The Sean-Óg Weekend, one of Ireland’s top set dancing weekends, took place November 19–21 at the Longford Arms Hotel, Longford town. Chris Eichbaum went along for the fun and has kindly supplied this account of the Longford experience.
There you go. There’s no reason to mope about the miserable time you’re having in November, the month before Christmas, when usually zilch happens, and we all get into complaining together. No reason, since this is Longford time! Like Christmas in December, the Longford weekend shines a light into the dark corners, and combats the onset of in-front-of-the-fire laziness and the attack of the chocolate bars. Friday to Sunday in the Longford Arms Hotel makes you twist again like you did last summer!
So much on the menu, just studying it throws up some awful conundrums, like when to eat, take a shower, meet friends, recover or sleep. I’m afraid you’ll just have to do with a little of all of that, and catch up later when it’s all done!
The November anti-depressant is without serious side effects, er, well, let’s start that one again, because you have to be careful. It might have some, and long-term addiction is only one of them!
Imagine you’re a set dancer. Imagine you want to go to the Sean-Óg weekend, and now imagine you’re looking for accommodation. Better start looking early and book a room in the Longford Arms Hotel at the beginning of this weekend for next year. Seriously. Don’t leave it too late to book any other type of accommodation either. This time, we stayed in a nice B&B a couple of blocks from the hotel, in which the patient landlord accommodated us and our ever-changing requests for who was staying with whom and how many there were in the first place. He provided an extra bed for the room initially, but as with Ikea flatplacks, had no joy of erecting it before the weekend was over, so he proceeded to change around other customers, blissfully unaware (I hope), until he sussed a suitable room for our party of three.
Parking also comes at a premium, so it might be wise to come early on Friday, and you can expect to get a space somewhere without ensuing fisticuffs.
The array of high-class bands then will bombard you throughout your stay, with the Salamanca as the frontrunner on Friday this time around, double-billing it with the Abbey for a four-hour ceili to start you nice and easy—haha! Then more of the best bands, like Johnny Reidy, Swallow’s Tail, Micheál Sexton and the Five Counties, offset by a multitude of social dance opportunities to the singing of Carmel McLoughlin, Fergus Harman and Micheál Sexton (who played a mix of old-time and sets in the bar, and by request will do the same next year in the ballroom), as well as organised sessions with the likes of the Pinch of Snuff band, Tommy and Stephen Doherty, Brona Graham, Sean Corrigan and others, who, like Andy O’Connell, from the Abbey, can’t help but play a few more tunes in the bar.
Workshops are led by the infamous Pat Murphy (sets) and Ger Butler (sean nós) and this is certainly one of the bastions of big workshop numbers, as both simultaneously running classes sported fine crowds with people from England and the continent in nearly equal numbers to dancers from Ireland.
As a ceili-interim entertaining number, Edwina and her Sean Nós ar an tSionan group performed a stunning display of well-choreographed steps, nicely harmonious costumes and solo acts by one after another of her large group of kids and teenagers. There were more high-profile sean nós displays at another ceili—just in case you didn’t get the one show, you got the other. No half measures here!
Talking about teenagers and young people, this is a weekend where you’d find them in droves. They contribute a special energy, jump-jump, high-kick, unconventionally dancing their own way, the way of youth, which is also reflected in the number of young musicians you will get to hear here, forging new music-matter. They all do exactly as upcoming generations have always done, and are supposed to do—bring in the wind of change and stir up the conservative fraction of the older generation. In set dancing, they live side by side tolerantly, and mingle, too, and Longford shows beautifully how this is possible and how everybody can benefit from the flux between young and old—Sean-Óg indeed!
Looking at the map of Ireland, if you wanted to find a central spot, Longford is nearly the bull’s eye. Nothing matches this weekend in number of bands, ceilis, sessions, social dances and workshops thrown into a never-ending mix. Unrivalled, it towers above lots of other events, and is choreographed carefully by Gabrielle Cassidy and Ger Butler and their friends and helpers. To this day, they have not disappointed any punters with what’s on the menu—starters, mains, desserts, and all sorts of courses in between.
Because it is so jam-packed with events, it attracts people from abroad, because you get a lot of dancing when planning a trip to Ireland at the Longford weekend. Of course, you can always do as a certain Great Dane did, who came over not only for one little weekend, but for weeks, taking in anything set-danceable—kitchens, classes, parties, fundraisers, ceilis and weekends—cramming dancing into her time as much as possible.
So, it’s like this at the Sean-Óg—you dance sets, some of them of the more vigorous cardiac-workout type, then relax with a couple of waltzes and quicksteps at the social dancing, learn a bit of sean nós or sets, as well as listen to (or play) vibrant trad in one of the strong sessions. Then you talk some. Then you eat some, while you talk. Then you dance again, and then dance some more before days and nights are out. Come Monday, you’re exhausted, but in a good way, the way that makes you feel a you’ve accomplished something (staying alive), b all warm and mushy from lapping up the friendship stuff, c secure in having done some serious calorie-busting, and d safe in a haven of dancing until you re-emerge into the world outside clad in an overcoat of light-heartedness to keep you warm, and swinging your step with shoulders back and head held high.
The spectacle of this winner of a weekend is growing still. Think twice before bringing any woolly jumpers. There is enough heat created to keep you hot and leave you wishing you’d thrown convention to the wind and worn those cool beach clothes.
Now in its eleventh year, the Sean-Óg festival is going strong. Keep rolling it over, lads, the punters will keep coming and the music will keep playing, and the days will seem a lot less grey on the third weekend in November.
The Sean Dempsey Set Dancing Festival, an annual weekend of competitions and ceilis in Manchester, England, took place last October. The festival was started by Sean Dempsey, the man who revived set dancing in Manchester, and continued in his memory after his death in 2000. Chris Eichbaum went along and reports here on the craic. Afterward it was announced that this was the final festival.
The big competition weekend with a promise of loads of youngsters to come to compete in it, adjudicators with grave expressions, last minute rehearsals, tangible nervousness—I was not looking forward to it. But go I had to. Last year, I got Timmy Woulfe to write something about the competitions, and now I couldn’t get out of it. So it was with no enthusiasm whatsoever that I got up on Saturday morning (Gorgeous morning, could I go to the park? Go shopping? Have a lie in and walk the rottie?) to drag myself to the competition venue. I was driven there, what’s more, and on the way, we stopped at a B&B and picked up Gabrielle Cassidy and her team of young girls. And then it just hit me, there and then. Wow! Hustle, bustle, excitement, life. Costumes and make-up. Nerves of steel and other materials less durable. Last minute walk-throughs at the side of the stage, final touch-ups to hair delicately woven or braided, sometimes edged with glittering strands for the girls. Team after team went on to showcase their figures of sets before a huge congregation of mostly young dancers and their teachers and parents. Whirls of dancing shoe-clad feet wheeled and bounced in harmonious sync, or less so, in which case the chances of winning dwindle. Three local musicians, Adele Farrell, Steve Prosal and Paul Daley, were playing all day long for the dancers, my word, such endurance! In parallel to the afternoon competitions, which also featured sean nós, Timmy Woulfe set up for a set dancing workshop in a small side room off the main function hall, and three-plus sets went for a different kind of dancing. It was not about perfection, no no. The East Galway, bless it, ducks and all, felt so much like a dance shared, shared by Timmy with us on the floor, and we shared it with one another. A little intimate workshop that created exactly and perfectly what I like—some laughter, some concentration, some banter and craic and discussion, some hugs and some non-lingual connection. Enter the hall and dance. Just dance. That’s all. Learning is inclusive, different from one person to another. Fine.
It ends with such emotion. Ann Dempsey is letting go, and so are the others who have been involved, some for many many years. What is left of it? And what are we taking from it? The end of October, signalling the falling of the leaves in a furore of colour, announcing the end of a season that will rest in its winter, and fed by last year’s fruits, await another circle, when the dance begins again. But not the Sean Dempsey weekend.
So, two worlds met here. Usually apart, coming together in Manchester to view and sample each other’s interpretation of what set dancing means to them. Moving closer as a few competition girls joined the workshop for a while. And moving closer again at night, when loads and loads of young competition dancers came to the ceili. Wowdy! A wonder to behold on the stage when competing, and now, they seemed back to who they truly are—young, high-spirited, vulnerable in their youth, confident and less so. You want to take them under your wing one minute and the next let them go and just enjoy and hop about.
That young energy lifted the atmosphere and opened a door to a possible future, because it is them that can continue the thread. Fair play to yez. And play fair.
Johnny Reidy Ceili Band (JRCB) had come over from Dublin airport and kept supplying musical high-rises, skyscraping it through the weekend. A few flights into it, you realise what good friends they are. When you see a ceili band on stage, you don’t get to know the band members, don’t get to know what their relationships with each other is like. But it can be safely said that all four members of JRCB care about each other. And it shines from the stage, it certainly did here at the Sean Dempsey weekend, and what you saw was leaps and bounds from a wide range of age groups, particularly on Saturday night, when after the day of concentrated competitions, the young people let loose on the floor and let go of the day in a breezy style. This is what ceilis should be like, representing three generations. Full circle. The weekend has been sculpted over the years into a mega-event combining different aspects of set dancing, allowing you to experience what a workshop is like, what a competition is like, what a ceili is like, what good music is like.
Did anybody sense that this was the last time? The last time for the big Sean Dempsey Set Dancing Festival. It was decided to discontinue it now. Like all things, it had to end at some point in time. How sad is this, to have to acknowledge that for us who love this weekend, that time is now.
The girls that Gabrielle Cassidy, Strokestown, Co Roscommon, brought over from Ireland had such big smiles on their faces. Despite not winning, they apparently enjoyed the experience, enjoyed the dancing and had a light-hearted good time at the ceilis. Good for them! These girls could be doing worse. They could be out at these late hours of the night being picked up by gardaí to be brought to A&E for intoxication. Not these ones, no, instead, they live. They are awake in their lives. Hail set dancing, you don’t mix with a large amount of alcohol!
What a cacophony of gilded colour, pretty embroidery, pearly adornment, polished shoes, elaborate hair-styles, flickering sparkles on buttons, buckles, skirts, dresses, as well as sparks flying on the show stage! One after the other, the groups go up the staircase and perform. Hands held at shoulder height, with steps in time with the music as precisely as possible, they show formations patterned with organic accuracy. The dancers look almost interchangeable in their quest for exactness and try to pepper their performance with smiling faces.
The young crowd that came over from Cork, Mark Bryan and Rose-Marie Flynn and the others, truly loved Joe Mannix. They performed part of a set in honour of their former teacher, mentor and friend, the Ath a’ Caoire Set at the Saturday night ceili, and their faces could not mask what they felt, yet, they danced, and danced well. With Joe, another big name has passed, like Sean Dempsey, forever linking dancing in England and Ireland.
Looking back over the photographs, I can see the smiles on people’s faces, the fun in their dancing, the fire in their high kicks, the mingling of ages like nowhere else. The Sean Dempsey club members lined up for a final portrait including JRCB, jubilant, proud. Now, the club has disbanded. After 24 years, the festivals curtains are drawn for good.
From November 13th to 15th, my wife Audrey and I, together with Frank, our teacher in Glasgow, and Una, a classmate, attended the Strathspè Away Dance Festival, Kingussie, Scotland. I had only become aware of the event after the illustrious editor of this magazine emailed me with the details. It was a mixed event with Scottish step, Spanish flamenco and Scottish ceilidh being taught, as well as Irish set, which we were attending.
A lovely drive through the Highlands had us arriving in time for afternoon coffee, a walk before dinner and a grand Scottish ceilidh with Skippinish, a band with a line-up including bagpipes, boxes and fiddles. At the tea break, background music was played including a long set of slides that allowed us to dance a half-set of the Ballyvourney Jig in front of an interested audience.
After a breakfast of porridge for energy and a full-fried for greed, Saturday morning brought the first of three workshops with Pat Murphy. The class was composed of many Scottish dancers willing to learn something new and a full set of Irish dancers. After a quick lesson on jig and reel steps, we were off, starting with the Newcastle Set followed by the Ballycommon and finally a run-through of the Connemara, which we were going to dance at the evening ceilidh. We had a core of dancers who attended all classes and a few who wandered in and out, causing a quick restart at the beginning of each session.
Saturday evening’s ceilidh was danced to a composite band playing bagpipes, small pipes, whistles, fiddles and keyboard. Entertainment between dances included a display of step dancing and our Connemara Set. It is the first time I have danced a set to bagpipes and it went down well with six sets attempting the set to Pat’s calling.
A huge breakfast on Sunday was followed by a session of international folk dancing with dances from all round the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. Then Pat’s last two sessions had us dancing the Loughgraney Set, which we had not danced before. Three sets enjoyed a good day before we all headed home.
Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
In the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People (circa 1959) Darby was described as a wily old codger whose battle of wits with the king of the leprechauns was the central theme.
Strangely enough, the current manager of the hotel which bears his name in Killarney, Co Kerry, is Pat Gill—no relation, but certainly very perceptive in his business acumen. I am almost sure he is also a Dub, which may be a further plus on his CV! He, certainly, has a very astute appreciation of what makes us rural people tick.
Darby’s, as it is known locally, has become a hub of traditional activity in the Killarney area since Pat took over. It hosts one of the largest set dancing classes in the country as well as monthly Sunday afternoon ceilis run by the Stepping It Out Club. As one would expect its catering facilities are of the highest class—the patrons welfare is key!
Last year Pat decided to organise a weekend workshop in late November and, astutely, asked Joan Pollard Carew to advise on the layout. It worked, except for the awful weather conditions which played havoc with it. Nothing daunted, the dual management decided to go again on the same dates this year, and thankfully the conditions were ideal.
The hotel was booked out weeks in advance, thanks to clever marketing, but then Killarney in November is not short of accommodation. Plainly, the weekend was run to Joan’s template, with full cooperation from management, and nothing was skimped on for the visitors, whether late night music sessions with food supplied gratis or even an extra workshop on Sunday morning at the request of some of the visitors.
As for the ceilis, Joan conducted them with her customary aplomb, with a selection of sets to satisfy even the most choosy among us. And who could quibble with the music of the Striolán, Abbey and Deenagh ceili bands?
As a satisfied punter I would expect we will be back again at Darby’s in 2012. I would hope the same template will be used. Whether the end product will be repeated—or exceeded—will be for the attendees to decide. One way or the other, this was Joan’s workshop and how well she carried it off!
Timmy Woulfe, Athea, Co Limerick
Darby O’Gill’s Country House Hotel on the Mallow Road near Killarney, Co Kerry, hosted their second set dancing weekend from 25th to 27th November. We had three superb ceilis with brilliant music from three leading ceili bands, Striolán on Friday night, the Abbey on Saturday and Deenagh on Sunday afternoon.
I was privileged to work with the hotel to organise the weekend, compile the list of sets for each ceili and act as MC for the weekend. I took the liberty of including sets not danced that much at ceilis in my list. I believe that weekend workshops and festivals need this variety to keep these seldom-danced sets alive and to encourage teachers and organisers to consider a greater selection of sets at their next event.
Timmy Woulfe taught the set dancing workshops on Saturday and an additional one on Sunday morning. With his meticulous yet relaxed style of teaching we enjoyed the South Kerry, East Mayo, Williamstown, Ballyduff, the square in the Borlin Polka and the gates in the Mazurka.
Triona Mangan gave an energetic sean nós workshop. This young, accomplished dancer and teacher is a joy to watch. She is very thorough and seems to have the patience of Job with both adults and children.
Dancers enjoyed the seisiún in the bar on Friday and Saturday night, with magic music by Damien Mullane who hails from Dingle in West Kerry. We had a hooley. Complimentary finger food ensured that dancers were energised to stay dancing, singing and telling yarns until the small hours.
Dancers had travelled from the four corners of Ireland. I was delighted with the support from Thurles Set Dancing Club who brought a coach-load of dancers. They gave numerous displays of two-hand dances and also danced the lovely traditional Priest and His Boots. Eddie Whelan gave us a new two-hand dance called the Canadian Hornpipe—Eddie you are a gem. The Kilkenny and Waterford crew never left the floor. We even had dancers from across the water. It was great to see friends Mick and Margaret Meaney.
Locals and visitors danced the soles off their feet all weekend. The complimentary tea, scones and biscuits at break time was welcomed and enjoyed.
Joan Pollard Carew
The weekend in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, Co Dublin, took place from January 13th to 15th. Timmy Woulfe fills us in on its background and this year’s happenings.
Several dancing weekends commemorate the late Connie Ryan—and rightly so—but this one is different in that Connie himself founded it 21 years ago and, sadly, passed away a few short years later.
For the many latecomers to set dancing it is worth recalling that Connie hailed from Clonoulty in mid-Tipperary where house dances were an integral part of rural life. Like all of us peasants, his knowledge of set dancing would have been limited to the local sets; multiple sets entered his horizon many years later.
In his youth he was a more-than-useful hurler—what Tipperary man wasn’t? Unfortunately, he suffered a nasty head injury which affected his sight—and ended his hurling career. Maybe it was fate. Some time later, Connie came to Dublin where he took up employment with Bank of Ireland and became involved with the dancing fraternity in the capital.
Connie was an active member of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann for a number of years, albeit a restless one, but the strictures involved in being a member were impeding the development of his true vocation, namely, exploring the world of global set dancing which now became his abiding passion.
The rest is history with Connie and those who were his disciples, touring the country, picking up as many sets as possible in their travels and recording them. It was a skilful operation. Connie’s poor eyesight meant that Betty McCoy and others scripted the sets, though Connie’s phenomenal memory enabled him to set up his own mental database of sets, with special attention to the traditional characteristics of each set.
From this experience sprang what we now call workshops, which have literally straddled the globe and have enthralled multinational adherents. No surprise to those who knew him—Connie, in his own way, was one of the most charismatic characters one could hope to meet, a wonderful teacher whose zeal captured the interest of thousands, as well as a most able organiser and manager.
The Grand Hotel, Malahide, was where Connie finally pitched his tent as a most suitable venue for his very own workshop. This is a four-star hotel, a cut above the average for the time, and some demurred at the expense. Obviously, he and his team knew better; maybe the status conferred on the weekend by its apparent grandeur did the trick because attendance had to be restricted in view of the massive crowds who turned up and of those who had to be turned away.
Thus was the Malahide weekend conceived, and to this day has flourished and retained its status as the foremost one around, maybe not the largest, but definitely the flagship one to which those who wish to keep up with conventional developments in the set dancing world flock annually. The latest one was no different to the previous ones; if anything, the attendances looked bigger than usual, and the latest sets were on view.
One of the most pleasant aspects of the Friday is meeting up with acquaintances from years past. Aidan Vaughan, as usual, kicked off the night with a Clare battering workshop; in excess of a hundred students attended, an amazing number! Later, the Slievenamon group played for the night’s ceili, a most pleasant one with 25 sets or so and a programme of conventional sets on the menu. Not too taxing!
Maybe just as well because the morning workshop would be from ten till one o’clock with Tony Ryan and Pat Murphy sharing. I didn’t do a head-count of the attendees; the hall was full, maybe between 25 and thirty sets! Tony got things underway with the Black Valley Set, nice and easy for ones already able for it, with beginners requiring a little encouragement here and there. Anyhow, knowing that all sets taught would be danced at a later ceili made it more enjoyable for all.
Pat, as usual came up with another newcomer, the Ballykeale Set from Kilfenora, Co Clare. This is the brainchild of one of nature’s gentlemen, the unassuming Michael Slattery, who, if you remember, unearthed the Kilfenora Set a few years back, which is now one of the established sets worldwide. Ballykeale is the collection of movements remembered by Michael, which Pat and Michael Mahony reconstructed into what is now an attractive set, very danceable, in the Clare mode.
I can imagine this set being copied, maybe from the Set Dancing News, and danced, maybe as commonly as the Kilfenora! No more than Michael and his team would deserve! With time limited before the break, Pat, as usual, came up with a short one, the Newcastle Set from south Tipperary, with nobody minding going a little overtime to finish. All in all, a very satisfactory morning.
The Four Courts Ceili Band played for the afternoon ceili. When I noticed the new faces turning up, it looked like it would be, as Betty McCoy is recorded as saying, “Keep your elbows to yourself.” Just as well a few went shopping and a few elders rested for awhile because, again, the floor was full—as indeed the Four Courts fully deserved. One of the great pleasures of a ceili is to dance the sets one has learned at the morning workshop. However, some didn’t thank Pat for calling the Ballykeale when they were absent, but he was fully justified in revealing it to those who hadn’t been there. Anyhow, ever the diplomat, he called it again at the night’s ceili.
Amazing where one gets the energy for the night’s ceili! A very pleasant function before it started was the launching of Brian Ború Ceili Band’s new CD. Various dignitaries paid tribute to the band for their music and I heartily concur. Additionally, the CD contains five sets, namely, the Boyne, Moycullen, Sliabh Luachra, Antrim Square and South Galway, a veritable tour de force giving full rein to the band’s powerful music and a valuable addition to the already well-endowed CD library. Maybe it was the power and drive of their music that rejuvenated tired limbs during the ceili because many were still going strong at the end of nine sets.
Sunday morning in Malahide is a hive of activity. Everybody seems to be on the move, whether cycling in groups, stride-walking along the waterside, playing tennis or just out for a bracing stroll. And weather conditions always seem to be favourable too, the only people unaware or uncaring being those who hied themselves to Michael Tubridy’s traditional step dancing class, which he shared with Mairéad Casey’s sean nós class. An amazing turnout, let’s assume about a hundred once again!
One notices a pattern about the various functions of the weekend—a formidable complement of newcomers to each one. The dance-hall filled up rapidly well before the start and you wouldn’t want to be dithering before joining a set—they were filled rapidly. Set dancing encourages conviviality and, before long strangeness gives way to new acquaintance. Hard to find such a means for breaking social barriers anywhere else!
And so it was for the final ceili, with Matt Cunningham! Where did so many new attendees come from? This was probably the largest crowd of the weekend, with dancers once again taking to the carpeting for a little space. Better than having to keep your elbows to yourself or be elbowed in turn! Matt must be one of the daddies of them all for longevity, a longtime favourite in Malahide, his crisp, lively style energising again flagging feet.
This was a top class ceili too, one of the many reasons being Pat’s excellent calling, a vital component where not everybody is competent in all the popular sets. With a very big crowd it was vital that all sets moved smoothly and less practised dancers were given a little verbal push. Also, it married the different traditions, whereby, in parts of the country, all sets are called, and in others not at all. Pat’s adroit calling seemed to make the argument—to call or not to call—irrelevant.
Sadly, some of us had to leave a bit early, the nostalgia already brewing at missing the last few sets. Malahide is as majestic as ever and, hopefully, will continue to remain so, as long as dynamic people like Betty McCoy, John and Anne Grant and Michael Tubridy continue to be involved.
For me, some of the more interesting cameos of the weekend centred on—
Long may Malahide prosper! Set dancing is safe while weekends like this continue to flourish.
The cosmopolitan attendance, many oriental, some from continental Europe, even New Zealand and USA. The rare—and grand—sight of the finest of stylised handlebar moustaches and goatee beards one could wish for. The very correct lady who told me to stop play-acting and concentrate on my dancing. I stand rightly corrected by this good lady and did my best to comply with her command for the rest of the weekend. In retrospect it was well deserved and remains a delightful little memory which in a way epitomises what some of us are tending to drift into—ill-behaved nuisances!
Timmy Woulfe, Athea, Co Limerick
Footnote: The weekend’s contributions to cancer care up to now amounted to €93,000 and this year’s profit should yield a further €5,000. ’Nuff said!
We had a great month of dancing in December. In the previous two years, cold and snow made it difficult to venture out, but this time a mild winter brought icy roads only once. Your editor reports here on the dozen ceilis he managed to attend, and correspondents Mary Caldwell, Ian McLaren and Chris Eichbaum report on their own holiday activities.
Prime parking availableMy first ceili in December brought me to Cois na hAbhna in Ennis, Co Clare, on Sunday afternoon the 4th. Arriving only fifteen minutes early, I feared I might be late for a prime parking spot, but was relieved to find a handy place still available among all the other cars coming early for the same reason. Why else would the occupants stay sitting in their cars until the first set was called?
In the car I put on my prized dancing shoes (Italian-made, fit like a lightweight glove, collect dust like a chalkboard eraser, purchased in a Manhattan bargain shop last year) and when I went as usual to the boot for the camera bag—horror of horrors—no camera bag! It was all packed up and ready to go at home; the important step of carrying it out to the car had somehow slipped my mind. I quickly went through the inventory of everything else I needed at the ceili and realised I was also without spare shirts, handkerchiefs and copies of the new Set Dancing News. Luckily I had the foresight to don one of those miracle wicking shirts I’ve read so much about in the magazine. If it didn’t work as expected, I would have to slink away from the ceili early, dripping with embarrassment.
The lack of a camera was a blessing, as I could concentrate on the dancing and the pleasure provided by my partners for an entire set without my usual dashing off to catch big smiles and bright eyes. Some people, especially those tending to avoid lenses, reacted as though I myself was a camera and would shyly turn away from me. (Or perhaps it’s just me they avoid and I always defensively blamed the camera!) One of these shy ladies I find particularly photogenic (I like to think of her as the Jackie O of set dancing, she’s always so elegant) yet she always avoids a camera, and here she was doing it to me again without any camera in sight! I wondered if perhaps she actually really likes cameras, so to oblige her I whipped out my phone and flashed a few blurry shots of her. I think she was quite content with that.
I was really enjoying the ceili, the friends (one of whom I hadn’t seen for a year or more, so we spent the entire break tea-less and brack-less happily chatting away), and the sets, all the while minding the numerous aches and pains a dancer at my stage of life has to contend with. It was only in the second half that I noticed chills travelling up my spine. The delicious music of the Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band had broken through to my deep subconscious, making the pleasure of the afternoon complete.
By the way, the wicking shirt performed admirably. I was as wet as ever, but the shirt never soaked. I’m at a loss to explain it but am ever so grateful.
It was only six days before I returned again to Cois na hAbhna, for a ceili on Saturday night the 10th with Mountain Road Ceili Band from Co Limerick, which I believe was their first appearance here. I was in good time to sit down and relax a while, when I began to wonder who my first partner would be. Now nearly subsumed into the generation which books sets in advance by text message (How did we ever manage it before?) I asked a partner not yet here for the first set. I was a bit anxious when she replied she’d be there “in a few minutes,” as she had less than five minutes to spare! When everyone started forming sets for the Corofin, I luckily found another good partner and re-texted my original number one to change my invitation to number two instead. She arrived during the second figure and found herself a partner and a set. We had a great Sliabh Luachra after that.
For the rest of the night I booked my partners in the traditional manner, helped by a handy list of sets posted around the hall. Except that it seemed the band had a different list which led to a bit of confusion in the second half when one of my bookings was on, then off, then back on again in time for the final set.
I had the foresight to remember to put my camera in the car tonight, which provided a bit more substance to Jackie O’s protestations. I was delighted that she gave in to me with such a nice smile.
Mike Mahony’s class Christmas ceili on Wednesday the 21st brought a huge crowd that packed Cois na hAbhna with 25 sets or so, outdoing any ceili I’ve attended there in the past six months. Regular ceili-goers from a wide area showed up as always, as did those who attend the class but wouldn’t often go to ceilis, plus several folks I hadn’t seen for a long while. One of these was Eddie Beatty from the Aran Islands, who was back dancing for the first time in six years and even gave a welcome demonstration of his sean nós steps. Rousing music was played by Star of Munster Ceili Band.
I again attempted to book my first set by text message, and this time she even showed up on time! With Christmas upon us, there were many in festive outfits, including a pair of ladies decked out in coloured lights, usually dancing opposite each other for a mesmerising light show.
Mike left us alone to dance the usual sets, and everyone helped out those who were less sure of themselves. But even with his calling for the Moycullen Set, I needed to do some frantic waving to flag down a lost lady, and in another I ended up housing through another set, such was the crowd and the sometimes disorienting nature of the floor in Cois na hAbhna, which has floorboards aiming at every point on the compass, not just north and south.
It was a number of years since I last heard the Star of Munster, and I won’t be leaving such a long gap again—they were brilliant! When they played the last figure of the final Plain Set, I was brought back ten years in time to the old Michael Sexton Ceili Band (Micheál’s father) when the Tamlin Reel went through my eardrums and direct into my brain. No band has ever surpassed the thrilling excitement of Michael’s version of the Tamlin (It was his band that first introduced it to me.) but tonight it was almost like I was hearing him again. They even played the next tune in Michael’s original sequence. I was left yearning for more and went home with a Tamlin infection in my brain!
St Stephen’s Day (Monday the 26th) brought Mountain Road Ceili Band back to Cois na hAbhna, this time with two extra large speakers and two additional musicians (totalling seven) for an improved sound. I didn’t need the phone to book partners tonight as my first partner arrived early enough to do it in person. Waiting in place for the dancing to begin while the other sets were filling, I pointed out a fairly new lad terribly keen to dance but very shy about asking the ladies. My partner made a special request to her angels, those celestial beings who invisibly look after us all, to find him a partner. Next time we spotted him he was happily dancing away with a nice lady, and seemed to be up for every set after that. The angels were on the job!
When bandleader Con Herbert called the Labasheeda Set, he must have been seeking a more positive reaction, because he immediately changed it to the Kilfenora Set. When we started, it was clear that two sets on the floor must have had reception trouble and didn’t get the second message, as they were Labasheeda-ing while we were Kilfenora-ing. They changed course in time for the second figure.
Another favourite partner did the Ballyvourney Jig with me and I didn’t restrain myself at the doubles. She’d never want to go through that again, I thought afterward, but then she immediately booked the same set for our next ceili.
After the last set the band kindly played a rake of reels to finish. Our set decided to dance the Connemara, but my partner for it looked a bit disappointed—no doubling. Not to worry! I pointed out that another of my regulars actually doubles with me all the time in it, cross handed. And it turned out to be great fun with this lady as well, so now I’ve spread the virus to one new person! (Apologies in advance to all Connemara Set purists.)
On the night before New Year’s Eve (Friday December 30th) Star of Munster played again, sounding even better than before. I was elated to get a second chance at the Tamlin Reel, this time for the Lancers Set, which was the one Michael Sexton originally played it for, so my blast from the past was complete.
My Antrim Square partner questioned me about those darn wicking shirts everyone is talking about, wondering whether they would be suitable for her husband. As it happened, that’s exactly what I was wearing so I asked her to give me an impression from her point of view. She confirmed that it didn’t feel soaked, despite the heat of the hall, and gave her vote of approval.
Indeed it was hot, and during one set I was lucky enough to dance by the stage where some kind soul had placed a fan which was intended to send cooling breezes over the masses, but really only reached as far as first tops. So I stationed myself there for the rest of the ceili. I was still hot and wet but the breeze gave a bit of relief.
The programme of eight sets was actually completed before the scheduled end time of 1am, so as a bonus the band kindly played a couple of waltzes and a rake of reels, then finished with new year greetings and the national anthem.
Marie’s not quite final ceili
Marie Philbin’s Christmas ceili has been an annual tradition for many years in Galway. Marie is a life-long step dancer and teacher who is responsible for the revival of the Moycullen Set. Her ceili is always on a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks before Christmas, held in recent years in the Claddagh Hall, an old sports hall on the River Corrib, handy for the city centre but without any of the parking hassle. However, no guarantees can ever be made about the traffic in Galway, which seemed fairly monumental when I struggled through it on December 11th. Still, I arrived early enough to be the second or third paying customer through the door.
Marie chooses her music well. I remember dancing to the Michael Sexton Ceili Band at past ceilis, and she has remained loyal to the Sexton family by booking Micheál Sexton and Pat Walsh. They’re not a combination you see often anymore, as Micheál generally performs solo and Pat has teamed up with Tony Dunne, but today they played as brilliantly as they ever did. The most danceable music imaginable, light, bright, relaxed, effortless, utterly irresistible. The dynamic duo still lives!—at least at Marie’s ceili.
Sets for the day included the Claddagh, Moycullen and the Mazurka, a welcome rarity, now less well-known than previously, so in my set there was only one nearly correct highgates and some sets achieved utter chaos in the final line-up figure.
Marie raises money for charity at her ceilis, so tickets were sold for the massive break-time raffle which was conducted with assembly line efficiency. Marie had announced that this was to be her last ceili, but Pat Walsh expressed the wishes of all when he asked her to consider holding it again. As I left I thanked Marie for the lovely ceili and said, “See you next December!”
A short way down the road I was stuck in an even bigger traffic jam than before, and stationary to boot! Ah, Galway, we love you anyway.
Frosty FreemountIt was a night I should have stayed home, but when I have to dance there’s no stopping me. Not even icy roads. As I headed out to Freemount, Co Cork, on Saturday, December 17th, I could feel the small roads near home freezing up under the wheels of the car, but I had no trouble on the main roads. Then once I turned off the main road at Charleville in Cork, things became treacherous. The sharper the bend, the more the ice and sliding, and on some higher hills there was even slushy snow. Travel was slow but I kept going—Freemount isn’t too far along. I parked at the community centre next to another traveller from Clare, relieved I wasn’t the only mad one.
It was my first time here—the hall was enormous and felt a little like a refrigerated warehouse, but there were warm radiators fed by lovely hot pipes, so we huddled in little clusters around them. After dancing a couple of figures in jackets and sweaters, we soon became warm enough to be grateful for the cool air. Music was by Mountain Road Ceili Band, who hail from these parts so they didn’t have far to travel. Many opted to stay at home tonight but we maintained five sets of dancers nearly the whole ceili.
A handy list of sets was posted on the wall, and my partner for the opening Corofin Set kept walking over to read it, whereas I could see it clearly from second sides. This led us to continue our discussion about eyesight, which we had started a ceili or two ago. I recommended contact lenses to her. It was only when I gave up the glasses in favour of contact lenses that I began seeing faces clearly across the full length of the hall—plus my eyes were cooler and not so sweaty. Just don’t ask me to read anything small close up!
I’m entering a new forgetful phase of life. While I did remember to bring my camera bag tonight, I unfortunately neglected to insert my camera into it. I remember feeling impressed at how easily I could lift and toss the bag in the car, but I was a bit off the mark thinking I was getting stronger. Fortunately I had a couple of small spare cameras tucked into pockets and crevasses, with which I managed to save the night for posterity.
The small crowd made no difference to the band’s music or the fun we had. Polkas or reels, Mountain Road played them with equal ease and spirit, resulting in 100% happy dancers. After the ceili the organisers kindly invited the band and the few lingerers into the kitchen for tea and sandwiches to fortify us for our return journeys. The side roads hadn’t improved so I was on alert all the way home.
New life for the Old School
Not many set dancing venues have been the scene of a murder, but one of the nicest and newest venues in Co Cork has this dubious distinction. The Old School House in Foiloighig, or Foilogohig or just Foyle, near Ballydesmond, Co Cork, sits in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but fields and forests on a tiny lane. You’d wonder how there ever would have been enough pupils to justify a school here, but judging by the class photos on display inside, it appeared to be thriving in the 1970s and ’80s. The 1994 class looks much smaller and eventually it closed as a school in 2009. Rather than let it lie empty, a local group was formed and grants obtained to transform it into a community centre. It reopened last year and the first ceili was held in November. I attended a Sunday afternoon ceili there on December 18th.
On entering the hall I was immediately struck by the light—there are a dozen windows soaring up to the height of the ceiling. I was also enchanted by a little museum in a display case on the back wall, which contained antique items used on the farm, at home and in school. Even more entertaining was a collection of vintage showband posters on the wall, and many people there claimed to have danced to most of the advertised bands.
It’s a small venue and the seven or eight sets on the nicely slippy floor filled the space. We generated an electric atmosphere thanks in large part to the joyful music of Kevin Lynch on accordion and his accompanist Mairéad Curran. This being the heart of Sliabh Luachra, there was no skimping on polka sets, here achieving equality with reel sets! Even the Jenny Ling filled the floor and no one had any bother recalling the figures. Every set, from the first Corofin to the final Ballyvourney added up to a perfect ceili!
Earlier, when looking up the school by name on the internet, I came across reports of a drug-related murder, which apparently happened just outside in 2007. The story was confirmed to me after the ceili and I learned that no one has ever been charged with the crime. The rural isolation of the school, so charming to those of us attending today’s ceili, is perhaps the reason why the victim was lured here.
Keeping the tradition at Darby’sRefreshed by a good Christmas break, I headed out around midday on St Stephen’s Day for a leisurely drive to a ceili in Killarney. Weather was good, roads were clear and most amazing of all, I had the entire Shannon ferry to myself for the crossing from Clare to Kerry. When I found myself the only car in the queue I assumed it mustn’t be running today, and was reassured when I spotted the ferry coming toward me across the river. I asked the man who took my ticket if they ever had crossings without any cars at all. “Twice on Christmas Eve,” he said.
I was heading to Darby O’Gill’s Hotel outside Killarney town with a great plan in my head—get there early, have a nice lunch and then stroll over to the ceili. When I asked for a menu at the bar, I was informed that the chef was coming on duty at 4pm, the same time the ceili was due to begin, so goodbye lunch. However, the proprietor kindly spent fifteen minutes making me a tasty bowl of piping hot soup, so I was in good form to begin dancing, and any hunger arising after that would surely be satisfied at the tea break.
If I’d been able to ask Santa Claus to deliver my ideal ceili, what I would have asked for is exactly what I got that afternoon. A great crowd of happy dancers, but not enough to make it crowded, a floor that you never had to think about it was so easy to dance on, and blissful Kerry music by John and Martina Breen, a brother and sister duo otherwise known as Uí Bhriain. John is a genius of a box player, with a diverse repertoire of sublime reels and breathtaking slides and polkas, and Martina provides a beautifully balanced and well-paced accompaniment. I wondered why they don’t play more widely around the country, but the answer to that is that I have to dance more often in Kerry!
Have you ever danced with a cyclops? It happens to me all the time when swinging with one of my regulars. We tend to gaze into each others’ two eyes so deeply that they merge into a single big blurry eye. It’s fun! Don’t bother focusing, it just leads to eyestrain.
When we stopped for a break, hostess Mary Philpott said that in all her fourteen years of running St Stephen’s Day ceilis, tea was never offered and so she wasn’t going to change that tradition today. My soup had done me well up to now, so I didn’t mind, but I expect no one would ever lament the loss of that tradition!
The ceili ended too late for the ferry, so I had to make my way back home by road. But at least I had the Limerick Tunnel all to myself when crossing back to Clare!
No holding back
My two biggest ceilis of December were both class parties held in Ennis on successive Wednesday nights either side of Christmas. The post-Christmas party for Maggie Hutton’s classes was on December 28th at the Holy Family School in the town centre. She holds a Monday night class here with ten or twelve sets every week, but we had about twice that number in attendance tonight. She passed out free tickets with thanks to all her regulars and charged the rest of us a fiver. Music was by the Four Courts Ceili Band, and Maggie gave credit to them, specifically to box player Peter Griffin, for getting her involved in teaching sets. Peter encouraged her to teach in Lisdoonvarna by offering her the Four Courts for live music in the classes—that’s an offer you couldn’t refuse!
The school hall was a gym-auditorium-cafeteria with a high ceiling, comfy floor and soaring windows that would be lovely in daylight. We danced a familiar collection of sets, with the Moycullen still new enough that Maggie called it for us. Two days earlier she and I had just finished dancing the Ballyvourney Jig Set when she booked me for it again tonight. There was no holding back as she knew exactly what she was getting herself into! Members of her class got to see her as they’d never seen her before—whirling like a dervish at high speed—and provided a soundtrack of laughs and cheers.
The tea demonstrated typical Irish hospitality, with masses of goodies, sweet and savoury, hot and cold, all supplied by Maggie herself. The hot food required special logistics, as the school kitchen was unavailable, so the cooking was done elsewhere and a microwave was brought along for reheating. In my comments last year I praised the availability of samosas, and she made sure they were here again. I ate two before they all vanished, and nearly everything had been eaten by the time dancing resumed. At the end Maggie was grateful to all of us for supporting her classes and party, and we were delighted to have had such a great night’s dancing.
Vaughan’s midnight taxiOn Friday, December 9th, the Deenagh Ceili Band came to Kilfenora for a mad little ceili in Vaughan’s Barn. Aibhín Holden keeps herself quite busy teaching sets and sean nós to kids and training them for competition, and she also holds a class for their mothers who want to dance as well. Tonight they all turned up in force for the Deenagh, overwhelming the Barn with their laughs, shouts and infectious enthusiasm. The trio on stage, Sean Murphy, Conor Moriarty and Timmy Collins filling in for Jayme Lenihan, lapped it up and had as much fun as everyone else. I danced a couple of times in sets with seven of the mothers, or at least a majority of them, all greatly valuing my guidance as we sometimes vainly attempted to do the moves according to the book. Later, a spontaneous rip-roaring wild-west version of the Lancers Set (learner-free) on its own made the night entirely worthwhile!
The annual Christmas party on Thursday, December 22nd, was rather more sedate, yet still loads of fun, which is what you normally experience in the Barn once or twice a week. Admission was by donation tonight and the proceeds were collected and presented to Teresa Culligan, visiting from New York, who accepted the money on behalf of the Brothers of Charity in memory of her brother Tom Shannon, who was a long-time regular here.
Just over a week later, another party on New Year’s Eve attracted dancers from Waterford, Louth and even England. Some of Aibhín’s young dancers have taken to coming here regularly, and I asked two sisters why their youngest sister hadn’t joined them tonight. “We told her she’d have to kiss all the men and she didn’t want to come,” was the perfectly sensible reply.
One of the final dances before the fateful hour of midnight was the Taxi Dance. We were instructed to line up with gents on one side, ladies on the other, form a couple with whomever you meet at the top, waltz down to the bottom and then get back in line to pick up the next partner. It works well as a way of dancing with the ones you don’t normally dance with. There was time for a Ballyvourney Jig Set before the countdown to the new year, when we all joined hands, sang Auld Lang Syne as best we could—and then the kissing started.
As I made my rounds kissing any and all ladies, I came upon the two sisters and their friend huddled in the corner. I began to attempt a kiss when three faces quickly turned away from me, but they were happy to accept my handshake as a substitute. There was then a waltz and a Caledonian to welcome the new year, and then I went home to sleep my first night of 2012.
Hunting the wrenThe wren, the wren,
The king of all birds,
On St Stephen’s Day
He was caught in the furze.
Up with the kettle,
Down with the pan,
Give us the money
To bury the wren. On St Stephen’s morn
I was chillin’ out,
When a phone call I got
To go walkabout.
It was Imelda.
She said it was for a good cause.
Her two musicians were sick.
I said, “Yes,” without a pause.
We went up the road,
And down the road,
Over the road and back,
Singing and playing,
And having the craic.
We played The Boys of Blue Hill,
And The Rights of Man. It was for the charity Barnardos.
We got a good few bob.
We had great fun,
While doing a good job.
Mary Caldwell, Ennis, Co Clare
Seeing in the New Year at CarryduffTwo months without a ceili had us searching for a fairly convenient one for New Year’s Eve. Carryduff in Co Down sprang out at us and soon we had flights booked, hotel room reserved and an email booking for two ceili tickets. We knew the music would be good with Eamonn Donnelly of Copperplate and Michael Curran, a mighty box player. We also knew the company would be good from previous visits so there were no second thoughts before booking.
A good flight across to Belfast set us up for the short trip down to Carryduff and into our hotel, which was only 200m from the hall, a short stagger.
We got to the hall thirty minutes before the start to see all our old friends and catch up with the gossip. All the old faces were there and we were soon anxious to get started. The band mounted the stage, Joe Farrell announced the first dance, and we were off. Nine sets were ‘giving it laldy’ as they say in Scotland.
Four sets were danced, then a cool-down waltz and quickstep before supper was served and it was a huge spread.
As it was getting close to midnight, Joe called an Antrim Square and we finished a minute before the required time, allowing a piper to pipe in the New Year for us. After kisses and handshakes all round it was on with the dancing. Four more sets were danced, finishing with a Plain. Joe was obviously in a frivolous mood as we were told to change genders for the third and fourth figures and the men danced as ladies. All went reasonably well until the horse and cart when none of the ladies (as gents) knew how to turn the ‘ladies’ across to the other ‘gent’. A huge tangle ensued to great hilarity. Luckily, no cameras were produced. All too soon, it was time to say goodnight and we wandered off into the night tired and happy.
We were in Northern Ireland for less than 24 hours and had enough fun for two days. Thanks are due to Rosaleen Murphy and Hugh McGauran for the organisation, the band for great music and the crowd for being themselves.
Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
Do you know what happens when two good friends get together, both of whom enjoy dancing and have excellent brains at their disposal? A mighty unusual fundraising ceili, that’s what. And it is now firmly established as the New Year’s Day ceili, in Carlow, by the way. And who are these two, you wonder? It’s Hilary Nic Íomhair and Geraldine Byrne, and this is what happened this time around—
145 set dancers graced the floor at Carlow Hurling Club for the fifth annual fundraising event. Danny Webster played for the ceili, and Jack Byrne (Geraldine’s husband) entertained the dancers during the interval. All sets, old and new and known and unbeknownst, (the Allow Set, anyone?) were called by Hilary, who is always on hand to throw in the Irish version as well! Funds raised on this occasion were €1,600 which are going to Carlow and South Leinster Rape Crisis Centre, the humanitarian development agency Goal and St Lucy’s Integrated School for the Blind, Lodwar, Kenya.
In 2008, Hilary and Geraldine held a ceili in the new sporting complex in Narraghmore, Co Kildare, which was a great success! All proceeds went to St Lucy’s School. Geraldine says, “Without sounding too philosophical, I believe that the idea of funds being raised through a joyful, fun event—a ceili—adds an extra positive dimension to the act of giving.”
She also points out that while Hilary and herself organise the ceilis, both are greatly supported by a vast number of people who help prepare the venue, take charge of the money and raffle, provide and serve food, and donate raffle prizes. It is very much a group event and it is especially gratifying for the two of them to see so many dancers attending and supporting the ceili.
They would both like to say a huge thank you to one and all!
Step to the East was the name of a weekend in Prague, Czech Republic, 2–4 December, attended by Chris Eichbaum, who reports here on what made it unique.
Wondering what to do in December besides Christmas shopping, sussing new decorations, planning for a festive season, hunting for an authentic Christmas market? Go to Prague—do it all there and more. And the more is dancing to the elaborately musical outpourings of Tommy and Stephen Doherty in a ballroom. And that’s Ballroom with capital letters where you’d be whisked away onto the set of Sissi the Young Empress. What you really see in there in your mind’s eye is ladies in sweeping ballroom gowns and gentlemen in frocks swaying along the parquet floor to the sounds of Strauss’s Emperor Waltz. But wait a moment, that’s not a fantasy! Here they are, a troop of Czech dancers fitted with garments to match the venue, performing an historic Czech dance, eská beseda, first danced in 1863, containing four parts, and each part has five or six Czech folk dances. Among the first dancers of the eská beseda was the famous Czech composer Bedich Smetana, whose grave you can visit in Prague as well.
Václav and I stand at the sidelines, watching. “House!” he says, recognizing a movement that also occurs in sets. “Chain! Polka steps! Lead around! Circle, advance and retire! Arches!”
Oh my goodness, there are loads of them. This is it, and we are watching the origins of the sets-species like excited archaeologists of the dancing-Darwin kind, unearthing fossil traces marking a step in the evolutionary ladder. When those dancers join us later, they don’t really have a problem joining. Really. How remarkable is that! Leave it to Václav to join the dots and make history corporeal in the present moment.
And then it’s out on the floor again for sets, sets as we know them, or try to get to know them. Good old sets! Friday it’s time for the Loughgraney and Ballyduff sets, on Saturday the workshop is allocated to the Limerick Orange and Green, Birr and West Kerry sets, and on Sunday, the remainder of time goes to the Connemara Jig and Inis Oírr sets.
Pat Murphy has come over to Prague to teach them. Fittingly, like two revered seniors in their respective fields, Pat representing the best of Irish teachers of set dancing, Prague representing well-preserved continental medieval architecture and charm, they meet and complement each other. Join together again what was disjointed. I think here, this time round, it finally hit home how much all the dances, dancing and styles are interlinked and have those common denominators. It’s a part of the legacy and history of all Europeans, and going back farther, all of the world’s inhabitants. Unlike conflicts, this pastime has brought fun and lightheartedness to people across the nations, and still continues to do so. Also, it has brought—and still does bring—men and women together. Yup!
Pat is so tolerant, so patient, so willing to simplify his language in order for non-English speakers to have a chance to pick up what he says, or to get a concise translation from one of their fellow dance enthusiasts, so knowledgeable so that he can try different types of explanations. And he can play a few tunes on Tommy’s box at the night sessions that Václav had organised with about ten local musicians joining in—and Stephen Doherty showing his bottle on the flute.
Prague isn’t only pretty in summer, but also in winter, and you actually get to see more because there are marginally fewer tourists to avoid by craning your neck this way and that to look past them.
The cathedral stands out, as part of the castle grounds. Monumental stained glass windows inspire awe in a massive crowd of people that gather inside. So many colours, so many hues, so much craftsmanship. The oldest section of the building dates back over a thousand years. Imagine—St Vitus Cathedral began life as a Romanesque rotunda and then basilica before the year 1000, but the later Gothic parts which are still present date back to the fourteenth century. And all the goblins, gremlins, imps, gnomes, vulture-like pixies, elves and dragons that were carved out of the stone look down at the spectators in their frozen state, with mocking, menacing and ominous expressions on their stony faces. Whatever impressions they create in each visitor, they are impressive, the whole of the cathedral is, the whole of Prague is. This wasn’t, this can’t be, the last time to have visited it. And thanks to Václav Bernard and his family, there are more reasons now to go for a city break to the Czech Republic!
Nenagh set dancers held their annual set dancing weekend from 6th to 8th January. This year the club celebrated their 23rd festival. As this was our first weekend of set dancing for 2012 we all had boundless energy for dancing and, more importantly, enthusiasm for learning new sets.
We had three superb ceilis, beginning on Friday night with music by local musicians Tom McCarthy and Mike Eagan. Saturday night for our ceili we danced to the brilliant uplifting music of Ger Murphy and Ken Cotter and our final ceili was splendid as we stepped it out to the magic music of Brian Ború.
Michael Loughnane of Thurles was as usual our MC for the weekend. We danced a marvellous variety of sets, familiar and not so familiar—all got a good airing. We only repeated two sets all weekend, the Moycullen and the Boyne.
Pat Murphy was in fine form and his workshops were well attended. One can easily see why—he is a true master of his craft. His workshops are exceptionally well structured and, being a fellow Tipperary man, it is wonderful that he continues to direct the workshops at this festival which is run to honour Connie Ryan. Pat began his workshop on Saturday morning teaching the Newcastle Set, a seldom-danced Tipperary Set. Pat told us he got this set from dance master and historian Timmy Woulfe of Athea, Co Limerick. Some of the moves are similar to the Sliabh gCua, danced to polkas and a hornpipe. The Televara Set from Co Cork was next. We danced all seven figures, and this brought us up to lunch time.
Immediately after lunch we had a special treat in store. Pat had another new set, the Ballykeale to greet 2012. We were privileged to have Michael Slattery, from Ballykeale, Co Clare, at the workshop. Pat told us that Michael had composed the set from memories of dance movements in the Ballykeale area, just up the road from Kilfenora. Michael is no stranger to reviving sets—he also revived the now famous and familiar Kilfenora Set. The Ballykeale is a beautiful set danced to reels, jigs, reels and a quadrille. The Limerick Orange and Green was the final set of our Saturday workshop.
Sunday morning’s workshop held another surprise new set. The Birr Set was composed by Mick Ryan from Birr, Co Offaly, early in 2011 to celebrate his home town. This set has four figures, reels, jigs, hornpipe and polka. Our workshop concluded with Pat teaching two-hand dances the Summer Morning Waltz, the Edinburgh Mixture and the Whispering Foxtrot. The two new sets we danced this weekend will definitely hit ceilis very soon as both sets are easily danced. They are a welcome addition to our repertoire.
We had some wonderful solo dancing over the weekend. On Saturday night Ollie Moroney danced a superb brush dance, and on Sunday afternoon Ryan O’Meara danced a jig, followed by Phyllis Brolan from Thurles dancing a hornpipe. A large group of dancers led by Maureen Culleton danced The Priest and His Boots.
The Nenagh set dancing club and organising committee are to be commended for a superbly organised weekend. All who attended had a brilliant time. I am sure Connie Ryan was smiling down on us all weekend as we enjoyed and celebrated set dancing which was the great love of his life.
Joan Pollard Carew
Kathleen Collins is a busy set dancing teacher based in the New York City area. Her accomplishments reach beyond set dancing as she is a qualified step and ceili dancing instructor and an outstanding fiddler. Her first recording in 1973 was influential and unforgettable, and it is only in 2009 that she issued a second album, My Book of Songs. Two members of her set dancing class spoke to her on behalf of Set Dancing News.
Patricia Brady: Tell me about your Irish roots.
Kathleen Collins: My father was a great Irishman. He was from Meelin, Cork, and my mother was from Mountcollins, Limerick. I was born in Harlem, New York. My father was adamant for us to know our roots. He was the one who searched all over the city for us to take Irish music and dance classes. My traditional dance teacher was a man by the name of Professor McKenna. He was from the Kingdom! My music teacher was John McGrath and he was from Mayo. My brother Dan also played the fiddle and in 1973 he recorded Paddy Carty from Loughrea, Galway, and Mick O’Connor from London. It was after this meeting that Dan formed Shanachie Records for the sole purpose of promoting traditional Irish music. Dan also republished O’Neill’s Music of Ireland. My brother Dave played accordion and composed Dave Collins’ Jig which is now on many popular CDs for set dancing.
Terri O’Neill: How and when did you become involved in Irish music and dance?
Kathleen: I was eighteen and when Professor McKenna passed away, I started a ceili class. I then met Mary Holt Moore of the Gaelic League. She was such a force in the promotion of ceili dance in the 1960s. She started competitions throughout the boroughs in New York, so I put together a team of dancers to compete. Everyone at the time was telling me, “Kathleen you are only eighteen. You should be out dancing at the city center instead of teaching on a Sunday afternoon!” At that time my team won the championship for ceili dancing three years in a row! My passion imploded.
Terri: When did you decide to study for your TCRG and ADCRG?
Kathleen: While studying with Ted Kavanagh in London (I was 21 at the time) I asked him if I was ready and he said I was. I received my TCRG in the Mansion House in Dublin and then I returned to New York. Later I went on to obtain my ADCRG.
Patricia: Tell me about your start into set dancing?
Kathleen: I read an article in the Irish Echo that Connie Ryan was coming to New York to do a set dancing workshop. Immediately after watching Connie dance I was so taken that I knew instinctively that this form of dancing was beautiful. I returned to Ireland so that I could dance with set dancers all over the country. I danced with Joe O’Donovan from Cork and Jack Slattery from Tipperary. I stayed three months and returned to New York feeling prepared.
Terri: What changes if any would you like to see happen in the set dancing scene?
Kathleen Collins: I would like to see people be more aware of the new sets and accommodate people that want to dance them. Also, if new people go to a ceili that they are welcomed rather than questioned, “Do you know this set?”
Patricia: What are your favorite sets and why?
Kathleen: My favorite set is the Clare Orange and Green. This set was introduced by the famous fiddler from Clare, Junior Crehan.
Terri: I understand you were the first American-born fiddler to win the senior All-Ireland championship?
Kathleen: Yes, and Junior Crehan was the adjudicator when I won the All-Ireland in 1966.
Terri: What are you most proud of and what are your future goals?
Kathleen: It was a great accomplishment to prepare set dancing teams to win first place at the New York Fleadh three years in a row, 1994, 1995 and 1996. My goal is to present a team from New York to compete at the All-Ireland Fleadh.
Patricia: What are your final thoughts regarding set dancing?
Kathleen: I would love to see the halls full of dancers. I also would love to see the people appreciate the beauty of these dances and be welcoming to all newcomers—and I guarantee they will come back.
Patricia Brady and Terri O’Neill
Huge crowds ascended on the picturesque town of Enniscrone, Co Sligo, for the Diamond Set Dancing Weekend which took place in the Diamond Coast Hotel, 4–6 November.
Friday evening got off to a great start with Kathleen McGlynn’s sean nós workshop. Her unique style of dancing and love for the music allowed everyone involved to learn in a very relaxed and enjoyable manner. After the sean nós, weekend organiser Oliver Fleming took over with a country and western workshop. There were foxtrots, quicksteps, jiving and waltzing galore, and even a touch of Slosh to be enjoyed. This ran nicely to the start of the first ceili with the mighty Brian Ború Ceili Band from Dublin. The energy and the buzz at this ceili was like no other. After the ceili, there was more music to be enjoyed in the residents’ bar with The Duets.
Saturday morning brought wonderful sunshine, so a lot of people made their way for a walk on the beautiful beach of Enniscrone. Later in the morning Kathleen McGlynn continued where she left off on the Friday evening with her sean nós workshop, while Ger Butler had a set dancing workshop. Later in the afternoon Kathleen and Ger gave a sean nós class together. Their two distinctive styles of dancing complemented each other perfectly. After Mass, it was time for the country and western, which kicked off at 5pm with Micheal Cleary and Breege Kelly. The lovely music was enjoyed by all, and there was even a waltzing competition thrown into the mix.
Big crowds gathered for the ceili at 10pm and with a band like Swallow’s Tail playing, it was no wonder at all. All the usual sets were played and the atmosphere could only be described as electric. No time was wasted as Oliver was busy going around filling the sets.
Sunday morning brought more beautiful sunshine but Marie Garrity still managed to fill the main hall in the Diamond Coast with her two-hand dancing that ran up to lunch time. From 1pm onwards, the crowds started to gather into the main hall for Johnny Reidy Ceili Band. Johnny and his band were outstanding from start to finish. To finish the weekend in style, there was a big country night with Patrick Feeney and a great night was had by all.
Jennifer Fleming, Bonniconlon, Co May
On Tuesday 4th October news quickly spread among the set dancers in Co Monaghan of the unexpected passing of Anthony McCormack. A lover of dance from ceili to sets and a little old-time thrown in, Anthony travelled the length and breadth of Ireland and indeed further afield to enjoy his favourite pastime. He made friends easily and always extended the ceád míle fáilte to the newcomer or stranger. For the local ceilis we could always depend on Anthony to arrive with one of his wife Mona’s freshly baked apple tarts for supper.
Anthony attended our June bank holiday ceili in the Glencarn Hotel,Castleblayney, and won one of our raffle prizes, a large pot of purple petunias. He was so proud of his prize that he placed it in the centre of the kitchen floor surrounded by the kitchen chairs as a surprise for Mona the following morning.
Sadly this was to be Anthony’s last ceili as he became unwell on the following Thursday and required hospitalisation for a period. Following this spell in hospital Anthony suffered a number of setbacks requiring further hospital care although his illness was not life-threatening. His sudden untimely death came as a great shock to his wife Mona and family and to the entire community. His larger than life personality will be sadly missed by all who knew him.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.
Marie Curley, Monaghan
I would like to thank Chris Eichbaum most sincerely for ‘pushing’ me forward on my Irish dancing journey.
I remember talking to Chris in early July 2011 about entering An Jig Gig, TG4’s traditional dance competition programme. That time I wasn’t even thinking of participating, but in the end I decided to take part in this rather unique competition. I watched An Jig Gig very sporadically in the past, but I thought it was an interesting idea to create such a platform for people of all ages, different styles of Irish dancing, performing solo or in a group.
Giving classes or performing definitely makes one a better dancer. TV competition however is different again. Taking part in An Jig Gig was certainly a valuable experience. Having very little time to produce a new dance performance was a great challenge, especially when it came to the final rounds. To impress the judges and to accommodate their expectations was more difficult with every week and also the level of the other acts was highly competitive. Progress as far as the final round was a great achievement and when the results were announced, I was over the moon winning second place.
The whole competition was pre-recorded, and when it reached TV screens it was nice to sit back and enjoy watching it. Often I came across reactions of my friends or other people I have never met before on the internet or elsewhere and I was amazed how many people were actually watching that programme. Although I liked dancing and all the madness around An Jig Gig, I don’t think I would go and try my luck again. However, I very much enjoyed meeting all the dancers who spent time together in the RTÉ studios and probably would never have met otherwise.
Tereza Bernardová, Castleconnell, Co Limerick
Actually, Tereza didn’t want to enter at all. We all stayed in the same house last year for Miltown, and I told her to do it, but she felt too shy about it, thought she wasn’t good enough. Then the producers rang me (I think they ring anybody and everybody connected with dancing) asking me if I had any ideas. So I just put her name forward despite her not wanting it—bold! I then sent her a text, warning her that she’d get a phone call from TG4 (they were very excited about having a Czech on the programme) and said if she still didn’t want to, well, to simply decline, but that I wasn’t able to help myself. I think she’s class and I am so proud of her!
Omagh Club visits Dublin
Omagh Traditional Dancing Club travelled to Dublin for a weekend of set dancing in early December. Julie McIlroy from Omagh linked up with the Sean Tracey Comhaltas Branch, chaired by Sean Murphy, who helped organise the trip.
We enjoyed two ceilis and a music session during the visit. The Friday night ceili was in St Catriona’s School next to Na Fianna GAA Club, Glasnevin, on the Friday night with the Brian Ború Ceili Band. On Saturday night we were entertained at St Mary’s GAA Club, Saggart, by the Glenside Ceili Band. We would like to say a big thank you to Ann Peters, John Broderick and John Mulligan for their warm welcome and for transporting us around Dublin during the weekend.
Of course time was made for everyone to do some Christmas shopping during Saturday. In fact some even attended a matinee play in the Abbey Theatre to enjoy The Government Inspector. Junior seisiún players from the Sean Tracey Comhaltas Branch provided the musical entertainment on Sunday afternoon and a nice lunch was provided. All in all a good time was had by everyone.
Aidan Bunting, Omagh, Co Tyrone
Joe Mannix Memorial Ceili
On behalf of the Joe Mannix Memorial Ceili we would like to thank all those who travelled near and far and from overseas to remember and celebrate the life of Joe on January 21st see pages 44–45. It was an outstanding success with fantastic music and a lively atmosphere.
We would like to thank the management and staff of the Parkway Hotel, Dunmanway, Co Cork, for providing us with a great venue for the occasion, and also a big thank-you to all who supplied the outstanding home baking, to those who helped out on the night and to those who donated spot prizes.
All proceeds raised on the night are going towards the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation. Our final word of thanks goes to Tim Joe and Ann O’Riordan for providing fantastic music on the night. We hope to see you all again this time next year, please God.
Fiona Shorten, Joe Mannix Memorial Committee
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—2012, (Index).
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