my health broke down. My kidneys were polycystic and in 2000 I began feeling quite sick. In 2001 I was put on dialysis in Merlin Park Hospital, Galway, twice a week, three-hour courses. There were days you were sick, and days you’d be good. Generally, I felt weak and got sick after food and lost weight. In that year it was decided in Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, that my name was to go into the pool for a transplant. I wore a monitor and a pager and had suitcases ready.
On the 13th of November 2001, the phone rang at 2.30 in the morning, and Phyllis, the coordinator said they had a kidney and to come asap! I was so perplexed, all I said was, “Are you sure?” My husband Pat drove me down and stayed with me. All the scans were positive and I was wheeled into theatre that afternoon. I remember nothing until the next morning. I was very relaxed throughout and trusted the doctors. The new kidney functioned during the night already! I was absolutely thrilled!
After a few days I was sent home and feeling better. Twelve months later I was back set dancing, a ceili in Loughrea. A great friend of mine organised it for the kidney association. Micheál Sexton and Pat Walsh played and we had 22 sets on the floor. I have been out ever since! Since then, I have a great life and great health! I just go about my life, my family were so good, they always rallied round me. Sometimes I forget about it.
It was a big occasion to have a transplant in our area, a country area where not many people knew much about it. And it’s such a small thing to carry a donor card, once you know about it.
Every day is a bonus. I love and enjoy life to the full now. I didn’t respect and appreciate life as much. The dancing and the trad music are the treats of my life. My poor husband has to put up with this! I always have trad music playing while doing the housework.
Carmel Clarke, Kylebrack, Loughrea, Co Galway
Sunday morning, at the late breakfast, Gerry Tynan and Pauline Moore put their thinking caps on. “You’re always thinking, where could we improve things?” said Pauline. All present howled, “Nothing! Leave it alone!” as if something precious might come to harm by being meddled with too much. Whatever else, it brought a capital smile to Pauline’s face, and the old saying that you only ever fix things if they’re broken holds true here. There was completely unbroken dancing in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, at the Gateway to the West weekend, 13–15 May. Without breaks or scratches, you dance sets, jive, sean nós and waltz, play music and watch, listen and learn. Tick all your boxes, whatever your boxes are, you’ll be hard pushed to find one that doesn’t deserve ticking. The floor is smooth and so is the temporary extension. You get water at the ready. Nice food in the hotel, which in and of itself is a little charmer. Fab music for ceili and social dance. One of the most distinguished tutors guiding the workshops, the ever so sure-footed Maureen Culleton. Sessions that are certified organic for their old style cosy inclusiveness.
Doreen Corrigan from Dublin caught me when I came up to reception. She took one look at me, turned around to the girl behind the desk, pointed her finger at me and said in a loud and rather serious voice, “I am going to want security here!” She then spun ’round to give me her lil-ol-lady bear hug. Dubs!
Geographically, as you come in the main entrance, once you have escaped Doreen, just past the reception desk is where the sessions hold sway, and there is no escaping! In a you’re-in-my-front-room atmosphere, a large number of folks will gather and are encouraged to chip in with songs, play tunes, show steps, or, if you’re lucky, a bodhrán might land on your lap, or you get out your spoons and get carried away to the point of bruising your hand from playing them so hard without noticing, because it’s all so great! A good few dancers showed off their steps, but a special mention has to go to Helen Kelly, who was asked no fewer than four times over the weekend to do the brush dance! Why? See, it’s her personality that shines through. She looks relaxed and enjoying it in an authentic way. A little clowny, a little slip of a girl, a little dainty step, then a big stamp, easy steps, executed with liveliness—everyone can relate to her. The natural smile on her face while looking at her feet sometimes feels as if she herself is amused by what her feet are doing, and then she looks up at the audience and takes them in with that laughter!
I was so excited then when the Abbey came on stage Friday night—I had a couple of ills for them to cure, and cure them they did! The first being that my friend told me in complete absence of consideration for my feelings, that my new favourite top makes me look like an Amazon in body armour. (Guess what, you! I am an Amazon! Be very afraid of slagging retaliation!) The second ill that had plagued me was a set dancing itch for a high-rise ceili with all the trimmings. The Abbey obligingly took care of that. Instead of an itch though, a twitch of sorts appeared. Some of their tunes are so hugely inspiring for my body, it begins to do all sorts of contorting moves while waiting. So I utterly reject any suggestions of insanity and lay the blame for twitches on music that’s too good.
It wasn’t all over though with the end of the ceili, there was more music and social dancing going on, and God bless the set dancers for their stamina, a lot of them continued and continued . . .
Saturday morning, after a valiant effort to get up and be on time for the workshop, the reward was massive. A lotto win, to be exact. What did Maureen Culleton bestow on the dancers but a cutesy set from Birr, the Birr Set. Sheets of notes were given out because it is not recorded anywhere. It was composed about a year ago by Micheal Ryan, a schoolteacher from Co Clare, now living in Birr, Co Offaly. He felt that there was a geographical gap between the Killyon and the Lorrha Aglish sets. Maureen got it from him, and it made me all studious—must be the way she teaches it. Every little detail in it is new and not new, a variation on the familiar. Said Maureen, “We have danced so many chains, for example, in so many ways, and yet here is another modification to it. Isn’t it fantastic?” Yes, Maureen, it is! When she says these things, it makes you want to pick up on what she picks up on. A refined teacher indeed.
Next up were the Allow and Monaghan sets, and at the end, the third figure of the Claddagh by request. I had by that time staggered off the floor. There had been no real lunch break in order to accommodate the social dancing in the late afternoon, so it was in and out for a cuppa, then back dancing, then up changing and back down again for the jives and quicksteps. I was faintly aware of having had a good intention way back to conserve a bit of energy for the night ceili. What the heck! ’Twas so nice, couldn’t rest, couldn’t stop, no!
The ceili and the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band arrived. The first notes sounded, the first step was taken and then it just stayed like that all through, super good. Something unique about the band occurred to me when they played—their sound is always the same! All instruments are finely balanced, the overall impression being a rich cluster of music heading out from the stage in the same manner as last time, and the time before that . . . It could be a CD playing, someone said, that’s how well matched their performances are. Masters.
Ballinasloe, oh town where a new love was found on Sunday morning!
On a stroll downtown, a bewitching new travel companion attached himself to me. The second I laid eyes on him, I knew we were meant for each other. I lost control that very instant. Such a handsome lad, so sweet and soft-hearted, and in absence of my own, away from home, I felt lonesome. He made straight for that emotional opening and super-glued himself onto me. He is named Pixel, by the way.
Bringing the new love back with me to the venue, he made quite a splash, commanding curiosity and eager hands that wanted to touch him (Hands off! He’s mine!) even from the Annaly Ceili Band. Brendan had him sit with him at the keyboard. He also tried his luck at the all-girls sean nós class that Maureen gave in the morning. This will surely be a productive and lasting relationship that will enhance and stimulate my trips—all conceived in Ballinasloe, where in Hayden’s Hotel he attended his first ceili!
Later, a few humans talked about how extraordinarily undeniably crazy one can become when feeling the urge to dance, the lengths one will go to in order to satisfy it, and how odd indeed it can seem to someone who hasn’t got the bug. One time, said Gerry, he and Pauline simply had to go to somewhere in Kerry for a ceili. Johnny Reidy was playing. Their homecoming was very late, and at around 5am they came into Ballinasloe. A guard on road duty stopped them and asked where they had been.
“We’ve been to a ceili in Kerry,” said Gerry.
The guard said, “What? A ceili, all the way in Kerry?”
“Yes,” said Gerry, “Johnny Reidy was playing, if you ever heard of him.”
“Well,” said the guard, “I haven’t, but you’re on the wrong side of town. Go to the other end, turn right and straight up to the mental!”
The hotel manager’s wife, Ann Creadon, is an avid dancer herself and kick-started Gerry’s classes in Hayden’s Hotel. She participated at the ceilis and workshops, and elegantly so, I may add!
Gerry and Pauline meanwhile have been boldly going where no one had gone before in Ballinasloe and mapping new territory with great precision. The bands are booked for next year, so they say. Pixel will be well trained by then. Woof!
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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