Chris Eichbaum attended the set dancing weekend at the Park Inn Hotel, Mulranny, near Achill Island, Co Mayo, 9–11 March, which also gave her the opportunity to revisit her Mayo roots.
What if after kick-ass sets in Ennistymon you are in need of a Mayo-esque type dancing weekend? Likewise, if you’re not into kick-ass set dancing, this place satisfies both. Satisfaction guaranteed, indeed. You will have to look around you, through the many sash windows of what was once the Great Southern Hotel in Mulranny, gateway to Achill Island and north Mayo, now modestly called Mulranny Park Hotel, and onto another world—Clew Bay, allegedly with 365 islands, one for every day of the year. If you wanted to count them, you would have to rent a helicopter, or hire a guide to take you up the holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, from the top of which with your eagle eyes or the help of binoculars, you might just be able to start “1, 2, 3 . . .” and finish “. . . 363, 364, 365!” The magnificence of it won’t elude you, even if the weather comes in a bit on the cloudy and windy side, but hey, it’s the wild north west of Ireland! Hold on to the railings of the steps leading down to the shore, tie your bootlaces firmly and strap up your hats—ready for a brisk stroll along the boardwalk before sunset and incoming tide catch you! Nowhere in Ireland is the power of nature so starkly felt as here in the vicinity of Mulranny, a writer’s retreat as well as a surfer’s paradise, and don’t forget Scoil Acla, the summer school. Once upon a time, Connie Ryan taught workshop weekends here in a hotel now dilapidated. If you venture out to the very end of Achill Island, following the tiny road (and the ever-present sheep) edged by a steep cliff with nothing beneath you but the ever-roaring sea, you are rewarded with one of the prettiest little beaches, unspoilt, ice-cream-van-free, surrounded by mountains of rock, grasses and brown patches of ferns and turf. Turf! The smell to greet you coming into the hotel foyer—a turf fire. Never mind the four-star rating, it’s a turf fire for the authentic experience, even if you never set foot outside the hotel. But the wilderness calls, and as we are walking about and being swayed this way and that by the wind, another set dancing couple meets us and calls us “brave!” Ha! We were brave so for over a decade, the time we lived up here. That’s right, the crazy Germans that moved to one of the remotest places in Mayo (God help us!) to start an organic farm. What can I say—we were young, possibly very foolish, had dreams to follow and had some of the best times of our lives there. Including a storm in May, just after we had arrived and were trying to restore a ruin of a two-room cottage. The layers of felt that had been proudly glued onto the newly carpeted roof, now laid in tatters, splattered around acres of commonage. Not to mention the tractor that sank into the bog, furniture on board. Or Mickey the donkey, an old hand at escaping, who routinely trotted all the way to the village to eat the lettuce on display outside the shop. The embarrassment! Of course we were completely green in everything and green-eared, too. It does take a while to get into things Irish, not least the intricate art of slagging, and in reference to that, know that Mickey the donkey bore no resemblance to the other Mickey mentioned here!
I don’t think its too bad turning seventy years of age, not when your name is Maureen Halpin, you look a couple of decades younger, and are able to dance away all day and night. Maureen is one of the stalwarts of ‘the way things used to be.’ My first impressions of her date back nigh on twenty years, to a little dance hall in the old Derradda school hall—yes, it’s that Derradda. You get a ceili with local musicians playing for sets and two-hands, and an odd Haymakers’ Jig, accompanied by some singing and storytelling and poetry, and at the tea breaks you just sit. Tea, cups, milk, sugar and cakes will be dished out by a lovely bunch of women who are busy looking after everything in the kitchen as well as the visitors and doing their own dancing, and one of them, you guessed it, was Maureen. She is also the long-time sidekick and dancing partner of Mickey Kelly, who oversees set dancing on the Enjoy Travel trips and in Mayo has been responsible for the revival of many a local set, most notably perhaps, the Newport. So it was her seventieth birthday celebration, and the cake and candles were rolled out on a trolley (too big to carry) and on Mickey’s brainwave, the whole dancing community went out to assemble around it and be photographed. What can I say—if I am half as switched on about sets and half as fit to dance them when I am turning seventy, I shall be very happy indeed. Go, Maureen, the strong woman behind the great man, Mickey Kelly.
And with Mickey we shall continue. A fitting homage to dancing in Mayo cannot exclude him, the big man, the man you won’t take the Mickey of! Mickey Kelly has been credited with many things concerning dancing, as a teacher, reviver of Mayo sets, friend of Connie Ryan, dancing promoter, organiser of displays of Mayo sets in an annual event which at the time showcased many recently retrieved sets, like the Ballycroy and Shramore.
But really what stands out for me is that I always could rely on him to be like the ‘daddy’ of set dancing in the area. He brought people and teachers together. For instance, Marty Murray, who was the man who introduced me to set dancing in his local class and ever so patiently taught me all the ground rules, steps and sets, and so the two are standing behind me and my dancing like huge grandfatherly figures. By the way, Marty was also responsible for introducing me to the strawboys, the white caftans and pointy straw hats, through which you can see very little, due to visual obstruction and sweat pouring down your face, making up a set of dancers that perform at weddings or old folks’ parties, and inviting the guests out to join them in a Siege of Ennis and some waltzes or so. Amusing now, but I was told that in former times, the strawboys where indeed only boys, and would dance to bless the newly wedded couple with plenty of offspring.
Dubbed a European Destination of Excellence, the newly revamped Greenway gives Mulranny and its vicinity a new trump card up their sleeves. A former railway line, now tarmacked over and reserved for cyclists, mums and prams, walkers from all walks of life and a safe path for children on their tricycles. It runs for 42km from Westport to Achill Sound opposite the island. On its original opening in 1895 (operations ceased in 1937) the railway journey was known as “one of the most scenic railway journeys in western Europe.” That is saying something if you’ve ever traversed the Alps on the spectacular Swiss railway or gone to Bergen in Norway by train. And Achill is still holding its own. When we came down the last bit of hairpins, shielded from going over the edge by nothing more than a grassy verge, my stomach lurched, and it wasn’t from the dinner.
By the way, that reminds me of the two girls who chose Mulranny over other destinations because of (among other reasons) the food. Since there’s an award winning restaurant in the hotel, now restored from a dilapidated shell that once accommodated John Lennon—and here it is to be said that when years ago you strolled around the ruin, echoes of “imagine all the people” could be heard, with a little imagination that is. And so it was the most unusual food, though maybe that’s not altogether correct. There were those carrots, but different. That monkfish, but different. That bread, different. Tantalizing. Enough taste stimulation to make me wonder whether there is a foodie inside of me waiting to get out. And after all that divine dinner, plate after plate, dessert, tea, you name it, what do people do? Dance. The Burrishoole Band had started up in the bar, and some folks danced a set—literally up from the table with the last bit of dinner still on the way to the stomach, into a physical activity maybe not so well suited to digestion. Then again they all looked fine and happy to me! And what set would you be dancing after one of the most exalting, extraordinarily varied prepared culinary experiences? The Plain, of course.
On the ceili front, it was the Annaly Ceili Band later on for the first ceili, and the eclectic mix of sets on offer (Mickey Kelly, the maker and shaker of the weekend no doubt selecting them) was played with the exactness the Annaly is known for, the sharp beats that allow you to concentrate on the movement and no need to try and hear the reel, polka or jiggy rhythm. The workshops with Pat Murphy, who resided in Westport for a few years, were filled with sets from nearby locations (Tyrawley) and further afield ones (Ballykeale and Birr). The Ballykeale Set is the new one to hit the scene this year, and to get it fresh was excellent timing. It’s a set that, like the Birr, might take off, both featuring a bravado mix of new angles to old movements in a variety of differing figures, but when danced turns out to be tame enough. This mix has definitely worked for the likes of the Moycullen, whose arrival and subsequent stay on the dance floors everywhere may be attributed to the newness of its particular movements, its length (four figures) and diversity in rhythm and tempo for each figure. So it is with the Birr Set, whose four figures also show off a few new takes on familiar movements (see the ladies’ chain), and the way everyone moves on in the hornpipe. Lovely set, I’ve taken a real shine to it, and my apologies to the classes I’ve badgered with it lately! Replacing it perhaps, or rather, adding more shine, might be the Ballykeale Set. A cast-off in the first figure? Hurray! A thread-the-needle in the third one? Roll it on! And all from County Clare! But also on the menu was a two-hand dance on Sunday named the Edinburgh Mixture, which I had the pleasure to dance with a girl from Tokyo. (She came especially for the dancing and “to listen to the music.” First time in Ireland. On her own. Imagine. Isn’t that class?) It’s a mixture alright! About ten two-hand dances all jumbled up, and out comes this dance that is danced to a march.
Sunday before the lunch, there was what I was waiting for—Brenda O’Callaghan teaching sean nós. I had heard so much about her, how precise she was, slow enough for everyone to follow her, down to earth in her steps. And that is exactly how she was, and the steps she taught were lovely, little sequences put together making up a series of two steps each. Now, where is she teaching next? Hopefully it won’t be too long before I’ll get a chance to go to her workshop again. Not to mention seeing her bright red shoe laces again, too.
Going back to the south-east from the north-west that day, we mused a lot about Ireland, and what makes it special, and even after twenty years there are surprises in store, just when you thought you’d figured it out! But what comes as no surprise is that the wind in Mayo blows mental cobwebs away and brings back an aerial earthiness.
It was a time down memory lane there, less travelled now, but when walked, felt deeply, and this event is as traditional as they come, in an area that safeguards their traditions with ease, guarded by people who have become institutions, here namely Mickey Kelly, daddy-bear of Mayo set dancing. Yup!
The cloudy and overcast weather of Friday, March 9th, was soon forgotten once we stepped into the lobby of the Bellbridge Hotel, Spanish Point, Co Clare for the annual Sets By The Sea weekend. From the welcoming tea and homemade cake reception by hosts Tina Walsh, her son Daniel and sister Mary, until last orders on Sunday night, this was one of the most enjoyable, entertaining and memorable weekends we have attended.
Once settled into the cosy hotel, we soon found ourselves sitting by an open fire in the bar, listening to the instantly recognisable sound of a Clare session. The young and extremely talented local musicians entertained everyone throughout the weekend before and after each ceili. The late night sessions were not to be missed, with members of the Five Counties, Abbey and Kilfenora ceili bands joining in, plus a special guest-star appearance on Saturday night by the very popular Micheál Sexton. With such talent on show, its no wonder that the bar remained packed for each of the sessions. For those of us who stayed on the Sunday night, relaxing in front of the open fire in the bar singing the night away was an entertaining and fitting farewell session to end the weekend.
Music for the weekend’s set dancing was provided by three of the best ceili bands in the business, the Johnny Reidy, Abbey and Swallow’s Tail ceilis bands. The atmosphere at each ceili was nothing short of electric as each band blasted out a variety of energetic reels and polkas. The art of Clare battering was very much on show over the weekend by both young and not so young, and the perfectly laid extra flooring was most certainly put to the test! All ceilis were very well supported throughout the weekend, and it seemed that every county in Ireland was represented, with dancers from England, France and further afield making it a truly international weekend! Music in the main function room before the ceilis on Friday and Saturday night was provided by Micheál Sexton. As always, Micheál attracted a great crowd both nights, and had the floor full of couples waltzing and quick stepping the early evening away. Many dancers availed of the great value €10 admission each night which covered both the social dancing and ceili!
Workshops on both days were run by Mick Mulkerrin and were very well supported. Dancers learned the Aran and Williamstown sets, both of which proved to be very entertaining and popular by all in attendance. Mick and partner Deirdre Tobin also ran a very well-supported and enjoyable sean nós workshop on Saturday morning, during which Tina’s young son Daniel showed his skills and passion and love for sean nós by doing a demonstration for everyone.
The organisers of this weekend made sure that everyone’s tastes were catered for, from set dancing to sessions in the bar, from country and social dancing to sean nós demonstrations, with the main emphasis on everyone having a great, action-packed, fun-filled weekend. It is also fantastic to see that the Alzheimer’s Society benefited from all the proceeds from the weekend, a gesture from Tina and crew which should not go unrecognised. There is no doubt that the venue also had a major part to play in the weekend’s success, with polite and friendly staff, scrumptious food and a great pint of the black stuff!
A huge congrats to Tina and all involved in this fantastic weekend. Sets by the Sea 2013 is definitely not to be missed, and early booking is strongly advised! We’re already booked in for the three nights, and looking forward to it!
Keith and Carol McGlynn, Tralee, Co Kerry
Set dancing is popular enough around the world that those of us who love it can practice our hobby while on holiday in exotic locations. But if trips to the Mediterranean, Caribbean or Down Under are not in your plans, it’s still possible to find exotic destinations without ever leaving Ireland! Just keep a careful eye out for unusual venues that pop up occasionally in the event listings. One that caught my eye was a weekend of dancing in Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands, from March 30th to April 1st, and once I learned some friends from Mayo were going, I booked myself in as well.
The Aran Islands stretch across the entrance to Galway Bay between the coasts of Clare and Galway, and for me the nearest ferry leaves from Doolin. However, the sailing time is about ninety minutes and experience has shown it to be a rough journey, so this time I chanced sailing from Rossaveel in Connemara, where the island is forty minutes away and where I was meeting friends. As I drove the congested roads around Galway city on Friday morning, it became clear that some things might be worse than a rough ferry crossing. But the Rossaveel ferry, while packed to capacity, was a smooth, easy ride.
I consider a place to be exotic when it outshines any set dancing I do there—a rare happening in my case! On arrival at the town of Kilronan, my first priority was to get a bike and pedal from one end of the island to the other. I dumped the bags in the B&B, hired a bike for the weekend, and set off—Pat Murphy, Esther Campagnoli and I formed a convoy of three. Esther is a regular cyclist at home in Italy, I hadn’t done any for over a year, and Pat admitted it could have been as long as 25 years since he was on a bike. Nevertheless, we set out on the high road (having forgotten advice from a local to stick to the easier and flatter low road) and managed to travel about ten kilometres to the foot of Dun Aengus, the ancient stone fort which is the island’s top visitor attraction. We parked the bikes, lunched in a cafe and then made the easy walk up to the fort.
Dun Aengus is an enormous semicircle of stone in a spectacular setting on the very edge of a terrifyingly high cliff. There’s nothing restricting access to the cliff, and the bravest visitors could be seen lying down at the precipice, peering over the abyss to the sea below. The fort is at one of the highest points of the island, from there I could see cliffs all along the ocean-facing coast in either direction. At first the fort was full of visitors, mostly European school children, but they soon left and I found myself alone in one of most isolated and peaceful places in Ireland.
After the walk down, Pat and Esther returned to town and I cycled out to the western end of the island for even more isolation. I took the low road back to town, which followed the shore on the more sheltered side of the island facing the mainland. Along the way I passed what I first took to be a collection of rowing boats in the water, curraghs perhaps, when it dawned on me—I was actually looking at seals, perhaps a dozen of them, resident here.
After my exertions, I rested, dined, and then as darkness fell my mind finally resumed its normal obsession with sets. The weekend’s dancing began at a bar session in Inishmore’s one hotel, the Aran Islands Hotel beyond the edge of Kilronan. Rather than walking ten minutes from the B&B, I cycled, but halfway to the hotel the streetlights ended and I was plunged into darkness with no light on the bike! Instinct took over and luckily I arrived without riding into a pothole or stone wall. A starting time of 9.30pm was advertised, but accurate timekeeping is somewhat superfluous on an Irish island, so it took a while to achieve a quorum sufficient for a set. The three musicians were ready to go on time and played waltzes and songs until there were enough for a Connemara Set. The Mayo crowd brought along plenty of hilarity when they arrived and there were enough then to make up two sets for the Plain Set. Plenty of teenagers came along to the bar, not for set dancing, but for an 18th birthday party, and as soon as our allotted time was up, a local band came almost immediately on to play for the party, singing songs in Irish. On the way out I fumbled with the bike lock and key long enough to become accustomed to the darkness, so had no trouble cycling back to town.
On Saturday there was dancing all day, and I was up and on the road early enough in a vain attempt to cycle to the eastern end of the island before the morning workshop started back in the village hall. I’d gone two miles before starting to worry I might miss some dancing and turned back—the island’s exoticism must have faded a bit for me! Pat Murphy geared the workshop for the local dancers, beginning with the set from one of the neighbouring islands, Inis Oírr, and then following up later with the local Aran Set. In between we did the Birr Set, which was new to me and to the islanders, and at the end of the day Pat responded to a request for the Claddagh Set, though we had time for only two figures.
With a 5pm finish to the workshop and the ceili starting at 11pm (!), I had plenty of time for another bike trip east. I first stopped on the way to visit a friend of a friend, who welcomed me into her immaculate little house and offered me tea and pancakes. After giving my thanks and farewell, the darkening sky and cold breeze sent me back to my B&B and postponed a visit to the east end for another day.
The seriously late start to the ceili (by mainland standards, at least) was to entice people to dance after pubs closed. Impatient to dance, at 10.45pm I could no longer restrain myself and went down to the hall only to find it locked, dark and deserted. After a few minutes’ waiting with Pat and Esther, I was thinking of turning back when I spotted the band, Matt Cunningham, Larry Cooley and Richard Murray, walking our way, but they ended up waiting outside with us, their instruments locked inside. An organiser eventually came along, she phoned the caretaker and he came along and opened the hall. By the time the music started, most of the locals and Mayo visitors had arrived, with a few extra bodies from Galway. Matt and his lads played lively flowing music, and Pat chose and called dances everyone could enjoy. The Aran Set was the biggest challenge of the night, for those of us not from the island, at least, and we danced a selection of two-hands and Connemara Sets to start and finish.
The sun blazed in a clear blue sky on Sunday morning, and once again I cycled east without getting very far, so further exploration of the island will await my next visit. Half of the morning workshop was dedicated to two-hand dancing (I was getting used to the relaxed attitude to start times) and the second half was attended by aspiring sean nós dancers eager to learn from Paraic Ó hOibicín from Connemara.
After the workshop I said farewell to my bike when I returned it to the hire shop and made my way to Tigh Joe Mac’s Bar near the pier. Some people had already left the island by the first departing ferry, but those of us sailing on the last one at 5pm gathered here for a final session, and a memorable one it was! A few dancing boards were set up outside the pub on an elevated terrace with a panoramic view over the harbour and island. With a cloudless blue sky and the warmth of the afternoon sun, it was easy to imagine we’d been transported to the Mediterranean or any other suitably exotic locale. Pat Murphy led the dancing with recorded music and we danced a few regular sets, waltzes and two-hands, plus the Derradda, though most of the Mayo dancers had left and missed the only Mayo set of the weekend! When the clouds rolled in and hid the sun, this was our signal to start the journey back to reality and make our way to the ferry.
For many years there were annual set dancing weekends on Inishmore, but these ceased ten or more years ago. The local organisers are to be commended for reviving them and giving us a beautiful and fascinating place to spend a weekend.
The next Inishmore weekend is 5–7 April 2013.
For twelve years now my sister Orla and I have been part of the set dancing scene here in Manchester, attending our weekly classes every week since we started at the ages of 7 and 10, not missing out on a single class unless we really have to. There was always one thing as we were growing up that we wanted to do and that was to attend a set dancing weekend. We were lucky enough to have the Sean Dempsey Set Dance festival every year which we always thoroughly enjoyed, however we wanted to spread our wings a bit and go somewhere new where there was bound to be plenty of friends but lots of new people to make friends with too.
In 2008 I made my first trip to Ireland for the Sean-Óg set dancing weekend. Whilst there I met Kate Howes, the organiser of the Birmingham weekend, who told me all about her weekend that she ran every year in February with music by none other than the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band. From hearing so much about it, I went home to tell Orla as it was finally a weekend that we’d both be able to go to which wasn’t too far away from our hometown, Manchester.
As of 2009, we attended every year and each one lived up to the high standard that we had seen from the previous year, with plenty of friendly faces always returning for more. Sadly, Orla and I missed out on the weekend last year but we did everything we could this year to make sure it wasn’t going to be missed. This year was the exact same, the only difference was that it took place on Saint Patrick’s weekend.
It has to be said Birmingham was definitely alive with the sound of music this St Patrick’s Day as Kate Howes, Betty and Pat Quinn and the rest of her army of great helpers put on another fantastic weekend filled with music by the one and only Johnny Reidy Ceili Band.
From the moment we stepped into the hotel on the Friday afternoon you could sense the excitement building up for the weekend ahead. Everyone was raring to get their dancing shoes on and take to the dance floor. As always, like any Irish do, a lot of catching up had to be done with everyone we hadn’t seen for such a long time and before we knew it, it was time to go and get ready for what was going to be the first night of a fantastic weekend.
Once you stepped into that dance hall on the Friday evening, the atmosphere was electric as everyone was ready to take to the floor for the first dance. You weren’t left standing around for too long. As soon after you arrived, the first set was announced and the floor was filled with sets as the music began to play. The whole night was filled with plenty of dancing, laughter, foot stomping and of course, mighty music! Yet again Johnny Reidy, Emma O’Leary, Eddie Lee and Tom Skelly raised the roof for their opening ceili of the weekend. There were claps and screams aplenty and even quite a few shouts for more as the night drew to a close before the national anthem was played.
Saint Patrick’s Day came and it was to be a full day and night of dancing. Gerard Butler’s workshop during the day seemed popular with people who came along to learn sets such as the Shannon Gael Set from County Roscommon along with some sean nós steps too. After the workshop finished everyone was all danced out, however they weren’t giving up that easy as they got ready for the night ahead and turned out in green to celebrate the feast of St Patrick. Every single person who attended pulled out all the stops to make sure that this St Patrick’s weekend was the best one Solihull had ever had. As it was Saint Patrick’s Day there was a sean nós display given by Barbara Aherne, Gabrielle Cassidy, Gerard Butler and I. The night was yet another huge success as the band raised the roof, the floor was full and of course the feast of Saint Patrick was celebrated as well as it could be and everyone went home very happy after yet another wonderful evening.
But as the saying goes, all good things have to come to an end and this weekend sadly had to come to an end too. Although many people were sad that after this closing ceili on Sunday the weekend was no more, everyone still turned out in fine form for a ceili that was just as fabulous as the others. The floor was full the whole way through, the music was as mighty as the night before and everyone clapped, cheered, stomped and screamed as the last few bars of the Clare Lancers were played to bring the weekend to a close.
It’s a weekend I thoroughly enjoy every time I attend it with my younger sister Orla. Kate, Betty and Pat, Johnny, his band and all the other lovely people work tirelessly both front of house and behind the scenes to make the weekend the huge success that it is and always still manage to find the time to keep everyone entertained, looked after and up to date with the plans for the following year. It is a weekend I will continue to support over here in England as it’s one that I have thoroughly enjoyed since I started attending it four years ago. It was as always lovely to catch up with all the friendly faces of people I have met on my set dancing journey so far and I look forward to meeting them all somewhere else along the way either in Ireland or back here in England next year.
Caroline Mannion, Manchester, England
Prague? In March? That’ll be hat, scarf and gloves then. Not a bit of it! We were to enjoy the most beautiful city I know during a spell of the most perfect warm spring weather you could imagine.
Václav Bernard and his team, the Prague Irish Set Dancers, had arranged for us a beautifully stylish dance hall for the weekend of 23–25 March. The high, white walls were fabulously decorated with gilded plaster mouldings brightly sunlit during the day. A separate seating area, with tea available throughout, also held a fabulous array of home baking provided by our host dancers. The parquet floor was silky smooth for dancing, and through a discreet door in the corner, the attached bar sold good Czech beer at about £1 a pint! To top it all, it was about a five minute walk to our hotel which, despite the usual guff on review websites, far exceeded our expectations. We would return there without a doubt.
All going well so far then. Add to that a young and enthusiastic group of dancers from Germany, Ireland, the UK (mostly less young) and locally from Prague, and the mix is building towards guaranteed success.
Fronting the workshops were the very capable pair of Kevin Monaghan and Carol Gannon, who had chosen sets with a variety of styles, complexity and regional variation.
As trialled last September at the Setsmad weekend in Basingstoke, England, brief notes for each figure were projected high onto a wall for all to see. Although Kevin is delighted by the continuing globalisation of this aspect of his heritage, he is also keen to see that the local roots and style of each set are not lost. His notes included a map of Ireland, displayed at the start of each set, to show where the set originated and introduced several light-hearted references to explain the differences in style.
We began on Friday evening with the Glencorrib Set, very local to Kevin’s home town in Co Galway. Those with good memories may remember the Set Dancing News publication of this set in 2002 after Kevin pressed Noel Monaghan, his father, to recall the set as it was danced in the early 1980s, when Noel danced it in a set that won prize money. They were subsequently deemed ‘professional’ and barred from further competition, although there is still in existence a video of them dancing an abridged version on television. It is an interesting set and, despite the challenge of a brushed step throughout, proved a popular choice with both new dancers and the more experienced.
Next up was the Roscahill Set, another set local to the Galway area. Only three figures, but quite a lot going on.
In the morning on Saturday we moved south for some more polkas, with the South Kerry and its interesting body (reverse, house and square the corner) and the ‘drag the lady’ figure that, for politeness (and to please my wife) was re-styled ‘lead the lady’!
The Boyne Set caused some location problems, and it was given dual billing to reflect both Galway, where it was first danced, and its title geography in the Co Meath area. Dancers were introduced to the rising jig step in the third figure, with some practice time to build experience.
The band, Rise the Dust, arrived from the airport during the afternoon workshop, and we were impressed to see them dive straight into sets to join in the dancing. They are all accomplished set dancers, with that easy flow and style that so many of us can only dream of. This familiarity would shine through in their music during the ceili—truly dancers’ musicians. They joined us as we worked through the Newmarket Mezerts, another set with loads of interest. The fifth figure, the stalling, is unusual, and set us yet another challenge.
The ceili itself was a true delight, with Rise the Dust providing the most beautifully paced and, well, musical music. I am open to differences of opinion here, but to my ears there were several instances where the tunes seemed to segue from Irish tunes into minor key Slavic tunes, perfectly in keeping with our surroundings. A fabulous dance experience, with enough room to move on the floor, and tons of enthusiasm from the dancers. This was followed by a session, which gave an opportunity for local musicians to join in and for us all to hear some more free-ranging musicianship from the talented guys in the band. Brendan Doyle has become my new ‘box god’. We were also treated to some great stepping by Jana Pospisilova and Tereza Jindrova, and sean nós by Marketa Bernardova, Shane Ryan, and Sharleen McCaffrey, who had also called the Moycullen for us during the ceili. Sadly, the pub that Václav had organised did not understand Irish time, and had closed early, but we had a good time anyway without the need for a change of scenery.
Sunday morning saw a few off for sightseeing, but a good number remained to work through the Newport Set, by request. More stepping for tired legs, and to round it off Kevin revisited the Claddagh Set. He taught it there last year, but their recruiting is so successful (how do they do that?) that gaps were exposed during the ceili. You could see the mists clearing for a good few people, and grins appearing, as we worked through the cross chain.
Kevin and Carol are very good friends of ours, and will probably tick me off for saying so, but Kevin, with strong support from Carol, has made great strides in learning the art of teaching workshops. This was well-considered, well-prepared, and well-presented. Add to that fine hosts, brilliant music, a splendid dance venue, a beautiful city and perfect spring weather, and you could not fail to return home with joy in your hearts, even if a flat battery has caused your car to ‘forget’ the code in your car keys!
Jim Crick, Newbury, England
Curiosity was the main reason I made my first trip to Carlow town in April. I’m afraid this wasn’t because of a burning desire to see the town itself, although that was a pleasant bonus, but instead to see for myself exactly what the Pan Celtic Festival is. Over the years I’ve read a bit about the festival, which began in 1971 in Killarney to bring together the Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany in a celebration of their culture, but I’ve never heard any first-hand reports. The only way to learn more was to see for myself so I hit the road for Carlow on Wednesday April 11th.
The Pan Celtic isn’t a festival with an obvious appeal to set dancers, though Wednesday night was Irish night so I was ever optimistic and ready with my dancing shoes. I arrived in the late afternoon with ample time to wander the streets. On the main street, I heard a commotion from the direction of the cathedral and followed the noise, hoping to witness a street performance of Celtic music and dance, but was only slightly disappointed to find myself in the midst of a tax protest.
The Irish night was held in the Seven Oaks Hotel, as were the subsequent nights hosted by the other nations. I arrived there in time for the singing competition, which started about half an hour late. The singing was in two parts, solo and group, with all songs required to be in one of the Celtic languages. The contestants introduced their songs in their home tongue and then in English, except for those from Cornwall, who seemed to sing in Cornish but only spoke in English. There was only one Irish singer competing in the solo competition, and only one group in the second competition. I began to formulate a hypothesis, that despite hosting the festival for four decades, the Irish are seriously under-represented at the Pan Celtic Festival. The solo singer, Noeleen Nic Colla from Donegal, was the well-deserved winner in her category, with a refreshing voice as clear as a bell.
With the competition taking an hour longer than planned on top of a delayed start, time for the following Irish night was rather limited. During performances by ballet and opera groups I kept praying for some good dancing, and was heartened to see some top sean nós dancers in the hall. However, with the limited time available, the organisers dismissed the adult sean nós dancers in favour of a succession of young Irish step dancers in wigs and costumes who had waited well past their bedtimes to perform. With an increasingly remote possibility of set or even ceili dancing, I changed out of my dancing shoes and made my way home.
I returned to Carlow on Friday the 13th fully assured of dancing sets as there was a genuine ceili scheduled as part of the festival. But first I went back to the town’s quaint streets where I was pleased to find a market with stalls selling French food and other specialities, and visiting Bretons in traditional costume consuming crepes, galettes and cider.
Carlow is split by the River Barrow, and just over the river from the town centre is a fine park covered in a lush lawn, and it was here that all the festival participants gathered to get ready for a parade. The sun was beaming, the costumes fascinating, the music a treat and atmosphere absolutely delightful. The parade made its way across a narrow pedestrian bridge, then looped around the old streets and finished in the elegant grounds of Carlow College. The parading visitors enjoyed it immensely, as did those of us who watched from the sidelines.
I had missed the Manx, Breton and Cornish night on Thursday, and unable to miss a night of sets, I went to the ceili in the Hurling Club and so had to forego the Welsh night scheduled at the same time, though I heard later the dancing was good there. But it’s hard to beat a ceili with Micheál Sexton for pure dancing pleasure. Right from the start it was a breath of fresh air—Peter O’Neill called the South Kerry Set for us, and the eight sets (all called) plus two lots of waltzes and quicksteps which followed made for a varied and interesting night. I had thought it would be a good opportunity to meet some of the Pan Celtic visitors, but only a handful showed up—two experienced Isle of Man set dancers, plus three from Brittany and two traditionally dressed Welsh dancers, all of whom were up for every set, eagerly partnered and assisted by the regulars.
Saturday began with competitions for harp, fiddle, pipe, choirs and dance, which was the one I was keen to see. Accustomed to fleadh competitions, I expected to find a packed hall in the hotel, but the only spectators were other competitors and there were plenty of seats. There were separate competitions for traditional and for newly composed group dances and for solo dancers. I found the group dances fascinating—they looked like good fun and well within the capabilities of the average set dancer. The solo dancers consisted of a Welsh clog dancer and a Scottish lad artfully flinging sticks around. The competition was particularly popular with Welsh competitors, but confirming my earlier hypothesis, no Irish took part in it. It would give this competition a big boost if they did!
The festival offered lots of other activities throughout town—pub sessions, open air performances, concerts, workshops and more, all listed in a twenty-page programme booklet. Saturday’s highlight was the Scottish night in the hotel, with a ceilidh band on stage and plenty of easy two-hand dances on offer. The band alternated dances with songs by many of the fine singers in the hall. The dances, such as the Gay Gordons and Canadian Barn Dance, would be familiar to Irish dancers and in any case were easy to pick up if you didn’t know them. I was invited up for the Canadian Barn Dance by a Welsh woman who danced with me for a few rounds, then grabbed a seated lady and put her beside me while she went off to dance with another man. She later said she wanted to dance with her friend but needed to learn the dance first from someone who knew it.
Next year the Pan Celtic Festival is back in Carlow, 2–7 April, and it would be great to see more set dancers involved, particularly in the competition—they’d do well in it!
PS After leaving Carlow on Sunday morning, I made my way to the Costa del Clonea weekend near Dungarvan, Co Waterford, arriving at the workshop in time to see the demonstration of the first figure of a set taught by Helen Kealy. I watched, confident of my ability to deduce which set it was, and only became more baffled the more I saw. Helen found me a place in a set and put my mind at ease by explaining it was her newly composed set, the Coolnabeasoon Set, which was inspired by and named after her home place nearby. The moves were easily managed but different enough to be challenging, and the five figures were the most fun I had dancing a new set in living memory! Usually a new set takes a while to grow on me, but this one hit home immediately. It was even better when we danced it at the ceili later to some great music by the Annaly Ceili Band. Well done, Helen, and the rest of ye do your best to learn it from her!
In the June–July 2011 issue Chris Eichbaum introduced readers to Hugh McGauran’s annual big bash in Donegal. In 2012, March 29th–April 1st, it was again held in the Great Northern Hotel in Bundoran. The magnificent setting (Chris wrote eloquently about the location and I would simply be echoing her excellent word pictures of this spectacular part of the amazing county of Donegal) was, I have to admit, upstaged by the event.
The Great Northern Hotel is an excellent venue for this weekend. The hotel management pay attention to detail, with good quality additional temporary floors in the ballroom (much needed to handle the crowds), comfortable and quiet areas for relaxing and good food and service. The catering arrangements on the Saturday night worked very well. There were well over 220 who sat down at the same time to a delicious three-course dinner, all swiftly served and completed in good time for the evening ceili. Hugh told me that the event is proving a good boost for hotel tourism in the town with 159 rooms booked for the weekend. The Great Northern Hotel was fully booked with the nearby Holyrood also benefitting.
Hugh was his usual tornado of activity, with welcoming smiles and a word for everyone whilst keeping a watchful eye on the organisational details that are needed to ensure events run as intended. He is amazing, especially so as he had a medical hiccough during the year and all his friends were anxious that he take things easy for a while, but at work or play slowing down does not seem to be in Hugh’s mind-set. Thank goodness for his charming wife, Margaret, who tries to keep Hugh’s feet on the ground and who manages the whirlwind as best she can with skill, quiet charm and dignity.
Once again Hugh provided something for everyone. There was plenty of set dancing with ceilis on the Friday and Saturday nights and on Sunday afternoon. Attendance at all the ceilis reflected the increasing popularity of this weekend with more than 35 sets signing in for each event and over forty on the Saturday evening. In addition, for those wishing to hone their skills, there were workshops on Saturday with a wonderful sets workshop with Teresa Quigg (who teaches sets in Carryduff near Belfast), a superb sean nós workshop with Kathleen Smyth (who teaches sets and sean nós near Ballynahinch, Co Down) and an engaging two-hand dance workshop with Marie Garrity (who teaches sets and two–hand dances in Omagh, Co Tyrone) on the Sunday morning. Also on the Saturday evening the crowd were again entertained with some steps by the Gormley sisters, Áine and Caiomhe, 5 and 7, and by Niamh Herron from Dungannon who, though also tender in years, is a very accomplished sean nós dancer.
There are always the night owls who need their late evening and early morning fixes. For them there was a treat on Saturday with a session that lasted into the very early hours of Sunday morning. Eamonn Donnelly from Copperplate Ceili Band, had honoured a promise he made last year and brought his keyboard and speakers, providing the keystone for a very eclectic session. He was more than ably supported by the ubiquitous Michael Walker and the very talented Nigel Waite from England, whose rendition of You’ve Got a Friend by James Taylor, would have had James himself envious. As I said the session was very eclectic. There were traditional songs from the audience, wonderful stories from John Burke, songs and guitar pieces from Sally Sexton, and for those who managed to get a glimpse, yours truly and Larry King entwined in a wonderful Kentucky Waltz played by Eamonn Donnelly—Simon Cowell will be on the phone soon!
For those from the six counties, like me, there were many familiar and friendly faces, in fact, one wondered if there were any set dancers left in the six counties that weekend. But there were many from Donegal, with smiling faces and plenty of craic (try speaking to Pat ‘The Post’ Quinn from Donegal town and not come away with the feeling that the world is a better place) and elsewhere in Ireland and also from further afield. A large Scottish contingent graced the occasion and I was fortunate to meet and dance with Maureen McCarthy from New Jersey. On Sunday when I was dancing the Birr Set with Maureen, in second sides there was Larisa Sokele from Latvia, who is now based in Ireland and who dances at Kathleen Black and Larry King’s class in Killeavy.
It is the tradition to call the sets at ceilis in the six counties and in this respect, the caller Joe Farrell is an institution there. His infectious good humour is reflected in his calling. Joe teaches in Hilltown, Co Down, and calls for many ceilis throughout the north. In Bundoran he called for the three ceilis and other than the Plain Set (the traditional last set at ceilis in the north) gave us a wide range of different sets. He also keeps up with the recently revived and newly taught sets, so the Boyne and Birr were on his list. We are lucky in the north in that we do have a wide variety of different sets at ceilis and these were typified in Joe’s calling which ranged from the Waterford to the Paris, Claddagh and Derradda. We are hopeful that the Ballykeale will soon be on his calling list.
The music from the three bands, Ceili Time (Friday night), the Glenside (Saturday night) and Brian Ború (Sunday afternoon) was the icing on the cake that had the feet itching to dance and still feeling ready for more as the strains of the last bars of the Plain Set at the end of each ceili faded away.
I mentioned the workshops, which were very well attended, with seventy to eighty plus at each. On the Sunday morning Marie Garrity’s charm and easy to understand guidance soon had us waltzing and barn dancing away. Kathleen Smyth, in her sean nós workshop (Saturday afternoon) has a great skill and manages to set achievable challenges for both beginners and more experienced dancers, so that everyone comes away with a sense of achievement.
Hugh managed another surprise for us this year. At her workshop, Teresa Quigg demonstrated her set dancing skills in a new way. Teresa, who has been teaching at Carryduff for many years, and who is sadly leaving her class at the end of June, introduced us to the legacy she is leaving as a tribute to the class—she has designed and choreographed a brand new set. The figures are designed to evoke the rolling hills of that part of Co Down, the welcome found for anyone who goes to the class or the Carryduff Halloween weekends and the multitasking that all the members of the class bring to make the class such an enjoyable and successful experience. The set is called the Drumbo Lancers and conforms to the usual pattern of Lancers sets. It is cleverly designed and contains some innovative moves. I was particularly taken with the way she uses a small Christmas to change partners in the third figure. I know that the class is working on a DVD, which together with the notes will be available soon. I do encourage other teachers to try it out. I will be teaching it in Strangford and Kathleen Smyth has already taught it at her class near Ballynahinch.
In conclusion, another hugely enjoyable weekend with something for everyone. Hugh tells me he has more in store.
Ashley Ray, Ardglass, Co Down
The Sunday ceili is available on DVD—contact John Gallagher for more info. Hugh’s next bash returns to Bundoran on the weekend of 5–7 April 2013.
In this year of 2012, people the world over are exploring their connections to the major event of 1912, the sinking of the Titanic. The set dancers of Nova Scotia are no exception. As usual for our annual Easter Weekend, we were ensconced in the so-called ‘Titanic’ House in Halifax. This lovely Edwardian mansion is so nicknamed because it was built and occupied by George Wright, the only Haligonian (yep, that’s what we’re called) to die on the Titanic. Mr Wright, a pillar of the community, was urged to make a will in England before he departed on that fateful voyage, and much to the surprise of many, he left his house of the Local Council of Women. There is still debate over the sincerity of this bequest. Mr Wright certainly didn’t expect to die so soon—the ship was unsinkable, after all! In any case, the Local Council of Women have been custodians of the building ever since—officially called the George Wright House—which they graciously allow community groups to rent. The mansion has been well-maintained, and we find the period stained glass, spacious sun porch and especially the wooden floors conducive to our annual event.
We welcomed dance master Pat Murphy to our shores for his fifteenth Easter visit. The festivities began on Good Friday with the opening ceili. The Titanic again intervened, as we were instructed to be kind to the newly refurbished floors, so that the parlour would be at its shiny best for the various centenary events scheduled later in the month. These instructions suited our fondness for some of the gentler sets, as we kicked off with the Clare Lancers, and moved on to the Monaghan, Mazurka and similar sets—although the Connemara did sneak in there!
Saturday was workshop day. For the morning segment, Pat taught the charming Birr Set from Co Offaly, complete with its diamond square and unusual ladies’ chain. After our ‘box lunch,’ a combination noon-time snack and music session, Pat continued in the afternoon with the Balleykeale from County Clare, a lovely traditional set he had collected from Michael Slattery. A number of us felt right at home with the third figure’s ‘thread the needle,’ as it’s a movement also found in a number of our Atlantic Canadian sets, especially in Newfoundland. The day wrapped up with the elegant Summertime Waltz.
Saturday evening, we revisited Clare by beginning the evening with the Corofin Set, but also showed off our new learning by dancing the Birr and Balleykeale. Energetic live music was provided by our house musicians, Kevin Roach and Jane Lombard, with guests Glenn Coolen, Gordon Cameron, Jeff Harper and Erin Dempsey, among others. Mid-evening, a tasty spread was laid on, complete with tea and coffee, and of course, water—all that dancing incites a mighty thirst!
The weather had turned Saturday evening, so we woke up on Easter Sunday to an unseasonable layer of snow. The skies soon cleared though, and the sun was bright for our afternoon Mimosa Ceili, featuring refreshments provided by Tidewater Cider, owned and operated by veteran dancer John Brett.
At the end of an afternoon of dancing, we bid farewell to many of our Island visitors. An especially large contingent had driven over from the neighbouring province of Prince Edward Island for this year’s event, contributing their trademark enthusiasm to the weekend. Our friends left for home contented, having danced their favourite sets: the Monaghan and the Valentia Right and Left.
Monday is our regular evening for class, and Easter is no exception. While residents and visitors alike spent the day recovering or sightseeing, we gathered again in the evening for our last event. Pat first taught the Inis Mór, also known to many as the Aran Set. Pat went against his own book, sharing with us some corrections he had been given only the week before by a lady of the island. We were pleased with the refinements, especially to the waves, and the light shuffling footwork suited our precious floor! We rounded off the evening by reprising the Portmagee Meserts, a one-time favourite of the Halifax dancers that had somehow slipped to the bottom of our dance card in recent years.
Thus ended our 2012 Easter weekend, except for those folks who left the Titanic House to meet for a parting cup at a nearby Scottish pub to hear a visiting banjo player from County Donegal. All hands raised a toast to Easters past and Easters future. See you next year!
The Nova Scotia dancers were not finished with the Titanic at Easter! On the anniversary of the very day the iceberg struck, April 14, our Scaip na Cleiti club demonstration team performed as part of a commemoration of the disaster called The Night of the Bells. The name of the event refers to Halifax’s primary role in the disaster—taking custody of many of the bodies. When the first of the ‘death ships’ arrived in Halifax on April 30, 1912, the bells of three churches tolled out of respect for the victims. The same historic churches again tolled their bells on April 14, 2012.
The outdoor event took place in our town square, the Grand Parade. Our dancers, representing Irish steerage passengers en route to new lives in America, shared the stage with some of the region’s leading entertainers. Choreographed by local dance teacher Elizabeth MacDonald, our eight-minute performance piece incorporated elements of the Plain and Clare Lancer sets and featured a dance-off in sean nós style, probably as authentic as any the ill-fated passengers might have enjoyed below decks. All were decked out in authentic period garb coordinated by dancer Anita Campbell, who also happens to be a costume director. Aren’t we a talented crew? Time to quit the day jobs, don’t ya think?
Adele Megann, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Search for ScaipNaCleitiDance on Google or YouTube for videos from the commemoration.
Over the course of its nineteen years, the Shindig Festival has visited nearly every hotel in and around the town of Tralee, Co Kerry, in search of a better and better home for the hoards of dancers turning up each year. This year organisers Paddy and Carolyn Hanafin finally found a new venue which is truly worthy of their set dancing weekend, the Carlton Hotel, which also happens to be the main hotel for the Rose of Tralee Festival. As soon as I entered on Friday April 20th, the decor of marble and walnut panelling made me feel I’d entered a splendid new world of luxury, and if it’s good enough for the roses, it’ll do for the Shindig! When I looked out the windows in the top floor corridor, I was pleasantly surprised to a see an idyllic riverside scene of farms, fields and delicate spring foliage—not quite what I expected to see in Tralee! This reminded me of another welcome improvement in the Shindig—a move from winter to spring.
Johnny Reidy Ceili Band gave a big start to the weekend at the opening Friday night ceili, which brought along a strong crowd of Johnny’s local fans, together with all the weekend visitors from across Ireland and a handful from beyond. The ballroom had a permanent floor of rather slippy oak boards with room for about fifteen sets, and temporary plywood panels on carpet added room for another eight or so. We maxed out the space for most of the sets and the heat everyone generated was sufficient to overload my wicking shirts. The pleasure was unbeatable!
In another major change to the Shindig, one which reflects the changing character of set dancing weekends in Ireland, all the workshops were devoted to sean nós dancing. Paddy was delighted to obtain the services of Brian Cunningham from Connemara for the weekend, and as a bonus, his sister Irene and younger brother Michael came along as well. They received full exposure at the weekend, beginning with a demonstration during Friday’s ceili which amazed all who witnessed it. Brian and Irene shared the workshops all day on Saturday and on Sunday morning, and Michael accompanied them on the box. They returned for more demonstrations at the remaining two ceilis and at the Saturday evening session.
> The Deenagh Ceili Band were expected at 7.30pm on Saturday to play for a free bar session, but even the best musicians are unable to be in two places at once! Their services were required at afternoon dance competitions down the road in Killarney, which in my experience rarely end on time. But by 8pm they were set up and three sets were happily dancing the Connemara Set, and I was especially pleased for the subsequent West Kerry. The Cunninghams showed their steps, as did a host of other dancers, including Sharlene McCaffrey, Bronagh and Leeann Murphy, Aibhín Holden and Oliver Moroney, who performed his own unique and clever take on the brush dance with seemingly effortless ease.
After the session and a quick trip to my room to change shirt, I nevertheless manage to arrive too late for the first set at the Saturday night ceili with Brian Ború Ceili Band, but as I’d just danced three sets, I was already ahead of myself! I danced the remaining seven sets with fantastic partners for each, mercifully tolerant of the increasingly high moisture content of my shirts. The band started well and improved with each set so that by the second half we were flying close to the stratosphere!
This year the Shindig’s ceilis were split into two types—if it wasn’t Brian Ború it was Johnny Reidy. Having opened the weekend, Johnny was back on Sunday afternoon to close it with another dose of high-energy music. The bright light of day streaming in through the windows was an added bonus, as was the refreshing outdoor breeze through the opened doors. The Cunninghams had stayed on after their morning workshop to give us one last glimpse of their fast moving feet. Otherwise the dancing was all ours, a third dose of familiar sets with a couple of the less familiar tossed in for variety. Even during the break Johnny kept dancers moving by playing recorded waltzes and quicksteps from piano player Eddie Lee’s new social dancing CD.
The satisfaction of dancing at the Shindig never felt better, and it should only get better in future as Paddy and Carolyn improve it to keep up with the times and the best venues Tralee has to offer.
At last, the only Scottish weekend on the set dance calendar (4–6 May) had arrived. With Brian Ború playing, Joe Farrell calling and Pádraig and Róisín McEneany teaching the workshops, it could not get much better.
As is becoming the norm for this weekend, the weather was lovely with warm sunshine and blue skies to greet the early arrivals. The downside of this was a warm hall, which was controlled this year by two huge industrial fans, which kept a cooling flow over the entire floor.
Friday evening arrived and a fine piper greeted the big contingent who bussed over from across the water in Down and Tyrone. Eight sets started a mighty ceili; the numbers rising as stragglers ran in hearing the music. Joe called a good variety of sets (nine) and the dancers were glad to sit down at teatime for a selection of home baked goodies from the buffet table. All too soon, it was time to head to bed and prepare for the morning workshops.
Arriving early on Saturday morning for a chat with the visitors, we pondered on the choice of sets for the workshop. I was hoping for the Ballykeale and was not disappointed. It has enough differences to make it interesting and is easy enough to replicate at céilithe. Then a request was made—“Can we try the Cavan Reel set?” “Of course,” says Pádraig and we were into it. Only two figures, but plenty in them. The footwork will have to wait for another day but was practised at the break. After that, we went on to the Frere Nantais (Connemara Jig), which we had already done but enjoyed recapping. The lunch break, by the way, was the biggest, bestest spread of food I have seen for a while and enough for seconds.
Home for a shower and then back for the evening ceili. I wandered round chatting and finding out where everyone was from. We had Irish from Down, Tyrone and Mayo, English from Newcastle, Leicester and Manchester, and Scots from Edinburgh as well as the core group from Glasgow. Suddenly, nine sets and a cool-down waltz later, it was time for bed again. Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? Home for a hot chocolate and bed.
Sunday morning brought another sunny day and a workshop covering the Clare Orange and Green. Then another huge buffet lunch and it was time for the last ceili of the weekend—we wait a year and it’s over in a flash. Everyone was raring to go and the band was up for it. We managed yet again to pack nine sets into our ceili—27 in total as well as four in the workshops. If it wasn’t for ferries and long drives home, I reckon we’d still be dancing.
The committee made a wonderful job of organisation, picking a great band who played out of their socks, a caller who was concise and very entertaining and the crowd were themselves up for anything.
Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
Ian’s sets log of the weekend’s ceilis—Friday: Kilfenora, Fermanagh, Moycullen, Clare Lancers, Cashel, Paris, Antrim Square, Ballyvourney Jig, Plain. Saturday: Corofin Plain, Sliabh gCua, Connemara, Derradda, Boyne, Labasheeda, Cavan Reel, Borlin, Plain. Sunday: Mazurka, Skibereen, Clare Orange and Green, Newport, Williamstown, Caledonian, Birr, North Kerry, Plain.
April in the Algarve, a ten-day set dancing package holiday organised by Enjoy Travel, went to Albufiera, Portugal, 22 April–2 May. Chris Eichbaum went along and has filed this report on her experiences.
The RTÉ weather report the other day showed a photograph of a sunny spell. Really. The weatherman had the cheek to say something like “and here’s a picture of a sunny spell,” just so that we get a reminder of what a sunny spell looks like, in case we’ve forgotten. Incredulous. But after this long grey winter (summer, autumn) with the sun making only scarce appearances, I noticed myself looking in wonder at a shadow on a rare sunny spell. It seemed unfamiliar. Time to go to Portugal!
There were two gorgeous, marvellous, bone-marrow-warming hot days after arriving, and then the cold snap took over, the one which has been with western and central Europe for the last while. Argh! In Albufeira, in the Algarve, in April, the fleeces had to come out, and jackets were always taken for a spin too. There were days with rain, days with wind and rain, and days with a mix of showers and sunshine. Then another glorious sunny day. Accumulating a tan proved difficult, so extreme measures had to be taken. A sure-fire way to get a facial sunburn, a mother of a sunburn, actually, is to go on a speedboat trip. The glare of the water and the salty sea spray combined to leave a deep red glow on my face, and a colour that can only be described as ‘beetroot’ on my friend’s face, which subsequently started peeling, so it was back to square one. Apart from getting burnt unbeknownst to yourself, the speedboat is one of the most exhilarating rides ever! Assured by the skipper that the day was “calm” and the waves arranged in such a way to forego any bumps, two heavily pregnant women also clambered on board the inflatable boat. We insisted on taking the front seats for full impact. There were no life jackets or safety protocols, just sit down and hold on to whatever you can for dear life! No bumps, huh? Well, when not spewing out seawater that kept dashing over the hull into our faces, we wondered what a bumpy ride would be like! The boat went up on the crests, a view of infinity for a few heart-stopping moments, and came crashing down and bumping over the wave’s valley with a seat-bruising bang!
This all was part of a theme called “Don’t dance too much, your back is bad and you need a holiday so do different things for a change.” And just to make sure I wouldn’t dance too much, at a ceili I unceremoniously fell off the stage onto my tailbone, twisted to catch the camera that I could see in slow-mo leaving my hand and flying an elegant curve through the air to come down onto the floor and bounce off it with a most horrid sound that made me cringe no end. The camera was okay, not I, though in shock first, I claimed to have suffered no injuries whatsoever, but it turned out later that a nerve got pinched which caused sciatica and hip pain as a consequence. Just as well I had, as part of the new plan, scheduled a massage the next day at the hotel’s leisure centre. The massage therapist knew her business, gave me a diagnosis, put me on Ibuprofen and—rest! Well, I did have some, in between the dances, that is. More rest than normal, lets say. Time to read a whole book borrowed from the hotel’s library, go for walks, explore the beach and the shops, eat sardines freshly barbecued in a restaurant overlooking the long stretch of sand and sandstone formations at the strand, go on that speedboat trip, sit on the balcony in the sun (when it was let out), doing some much-needed cloud appreciation, and actually had some unheard of snoozes during the afternoon. Well now! Sounds like a holiday, doesn’t it? And sometimes the universe gives us what we need, not what we want, and with the wisdom of hindsight, it was all spot-on, seeing that on arriving back home our brood bitch for the Guide Dogs was just waiting for me to come back before giving birth, and after that it was all hands on deck, but that is another story and told elsewhere!
In Portugal, I still danced ‘too much’, indicated by my limping off the floor at times, but hey, how can you not, when you’re having something correlated to the term ‘dance of your life’? And—the blasphemy!—it wasn’t a set. It was a quickstep and jive to the fab music of the Galway Jazz Band, at last, music differing from the usual staple diet of Old Man Trouble, The Rivers of Babylon and Say You Love Me, and I’m risking getting strung up a tree here and gagged, because the dance floor was filled when the above were played, and not exactly overcrowded when the tangoes, cha-cha-chas and Midnight in Moscow by the Galway jazz-men sound-waved through the room. There is a couple who always dance together that I have admired many times, Mary McGrath and Eamonn Rogers, always dressed up in singing-in-the-rain outfits, hat and all, (Gene Kelly would have loved Eamonn’s suits) and having what looked like exquisite footwork to go with every type of country music. Mary, of course, I would have known from two-hand dance workshops and set dancing, being a sidekick of Marie Garrity from Omagh. When talking to her she said that they make up some of the stuff. What? Make it up? Another world opened immediately. I scrutinized their dancing more closely. Hmmmm. Yes, some steps seemed invented on the spot, yet, because the two dance as one, it’s hard to see which bits are created and which are normal steps, and that’s due to me not being a social dancer and having no real insight into it. But all of a sudden I thought, maybe I don’t need to. So the new dance partner came out with me, and we just danced whatever came into our heads, or feet. This was as close to the magic that you feel as a child when Santy is coming.
There has been much more of an overlap of set and social dancing this time around, and that has also been the case for a lot of set cum social dancers, as the ceilis would start at 9pm and finish at 11.30 without a break in the middle, at which point most people would take the lift down to the ballroom where the social dancing continued for another hour and a half. Or they meander into the session, led by Mick Mackey, who this time was also in charge of booking the ceili bands, and what a great job he did by getting the Johnny Reidy (JRCB), Deenagh, Matt Cunningham, Swallow’s Tail and Annaly. I don’t think there were any complaints this time about the set dancers being treated like poorer cousins! And despite the myth that JRCB play fast, or too fast, the hall was packed on each occasion they performed and people I spoke to said they had dreaded the fast music but now found it was delightful! Hear hear! Any other voices?
Having JRCB and Swallow’s Tail there was a great treat, and to top it, the Deenagh for the first time. I had only heard them once before and was tremendously looking forward to listening to them. So here’s the verdict—addictive stuff, played by a young crew, pretty much like Salamanca Ceili Band in energy and embellishments, using Kerry touches to tunes, old and very trad one minute, and new and excitingly jazzy the next, and accompanied here by a piano player of musical heights, Kevin Mulder from the northwest, an explosive mix. I would liken him to another piano player of acclaim, Paul Mongan from the Emerald Ceili Band, who seems unable to help himself from introducing his own bits of notes into the tunes, and stopping just short of becoming a lead instrument, albeit only for seconds. Conor Moriarty, who was asked to smile, responded, I smile through my music, and his interpretations of some tunes made a truly fascinating rhythm. (Anyone remember that jazzy tune?) Cool, cool and cool.
Matt Cunningham played for ceili and fíor céilí with similar skill, a wise old hand at the music game, and made some of the ceili dances most enjoyable. Fíor céilí was on offer every second day, alternating with fíor céilí workshops with Connie McKelvey from Donegal, organiser of the excellent Glenties weekend in September. Connie made my day by teaching and dancing the “reverse Shoe the Donkey” with me, a two-hand dance called the Mazurka, which has a lovely twist in it. The build-up is the very same as in Shoe the Donkey, just the footwork more exquisite and the turns on the spot like a carousel, all in waltz hold. Definitely one of my favourite two-hands.
You’re getting the picture? Much is on offer on these trips, between the music tutorials, sessions, ceilis, fíor céilithe, social dances and a variety of workshops ranging from sets and sean nós to jive, Latin American and ballroom. But if, like me, you seek to relax after a busy time at home as well, why don’t you join the cloud appreciation society? Watch the world go by, watch the boys watch the girls watch the boys go by!
The dictionary meaning for party comes up with “a social gathering to celebrate,” and its synonyms, like festivity, merrymaking, revelry, bash, all explain the spirit of the event. Ten days of set and social dancing, music, sessions, craic, jersey parade and talent competitions, the trip to the Algarve held all the cards and took place in a huge hotel called Montechoro, towering above the rest with ten floors, sitting on top of a height, commanding stunning views over everything. When you look out a big picture window, it appears like an oversized flat TV screen, framing a shot of the strip of deep blue sea against a light blue sky, dotted with The Simpsons clouds. The rooms are large and comfortable, but beware, there are no tea-making facilities. On a previous trip, a travel kettle and iron were purchased to be used in the rooms and stowed away until this time round. You’ll become like that, when travelling a lot, and awaken to the little things that make life easier, like never queueing behind the people with the bulging big suitcases, never taking fluids in the carry-on, or if you do, having it readily packed in a transparent plastic bag. Most importantly, relax, it’ll all get sorted eventually!
So, in this hotel perched at the mountain top, I practised the difficult art of ‘slowing down’. Master it I did only temporarily, and at times was overcome by excitement of the variety on offer, with things often happening simultaneously. Just look at the number of teachers for sets—there was Mickey Kelly, Ger Butler, Sheila Gormley and Frank Keenan. And Ger also taught sean nós, which was continued by Sheila after Ger went home. And a big hit with the punters was an almost impromptu Jive lesson which was squeezed in somewhere in the afternoon, when there was social dancing and sessions going on. The hall was heaving—obviously a demand for it! And then the jivers jived it out to Robert Mizell or Limelight or Sean Cuddy or the Moynihan Brothers, or—too many social bands to mention!
One of the great things I find on these trips is the variety of sets that are danced and called. In addition to the above mentioned teachers, Syl Bell and Hilary Nic Íomhair also helped out, giving good called advice to the dancers, and so the Boyne Set for instance became a much-danced, much-loved and now well-known set, I think. Also the workshop sets were danced, for example, the Ballykeale Set. And, inevitably, a range of Mayo sets, what with Mickey Kelly steering, like the Mayo Lancers. Often I had planned to only watch a set or so, but ended up dancing four of them despite a screaming leg or back. I ignored it—and paid a price later, I’m afraid. Life’s too short though, it has to be said again, to do all the dancing that wants to be done, right? Right!
PS Jenny Richardson had a broken ankle and had to cancel the holiday. OMG! A sore trial to stay at home for dance-aholic Jenny, my friend from Dungarvan. I thought I’d better not send her any texts to cruelly remind her what she’s missing out on. Not so her friend Johnny, who texted her to say, “The dances are sh*te, the music is sh*te, the weather is sh*te, everything is sh*te.”
With my usual clockwork efficiency, we left the house dead on time and picked up two friends, Frank and Una, to head for Gortahork, Co Donegal for the Féile Damhsa Gaelach weekend, 18–20 May. The ferry from Troon was full, with about 160 bikers heading for a big road race in Antrim, as well as the four of us.
We were soon on the road, with my iPod blasting out reels to get our feet warmed up and the miles soon passed. Magheroarty was soon reached and the kettle boiled, in our house for the weekend.
Then it was time for the kilt to go on and we were off. The Annaly Ceili Band were playing for the opening ceili. They were in fine form and eighteen sets danced a warm evening away with a good mixture of dances called by Madge O’Grady, our hostess and organiser of the weekend. All too soon, we were back at the house, in bed discussing the sets danced, and the friends, old and new, met.
Porridge for breakfast set us up for Pat Murphy’s workshop and we were not disappointed. I have been browsing through the less danced sets and found one that I wanted to dance when time allowed and what was first on the list today? The Portmagee Jig Set. Seven sets enjoyed a lovely wee dance with little differences to keep the mind occupied. That was followed by the Ballykeale, which we are getting to know slowly at home, too. After jigs and reels we turned to polkas and the Sneem Set, another set which is short and sweet and should be danced more often.
At the lunch interval, I was approached by a lady from Dublin who asked if I was the man who wrote about knickers in the Set Dancing News. After I admitted that was me, we got into a debate about what combination of colours was acceptable. Much better craic than a cup of tea and all in fun, I think! At least we didn’t get into what is worn beneath the kilt. The answer is nothing; it’s all in perfect working order.
After lunch, we worked on the Donegal and Tyrawley sets before the session came to an end after a dancing journey up and down the west coast of Ireland. Pat was in his usual fine form, teaching with humour and patience.
The evening ceili was played by Long Note Ceili Band who had swelled to a four-piece outfit and sounded great. We only managed to dance eight sets, rather than the nine of Friday, but 22 sets had a ball.
Sunday morning brought a long lie. We got up at nine, as the first workshop was sean nós, which is beyond my capabilities. The Birr Set was our project of the morning and it filled the hour that it was allocated. We had a lovely lunch in the sun before the slán abhaile céilí played by Ceili Time who were fabulous. From their sound check to the final notes of Amhrán na bhFiann, feet were going full time. The hornpipes played for the Cashel were the best I have ever danced to. Another eight sets this time danced by eighteen very happy sets of dancers.
Sadly, it finished all too soon and we were done with dancing for another weekend—but, no!
We managed to track down some dancing thirty miles north of Gortahork in a pub in Cranford and a fine two hours of dancing followed. I think we surprised the locals when the four of us were first on the floor for the High-Cauled Cap and even more when we danced it perfectly.
A leisurely drive to Larne topped off a lovely weekend and thanks are due to Madge, the three bands and, most of all, to the dancers for making it so good. You were mighty and great fun to be with.
Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
Carnlough Set Dancing Weekend, 27th–29th April, was our fifth year hosting the workshop weekend after it was revived in 2007, following a lull since 1996. Again, old friends travelled from far and near to be with us, whilst some new dancers joined us for the first time in the Glens of Antrim. Our friends from Wicklow and Wexford had an eventful journey to Carnlough but were fit to join us in the house for our regular Thursday get-together, dancing the Clare Orange and Green and the Antrim Square, and finishing with a few tunes and songs.
We all gathered in the Glencloy Inn on Friday night and were treated to some great music from local musicians on uilleann pipes, fiddle, tin whistle, bodhrán, guitar and harmonica. There were some fine songs from Marie Walshe and Colin Irwin, and we all had a laugh at Paddy Taylor’s rendition of The Errant Apprentice.
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny and seven sets took to the floor at 10am, with Pat Murphy teaching us the lovely Sneem Set from South Kerry. He concentrated on the steps and style of dancing, particularly with the more inexperienced dancers, and this was much appreciated. This was followed by the new Ballykeale Set, which we had all heard and read about, with its more complicated moves and figures, but as always with Pat’s clear instructions and encouragement, we got through the four figures, with no difficulty! By 5pm, we had also danced the Birr Set with its lovely mix of reel, jig, hornpipe and polka steps and figures.
Between the workshop and the ceili, the dancers were able to enjoy the fine weather and the spectacular Antrim Coast, with many of them visiting the Cranny Falls and Quarries, Glenariffe and Tor Head, as well as talking the opportunity to stop off at a few local hostelries!
Cathal McAnulty and his band provided great music at the Saturday night ceili, with Joe Farrell managing to call, dance, coax dancers out on to the floor and sort out a few mix-ups—all at the one time! Steenson’s Jewellers again donated first prize for the raffle and to our delight this was won by one of our dancers, Moira Graham. The group kept up its tradition of providing a varied and plentiful array of sweet and savoury goodies for the supper, which was enjoyed by all.
Five sets returned for the workshop on Sunday morning and Pat taught the Naas Set, which again was new to most of us—we enjoyed the different moves in this set, particularly, the handless chain and the linked arms line, and have tried it once or twice since! The workshop ended with a circle waltz, which Pat brought from the Grand Bal festival in Saint-Gervais, France.
The weekend was enjoyed by all and many of the visitors commented on the welcome, weather, dancing and great Glens hospitality and friendliness. We look forward to seeing everyone again in 2013.
Emer Gallagher, Carnlough, Co Antrim
Kerry Dancers’ inaugural Sweets of May festival welcomed hundreds to their weekend in the Earl of Desmond Hotel, Tralee, from Friday 11th May to Sunday 13th May. From early on Friday afternoon the lavishly renovated hotel was buzzing with festival goers. Dancers travelled from every county in Ireland to share in the weekend of sessions, workshops, ceilis and craic. At our welcome reception in the bar as we enjoyed complimentary tea, coffee, biscuits and chocolates, it was evident that our group and festival had gleaned huge good will and support.
We met old friends and greeted new ones at our first session of the weekend. We danced our first Sliabh Luachra Set of the weekend quickly followed by the Connemara and Plain. Mark Bryan gave a novelty line dancing workshop at 7.30pm. I was delighted to see 35 dancers enjoying his class. Mark is one of the late Joe Mannix’s protégés and has taken over Joe’s class in Dunmanway, Co Cork.
The large ballroom was packed at nine o’clock with queues all the way out to the front door for our first ceili of the festival. Johnny Reidy was in his usual fine form and the 45 sets I counted on the floor for the Kilfenora Set said it all. The atmosphere was electric and Johnny and his band rose as usual to the occasion. The superb maple floor added to the dancing pleasure.
Our first night concluded with another session in the hotel bar. The Lenihan brothers, Donal and James, from Milstreet in Co Cork, played heart-lifting music, and even tired feet and wrecked bodies found the energy to take the floor and dance the Ballyvourney Jig, Connemara and Sliabh Luachra sets. The floor in the bar was also heaven to dance on.
Saturday morning for our set dancing workshop we had world-renowned dancing master Pat Murphy at the helm. He began with the Aran Set, telling us he had visited Inishmore recently and had a discussion with Cait Flaherty which clarified some of the moves in this set. Pat explained that Cait’s mother had originally given this set to Séamus Ó Méalóid. As we danced this lovely set, Pat emphasised the proper moves for the waves. Like so many sets being danced today, some of the finer and definitive characteristics have been lost or forgotten. We can rely on Pat’s skills and expertise as a dancing master to help us all retain and teach the original versions of these sets.
Our second set of the morning was the Ballykeale. This set was given to Mike Mahony and Pat Murphy by Michael Slattery, no stranger to finding old Co Clare sets as he is the man who brought us the very popular Kilfenora Set a few years ago. Ballykeale is a townland situated between the village of Kilfenora and Michael’s own townland of Ballygownan. The Ballykeale set is danced to reels, jigs, reels and finishes with a quadrille. We were honoured to have Michael at our festival and one of the demonstrating dancers for this set. This little gem of a set will stand the test of time and will be as popular as the beautiful Kilfenora. I was one of the first to dance this set in Co Tipperary at the Devil’s Bit Ceili in Templemore and I am delighted to say it went down a treat.
The afternoon set dancing workshop was buzzing at 2pm when Pat taught the Sneem Set. Danced to four polkas, a slide and finishing with a hornpipe, this set can be danced easily at ceilis with a good caller. I remember dancing it in Ballyvourney with Timmy ‘the Brit’ McCarthy a number of years ago at his Cork-Kerry Weekend.
The second set of the afternoon was the Durrow Threshing Set. This was a set danced in Durrow, Co Laois, by the late Jack Fitzpatrick, who Pat reminded us was a brilliant dancer in his day. Pat was first made aware of this set by Michael Loughnane from Thurles, who brought him to meet the dancers in Durrow. The set has six figures danced to jigs, polkas and a hornpipe. Pat concluded the workshop by showing us the Summer Morning Waltz. This is a nice social dance with everyone changing partners.
The upstairs ballroom was packed with dancers of all ages participating Triona Mangan’s sean nós workshop. Triona is from Killarney and an accomplished dancer and tutor and has more awards than I have had hot dinners.
After dinner the Striolán Ceili Band set up for another session in the hotel bar and we danced off the sumptuous dinner to their magic music until it was time to collect ourselves for the ceili in the ballroom with the mighty Abbey Ceili Band on stage. I counted thirty sets all dancing the Caledonian Set. Some American and German visitors were amazed at the energy of the dancers and the way young and not so young all danced and mixed so well together.
At break time as patrons enjoyed complementary refreshments we had a huge treat. The winning senior figure dancing team of this year’s Scór competition danced the Eight-Hand Jig with their teacher Triona Mangan. This talented and well-polished group finished their display with sean nós and a brush dance.
After the ceili we adjourned to the bar where the Striolán Ceili Band played until 3.30am to the joy of the packed bar.
Sunday morning with tired back and sore feet I gathered myself for the workshop at 10.30am with Pat Murphy. The first set we danced was the Set of Erin, a nice easy-going little Co Cork set danced to four slides and finishing with a floating reel. The final set of the workshop was the Birr Set, which was put together by Michael Ryan from Birr, Co Offaly, to celebrate his home town. We danced his set as a tribute to him following his passing in April. Michael was originally from Ennis, Co Clare, but went to work in Birr many years ago. By popular demand Pat concluded our workshop by dancing the Summer Morning Waltz once more.
At the same time, Triona had a huge class for her Cavan Reel and Roscommon Lancers steps.
As we ate lunch we enjoyed another wonderful session in the foyer of the hotel with the mighty Oilean group from Tralee, who play and sing both folk and traditional.
The final ceili had crowds queuing from 2pm. The music of the Striolán Ceili Band lifted the most tired dancers and kept them on the floor all afternoon. All weekend we had a nice selection of familiar sets and a few less familiar scattered in. Pat Murphy called the Ballykeale and Birr sets from the workshops. We had three junior members of the Kerry Dancers, Deirdre Lenihan, Michelle Cronin and Kelly Whitby, call a set each. The only set repeated all weekend was the popular Plain Set. At break time we had another display of talented dancing by eight more of Triona’s pupils. This group from Boherbue, Co Cork, are the 2012 Scór All-Ireland senior set dancing winners. They danced the Cavan Reel Set.
The presence of young dancers at the weekend was most encouraging. One of the great joys and pleasures of being on the committee of the Kerry Dancers is that we have a wonderful group of young people ready and very able to call sets, organise events and teach dancing. Our brief is to mentor and encourage them to continue to dance and promote our traditional dancing. When we are pushing up the posies they will ensure traditional music and dancing will stay alive and well.
After a mega weekend it is always hard to come back to earth, especially when we concluded with another session in the bar with the Oilean group. Set dancers who availed of the three nights package in the hotel, coaxed by other hotel guests, danced until after 3am.
We have the Earl of Desmond booked for the same weekend next year with the same lineup of ceili bands and dancing tutors. You will be as welcome as the flowers of May to join us from 10th to 12th May.
Joan Pollard Carew
As usual around St Patrick’s Day, March was a very active and diverse month for the set dancers of the Greater Washington Ceili Club (GWCC). It started on Saturday March 3rd with our regular visit from Patrick O’Dea. Several sets turned up for Patrick’s high-energy workshop in the Frost Center, Rockville, Maryland, which taught the Birr and Armagh sets. After a short break while our musicians Tina Eck, Philippe Varlet and Zan McLeod set up, the dancers reformed for a short ceili which included a workshop dance. After all this, dancers relocated to a nearby home for a pot-luck dinner and an evening of tunes and socializing.
The GWCC monthly ceili in Cherry Hill Park Conference Center, College Park, on Sunday March 25 featured Pond Scum Ceili Band from southern Maryland making their first appearance here. They did an excellent job with several of the dancers heard commenting favorably about the lively tunes. A total of seven sets were on the floor dancing our sets-of-the-month, the Connemara Jig and Lusmagh, along with a popular mix of set and ceili dances.
Finally, the month wrapped up with a festive gathering in Shepherdstown, West Virginia—the annual Spring Fling on the weekend of March 30–31. Dancers from Ohio and New Jersey joined area dancers Friday for a welcome social followed by a ceili in the lovely 144-year-old War Memorial Building. Music was provided by the “band with no name,” Philippe Varlet, Tina Eck, Rob Greenway and Patrick Cavanagh. Despite soliciting several worthy suggestions for a name, the evening concluded without a solution. In any case, the music was great and the weather was agreeable. After the ceili, a group of dancers met in the hotel pub for some late night tunes and a chat.
Saturday in Shepherdstown started with an abundant breakfast spread featuring assorted bagels and muffins, coffee, tea, orange juice, soda bread, bowls of fruit and more. The morning and afternoon workshops were led by Jim Keenan. He started with the Rosscahill Set which went well compared to the very challenging Port Fairy Set, although those that saw the Port Fairy through could see the potential once the dance was learned and executed well. To change the pace Jim finished with the Glencree Set and we all adjourned to find our own dinner before returning for the Saturday night ceili. The evening’s dance music came from Dave Abe, Brendan Mulvihill, Zan McLeod and Myron Bretholz and a strong sound it was. The dance list included both the Roscahill and Glencree sets and the floor was full most of the night. When the ceili was over there was a gathering back at the hotel pub to wind down from all the dancing.
Before leaving Shepherdstown Sunday morning, a small group of dancers again met for an impressive German-themed buffet brunch. It was delicious food and all you can eat.
The Southern Maryland Celtic Festival was held on April 28 at Jefferson-Patterson Park in Prince Frederick. There were performances by three local dance groups, with the Ring of Kerry Irish Dancers and Tir na nÓg leading up to the GWCC performance. We showed a mix of pieces crafted from standard set dance figures and audience participation in progressive ceili dances. Pond Scum provided wonderful live music for us and kept our energy up through the threatening weather. The audience was very responsive and willing to give it a try.
The following weekend was the occasion of the spring ceili at Diane and Preston Clark’s garage in southern Maryland. Much like an old-time house party, Clark’s ceilis pull people from over sixty miles away to the impressive dance space that’s built over their garage. Diane teaches a regular class here and concludes her season with a party that links in dancers from Baltimore and Washington. Casual and fun is the rule of the day; mistakes are well-tolerated and expertise is shared. Pond Scum provided great music for dancing, including the switch to a march in the Paris Set. Often filling the floor with four sets, the dancers arrived early, stayed late and danced hard. Add to that a fabulous pot-luck supper that was worth the price alone and you have a lovely Saturday night out.
Finally, the last GWCC monthly ceili before the summer break was held on Sunday May 13. Besides concluding the ceili season, it also marked the departure of Ed and Joan O’Connor as they relocate to New Jersey. Long-time dancers and members of the GWCC board of directors for several years, Joan organized our first Spring Fling event in 2004. Rambling House Ceili Band provided the music for this ceili which was well-attended (including visitors from Canada) in spite of its being Mother’s Day. All ladies received a small gift in token appreciation for all mothers and caregivers. Never letting up on the dance challenges, the sets-of-the-month were the Claddagh and Newmarket Mezerts.
Now we’re free to recharge over the summer either by relaxing and resting our dance shoes, or by seeking out more dance weekends and festivals. Anyone up for Willie Week?
Paul O’Donnell, Silver Spring, Maryland
This year Clonea Strand Hotel, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, was the location for the annual weekend away as a troupe of the renowned set dancers from Stackstown Golf Club, Dublin 16, descended on the unsuspecting but welcoming town. Once again we were blessed with glorious weather and we enjoyed a clear blue sky and unseasonably warm weather for the entire weekend, 9–11 March.
Festivities commenced on the Friday evening and many of our group availed of the opportunity to dine in style in the very fine hostelries and diners for which this area is famed. Others occupied the very fine pubs.
Later we were entertained by a band of gifted young musicians under the guidance of Michael Merrinan. They were well supported by older musicians and singers from the local area and, needless to say, a set or five were danced with enthusiasm and a degree of panache. As usual, there were the hardy annuals for whom the end of the evening is only the beginning of the morning and some bleary eyes were evident at breakfast next morning.
So to the workshop and here awaiting us was a pleasant surprise as Helen Kealy introduced us to the Coolnabeasoon Set which she has composed herself. It is a fine piece of work which celebrates in dance her native place—a most interesting concept and I cannot say with honesty that we did it justice. But we were impressed and there, of course, to help out was her husband Paddy with the ever-present box of sweets.
After a splendid dinner in the Clonea Strand on the edge of the sparkling Atlantic, we were joined at the ceili by the friendly and able dancers from the area. Music was provided by Tim Joe O’Riordan; unfortunately his wife and accompanist Anne was unable to travel and she was replaced by that accomplished man of music, Mort Kelleher. Need I tell you that with the distinctive accordion playing of Tim Joe and the able backing of Mort, we had a rousing night’s dancing. Again the night became the morning as we sang our songs, recited our pieces, ate and drank our fill.
For a brilliant weekend, we are grateful to all who participated, to the staff and management of the Clonea Strand and to our teacher Angela Bernard. And, of course, to Celia Gaffney, our representative in the south east, who prepared the way and provided the sunshine.
Liam Bane, Stackstown, Dublin
Those of you who think that mythical heroes only exist in folklore should take a trip to the Cooley Peninsula of Co Louth. Cooley boasts its very own Cúchulainn and Queen Maeve. Those of us fortunate enough to have been taught by Kathleen and Michael McGlynn couldn’t help but be inspired by the great grá damhsa they possess. Their energy and positive approach to dance has created a large following of loyal dancers. They, along with the fantastic committee of the St Patrick’s Set Dancing Group, have made the weekend in Lordship a continuing success over the years.
April 27th saw the arrival of yet another Lordship set dancing weekend. Louth band Triskell took to the stage on Friday night to launch the 29th year of this great gathering. Visitors from far and near descended on the village of Lordship, with the first seven dancers on the floor coming all the way from France! We danced the night away to the now familiar sweet sound of Triskell Ceili Band, stopping only to partake in the famous Cooley hospitality. Home baking of all varieties greeted us downstairs and an eager troupe of waiting staff poured tea. This ceili was less eventful than last year’s one which saw a power failure and the arrival of emergency services. This year, as last year, Triskell provided great lively music for a wonderful night of dancing.
On arrival on Saturday morning we were once again treated to some light refreshments. Freshly baked tarts and breads were freely available. A local club of young kick boxers trained in the hall as we ate. Some dancers remarked that this type of exercise is being included as part of the Louth footballers’ training regime, in anticipation of another meeting with local rivals, Meath!
Time for dancing had arrived. Pádraig and Róisín McEneany led us in a wonderful day of dancing. The South Kerry and Ballykeale sets were taught. “Economical,” we were told to be with the South Kerry. “Close to partner and close to floor,” Pádraig reminded us. Some of us got a little too “close to floor” at times, with some movements reminiscent of the earlier kick boxing downstairs.
We broke for lunch. Sandwiches, home baking and plenty of tea were on offer.
The Ballykeale set was taught in the afternoon. This Clare set consists of four figures. With the help of some bilingual instructions from Róisín, we mastered the figures. The ‘thread the needle’ figure did pose a number of problems however, with some threads getting stuck in needles, other threads getting into knots. Lots of laughter and smiles accompanied these variations. It was obvious that a great day’s dancing was had by all.
The Saturday night ceili is always a big attraction. This year was no different. Tim Joe and Anne O’Riordan kept our feet tapping and pulses racing. Lively polkas and the gentle encouragement from fear an tí Michael meant there was no escape for the weary dancer.
Kathleen led the Sunday morning sean nós workshop. Dancers of differing abilities lined up eagerly to learn from her. Steps and style combine here and are in safe hands with Kathleen. Her ease and clarity when teaching can turn the most reluctant participants into dancers.
Her troupe of dancers took to the floor during the afternoon ceili to display the fruits of the morning’s work. Tim Joe and Anne entertained us once again with some lively music. Tired feet couldn’t keep us from the floor. Like all good things, though, the weekend had to end. We left Cooley with tired, aching bodies but light hearts.
This part of Louth is steeped in tradition. The richness of its landscape is matched by the cultural pride of the community in Lordship. St. Patrick’s Community Centre is testament to this. It is an enviable sight. Situated at the foot of Sliabh na gCloch, it represents years of hard work and commitment by the community. This community spirit was very visible throughout the weekend. We were welcomed, thanked for our participation time and time again and treated to the best of Cooley hospitality. Ní neart go cur le chéile is certainly true of the people of Lordship.
Mo cheol sibh uilig!
Mairéad Devane, Skerries, Co Dublin
From March 7 to 14 we were in La Reunion [the Indian Ocean island which is a department of France] to lead a dancing workshop. The organisation Gan Ainm, which brings musicians performing Irish music on the island together, wanted local dancers to learn dances appropriate to the music. A group of Breton dancers regularly attended their balls but asked them to slow down their reels, which was a bit frustrating for them!
Through friends we ended up in the tropics to conduct a “workshop under the coconut trees,” as one of the organisers said. We limited the number of trainees to forty at first, then to fifty at the end. Numerous additional requests for registration had to be turned down.
We danced in a magnificent room with a sea view and large windows to circulate the air. We lacked only a timber floor!
The dancers were eager to learn the dances and we had a wonderful time. Some dancers showed us the Creole quadrille, a sort of set dancing with a hip movement very difficult for Irish dancers to match!
Sylviane Pinter and Stéphane Sergent, Forcalquier, France
Not a note droppedHi Bill,
I would like to say a big thank-you to all the people who helped make the Johnny Reidy weekend in Birmingham such a huge success once again. George Hook, Linda Reavey, Betty and Pat Quinn, and all the ladies who helped do the raffle. Great big thanks to Johnny Reidy, Eddie Lee, Emma O’Leary and Tom Skelly for the terrific music played all over the weekend from start to finish, not a note dropped, fab-u-lous. Thanks to Ger Butler for the most enjoyable workshop with plenty of craic. Thanks also to all the set dancers who attended from all over Britain, Ireland, Australia, Germany and Keith McGlynn from Kerry who kindly took some photos for us on Friday evening. Hopefully see you all next year—8th to 10th February!
Kate Howes, Birmingham, England
Thrilled with the turnoutHi Bill,
We recently presented the Jack and Jill Foundation with the proceeds of the Joe Mannix memorial ceili held in Dunmanway, Co Cork, in January. The total raised on the night, including donations made by people who could not attend, came to €3,380.80. We were thrilled with the turnout.
We are all set to go again next year on the 19th January 2013 with Tim Joe and Anne playing.
Fiona Shorten, Dunmanway, Co Cork
Only in AmericaBill,
Our town recently had a Peeps contest—build a diorama using those yellow marshmallow chicks you see in the stores (only in America?) during Easter. I decided for fun to enter a set dancing theme diorama. Best part is I didn’t read the directions very closely, and when I dropped off my entry, I was surprised when asked what book title the diorama was about. “Oops!” I quickly stammered, “Toss the Feathers!” Much to my amazement, the book name was so appropriate for Peeps!
Set dancers have asked what set they are dancing—I think it’s the Clare Peep Set, but might be the Peepmagee Set. And the tune is the Rakes of Marsh-Mallow. And Tommy Peeples on fiddle . . .
Sue Dunlavey, Dover, New Hampshire
Peeps are indeed colourful marshmallow Easter candies in the shape of chicks and other animals. They have been manufactured in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for over sixty years. There appears to be a recent craze in the States for using them in amusing dioramas and other works of art, as you can see for yourself with a quick web search.
The amazing goodwill
On behalf of our committee I wish to thank all who contributed to the major success of the Kerry Dancers’ recent Sweets of May weekend, not least to the committee itself.
Being our first workshop weekend we approached it with some trepidation given the straitened times we have. The huge numbers who attended, along with the amazing goodwill they presented, ensured a weekend of merriment and hopefully an enjoyable occasion for all. We were blessed with three of the finest bands, namely Johnny Reidy, the Abbey and Striolán, and who could fault any one of them?
Pat Murphy, as always, delivered a delightful set dancing workshop, and the outstanding Triona Mangan endeared herself to all with her meticulous breaking down of sean nós steps and, in turn, was equally impressive in teaching the Cavan Reel Set. Her versatility was amply evidenced by the displays of the Spa figure dancers and the Boherbue set, both All-ireland Scór champions and coached by her.
Dare I say it, but all the above cast were immediately booked for next year’s event on May 10th–12th, 2013. Our committee readily acknowledges little glitches here and there and can assure you that these are being addressed. Thanks also to the many musicians who supplied entertainment before and after every ceili and to Mark, the hotel manager, for his understanding of any concerns we had.
Another big thanks to all our patrons and we look forward to a repeat performance next year.
Timmy Woulfe, ‘the alleged chairman’ of the Kerry Dancers
Fantastic and unforgettableHi Bill,
We wish to thank through your incomparable magazine the Abbey Ceili Band for the fantastic and unforgettable weekend spent together with us in Bologna, Italy.
During the two ceilis we were eighty to ninety people and danced twenty of the most famous sets, plus the Dublin and Port Fairy sets. This was the first time in Italy for the Abbey, but we hope it will be not the last.
Again, thank you to the Abbey, and to you for the important contribution you give to set dancing with your magazine. Thanks to all the teachers who help us to dance and to share these beautiful Irish tunes.
God bless Ireland,
Christina Zanini and Claudio Cavallini, Bologna, Italy
It’s tempting think of Ceili Time, the ceili band duo of Enda and Seamus McGlone from Co Tyrone, as superheroes of the set dancing scene. It’s true that they rescue dancers from the dangers of the modern world by attracting them to the safe confines of dance halls, but all ceili bands do this. What sets Enda and Seamus apart is that they have a secret identity—they also play as The McGlone Brothers. When they discard their disguise as a high-octane ceili band they then reveal their down-to-earth identity as an easy-listening country band.
Their secret has been revealed now that the brothers have released a new CD of country songs, Just For You. Fifteen tracks of waltzes, quicksteps and foxtrots equally suitable for dancing and listening are included, and eight of those are original songs they have composed themselves—superheroes indeed! One of the songs is all about set dancing and dedicated to set dancers, a rousing quickstep called Around the House They Go. The other songs are equally enjoyable and have great titles, such as A Wee Granny Farmer and Let’s Have a Cup of Tae.
To get a copy of Just For You, ask the band whenever you’re dancing to Ceili Time or The McGlone Brothers. It’s also available on line at www.ceilitime.co.uk.
If you like the sensation of chills running up and down your spine, your eyes misting over with delight and uncontrollable toe-tapping, then you definitely owe it to yourself to get the Kilfenora Ceili Band’s latest disk, Chapter Eight. They have never sounded better on recording, whether on your earbuds or your expensive hifi outfit. It’s the only way you’ll ever have them playing in the comfort of your own home—for an easily affordable price at least!
Chapter Eight is the eighth recording the band has produced during its unmatched century-plus in operation. In addition to the irresistibly danceable reels and jigs, there are polkas, marches, quadrilles, plus two songs by Galway singer and guitarist Don Stiffe—a total of fourteen tracks. An enclosed twelve-page booklet describes the lot in detail. It’s available from the band at ceilis and gigs, from their website www.kilfenoraceiliband.com, and should be widely available in shops in Ireland.
One of the young superstar box players of the ceili band scene, Conor Moriarty, from Kilcummin, Killarney, Co Kerry, is well-known to set dancers thanks to his playing in the Deenagh Ceili Band, which has been on the road for a couple of years. The band’s music sets itself apart with high-energy and creative flair that few can match, and has served to popularise the Kerry style wherever they play at home and abroad. In his new CD, All in a Day’s Play, Conor’s brilliant playing shines forth like a beacon, revealing the pure beauty of his Sliabh Luachra roots and the unmistakable love he has for them.
Each of the fourteen tracks is as compelling as the last, with a wide variety of tunes—reels, jigs, slides, polkas, hornpipes, a slow air and marches—many of which are taken from historic sources, as indicated in the eight pages of notes slipped into the cover. Conor demonstrates a sensitivity and maturity in his playing which goes far beyond what one usually expects from a lad his age.
Pick up a copy of All in a Day’s Play from Conor whenever you meet him at a ceili with the Deenagh; you can also contact him on Facebook.
Hundreds of dancers and supporters of the Murphy family gathered for a ceili and a huge party, including a specially made celebration cake, on Saturday 31st March in the community hall in Mooncoin, south Kilkenny. This special night was organized to celebrate accomplished dancer and teacher Mary Murphy from Waterford. Music was by the Abbey Ceili Band, one of Mary’s favourite ceili bands. We danced a fabulous selection of sets on the night including the seldom danced Melleray Lancers called for us by Mary herself.
I was delighted to be present on the night to celebrate this wonderful lady and her family. I spoke later to Mary and asked her about her dancing life.
Joan Pollard Carew
I have been involved with dancing of all types from a very early age. I began Irish step dancing classes when I was six years old and competed in most of the feiseanna that were held at the time, doing quite well with prizes. Once my children were old enough, they too began Irish dancing and I spent twenty years or more travelling to dance competitions here and abroad. My daughters were gifted dancers and have won numerous All-Ireland championship titles as well as a world championship title. Dancing has always been a way of life in our household and many a floor has been ruined in my house over the years in the name of Irish dance and perfecting a difficult step.
I began set dancing weekly in the early 1980s. There had always been set dancing when I was young. I grew up in County Waterford, polka country, where there were house dances every night and dancing by the crossroads on Sunday. Musicians for dancing were few and far between, however, and mostly our music was provided by an old lady playing the comb with silver paper. We often had to go in search of silver paper and bring it to her, hoping that she might play a tune for us—sweeter music you would not hear! But by the time I’d grown up, set dancing seemed to have disappeared from society, with the exception of the odd Lancers Set danced at an Irish night.
So with a small group we began to dance sets regularly. Needless to say, when set dancing experienced a huge revival in the late 80s, early 90s, I was one of Connie Ryan’s first groupies. I travelled far and wide for Connie’s workshops and ceilis. I don’t think there is any corner of Ireland I haven’t danced in. With the knowledge and experience I gained from the master of set dancing I began my own proper set dance classes in counties Waterford, Tipperary and Kilkenny, which are still going strong today.
I was extremely lucky when my daughter Bronagh developed a love for set dancing and began to aid with the teaching when she was barely a teenager, followed by my youngest daughter Leeann a few years later.
I have organized many, many set dance ceilis and weekends over the past thirty years and I was the founding member of Dance ’Neath the Comeraghs weekend in my home village of Rathgormack, which ran very successfully for nine years, proceeds always going to community funds. I have always got great satisfaction from raising money for charity through ceilis, et cetera.
Regretfully, I had to resign from organizing events in 2011, due to a knee complaint. I am looking forward to taking it easy from now on. I will still continue to teach my classes which I enjoy. Fortunately I have two very experienced daughters Bronagh and Leeann who are now at the helm of organizing various events. Set dancing in this area is in safe hands, I think!
I would like to thank most sincerely yourself and all the supporters who turned up in Mooncoin to celebrate the evening with me. It is a memory I will always hold dear. I hope to enjoy ceilis at my leisure now, but I am still at the end of the phone if I am ever needed!
Mary Murphy, as told to Joan Pollard Carew
I’m a medical director of a Parkinson’s disease (PD) centre in Venice, Italy. In our rehabilitation department we developed a multidisciplinary program for people with PD. In recent years evidence has been emerging of the effectiveness of alternative rehabilitation, including yoga, tai chi, boxing, clowning, theatre, music and dance. Recently some research has demonstrated that dance may be an effective strategy for ameliorating mobility in elderly people. Specifically, tango seems to improve mobility and quality of life in PD.
I love Irish music and I often play guitar at the traditional Irish music festivals in Ireland. I remember one night when I was in a pub in Co Clare, playing in a session a ‘little bit’ drunk, I saw an old man with PD dancing so well and fluently in front of me. I observed the steps of this man and was surprised to verify that they would be really interesting to use for rehabilitation of gait impairments in PD. Box player Charlie Piggott once told me that reels are dance music with a very high social value.
So I decided to start a research project on Irish set dance in the rehabilitation of PD in collaboration with Professor Timothy Lynch of the Neurological Institute at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital of Dublin and with the PD associations of Venice and Ireland. I was very lucky to involve two Italian teachers, Romano Baratella and Stefania Sossella, and all the incredible guys of their Black Sheep set dancing club in this project. I sincerely thank all the club members and all my patients who worked very hard with great enthusiasm for one year. The result of the project was very consistent and it was an amazing experience for all my patients.
The project will be presented at the International Congress of PD and Movement Disorders, 17–21 June in Dublin. I am honoured that my patients have been invited to perform during the opening ceremony on 17 June, accompanied by Sharon Shannon with her band. I really hope that this research can contribute to improving the quality of life for people with PD. Irish music is a very pleasant, powerful and, most of all, innovative rehabilitation strategy for PD based on the evidence.
Daniele Volpe, San Raffaele Arcangelo Hospital, Venice, Italy
Dr Volpe studied two groups of PD patients for six months. One group received two hours of conventional physiotherapy each week, while the second spent two hours set dancing a week. The subjects were evaluated before and after the study, and those who were set dancing showed significant improvements over the other group in aspects of their mobility and quality of life. Further studies are required to confirm the results.
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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