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).
Dancers in Augsburg, Germany, have been organising annual midsummer set dancing weekends in the Bavarian countryside since 2008. This year’s weekend, 20–22 May, was the third held in a large, lakeside retreat centre in the village of Violau. The Johnny Reidy Ceili Band (JRCB) made their first visit to Germany to play for the weekend’s three ceilis. Chris Eichbaum was there with her husband Rainer, and provides the full story—
The warm sunshine and the homemade cakes and savouries were ordered, and arriving promptly by plane was the very precious cargo ordered as well from Ireland—Ger Butler and the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band!
The chauffeurs had their hands full—banjo-case, fiddle, box in box and keyboard, accompanied by the fab four and Eddie Lee’s partner Frances Smith, who was “so much looking forward to German cheesecake,” (The bakers were under strictest instructions not on their life to forget the cheesecakes!) plus Ger Butler were squeezed into two rental cars and transferred at high speed on the Autobahn to their hotel. Johnny seemed to enjoy the ride and mumbled something about bringing his Merc over next time and letting rip, whereas Tom Skelly was clinging onto the handrail of the passenger seat having a couple of near heart attacks by watching the traffic go by the wrong way!
While munching their lunch in the Biergarten and washing it down with the local brew, beams of sunlight filtered through flowering chestnut and elm trees behind the small country hotel, 2km from the venue in the tiny village of Violau. Before you could say “Hawaii,” Tom was in colourful shorts and sandals and t-shirt.
The chauffeurs then brought the band down to the Bruder-Klaus-Heim (Brother Klaus House), a massive school and retreat centre with an ethos of their own. The manager sources food locally, and if it’s French ham, he travels to France to get it. Mostly home-grown, organic and shared, the food is super fresh and made for a healthy eating week-end, the main meals anyway, including the much-loved spud and its many varied methods of preparation. However, the ones staying in the nearby hotel had a menu rich in sausage, steak and burger, and Johnny himself couldn’t get enough of the latter, and couldn’t praise it enough either!
Whatever people wanted from this trip—a rest, seeing something different, dancing to Johnny—there’s always a story attached. The sweetest one is the one of Tess and Vince Scanlon, formerly of Mayo and Limerick, now living in London. Vince had a big birthday coming up, and Tess organised the trip to Germany as a surprise for him. He had no idea where he was going! Tess said that for every month of this year, instead of a big party, they are trying to go somewhere, and so far had no problems doing so. Vince thanked people more times than countable, and to see him enjoying himself so much was a treat in and of itself. Tess, you certainly gave me an idea for the next big birthday of the big husband!
He’s the one who tirelessly chipped in helping the guys in Violau without a moan in him. Actually, he seemed to quite enjoy providing chauffeuring services and hanging with the band and Ger, going by his grin and the eager question about whether we’ll do it again next year. Ah, I think JRCB acted as a fountain of youth (teenage youth, that is) for my good man. Cool, man, hanging with the band, yeah! Far out! This is the man who would have been hanging out with motorcycle clubs some thirty years ago, had the longest lion’s mane on him and swished it around to the sounds of Iron Maiden and Alice Cooper. A few decades later, it was of course the sound-barrier-breaking polkas, reels and jigs of JRCB that Rainer was allowed to be cool to, and the entire dance population were well able for them. This is it, the next generation, the generation that is sadly missing in Ireland for the most part, that dances their socks off, aged 20–50 predominantly. And it just occurred to me there, looking into their young faces, seeing their sobriety in learning sets and the exuberantly freestylish moves, that it is here, on the continent, that the set dancing torch will be carried if things progress the way they do now. The age group is the same in the Czech Republic, France, Poland, Switzerland, Denmark, Japan, some parts of America and Australia.
Workshops in all these countries are always well attended, and so it was here too, in Violau, with eight to nine sets taking part. And you know what the best thing was though? The coming together. The continental networking is growing. Workshop organisers are increasingly talking across borders so as not to clash and enable people from different countries to come and join in. And so in Violau, Václav from Prague was there and brought some dancers with him, Ane Luise, the Great Dane, flew in, a few Italians with Stefania Sosella, a couple from Belgium, a big contingent from England, the Swiss, and, of course, the Irish! By their playing power, JRCB managed to galvanize a sizeable English-speaking crowd, and so the final number of people at this weekend was doubled in comparison to the last ones! More power to the Johnny!
The honour of having JRCB in Germany was shared by all, the standing ovations proof of it. Johnny himself said that they enjoyed playing there because people were “on fire.” The band were handed presents (Ger too, naturally!) at the finish of it, and were mentioned endlessly by whoever held the microphone. Nothing was overlooked in rolling out the red carpet treatment, and JRCB were indeed appreciative of it. A card from the band, signed by Johnny, Emma, Tom, Eddie and Frances, showed their gratitude and in turn honoured the efforts of everyone who chipped in. Etiquette was observed with poised finesse—“thank you,” “come again please,” “so nice to have you here,” and “had a great time with such superb music”—and it paid off. It’s clear now that the influence of JRCB has penetrated continental Europe and flows just as freely in Germany as it does in Ireland.
Both Pixel, soft-toy-dog-in-residence, and Kate Howes picked up something. Kate picked up a German word, “ja,” for yes. She kept saying it all the time, so it must be assumed she liked it very much, ja! Pixel picked up something else, a new buddy, given to him by organiser Diana Salb. A lion in lederhosen (leather shorts—it’s a Bavarian thing), and he was christened Flash, as he had to get a camera-related name just like Pixel.
The weekend started with a jiving workshop conducted by Ger, followed by an excellent ceili and unfailing Kerry music that easily overcame the challenge of negotiating a slanted, staggered wooden ceiling. The next day there was a full day of workshops with Ger, featuring the Longford and Shannon Gaels sets and steps, with a ceili at night. Sunday had Ger teaching two-hands and a ceili again in the afternoon to finish. Full head on!
When interpreting music, a musician unwittingly reveals his or her personality in the style of playing—listen to the tune played, and you shall know the musicians in front of you. With Johnny Reidy, it’s musical precision engineering, delivered with utmost professionalism, perfected over time, fully ripened, kept high on the speedometer. This is a man who is seriously proficient with his music, creating a powerful elastic band that keeps tune, band and dancers (spell)bound together, with no hope of release until the last note has evaporated. However, inside the constraints of space and time that is the ceili, playfulness is acted out, having been invited by the real Johnny, a playful Johnny, the one beneath the suit and tie, drawn in by his constant interaction with the dancers. The tunes he plays fiercely, forcefully, say, “This is it. There is no second take on anything. Go for it!” And the dancers get the message.
The promise to help out gave Rainer and me an insight into what is required to pull off a weekend abroad with people coming from all corners and on different planes and days from different countries—it’s a logistical nightmare! When people travel from the continent to any Irish set dancing events, there is no such thing as being collected from the airport and consequent transfers organised in case you didn’t get a room in the venue. In Germany though, not only were transfers available for band and teacher, but also for all the incoming car-less folks from England, Ireland and Denmark. Furthermore, there were transfers from the nearby hotel for the people who stayed there, and a trip to the nearest town of Augsburg on Saturday for the ones who didn’t want to go to the workshop. Rival that, anywhere, even with a professional travel agent! Organisers Diana Salb and Sabine Surholt felt that offering transfers was only polite. It showed the thrill they experienced about having such an influx of Irish dancers in Germany. And rival this—Evelyn, one of the local dancers and legendary Kuchenbäckerin (cake baker), provided a six-star luxury egg liqueur cake that hordes of vultures couldn’t keep their hands off to leave a piece for me. It was my birthday, you savages, but you are forgiven, because this yummy culinary exploit was simply baked in cake-heaven. Evelyn, seeing my bitter distress, waltzed in the next morning to the workshop and presented me with a still-warm, new cake. “Just for you,” she said. Baked at 6am on Sunday morning. And thus a legend was born about the one and only Evelyn with the shiniest purple-red hair! I’m sure I saw even Pixel was salivating.
Sunday afternoon, we were hot. We were sweating. We were having a ball! And right after the ceili, band and all were stowed away again into the estate cars and driven down to Munich airport, when a phone call tore us from the collapse that had set in. Sabine found Eddie’s keys on the stage in Violau, over 100km away! And what did she do? Did she sent them on? Wait for someone to bring them? No. She hopped into her car herself and sped down to the airport, and handed over the keys just in time. Rival that!
That last piece of thrill did it. Rainer and I were now ready for the Alps and some lazy, sleepy time out amid glaciers, hair-raising, hellish hairpin bends, overhead vultures, queasy drops in height, dizzying views up and down gorges, mountain tops and valleys below with altitude differences of up to 2500 metres, semi-heart-stopping waterfalls, craggy rock formations on almost vertical cliffs—just your run-of-the-mill sedate alpine adventure. But then, the real adventure was in the Alpenzoo, a zoo of alpine animals in Innsbruck, Austria.
The wolves weren’t anything like we imagined them to be. Small, timid, shaggy creatures, thin and slow to move, and not a hint of aggression. Okay, these were in captivity, a big enclosure mimicking real-life environments with a rock pool, stream, bushes, trees and stones. It was feeding time and the meat on offer was taken gingerly. Wolf after wolf came up to the pieces of food in slow-mo, sniffing and turning each morsel until satisfied, gently picking up a bit that was to their liking. They played with each other, slept, yawned, drank water, cleaned themselves, and had all the familiar behaviour we know from domestic dogs. They came so close, if we sat still, we could almost touch them. Watching them for a long time, a peace came over me which was mixed with a great, soft sadness. Looking into the eyes of this much misunderstood beautiful animal, all I saw was wildness, life, survival, a soul perhaps, but none of the anthropomorphic traits that have been planted inside our heads over generations, as if an animal could be malignant or evil. They exist. They try to survive. They protect their young. They are capable of learning. Of all the animals, it was the wolf that broke nature’s law of living separate to other species. Wolves and humans started to do more than co-exist, they began to have symbiotic relationships, and the result today, the domestic dog, is still the most loyal, versatile beast to serve any number of human needs, asking no great service in return, working for cookies alone! They don’t lie, scheme or torture for torture’s sake. They don’t argue or live for the past. No nagging, shouting, road rage or building weapons of mass destruction. Naturally, they are dangerous, powerful and untameable, like the sea or the wind, which can be kind and caressing. What you see with them at any given time is exactly what you get. They don’t talk behind your back or judge you on what you wear. They never question who you are or want to be.
This one wolf kept looking. And in one blink, one locking of eyes, I understood the nature of the wolf, in that moment. The nature of everything. It was one of those rare, raw moments, spiritual split second, when all is revealed and there is no great secret. The secret is that there is no secret. We all exist, and there is an order to existence. A family order, and everything has its own designated place in it. In that precious instant, the universal connectedness unfolded, a prayer itself, like in the dance. Unseen strings run along constantly firing amongst every one and all things. And we humans, we are far more dangerous than wolves.
A wolf crossed the Alps from Italy into Austria recently. One wild wolf, and two bears. There are also and have always been, eagles and bearded vultures, the biggest birds of prey in the alpine region, with a wing span up to three metres. Could I learn from them, the wild animals? Could they teach me if I listened to their ways?
Mary Oliver, the poet, understood and contemplated the teaching here in her poem, Wild Geese, my favourite. Share it I must!You do not have to be good.I’m inching closer to fulfilling ‘howling with wolves’ on the to-do list. In absence of that, howling with the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band is a kickstarter anytime, anywhere! Sabine, Diana and their gang had a mighty big task set for themselves, and worked incessantly throughout in a totally bananas sort of way, with lists and more lists and mobile phones that never ceased ringing, but just today I got an email from Sabine saying how much they are looking forward already to next year, and that the date, 22-24 of June, when Johnny does Germany again, is highlighted in bright red in her calendar. Count in Pixel and Flash. They’ll be ready too!
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calling to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over again announcing
your place in the family of things.
PS Dancing to Johnny at your birthday—best thing ever. And it so happened that the husband gave me a freshly-stolen red rose. Up romance!
Dance master Connie Ryan is remembered by his home village of Clonoulty, Co Tipperary, with an annual weekend held since June 1998, the Connie Ryan Gathering. Connie was a huge force in the revival of set dancing in the 1980s and 1990s, and he taught enormously popular classes in Dublin and workshops around Ireland. His workshops had the kind of buzz found these days at ceilis in Longford or at the Armada. Connie filled halls with excited dancers who actually wanted to learn new sets and have a great time doing it.
So many people attended Connie’s funeral in Clonoulty in May 1997 that the village was inspired to honour him with a weekend the next year, which took some major organisation, as they had no facilities to cope with the expected numbers. A site beside the pub was prepared for a large marquee fitted with a dance floor, meals were laid on in the school and accommodation was offered in private houses. In 2008 the weekend shifted to the town of Cashel, which relieved the organisers of the expense of a marquee at the cost of a bit of the weekend’s character. I always enjoyed dancing in Clonoulty on a warm June weekend when the canvas sides of the marquee were pushed back and you could watch the cows in the adjacent field while dancing a set.
This year the festival found a new home back in the rural countryside where it began, in the beautiful village of Holycross only a few miles from Clonoulty. When I arrived for the opening ceili on Friday June 10th, I met organiser Billy Maher who was only delighted to be back where he felt the weekend belonged. The community centre is a gem of a venue—once the village church, it has a new oak floor, soaring pointed-arch windows and a balcony.
Holycross is a major attraction for tourists and pilgrims due to the historic monastery which was founded here in the twelfth century. The Abbey of the Holy Cross was a Cistercian monastery blessed with a relic of Christ’s cross, hence the name of the village. By the seventeenth century the buildings were disused and in 1880 the abbey came under control of the state as a national monument. In the 1960s the local community worked to restore the abbey for use as the parish church. They succeeded in getting a law passed by the Dail to enable this and in 1975 the newly restored abbey was reopened as the parish church. It remains a place of pilgrimage and still displays relics of the cross for all to see in a special reliquary.
The community centre stands next to the abbey surrounded by vibrant green lawns and mature trees. The River Suir passes through the village beside the abbey and is crossed by an old stone arched bridge. A pub on the abbey grounds provided meals and music sessions during the weekend.
Sun was still streaming through the windows when people began arriving for the 9pm ceili, thanks to the long Irish summer evenings. One of my partners told me how pleased she was with the early start as it meant she was home that bit earlier. The duo of Ger Murphy on box and Ken Cotter on piano together with Michael Loughnane as MC generously gave us a full and varied ceili of ten sets, plus waltzes and two-hand dances. Michael kept the night free of some of the commonest sets, giving us instead the Moycullen, Antrim Square, Mazurka, Ballyduff, Boyne, Derradda and Claddagh to finish. The ceili was well supported by local dancers, who were brave enough to dance every set, even if they didn’t know it, thanks to Michael’s calling. During the Mazurka, I expected we might have some trouble in the high gates, but was at least confident I could manage to do it correctly with my partner and side lady. However, my side lady had her own way of doing it, and the figure passed in high hilarity with everyone making it up as they went along—zero out of four isn’t too bad! We had the same fun in the last figure as well when two couples formed arches each time! All the other sets were managed well and by the end of the night there was a warm feeling of satisfaction—very warm, in fact, after all that exertion!
Those of us who once had the pleasure of dancing with Connie Ryan will always enjoy workshops for their own sake; it doesn’t matter whether or not we already know the sets, or whether the crowd is big or small. At their workshop on Saturday morning and afternoon, Pádraig and Róisín McEneany gave us a selection of sets mostly learned from Connie. The first was the Limerick Orange and Green, once popular, quite rare now. To me it seemed rather like a baby version of the Clare Orange and Green, which, despite being rather more complicated, is more widely danced. After that we did the Tory Island Set, which according to Pádraig, was one of the last ones Connie revived. In the afternoon, while the floor was being washed around us, we danced the Ath a’ Caoire Set as a tribute to Cork teacher Joe Mannix and finally the Monaghan Set.
Connie was remembered again at a memorial Mass on Saturday evening, then at 9pm the second ceili began. Tonight’s MC was local organiser Jim Doyle, who said he spent hours cleaning the floor and forbad us from sprinkling baby powder to enhance the slide. No need for that tonight, as not only did Jim’s floor treatment eliminate dust, it made the floor seem incredibly slippery for the first couple of sets, until it was tamed after thousands of steps by hundreds of shoes. The amiable Glenside Ceili Band played for nine sets, including the Sliabh Fraoch called by Bronagh Murphy and the Limerick Orange and Green called by Pádraig, just one of which was a repeat from the previous ceili, plus waltzes, quicksteps and a foxtrot. The Newport, once quite common, has become something of a rarity itself these days, so I was delighted to dance it tonight. During the Ballyvourney Jig Set I observed an interesting phenomenon when a divergence developed in the hall—half the sets were dancing eight bars ahead of all the rest! It was hard to resist the temptation to skip ahead and join the others. The ceili ended with a raffle, the Plain Set and birthday greetings for drummer Aidan Flood.
The absence of a Sunday workshop meant that I could have a long lie-in, spend an hour and a half at breakfast chatting with the other set dancers in my B&B, wander around the abbey and village for an hour and still make it to the 2pm ceili an hour early! You’d want to be early at a ceili featuring music by Johnny Reidy to get a good parking place and a seat in the hall. The loyal Tipperary crowd were still here but all the Kerry accents around me signalled that the loyal Johnny crowd came along too. Sheer pleasure was the order of the day. We’d danced all eight sets previously over the weekend but Johnny’s music transformed them into something fresh and unique. The baby powder was back, but rather than spreading it around the floor, the Kerry ladies made a little powder oasis in a discreet corner where we could dip our shoes whenever our gliding needed a little help.
Take a guess—which was the one and only set to be danced at every ceili this weekend? It’s probably not the one you’re thinking of! No, it was actually the Antrim Square Set, which appears to have been fully adopted into our standard repertoire. I danced my sets with partners who were quite adept at spinning and doubling, and had a particularly brilliant Lancers Set. There’s a certain movement in the fourth figure which has always given me great pleasure—the transition from a little Christmas to a swing with your partner. When it goes well it feels beautiful, but it seldom works out that way because all four dancers involved need good balance and timing to do it properly. But when it happened to me twice today, I was reminded of what a friend and partner once said about that particular movement over a dozen years ago, claiming that “it’s better than sex.”
Johnny played one last Plain Set to finish the ceili and weekend and my exhaustion was complete! Billy Maher provided thanks to one and all, and looked forward to bringing the Connie Ryan Gathering back to Holycross next year. The festival feels very comfortable in its new home.
The Adelaide Set Dance Workshop Weekend started on Friday morning, May 20th, when I picked up workshop teachers Bill and Margaret Winnett of Sydney from Adelaide Airport and delivered them to Paul Smith’s house where they were staying for the week.
Friday evening brought a dinner at the Governor Hindmarsh Hotel in Adelaide, which was enjoyed by thirty dancers and musicians followed by an impromptu sets ceili accompanied by five, then six, then seven musicians. Interest was shown by other hotel-goers and a few were invited to join a set. An early night was called about 11.30-ish as the Saturday workshop was beginning at 9.30am.
Saturday morning dawned bright and warm and we were off to the Irish Club in Adelaide. Three sets were ready and we danced the Kilfenora Set which lasted all morning. A lovely lunch was supplied by the dancers, followed by an Australian Half-Set which coincidentally took up half the afternoon. We then finished the afternoon session with a South Galway Set.
That evening there was a bush dance in the Irish Club with a lovely big live band and a lot of ceili dances were done, along with bits of sets when the band was playing for themselves. A figure from one set blended into another figure of another set. Great fun, which came to an end all too soon.
We rose on Sunday to a changed weather pattern with strong winds and rain. Ten o’clock saw three sets warming up prior to starting with the Newport Set. As there were dancers who had not done the Newport, the basic steps were run through before a walk-through of each figure and a dance-through to music. Then as a run-up to another lovely lunch, we danced the set straight through with minimal calling from Bill.
After lunch, we did one figure of the Ballinascarty Half-Set followed by lineup figures from the Mazurka Set and Clare Lancers and finished with the fourth figure of the Clare Orange and Green.
A set of waltzes cooled us down before farewells were said to Bill and Margaret and the rest of the dancers and we journeyed home through gale force winds and horizontal rain. It’s not all fun in Oz.
Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
It was my fourth Sligo weekend (11-13 June), this time, God help us, as tutor, thanks to Vera’s and Helen’s command. Truthfully, I have always found Sligo, the Clarion Hotel in particular, to be very pleasant. One settles in quickly, thanks to the welcome of its lady administrators and the ambience of its Elizabethan grandeur.
It can be difficult to describe such a weekend, as one of the main players, without seeming to be looking at one’s mirror image. In truth, it was made very easy by the unsolicited support from the Kerry cheerleaders who made the long journey. I have their word that they had a ball, with many new friendships forged along the way.
One can be flippant and say we stayed in a mental hospital and danced in a church, except it is true. Point the satnav to the mental hospital and you’re there in no time! Apparently, it opened its doors to patients in 1855, whereas the unfortunate mentally ill were previously taken to Ballinasloe and jailed like common criminals. Thankfully, a more liberal regime was in place thanks to an enlightened doctor who realized that mentally ill patients required treatment rather than incarceration. And, in a grand ecumenical gesture, two separate churches were built on the grounds, one each for the Roman Catholics and the Church of Ireland worshippers.
We danced in the larger one, of whichever denomination, which is used for various receptions and celebrations. The former hospital has, now, the most spacious hotel rooms—rather apartments—I have ever seen. Not surprisingly, it took seven or eight years to build the original and its latter day refurbishment must have cost a mint, making it one of the finest hotels in the west of Ireland when it opened as such in 2004.
All that and not yet a word about the weekend’s dancing! Friday night’s ceili featured the Striolán Ceili Band, near neighbours of ours who hail from where the three counties meet, only this time Cork, Kerry and Limerick. A band of six or seven and of recent vintage they produce a powerful sound mix and dance music of the highest quality.
All three ceilis started and finished with the same order of sets—the Corofin to start and the Plain to finish. Being a self-appointed commentator on these things I was taken aback at the quality of the dancing and the knowledge that went with it. No set needed to be called and I noted many of the dancers had tips on their shoes, something that wouldn’t be my fancy. But, each to their own!
One of the highlights of the night was the visit of Edwina Guckian and Michael O’Rourke with their sean nós group of television fame. With dancers from six upwards they put on a stunning performance with all the aplomb and confidence of seasoned stage performers. Hopefully, they will continue to amaze for years to come and their gospel will spread .
Saturday’s workshop, as usual, was slow to start, but gathered momentum because most had a reasonable knowledge of their dancing. Amazingly, and a first in my book, one of the newcomers told me she was from Syria. Even more so, in a short time, she fitted in quite comfortably.
Almost all of the dancers returned for the afternoon session and we performed five sets, mostly ones that could be danced at ceilis with a little calling. I feel it is better to follow that path rather than practice ones for the archives only.
We had double delight for the rest of the weekend, namely the Davey family for two ceilis. Among my personal favourites, their visits south are all too infrequent. Their special charms are their unique sound and wonderful variety of musical sets. Over our long association I have always admired their empathy with the dancers and their tolerance of callers, even myself! We had another sean nós exhibition, this time a solo one from thirteen-year-old Colin McCormack who, too, gave another assured performance. One can only admire and applaud these youthful tyros!
Sunday morning’s session in the lounge, which is bigger than most ballrooms, was one of the best, combining music by a local quintet, including the aforementioned Colin, several first-class songs, with a request for an encore by Colin who was followed by a unique demonstration of Kerry sean nós from John Griffin which almost brought the house down!
A pity the attendance at the final ceili was less than expected. One dedicated local bemoaned that several Leitrim sets saw fit to go and support their county footballers against Roscommon. You can imagine how he felt when he heard they were hammered! And he wasn’t slow in voicing his lack of sympathy for them. He obviously doesn’t appreciate the devotion of Leitrim folk to their county footballers! His disdain for them was engendered by his appreciation of the ceili in progress, wherein we danced most of the workshop sets with the minimum of fuss and the Daveys were again at their brilliant best.
As evidence of the high on which the weekend concluded the Kerry contingent travelled home in convoy, with the odd stop here and there and, of course, the mandatory going astray by everybody! Just as well something cropped up to dilute the euphoria as they all traipsed back to their beloved kingdom. Sometimes I wish I were one of them!
Timmy Woulfe, Athea, Co Limerick
The Black Forest Whit Set Dancing Weekend, June 11–13, was held in a hostel in the village of Bonndorf in Germany. It was the successor to the Rhine Valley Feis Ceol held for many years in Mollkirch near Strasbourg, France. Correspondent Chris Eichbaum was there.
Paul Cox was ready. His flute at the ready. He kept looking at the band members of Swallow’s Tail, Tommy Doherty, Jim Corry, Daragh Kelly, and Michael Hurley for a sign they were unpacking instruments. Paul sat in a far corner after the ceili in a common room where late-nighters had gathered for a session of some description, and eventually started playing his flute just there. Never mind anyone else, if you have to play, you have to play, and that’s that. Not that it immediately enticed the band to get going. No. All in musicians’ good time, whenever the mood takes ’em. It happened so often in the past, waiting for a session to start, and at times, missing it in the end when the waiting took too long. Poor audience, huh? If a good session takes off in the end, the wait is worthwhile. But if it’s one of those special occasions when the session enters the realm of total immersion, time disbands, and control is given to the music, and you eventually can’t be sure whether there was any waiting in the first place. Or anything else for that matter. Or what country you’re in, who you’re with or what the year is. It’s music zone, blotting out all else and gluing what exists together—in a way, it becomes the elusive Higgs boson in musical terms. (Hey, all you scientists! Maybe that’s where the much sought-after Higgs is hiding anyway. I suggest it’s worthwhile having a look.) This particular session on the first night of three in Bonndorf in the Black Forest of Germany, at an event co-created by Swiss and Germans, turned into a type of concert where piece after piece of music emerged from the big spatial pool, some Irish trad, a comedy bit, some funk, with Jim and Tommy bouncing off each other—you couldn’t leave it, no! Being privy to it is extra special, and rare, too. I wanted to bottle it somehow, conserve it and record it, but not only the audio and visual version, but the range of emotive rungs that were played out, from playfully happy to deeply moody to touchingly sorrowful to fiercely fire-blazing—the full scope of feeling and sensation, bidding you to come along with open heart and open ears, allowing it all to course through you, up and down the spine, nerves, muscles, synapses, veins and arteries, pumping through organs, cleansing and completing as it goes.
Looking at Paul, he was in happy-session-state. Exchanging tunes and notes with Michael, the two flute players softly smoothed out their music. Flutes do that, don’t they? They are like tender sandpapering instruments, wrapping a tune with wind, discarding any harsh knobbly bits other instruments feel like creating.
They say this all is the magic, something that eludes a final analytic or descriptive grasp. At some moment, all you can do is let it happen, permit it to take control on its own terms, switching off temporarily all rational brain activity, and experience the divine whatever that means to you. It is also a matter of being in the right place yourself, as part of the audience, not just physically, but on other levels as well. If the music can’t reach you deeply, then it could also be that you simply weren’t focused enough, that parts of you were in different places.
Someone commented on this, a guy that Ray Kearns from Dublin had met in a local bar the first night he arrived in Bonndorf. Ray loves travelling and dancing on the continent, so this is where you find him. This guy he met had no connection with Ireland or Irish music but was curiously inspired by Ray’s pep talk and popped up at the ceili, stayed for the sessions all night, started some dancing on his own and finally took my shoulders and said, “It’s no coincidence that you all are here, bringing such joy and life to this location on Whit weekend.” So he was a bit, um, away with it, but it had a veracious ring to it. Also, this kind soul took the band out for a sightseeing spin during the day.
Down to solid earth again, let’s talk about the first time on the continent for Ultan Mulcahy from west Limerick. Ultan has taught in America, but actually never set foot on continental Europe before now. He is known to many from dancing in demonstration sets with Pat Murphy, in competitions and madly on ceili floors, jump hop up! And yet, there is always something ultimately controlled and reserved about his dancing that lets you feel completely safe and floating along steadily. Ultan, you see, is a young man, a gentleman. Packed with notes, he led the workshop, two full days of it, through a nice varied regimen of sets, including the Meelin Victoria, West Limerick, Auban and Loughgraney. Shunting, anyone? His attitude was utterly relaxed, telling us at intervals about how this or that move was handled in competitions, and how a certain move was danced in the locality it’s from, insisting we do it that way in the workshop, but also allowing for dancers at ceilis to dance it slightly differently, so there was no right or wrong, just different people dancing it differently. That’s all. His teaching came from the heart, and so he was the perfect choice for this event—which was also organised from the heart when André Lichtsteiner couldn’t let it go after the previous organisers decided to call it a day.
Sets, sets, sets—a whole flotilla of different ones over the weekend! Only the Connemara was repeated, if I remember correctly, which I mightn’t! The concept of not repeating any sets at a workshop weekend is taking hold in different parts of the world, stoically dispersing fears of dancers not being good enough or ceilis being overcalled. It doesn’t have to be either anxiety-inducing or called-to-boredom. Get out, ye good people, and savour the sundry opulence of sets! The workshop sets were danced at ceilis, most of them anyway, and half-common beauties like the Labasheeda, Claddagh, North Kerry, Derradda, Moycullen, West Kerry, Borlin Polka and Mazurka made appearances, sidling our autopilot ones.
What was that whizzing by? Look again, there was a couple dancing, a man and a woman and their three year old boy Liam, perched on dad’s arm. The threesome housed, swung, polka-ed and shunted away without a bother, li’l Liam hanging onto his father’s shirt tails with the brightest beaming smile on his face, and seldom would you see a father displaying his son more proudly, dad’s features a solid sunny pancake. So here they were, hurtling across the floor while the Irish beat drove them on. Start them young, taken literally.
As a Swiss-German co-production, the event was organised to lofty standards, partly because as organisers, Henning Brouwer, Eva Biedermann, André Lichtsteiner and formerly Stephen Clondillon, knew when to step in and when to step back. No limelight people, they allowed the event itself to take center stage—I absolutely loved this aspect of it. Very few people could have known who actually was involved and to what degree, discreetly pulling strings in the background, content with doing all this for the love of it, and that’s not being soppy about it. There’s no profit here and no self-inflated image polishing. The opposite. So quiet, so Swiss!
Especially since this was the last of its kind here in the Black Forest. It is no more, and will be replaced with next year’s event in Richterswil, near Zurich, which has moved forward from April to May.
A fascinating non-clandestine and yet hard to take a hold of society of set dancers have colonised the world. Everywhere you look and scratch a bit, you’ll find them. Small groups, practising their sets in little halls and pubs across the globe, and much speculation has been cast upon the reasons why. All this plays out in the mind, but surely, after that much dancing, it’s one hell of a relaxed one. Body, mind, soul—the dancing touches everything deeply, doesn’t it?
The year’s biggest set dancing event began with talk of “numbers being down” and ended with general agreement that numbers were never better—record breaking even! The twin festivals of the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Armada Hotel’s Set Dancing Week in the little town of Miltown Malbay and its suburb of Spanish Point, Co Clare, have the power to drive hundreds of otherwise normal people into set dancing maniacs during the ten-day frenzy of more than thirty ceilis, ten workshops per day and countless sessions. At least that’s what happened to me when I was determined to dance every set I possibly could between Saturday July 2nd to Sunday the 10th.
For me, the dancing started on Saturday the 2nd at the afternoon ceili in the Armada Hotel. Even before it began, while folks drifted slowly into the ballroom after their long journeys, there was plenty of talk of fewer people coming this year due to the severe economic conditions. I hear similar sentiments every year and each year seems better than the last, so I took no notice. Brian Ború Ceili Band began with the Corofin Plain Set, which turned out to be the first set for at least half of the week’s ceilis! The sunny, mild and lightly breezy day helped lift spirits already on a high. My own energy levels were on full, so there was plenty of spinning at every opportunity. In the Connemara Set my partner and I had a like-minded opposite couple and together we managed to extend the little Christmas in the third figure to 32 bars—twice! Taking it easier were two ladies both wearing L (learner driver) plates pinned on their backs, a bit unsure of themselves but enjoying it tremendously. By the end of the ceili I had used up so much of my energy that I wasn’t sure I could keep it up all week, but when you’re afflicted with set dancing madness there’s no holding back!
After recharging the batteries at a restaurant in town, I attended the summer school opening ceremony and lecture in the Community Hall, probably my first time doing so in what was my twentieth consecutive year at Willie Week. The attraction was Tony Kearns’ talk entitled An Eye for the Music, an informative and entertaining overview of photography in traditional music and dance. Tony bears a great deal of responsibility for my own conversion to the Irish tradition as he was the one who first invited me to Ireland and to Miltown. Among the hundreds of photos he showed during the talk, I was delighted he included a selection from Set Dancing News. Afterward, I rushed to the ceili in the Mill Marquee where they were dancing the third set, the Sliabh Luachra, Set to gorgeous polkas by Taylor’s Cross Ceili Band. Only a few came here to enjoy it, but we still had a great time. The spacious temporary parquet floor had areas which were sticky and others which were smooth, so I hope the band didn’t mind that we found the most comfortable dancing way in the back.
The afternoon is my favourite time for a ceili because of the daylight, relaxed atmosphere and early finish which leaves time for possible dancing later. When the weather is sunny, the venue is the Armada and the band is Johnny Reidy, it may well result in the perfect ceili. This was certainly the case on Sunday the 3rd. There were few late arrivals as nearly everyone was in the hall well before the music began, and the Armada opened the doors 45 minutes early so there were no queues when paying in. Johnny’s music was as fresh as it was the first time I heard it and every face was lit up with delight at being here. My partners were all fantastic, every one of them, as much for their dancing skill as for the joy in their eyes. In short, a perfect ceili, and exactly why we come here.
I led a kind of schizophrenic existence for the week, madly burning up the floor by day in the Armada, and at night more sedately enjoying the classic ceili bands at the official summer school ceilis in the Mill Marquee. Except that it wasn’t all that sedate on Sunday night with the Kilfenora Ceili Band playing their lively Clare reels and even perfectly paced polkas and slides in the Cashel and Ballyvourney Jig sets. The Mill’s floor forces me to dance with moderation, no bad thing, except that tonight it was liberally dusted with baby powder, so felt dry and nicely slippy everywhere. I had thought I might take a break for one set, but when a volunteer gent was needed to fill a Connemara Set, I found myself in a set of seven youngsters battering their hearts out, wishing my knees were thirty years younger. This ceili on Sunday was a new appearance for the band this year, and it was heartening to see the floor filled early in the week.
Normally after a weekend of dancing I’d spend Monday sleeping late and recovering, but at a summer school I hadn’t this luxury. I managed to drag myself out of bed an hour later than intended, and so arrived at my class at St Joseph’s Secondary School, Spanish Point, while the dancing was in progress. I thought I’d wait outside until it was time for the tea break, but a dancer inside must have heard me chatting and brought me in to fill the Televara Set. They’d already danced the Ballyvourney Reel Set. Timmy McCarthy teaches more sets in a week than any other class at the Willie Clancy, but that’s not what brings me back here each year—it’s just that I love the sets he teaches from Cork and Kerry, and the music he plays for them. He continued with the West Kerry and a figure of the Jenny Ling before finishing.
This afternoon the Armada provided a welcome chance to hear the Merriman Ceili Band, based in Ennis, Co Clare. They play sweet, tuneful music for lovely dancing. The spell of good weather continued and optimistically I wondered if this might be the first year in living memory for it to last a full week. The forecast provided by my phone indicated otherwise. The Mill ceili that night featured beautiful music by Matt Cunningham, who played nine sets, one of which was the very first one I sat out, giving my bones the rest they had been requesting.
I did without an alarm to get myself up on Tuesday morning, and woke early enough to get to class nearly on time today, where we danced three sets plus two figures of another. The afternoon was one that will stick in the minds of many of us for a long time to come—at least for those of us dancing for the first time to the Deenagh Ceili Band. This is a new band headed by Conor Moriarty, who managed to play the box with a relaxed natural joyful ease that somehow sets fire to dancers! He was complemented by Sean Murphy on banjo and Jamie Lenihan on piano. The sets became effortless as all were moved by the music as one. They made all our usual sets feel new and exciting, freed us from any tiredness, aches and pains, merged our minds and made us roar at the top of our lungs, nearly drowning the music. I wondered if the musicians felt the same pleasure, emotion and intensity that we shared with our partners; surely they did! The stuff of legends! The band wisely took the opportunity to launch their first CD, Around the House, which sold like hotcakes along with their t-shirts. Local teacher John Fennell officiated at the launch in the break. As a result the dancing overran the usual 6pm finish by fifteen minutes, which was when John brought out a team of his young dancers to batter their way through a couple of figures of the Plain Set for our entertainment. When you find yourself at another perfect ceili, there won’t be anyone complaining about it finishing half an hour late!
The Tulla Ceili Band also seems to have magical powers over dancers, which they demonstrated at their Tuesday night ceili. Other bands may play faster, but the Tulla are tops when it comes to the lift they generate in their music. It was enough to bring hundreds to the Mill Marquee, the floor full of dancers, the seats occupied by listeners.
Despite late nights, I seemed to be waking up earlier each morning, though the transition from horizontal to vertical was torture! Once the feet and legs had made their complaints painfully obvious for a few moments, all discomfort vanished and I was then free to move and dance without restriction. Oddly, my voice had roughened and I found I could sing as a baritone as I entertained myself on the morning’s drive to Miltown.
After another class on Wednesday with Timmy in which we danced six sets, or portions thereof, I went to the Armada’s afternoon ceili with the Annaly Ceili Band. New partners were arriving every day which made each ceili different from the last. After the ceili, I overheard a lady on her way out say, “I’m nearly dead.”
“I passed that stage long ago,” I said.
The Mill’s Wednesday ceili provided a second helping of the Kilfenora Ceili Band, with enough people to fill the marquee and create a backlog at the door. Once the capacity had been reached, people could only enter when someone left.
Wednesday’s weather had turned cold and cloudy with a bit of precipitation, but Thursday was the day of the deluge. No bother, as usual I just parked at the Armada and walked over to the school for morning class—I’d be getting wet there anyway. Timmy was getting the class ready for a performance in the dance recital this evening. We were only two sets all week and he wanted all of us to dance on stage, and amazingly, everyone agreed. He had been wondering what we should dance and had been thinking about different figures illustrating the different styles of Cork and Kerry sets, when I reminded him of Hurry the Jug and said, “We just want to have fun.” Today he taught the Jug and everyone managed to have loads of fun. It’s one of my favourites, a cross between the High-Cauled Cap and the Ballyvourney Jig, a top reason for my regular attendance at Timmy’s classes because it’s rarely seen anywhere else. We danced it straight through at least twice, and after the last time, two spectators flashed cards with their scores rating each of our two sets, causing high hilarity. We were to appear as the final act in the recital and arranged to meet at 9pm in the Community Hall.
In the meantime, I danced as usual in the Armada, this time to the Five Counties Ceili Band, all ten pieces for that big band sound. After supper, I parked at the Mill Marquee just before 9pm and met people arriving already for the week’s second ceili with the Tulla Ceili Band. I then hurried all the way to the Community Hall in a heavy drizzle where I met Timmy and the rest of the class. The recital was in progress, which I enjoyed watching when not practicing the Jug and the last figure of the Ballyvourney Reel Set which we were dancing first. At the appointed time we followed Timmy single file to the room beside the stage, organised ourselves into couples and sets, and then took our places on the stage. Timmy announced what we were doing, and mentioned something about the Jug being the most complicated dance in the Irish tradition. Timmy both played and called for us and both dances went reasonably well, though we all made mistakes in the Jug. I was disoriented at the very start but found my way after that, and did my best to keep my set going. I wasn’t aware of our second set at all! In the end it was brilliant fun and we were gratified to receive a huge ovation from the audience, which was followed by random congratulations from people I encountered at the ceili later. “That’s what dancing is supposed to be like,” as someone said to Timmy.
When I got back to the Mill, the Corofin was underway at the Tulla’s ceili, the fourth set. I was fully drenched already from dancing on stage so changed shirts in preparation for the next four sets worth of soakage. Just before the last set, everyone crowded around the stage for another fiddle solo and encore by Martin Hayes, and then we cleared a small circle for a few people to dance some sean nós steps.
Sun had returned on Friday morning, and I managed to get out of bed bright and early to visit several of the summer school’s dance classes. The Brooks Academy class in the Community Hall practiced the South Galway Set learned the day before and then Eileen O’Doherty taught another Galway set, the Roscahill, one I used to dance regularly and would have enjoyed had I the time to remain. At the Mill Marquee Mairéad Casey and Mick Mulkerrin were sharing the floor and music in their separate beginners and improvers sean nós classes. In the adjacent GAA club dressing rooms were three traditional step dancing classes, but I missed seeing any dancing as they were all on a tea break. At Paddy Neylon’s set dancing class for total beginners in the golf club beside Spanish Point beach I was surprised to find teacher Ashley Ray from Co Down. He explained that he was eager to pick up tips from a master dancer to improve his own teaching. Mary Clancy’s class in the Armada was still the biggest of all the dance classes, demonstrating plenty of enthusiasm but not quite yet attaining mastery of the third figure of the Claddagh Set. Finally I made it back to my own class, where Timmy was still on a high after yesterday’s performance. “I’m as happy as a pig in shit,” he said. It had completely slipped my mind till later that I had overlooked one final class, Clare battering with Aidan Vaughan, also in the secondary school—sorry, Aidan!
There were plenty of new partners, just arrived for the final weekend, at both the afternoon ceili with the amiable Glenside Ceili Band in the Armada, and later that night in the Mill with the Four Courts. While my ladies were fresh and vigorous, I was feeling only a fraction of my former self. Still, with the help of the great music I danced eight of the nine sets at each of the two ceilis, missing just the Connemara each time.
Blue sky and bright sun lifted all spirits on Saturday morning. After a full week of this madness and with the finish line in sight, I found enough energy to dance the Borlin Polka, Ballyvourney Reel and West Kerry sets in class. Poor Timmy had injured his shoulder overnight and could play the box only very quietly, and class finished early so he could get it looked after.
All week I’d danced two sets with one polka-loving partner every afternoon in the Armada, and nearly every day she asked the band to play a West Kerry Set for us. The bands readily agreed but in the end there were too many complaints or too many more popular sets requested and we never danced it all week. However, on their return appearance today, the Deenagh Ceili Band managed to deliver us a most welcome West Kerry as the second set. My polka partner and I each had to rearrange our pre-booked partners so we could dance it together, but the other partners were both flexible. It was twenty minutes of bliss, especially with the gorgeous polkas from the Deenagh, which topped up my energy levels to 100% and eliminated my tiredness. After the band’s Armada debut on Tuesday when they impressed every dancer in the house, today they seemed just that bit more relaxed about playing here. I marvelled at how easy it was to dance to them, wishing there was time for more than the eight sets plus a rake of reels they played for us.
I was expecting a quiet night in the Mill Marquee on Saturday night for the final summer school ceili, but instead I was rewarded with one of the best sets of the week. Matt Cunningham played a total of ten sets, including a Claddagh Set, another one I had requested in vain earlier in the week. In the second half I joined a Lancers Set which was mostly populated by Italians, and we went mad! With no other sets nearby and plenty of floor space available, we were able to line-up over vast distances. Best of all were the two big Christmases in the third figure, which were the best-balanced and consequently the fastest spinning ones I’ve ever experienced—outside of my dreams, that is! At the end, Matt played the Plain Set and then told us to hang on to our partners for the concluding Connemara.
With no morning class to attend, I was finally able to have a full night’s sleep and a long lie-in on Sunday morning, so I was refreshed and ready for my final afternoon ceili at the Armada. I arrived ninety minutes early to be sure of convenient parking, had a bit of lunch, and then reported to the ballroom half an hour in advance. Seating was already becoming scarce and a full ten minutes before the scheduled 3pm start, the floor was completely packed with sets ready to dance. There’s only one band which inspires this behaviour—the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band. Johnny had spent his time before the ceili greeting his many friends, and took his place on stage right on time. Even though I’ve been dancing to the band regularly for a few years, those first few notes played at a ceili still come across as a pleasant surprise, like a breath of fresh air. My memories of his ceilis are never as potent and refreshing as the real thing, so it always feels truly exciting. Judging by the cheers after every figure, I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.
The day was a glorious example of the best an Irish summer can offer. All week, the Armada served complimentary tea, coffee and biscuits at the break, and today they did this in the little courtyard just outside the ballroom, so nearly everyone stepped outside to admire the sea, lounge on the lawn and take their tea. But everyone made sure to return to the ballroom in time to fill the floor with sets before Johnny and company returned to the stage. Just before the final figure of the concluding Plain Set, Claire Burke spoke kind words on behalf of the Armada to express her thanks to all, then after the last bit of dancing, our fantastic week of mad dancing had come to a close. Both sorry and relieved, I made farewells to some people and to others I said, “See you later,” as we were planning to meet again at the ceili in Vaughan’s Barn in Kilfenora. I had a word with Johnny who was pleased to have counted 58 sets on the floor. He mentioned that his ceili here on Friday night had an uncountable number of sets and had surely broken the attendance record.
When it was all over there I felt a sense of withdrawal—where would I get my next set dancing fix? I awoke the next morning right on time to get to class, was only slightly relieved to realise that I could just turn over and sleep more. Another year must pass before I once again experience the best dancing of the year.
PS My little black policeman’s notebook used to be my constant companion at ceilis for jotting down the sets and other notes on the week—at least in theory. In practice I hardly ever made any notes. This year however, I abandoned pen and paper in favour of high technology and took notes on my phone, which turned out to be easier than the traditional method. And so for the first time I managed to keep a complete record of all the sets I danced. The set danced most often at the ceilis I attended was the Caledonian, which was even danced twice at two ceilis. Here are the top ten sets for the week—
1 Caledonian 18 2 Lancers 16 3 Connemara 15 4 Corofin 15 5 Plain 15 6 Ballyvourney 13 7 Cashel 10 8 Kilfenora 10 9 Antrim Square 9 10 Moycullen 7
These numbers reflect only my own experience at the ceilis I attended, and some sets weren’t counted due to my late arrival at a couple of ceilis. For the record, I danced 127 sets at ceilis in the Armada and the Mill Marquee, which excludes classes, waltzes, rakes of reels and the recital performance. And of the fifteen ceilis I attended from the beginning, the Corofin Plain Set was the first set at nine of those (60%). Notice that two new sets, the Antrim Square and Moycullen, have made it into the top ten!
This article will be covering several features of Willie Week probably not covered by Bill’s report. All opinions are mine and I expect some of them to cause offence, argument, or at least discussion.
Firstly I want to discuss fashion or, at least, clothing. Ladies! Black underwear does not look good under white trousers. Have a look at yourselves or have someone else look at you!
Gents! Wet shirts are unpleasant to dance near to. I am a very heavy sweater and have felt the ladies retreat in a Christmas. I have discovered wicking shirts and have gone from five shirts a ceili to one, or at most two in a very hot room. They are not expensive and work wonders.
Secondly, new sets (or, at least, different sets). On our long drive home, we discussed the variety of sets we danced. We danced 145 sets over the week. Apart from the Clare sets, we did the Newport, Claddagh, Moycullen, West Kerry, Sliabh Luachra, Ballyvourney Jig, South Galway, Labasheeda, Antrim Square and Mazurka, although the Antrim Square is not a different set now, fast becoming a fixed set in a ceili.
There is obviously a following for the Clare sets with battering and wild, sometimes unsafe, movements on a crowded floor. I wonder how many other people would give the Armada a miss and dance at the Mill, or another location, if there was a selection of different sets danced, possibly with a quick call through of the less danced dances such as the Fermanagh, Fermanagh Quadrilles, Ballyvourney Reel, Ballycommon, Clare Orange and Green, etc. We are relative newcomers and have picked up these sets quickly so it should be possible for others to do it.
Thirdly, etiquette. During one afternoon ceili, a lady asked me for a dance. I accepted and we got up. It was only during the eight-bar intro that she told me she did not dance and only got me up because she had spent €10 on entry and did not want to waste it “just listening.” I was lucky it was a Clare Lancers and not a West Kerry or similar. The fifth figure did prove interesting, though. A wee bit warning please, ladies.
As I said, a contentious article. Complaints, on the back of a €50 note, to—
Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
To quote last year’s t-shirt from the Armada, we survived Willie Week again, broke and blistered, but we did have fun. The bruises have all but healed and my work colleagues did not realise that set dancing could cause so many injuries. However, with the amount of metal shoe plates and crowded rooms, it is a wonder that there are not more serious injuries.
Now to my main point.
Willie Week aims to promote traditional music and dance with workshops teaching less well-known dances with all the correct steps and movements. Yet only two of the dances we learned in our workshop were danced and we messed up one of those big-time. It seems to me that many dancers have a comfort zone and will dance the Clare sets with battering and embellishments but will shy away from dances that are more unusual. As an example, one evening at Quilty there were fourteen sets on the floor for a Plain Set but when Ian requested a Newport, there were only six sets on the floor, which was good for us. It would be fabulous to have a venue that provided a caller where some of the less common dances could be done and kept alive and danced as they should be.
We attended a dance festival during our recent trip to Australia. The festival took place at Bundanoon in New South Wales over a long weekend and covered Irish set, Bavarian, English ceilidh and many others, with workshops during the day and dances at night. Every workshop had live music and lasted an hour and a half with three venues per session.
Because of the number of sessions, it was not possible to attend all the workshops, so the instructors called the dances at night. We were able to dance all styles of dance with unobtrusive calling and did not sit down all night, so it can be done. I know calling is regarded by some as cheating but it can work.
We will see you all next year and hopefully at céilithe during the year.
Audrey McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
Portmagee is a small south Kerry fishing village in an idyllic setting overlooking Valentia Island. Every year on the May bank holiday weekend dancers flock there for the music and set dancing, most of which takes place in the Bridge Bar. It all started in 1992 when Muiris O’Brien decided to revive some local sets with the help of some of the older generation of dancers. Joe Lynch from Valentia Island helped Muiris with the revival of the Valentia Right and Left Set, a lively polka set with some interesting movements. The teaching of the set dancing was taken over by Connie Ryan until his sad death.
Under the direction of Betty McCoy the set dancing weekend is still thriving. For the twentieth anniversary this year, a large crowd of set dancers attended the workshop in Portmagee where Muiris O’Brien yet again taught the Valentia Right and Left Set as he had learnt it from the locals. At the ceili that night, the original local dancers of the set were honoured with a plaque to mark their contribution to the revival of the set. The 21st anniversary next year promises to be an even bigger weekend of set dancing so book in early!
Very much out of character, I decided to go drifting this summer, to float, loosely tied to a desire to dance, and travel around Ireland, taking snatches of bands and locations, rather than planning ahead, booking and making arrangements. A bit scary, really, for an old German planner, who likes to know what’s next and what’s after that, everything neatly laid out in the diary with all corners covered. Why on earth would I chance this vagueness? The reason is that we volunteer to breed canines. We are in charge of Nell, broodbitch-in-waiting, who has yet to come into season, and you can’t tell her to do it on cue! So, during her pregnancy and when the litter of pups arrive, I need to be able to be at hand. Since we can’t tell exactly when that is going to happen, the calendar looks strangely muggy, pencilled in visions of locations I’d like to go—Miltown, Tubbercurry, Drumshanbo, Kilrush, Cavan, Labasheeda and the odd ceili here and there.
And I’m sitting here and can’t think because I’m just back from Miltown which has left me exhausted, happy, tired, exhilarated, sad it’s over and electrically charged.
Miltown—Mecca for the annual pilgrimage of hundreds of dancers and musicians from all over the world to this speck of a little town in west Clare. A set dance delirium, music tumbles out of every corner and so do people. No place to hide, no place to run! And if you’ve never been to Willie Clancy week, start planning to go. Nothing is like it, and that pretty much sums it up.
Jumbled moments from that week are reasserting themselves in my mind’s eye. A certain look, an advance-kiss, a bear hug. Food shared around a table with folks from six different countries, all speaking English with their own inimitable accents. A lady in Marrinan’s, the singing pub, reciting a story complete with all the action, taking you in with her large bulging eyes. The uncomfortably grinding feeling of sand in your socks. A drop of sweat precariously clinging on to the tip of my nose and the awkward dilemma of leaving it there and looking less than ladylike or wiping it with my sleeve which would be even less ladylike. A woman with the shrillest squeal tearing eardrums apart in a Ballyvourney Jig Christmas for all of sixteen bars. An athlete jumping up and down for set after set, earning her a nickname fondly starting with ‘Mad.’ A heel troubling me nearly the whole time, curtailing my dancing somewhat. Due to the lack of a contingency plan I mostly ignored the pain—familiar? It’s Miltown! “Stop dancing is bad advice,” as someone helpfully pointed out.
What we do each year, more or less, is this—we go to two ceilis per day for most of the week and that mainly in the Armada Hotel ballroom with a view, often commented upon along the lines of “Nothing can top dancing to the (pick your favourite ceili band) while looking out over the sea!” The huge ballroom in the Armada is a bit like a conservatory, with multiple strand-facing windows. We book a holiday cottage and let it fill up with whoever needs a place to stay and can find a space in it that’s still available! Reminders of young days, camping days, hippie days, and the first and second finger are ready to make the sign! We share the food, play music, tell stories, plan events. In the name of love for Irish music and dancing, ethnically diverse ideas gush forth!
First time I was at the Willie Clancy Summer School, nigh on twenty years ago, I did a steps workshop with Paddy Hanafin and sean nós with Róisín Ní Mhainín, and then the ceilis at the Armada—oh, it had me hooked! The laughter, the madness, taking a ‘dance on the wild side.’ I was dragged into the Armada despite great anxiety and adoration of the ‘real good’ dancers at the time. I hear people who are not dancing that long saying it now as well, the awe they feel when they look at someone who apparently dances well and knows the sets. It’ll all come, relax, have a good time. No one is above or below anyone else. There are only differences, but not in rank or status, in style, perhaps, or the length of time spent dancing. Remember, there are some who after years of dancing don’t or won’t know sets too well, and others who pick them up quickly. Some make a great deal out of making noise while others prefer to dance more quietly. Some like to dance with elegance, others with eloquence, and others don’t give a toss and dance to their extremes with their extremities. More do their dancing with smiling pleasure and eye contact, enjoying becoming a hybrid with their partners for a moment. Some plan long term, some leave it to the last minute. Set dancing accommodates them all equally. The dance permits us to share space, time, movement, rhythm, touch and civility with whoever we come into contact with. I love the ritual of thanking everyone in the set when it’s finished. The politeness and exactness of dancing—it is mind-boggling that not more happens when so many dancers step and high kick and double and whatnot to some killer tunes! But some did get their buckets kicked, or slipped. Poor Mark Bryan from Cork who not long after arriving was seen hobbling around on crutches (but can be credited for taking some nice photos, seeing there was nothing wrong with either his hands or eyes), and also from Cork, Mary O’Donovan, Tae Kwon Do enthusiast, now sitting in the sun with her leg elevated and iced. Also out of order came Kathleen Smyth, sean nós teacher from northern realms, who was so excited to come to Willie Week for her first time, and now limped sadly around the room. Afterwards, she said that she is already full of hope for next year!
After three days of homely solitude, mainly, refuelled inner tanks, digestion, revision and little talk (thanks, ever so understanding husband) were up, the South Sligo Summer School in Tubbercurry looked awfully inviting! A different kettle of dancing fish, Tubbercurry was coloured by that troubling heel that kept me from moving the way I want to, which in the end led to a different experience of being at a ceili. I sat and watched some. Me! Sit and watch! Oh my. Well, what I saw and felt was unexpectedly safe—cradled, perhaps is the word. Cradled by the music and all the turning shapes on the floor. Safe in this world, and listening closely to the tunes.
The Dartry Ceili Band who won the All-Ireland in 2009 and are strong on flute and fiddle, sent speedy blocks of tunes across the hall, with a heartbeat-length rift between them, just right for a dancing lift, hedging the dancers in with ten instruments. And Swallow’s Tail with Stephen Doherty on box lending the usually more bristly shots of music a softer quality—instead of the metal jacket, it’s coloured balls!
Alright then, I thought, apparently the music wants me. I shall do the tin whistle classes, two, to be precise, instead of set dancing here, which is Pat Murphy country. He sprained his foot, but said, “I can’t go to the doctor. I have a job to do!” Cracking up laughing at times, he held up well indeed, directing classes from the top of the stage. And in other news, according to Betty McCoy, Betty McCoy has not retired from dancing. In the whistle class with young Aidan Shannon there was actually quite a lot of skill in the group, a bunch of wannabe players like myself. Maureen, who sat beside me, tried to be very encouraging. She is in her fifties, took up the whistle three years ago and it takes her now about ten minutes (make that ten weeks for me) to learn a new one. I heard it with my own ears. Wouldn’t you just hate her! But what that did for me was that I began to struggle with sentences like, “I’ll never be able to do that,” or “It’s too late, I have too many problems learning tunes by heart,” and suchlike.
The good students in the class were full of encouragement and craic. Ah, how the craic is able to ease apprehension! For two mornings, the group went over some reels, jigs, slip jigs and polkas. The joy of playing with them was enormous, so enormous in fact that tunes kept on playing in my head, constantly, (not that I can translate that to the whistle easily, no) and I forgot about dancing. Yes, true, I forgot. What a surprise. Music muscled its way into my mind and ousted, temporarily, the drive to dance. I can be there, and a part of it, by taking in music, watching, listening, playing, teetering on the edge, dipping in and out of dancing, and playing, sharing generously. For only a flicker of a moment did I feel like a traitor to King Dance, but then I saw King Dance bow graciously and benevolently to the woman behind the throne, Queen Music. No music, no dance: When the music stops, so does the dancing.
Having said that, I heard a little story of some stone mad people dancing a set without any music, not even lilting.
The yearning for tunes gets frustrating. Or rather, I make it so, because I want to play now, all of them, and fast, and only reels. And because I can read music and play notes from the sheets I think I should be able to, at once. But ridiculously, when I do, they sound like a piece from Joseph Haydn. And then the whistle takes a little flight through the air and lands not so softly in the corner, disturbing said broodbitch-in-waiting’s pre-gestational sleep. I am also gestating—tunes that are waiting to be born inside some elusive corner of the brain that is still out of reach for the conscious mind. They are in there, I know, they have been heard for many years. Some new synaptic connections and some re-wiring has to take place in there in order to have some tunes off by heart. Whether the small bit of patience I claim to possess is enough remains to be seen. Presently, it’s Father Kelly’s (know it so well from the Abbey playing it), Miss McCloud’s (Tommy Doherty plays it for sean nós, amongst others), Kiss the Maid Behind the Barrel (a four-part reel that I am grappling with a lot), Silver Spear, Cregg’s Pipes (all the ceili bands I think play this one), The Trip to Durrow, plus the most recent addition, Yellow Cow (one of my favourites when played by Swallow’s Tail). The main bonus of all this though is that whenever I can’t dance much, I could redirect and focus on the music without having to detach from that world altogether. The main peril of all this is that I am adding another obsession, and there is no mouse click to get rid of bits of tunes going round and round and round, whiz whiz whiz, inside my head. I got a bit scared when I awoke recently in the middle of the night to find myself humming noiselessly a tune, not sleepwalking but sleep-lilting, oh my word! I have since asked some musicians if I am going insane. And was assured that this was normal, “It happens when you get into it.” Er, me into the music? It feels rather like the music’s getting into me!
Joining the dots, drifting is leading me to unexpected turns and less-explored territories. New angles to old ways.
To be continued . . .
On the 25th of May myself and my dancers filled a bus and we had a convoy going in the direction of Co Clare. We were attending the Fleadh Nua for the first time. Arriving at 9.30am we settled to find a variety of dancers from all over the country, some as young as six years old. There were two competitions that we were attending on the day, sean nós dancing and set dancing. This was the first year of sean nós dancing and the turnout was exceptional. The event took place in the Auburn Lodge Hotel and was organised by Attracta O’Dea and her family. I must commend her on how well organised the event was; from start to finish everything ran so efficiently. We had the magical Tom Doherty to step it out to and all the children were in awe as they have been practicing to his sean nós CD for the last six months. We had the honour of dancing to a large crowd which included Sibéal Davitt, who later gave us a wonderful exhibition of dancing. The standard of the competition was truly amazing with dancers from Clare, Galway, Offaly, Roscommon and of course Westmeath.
We brought home on the bus many proud little champions, in particular the adult champion of Fleadh Nua 2011, Mr Gerard Hickey from Ballinasloe. The room filled with delight when his name was called because everyone knows how much Ger loves sean nós. He has travelled up and down the country to teachers and workshops to improve his step and he has shown us that he is a wonderful ambassador for the sean nós tradition.
I would love to see this competition become as big as the set dancing competition. To see so many young dancers on stage gave me great hope for the future. A big well done to you all and I hope to see as many of you entertaining us at the same competitions next year.
Keep it up!
Sharleen McCaffrey, Athlone, Co Westmeath
Crowds were so much upHi Bill,
Hope all is well after the Willie Clancy week. Thank God my knee held up well. I was able to dance at most of the ceilis
The crowds were so much up, even from the start, which was great and there were more good sessions in the Bellbridge and Armada hotels. I heard they were down in the town—maybe the parking attendant had something to do with it.
I was so happy to meet Michael Cullinane from Tubber again. I had a Plain Set with him and he got through it grand. I warned the rest of the set to help him out and to be nice to him. I also had a waltz with him in the other department [the Armada’s social dancing marquee] and he sang all the songs and has a lovely voice. God keep him safe on his bike.
Patsy Finn, Rathconrath, Co Westmeath
Frenzy and festivityDear Bill,
I crossed ditches through Leinster, Munster and on into Connaught, viewing Ireland’s lovely countryside until I arrived in Enniscrone, Co Sligo [for Enjoy Travel’s Welcome Home Festival, 12–17 June]. This year I can’t dance and there was no Geraldine McGlynn here to teach me a few new tunes so I wondered if I should have stayed at home. (Hope to meet you next time, Geraldine.) Once I met my friends from up and down the country I can tell you I was glad to be here with generous people. I even got a dance from people who didn’t seem to mind that I could barely walk around to the beautiful music. It is help like this that gets one through pain and poorly health—the mind was willing but this body I am in now, weak.
Some first-rate thinkers sorted a room for shy beginners, where music, singing, and recitations got aired and brought this side of people to life. I want to express my thanks to those who helped me along this week, to ensure I had fun-full frenzy and festivity. If you every go to Enniscrone I can highly recommend the hotels, bed and breakfasts and restaurants, coffee shop and pubs. The seaweed baths are out of this world and a massage I got was near to die for. We will be back. I dream of surfing here one day. So I’m a fantasist.
Noreen Uí Laighin, Killanure, Mountrath, Co Laois
Funnest craic I’ve had in years
Arrived back in Australia shattered and happy after visiting Miltown and Tubbercurry (only one day).
I had a great visit to Ireland this year, saw and danced with loads of people I know and thanks to Madeleine Devitt and Frances Walsh in Miltown, and to Angela Simpson in Tubbercurry. They all hosted me so well in those places, took me to dinner, kept me and paid attention—the best of good friends.
However, I have to especially thank the two “Mad Michaels”—Walker and Tolan—for the funnest craic I’ve had in years. Their sense of fun and idiocy would do Spike Milligan proud and it was worth every dollar, mile and hour I spent getting to Ireland from Australia just for that.
That’s why I come—great dancing, great music, good food and drink but especially the company and shared enjoyment of set dancing.
Thanks to all those who contribute to the set dancing community—long may it continue!!
Nora Stewart, Bywong, NSW, Australia
Omagh charity ceili
Each year Omagh Traditional Dancing Club organises a sets ceili to support a local charity. The club feels it’s important to give something back to the community. This year the club ran a successful sets ceili on Easter Monday to raise money for the renal unit in Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh, a great facility which provides much needed support for those needing regular dialysis and other treatments. The club raised £500 at the ceili and presented the cheque to Ann Buchanan of the renal unit.
Aidan Bunting, Omagh, Co Tyrone
Graciousness and gratitudeHi Bill,
On behalf of Sets by the Sea and Bellbridge House Hotel, Spanish Point, Co Clare, I would like to extend a huge thank you to all the wonderful people who attended our set dancing weekend in March 2011. You came from far and near to support us and I was humbled by the level of graciousness and gratitude extended to us throughout the weekend! In these very hard times, you all had happy smiling faces and the willingness to try to forget the outside world’s trials and tribulations, which is a wonderful attitude to have to help us all cope.
I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to the large contingent that came with Chris Eichbaum from Clonmel, Co Tipperary, who, by themselves, almost filled the hotel! I’d also like to issue a huge thank-you to Mary Clancy, one of our local set dancing teachers, and her daughter, Mary Kate, who helped some of the novice set dancers at the céilithe and encouraged them to dance no matter what their level of ability was. As Chris referred to in some of her articles, we all started somewhere and it’s nice to be able to encourage the newcomers to the set dancing scene, as therein lies the future and continuous evolution of set dancing.
As always, the ceili bands, the Abbey, Johnny Reidy and Swallow’s Tail, were without reproach in their deliverance of high quality and lively music for the weekend. The seisiún musicians, led mostly by my brother P J, added to the enjoyment of all, before, during and after the céilithe. I am particularly encouraged by the participation of so many young musicians who came to these sessions. Thank you also to Noreen Ferns and band for the social dancing gig on Saturday night.
The dates for next year are set for 9th, 10th and 11th March 2012. We have, mostly, the same bands with some added extras! I do hope that we will see you all again next year, economy willing!
Míle buíochas go léir,
Tina Walsh, Mullagh, Co Clare
Blessed by a rare event
Every once in a great while we are blessed by a rare event and opportunity, and Saturday May 28 was one of the best! The California Alliance for Traditional Music and the Pride of Erin Ceili Dancers helped sponsor Boston-based sean nós performer and teacher Kieran Jordan to hold a sean nós workshop and concert in Claremont, California. Kieran was supported by the brilliant Kevin Crehan and Ben Power. The workshop, concert, and following ceili were hosted in the home of Don Breyer and Dena Morean and went into the wee hours.
Michael Loftus, Mission Viejo, California
Broguses and Caipíní
Here are pictures from the annual Ardmore, Co Waterford, Pattern Festival held each year on the third week in July. It runs for a full week.
The Kilfenora Ceili Band played for the ‘Finale Extravaganza’ open air ceili for the close of this wonderful festival. Timmy ‘the Brit’ McCarthy called the sets. The fancy dress theme this year was ‘brogues and caipíní’ (caps) and Helen Kealy’s class did not need much persuasion to go all out with the style. They were rewarded with a well-deserved prize.
Celia Gaffney, Dungarvan, Co Waterford
A team to represent Ireland
We took a team, the Mizen Set Dancers, to represent Ireland at the Tredegar House International Folk Dance Festival, Newport, Wales, from June 3rd to 5th. Twenty-six dance teams participated, many from Europe, and other countries including some from Africa! The group photograph is of the Mizen Set Dancers with members of the Czech Republic team.
Bert and Annie Moran, Schull, Co Cork
A school aimed at teenagersDear Bill,
This is in connection with a school for aspiring set and ceili dance teachers, which I hope to set up in collaboration with well-known teachers Anne Mangan, Joan Pollard Carew and Ultan Mulcahy. It is, loosely, intended for Kerry and will take place at central Kerry venues.
It is noticeable, especially in recent times that:
With regard to 1, I can say from my own experiences that young would-be dancers seem to be turned off coming to classes, given, I suggest, the sometimes venerable content of their intended classmates. Thus, mightn’t it be a good idea to train people of their age group and provide them with a comfortable environment among their own peers!
- Very few teenage dancers are coming forward.
- There are large areas that don’t have access to dance tuition, thus compounding the reduction in numbers of those attending our ceilis.
Re point 2, given the parochial nature of rural society, it would be more satisfactory if tuition was available near at hand rather than having to travel considerable distances.
Our school is particularly aimed at teenagers, though older people will be equally welcome and will start in early September, at weekends when students are available. The venues will be as central as possible; hence the need for applicants to apply as soon as possible. The only charge will be nominal, just to pay the rent of a hall where applicable.
I have found it difficult to communicate with the wider public; thus the Set Dancing News should be a valuable aid to unearthing as many potential teachers as possible. Anybody interested should call 087 9451247 as soon as possible.
Timmy Woulfe, Athea, Co Limerick
Our friend and fellow dancer, Robert Graham of Hatboro, Pennsylvania, passed away on July 19 2011 at the age of 54.
Robert loved Irish dancing. For nine years, he was a member of the Crossroads School of Irish Dance as a competition ceili dancer. Along with his classmates, they won or placed at many local and national competitions. For the past three years, he was a member of Circle of Friends (taught by John Shields), one of the many set dancing opportunities in the Philadelphia area. He has participated in the Philadelphia St Patrick’s Day Parade with Crossroads and the Timoney School of Irish Dance. He had great times both in competitions and just for fun.
There are many words of sympathy to be said but the loss of a friend is felt in the heart, eased in time by memories, but never quite understood.
Please include Robert and all who will feel his loss in your prayers. It brings some comfort to know he is now without pain and is at everlasting peace. He will be missed by the Irish community, especially on the dance floor. He is now surrounded by family and friends, sipping tea, and dancing away, though his heart will find it hard to soar knowing for awhile his leaving has caused tears and heartache.
Robert is survived by his wife Vicki, three daughters, three brothers, and lots of friends.
Kathy Hopkins, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Deenagh Ceili Band from Killarney, Co Kerry, made a strong impression on set dancers when they played at the Armada Hotel for the first time in July. There was no escaping the joy and lift of their music and the ceilis were bliss from first note to last. If you haven’t heard them yourself, you’re in luck—the band just launched their first CD, Around the House. It includes four sets which everyone can enjoy—the Ballyvourney Jig, Connemara, Plain and Sliabh Luachra—and they’ll all seem new and exciting with the Deenagh. Be sure to get a copy directly from the band if you’re lucky enough to meet them in person, otherwise phone or email for a copy. You’ll also find them on Facebook.
One of Ireland’s leading lights of sean nós dancing is Mairéad Casey from Lanesboro, Co Longford. She’s been sharing her knowledge for years at the Willie Clancy Summer School, and is a popular workshop teacher at home and abroad. She’s just produced a new DVD of sean nós instruction, entitled Ón gCroí, so you can enjoy her teaching and learn nineteen of her steps at home. Nine steps are for beginners and ten are advanced. Mairéad’s demonstrations are shown as though she was standing in front of you, so they’re easy to follow. Beautiful solo accordion music is played by Peter Carberry.
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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