Usually you can’t count on history repeating itself, but in the case of Maureen Culleton’s Summer Festival of Dance, my second time attending it was every bit as pleasurable as my first visit. Last year I had no idea what to expect, and was knocked out by the intensity of the Friday ceili. This year when I entered the hall in Ballyfin, Co Laois, on Friday the 2nd of August I knew exactly what to expect and still I was blown away by the thrill of dancing here! It was hard to pinpoint exactly why it was so good. The hall is bright and spacious, with reassuring blue walls and an ideal floor; the big crowd was in the best of spirits on the start of their bank holiday weekend; and the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band was sublimely exercising their miraculous power to lift the dancers as high as they can possibly go for a full three hours. Maureen actually introduced Johnny as a god and left it to his good intuition to choose the sets we wanted to dance. With the music playing, there was no shortage of energy for the most exuberant antics without ever feeling tired, and we gave feedback to the band in the form of cheers, whistles and raised thumbs. Maureen scheduled the weekend’s opening ceili wisely—the high which started that night never went away the whole time I was in Ballyfin!
The village of Ballyfin seemed as though it was in the middle of nowhere, the back of beyond, with no visible activity or residents apart from the dancing and dancers. But is has become an important place to set dancers thanks to Maureen’s festival, now in its eighth year, plus regular ceilis and classes. Again this year many came from abroad, including Japan, Germany and France, and from a wide selection of Irish counties. It’s a family affair, with Maureen’s husband Chris, son Sean, daughter Olivia, plus their friends, helping out with refreshments, ferrying visitors back and forth, collecting admissions and more, but dancers also help out in a communal spirit. There’s no accommodation nearby, apart from the astronomically-priced luxury hotel in a Georgian mansion on 600 acres at the top of the road, so most visitors stayed a few miles out in hotels and B&Bs, though the luckiest ones were those with camper vans who parked behind the hall. My own B&B was about 10km away, a quiet rural bungalow with well-kept gardens backing onto a river, serendipitously booked only two days in advance.
We began the Saturday workshop by warming up with the Connemara Set, then Maureen gave us a look at the new prize-winning Hunter Valley Set. I was trying it for the first time, eager to see if it lived up to all the praise I’d heard. We worked through it in detail, three figures before lunch, two afterward. There were no formal demos; Maureen just had one set show the moves while the rest looked on, then everyone practiced. I found some of the moves interesting and challenging, though I need to dance it a few more times before I’ll be comfortable with it. Maureen debuted a new solo step dance which she has composed, which she danced with Seiko Kawai and Mika Yamamoto visiting from Osaka. Then there was just enough time to dance the Fermanagh Set and the Peeler and the Goat.
Saturday night’s ceili featured the bouncy, Longford-style music of the Glenside Ceili Band, the tempo of which would please even a Kerry dancer. Maureen took charge of the programme of dances and called them when needed, so we had some exciting sets including the Birr and Rinkinstown. It’s a good thing the roof was securely attached, or all our applause, cheers and laughter would have lifted it a few inches higher!
There was no dancing scheduled on Sunday till 4pm, which left plenty of time to explore the delights of Laois on a warm summer’s day. I took the opportunity to visit Durrow, a beautiful town at any time of year, but particularly memorable during their annual festival of scarecrows. There were scarecrows everywhere, even a crowd of them along the main road miles before actually reaching the village. Genuine human beings guided me into a field to park my car, and then it was scarecrows and spectators all the way! They were arranged along the road, in doorways, on scaffolding, in the river. My favourite was the Scarecrow of Liberty, standing proud on an island of straw in the Erkina River, welcoming huddled masses of scarecrows yearning to breathe free.
After my pleasant afternoon, Ceili Time Ceili Band judged everyone’s mood perfectly and played beautiful relaxed music, with a mix of regular and more interesting sets, plus the easy Aoife Two-Step, a progressive dance for a gent and two ladies. Maureen called throughout, but took a break for a couple of figures during the final Lancers Set to dance with her grandchildren who had just arrived.
Sunday’s two ceilis were separated by a scheduled session and so many dancers stayed for it that they were packed like sardines in the small meeting room, with overflow seating still in earshot in the entrance hall. There were musical solos and songs galore, in languages representing most of the nationalities present. Even after two hours, some participants were slow to come back to the hall, but the ceili with the Annaly Ceili Band was not to be missed! They definitely turned the energy level up to eleven, and we flew through every set. In fact in my Connemara Set one of the dancers was flapping her arms like wings and the rest of us were encouraged to do likewise. Maureen called the Rinkinstown Set again, making a commendable push to get us all familiar with it. She also had everyone dance the Circassian Circle and finished up with the Ballyduff Set. There was plenty of whooping and cheering all night long, and I marvelled at how easily all the different nationalities fitted in together.
On the afternoon of the bank holiday Monday, the Abbey Ceili Band brought out a big crowd to fill the hall, and they were all dancing the first set when I arrived late after lunch with friends. Nevertheless, it turned out to be my lucky day, as the very next set was the Borlin Polka, and after an intervening reel set, came the West Kerry—my two favourite polka sets in one ceili! Maureen even called the Sliabh Fraoch Set, a favourite of hers which I’d count as half of a polka set. I loved the stunning fiddle solo by Andy O’Connor for one of the reel figures. With such great sets and beautiful music it was with regret the weekend had to end, but we had a brilliant time and can expect more of the same next year.
PS Seiko, one of the Japanese visitors, came back to Clare with me on Monday evening for a chance to visit the Burren on Tuesday. Exploring the stones along the coast in the shadow of Black Head with Connemara and the Aran Islands visible on the horizon, we stopped for a moment on one particularly flat, smooth bit of natural pavement which of course inspired a bit of dancing. Seiko wanted to practice the Pride of Erin Waltz, which we danced at the last ceili, but we hadn’t done it quite right. But it was there on the Burren with waltzes playing on my phone that we finally managed to do it correctly!
Milwaukee’s Irish Fest is a yearly festival to celebrate and promote Irish heritage, including music, culture and the history of Ireland, held each summer in August at the lakefront fairgrounds in a city known for its German roots, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 80 miles north of Chicago. The festival is held at the Henry Maier Festival Park on the shore of Lake Michigan, near Milwaukee’s 3rd Ward, home to the Irish settlers in the early days of Milwaukee. Milwaukee was settled first by several Indian tribes, then French missionaries and traders. German and Irish immigrants arrived in the mid-1800s and flourished. The Germans took advantage of the inexpensive land and settled in the hills, and the Irish settled near the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers.
The Irish were a major presence in Milwaukee politics, until the sinking of the steamship, PS Lady Elgin, on September 7, 1860, with the loss of over 300 passengers. The journey was part of a chartered day-trip to Chicago to benefit the Milwaukee Irish Union Guard. Almost all of the Guard members were lost when the ship sank on the return trip, along with political figures and many ordinary men and women of the 3rd Ward. The community was hard-hit by the tragedy, and the balance of political power in Milwaukee shifted to the Germans.
Milwaukee Irish Fest began in 1981 and has grown to have four days of events on the shore of Lake Michigan, hosting 121,000 visitors for their 2013 run. The festival has twelve stages, showcasing a range of music from the Children’s Stage to the harder rock of the Leinie’s Stage. The stages vary in capacity from the Aer Lingus Stage, which can accommodate an audience of 7,000, to the Snug, whose tent can hold a cosy 300. There are also places for musicians’ sessions, and at times the musicians can outnumber the audience. One featured stage is the Celtic Roots Stage, which has a lineup of musicians linked by a common musical heritage. In 2012 the theme was bluegrass, and for 2013 the focus was on the music of Nova Scotia. 2014 will likely focus on either the music of County Clare or Scotland. There is also a cultural area with a Harp Stage, as well as a Theater Pavilion, Literary Corner and the Gaeltacht Tent for those who wish to learn more about Irish-language arts and culture. For those less inclined to scholarly pursuits but not interested in dancing, there are currach races along the lakefront and hurling games at the north end of the grounds. And, of course, there is music from one end of the festival to the other.
The promotion of arts and culture starts before the festival opens its gates, with classes taught at the Irish Fest Summer School on the Monday through Thursday before the festival opens. The summer school offers classes in many subjects, including dancing. This year, students could learn sets from Pádraig McEneany, sean nós dance from Emma O’Sullivan and social dancing (céilí, sets and two-hand dances) from Gail McElroy.
Milwaukee’s German heritage coincides with a history of beer making. While the local brewery Sprecher provides a good Irish Stout, no Guinness is sold at the festival, which surprises many festival goers. However, the local Irish-themed pubs which provide food for the festival do have several menu items with Guinness in their name. People will also find Milwaukee’s other heritages represented on the menu, with the German weinerschnitzel and strudel, Italian chicken parmigiana, and the Chinese with Wong’s Wok, as a reminder of the Chinese-Irish contribution to America’s history as they both worked to build the first transcontinental railroad across the United States.
Set dance was introduced to Milwaukee in 1991 by Jim and Kathie Vint, who danced and taught weekly for Milwaukee dancers after learning the Caledonian Set while visiting Ennis, Co Clare. After further trips to Ireland, they brought to Milwaukee the Myserks and the Lancers sets. The establishment of the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center (ICHC) in 1992 also provided a permanent venue for monthly set dances to live music, taking advantage of the wealth of musical talent in Wisconsin.
Gail McElroy started set dancing in 1993 at Nash’s Irish Castle under the tutelage of the Vints, and her knowledge of the sets led naturally to her taking on the role of instructor. She and her husband Mike may not have a deep physical connection with the land of Ireland, but they have the spirit. A prominent part of that spirit is stubbornness, for that’s what’s kept the Milwaukee Set Dance Club together for so long.
The Dance Pavilion at Irish Fest has become a bright and popular feature, drawing dancers from all over the world. The stage is active all weekend from the Thursday evening opening of the festival, alternating céilí dancing with set dancing throughout the day. Céilí dancing has been active in Milwaukee since 1976, taught by Kathy Mallon and led by John and Joanne Woodford for many years.
The Dance Pavilion is also where lessons in ceilí and set dancing are taught by volunteers to festival-goers of all ages, promoting the dance and bringing new dancers into the fold. Many local dancers participate and volunteer for both the céilí and sets, making their Irish Fest experience a very busy one! The lessons are included on the printed festival schedule and are held for 45 minutes prior to a scheduled session of dancing. Folks in the audience are asked to come up to the dance floor and are usually matched with an experienced dancer, depending on the ratio of experienced to beginner dancers. One of the McElroys instructs the crowd from the stage, keeping an eye out for sets that may need a bit more instruction, then the music is played and the students enter into the world of set dancing. Sets taught during these sessions this year were the Louisburgh, Moycullen and the Roscahill. Further instruction was provided to the experienced set dancers as Pádraig McEneany called the Merchant Set (his own creation), a new set to most American dancers. The set has proved to be popular and has been added to the repertoire of dances done at the local weekly set dancing.
The festival dancing begins on Thursday and Friday evenings with music by local bands who often play for the monthly set dances at the ICHC, Ceol Cairde, a band whose formation began with the Irish Fest Summer School, and RíRá, who have played for set dancers for over a decade. This year, the great music continued on Friday with the band Myserk, led by Brett Lipschulz on the flute, then it was the turn of Ceoltóirí Chicago, who brought great energy to the dance floor. On Friday night, the dancing at Irish Fest ends at 11.30pm, but set dancers are a dedicated bunch, and the action moves seven miles to the west to the ICHC where the dancing and socializing continues until the wee hours of the morning. The Capitol City Ceili band played for the dancers until exhaustion took its toll.
On Saturday, intrepid dancers were at the festival grounds to start dancing again. Dancers and musicians were tired, but RíRá and Ceoltóirí Chicago played again on Saturday, and the evening was closed out from 10pm with dance music provided by Chicago Reel. Irish Fest Sunday brought the weekend to a close, and the music from the youthful band Áthas gave some extra lift to the dancers, with the two bands from Chicago finishing up the dances for the evening.
After the last band has played, all musicians gather at the Aer Lingus Stage, and the audience takes every available spot to see The Scattering, an event where the different bands and musicians play together in a celebration of music. After The Scattering, fireworks mark the close of Irish Fest, and dancers make their way home to rest up for next year. Irish Fest for 2014 will be sure to have plenty to offer to dancers and lovers of Celtic music and culture.
Carol King, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
A huge word of thanks to all involved in making Tubbercurry a wonderful place to hold the South Sligo Summer School, July 14–20. It’s the people that make it such a success. The local people, shopkeepers, teachers, dancers and musicians all play an equal part.
The warmth and friendliness on arrival at Cawley’s Hotel, where Teresa Cawley and staff are waiting to give the enthused participants a delicious hot meal, is a very good introduction to the week’s activities. She was the perfect hostess.
Then there is Geraldine Seery, with a heart of gold, an amazing dancer who cooks the best bacon and cabbage I have ever tasted. She could also start her own knitting school when not dancing or playing her fiddle. Her father Peter Horan was one of South Sligo’s best musicians. He has certainly handed down the talent and love of the traditional culture to his daughter. Geraldine lives out near Lough Talt and this must be one of the most magical places of Ireland. It is very tranquil and a photographer’s dream at any time of the day or evening.
The summer school this year had a special event. A tribute concert to Betty McCoy was held for her input into set dancing there for the past 27 years. Sadly, her husband passed away only one week after the concert. However, she held her composure with dignity and respect and is to be admired greatly at this difficult time. Congratulations and thanks to the organisers of this event. It was a very enjoyable evening, with many well-known musicians and set dancers present.
I am perhaps a bit biased because Tubbercurry is my favourite dance festival, with many happy memories going back at least fifteen years. I’d hate to miss it especially for the set dancing. Pat Murphy’s teaching of sets is outstanding. He is a truly tireless teacher and caller of sets, and is very encouraging to new comers, but always gives that bit extra in steps and information to the expert dancers, who literally come from all over the world.
Through set dancing I have made many new friends from Ireland and abroad and it’s great to keep in touch or catch up with them at another festival. Set Dancing News magazine is very informative and keeps me up to date at what is happening in the set calendar.
Thank you, Bill!
After a busy week and all sorts of activities, Sunday morning rolled around. I went to Mass in the Tubbercurry Church and afterwards bumped into Rita Flannery, one of the organisers of the festival. After thanking her for the great week, I told her I was going to make jam but had no pots to put it in. She said no problem and then when I arrived back at the house where I was staying, there was a box of jam jars. Thank you, Rita! Geraldine came around and we had great fun making the jam. It was delicious. The blackcurrants we picked from the landlord’s garden as he told us to pick as many as we wanted—more of the generosity of the people around Tubbercurry. I was sad to leave the little house which is like a home from home to me and I look forward to going back there, and to the South Sligo Summer School in 2014.
Angela Simpson, Mount Merrion, Co Dublin
August 2–9 was my first experience at Le Grand Bal de l’Europe in St Gervais, France, but I hope not my last. For the previous two years I had attended the other Grand Bal at Gennetines, and for anyone who loves music and dancing and meeting like-minded people from across the world, though mainly Europe, I can’t recommend either strongly enough.
For the dancer, there were workshops offering opportunities to try dances from across the regions of France from Basque to Brittany to Gascony to Alsace to Poitou. So you could have tried dances such as bourrées, fandangos, mazurkas, and schottisches. St Gervais also offered many other dance opportunities. One could try Irish (céilí, old-style steps and sets), Israeli, Swedish, Italian, Belgian, German, Argentinian, Spanish, Catalan, Chilean, Serbian, Cajun, Scottish, Welsh and English dances. In addition, there were special classes to guide couples in how to dance with and turn your partner and also classes to help you understand how to relax your mind and body.
For the musician, there were classes for violinists who play for dancers, for accordionists, for musicians wanting to play Swedish dance music, and, probably most importantly, many ad hoc opportunities at lunch times or throughout the day and night to form impromptu sessions. Often, after the last bal (ceili) usually after 3am, the members of groups who played joined together in the middle of the floor, with other musicians and singers joining in, as many as thirty plus, and the sessions continued into the morning and offered dancers the opportunity to be swept up with the music.
The organisation, all voluntary, was superb. The specially created restaurant provided breakfast, lunch and dinner—a dinner or lunch ticket was €7. At the bar (also specially created) a drink ticket, just over a euro, bought you a beer, two coffees or teas, or an ice cream. Snacks like crisps and biscuits were also available and three drink tickets got you a bottle of wine. Breakfast was three drink tickets.
The price was incredible. For €110 you had access to all the workshops and all the bals for a full week. Each day in St Gervais offered a choice of over twenty different workshops and some sixteen bals every night. The campsite, with good showers and washing facilities, as well as being in a small leisure park with a swimming lake, was only five minutes walk from the event centre, and was free. Apart from the lake, Gennetines offers the same opportunities, but with more dance floors and a slightly greater range of workshops. The difference is that Gennetines is more isolated. The St Gervais event is near the centre of the village, offering easy access, by foot from the camp site, to a supermarket, small shops, cafes, bars, bistros and restaurants.
There were great teachers and great bands in St Gervais. The dance teachers normally used French as the main language of instruction, but they demonstrated frequently, so whilst a lack of understanding French was a hindrance, it was not so great, because by simply watching you could learn a lot. There were bands that played music for the specialised dances that had been taught in the classes, but they also played generally known dances. There was great music for dancing. You could have danced to household names in France, such as Parasol and Philippe Plard (who comes to the Half-Door Weekend in Castletown, Co Laois), and wonderfully different styles with bands like Sons Libres (Senegal) and individual musicians, who on their own, can hold a full dance floor enthralled, like Bernard Loffet and Philippe Plard.
To try and convey the flavour of the variety St Gervais offers and the opportunity for impromptu happenings, I will pass on one of my personal experiences. One afternoon after lunch, sitting outside at the ranks of tables and chairs, close to the self service restaurant and bar, I was chatting with a couple of friends. A few tables away three musicians were playing some lovely music. They played a jig. We danced the Peeler and the Goat to their music and then got chatting. They were a band called Bal de l’Ephémère. Cathy Donin, their leader plays the accordion, Raphaelle Yaffee, the fiddle, and Gerard Tevenet, the guitar. In addition, they often sing as they play, so adding a further sweet and intoxicating dimension to their lovely music. In addition they write all their own music. They play bal folk (bourrees, mazurkas, rondeaux, gavottes, etc) and the way they play speaks to your whole body and being. Their music goes in through your ears, consumes your body and departs, as you make your own personal contribution, through your feet, as you dance. As a new band to the event, sadly, they had the opportunity to play for dancers at only one bal. However, later in the week, and a day or so after they had played at their bal, by chance, one early evening, outside the bar I was chatting to them again with my friend Christina (dancer, fiddle player and a charming life-enhancing person). We asked what they were doing later. They said that they were going to play for their own enjoyment and we asked if could we come along, listen and perhaps dance. They said no problem. We ended up in one of the seven dance halls, which, whilst packed from 9pm onwards until 2–3am, was free until 9. They played, Christina and I danced, and people passing saw, joined in, and before long there was an impromptu bal of some sixty people. We danced mazurkas, schottisches, bourrées, waltzes, Swedish polskas, Circassian Circle, chapeloise and finished with the hypnotic but relaxing Gavotte de l’Aven. A wonderful experience.
The Irish contribution to the world of bal folk and traditional music and dance was well represented by a group called Claddagh. They consisted of Michael Tubridy, Maria O’Leary, Sean Leyden, James and Treasa Barron, Annette Collins, Ger Mulgannon, Yvan Martineu and Berni McGinley. The McGinley family were there in full force, with husband, Raymond, taking to the boards from time to time, and their three young children. Cora supported her mother very ably on stage, their son Peter entertained with his accordion and chat, and the youngest Ellen just sparkled all the time. I mention them at length to make the point that St Gervais has something for every age. The rest of the group consisted of Rachel Goodwin, from the group Duo Mad Tom, and Gilles Poutoux, who with Catherine Renard and Michael, provided some great music. I didn’t see the céilí (taught by Maria) or solo (Michael) dancing workshops, but did attend a set dancing workshop and two bals to lend a hand. What I saw was great enthusiasm and interest from the many dancers who attended. Also obvious were the good skill levels, even from those who hadn’t danced sets before. The challenge for the teachers (Maria, James and Sean) was to find a way to pass on the different movements in each set and through a mixture of French and English and demonstration. Aided by much humour, this challenge was addressed.
Claddagh’s spectacle (half hour show) demonstrated what a traditional night in an Irish home might be like with a few figures from different sets, some step dancing and music, including a lovely slow air solo from Michael. The set figures, very ably danced by Maria and Sean, Treasa and James, Annette and Yvan and Berni and Michael clearly showed the fun people can have dancing together. The solo dancing of old-style dances by Berni and Cora, dancing Maggie Pickens, hornpipes and reels by Annette and Berni, and jigs with Maria and Michael, to the lovely music provided by Rachel, Gilles, Catherine and Michael, allowed their excellent skill levels to be fully appreciated. The audience showed their appreciation by their enthusiastic applause. After the event a knowledgeable French musician said to me that it was a superb and very natural show.
The spectacles on offer each evening are well worthwhile attending for the enjoyment they provide and their interesting content. This year I saw a fascinating and amusing show demonstrating the story of dance through bourrées and whether there is one dance or many dances as each dancer brings their own contribution to each dance. Also it amusingly asked the unanswerable question, who is in the lead, the dancer or the musician?
In conclusion, if you are a dancer or a musician, do go. These events have so much to offer with like-minded and very friendly people from so many countries. I decided that this year was my chance to master the asymmetric waltzes. Sad to say the asymmetric waltzes have won the first round, but I will be back.
Ashley Ray, Ardglass, Co Down
Superb weather at the Willie Clancy Summer School in July made dancers at ceilis wish we could open up the roof over our heads and dance under the Clare sky. Luckily there is one place in County Clare where this is possible every year, in the town of Kilrush where the ceilis at their set dancing festival all take place in the open air of the Market Square. While the good weather this year lasted only for a couple of weeks, its mental effects endured all summer, with everyone counting on perfect weather for the three outdoor ceilis at the weekend on 9–11 August.
There was good reason for optimism on the opening Friday. I travelled to Kilrush for the Friday afternoon workshop with no sign of precipitation and hope that the sun might make an appearance. Mike Mahony taught a mixed group of experienced regulars and near-total beginners in the class, and had a set for each of them, an easy polka set for beginners, the Ballyvourney Reel, and Clare Orange and Green for the regulars. At the end Mike spent a few minutes teaching the Slosh, which I’ve never done before. He took all the mystery out of it and revealed it to be dead easy.
Sun was scarce all day, but the Friday evening ceili began dry and stayed that way till the end. I thought it was one of the most perfectly comfortable ceilis I’ve ever attended, with a slight breeze, mild temperatures and relaxed dancing. Brian Ború Ceili Band were on stage, though only one of the band, Joe Hughes on box, was actually present. Local musicians Brendan and Louise Vaughan filled in on drums and piano; another band member was unable to make it at the last minute. But they were a well-matched trio, playing beautiful music, pure and simple. Mike Mahony was back as MC, encouraging people to fill the sets, calling moves and dancing himself. The town makes a lovely backdrop for a ceili, and there was an interested audience of locals and tourists. We even exchanged greetings with passengers on passing buses. The light faded almost imperceptibly as we danced, from bright daylight on arrival, to twilight and street lights as we headed home.
On Saturday, the festival programme culminated in an evening concert, so the ceili moved forward to the afternoon and the workshop jumped ahead to the morning, so I headed off bright and early for Kilrush with my flask of tea and two croissants from the baker to fit in a bit of breakfast while dancing. Today Mike taught the Rinkinstown and South Galway sets, plus the Peeler and the Goat and finally the Slosh. Beams of sunlight occasionally streamed through the high gothic windows of Teach Cheoil, the beautiful Comhaltas venue built inside Kilrush’s former Church of Ireland.
If anyone could keep the rain away from the afternoon ceili, surely it would be Johnny Reidy. Unfortunately, a shower started during the last figure of the opening Corofin Plain Set, so even his power to deliver perfect ceilis didn’t help with the weather. We finished that set slightly moistened, and then everyone dashed off the floor for the shelter of the gig rig or town hall. Luckily we only lost a few minutes, though dancing on the wet boards was a bit treacherous till the excess water dried. Some sets preferred to dance on the pavement in the meantime. By the time the final Connemara Set began, all evidence of any prior precipitation had vanished, and the ceili ended with smiles, applause and cheers.
The Feakle Festival was taking place this weekend on the opposite side of Clare in the musical village of Feakle, and through a stroke of scheduling genius, Johnny was playing for another ceili there that night in just a few hours. A few mad dancers, myself included, made the trek from Kilrush to Feakle, and I was glad to pay my respects at another festival. I hadn’t been here for some years and was taken aback by the scale—pubs were crammed, the concert in the hall was full, and there was a field full of tents and camper vans. The ceili was in a marquee behind Pepper’s Bar, which was serving meals when the band arrived to set up. It was not a big venue but there were enough sets to fill it without crowding and generate an atmosphere of great fun.
Before the Sunday ceili in Kilrush there was a session in the Vandeleur Walled Garden, a beautiful attraction set in a forest on the edge of the town. The Vandeleurs were the local landowners responsible for the development of the town, and their estate is now publicly owned for all to enjoy. Dozens of musicians participated in the session there, aided by a few sean nós and set dancers. What interested me most were the plants on sale—20% off! My car looked like a greenhouse when I left!
The final ceili on Sunday evening featured the exciting music of Five Counties Ceili Band. When setting up their sound equipment, they prepared for the worst and had taped bin liners over the speakers. The opening Caledonian Set was dry, for the first five figures at least. We gave ominous glances skyward just before the final (short) hornpipe, and then during those last 32 bars, the rain began, and there was a quick exodus to shelter when the set finished. There was a delay of perhaps twenty minutes, no one much minded or departed, and then dancing resumed, though on the pavement, not the sodden timber floor. Meanwhile, someone managed to find a mop and began to soak up the excess water, and others helped out with rags. We were able to return to the floor and finish the ceili without any further soaking, and the cool evening kept my perspiration in check despite the thrilling music and vigorous dancing. The final Plain Set was just not enough to satisfy the dancers. The band obliged our cheers, stomps and cries of “more!” with one final blast of reels.
Rain or no rain, you can’t beat dancing outdoors in Kilrush!
PS I returned to Feakle on Monday evening for more outdoor dancing at a crossroads ceili in front of Pepper’s Bar. There was irresistible music by Taylor’s Cross and a platform with space enough for just four sets (though five crammed in). The rural setting was a contrast to Kilrush town, just as pleasant and the same fun, if you could get a place on the floor.
Our correspondent Chris Eichbaum, now relocated from County Waterford to the former East Germany (DDR), muses on her new life far from Ireland.
Gary Larson’s cartoons, The Far Side, depict a wry, dry, twisted perspective, which you can’t disprove exists, or can’t prove does not exist. Well, how do we know what is real, and which points of reference will lead to an awareness that I exist? “I think, therefore I am,” suggested Descartes. Since I am now on the Far Side, which is becoming the Near Side, or the Nearer Side, with the once Near Side slowly becoming the Far-er Side, well, it is somewhat complicated, what in my muddled state of mind (thinking quite obviously doesn’t work very well for me right now), there recently appeared a point of reference, “Oh, I know this!”—traditional Irish music in Violau, Germany, played by Johnny Reidy Ceili Band (JRCB). Johnny provided a momentary anchor on the seabed of the old sod, so to speak, and I took a deep musical breath, filled up with dancing and heard Martina O’Neill saying that really, Johnny should teach accordion because he is one of the last playing the tunes in this particular manner. Much has been said about the manner in which he plays and the effect of his music on the listener and dancer. Now, lets add another bit, a point of reference on the Far Side, the continental, cherry-bursting, open-air swimming pool, ice cream parlour side of the page—and what is fast becoming a frantic search for dancing opportunities. A few days ago, I swings a leg at one of the ‘oldie’ concerts (70–90s music) which pop up frequently. I also swings a leg at home, going through two-hand dances. I swings a leg at the aforementioned gig in Violau, plenty of legs, as a matter of fact, all weekend. Then I swings a leg quickly flying over to Miltown for a long weekend, nearly getting entangled in music and dance, and muse over how to get the ex-DDR people to enjoy set dancing. And how to get enough dancing in myself, in order to dis-alienate this brave new world.
I get out Pat Murphy’s books, and lovingly turn the pages—which set to start with at the new class? How about the Ballycommon, I think, haven’t used it before as a starter set. And the sets to include in January in Switzerland for my workshop. I must, I say to myself, get started learning or relearning them: the Connemara Jig, Limerick Tumblers, Souris, Glencree, Ballycommon, Blacktown and Black Valley. Hmm, it’s a selection I would like to dance myself. This activity seems to have a settling effect, I don’t feel so antsy and restless. Throw in a few cherries to eat, and playing the sets through my mind, I get antsy for dancing though. Tappity-tap, the foot starts making noises on the floor, all on its own.
Out comes the calendar. SetsMad weekend in September sounds a good option, easy to get to, plenty of dancing and learning new old sets. Booked. The infamous Heidelberg weekend with the Abbey and Triskell in October. Booked. After that, a weekend in Tonder in Denmark, Trip to Tipp, Clonmel, in November and, maybe, rounding it off with a few days in Ireland for all the Xmas ceilis and parties? In the meantime, I strut around the cheerful, lightly coloured cobblestones of former East German villages with an air of “I have somewhere important to go,” whereas the truth is that I don’t know where to go at all, and in this adriftedness trying to map out the labyrinth of language, mannerism, and how to recycle plastic bottles. (Recycling: it’s an independent field of study, and many hours are spent trying to learn it.)
And an idea from the Far Side of thinking: There is this house which we are in the process of buying that has an old red brick building on the premises, which was for lace making. It could be restored. With a really nice sprung wooden floor put in, it could become . . . a dance hall! Am I gone mad or what? Descartes, take that. I am, therefore I think outside the box. Therefore, I buildt my own dance hall. It’s like fulfilling a dream I didn’t know I had.
On the Far Side, I do feel somewhat stupefied, not to mention stupid, because there is a chaotic language-salad in my head. My German, alas, is not very sophisticated right now, and some stuff comes out of my mouth rather staccato and sounds alien. A word like Auffassungsveranlagungsmoeglichkeit sends me into a spin and my eyes refuse to follow all those letters and my brain refuses to get into gear. And I keep saying, “Sorry,” which earns me puzzled looks and cocked ears, and if I don’t ask the time, the right time, AKA continental time, its going to be missed appointments all over the place. Half-eight, for instance. We, in Ireland, take that to be half past eight. We, in Germany, take this to be the half of eight, which makes it half-seven—in the morning. We, in Germany, work on a 24-hour clock. So I feel like I’m on Star Trek when I say, “Okay, lets meet at fifteen hundred hours,” because we, in Ireland, work with the ams and pms. Sometimes, all cogs stop turning altogether and my mind hits an overwhelming brick wall. The other day, I tried to order a coffee. I started in English, reverted to German, mumbled something Neolithic and then—the mental pause button. Not a good omen and doesn’t do anything to calm my nerves thinking about teaching set dancing in German. Which is going to happen from the first of October. Aaarrrrghghgh! People over thirty here do not speak English, Russian more like, but we wouldn’t get far in a set telling them to “Glasnost! Lenin! Lada! Nostrovje!”
And did I mention the local dialect? Oh. My. Saxon. Word. There are situations where I had to white-lie myself out of it to avoid admission of complete flummox-iety, and the repeated furrowed question, “You are German, aren’t you?” For instance, someone talked fast saechsisch (the local dialect) on the phone, I wriggled and strained my ears as if closer proximity or more volume would help with understanding, but finally said, “Oh, could you say it again, please? It’s such a bad connection!” or another recent tactic, to start talking while they are still talking, so I couldn’t possibly have heard them, and it also makes them have to say their bit again.
The whole scenario reminds me of our then neighbour, Maggie, when we lived in Mayo. A most resolute elderly woman who would ring at any time of the day and shout, “Come, now! I have to go to the hairdresser!” and I’d be lucky to be told that last part about why she wanted me to come. Of course, half the time I didn’t know what she was saying anyway, having such a thick Mayo accent and making no allowances whatsoever for me having just moved there from Germany. I learned rather quickly to understand, or guess though, because there never was a preamble or any bla-bla. Just, “Come, now!” Those ladies exist here as well, and now, 22 years on, I’m just the same kind of lost that I was at with Maggie. Ah well, I keep sweetly smiling at them!
I used to be able to declare “this is how it is” with a good many things. Now, I am not so sure how it is. An almost blank canvas stretches out in front of me and all around, and luckily, if I get lost in it, the canvas is not lost. Neither is the location, or the materials with which I can start making a sketch, perhaps. Looks like this could actually turn into an opportunity rather than a challenge. Thank goodness there are markers and points of reference which help to find my way, a sat-nav full of sets and other dances and music that catapults me back to home—a place of the heart, and love has followed me on this path. So let the four winds blow, let them blow, let them blow, from the east to the west, I love (set) dancing best!
PS The Kilkenny Lancers was one of the sets Ger Butler was teaching at the weekend in Violau. What a treat of a Kilkenny set on the Far Side! Must have been the first time a Kilkenny set was getting dusted off on the continent. Mary Phelan, Kilkenny, exclaimed that she thought she was the only one ever teaching it, and now it’s being made known in Germany. So finally Kilkenny gained another bit of notoriety abroad, not for hurling, but a set of theirs. Might come to a venue near you in Saxony shortly . .
On what was to be the hottest weekend of the summer so far, Matt Cunningham, Ita Cunningham, Larry Cooley and P J Duggan, began their tour of the UK and turned up the heat for dancers in Topsham in Devon, Slough in Berkshire and Cliddesden in Hampshire for three ceilis which tested musicians and dancers alike.
As is his way, Matt adapted his music to the differing tastes and requirements of the dancers, as well as accommodating the extreme temperatures during his first three appearances this year. The first evening, in the delightful Devon town of Topsham was well-attended, and Matt and co played a combination of full-on, hoe-down, traditional, jazzy, and finally, rock and roll-style dance music, perfectly suited to the exuberant dancers of the west of England. Passers-by stopped to watch and listen, as on this most sultry of nights, the doors and windows of the hall were flung open and no one would have been in any doubt that a great time was being had by one and all in the Matthew Hall. It was a fantastically rousing beginning to what was to become a series of official heat-wave ceilis.
The second night of extreme temperatures was in Slough, with its wonderful dance floor. This venue will always have significance to me and my husband Kevin Monaghan, as it was the first place in which we ever attended a ceili, and Matt’s was the first band to which we ever danced, more years ago now than seems possible. Our minds play tricks of time on us—what seems just a few years ago is actually nearer to twenty! In that time, Matt has never failed to deliver music to suit every occasion, and this night was no different. Due to the heat, the set dances were interspersed with waltzes and slow airs, and long pauses for stepping outside. While everyone enjoyed the music, we all wilted a little towards the end of the evening, but many promised to do it all again either the following day in Cliddesden, or in Camden on the Monday evening. Matt is obviously too good to be missed!
The Sunday afternoon ceili in the beautiful village hall in Cliddesden again promised record high temperatures of around 30°C, and we feared many dancers would stay away, preferring a trip to the seaside as opposed to dancing in a hot hall. However, we were delighted that so many attended, some from far away, and a beautiful breeze wafted through the open doors and windows, bringing some relief to musicians and dancers alike. Again, Matt, Ita, Larry and P J played music beautifully suited to the summer Sunday afternoon, with a selection of waltzes and traditional sets, the big surprise being the Rinkinstown Set, called and danced simultaneously by Kevin and done without fault by every set on the floor. This set has taken off big-time in the UK and seems to be a favourite everywhere.
The travellers who won the prize for travelling the furthest to the ceili were our lovely friends the Bernard family from Prague. They were travelling back from Willy Week by car via the UK and they called in to dance with us. Their daughter Markéta danced a beautiful brush dance for us accompanied by Matt, and her light-footedness, after a week of dancing at Spanish Point was appreciated by all.
There was undoubtedly a smaller than usual crowd at this ceili, but this did not detract from the relaxed and friendly atmosphere, with several dancers commenting that the event felt more like a party than a paying event, which was wonderful to hear. We like to think we are among friends, old and new when we run an event, and if dancers feel welcome, enjoy their time and are appreciative of all we and the musicians do, then how could we not be happy?
Matt and his band were off up to London to play at the London Irish Centre in Camden the following night, but unfortunately we were unable to attend that event, due to it being literally a “school night” for me. Anyway, I’m not sure my weary legs would have been able to withstand more of the heat-wave ceilis.
From all accounts, Matt’s ceilis continued successfully as he travelled north, and we look forward to next year’s events, and while we appreciate the beautiful summer weather, let’s hope that next year temperatures will be a little kinder to us all.
Barbora Tuzarová is a young dancer from Prague who only discovered set dancing in the past year, but loves it so much that she has shared her experiences and enthusiasm with us in previous issues. Here she describes what she was up to at Bernard’s Summer School, which offered a week of dance tuition in her home city of Prague, August 17–23.
Bernard’s Summer School is over—sometimes I have to repeat this to myself. The whole summer school was away so quickly I barely realized it. However, when I place my feet on the floor, it is still more than obvious that I spent the previous week dancing. I have never thought about how many muscles we actually have in our legs. And how many of them can ache at the same time. Some people were telling me three workshops a day were insane, but it was definitively worth it. Altogether—17 hours of step dancing and 27 hours of sean nós and set dancing workshops. Let’s see how successfully can I describe 27 hours of dancing on two pages.
First of all, what is Bernard’s Summer School in Prague? Well, I would say something like a seven-day long paradise for those of us who are addicted to Irish dancing and Irish culture in general. It’s the biggest Irish event in our republic, the biggest chance for both dancers and musicians to develop their skills, try the workshops with the best Irish tutors, meet old international friends, or make new ones. Bernard’s Summer School is open for everyone, it doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or professional, if you are from the Czech Republic, Germany or Ireland. Yes, there was an Irish dancer this year. By the way, this year was the thirteenth year of this summer school (17th–23rd August) organized by the Bernard family, so it’s quite traditional here. But not for me. As I started Irish dancing last September, this was my very first summer school. And not the last! There is such a high concentration of everything Irish that it’s beyond imagination.
And even though I was awfully tired every morning (that’s why it was over so fast—every morning I had a feeling that the previous night was only about ten minutes long), I really miss the sean nós and set dance marathons, which took five hours every afternoon. They were led by Gerard Butler, who came to Prague for the summer school for the fourth time. As I mentioned in my Violau article in the last issue, I really like the way he teaches. I mean, there’s no stress at all, everything flows naturally and with a smile on your face. Are you a beginner? No problem. Are you advanced? No problem. And if there are fifteen beginners and fifteen advanced dancers in one class? Again, no problem. That’s what I appreciate.
As for me, I had never tried sean nós before buying Gerard’s DVD in Violau in June. Since then, I have spent many nights replaying the steps again and again (sorry, mum and dad) and it prepared me well for the summer school. But there I realized how different it is to learn to dance while watching a real 3d teacher. Every time I needed to see some step again, I just asked for it. No need to replay a scene. When I needed to see some step from a different angle, I just stepped to the right or to the left. Simply brilliant. By the way, talking about beginners in our class—there was probably the youngest sean nós dancer ever. One young woman kept bringing her eight-month-old baby girl to the lesson every afternoon, and sometimes she danced with her in her arms. She loved it most of the time and was really cute. And this can be a sign of how relaxed, friendly and pleasant our workshops were.
But as this should mostly be about the sets, let me tell you something about our set dancing workshops. There were about 23 people every day, so we usually made three sets. Most of us have danced sets before, and our newcomers were really bright, so we started straight away with the Connemara Set. We went through all the figures and the next day Gerard tried to persuade us to step-it-out before each swing. Sometimes it was quite funny, especially when I didn’t know which of my feet was right and which was left after the whole day of dancing. Or when I was swapping the gent’s and lady’s position with my best friend so often that we were totally disoriented. But with more mistakes or less, we always managed to finish the set.
Except one. I will probably call it My New Nightmare. I’m talking about the South Sligo Lancers. The fourth figure in particular. I really do apologize if there is anybody who loves this set and figure, but I’m afraid of the day I will dance it again. I don’t know what was wrong with me during that workshop. I just couldn’t understand the pattern of this figure, three times anti-clockwise, once clockwise, then it changes again. I guess my brain was just totally stuffed with our step dancing choreography from the morning, and yes, I’m finding an excuse.
On the other hand, we danced some sets I really like. Ballyvourney and Rinkinstown. Both of them were a part of our set dancing performance on Friday, and were a great choice. On Friday, there is always the final evening in a theatre where all groups should show what they’ve learnt in the summer school. So thank God we weren’t supposed to dance the South Sligo Lancers. For me it was my first set dancing performance. I was a bit nervous and thought it would be somehow different from ceilis. But guess what? It’s completely the same. You don’t see any faces in the audience. Or you do—you just don’t think about them. You just watch your partner and the opposite couple, and swing and house and smile and laugh. Yes, sets are magical, because they can erase the butterflies I usually have in my stomach right before a performance.
Talking about performing, I managed to organize one set in the pub session on Monday. We danced two figures of the Rinkinstown and I’m really proud of it. To understand why is it so important to me, I should tell you that set dancing during sessions is really not common in the Czech Republic, unfortunately. Many people dance ceili dances, but no one dances sets. So I went straight to Michel Sikiotakis, who was playing there, asked him for reels for a set, persuaded seven other people, and it was just great!
Great, awesome, splendid, wonderful—Bernard’s Summer School was all of this. Well, I would change a few little details. For example, getting up so early. Or having such an interesting evening programme every day, because you can’t go to bed early, even if you know you really have to! No, just kidding. All the guests from Ireland and other countries were brilliant. I really enjoyed watching John Cullinane doing the step dancing, his legs and feet simply ignoring the fact that he’s over seventy now. But I could go on and on like this forever—or till the next Bernard’s Summer School. Václav Bernard with his wife, Lenka Bernardová, and two daughters, Tereza Bernardová and Markéta Utišilová, just did a great job and this is my big thank-you for organizing such a week. And I hope this might interest set dancers from all over the world and more people will come to Prague next August. It would be a pleasure to swing with some new faces in our capital!
And one more bit of news to finish—thanks to Gerard and his help, I’m going to Longford in November for the Sean-Óg Festival. This will be my very first visit to Ireland, so I’m really excited, and I hope to see as many of you as I know there!
Barbora Tuzarová, Prague, Czech Republic
The Dan Furey Weekend is a great event for lovers of set dancing, but there’s usually more to it than just music and dance. This year’s weekend began on Friday evening, August 23rd, with blasts from a cannon and shots from muskets, something no other set dancing weekend can match!
Labasheeda, Co Clare, is a picturesque village on the Shannon River, at the top of a peaceful little cul-de-sac peninsula. If you pass through the village and continue as far as you can go without getting wet, after 6km you reach the river and the end of the peninsula. Two hundred years ago the British Army built a fort here to guard the Shannon against invasion by Napoleon. That anniversary was celebrated as the first event of the weekend with a military reenactment. We gathered on the grounds of the fort where a local expert explained its fascinating history. Soon after the fort was built it became obsolete because there was no further threat from Napoleon after his 1815 defeat at Waterloo. However, the army remained there for decades, though only seven men were said to be billeted there in 1864. The soldiers became friendly with the locals, some even married and settled in the area. It is said that they even held dances inside the fort, which is how the locals learned set dancing. The military details of the site were pointed out to us, as well as the spring well, vegetable garden and latrines.
After the history talk, the soldiers took over with a demonstration of how complicated it actually was to fire cannons and muskets. The cannon they brought along was a tiny fraction of the size of those originally installed here, and even so it took three men to fire it. This they did four times for us with a step-by-step description of the cumbersome process. Firing a musket was nearly as slow and complicated. There was a big crowd of interested locals, many visiting the site for the first time, and the military re-enactors were a cheerful, friendly bunch, eager to chat, answer questions, share weapons and hats, and pose for snapshots. One local was even allowed to fire the cannon—twice! His first attempt misfired, so he had a second go. It was a fascinating glimpse of history and a lovely start to the Dan Furey Weekend.
The official opening was just before the ceili that night, and it was Michael Tubridy who had the honour of declaring the weekend open. Michael himself had been honoured on the previous night by a tribute and session. Then he and several other dancers performed Dan Furey’s most famous solo dance, the Priest and His Boots to a jig played at the right pace by the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band. After that they announced the Labasheeda Set and everyone shifted into top gear—now we were really under way! A good ceili is much more than the sum of its parts, musicians and dancers, and Johnny and gang are tops at delivering all the bonus by-products we’ve come to love—excitement, atmosphere, joy and more!
The Priest and His Boots is a dance I first attempted to learn here thanks to Celine Tubridy many years ago, and this year I had an all-too-seldom practice at it with Michael in the morning workshop. It was a delightful session, and not just for the dancing. Michael was full of anecdotes about Dan Furey, and two of the ladies present had attended classes with Dan as children. One lady recalled how she disliked going to class because it was held in a workshop in Kilrush where coffins were made! As if that wasn’t frightening enough to a young girl, the boys in the class liked to hide in the coffins! We practiced all five parts of the dance many times, and with all the chatting, we managed to fill the morning with learning and pleasure in equal measure.
After lunch the dancing continued with the Brian Ború Ceili Band playing for a light crowd who nevertheless had loads of fun. A nice bonus of dancing in Labasheeda is that all the bands take the opportunity to play the Labasheeda Set, so there’s at least one set which is a bit different from the usual.
After that ceili Clare residents like myself were wondering—do we go home and come back again for tonight’s ceili, or remain down here for the intervening four hours? The organisers had conveniently brought in meals for people, but I went with friends to Kilrush for supper where we found ourselves in the company of other dancers who had the same idea. When we got back to Labasheeda there was time enough before the ceili for forty blissful winks in the car.
Whatever hassle one may have endured to arrive at the Saturday night ceili, it was completely forgotten when the Abbey Ceili Band began playing their beautiful music. Temperatures were quickly elevated in the main hall, but during the waltz I drifted over to the Long Aisle, an adjacent hall with a slightly rougher floor, but found it so cool and spacious that I arranged to dance a couple of sets there in the second half. The craic was mighty wherever we were dancing!
Sunday is a special day at the Dan Furey Weekend, beginning with a tribute to the man himself at Dan’s grave in the cemetery just outside the village. Friends and relatives spoke of him, a priest said a prayer, and most moving of all, Michael Tubridy played The Priest and His Boots as Dan would have played it. Music brings the past to life. We also remembered Dan’s friend James Keane at his grave nearby.
Next, the tour moved back down the peninsula, passing Dan’s old house on the way, for another visit to the fort, to keep alive the tradition of dancing here. A few local players provided music, youngsters performed sets and a brush dance, and visitors danced the Caledonian. Back in the village the festivities continued with a parade, vintage car rally and bouncy castle, but best of all was the final ceili.
Another innovation for the festival this year was the Johnny Reidy sandwich—Johnny and band played for both the opening and closing ceilis! The dancing was as fast, furious and fun as before, with the crowd cheering and sweating equally. The weekend ended with Johnny’s sweet version of the national anthem, and overwhelming feelings of contentment and exhaustion.
To wind down afterward, there was a session in the hall welcome to all players, and even for those of us who left soon after, the joy of this special weekend has remained with us ever since.
Labasheeda is a village of panoramic views and scenic delight.
Around it there are rolling hills of grass that are verdant and green,
Some of the nicest land I have ever seen.
Situated on the Shannon,
That mighty river to Limerick and beyond, it winds its way,
And the village of Glin is across the bay.
Leaba shíoda translated to English I am told means the silk bed.
It’s the place where that great man Dan Furey was born and bred.
Dan was a dancer and musician of great skill.
In many a school he passed on this gift leaving behind admiration and goodwill.
At first on his bicycle and then his Morris Minor he travelled the schools of Clare.
Music and dancing he taught with passion and flair.
Myself I never attended a dancing class.
In our family my sister Maureen was the dancing lass.
She always spoke highly of Dan Furey.
For him she had great respect and meas.
From Dan she learned many dances including The Priest and His Boots and the Gabhairín Buí.
Dúirt sí go mbeidh cuimhní Dan Furey i gcónai ina chroí.
Composing sets was also his forte.
The Labasheeda and Paris sets are danced in ceilis throughout the world to this present day.
A weekend in his memory is held each year.
To attend this celebration people come to Labasheeda from far and near.
2013 was the same as the rest.
There was music dancing and entertainment of the best.
We danced to the Johnny Reidy band twice then the Abbey and the Brian Ború.
Their music was rousing through and through, and also of the best.
The stamina of the set dancers they put to the test.
Many sets were danced and many were done.
It was a festival of enjoyment and lots of fun.
To name all the sets my memory will not allow me to recall.
But I am sure another pen accurately recorded them all.
Now before I finish this I must say,
The guided tour of the peninsula was a most enjoyable and fact finding day.
I must thank the guides who in their own transport kindly chauffeured us about.
Explaining the history and importance of every site leaving nothing out.
To name them all these places would put my memory to the test.
But we visited the graves where Dan Furey and James Keane are laid to rest.
I have now run out of words and my pen refuses to write.
I will finish by saying I enjoyed every minute of the festival, both day and night.
Sheamus Garry, Bristol, England
Melbourne Comhaltas had a very enjoyable weekend of set dancing, 30 August–1 September. We invited Nora Stewart and Martin Largey to present workshops and they certainly lived up to our expectations.
The weekend kicked off on Friday night in the Elephant and Wheelbarrow Pub in St Kilda where Mary McBride, our president, had organised a great room for us. We had space on the floor for five sets comfortably and there was a great pub atmosphere. Some of the locals joined in as well which added to the entertainment and Marie Brouder, our teacher and MC, coped with her usual good humour and sense of fun. We all enjoyed the craic. There were lots of tables for us all to sit down and meet and greet the presenters and visitors in a relaxed and friendly venue.
On Saturday we started off early in the Masonic Hall in Abbotsford. This is a very central and convenient location with a certain last century charm and of course a great floor. Nora and Martin were fantastic presenters. They led us through the Televara Set, the Mullagh Half-Set, Wexford Half-Set and others. We had lots of much-needed and interesting work on stepping and rhythm of the jigs and reels, which is something they do really well. We all feel we learned a lot about dance rhythms and the Clare battering steps which make set dancing so vibrant and fascinating. Nora and Martin are an inspiration to watch in action when they dance together with the energy, vitality and sheer enjoyment as seen in Co Clare. They certainly passed some of that on to us.
Our Saturday night ceili featured the Melbourne Ceili Band, who were brilliant as usual. We had up to eight sets on the floor and Marie kept the night rocking on.
Sunday was Father’s Day so our numbers were down as people were busy with family commitments. We still had several sets on the floor however and Kirsty Greenwood led us through her own set which she has been working on for the past year or so. It is called the Ball and Box Victorian Set. We did the first three figures and found it an extremely enjoyable set to dance. It is complex yet easy to learn as it hangs together very well. We were all delighted to have had the chance to familiarise ourselves with it and look forward to dancing it on many future occasions.
Our weekend finished up with a two-hour ceili on Sunday afternoon. We did all the old favourites like the Clare Plain, Cashel, Connemara, Antrim Square and had another go at the Televara, under Martin’s guidance. We were all tired at that stage but all felt that we had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend.
We are very appreciative of the people who came long distances to support us. We had interstate dancers from Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, and dancers from many parts of Victoria such as Bendigo, Killarney (near Port Fairy), Geelong, Gippsland, Trentham, Daylesford and many of course from Melbourne. We are hoping to organize a similar weekend for next year and we hope to be able to invite a dance teacher from Ireland
Johanna O’Reilly, Melbourne, Australia
At 1.30pm on Friday 30th August, seventy set dancers left Galway to go to Letterkenny, Co Donegal, for the weekend, a trip organised by the very capable Gearóid Mulrooney. Maurice Burke from Burke’s Bus, Tuam, and Paul Nash Travel supplied the transport to Letterkenny, both of whom were so cooperative and helpful. We had a pleasant journey with them.
We were attending a set dancing weekend in the Clanree Hotel organised by Pádraig O’Rooney to benefit charities in both Letterkenny and Peru. We arrived at the hotel around 6.30pm. The staff were most welcoming and helpful, as were all Donegal set dancers who attended the ceilis during the weekend. That night we had the magical Rise the Dust Ceili Band playing for mighty dancing and a nice mixture of sets and two-hand dances.
Saturday morning, Gerry McNulty started off with a two-hand workshop for two hours. Gearóid took over then in the afternoon with a set dancing workshop, in which he taught the Fermanagh Set and this set was danced at the ceilis on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
Saturday night’s music was provided by the wonderful Duntally Ceili Band from Donegal. Their music was a joy to listen to and to dance to. We are looking forward to bringing them to our regular ceilis in Clarinbridge, Co Galway, in the near future.
Music for Sunday’s afternoon ceili was once again by the Duntally Ceili Band for a lovely afternoon’s dancing, before we boarded the buses at 6.30pm that evening to make our journey back to Galway.
It is estimated that over €3,000 was raised over the weekend for the charities.
Well done, Gearóid and Pádraig. The weekend was a huge success and everyone had a fantastic time.
Clare Smyth, Clarinbridge, Co Galway
I listened attentively to the weather forecast at 8am on Friday, August 23rd, and the outlook was that drizzle would clear and the evening would be dry and mild. I was earnestly hoping that all would be well for the platform ceili on Seán O’Farrell’s farm, Cloncannon, near Toomevara, Co Tipperary.
When we arrived it was balmy and dry, exactly what we needed for a wonderful evening of dancing >al fresco. Soon the musicians arrived—Ann Cantwell on banjo, Michael Searson and Pat Devereux on accordions, and Eddie Whelan on guitar and vocals. After a brief sound check and insect repellent applied, the music began, and what better set to begin with at the foot of the Devil’s Bit but the Cashel Set, which was danced by four sets. The sound of the music and the steps of the dancers blended superbly and echoed for a mile or two around the area.
I observed harpist Muireann Dwyer, who recently took second place at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in the under-18 competition and her friend, Síofra Thornton, also a harpist, arriving at the platform. They delighted the audience with a duet and later joined the quartet already on stage.
Our dancing was interspersed with songs from Margaret Carr, Rebecca Johnson, Helen Deane who had recently released a CD entitled A Dream Come True, and Maura Tierney. Two young local dancers, Joanne O’Farrell and Casey O’Rourke, entertained the audience with their step dancing. Tom Fahy, who had generously given of his time and energy to help Seán to prepare the platform, delighted the audience with a song as did well-known dancer from Thurles, Jerry Loughnane. Dominic Farrell had the audience in stitches with his yarns, and being Heritage Week, I invited the audience to join me with an Irish song, Trasna na dTonnta.
Dancing of sets, céilí, waltzes and two-hand dances continued until darkness fell. After Seán’s thank-you, he invited us all to his home just down the road to be generously fed with wonderful home baking. Thank you, Sean and all your team, for providing such a wonderful event. I was delighted to act as MC for the evening.
On Saturday 24th at the crack of dawn, my friend Kathleen Treacy and I headed for Meenaneary, Co Donegal, for Rory O’Donnell’s set dancing weekend. Being from the midlands the sight of the broad Atlantic and the rugged mountain ranges conjures up a feeling of excitement and awe.
Our short workshop began at 2.30pm and the attendees were introduced to the Killyon Set and the Cuckoo and Lilac waltzes. The ceili at 9pm consisted of sets, céilí and two-hand dances. Music for the weekend was supplied by Danny Webster.
On Sunday afternoon the dancing commenced immediately after the final whistle was blown on the Mayo vs Tyrone All-Ireland semi-final. Again we danced a mixture of sets, céilí and two-hand dances, which appears to be the usual arrangement, with calling by local dance teacher Clement Gallagher. Tea and goodies were served halfway through although the second half appeared much longer than the first!
As soon as Danny Webster concluded his music, two guest musicians Peter Lombard and Eileen Shanahan played duets which reminded me very much of the Gallowglass and Jimmy Shand style of music on their button and piano accordions. The dancers were thrilled to continue with waltzes, quicksteps and two-hands until midnight.
Unfortunately Kathleen and I were unable to wait for the usual Monday night ceili and class organised by Clement Gallagher in Ardara. Instead it was the final night of the Tipperary on My Mind summer show hosted by my first cousin, Sam O’Doherty of Mac & O fame, in the Excel Theatre in Tipperary town. So I was delighted to attend and to sit back and relax and soak up the light-hearted entertainment.
These two magnificent dance events together with a great ceili in Ballyfin, Co Laois, a brush dance workshop in Dunamaise Arts Centre, Portlaoise, and an appearance on RTÉ’s Ireland AM with my granddaughters Méabh and Clodagh Cahalan truly made Heritage Week 2013 a memorable one!
Maureen Culleton, Camcloon, Ballyfin, Co Laois
Kerry Dancers Set Dancing Club joined with the Rose of Tralee Festival to bring two set dancing workshops and a ceili to the festival in Tralee, the capital of Co Kerry, from 14th to 16th August. The Central Hotel on Maine Street housed all three events.
On Wednesday the 14th, Timmy Woulfe began his workshop showing basic steps to the large gathering of visitors including former roses and supporters of this year’s festival. We were delighted by the turnout of our own local dancers who mingled with the beginners to ensure that everyone enjoyed the event. Timmy then invited everyone out on the floor to dance the Connemara Set. The Ballyvourney Reel Set was next and everyone had a fun time learning this little polka set. Our workshop concluded with two figures of the Charlestown Set from Australia.
We were back at the hotel again on Thursday the 15th for our second workshop. I was privileged to teach the Ballyduff Set, another little polka set. It was brilliant to see less experienced dancers getting to grips with it. What a joy to hear the cheers of the dancers when everyone finished each figure. Timmy then took over and concluded the workshop by teaching the Rinkinstown Set.
We held our Rose ceili on Friday the 16th. It was dedicated to Mike Lenihan who sadly passed away recently after a short illness. His courageous wife Noreen and son Michael honoured us with their presence. Crowds gathered long before the ceili started and as the band set up, excitement mounted. Some dancers had not as yet had the pleasure of dancing to their brilliant music.
Danny O’Mahony and the Shannon Vale Ceili Band are an award-winning band. Their music is magic and Danny and his musicians are a pleasure to work with and most professional.
Our first set of the night was the Plain Set, Mike’s favourite, and the last set was another favourite of his, the Ballyvourney Jig. We also danced the Clare Lancers, Sliabh Luachra, Cashel and Connemara. Timmy called the Rinkinstown and I called The Ballyduff.
The atmosphere was electric and the huge crowd danced as if there was no tomorrow. This superb band earned the love of all the dancers present on the night. As people scattered for home, the one thing on everyone’s lips was what brilliant music they played. A real powerhouse of fantastic tunes were delivered with smiles and great interaction with the dancers.
Joan Pollard Carew
Ceili in the square
After the workshop on Wednesday night we headed down to the town square, where Johnny Reidy Ceili Band managed to keep the rain away with his electric music! At the end of the night, the square was full of leaving cert students, who went absolutely crazy for JRCB, and when the music stopped, the chant, “One more tune! One more tune!” rang out through the square. JRCB duly obliged. Well done guys, an amazing night!
Many will know that Jim Flanagan ran a set dance club in Oxford for over ten years. In February 2012, Jim was diagnosed with leukaemia and for fifteen months, supported by his wife Clare, he battled bravely and positively through prolonged bouts of treatment. Sadly, Jim was finally beaten by the disease and he died on 10th May 2013. He is sadly missed by everyone who knew him, a more kindly and sympathetic man one could ever wish to meet.
Jim was highly regarded and well-known within the Irish community in and around Oxford; he and his wife Clare having spent most of their working years in the area. However, set dancing was Jim’s passion and he took immense pleasure in imparting his enthusiasm to others, myself included. He and Clare rarely missed an opportunity to meet friends in the north and dance at sessions and ceilis in Basingstoke, Slough, Birmingham as well as back home in Ireland.
Dancers and friends who knew Jim are invited to join the Oxford Set Dancers and teacher Kate Howes from Birmingham in celebration of Jim Flanagan’s life and love of set dancing at a set dance workshop and afternoon tea on Sunday 10th November. Proceeds will go to the Leukaemia Charity funds at the Oxford Churchill Hospital where Jim was treated.
David Kay, Oxford, England
One of the best set dance weekends in the north, in Glenties, Co Donegal, September 13–15, just got better. But more on that later.
Our usual early morning flight was made more interesting by the big storm moving the plane in more directions than usual. As it was only a thirty-minute flight we held on and suffered in silence. Our hire car was picked up smoothly and we were off on a slow run to the beautiful west of Donegal.
Finding a lovely coffee shop in Glenties, we went in to find four men chatting away. On saying hello, a comment was made that we had not added to the Irish numbers in the shop—it was still zero. I suppose the locals can make their own coffee at home.
After checking in to our digs, we grabbed a chance to top up on our sleep before dinner in the Highland Hotel where the weekend was based. Then it was time for the reason for all the travel, the first ceili.
The band for this one was Duntally, a local Donegal ceili band. We have danced to them before in a pub setting for céilí and two-hand dancing and enjoyed them then. They have now matured and moved up to set dancing and provided a very good sound for it. With Joe Farrell as fear an tí, we danced a great selection of sets and everyone went home happy—well, most of them. Some attended a seisiún after and on returning to the hotel at late o’clock found they were locked out and had to head to the hostel for a lie down.
Saturday morning broke far too soon for us and after a huge full Irish we headed to the first workshop of the weekend with Pádraig and Róisín McEneany. After the usual warm-up with steps, we were into the Blacktown Set. We have done this before but it’s always nice to top-up the knowledge. Then we did the Connemara Jig Set and the same applies to that.
After lunch, it was the Merchant Set composed by Pádraig, named for the bar where they teach in Dublin, a new set to almost everyone. It has lovely moves and is dead easy to learn which always helps. Then to finish we had the Black Hill set; again not new to us but good to repeat.
Another wee doze before dinner kept us going for the evening ceili with Triskell. The highlight was dancing the Merchant Set and seeing it danced by people who had not attended the workshop but were able to follow Pádraig’s calling and managed (mostly) to dance it. A very happy crowd headed off to bed or to a seisiún—with front door keys for the hotel in their pockets.
Audrey and I missed out on the two-hand workshop to go for a run in the surrounding countryside and relax before the highlight of the weekend.
The Kilfenora Ceili Band was in town and we managed to sneak into the hotel to listen to their sound check, which was amazing. As soon as the doors opened officially, the huge crowd poured in and grabbed seats which were really only used as landmarks for bags and towels as few people sat down between sets.
As soon as the first set was called, the floor filled and awaited the unmistakable sounds of the band in full flight. The first chords caused huge grins on every face and an extra two inches height on every step. They were magnificent.
Sadly everything had to come to an end and we headed back to the airport for our flight home.
Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland
Ireland has an abundant wealth of ceili bands, all to the benefit of set dancers who are blessed with great music at every ceili in the country. One of the unsung heroes of the scene is Davy Joe Fallon of Carousel Ceili Band, who keeps the dancing alive in small halls in a large swathe of the country between Dublin and Mayo. Davy Joe is a veteran box player from Co Westmeath who plays in a timeless style, quick, lively and uplifting, and after decades on the road, he has finally recorded his first CD of set dancing music.
It’s called A Céilí in Mayo with Carousel, and that’s exactly what you get inside, with six sets (Ballyvourney Jig, Cashel, Connemara, Corofin, Kilfenora, Moycullen) plus a waltz, all recorded live last March at a ceili in Ballyheane, Co Mayo. Accompanying Davy Joe are Anthony Coolahan on piano and his daughter Claire on drums (filling in for Johnny Corrigan). The recording recreates the atmosphere of the ceili with all the cheers and shouting in the background. The music has instant appeal and the dancing is nearly nonstop with the shortest of pauses between figures, just like at the ceilis. Their new CD makes it clear why Carousel is one of the busiest bands in the country.
Contact Davy Joe Fallon or Tom Treacy to obtain copies of A Céilí in Mayo with Carousel.
Dear Bill,Articles continue in Old News Volume 81.
Kerry Dancers Set Dancing Club wishes to announce the running, once again, of the competition for newly-composed sets. It will take place on Friday May 9th at the Earl of Desmond Hotel, Tralee, as part of its annual Sweets of May workshop weekend.
The format will be similar to last year’s one, with the qualified sets being performed on the night. Please note the following points:
The marking system will divide a total of 100 marks as below:
- Entries must be recorded on DVD.
- Sets should be properly scripted as per standard method
- The closing date for entry is February 15th, 2014.
- Only the winning set will be announced. This is to stress that the committee wish to emphasise the showcasing of the sets rather than the competitive aspect.
- Should too many entries be received, a qualifying round to reduce the number to four or five will be held at a previous date.
The committee wish to stress, also, that it is not the intention to flood the ceili scene with more new sets. Merely, it is to afford an opportunity to those people—and there are many out there—who would wish the chance to have their own composition publicly demonstrated.
- Traditional character of set, steps and movements (40 marks)
- Originality and script layout (20 marks)
- Diversity (20 marks)
We look forward to your participation and further information may be obtained from yours truly.
Timmy Woulfe, Gortnagross, Athea, Co Limerick
Sunny Sets by the Sea
We were lucky on our visit to the Mullaghmore sets weekend in County Sligo this summer, 7–9 June. The sun shone, which wasn’t that exceptional this year, and everyone enjoyed the craic of dancing in a marquee. Curious visitors on hearing the music made their way up to the marquee entrance to take a gleek at us dancers. Who knows—it might be the catalyst for some of them taking to the floor. Afterwards we retired to the shore to bathe our exhausted feet in the salt water.
Ah, this is the life!
Aidan Bunting, Omagh, Tyrone
Excellent music as always
We would like to thank everyone who attended the charity ceili in Knockaderry, Co Limerick, on the 2nd of August. Not alone did these people come to the ceili but some even brought spot prizes. We were absolutely delighted with the big crowd who came. Also a special word of thanks to Michelle Bryan who did a lovely sean nós dance for us, to Ultan Mulcahy and everyone who highlighted the ceili, to Denis Buicke for the lovely flyers and to Pat Lawlor who put up the signs.
Last but definitely not least, thanks to the Striolán Ceili Band who played excellent music as always.
A total of €1313 was raised for the Irish Cancer Society.
Thank you all so very much.
Teresa and Deirdre Lenihan, Newcastle West, Co Limerick
Every step of the way
Please allow me, through the good offices of your wonderful magazine, to thank all those who attended the recent Charity Set Dancing Weekend in Letterkenny.
My first thanks is to the more than 200 patrons who attended, including 100 who purchased weekend tickets. A special thanks to Gearóid Mulrooney and the eighty dancers who attended from Galway and to those friends from around the northwest who promoted the event in their own localities.
I thank the bands—Rise the Dust and the Duntally ceili bands—who provided dance music of the highest quality and the stewards who helped on the nights. I thank Gerry McNulty and Gearóid who ran the workshops and the hotel management and staff who provided wonderful facilities and a very efficient service. Last but not least a special thanks to my friend Fintan Houston, who helped me every step of the way.
Pádraig Ó Ruanaí, Letterkenny, Co Donegal
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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