Pilgrims for years have attended shrines all over the world, looking for cures and spiritual uplifting. For us dancers though, our yearly pilgrimage takes us back to An Grianán in Termonfeckin, Co Louth. Unlike religious pilgrimages, where self-flagellation and deprivation lead to spiritual well-being, here in An Grianán, our only deprivation is one of sleep. Fine music, good food and lively company lead undoubtedly to cures of all kinds. Pains, aches and the worries of the world are left behind and the spell of music and dance keeps toes tapping and spirits high.
This year the Termonfeckin set dancing weekend, 20–22 January, was celebrating its tenth anniversary. Arrivals began early Friday evening with large crowds descending on An Grianán in time for the tea, which takes on a whole new meaning here. Breaded chicken, savoury potatoes, apple tart and cream and the famous brown bread accompany the tea. Those returning guests have learned to pace their eating before their arrival in anticipation of the abundance of food.
Local band Triskell took to the stage Friday evening to launch their first CD, How Are Ya Fixed? Friends, family and participants from the weekend were entertained with tracks from it. Lively, sweet tunes from the Cúchulainn and Boyne sets brought us to the floor. Those of you fortunate enough to have purchased the CD will agree that Triskell have created a sound that engages both the listener and dancer alike.
Local dancers from the Corrigan White School of Dancing entertained us with their intricate footwork and energy, making us feel quite old. Local councillor Oliver Tully officially launched the weekend, commenting that the organising committee were in effect local heroes, bringing life into the community and showcasing what Termonfeckin has to offer.
Fear an tí, John McEvoy, with his military-style timekeeping, cleared the floor in time for the ceili. Nine o’clock sharp saw Triskell take to the stage and the dancers were off! The Grand National came to mind but unlike the Grand National we had no ‘fallers’. We danced the night to lively reels and powerful polkas and Amhrán na bhFiann came too soon.
The distance from the dance floor to the foot of the stairs is quite short but for some reluctant sleepers, it took some time. Songs, stories and recitations were to be heard from the small bar till the early hours. A large crowd under the watchful eye of Syl Bell travelled from Kildare. He was like Moses leading the slaves out of Israel with his large troupe of dancers trailing behind him. Kildare songs and stories were freely available that night.
Saturday morning, a fresh morning with fresh legs! Workshops took place in three venues. Pádraig and Róisín McEneany entertained a large crowd of dancers in the Kellogg Hall. The Ath a’ Caoire and Melleray Lancers were among the sets taught. Clear instructions and good humoured participants meant that a thoroughly enjoyable workshop was had by all.
The Front Room saw Michael Tubridy with his troupe of dancers revising dances they knew, or should have known! The easy relaxed atmosphere created by Michael helped the shuffling along. Even the absence of sticks for the Gabhairín Buí didn’t deter us. In the afternoon Michael taught The Priest in His Boots.
Michael and Kathleen McGlynn taught a large group of eager dancers in their sean nós workshop. When watching Kathleen you can be in no doubt that dancing is not just a job for feet. Dancing travels through Kathleen and her clear, simple instructions means that sean nós dancing is for all.
The afternoon saw the inclusion of tin whistle and singing workshops. The words, “here’s to you and our time together,” could be heard as Páid O’Hare, with his lovely easy style, taught The Parting Glass. The singing workshop, though a new enough addition to the weekend, never fails to draw an eager group of singers. Tin whistle workshops were given by Mairéad and Niamh McEvoy. In between the laughter we managed to master a mazurka and a slow reel (a really slow reel). These workshops gave the feet a little light relief. Not so for the walkers. The beautiful fresh day saw Ann Devery lead a group on a coastal walk. An Grianán’s beautiful setting and local scenery were on show.
In honour of the tenth anniversary, Mass was celebrated in the Kellogg Hall led by parish priest Aidan Murphy. We thought of our dancing friends no longer with us and gave thanks for the great joy music and dance brings to our lives. Members of the McEvoy family along with Páid O’Hare provided beautiful music for the occasion.
Anniversary celebrations continued in the dining hall with, yet again, another meal—a four-course meal this time! Wine flowed, stories exchanged and preparations for Termonfeckin 2013 discussed. We swore that we would never eat again. The arrival of an enormous birthday cake after the meal, celebrating the recent significant birthdays of Kathleen McGlynn and Heike Gunther, brought gasps from those assembled. “She may bring that back to Germany with her,” was the comment, but, needless to say, the cake never made it out of the dining room!
The arrival of the Abbey Ceili Band started the Saturday ceili. A large group of musicians and singers gathered in the Front Room till the early hours as the dancers took to the floor in the Kellogg Hall. The Abbey didn’t disappoint, playing lively, driven music for enthusiastic dancers.
Our usual two-hand workshop on the Sunday morning was interrupted this year by John McEvoy who taught a figure from a recently devised local set. The Rinkinstown Set consists of four figures and John informed those present that the set would be taught in instalments. They would have to return the following year for the second figure! Two-hand dancing was taught by Connie McKelvey. The Back-to-Back Hornpipe was not without incident though, with some partners losing their sense of direction when back to back, ending up with a completely different partner. Waltz of the Bells and lovely mazurkas were just some of the dances taught by Connie during this session.
This weekend would not be complete without the session that occurs before lunch on Sunday. All participants gather into the hall as fear an tí John McEvoy invites and encourages different people to sing a song, recite or play a tune. There’s a sense of a lucky bag about the whole proceedings. You never know what will come next! Syl Bell entertained us with tales of snails walking home from pubs and of men not sure where their cuticles were—or if they had any at all! We had box tunes from Clare, a flute Trip to Birmingham, mouth organ, pipes and dancing girls! We had an ICA trip that went wrong and Rose McEvoy giving advice to young girls thinking of marrying men with mustaches! Wonderful stuff! Once again the clock was ticking and the dining room called.
The last ceili of the weekend was held Sunday afternoon. With the Abbey Ceili Band we danced till we couldn’t dance another step. Sunday evening had arrived and with it an exodus of tired sore bodies from An Grianán. While driving out the gate the newly purchased Triskell CD was playing, in an effort to lift the spirits. Yes, the countdown for Termonfeckin 2013 was on.
The organising committee, Margaret and Jim Finegan and Sheila and John McEvoy, strive, year in, year out, to make the Termonfeckin weekend such a wonderful experience for us all. As dancers we were made to feel welcome, important and essential to the success of this weekend. On behalf of all weekend participants I would like to wish them in their tenth year gach beannacht ’s gach dea-ghuí.
Mairéad Devane, Skerries, Co Dublin
The Step to the West weekend at the Falls Hotel, Ennistymon, Co Clare, 27–29 January, organised by Sean Longe, was the inspiration for this report by our exceptionally enthusiastic correspondent.
It was Mary Doyle from Limerick who spelt it out this time, clearly, in a bulleted verbal list. First, she said, this weekend was in a great place. A lovely hotel and location, cosy, homely, yet big enough to hold the sixty-plus sets. Second, she said, this is a great time of the year. Christmas is far enough away, and nothing else is happening. All is a bit dreary, and people want a nice break from January blues. Third, there is a great buzz around, what with all the young folks turning up and giving it wellie. And also, she said, it’s in Clare, close to Miltown, and it has hot homemade scones for free at teatime at all the intervals—plus jam and cream. And for latecomers, biscuits. And for very latecomers to the break, who prefer to squiggle-wiggle on the dance floor jiving and waltzing, crumbs only.
Mary brings her mother here, and she likes it, too. The food, the music, the rooms. All good, she said. And you’re only a short ride away from the beach. Or the hotel spa, if the beach seems too, er, wet. And it was raining that weekend. What else would you be doing with yourself on a rainy January weekend? Watch Coronation Street and eat leftover pudding? Bad idea! January is full of good intentions, new rules and fitness programmes. Start here, start in Ennistymon, you won’t even notice you’re exercising. Because actually, the fab fantastic fantastigorical music carries you over the floor on a sort of air-bed hover.
The Johnny Reidy Ceili Band (JRCB) to start, and of course, with the first note you get the first bang!
You know how it is. You arrive in a gloomy, expectant, melancholic, tired, hyper, whatever mood, and then you simply have to hand over the steering wheel to this band of distinction, who’ll drive you on to happy, if somewhat gaga, land. Boom go the accordion, keyboard, banjo and fiddle of JRCB. Boom gets drip-fed into our systems. Boom go the feet. Clang go the heels. Hop goes the spring in the knees. Pop go the smiles. And here we have it, another smashing, fully musically splashing, Ennistymon weekend.
Ah ya, wherever I’d be, I’d travel to it. Even crossing rivers. Even crossing countries. Even crossing the sea. And let me tell you, I’m not alone in that. Actually, I’m in very good company!
The best of the company came from Switzerland. Manuela Morel, Zurich, single-handedly travelled the distance, and declares, “Oh, Swiss espresso and sunshine are very nice, but they can’t beat this great weekend!” The Swiss putting something else atop something non-Swiss? Haha! If nothing else certifies the high-definition quality of Sean Longe’s weekend, this must do it.
In the beginning, there was a sean nós workshop. Ah, the joy of sean-nós-ing it! Of course, I am so used to Ger Butler, the music he uses and his style of teaching, it’s like putting on a much-loved pair of slippers, but like the red dancing shoes, these make you dance, dance, dance!
Saturday afternoon, outside rain, fuelled by deep-hanging heavy cloud-curtains; inside accelerated set dancing, thrust-supplied by the Abbey Ceili Band’s power-engine. They were truly on fire and set the dancers alight! Floor was packed again. I reckon it was one of the biggest crowds yet for the Saturday afternoon ceili.
The scones were doing their usual disappearing act at the break, one minute you see them, the next you don’t, and whoopee, another half a ceili with a couple of not-so-often-danced sets thrown in, like the Labasheeda, Moycullen, Mazurka and West Kerry. When that was on without calling, a young girl got out her iPhone and pulled the notes from the Internet and quickly summarised them before each figure for her own and adjacent sets—modern technology meets set dancing head on.
Saturday night, Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band. What an explosion of reels! When things go bump in the night at the Falls Hotel, sixty-plus sets do their synchronized dancing to the uplift of the box, flute, fiddle, keyboard and drums of this ceili band that, you guessed it, is easily one of my faves, people hoofing it in battering, Clare-style, re-inventing the spirit of Willie Clancy weeks gone by.
Now, a different aspect altogether—ever felt the slight or not-so-slight embarrassment of not being able to remember someone’s name at ceilis? With the ever-so-slight embarrassment increasing because after having been told the name yet again, you have forgotten it yet again, while your counterpart seems to rub it in by repeating your name at every turn. For example, there is this guy (no names, of course) who always asks me for a set when we see each other at ceilis. Of course, he told me his name many times. I can’t remember it. He has asked me for sets for years, and he isn’t exactly the quiet type, so he probably has mentioned his name over and over. Still, it’s not there in my head. No matter how hard I try, it’s not forthcoming. I have even tried out names mentally, to see whether any would ring a bell. Some do, but then I would have to settle for one and what if it’s wrong? That has also happened. I kept calling one lady Sheila and in fact, she is an Ellen. And I still don’t know how she took it to be called Sheila, or why I thought she was Sheila in the first place. But the gentleman in question is a step beyond all that. I call him nothing at all. It’s “Hi, how are you?” and “I see you over there,” and “Thanks a million for the dance, take care now.” At times, I struggle so hard to try and think of his name that the conversation eludes me and I lose the plot temporarily. Thankfully, at a ceili it’s easy to claim not having heard right because of the very loud music, so I can pick up the missing pieces—“Um, say that again? I couldn‘t hear you!” But the name thing is getting to me. Seriously, if there was a prize for most names forgotten and trying the hardest to remember, it’ll have to go to me. I have even considered sending a friend on a reconnaissance mission—would she go and talk to him, find out his name and as much else as she can, and then report back to me? I haven’t yet sent in my secret agent, but I might still. I can feel the triumph already—being able to confidently call him by his name, sweet success! The only reason I haven’t done it yet is because, alas, he is not the only one whose name I can’t remember. And my friend might not be willing to go on countless reconnaissance missions. . . .
Après-ceili dancing on Saturday night with Micheál Sexton (no problem remembering his name, or indeed, the music either) in the bar was packed out and dancers swayed along trying to avoid other couples. Didn’t stop anyone though. Nor did it stop anyone dancing on Sunday afternoon for the last ceili, with the Five Counties Ceili Band. Oh. My. Word. The whole lot of them were playing like they were possessed, fired on, no doubt, by the dancers cheers and claps and cries. We loved them, so we did!
At the end of the ceili we realised that the hotel had never been really quiet, no matter what hour of the day and night, one event rolled into the next, with sessions mingling in the bar as well. It took all of the journey back home, and more, to process stuff that went on, to allow the dancing and music to sink in, to slowly come back from the kicks and let the weekend settle.
Now, a while after the weekend sadly came to what felt like an untimely end, I am still feeding off it. Thinking back over it, hearing the music again, the batter on the floor, seeing in my mind’s eye people’s faces, remembering singular happenings throughout it—geez! It is a bloody big fat weekend, that stands by you long after its over, a larder filled with liveliness, friendliness, fast-paced, action-packed. Move over, short, cold January days, for a prolonged hotspot of dancing. It’s pure, crystalline, unadulterated, non-stop dancing, staying on a high throughout. Wanna kick ass the set dancing way next winter? Book a room now for 2013 in the Falls Hotel.
PS Thinking about emigrating. If we lived abroad, for a while even, there will have to be serious decisions made. Head-cracking, thought-processing, middle-of-the-night diary encounters, conferences laced with mugs and mugs of coffee. Some decisions though are ridiculously easy. Like which set dancing weekends to travel to. In Ireland, top of the list’ll be Ennistymon, not to be missed, come plane, train or car. X marks the spot in any diary, and this one could well read, “Letztes Wochenende im Januar—Step to the West.”
Picture the scene—you have just been told your husband is terminally ill: devastation, total turmoil, following each other in an emotional cartwheel. Trauma-filled hours afterwards the question is posed—how do you feel now we have got the terrible news? “I wouldn’t mind if I could take you with me.”
I made a very tentative request to quote the above and was stunned to be allowed do so. “It may help someone else in a similar situation.”
Patie and I were distantly related, though we never traded on it. In our youth we both went our separate ways in life. He served his time with a coach-builder, Lanes of Abbeyfeale. On qualifying he joined his father in building projects and later set up one of the most prominent fitted furniture businesses in Munster, which is still a going concern to this time.
Notwithstanding the pressures of running this, he set up, in turn, the Western Star Ceili Band in the sixties and later with his cousin Timmy O’Keeffe, graduated to a group called The Boys in Blue which operated all over Munster, and very successfully at that. All things being equal they would still be on the road up to recent times.
As if that wasn’t enough, we both were drawn together in the early seventies. Set dancing wouldn’t bother us at the time, except we were both inveigled into a competition by our spouses. In other words we represented the ICA and were promptly entranced by this phenomenon. In short we wound up traversing the country wherever there was a competition till we won the all-Ireland senior Scór title in 1978 as well as several titles at the Fleadh Nua.
But tempus fugit—the paths of life diverged once again till the Connie Ryan revolution took the world by storm. Gretta soon joined, though it took Patie a few further years to sign up. We gave Gretta all the credit for this and I’m sure he would too because in jig time he had caught up with the dancing and was as addicted as the rest of us!
As could be expected from his musical talents he was very aware of what the bands produced and his dancing expressed both the quality of the music and his appreciation of it. Of all attendees at ceilis he was the one I deferred to for his opinions which were always independent and worthwhile.
Amazingly, even after the fateful diagnosis he continued to attend ceilis locally, never revealing his condition. As can be imagined, his funeral was one of the largest in memory around Athea. Patie had received the final commendation from the thousands he befriended and entertained over the years. His brave wife, Gretta, and family are left to pick up the pieces in memory of a man who left a sizeable mark on the cultural and social life of this part of the world. May his soul find the peace he so richly deserves.
Timmy Woulfe, Athea, Co Limerick
Patie Enright of Gortnagross, Athea, Co Limerick, passed away at home on January 31st and following the funeral Mass on February 3rd at St Bartholomew’s Church, Athea, he was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Athea
The Camowen (crooked river) and Drumragh (ridge of the fort) rivers meet in Omagh to form the Strule (the stream). This confluence or meeting of the waters is reminiscent of our annual sets weekend in Omagh, Co Tyrone, when dancers from all arts and parts meet up again, get into figures of eight and go with the flow. Marie Garrity, MC for the weekend, 27–29 January, extended a céad míle fáilte to everyone and thanked them for coming. It was great to see Mickey Kelly and the folk from Mayo and surrounding counties, plus our friends from Glasgow, England and from all over Ireland.
The Long Note Ceili Band kicked off the weekend in great style at the Friday ceili in the Silverbirch Hotel with everyone up and dancing the Plain, Clare Lancers, Connemara and Kilfenora sets. I feel I’m finally getting to grips with the Cashel Set. Funny how some sets’ sequences can’t be remembered for a long time and then gradually it seeps into your psyche and you heave a huge sigh of relief.
The workshop weekend always provides an opportunity to renew old friendships and make new ones. We enjoyed catching up with Kathleen Black and Larry King from Newry and Liam Gallen from Castlederg. Friends from Portrush returned to the Omagh weekend after a six-year break and resolved not to leave it so long again. Social interaction is the glue that binds us together. As Aristotle said, “Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”
Dun Uladh Cultural Heritage Centre beckoned everyone on Saturday for Pat Murphy’s hugely enjoyable sets workshop. This year Pat taught the Ballykeale, Birr, Newcastle and Doire Colmcille sets. Pat’s gentle and encouraging style ensures everyone feels relaxed in tackling new dances. The workshop was followed by Mass at which St Brigid’s crosses, made by our resident weekend craftsman Paddy O’Grady from Co Donegal, were blessed and distributed. During the weekend Paddy read a poem in memory of Joe Ward who sadly passed away last year. Joe, a consummate fiddle player, regularly played at Dun Uladh’s weekly music sessions and always attended the Omagh sets weekend and is sadly missed.
The big ceili with Brian Ború Ceili Band started off Saturday night with the Connemara to get everyone up and dancing. The Moycullen, Cashel, Corofin, Caledonian and Labasheeda sets followed with everyone stepping it out. Marie got a break as Mickey Kelly called the Newport and Pat Murphy called the Ballykeale, which had been taught at the workshop that day. It’s heartening to see so many people coming three days in a row for each ceili. I guess distance is no object if you know fun and hospitality is guaranteed. After the ceili some stayed on to enjoy the weekly Saturday night music session in Dun Uladh to the wee hours. Ceol agus craic galore.
Dun Uladh Centre has a great atmosphere with a good floor for dancing which all contributes to everyone having a good time. Here’s the thing about swinging whether in two, four or eight. Is it just me or do you ever get the sense of childish abandonment as the swinging gains momentum to each bar of the music? It’s like I’m transported by The Tamlin Reel, while remaining partial to The Pinch of Snuff. Not to mention all the other great tunes played by so many good musicians. I think we’re lucky to have such a rich culture in Ireland of which set dancing plays its own unique part. I guess there’s a bit of insanity in dancing that does everybody a great deal of good. As Agnes De Mille said, “To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful.” I think we all can second that.
Sunday morning social and two-hand dancing gave participants a chance to take it easy under the expert tutelage of Marie Garrity. Good music, good company and gliding around the floor to the Valentino Jive, Bossa Nova Brazil, Spanish Waltz, Britannia Two-Step and the Avalon Foxtrot. Time passes easily when you’re enjoying yourself with good friends and new acquaintances.
Sligo’s Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band played the tunes for the farewell ceili and everyone was up for going out with a blast. We had a diverse selection of sets including the Plain, Clare Lancers, Kilfenora, Connemara and Moycullen. Tiredness doesn’t kick in when the music is good and everyone was game to keep going till the last figure was danced. Marie thanked all the bands for their wonderful music during the weekend and gave a special word of thanks to Pat Murphy. Another successful and more importantly enjoyable weekend drew to a close. I envisage songs being penned about the lovely soup and the treacle bread in Omagh. I bade farewell to old and new friends and headed for home still on a high.
Aidan Bunting, Omagh, Co Tyrone
The next Omagh weekend takes place 1–3 February 2013.
The World Wide Web—what an amazing thing it is! It enables us to forge new relationships, re-establish old ones and it opens our world to new experiences, new people and new friends. Just where would we be without it?
My husband Kevin Monaghan and I attended the Return to Camden Town festival in London in November; a group of dancers from Belgium were also at the event. I introduced myself and photos were taken, and we exchanged email and Facebook details as well, with promises to keep in touch and maybe meet up sometime in the future. And then Carine Pliez, the teacher from Tournai in southern Belgium, casually mentioned that she was organising a small ceili on February 4th. Well, how could we resist? Without much thought, I invited us both along—they had driven to London, why shouldn’t we drive to Belgium?
On our return home, we did the research via the WWW—our home town to Tournai is just under 240 miles, including the trip on the Tunnel. Our home town to Manchester is 230 miles, and it can sometimes take several hours of sitting in traffic to get there. We decided to visit the interesting people of Belgium and France (and, as it happened, the Netherlands and Tahiti too) as well as the UNESCO World Heritage city of Tournai on one of the coldest and snowiest weekends of the winter. Our dear friends Sue and Jim Crick were to accompany us on our eventful weekend, and we also took with us 13-year-old Ellen, who we felt would benefit from practising her French language skills, even if it was only to ask for “des crêpes, un chocolat chaud et des gaufres” (pancakes, hot chocolate and waffles).
We left home on a very chilly Saturday morning (-9 dregrees C), had a very easy drive to Folkstone and arrived in an equally cold Tournai at lunchtime, surprising Carine at the hotel reception as she was arriving to begin the workshop and we were leaving to find somewhere to eat. This wasn’t difficult: every other establishment was a café or bar providing food and drink to cold tourists. Acquiring victuals was never a problem. During the break in the very relaxed afternoon workshop, we were asked if we wanted a drink at the bar in the square. We declined as we didn’t want to miss the rest of the workshop, but what we hadn’t realised was that the dancers were buying the drinks at the bar and then bringing them into the workshop. A civilised way to run a takeaway indeed. We live and learn.
The workshop, as most are on the continent, was well attended, including a family of six complete beginners who were quickly ushered into sets without any prior knowledge of set dancing. The more experienced dancers took the beginners through several figures of various sets, which they stuck with, even smiling from time to time despite the intricacies and problems of feet, hands, partners, housing, chaining, swinging and calling being done in both English and French—I hope they return to the class!
While the workshop was running, we also gave ad hoc instruction to dancers who wanted clarification on holds, turns, wheelbarrows and timing among other things. There was a lot of micro-teaching around the room with Maya (Zaya Maalem) from Lille, keen to get her beginners straight into the fray. There is no sitting around in workshops here; everyone joins in and encourages others. We always admire those who teach set dancing in a country where it is not usually danced—how do they find interested parties? How did they find the dance in the first place, and why are they hooked? Just what is it about Irish music and culture which attracts those from the continent (and beyond) and becomes interwoven with their everyday life to the extent that they travel miles to attend ceilis and workshops, learn Irish tunes and generally have the craic?
For Carine, and I suspect for others who teach set dancing, the clue lies in a visit to Ireland where set dancing was discovered. Carine lived in Cork and Galway for eighteen months in 2001 and 2002, working voluntarily with disabled people. She discovered set dancing classes while in Galway before returning to Belgium and started her classes in Tournai in 2009 in response to demand from dancers who had attended workshops at irregular intervals in Wattrelos in northern France but who had no organised structure for practice and dancing. There is a close tie between her and Maya who teaches in Lille, which is about thirty minutes drive away.
The band who played for the ceili on Saturday evening are from Lille and go by the name of Inishmore. Carine and Maya tell me they have been working closely with the musicians to ensure they are aware of the requirements of dancers, and it has paid off. The musicians are obviously well-rehearsed and can play well for dancers, understanding the need for definite introductions and all manner of musically technical things of which I have no knowledge.
After the workshop, we retired to a pub where the rugby was showing, and ordered takeaway pizza from another establishment which we took with us back to the hotel and munched whilst awaiting the ceili and during the set-up by Inishmore. Again, a very relaxed atmosphere was in evidence, with no bother about early arrivals, and the ceili began in an equally relaxed manner and continued thus throughout the evening. Several sets were danced (I really have no recollection of which they were!) and I was both a man and a woman in the same figure of one set. Kevin, Jim and Sue also partnered less-experienced dancers in many figures during the evening. Sets were called in French and English by Carine and Maya as well as Hugo Magielse from Antwerp and other visiting dancers which made for a lovely evening. We met up with dancers we had previously met in London and Lille as well as Heidelberg, and as so often, felt a great sense of unity—a real coming-together for a common, greatly-loved purpose.
The hall used was a beautiful upstairs salon in a hotel, once part of the town’s fire station, and is now a beautiful venue, ideally suited for dancing. We long to be able to find such lovely venues in England, and have to hunt high and low for suitable premises which are so easily accessible. How lucky are some people to have such wonderful facilities on their own doorstep.
The ceili finished at around midnight— or was it 1am? I completely lost track of time, what with European time being one hour ahead of UK time, me not changing my watch and generally having a ball. We wandered along the corridor to our bedroom, and slept soundly until breakfast was almost over in the morning.
The next day was our own for sightseeing and buying chocolate for presents, but the weather was so cold, we decided to return a little earlier than we had originally planned. I won’t bore you with the details of forgotten passports, a police escort at the Tunnel sous la Manche, being held between French and UK border control for two hours, a return to Tournai and yet more pizza, the Tunnel again and a return to snowy England, as this didn’t in the least detract from our weekend in Tournai and the dancing. If you really want to know, you can ask, but first, ask us about the keenness of the dancers on mainland Europe, their hospitality and fervour, and then go savour it for yourself, just for the craic!
Carol Gannon, Berkshire, England
The annual weekend in Erlangen is not only one of the best set dancing events in Germany, but one of the best anywhere! It is organised by Andrea Forstner with the help of husband Christian and sons Michael and Thomas, and takes place in the Unicum, a venue with a bar, restaurant and stylish hall. For a report on this year’s weekend, 24–26 February, we have Thomas to thank for the unique point of view which follows.
The schedule is tight. Monday 4pm: talk to owners of Unicum, buy batteries, get bus schedule. Friday 10.30am: get the stage elements. Wednesday, all day long: print out menu (yum, Caesar salad and schnitzel à la carte!), prepare whiteboard, buy cord, get guitar ready (I have no idea what that is for). This is two weeks before the weekend.
Next Friday 7.30am: drive to Munich airport and collect Pat Murphy and Ceili Time Ceili Band. If I wrote down the entire list for you, then I would also tell you to go to the kitchen and grab yourselves some hot tea, because this would be a long article. I’m talking Oxford dictionary long.
The Erlangen Set Dance Weekend is so well organized, it would need one George W Bush to screw it up. And the astounding part is, it has always been that way.
Now keep in mind, the preparation and planning for this year’s set dance weekend (the tenth anniversary) actually started on February 11th 2011, the Friday of last year’s weekend. Andrea Forstner, the organiser of the weekend who has been obsessed with set dancing for at least a dozen years and has been to the Emerald Isle regularly for nearly twice that number, doesn’t stop planning. The work never ends and she loves it.
Now, for the sake of this being an event which has run for a decade and steadily attracted more and more visitors from all over the world to a town in southern Germany called Erlangen, let’s do a recap, shall we?
It all started with an idea and some passion, as good ideas always do. Imagine yourself back in the month of October 2003. The internet hadn’t collapsed entering the new millennium, Mary McAleese was president of Ireland and Lady Gaga was still a sixteen-year-old student at an all-girls school in New York City who didn’t wear dresses made of raw beef to an awards show. Sparked by a friend’s encouragement, Andrea started to set up her first weekend in January. Back then, it consisted of a rather small crowd of about forty people and preparation took a short three months. Today, even as the number of participants has tripled (and apparently, so has the size of the location), the overwhelming majority of those forty people are still regular visitors to the Erlangen Set Dance Weekend.
This year started as decently as ever. The weekend kicked off on Friday night with the first workshop and a ceili for which the McGlone brothers aka Ceili Time Ceili Band provided first-class reels, jigs and polkas. If you think that two people aren’t enough to make for one hell of a good time, you clearly haven’t met these guys. Then on Saturday, we were joined by the Abbey Céilí Band, and just when you think it cannot get any better. With the Abbey and Pat Murphy being long-established assets to Erlangen, it always feels to me that with the ceili on Saturday night, the set dance family ‘hath gathered once again.’
Personal highlights include lunch at the Unicum (I just love those salads), a Baroque dance presentation and of course the final night at the local Steinbach brewery. For the past few years, Andrea has been known for her original gift-giving (beer mugs filled with cotton serving as head, anyone?) as well as coming up with some unique entertainment every time. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day last year, it was a buck set, complete with wigs, aprons and a packed hall clapping in tune to eight guys having a good ol’ bromance. This year, Andrea took us to the roots of Irish set dancing. Dressed up in stunning hand-tailored Baroque dresses and suits, she and a group of dancers (who do this type of medieval dancing professionally and rehearsed the choreography for several months on end) filled the art nouveau-style hall with the spirit of the glorious ballroom events that were once held there.
But the weekend didn’t end there. The dancing continued on Sunday night at the brewery. Sets were danced, songs and old tales were sung, and beer and bratwurst were served en masse. It may sound nerdy, but for those of you who have seen The Lord of the Rings and ever wondered what a typical evening at the Green Dragon Pub in Hobbiton felt like—this was it.
At this point you probably expect to read a long list of all the sets that were danced throughout the weekend in the workshops as well as in the ceilis. But being the nineteen-year-old that I am, I readily admit that I have no clue what they are named and I honestly do not care. I am actually not even that experienced in set dancing. As the organizer’s son, I do it surprisingly rarely, just enough to be down on the basic steps and figures and quirks. I love the Tamlin Reel (which is also Andrea’s ringtone) and I like dancing the West Kerry as well as the Ballyvourney Jig Set, although I could not tell you why.
What I do care about is saying that, as ever, I had a blast. From the minute you arrive to the minute you say your goodbyes to everyone and get into your car,plane or train, the atmosphere is rad.
Young people tend to see things differently than other generations. With a beautiful room full of people dancing their heart out and having fun, I always get sucked into that hysterical wave of optimism that swings, swirls and houses around me. It is quite rare today to find an event that captivates everyone, even the staff of the Unicum, from the very beginning, no matter how young or old. Why is that? Because a flow of careless happiness is not easy to come by. And even for me, who does not dance a lot (at least not sets), I always bend over backwards to get my friends to come because I want them to experience the atmosphere. And, of course, to dance the Clare Lancers Set with them.
There is a psychological term called ‘flow.’ It means that, when your motivations are in harmony with your actions, you go into a state of perfect happiness, a sort-of frenzy or perfect tranquility (however you want to describe it), where nothing else matters than the task ahead of you. It’s what you want to do, heck, it’s what you’ve always wanted to do. It is a moment of complete satisfaction, where time seems to be standing still or otherwise doesn’t matter. I am sure all of you can relate to the feeling. Flow means that you are in absolute sync with yourself.
As most of you can happily agree, these moments are very rare to come by. I’m t alking struck-by-lightning kind of rare. Other than this being a pretty darn good feeling, it is probably the sparseness which makes it so attractive. Whether we want to admit it or not, somehow we are always wandering around looking for our own personal flow experience. After all, as soon as we find it, then that means that we have also found the one thing in this world that makes us unconditionally happy. Some people have found it. Some people think they have found it but really haven’t. And then there are those who are still out looking.
Andrea Forstner belongs to the first group. She has found her passion with set dancing. And when she steps onto the dance floor, sets in her head and a smile on her face, you know why she never stops planning.
Thomas Forstner, Erlangen, Germany
First and foremost, it was the tenth anniversary of this supremely well-run event, a milestone for the entire Forstner family who are justly proud of their festival weekend. Despite certain worries about events happening elsewhere (and this is always a worry for organisers: there are only so many dancers to go around in these straitened times) there were dancers from across the world attending. As usual with events on the continent, the number of younger dancers attending was a lovely sight, although the talk from many organisers over the weekend was the difficulty of recruiting a younger generation into the set dancing fold. Heads were scratched and plans put forward, but we are all still open to suggestions as to how to appeal to a wider age range.
Continuing with the theme of celebration, it was Seamus and Enda McGlone’s (Ceili Time) first-ever visit to play in Germany, and the support they received and the response to their energetic playing will, I hope, ensure it won’t be their last. They were both delighted at the reception they were given, and they were both amazed at the dedication to and love for set dancing on the continent. The crowd were also amazed that such a mighty sound could come from only two musicians—how do they do it? The music from the brothers was a little different in the cellar on the Sunday evening, with a lovely mix of dance music, ballads and popular songs which highlighted their versatility and endeared them even more to the assembly.
Next up, a rash of birthday celebrations. There were three that were admitted to, including that of Robert Foster from the Abbey Ceili Band, who sported a tan from his recent Caribbean gig along with garlands of flowers in Germany’s national colours! More cakes, more candles, and more dancing to celebrate the sheer joy of sharing the uplifting and soulful music from two fantastic sets of true musicians.
So, cakes, songs, smiles and celebration. I have never seen so many smiling faces, so many people attending workshops (run by Pat Murphy in his relaxed and educated style), so many men willing to don curly wigs in a brewery cellar and dance a buck set!
This finale to the weekend is one that truly sets Erlangen apart from other weekends that we have attended. Once the hard work of concentrating on dancing and workshops is over, we repair to the local brewery, let our hair down even more, mingle with folk from far and wide and do our own little party piece if so moved. The local women dress in beautiful traditional dirndl, the men in lederhosen, and poetry is recited, songs sung, dances pop up, tunes are played, glasses chink and food is consumed at long trestle benches among friends who reinforce their friendship and declare their intention to return the following year, in much the same manner as the storks who nest annually on the brewery chimney stack. Bets are taken as to when the resident birds will return, but with us dancers, there’s no need to bet: we know we’ll be booking for next year, just as soon as Andrea announces the dates!
We love dancing on the continent. We love the dedication to sets, the desire to perfect, to ask questions, to practise, and we love the big hugs we get from those who have become very dear friends.
We tarried with some of those friends on Monday to do some shopping, and although she was exhausted from her efforts of organisation this year, Andrea was just beginning to think about next year’s fun, although she wouldn’t be pressed on dates. However, two weeks after returning home, the first glimmer of the next triumphant weekend was posted on Facebook. We accepted the invitation, and like Mr Stork, who returned to his chimney-top nest on 3rd March, we’ll be returning for another grand session on 8–10 February 2013!
We held the 3 Sisters set dancing festival in the Blue Mountains for the second time within twelve months on 11–12 February, and my husband Martin Largey and I were delighted to have an influx of new people to our small group. The weather in the rest of the New South Wales region was pretty wild that weekend but apart from a small bit of rain and wind, the town of Katoomba was relatively mild, calm and very pleasant. This reflects nicely the atmosphere that is conducive to learning sets, as it can be a pretty intimidating as a beginner.
I remember my first set dancing experience, slightly veiled in the mists of time, in a chilly, snowy February 1989 in Donegal town. I had no real idea what I was in for but was determined to go to that dancing weekend, ever since I had seen the notice in a local shop as I travelled through on my three month-long ‘walkabout’ in the Irish winter. I remember being made welcome (“She’s come all the way from Australia to do this!”), being pulled around the floor a fair bit and standing on a lot of toes, sweating profusely and feeling and sounding generally like a baby elephant. I was instantly impressed with the ladies who were three times my age, who elegantly danced around the floor, not a bead of sweat to be seen. At the ceili, I had my first glimpse of sean nós from three auld fellas, some step dancing from a lovely woman whose shoe flew off in the middle when she did a high kick, tea and sandwiches aplenty, and the entire weekend was brilliant. And all for £9!
So, now I am two-thirds the age of those ladies I first saw in Donegal town, and I am on my way to being able to dance as well as they did then. I have also realized now that we are no longer living in Ireland, that we have a responsibility to not only pass on the dances properly but also to help people in Australia to understand the context of the culture that set dancing comes from. And, with that in mind, we planned a set dancing program that would bring them in gently.
We gave everyone an introduction to set dancing—the importance of locality and how often dancers would only dance their own local set or sets from their area, where in Ireland each set we were dancing was from with the help of a large map and some pins, and a little bit about the relatively recent revival of set dancing and how we came to it.
We also reminded those more experienced dancers that repetition is a beautiful thing, and just because they have danced some of these sets before, doesn’t mean there isn’t more to learn and be gained from dancing them over and over. Many sets have a meditative quality with that internal repetition and is, in the end, what brings people back to lovely sets that have a natural flow, like the Caledonian and the Clare Plain Set.
We chose to teach three sets that start with simple figures and that move to more complexity as the set progresses, and also focus on particular steps—the West Cork Plain Set, polkas, a jig and a slide; the Gillen Set from Co Offaly, reels; and the Caragh Lake Jig Set from Co Kerry, jigs, a slide, a reel and a hornpipe.
In teaching the sets, we danced the figure through once as a demonstration with some more experienced dancers in the group, then walked through the figure in sets. We then taught the steps separately to go with the figures, and then put the steps and the figure together to music. We taught jigs and polkas first, as these are generally easier than trying to learn to do reels first. We slowed the music down to 75–80% to learn the steps, to 80–85% to learn the figures, and put the two together and then dance this through at 100% when people were well able to do it.
We gave a run-down of a few points of set dancing etiquette as we taught the sets—ensuring people know the importance of not squeezing the life out of their partners, not pulling their backs and breaking their fingers, thanking their partners and their sets after the dancing, etc.
We also made sure that all the sets from the workshop were danced at least once at the Saturday night ceili and again on Sunday at the workshop. Oh, and of course—the food! Most important—honey cake from Martin’s bees, coconut macaroons with raspberry jam from the garden and also the large obligatory communal teapot which forms the centrepiece of any decent weekend! Not to mention the music from Jimmy Mullarkey and friends, which was flawless, as usual, with guest star fiddler Louise Phelan.
All of these aspects of the program took a lot of time to prepare and practice but in the end, it was worth doing as we could see people visibly picking up the dances, learning them and enjoying each other’s company. The feedback following the weekend has been terrific and we are hopeful of seeing all our new dancing friends again soon.
Nora Stewart, Bywong, NSW, Australia
The first time I ever heard of a place called Templeglantine was when I attended my first workshop with Connie Ryan. After dancing a few months in beginners’ classes in London, I learned of Connie’s annual workshop in Cecil Sharp House and was encouraged to attend. It was a revelation, not only for the experience of Connie’s tuition, but also for seeing the knock-out team of dancers who were said to have come from Sligo to dance in the demonstrations. I knew nothing of Sligo at the time, but thought it must be a truly special place to produce such remarkable dancers. Connie and the team showed the dance without any prior explanation and danced it so expertly that it was a miraculous wonder to behold. Afterward when Connie revealed the secrets of the set it turned out that mere mortals could dance it too! It was a weekend of such pure satisfaction (the great man even spoke to me—“Howareya?”—as we passed in the hall) that I ended up craving more, and so I picked up a photocopied list showing all of Connie’s workshops for that year.
Among all the places listed in tiny print on Connie’s busy workshop schedule, the one which stood out in my mind ever since was Templeglantine. The name evoked images of mysterious ancient ecclesiastical monuments, a place where you could experience the Ireland of the past and find peace in a busy world. I eventually got to know the real west Limerick village as a rest stop on the main road between Limerick city and Tralee. It never matched the place I’d concocted in my imagination, but two decades after Connie taught workshops here, it’s still a rather nice place to dance for the weekend organised by the West Limerick Set Dancing Club. Despite the busy main road, its setting in the wild hills (or ‘mountains’ as we call them in Ireland) is beautiful and inspirational, though the main reason anyone ever stops here, set dancers especially, is because of the Devon Inn, a substantial hotel with a popular bar and restaurant and, of course, a ballroom.
I arrived in Templeglantine on Friday, February 17th, relieved to check into my room after a slow drive in the Friday afternoon rush. After a meal I went down to the ballroom for the ceili, which began on time at the convenient hour of 9pm. The full programme of sets was posted around the hall, beginning with the Sliabh Luachra Set, making it easy to match favourite partners and sets. Whoever picked the sets is to be congratulated for an enlightened selection. I was particularly glad to see the Newport Set, which was once danced so often that no one really minded when newer sets replaced it. We danced it without a caller and fortunately about three quarters of the sets still remembered it. Tonight’s music was played by the Allow Ceili Band, one-time All-Ireland champions who play big band competition-style music with a Sliabh Luachra influence. The Devon Inn’s ballroom has two lovely floors, and sets filled the original floor with occasional overflow sets on the new floor at the back. After the final Ballyvourney Jig Set, the Allow had time for a rake of reels and a final bit of dancing before the national anthem.
At that Connie Ryan workshop in London about eighteen years ago, three of the demonstration dancers were Pádraig and Róisín McEneany (though not from Sligo) and Mary Conboy (who is from Sligo). Fifteen years after Connie’s passing, Pádraig and Róisín have made a strong name for themselves as teachers in their own right, Mary almost never fails to join them at their workshops, and all three were with us for the workshop on Saturday. We began with some thorough step practice led by Pádraig, which he did before each set and as needed between figures. The first set was the Caragh Lake, which conceivably could have been one of the sets Connie taught at that London workshop, and I was delighted for a chance to dance it for the first time in several years. We continued with the newest set on the scene, the Ballykeale, the Ath a’ Caoire and another from Connie’s era, the Melleray Lancers, a good one to do when you find yourself dragging in the late afternoon. The kissing in figure three is always good for a laugh, and some of the demonstrators took full advantage, but the entire set is full of clever, fun moves not found elsewhere.
On Saturday night I was blessed with an unbeatable combination—the band I most wanted to hear playing for the sets I most wanted to dance! The Striolán Ceili Band have been one of the most talked about bands lately among my friends and partners, and there’s no doubt about it, their powerful music has everything we want when dancing sets, exciting tempo, thrilling tunes, and more! I was transported to a joyous new level of pleasure, especially with the brilliant selection of sets (no repeats!) including the West Kerry, Claddagh, Caragh Lake, Borlin and Clare Orange and Green. My partner and I danced the Borlin Set with so much energy that it became the most exhausting set of the ceili, if not my entire lifetime, and yet I was left salivating for more. After the bliss of the final set on the programme, the Orange and Green, no one was ready to stop and head home, so the band kindly obliged with one more set, the Connemara, and even that wasn’t a repeat! The music was even more breathtaking, and I still had enough of my wits remaining to notice some clever variations in Pádraig and Róisín’s set—ducks around the house and forward and reverse Christmases—which I’d like to try myself sometime!
Sunday morning’s workshop featured two sets, the rare Inis Meain Set, and the now familiar Boyne Set. Pádraig and Róisín again devoted several minutes to step practice, from the basic to the more elaborate, carefully studying each dancer and providing one-on-one help if necessary. In thanking them on their first time teaching here, organiser Ann Curtin said she was especially pleased by the work on correct steps, which are sometimes neglected by dancers and teachers.
The Allow and Striolán bands are both from the locality, and at the closing ceili on Sunday afternoon, Taylor’s Cross made it three in a row, as they’re only from down the road. The weekend’s well-chosen programme of sets repeated only two, and today’s list, again helpfully posted around the hall, included two Sliabhs (gCua and Fraoch), the Clare Mazurka, and a few of the usuals, Plain, Cashel and Ballyvourney, which were most welcome precisely because we hadn’t repeated them at every ceili. The music was a bright fresh blaze of joy, laid back but very lively, full of energy even though the band had been playing at their local rambling house till six in the morning! After that final Ballyvourney, box player Donie Nolan favoured us with a song—he has one of the sweetest and mellowest singing voices to be heard in a ceili band—and then they kept us dancing with a selection of reels. My partner for it only chanced upon the end of the ceili by making a rest stop at the hotel. I hadn’t danced with her in about ten years so it was a pleasant surprise to meet for the very last dance of the weekend.
By the end I felt as fully satisfied as I did after my first workshop eighteen years previously—some things never change!
Spring arrived early in Ireland this year, with daffodils actually flowering in December, hawthorn leaves emerging in January, and so in February thoughts were already turning to summer and those marvellous ten solid days of dancing in July. But that was still half a year away! What do you do when you have that summer school urge in February? Get yourself to Killarney where you can at least get half a summer school’s worth of dancing at the Gathering Traditional Festival in the Gleneagle Hotel and Irish National Events Centre (INEC).
This year’s Gathering began on Wednesday, February 22nd, with the usual opening ceili out in the rural depths of Sliabh Luachra in the village of Scartaglen. A coach brought out dozens of visitors from the hotel and just as many locals arrived on their own steam. In Kerry there is a wealth of dancing available almost every day, all year long—festivals are just the icing on the cake, and a few visitors and locals went to the regular Wednesday night ceili in the Grand Hotel in Killarney, and I started my night here. Johnny Reidy is the resident band, and even though it was a shorter ceili and smaller band (three of the four members) than you’d find at a regular ceili, it was the same stunning music and thrilling experience. Johnny played six sets, an even split of reel sets and polka sets, including my beloved Borlin. In between was a mix of waltzes and quicksteps, a full and fast moving ceili. As soon as it finished, the laser lights and smoke machine were switched on and a disco began. This was my cue to escape to Scartaglen as quickly as possible, and after about twenty minutes I only arrived in time to witness the second figure of another Borlin Polka Set, the last set of that ceili. I only missed making it a double Borlin night by five minutes! Great music was provided by Mountain Road Ceili Band and I was impressed with all the French visitors and a healthy number of young locals, and hoped to see more of them over the next few days.
Ever optimistic, bright Thursday morning sunshine streaming in through my hotel window inspired me to take a trip to Dingle, but that was the only bright part of the day—at least until the ceili started that night! Music was by Uí Bhriain, John and Martina Breen, fine musicians who play the liveliest reels and quickest polkas in the irresistible Kerry tradition. Making the dancing particularly easy was the fine gleaming floor in the Gleneagle Hotel’s ballroom, which had been specially polished before the ceili and was a dream to dance on. There was confusion over the starting time, so MC Anne Keane persuaded John and Martina to play two additional sets to avoid disappointing anyone arriving late. The best of the bunch were the Mazurka, Newport, West Kerry and Jenny Ling. I joined three sets without a partner with my hand raised to attract a lady—each time it was a French lady who came to my rescue. Most of the French visitors were actually part of a large group from Corsica, and they were out for every set all weekend and enjoying each minute.
Visitors in the hotel had a long wait till the 10pm ceili on Friday night, so the organisers helpfully organised an early dance session in the bar with Ger Murphy and Ken Cotter at 6.30pm. For ninety minutes the lads played for sets and two-hand dances with room for just a handful of sets. The weekend’s three main ceilis were held in the vast INEC where there’s always room for more. Johnny Reidy’s ceili tonight had at least ten times as many sets as his Wednesday night ceili, yet the excitement was unchanged. The two Ann(e)s (Mangan and Keane) serving as MCs chose their sets wisely, with plenty of challenges (Aubane, Labasheeda, Sliabh Fraoch and Borlin Polka) and minimal repeats for interest and variety. Johnny himself was delighted to report that someone had counted seventy sets on the floor with over 140 people seated at the same time.
Saturday was a bit like being at a summer school for a day, with a big choice of classes in dance (beginners, improvers, sean nós and kids) and traditional instruments. I met friends from Clare who came to the festival especially for Mairéad Casey’s sean nós workshop which had about seventy in total. Timmy McCarthy’s beginners’ class in Cork and Kerry sets attracted nearly all the Corsicans and so many others that they packed the floor with some sets dancing on carpet. Tony Ryan taught the main set dancing workshop in the enormous INEC, which was divided in half by a line of chairs to keep everyone together. Tony made a special point of practicing steps. Several times throughout the day we followed him as he danced a variety of steps to long tracks of music. We spent time on the Ballingeary, Williamstown, Ballykeale (still fresh after its January debut in Malahide), Moycullen and East Galway sets. Anne Keane took over at the end of the afternoon to give us a chance to practice a figure of the Newmarket Set so at least some of us would be able to dance it correctly at tonight’s ceili. High gates figures somehow are always the ones most likely to go wrong, so the reminder was helpful and the practice made it seem effortless. We were now ready for the ceili—or soon would be after a rest, shower and meal!
The Kilfenora Ceili Band made the Saturday night ceili a special occasion, and dancers turned out in massive numbers, probably close to a hundred sets doing the Caledonian in the second half. The Clare sets were in the majority tonight, which was exactly right for a band that plays such rousing reels. Naturally we danced the Kilfenora Set to start the night, and then later its new neighbour from the next townland, the Ballykeale, which was called by Tony. However, the band also outdid themselves by playing two jig sets, the aforementioned Newmarket Set (three out of four correct high gates in my set) and the old favourite Ballyvourney Jig Set, which was done at the right pace for plenty of fun. The Claddagh and Plain sets finished the night which left about 800 people smiling with pleasure as they slowly left the hall.
All the workshops continued for two hours on Sunday morning. Tony continued with the Black Valley Square Jig Set and the Derradda Set, combined with more of his fun step practice. Coincidentally, in Timmy’s workshop the Black Valley Square Jig was demonstrated by a junior competition team trained by Ann Mangan who danced the square with what was said to be a traditional batter. Ann joined Tony’s class at the end to lead us in practicing a figure of the Kenmare Set, which was going to be relaunched at the afternoon ceili.
Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band took the stage on Sunday afternoon for the festival’s final ceili, which opened with the Kenmare Set called by local teacher Bridie McCarthy. It’s a lively and easy to follow polka set and has a slide figure with a long chain which was the one we previewed in the workshop. There were four Clare sets, including my favourite Clare Orange and Green—I found myself baffled by how such a gorgeous set can be so rarely danced. The West Kerry, need I say, is another favourite, and Swallow’s Tail somehow played it exactly as I love to dance it, yet the beautiful Sligo style they are famous for came through loud and clear. Of course their reels are legendary and made even the regular sets seem extra special today.
After such a fantastic weekend of dancing, I wasn’t in quite the right frame of mind to sit down for the Gathering’s farewell concert, and so I was hoping to find a local pub with some dancing for a few final sets. Referring to my own magazine, I noticed that Micheál Sexton was playing at Pat Sheahan’s Pub in Firies, a village about 18km away, so I showed up there at 9.30pm. The dancing was in the lounge at the back, which is well-decorated in a traditional style and features a fine dance floor. Micheál began at 10pm with waltzes, quicksteps and foxtrots, singing beautifully and accompanying himself on his magic keyboard which imitated every instrument from a banjo to an orchestra. His accordion sounded only like itself but it was his fingers which made it magic when he played the Sliabh Luachra Set, and it was easy to forget he’s from Co Clare when the polkas are this good. After more social dancing, he called another Sliabh Luachra, thinking there weren’t enough reel dancers present, but in fact they insisted on a Plain Set. Another batch of social dances brought the evening to a pleasant close.
Until it’s time for the real summer schools, the Gathering is as near as you can get to the experience in the early Irish spring. I travelled home marvelling at the countryside bursting into flower, with daffodils, camellias and primroses to be seen nearly everywhere in Kerry, and still brimming with excitement from my long weekend in Killarney.
Dancers came from interstate and around Victoria to join the Melbourne Claddagh Dancers for the annual set dancing weekend held in Trentham, 20–22 January. They stayed in the picturesque, historic township, or camped on the grassy plain at Ina and Graeme Bertrand’s forest-encircled, wildlife-friendly property called Springtosh, several kilometres out of town.
It is now thirteen years since our dancing weekend tradition commenced at Springtosh, with just a few sets dancing on the verandah, and people brought their tents. Since word got ’round, numbers have expanded to sixty, and we have moved the action to the Trentham Mechanics Institute Hall.
The weekend started with an eager crowd at Friday night’s session of dancing and entertainment at the Trentham Hotel. The weather forecast was in our favour, with no scorchers predicted to wilt even the best-hydrated dancers.
Workshops were conducted by Kirsty and Richard Greenwood, Melbourne Claddagh teachers, and Paul Wayper of the Canberra-Monaro Folk Society’s Irish Set Dancers. Richard and Kirsty reintroduced three sets from Pat Murphy’s Toss the Feathers. Richard taught the Valentia Right and Left, a simple and energetic polka set, perfect for the cool morning start. Kirsty taught the lovely Paris Set with its distinctive set left and set right movement which occurs in each figure.
On Saturday afternoon Paul engaged our concentration teaching the Hunter Valley Set. It is a new set written by James Garner of Sydney to commemorate the tenth anniversary in November 2009 of the Newcastle Irish Set Dancers, part of the Newcastle and Hunter Valley Folk Club, New South Wales. It was taught by Arthur Kingsland and Julia Smith at the Canberra Irish set dancing workshop in October 2010, and Paul has incorporated recent updates. Its five flowing figures are the Quick Fling, the Parting Glimpse, the Star Chain (reels), the Crossing (jig) and the Valley Tradition (polka).
Dinner on Saturday night was served in the rustic stables in the garden of the 1860s weatherboarded Cosmopolitan Hotel.
Music for the ceili that evening was provided by the fantastic Paddy Fitzgerald and friends—a group of ten or eleven musicians on stage on the night. Paddy, button accordion player extraordinaire, is a Clare man whose family, including brothers and sons, are renowned for their traditional Irish music in Melbourne, where they have been playing at sessions and dances for the last forty years. You couldn’t find a better ceili band in Australia! MC was Marie Brouder, teacher at Comhaltas and the Quiet Man, Melbourne. Marie also called the Walls of Limerick and West Kerry Set. The Rosza and Killarney Waltzes and several of our favourite sets were on the program and called by Kate Armstrong, Paul, Kirsty and Richard—the Valentia Left and Right, Clare Lancers, Kilfenora, Connemara and Ballyvourney Jig Set.
We were privileged to have Maria Forde and Claire Patti play and sing for us during the supper break.
On Sunday morning Kirsty taught the Televara Set, a jig set learned by Richard and Kirsty at a Timmy McCarthy workshop years ago in Priddy, Somerset. The set’s simple structure makes it easy to learn, but with seven figures our dancers found it surprisingly energetic. Upon request, Kirsty and Richard taught the Killarney Waltz, which had been on the ceili program and taught previously by Ina and Graeme. They gracefully demonstrated and walked people through the most complicated but prettiest part of the figure, the swivel step, and were pleased to see that, by the end, virtually everybody had mastered it.
The afternoon mini-ceili concluded a great weekend of socializing, music, dancing and country air.
Mary Reilly, Melbourne, Australia
Our weekend in the Villa Rose Hotel, Ballybofey, Co Donegal, 24–26 February, began on Friday night with the Long Note Ceili Band and approximately 25 sets on the floor, dancing to wonderful music which set the scene for a superb weekend. We were lucky to have 25 visitors from Birmingham, all set dancing veterans and we were boosted with approximately a further fifty from Co Meath and indeed people from all over Ireland.
On Saturday morning classes began with around 25 at the sean nós workshop with Kathleen McGlynn, ably assisted by her husband Michael. Frank and Bobby Keenan began the morning with nine sets at their workshop which meant there was a lovely atmosphere and good fun. Frank has such a relaxed style about his teaching and Bobby works quietly but efficiently in the background. The classes broke for lunch from 1 to 2pm and finished up around 4.30.
Wise people went off for a few hours sleep to prepare themselves for the long Saturday night ahead. Social dancing began at 7pm with Country Legends and people drifted in gradually allowing themselves to get prepared for a hectic night of dancing to Johnny Reidy. The sets began at 10pm and with the great crowd, mighty music and unbelievable atmosphere, all in all we couldn’t have wished for more.
The two-hand dancing under the tuition of Marie Garrity began at 11pm on Sunday morning and she had a lovely crowd considering the night we had beforehand. Johnny Reidy began at 2pm at the same high tempo he finished at the previous night and for the next three hours we were all in heaven, or should I say, ‘three steps from heaven.’
Liam Gallen, Castlederg, Co Tyrone
Please allow me, through the Set Dancing News, to thank the many extraordinary people I met during the past four and a half years, while travelling around Ireland and overseas with the Annaly Ceili Band.
Of all my years playing music, mostly in the UK, these past few years have been by far the most memorable. The loyalty, friendship and commitment of set dancers is without equal, and is head and shoulders above anything I ever experienced in my longish life.
The signs of this friendship were there from our very first ceili in Ballinamuck, Co Longford, with a typical set dancing warm welcome and encouragement, and of course the lashings of tea and home-cooked refreshments for everybody.
Set dancing is a most unique get-together where people share themselves, their dancing and their food. What a lovely Christian way to meet and enjoy life!
What about dancing? Well, the learner, the flier, the eccentric, the sweaty and the wall-to-wall smilers are all drawn into this maelstrom of pounding feet or fancy steps, the dizzy swings or intricate moves, always with kindness and consideration, and I imagine not without the odd squashed toe. Riveting to watch and absolutely, unforgettably brilliant. Thank you, all of you.
I wish it could have carried on a bit longer, but the years have a way of reminding you that getting home too often in the small hours is not as easy as it used to be. It was difficult to decide, but I am happy now to have made the decision to call time. Over the years it is natural to become closer to some people, especially when you meet regularly, so to you in particular, thank you for the many happy hours. I miss you and think of you often. May God bless you and yours.
And finally, as they say on the news, a special word of thanks to the two Seans. Strange as it seems, although being cooped up in a cab, often for hours, we got on well, and the banter was mighty at times. Sometimes, depending I suppose on what had been eaten, the windows had to be quickly lowered. The culprit never owned up, but we all had our suspicions!
Thanks to Sean Sweeney for his calm professionalism, but most of all for his true caring and genuine friendship. He has the endearing modesty of great musicians. I miss his hilarious jokes which shortened many a long journey.
Thanks to Sean Thompson for his boyish enthusiasm and utter dependability. It amazes me still that Sean did all the driving but thank God we never had a scrape, and I always felt safe. I will always cherish his close friendship and understanding.
A special thank you to Gerry and Susan Flynn and all at Enjoy Travel.
Finally, finally, as we were getting our photo taken in Orlando with the American NASA astronaut Jon McBride, Sean Thompson said to Jon, “this could make you famous—having your picture taken with the Annaly Ceili Band.”
Happy dancing and very best wishes, Bill, to you and all the readers.
Brendan Daly, Longford Road, Drumlish, Co Longford
Considerable charmDear Bill,
It was good to see you again at The Gathering in Killarney in February. I am sure that you and the organisers will have received many notes commending the organisers for another well-run event. We dancers saw the tip of the iceberg in the excellent, professional, efficient and charming ‘front of house’ contribution by the two Ann(e)s (Anne Keane and Ann Mangan) who looked after things so well.
The purpose of this short note is not only to add my thanks to the organisers, but to say a special word of thanks to Tony Ryan who took the workshops for the more experienced set dancers. I know from previous attendance that those who went to Timmy McCarthy’s workshops for beginners will also have had a ball.
I wish to pay tribute to Tony for the excellent workshops which he provided. With skill, attention to detail and considerable charm, Tony passed on his extensive knowledge to us all. He introduced us to many enjoyable sets. We danced the Ballykeale (thanks for including Pat’s notes in the last edition of Set Dancing News), which Pat Murphy had introduced in Nenagh and taught again in Malahide. It is an engaging set and my class in Strangford, Co Down, are also enjoying it; with luck it may soon be danced at ceilis here in the north. In addition, we danced the Williamstown, the Ballingeary, the Moycullen, the Derradda and the long version of the East Galway; an enjoyable, challenging and eclectic mix of sets. The experience of the workshops was enhanced by having the fun of dancing in sets with people like you, Joan Pollard Carew and Timmy Woulfe, as well as my partner for the workshops, Florence Combeau from Paris, who, although relatively new to set dancing, is already incredibly accomplished.
I was particularly impressed with the time Tony spent on explaining the basic steps and how, with a little elaboration , considerable variety can be added. I only hope that I can pass on half of what Tony demonstrated at my own classes.
Enjoyment of any participatory activity can be hugely enhanced by improved competence. I am personally indebted to Kieran Shanahan from Ennis who at a weekend in Spanish Point, Co Clare, many years ago, unravelled the mystery of the basic reel step when I was a floundering beginner. Thanks to my ‘road to Damascus’ moment with Kieran, my competence improved greatly and my enjoyment even more.
Tony is offering a skilled and motivational approach to our use of the tools of our trade. The more we as dancers can, through our steps, become one with the music, the more intense and fulfilling the whole experience. So many thanks to Tony for taking the time and making the effort to explain the tools of our trade and to show us how with application we can transform ourselves from artisans to artists.
I know that Tony isn’t the only respected teacher taking time at workshops to explain how to master and improve our basic steps . All who do so deserve our encouragement and thanks as we, and set dancing generally, are the beneficiaries.
Ashley Ray, Ardglass, Co Down
No commercial interest
On behalf of the Slievenamon Dancers I would like to thank every one who helped make our Malahide weekend, 13–15 January, such a success this year.
We raised €5,000 and have divided this as follows:
As our weekend has no commercial interest or sponsorship we are very grateful to everyone who attended.
- €2,000 to Clare Care in memory of Muiris Ó Rócháin;
- €2,000 to cancer research; and €1,000 to Our Lady’s Hospice, Harolds Cross, Dublin.
Next year’s dates are the 11th, 12th and 13th of January and we look forward to seeing everyone there.
Betty McCoy, Sandyford, Co Dublin
Anticipation and anxietyHi Bill,
I would like to say a word of thanks through your magazine.
I would like to say thank you to those groups and individuals who organise workshop weekends. These can be fraught with both anticipation and anxiety and frequently the organisers don’t get the opportunity to dance themselves. So, from the Glasgow set dancing crew based at Langside Halls, to workshop organisers everywhere and especially those events we’ve attended in the last six months—
—a long overdue thank you!
- George Hook and Linda Reavey in Birmingham;
- Theresa McKeaney and the committee of the Eamonn McKeaney weekend in Lusty Beg, Co Fermanagh;
- Gerard Butler and Gay Cassidy in Longford;
- Marie Garrity, Paul Cairns and the set dancing group in Omagh, Co Tyrone;
- and Oliver Fleming in Pontoon, Co Mayo
Noreen Downes, Patricia Marshall and Elaine Cairns, Glasgow Set Dancing Committee
Now safely in their hands
I would like the opportunity to offer my heartfelt thanks to May Cotter for organising a ceili to celebrate my eightieth birthday. She put in a tremendous effort and the result was a very special evening. I would like to thank the class for the great food and Tony Kearney for the music which was nearly outdone by jigs, jives, waltzes and reels.
Finally I would like to thank all those who came and supported my charity, the Sam Beare Hospice—the £400 pounds raised is now safely in their hands.
There was so much going on that evening that I never got a chance to say the thank you I wanted to say. It really was wonderful to celebrate my birthday with friends and family.
Regards, Rita O’Halloran, Walton-on-Thames, England
Rita O’Halloran, Walton-on-Thames, England
The dancing electricDear editor,
Please permit me through your wonderful magazine to thank the organising committee, all dancers and helpers who supported our recent charity ceili in aid of the hospice. The GAA Centre in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, came alive to the superb music of Danny Webster. Michael Cooney was our MC for the night. The craic was mighty and the dancing electric. Sincerely,
Carmel Boyle, Clonmel, Co Tipperary
They come from up the mountains,
they come from down the dales
From Limerick, Wicklow and Kildare,
they mostly come in pairs.
From Ulster and from Connaught,
some from the lovely Lee
To dance away this weekend,
here in sweet Portmagee.
The sean nós and nós nua, the polkas and the reels
But the favourite is the set dance
and has been thus for years
In and out and ’round they go,
dow, dill, dow, dill, dee,
Holding hands and swingin’ ’round, di, dill, dum, dill, dee
Toes a tappin’, feet a slappin’
to the Moorings Céilí Band
Inspiration, pure elation,
such creation, something grand
Toe, heel, toe, tap, one, two, three,
’round the floor they go
Changin’ partners, dodgin’ glasses, moving to and fro
One step, two steps, three steps, four,
stomping gaily round the floor
Mind the counter, tables, stools,
watch that waiter’s tray of booze.
Perspiration, celebration, ladies all aglow
Men perspiring, gimping, gliding,
’round and ’round they go
Jiggin’, reelin’, what great feeling,
trip the light fantastic
Couplers, shufflers, bluffers, chancers,
one and all are mighty dancers.
‘Auld wans’, young ‘wans’, baldies, hair,
strut together through the air.
Kerry, Galway, Limerick sets,
forgetting troubles,strife and debts.
In the Moorings, Portmagee,
all dance for fun, ’tis plain to see
Celtic culture, airs so grand,
as they step out hand in hand
Most conspicuous, she’s the greatest,
that’s the lady with the fan
Silver shoes and twinkle toes
showing every step she knows
’Round and down and up she goes,
toe, heel, toe, she holds her poise
Changing partners all the while, swinging,
swishing with a smile
This troop performs each Friday night,
throughout the seasons, such delight
Sets and half-sets danced with glee,
here in pulsating Portmagee.
From The Wanderings of a Western Wagabond, a book of poems by Michael ‘Schooner’ O’Connor. This poem was inspired by the dance sessions in the Bridge Bar, Portmagee, Co Kerry, where there’s set dancing every Friday and over the May bank holiday weekend.
Mary Beth Taylor is a Dublin-based teacher of step and sean nós dancing who has a new instructional DVD called Sean-Nós Dance for Everyone. This is an introduction to Connemara-style sean nós dancing intended for beginners. Mary Beth covers ten different steps, beginning with a basic step and progressing through to a final finishing step. She uses the same thorough approach for each step, first dancing it normally, and then meticulously breaking down every movement. After explaining, she dances them slowly without music, and then to a slow hornpipe, a fast hornpipe and finally a reel. The bright, clear video shows her feet from behind to follow the steps easily. With her careful teaching, Mary Beth spends as long as fifteen minutes of video on one step.
The ten steps are intended to be danced in sequence, so the DVD offers practice with Mary Beth’s calling, with calling and music, with music only, and lastly with Mary Beth, six of her students and music for a final stepabout. Live music by Martin Tourish on piano accordion accompanies the dancing. A card with the calling for each step is also included with the disk.
To get a copy of Sean-Nós Dance for Everyone, visit Mary Beth’s website www.scoilrincetaylor.com or contact her for more information.
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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