last updated 4 January 2002
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Set Dancing News

Set Dancing Anthology - Volume 1

Copyright © 2011 Bill Lynch
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Read more writing about set dancing in the Set Dancing Anthology, New Articles, Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 and Volume 4.

'O! The sound of the Kerry dancing'

'The light-hearted daughters of Erin,
Like the wild mountain deer they can bound;
Their feet never touch the green island,
But music is struck from the ground.
And oft in the glens and green meadows,
The ould jig they dance with such grace,
That even the daisies they tread on,
Look up with delight in their face.'

James McKowen

One of our favourite diversions is an occasional glimpse of a 'crossroads dance' on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, when all the young people of the district are gathered together. Their religious duties are over with their confessions and their masses, and the priests encourage these decorous Sabbath gaieties. A place is generally chosen where two or four roads meet, and the dancers come from the scattered farmhouses in every direction. In Ballyfuschia, they dance on a flat piece of road under some fir-trees and larches, with stretches of mountain covered with yellow gorse or purple heather, and quiet lakes lying in the distance. A message comes down to us at Ardnagreena - where we commonly spend our Sunday afternoons - that they expect a good dance, and the blind boy is coming to fiddle; and 'so if you will be coming up, it's welcome you'll be.' We join them about five o'clock - passing, on our way, groups of 'boys' of all ages from sixteen upwards, walking in twos and threes, and parties of three or four girls by themselves; for it would not be etiquette for the boys and girls to walk together, such strictness is observed in these matters about here.

When we reach the rendezvous we find quite a crowd of young men and maidens assembled; the girls all at one side of the road, neatly dressed in dark skirts and light blouses, with the national woollen shawl over their heads. Two wide stone walls, or dykes, with turf on top, make capital seats, and the boys are at the opposite side, as custom demands. When a young man wants a partner, he steps across the road and asks a colleen, who lays aside her shawl, generally giving it to a younger sister to keep until the dance is over, when the girls go back to their own side of the road and put on the shawls again. Upon our arrival we find the 'sets' already in progress; a 'set' being a dance like a very intricate and very long quadrille. We are greeted with many friendly words, and the young boatmen and farmers' sons ask the ladies, 'Will you be pleased to dance, miss?' Some of them are shy, and say they are not familiar with the steps; but their would-be partners remark encouragingly: 'Sure, and what matter? I'll see you through.' Soon all are dancing, and the state of the road is being discussed with as much interest as the floor of a ballroom. Eager directions are given to the more ignorant newcomers, such as, 'Twirl your girl, captain!' or 'Turn your back to your face!' - rather a difficult direction to carry out, but one which conveys its meaning. Salemina confided to her partner that she feared she was getting a bit old to dance. He looked at her grey hair carefully for a moment, and then said chivalrously: 'I'd not say that was old age, ma'am, I'd say it was eddication.'

When the sets, which are very long and very decorous, are finished, sometimes a jig is danced for our benefit. The spectators make a ring, and the chosen dancers go into the middle, where their steps are watched by a most critical and discriminating audience with the most minute and intense interest. Our Molly is one of the best jig dancers among the girls here (would that she were half as clever at cooking!); but if you want to see an artist of the first rank, you must watch Kitty O'Rourke, from the neighbouring village of Dooclone. The half door of the barn is carried into the ring by one or two of her admirers, whom she numbers by the score, and on this she dances her famous jig polthogue, sometimes alone and sometimes with Art Rooney, the only worthy partner for her in the Kingdom of Kerry. Art's mother, 'Bid' Rooney, is a keen matchmaker, and we heard her the other day advising her son, who was going to Dooclone, to have a 'weeny court' with his colleen, to put a clane shirt on him in the middle of the week, and disthract Kitty intirely by showin' her he had three of thim, anyway!

Kate Douglas Wiggin, Penelope's Irish Experiences, 1901


A rhythmic booming of boots upon stone

. . . Let me mention for the sake of those who may be unacquainted with St. Stephen, or rather his Day, that it would be a bad day for a visitor to start his notes for a book about Ireland: such a book might start something like this: "The Irish people are very small, and mostly old and white-bearded; they have very long noses, and cheerful but devilish faces. Their clothes are of antique but varying fashions, and their complexions are either scarlet or dead white." And all this would be the product of accurate observation; but no sooner would these notes be written than they would require to be amplified and amended. St. Stephen's Day would be distinctly a bad day on which to start a book about Ireland. For the wren, the wren, the king of all birds, on St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze. And in order to celebrate this event Ireland rises upon this day in bands, mostly youthful and all disguised, which go from house to house to proclaim the traditional truth that I have just divulged to the reader. As I write here there is a rhythmic booming of boots upon stone, which tells me that a dozen or twenty men with strange faces, and even stranger whiskers, who have just danced before me, and danced extremely well, are dancing now in the servants' hall. And this will go on till late. They are the third band that have appeared since dinner alone, and are much larger than those an observant tourist might have seen on the roads all day; because the earlier bands are by now in bed. When I see them dance my memory goes back to dances that we used to have on every St. Patrick's Day for all the people on this estate; dances I first attended knowing only London ballrooms. I very quickly realized the great difference between the two, and that I must be skilfully piloted if I was to take any part in these intricate and beautiful dances. The Irish dances are still what they were, and what they have been for ages, while London apes the dances, if such they can be called, of the African population of foreign cities. I hope that the Irish people will preserve their old dances; but a wave of sophistication is sweeping over the world, and it is to be feared that a people that have already taken to politics may also take to the dances that go with jazz.

Lord Dunsany, My Ireland, 1937


They moved as an eight

The sign in the window promised set dancing at nine, but the Small Bridge Pub was half empty. People knew better that to be prompt; there was time for a walk in the rain, and a bag of chips. An hour later the place was stuffed with hot bodies in damp clothes, and half a dozen musicians sat on benches, on three sides of a square, under the window near the door. Every eye was drawn towards the burning heart of the room, a briquette fire in the big brick hearth. The walls, floor and ceiling were close and dark; and in this musical grotto liquid gifts of black and white were handed out by smoky firelight. Guinness posters and St Patrick's Day streamers still hung from the ceiling, months after their time. The season was over, and no one was a tourist. A straight-backed woman in her forties wore a purple velvet shawl and a white blouse with a lace collar. She had come for the dancing.

The piper flexed his fingers and began to explore a tune. His elbow squeezed air from the bag, and his eyes met those of an accordion player, who nodded and found a counter refrain. A guitarist, thin with a young face, picked up the rhythm, dampening the strings and cutting across them on the off-beat. An older man, stocky and red skinned with a white moustache and an intent look, let the stick in his hand trip across the skin of bodhran.

Conversations were left unfinished as people turned in their seats to face the session. There was no room to move, and barely enough to stand. Men, women and children all watched and bobbed their heads in time, tapping a foot or drumming a glass with their fingers. Other musicians climbed aboard the tune as it passed: a second guitarist who had watched his friend's fingers on the fretboard; another piper; another bodhran.

A signal passed through the crowd and eight dancers were on their feet. Part of the floor cleared. Each held a partner and they were off, turning tight patterns within small circles, bodies mad and free yet never colliding or stumbling into a space where they should not have been. They moved as an eight, into the circle and out, stamping their heels to accentuate the beat. It was ancient but vital, an impressive movement performed here and wherever there were Kerry people. The public, collective courtship could have been taking place on the hill of the Great Blasket, in the hull of a transatlantic steamer, or at a social club in Massachusetts. They might have been dancing to a wind-up gramophone, a one-string fiddle, or an amplified band. The dancers were a spectacle, but in another time the whole room might have been spinning and reeling.

Cole Moreton, Hungry for Home


I was a clever fellow in those days!

A dancing master came on a visit to us for a time, and he set up a dancing school for a month. Four shillings apiece was his fee. The place he settled in was the old monastery of the Soupers, that half of it in which the school used to be in the old days. It had a plank floor which made a great racket. The noice was the best part of the proceedings - at first, anyhow. Not many put their names down the first day, for few were in a position to pay. Before long, however, they were coming to school in ones and twos. The teacher was a very good man, and had no fancy for turning out blunderers at a wedding feast. He had pocketed my four shillings, and I certainly got its value pretty soon as far as dancing goes, for the house where he lodged was near ours, and he used to give me a lesson whenever I ran across him. Before long I was a marvellous dancer - but, as always happens even to-day, somebody came to stop him from teaching anyone else, and the dancing school on the Island was put down.

A gentleman came on a visit to the Island soon after the break-up of the dancing school and he started all sorts of merry-making. Barret was his name. He had food and drink of every kind, cold, hot, and boiled. He brought eight bottles of whiskey with him, and a variety of other drinks as well. It was a question who should sing him the first song, for they were shy till they saw that he had a good bottle of whiskey to give the first singer. They needed no pressure then, even those who hadn't sung a song for seven years or couldn't sing at all! It was the same story with the dancing; and the lilters got their glass, too!

The old women and the aged men danced also. I was half-tipsy most of the time, for the old women and the young girls would keep leading me out, as I was a fine dancer in those days. My father could dance, and he had been teaching me before the dancing master came. The old women in particular took me out on the floor with them, and so I came home, half-seas over, every night all that week. If any of them had any rest, I hadn't, for I was dancing and singing and lilting turn and turn about: I was a clever fellow in those days!

Tomás O'Crohan, The Islandman, published in Irish 1929, translated by Robin Flower in 1937


You can't beat nature, as the old woman said

A stranger once came to the Island and wanted to spend a few weeks there but no house wished to take him in nor indeed was he causing them any concern because they were tormented by people coming to spy on them for the landlord's stewards. Someone finally took pity on him and told him that he would share his own bed with him if he was agreeable. All this man wanted was to be indoors from the night-sky and get a bite to eat sometime during the day. He told the man of the house that he was a writer and that writing was his livelihood. He spent a fortnight on the Island and wrote about everything which he witnessed with his own two eyes. Having written about all that was to be seen he went off out by sea again.

That man's name was John Synge, the first stranger ever to holiday on the island. He wrote down exactly and accurately everything as he had seen it. Every word that came from his pen was a true picture and those people from the Island who had come up a bit in the world after Synge's time and read his book had nose-bleeds because he didn't write about things that weren't there for him to see. Had he been inventing stories his work would not ring true and I think his description of some of them flattered them.

After Synge left Cormac Ó Cadhlaigh arrived but he had a good smattering of Irish. Even so the islanders had their ears cocked listening to him. He spent his time in the company of the old people listening to them as they talked amongst themselves and writing down old stories and sayings from them.

The island houses in those days weren't suitable for keeping visitors but those visitors didn't mind as long as they were taken in and given the same food as the islanders themselves ate. Visitors weren't charged thirty shillings a week. The charge was a mere ten shillings a week which was great money at that time. From then on the islanders weren't at all afraid of visitors. Bess and Clara, the landlord's agents, were under the sod and young islanders were dancing to music on their own land. That is how the wheels of this world rotate.

A young energetic man came one time and was accompanied by another man who was not too athletic. The young man was a dancing instructor and a teacher of Irish, and Roger, the old fellow accompanying him, was a fiddler. The young man sent out word that there would be Irish dancing in the school that night from eight o'clock until half-past ten and nobody would be charged as much as a half-penny. I imagine that if there was a charge there wouldn't be too much dancing. All the people came at the appointed time and your man began his one two three, one two three and tapped the floor behind him twice with his right leg. The old man played as directed by the instructor but the locals preferred the musician to the man teaching the dancing. One of the men looking on, when he saw the capers of the two of them, said: 'Well if there's bread and butter to be made out of any business this is surely it.' Not everyone, however, felt the same way. Some of them were interested and many picked up a good few steps and reels.

They spent a week in that manner and on the second last night the instructor announced that this was their livelihood, that neither of the two had any other income whatsoever. When the final night came your man got the deaf ear and only a few people who had a decent streak in them came to the school, and take my word for it they didn't have much hanging to them any more than those who stayed at home. The two men left on the following day which was Sunday and neither God nor the devil ever saw either of them again. That is when a man in Ballyferriter remarked that if the two knew the islanders as well as himself did they would have stayed away from them. Bought sense is best if you have somewhere to keep it but not many people have. Still and all it is well to have it.

There was a young lad on the Island at that time who had just begun with his first season fishing. Not surprisingly, since he was fishing with his father, he didn't make much money. He became very interested in music, particularly in the fiddle, and to cap it all his father was the Island's best ever singer. This chap was one day sent to Dingle on some errand or other and whatever house he visited Roger was there playing for all he was worth. Your man fell madly in love with the fiddle and asked Roger if he would sell it to him. Roger replied that he wouldn't sell that particular fiddle but he had two more at home and he would sell him one of them. His heart inside him leapt and he asked Roger to bring it along if it wasn't too dear.

'I've one for a pound,' said Roger, 'and another for two pounds and now since you are only a young lad I'll give you the two pound one for thirty shillings.'

'It's a bargain,' said the young fellow. 'Bring it along and when I'm going home I'll give the money to the man of the house.'

So it was. Roger brought along the fiddle and handed it in over the counter. The young lad called for the fiddle that evening. The woman of the house handed it over to him and asked him where was the money.

'Oh,' said the lad, 'I paid him early this morning, my good woman, when he came looking for it.'

'Everything is all right so,' she said.

'It is indeed,' said the lad, putting the fiddle under his arm and hitting the road west. Of course he hadn't paid as much as a brown half-penny for it. He brought it to the Island where the fiddle was most welcome though there was no one there who could knock any music out of it.

That night a woman was about to go to bed. Whatever glance she gave at the water-bucket she noticed that there was not a drop in the bottom of it. She wouldn't go to bed unless there was water in the house. It was almost the dead of night and she wasn't at all happy about having to go outdoors, but she would have to think of some plan and not go to bed without a drop of water in the shack. She and her husband used to sleep in a stretcher-bed in the corner. He was already in bed snoring like a pig. 'I pray God,' she said, 'that it may be your last sleep!' and she went out the door with her bucket and saucepan. She went off up to the well at the top of the village, filled the bucket with water and headed down home, but as she was passing Pats' house she heard the fiddle being played inside though there wasn't a sign of light there. She stopped for a moment to know exactly where the music was coming from and found out handy enough that it was indeed coming from Pats' house. She knew well that some of the islanders had been in Dingle that day and she thought that perhaps Roger had come with them to stay for a while. She went in home to find her old fellow sitting on his backside in the bed and pulling so hard on the pipe that he was sending smoke as high as the mantelpiece.

'Look, Máire,' he said, 'it's true about the moon. It's full tonight and look how it has affected you.'

'My curse on the likes of you anyhow,' said Máire. 'How well it is the like of you should be talking! Sure there's no need at all for the moon to come out to set you going! Haven't you lost the run of yourself everyday of the week? Isn't that in your breeding and your nature?'

That was all there was to it because Máire was dying to tell her story about Roger. She began telling the old fellow what she had seen and heard but she might as well have been talking to the side of the bed as talking to Dan. Still and all her story impressed him. He went out early next morning and inquired of the first man he met: 'Is Roger after coming back again?'

'Yerrah, my good man,' said the other fellow, 'don't the dogs of the village know that neither God nor man will ever again see Roger here, because after spending a long fortnight playing music for them he didn't get a penny when he looked for payment.'

'My Máire,' said Dan, 'has lost her wits. It was she who told me that Roger was playing the fiddle in Pats' house about twelve o'clock last night.'

'That is a ridiculous story,' said the other man and left him there.

Dan was still like a hen with an egg and he wasn't too happy with the response. He strolled off west and spent a while going to and fro. When he got tired of being out and meeting nobody he headed for Pats' house and as he was passing the door what did he think he heard only Roger scratching the fiddle!

'Upon my soul, Máire,' he said, 'you're not as simple as I thought. If anyone is bothered I'm the one.'

He returned home meek and mild just like a child after spending the day mitching from school because he was afraid that Máire might give him a good lash of her tongue. All was quiet until a stupid old woman from the village dropped in. When Máire asked her if she had any news she replied: 'The devil a bit at all, except that Tadgh' - he was her husband - 'said that Roger arrived last night.'

Máire spoke because she was on the windward side of Dan, and Dan got a right scolding from her.

'I suppose,' said the stupid old woman, 'the poor devil came to collect his bit of money.'

'Indeed, God knows, praise and thanks be to Him, he'll have his guts out for a while waiting for it.'

Dan hated the thought of anyone coming to collect money from him. He was tight with money.

The fiddle was being tuned and scraped and it sounded like a cat or corncrake or whatever other noise was being made with it. For all the people knew then Roger could be in the village. Pats had two young school-age daughters and they were the ones who let the fly out of the box. They said that they had a fiddle of their own, that Mike had brought it from Dingle and that he used to play it non-stop every night after returning from fishing.

That was the first fiddle of their own which the islanders had. Mike didn't take long to learn it and knock traditional music out of it. He was a fine dancer also, and it was always said that a musician who can't dance can't be a good musician. Mike crossed the sea to America but didn't forget to bring the sliver with him. He got a job there like everyone else and used to take up the sliver every night. The islanders always called the fiddle a sliver because that is what it is shaped like. He wasn't very long over there when the word spread that a top-class musician had arrived from Kerry and could play every reel and jig that was ever played back home. He was invited to parties all over the city by Irish people who had long ago emigrated and were dying to hear Irish traditional music again.

That is how it was with Mike for a couple of years. A man approached him who used to rent a hall for Irish dancing. He appointed your man as full-time musician with no responsibilities whatsoever except to play three nights a week. The hall was so popular that it became too small but the musician got a share in the new one and easy money began to flow his way. He spent many years playing there and made a fortune. But easy money brings its own problems and in the end even gold couldn't slake his thirst.

There were two other lads who learned to play the fiddle with Mike on the Island but when he took his fiddle with him to America that was the end of their music. They were fishing, and I so as soon as they had made the price of a fiddle they bought one each. They were well able to play it though not as well as Mike because he could dance and arrange the music to suit the dancing. The other two couldn't dance but could play to their hearts' content.

All the lads on the Island were becoming interested in the fiddle and some of them set about making one. They succeeded too. Some of their fiddles were excellent while others were only fair. A father remarked to his son who had made one: 'I'd prefer to take up the sliver itself rather than that old thing you're after making.'

They made strings out of fishing-net and to see what noise or music they could knock out of them and if the fiddle made any sound at all they put proper strings on it. Within a few years there was a sliver in every house in the village where there was a young girl or boy. In any house where there were five or six in the family each one played his own tune on the sliver. Consequently there wasn't a boy or girl on the Island who couldn't knock some smattering of music out of it.

One particular year a visitor came to the Island and remained a couple of weeks. All he wanted was music and women and dancing, and he got his fill of all three almost from daybreak and from nightfall until morning again. On returning home he sent a fiddle to everyone who had an old sliver. Many of them attempted to play the fiddle but only a few were successful. They had nobody but themselves to teach them and a person who can teach himself is a very rare individual. Only four lads on the whole Island succeeded in tuning and playing it properly. Only two of those are alive today and neither lives on the Island.

There was a melodeon too in every home in which there was a young girl or boy, and they were all able to play it and dance as well. Roger had left his mark on the dancing though he was poorly compensated. Still the seed which he sowed grew until it finally died through neglect. Another man with a melodeon came. He was well able to knock Irish music out of it. Every night a dance was held in the house where he was staying which meant that the young boys and girls used to be out almost until morning. They had little else to do during the day except to bring a couple of loads of turf from the hill and dress themselves for the night. On fine nights the girls would bring the box-player back to the Spur at Seal Cove where there was a large area with room enough for two sets to be danced at the same time, and many other activities if you so wished! The young people then growing up on the Island were neither saints nor angels and they knew as much about the facts of life as others like them throughout the country. You can't beat nature, as the old woman said.

The girls and the boys preferred dancing outdoors to indoors but good things don't last too long and the mothers found out that the Spur was the place where the box-man was providing the fun.

There were two women on the Island and each had two daughters fit to be married. When the women heard about the capers they put their heads together to find out how they might bring this carry-on to an end. They collected two big bucketfuls of fine strong stale urine which gave off a steam that would knock a donkey. They put on their shawls and off they went with their two bucketfuls of urine. They never stopped nor rested until they reached the dancing-place. Your man was playing away while the others danced. One of the women threw her bucketful down on top of the box-player's head and the other threw hers on the dancers.

They all began screaming because the urine got into their eyes and no one could tell where anyone else was. The musician almost toppled over the cliff. When they recovered they went off home and that was the end of the Spur at Seal Cove.

But alas and the sins within my breast, neither that much stale urine or twice as much of it again could keep the boys and girls away from one another or from dancing with one another either. The old ways were coming to an end and the new ways taking over and a mother might as well have been pouring water through a sieve as to be advising her family. Stranger followed stranger bringing with them dancing and music, but not even a dog could survive the summer heat in the little houses, so the music and the people took to the outdoors again. The two women, however, didn't go next or near them as they had been warned that if they did so they would be sent home stark naked. They became afraid and said to themselves that perhaps they were the ones who were in the wrong.

Life on the Island continued on in that way for many a long year. Every Sunday nayvogues used to come north from the parish of Ventry, from Dunquin, and south from Ballincolla Pier and Coosnanay, and they would stay dancing there almost until dawn. Those nayvogues contained both girls and boys because the island boys wouldn't allow the visiting boys to take any island girl out dancing. That situation, however, was short-lived because the island boys came to prefer the foreign breed to the native one which was there for as long as people could remember. When they encountered the 'sheep' from the mainland I'm telling you they knocked sparks out of them as far as the dancing was concerned. The island girls got the same treatment from the boys from the north. Even the old women were on the look-out to see if anyone might take them out dancing but they were very rarely invited. The young bird is the one, as the man from Crooked Cove said. Some of those people stuck by one another from the days of their youth until life's end because when they found a place that offered a living they married and spent a peaceful life together, but sadly that place was in a land across the sea.

A stranger with fluent Irish came with four children who were related to her. This lady's intention was to drum the spoken Irish of the island people into them. Those children used to go everywhere with the island children and they got to love one another. When this old lady told them one day that they would have to be getting ready for the journey home on the following day they didn't want to budge. Weren't they having the greatest of times under the sun, the strand and the hill, boats, swimming and the sea, and what could Dublin offer them only the flagstones on the streets and the noise and din of the city? She was well able to control them and brought them back home again with twice as much Irish as they had when they came.

During holiday-time the following summer this lady together with the four children arrived on the Island again. Each of the four was by now acquainted with the life of the islanders and I promise you they weren't much sought after by the grownups, particularly the fishermen, because those children used to hop into the nayvogues faster than themselves and you could never tell when one of them might fall into the sea or have a crab stuck in his leg. Nevertheless the islanders were very kind to them because they were well-reared and mannerly.

On this her second visit the lady invited the local children and any others interested to listen to some music. They thought the night would never come. As they say, time passes slowly for those who wait. The night finally came and all the islanders big and small gathered. One of the girls from the visiting group got her box and placed it on the table. She opened it out and got it ready to play. There wasn't a sound or peep out of anyone as they kept their eyes on the box and listened to the most beautiful music from it. Some of the old women and old men weren't too happy because they felt it was something miraculous and the sooner it was got rid of the better. The young boys and girls began to dance to the music and that was the lovely pleasant music. They continued on like that until bed-time. That is when the lady from Dublin announced that they had enough. 'Next Sunday,' she said, 'we'll have more music out on the road after Mass.'

That was the first gramophone ever to come to the Island and it aroused more interest than any other musical instrument that ever came since. That night it was christened 'Máire's Gramophone' and is still known as such by those who were there at the time.

Sunday came and the gramophone was brought out on to the road. The whole village gathered around it and the day was so beautiful that it could be heard back in Coumeenole. There were more than twenty donkeys on the Island in those days. Some of them were above on the side of the hill while the others were very close to where the gramophone was. When the gramophone bawled out its music a donkey bawled too. Then another donkey bawled and soon every donkey in the place was bawling. They went mad and it was impossible to hear the gramophone. The Dublin group preferred to listen to the donkeys than to the gramophone because they had never before seen donkeys going mad. Four of the donkeys got stuck in one another and everyone thought they would let go at some stage, but not so. They never stopped until they toppled one another over the cliff. On seeing what had happened to the donkeys the people very nearly made two halves of the gramophone and of Máire as well. Never again was it brought outdoors. There was a lot of talk among the islanders about the gramophone as they were angered at what it had done to the four donkeys. Some old women later said that the devil himself was in it and was providing it with all its power because in their view nothing that was good ever did any harm.

The day came when Máire and her gramophone took their leave with no good wishes from those whose donkeys had fallen over the cliff. For as long as people inhabited the Island there was a saying there: 'Máire's gramophone and Seán and Pad's donkeys.' There were some houses in the village where neither dancing nor music was afterwards allowed, not even if they were to be paid a fortune for it.

A young girl returned home from America and didn't she bring a gramophone with her! She placed it on the table one night and was just about to start playing it when her mother who was in the corner by the fire took up the tongs. She warned the girl to get the damned thing out of her house or else it would drive every cow and donkey in the village over the cliff. The girl didn't want to say anything but at dawn next day she packed her bags and headed northwards again. She has never since been seen or heard of.

One fine summer's morning some time later a boat arrived from England. She dropped anchor because she had come to buy lobsters, and had to wait until evening for the fishermen to come home. The captain took out his gramophone and began to play. There was twice as much music coming out of it as there was out of Máire's. Immediately the donkeys began bawling again but upon my soul if they did a man rounded them up and stabled them. It was the luck of God that he did so because they would have got stuck in one another again and maybe half of them might have gone over the cliff. The boat's captain got much more satisfaction out of the donkey's music than out of the gramophone.

The people have now abandoned the Western Island until, as the man said, Tibb's Eve, and from the day they left neither music nor musical instruments matter a damn. The nicest sound anywhere is that of children and people and lonely is the place that is without those same two sounds. If anyone who knew the Island in its heyday were to pay a visit there today it would remind him of nothing but a large graveyard.

The day will come yet when there will be no point in telling people that such a life as I have described existed there for many years. When living on the Island I saw with my own two eyes the finest life I ever saw since and I'm very much afraid that I'll never again see the like of it.

Seán Ó Criomhthain, writing in Irish in the 1970s, published as a chapter in Blasket Memories, The Life of an Irish Island Community, edited by Pádraig Tyers


Three accounts of dancing on the Aran Islands

Lighter and swifter than anything I have seen on the mainland

This year I have brought my fiddle with me so that I may have something new to keep up the interest of the people. I have played for them several tunes, but as far as I can judge they do not feel modern music, though they listen eagerly from curiosity. Irish airs like 'Eileen Aroon' please them better, but it is only when I play some jig like the 'Black Rogue' - which is known on the island - that they seem to respond to the full meaning of the notes. Last night I played for a large crowd, which had come together for another purpose from all parts of the island.

About six o'clock I was going into the schoolmaster's house, and I heard a fierce wrangle going on between a man and a woman near the cottages to the west, that lie below the road. While I was listening to them several women came down to listen also from behind the wall, and told me that the people who were fighting were near relations who lived side by side and often quarrelled about trifles, though they were as good friends as ever the next day. The voices sounded so enraged that I thought mischief would come of it, but the women laughed at the idea. Then a lull came, and I said they seem to have finished at last.

'Finished!' said one of the women; 'sure they haven't rightly begun. It's only playing they are yet.'

It was just after sunset and the evening was bitterly cold, so I went into the house and left them.

An hour later the old man came down from my cottage to say that some of the lads and the 'fear líonta' ('the man of the nets' - a young man from Aranmor who is teaching netmending to the boys) were up at the house, and had sent him down to tell me they would like to dance, if I would come up and play for them.

I went out at once, and as soon as I came into the air I heard the dispute going on still to the west more violently than ever. The news of it had gone about the island, and little bands of girls and boys were running along the lanes toward the scene of the quarrel as eagerly as if they were going to a racecourse.

I stopped for a few minutes at the door of our cottage to listen to the volume of abuse that was rising across the stillness of the island. Then I went into the kitchen and began tuning the fiddle, as the boys were impatient for my music. At first I tried to play standing, but on the upward stroke my bow came in contact with the salt-fish and oilskins that hung from the rafters, so I settled myself at last on a table in the corner, where I was out of the way, and got one of the people to hold up my music before me, as I had no stand. I played a French melody first, to get myself used to the people and the qualities of the room, which has little resonance between the earth floor and the thatch overhead. Then I struck up the 'Black Rogue', and in a moment a tall man bounded out from his stool under the chimney and began flying round the kitchen with peculiarly sure and graceful bravado.

The lightness of the pampooties seems to make the dancing on this island lighter and swifter than anything I have seen on the mainland, and the simplicity of the men enables them to throw a naïve extravagance into their steps that is impossible in places where the people are self-conscious.

The speed, however, was so violent that I had some difficulty in keeping up, as my fingers were not in practice, and I could not take off more than a small part of my attention to watch what was going on. When I finished I heard a commotion at the door, and the whole body of people who had gone down to watch the quarrel filed into the kitchen and arranged themselves around the walls, the women and girls, as is usual, forming themselves in one compact mass crouching on their heels near the door.

I struck up another dance - 'Paddy Get Up' - and the 'fear líonta' and the first dancer went through it together, with additional rapidity and grace, as they were excited by the presence of the people who had come in. Then word went round that an old man, known as Little Roger, was outside, and they told me he was once the best dancer on the island.

For a long time he refused to come in, for he said he was too old to dance, but at last he was persuaded, and the people brought him in and gave him a stool opposite me. It was some time longer before he would take his turn, and when he did so, though he was met with great clapping of hands, he only danced for a few moments. He did not know the dances in my books, he said, and did not care to dance to music he was not familiar with. When the people pressed him again he looked across to me.

'John,' he said, in shaking English, 'have you got "Larry Grogan", for it is an agreeable air?'

I had not, so some of the young men danced again to the 'Black Rogue', and then the party broke up. The altercation was still going on in the cottage below us, and the people were anxious to see what was coming of it.

About ten o'clock a young man came in and told us that the fight was over.

'They have been at it for four hours,' he said, 'and now they're tired. Indeed it is time they were, for you'd rather be listening to a man killing a pig than to the noise they were letting out of them.'

After the dancing and excitement we were too stirred up to be sleepy, so we sat for a long time round the embers of the turf, talking and smoking by the light of a candle.

J M Synge, writing of Inis Meain in his classic book, The Aran Islands, 1907

The old man astonished us by his agility

One of our regular visitors was an old blind man named Patcheen (Little Pat) who lived in a cottage by himself. He had a little land and a cow, and neighbours helped him to milk the cow and keep his house clean. He was a grand musician and enjoyed the music so much that he wanted to reciprocate by performing the 'salmon leap,' which is a gymnastic feat that requires considerable agility, and he was very proud of the fact that he was the only man in the district who was able to do it. The performance consists in lying flat on one's back on the floor with the arms held stiffly alongside the body, not touching the ground; then with a sudden curving of the body and a tremendous muscular effort the performer stands on his feet in an erect position without bending the leg at the knees.

The old man was over seventy years of age, he was wearing heavy boots and the floor of the kitchen was smooth concrete; if he slipped a fractured skull might easily result. Nevertheless it was with great difficulty that I restrained him from making the attempt.

We made the acquaintance of Patcheen one Sunday afternoon. While walking through the village of the Seven Churches we heard music coming from a cottage, outside which was a small group of young people. We paused to watch the dancing from the doorway. The room was thronged with dancers and others who sat on forms or on the floor around the walls. Between the people we could just see the old man sitting on a sack of flour near the fireplace and playing a fiddle. Somebody must have told him that we were outside, for when the dance ended he came towards the door and, with a beautiful dignity and courtesy, bade us welcome and brought us to a seat of honour beside himself. Whilst he was talking to us another of the party played a melodeon to which the people danced.

The old man was a great dancer and astonished us by his agility when, in response to loud requests he 'took the floor' for a jig. Every Sunday afternoon his house was thrown open to the youth of the district. They danced 'Maggie,' 'The Stack of Barley' and other jigs, reels and sets. It was delightful to see the wholesome enjoyment of those present, and I could not help contrasting the scene with a modern dance-room in any of our cities where girls with painted lips and powdered faces, and men with plastered hair, indulge in negroid dances to the music - if it can be called music - of jazz.

Thomas H Mason, Music, Marriage, etc., on Aran Islands, in The Islands of Ireland, 1937

A Dog in Disgrace

In those days, before Aran had been invaded by hordes of teachers learning compulsory Gaelic, it was very much as the writer John Synge had known it. In an attic above the cottage kitchen where he was staying, Synge had crouched over a chink in the floorboards to eavesdrop and record the conversation below. The stories and dialogue, the problems and dramas in the lives of the islanders, he used as material for his plays in the Abbey Theatre. In the cottages, without the radio, there was an active social life of dancing, singing, fiddling and story-telling.

Another peak was to follow when Francis [Macnamara of Ennistymon House, Ennistymon, Co Clare, the author's father] discovered me in a cottage dancing among the islanders. Dancing was one of the few things I was good at, and dancing I lost my self-consciousness. Nor was I frightened of the bashful young men who eyed me from beneath slouched caps, their manhood curbed by Catholic restrictions.

The fiddler appeared first, shuffling uneasily; then the flute and last the accordion. The musicians sat in a row on the only bench, jigging their heels for the commencement. A piercing, whistling insistent tune sent the dancers jogging into the complicated figures of the set dance. On the trodden cow dung floor, I copied the girls; jigged with hands up, the body stiff and erect, while the feet trebled faster and faster opposite the men whose privilege it was to assert their domination by stamping the floor like an angry bull, at the turn of the set. In the confined space of the cottage, the set dance was a miracle of intwined circling movement. We danced ourselves into drunkenness without a drop of the 'hard stuff'. Tea was laid out in the bedroom on the lace bedspread and the only light was the candle before the holy image, an oleograph of the Bleeding Heart.

With the girls I queued up for a 'bear hug' from the biggest and strongest young man. Our squeals of delight as the breath was hugged out of our bodies was echoed by cackles and snorts from the old men and women. The priest objected to this public hugging.

Dancing in the cottage I showed myself to be a true daughter to Francis, with the same flow of blood in our veins, and he was flattered and pleased by my success and frank enjoyment.

At the end of the dance we all crowded into the moonlit night. As we followed the road to find Francis, I heard the sound of a hissed 'Psst Psst' from behind a wall and the furtive figure of a man waylaid us. The girls giggled and nudged each other and the young men drew together in a knot as young men will when threatened. The furtive man was dressed in a shabby suit from the mainland and he carried a kind of tray or box slung round his neck such as the street match sellers use to display their ware. His torch lit up the words printed in English 'Buy Me and Stop One'. Thinking that he was an ice-cream vendor and that my companions were embarrassed because they were too poor to buy an ice-cream, I indicated (none of them spoke English), that I wanted to buy ice-cream all round. To my surprise I was hustled away into the pub. There I asked Francis to explain to the dancers that I wanted to buy them ices. Francis's face told me something was wrong, yet my request seemed so innocent that I was stupid and persisted in my demand, showing my money, so that all must have understood. A hush of embarrassment invaded the crowd in the pub.

The itinerant vendor from the mainland was selling birth control and I had mistaken 'Buy Me and Stop One' for 'Stop Me and Buy One'. In my own estimation I was down to the bottom of the class again.

Nicolette Devas, from her autobiography Two Flamboyant Fathers, 1966


The Sunday Dance

Next and most important in the life of the servant boys and girls was the Sunday night dancing. Unlike today there was no Saturday night dancing, for that night was strictly reserved for the Sunday night's preparation. On Saturday night there would be the monthly visit to confession, the visit to the village shop to get razor blades and the old packet of fags. If the old money was anyway plentiful the boys would treat themselves to the luxury packet of Players or Gold Flake so they could cut a dash with the girls. Then they'd meet the other boys and girls and plan for the following night. Dancehalls were aplenty, one in almost every village and town, and you'd have an odd good ballroom out in the middle of nowhere and you'd think nothing of travelling twenty to twenty-five miles to a good dancehall. Of course, the average dancehall in those days was a kind of glorified cowshed except that you'd have a good timber floor and you could swing to your heart's content as the proprietor had it well dressed with plenty of Lux toilet flakes. They'd do a great job on it. The flakes at that time were used for washing clothes and came in hand to make the dance-floor slippy.

I used to cycle with the boys to all the dances, as I said, up to twenty miles and maybe more. There were no cars and if you got a puncture you might have to walk a quare distance home or cycle the old bike on the rim. And with the roads of bygone days you'd head the old ramshackle for miles on a quiet night. For there were potholes as big as barrels and sometimes when repairing potholes they used sharp stones and shovels of clay to keep them together. It was not easy to keep tyres right on the bike and with little money you were not able to replace them on the bikes too often. As for repairing a puncture it was a waste of time using solution and patches unless it was on a fine Sunday and you were going to a hurling or football match. Then you might attempt it.

You had to turn the old bike upside down, resting it on saddle and handlebars. With the aid of two old pennies you'd remove the tyre, take out the tube, and using sandpaper striker on a matchbox you'd clean the tube. Next you applied solution from the tube in your kit to patch and tube and stuck one on the other. Sometimes you would light a match and hold it a little away from the tube and patch as this would help it dry fairly quickly. Replacing tube in tyre you'd pump it and you were again ready for the road. Of course before all this operation you'd have to find out where the puncture was. By pumping up the tube when it was completely removed from inside the tyre you could hear the escaping air and with the help of the wet tongue and maybe the odd spit you were bound to find the exact spot. There was another emergency trick which was great when you had to pinpoint the exact spot where the air was coming. You'd then let out what air there was in the tube and holding the spot between your teeth, tie it with a bit of twine and you were in business again. Indeed I often saw lads having no twine use a shoe lace and it would do the job. Of course you then mended the puncture properly at a later date with solution and patches when you had plenty of time.

As for Sunday night dances, there was a great variety. You had the fourpenny hop from 8 pm to 10.30 pm. Then you had what was known as the Cinderella, eight to twelve midnight and finally there was the occasional all-night dance which lasted from 10 until 5 in the morning. These were occasionally held during the wintertime and believe it or not they did dance all night long at them. The admission to these all-night dances was half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) [twelve and a half pence], and supper was served during the night for one shilling: plenty of bread, butter and jam and for an extra sixpence meat, maybe a bit of ham.

Now the fourpenny hop was great old crack as the boys and girls were there in their finery, dressed to kill, as they'd say. They all would mix at the dance, servant boys, girls and the fairly well-off. Class distinction was kind of forgotten then. In the summertime it was grand but it was a bit harsh in the winter. But hail, rain or snow they all made out for the dances. In those day, too, a girl could travel all the lonely roads on her own and be quite safe. No such thing as rape. They were all highly respected.

The boys usually wore the strong boots when they were going to the dance with the low shoes tied to the carrier of the bike. About a half mile from the dancehall they'd remove the boots and put on the low shoes, having kept them nice and clean and dry. The hobnail boots would then be rolled up in a pile of sacks they'd have with them and these would be hid in the ditch in a marked spot and left there until returning as it was dangerous to tie them to the bike. All the bikes were stacked at the back of the dancehall or there might be house convenient to the hall where they'd be left in the backyard. The owner, probably an old man, would take care of them for the big fee of a penny. Every bike carried a pump and this would be hidden in a suitable place for protection or it would be put in the inside pocket of the coat. And boys would hold onto them for the night and guard them while they were dancing. There were some lads who never danced but stood there all night looking on. These lads would mind the pumps for the boys and girls while they were dancing and they'd often have five or six pumps in their possession.

Peaked caps were all the go that time and some lads never removed them when dancing. As the night wore on and the sets and barn dances were in full swing you'd see the boys turning back the caps and the peak of the cap would slope down their back. They'd then remove their jackets and roll up the sleeves of their shirts. This gave an indication of how heavy the going was, as did the sweat running down their faces. And I can tell you they'd be fair rubbing with the big white handkerchief for no visit to the dancehall was complete without displaying a big white handkerchief or a nice coloured one as the case might be and this was displayed on the top pocket of the jacket with a half yard of it hanging down. This showed great style and they'd go to all rounds in the world to make sure it was well folded and displayed. They'd have a big safety pin on the inside of the jacket stuck through the handkerchief to keep it in place. Some of the prime boys might give it a pull but faith! it would stay tight in the pocket. The girls would roll up their sleeves and remove their cardigans when the going was getting hot.

The boys would all cluster together at the back of the dancehall just inside the door and the girls would usually pack together around the cloakroom door like flies on a summer day. They move out when the music started and when finished they'd gently return back to the same position. This was the case at the beginning of the dance and all were very shy to start. But like horses when they'd get warmed up things would change. There was always a very slow start to see who'd take the floor first. So when the first pair would begin they'd all move out. As with cattle or sheep there was always one good leader and he'd get the rest of them going. As the night wore on the boys would move further into the dancehall and the girls would move to the seats by the wall on stools or long forms which were there for the comfort of dancers when they wanted to rest. And usually when they'd get acquainted the boy would take the girl on his knee and oh! you'd never see such squeezing and hugging. The proprietor would move freely through the dancers keeping order, and he'd occasionally produce the big box of Lux flakes and sprinkle handfuls of them on the timber floor. This gave a good bite and slide for the dancers.

Waltzing and foxtrots were very orderly but when it came to the set-dances you'd hear an occasional shout from the proprietor, 'No four-wheeling here!' as they'd usually create a bit of a rumpus. When two boys and two girls joined together there was a danger of a big spill. Some fellow might get a bit of a bump and he'd get his dander up; so order had to be restored fairly quickly. The boys would occasionally return to the cloakroom to have a look in the mirror and give the hair a bit of a comb - that's the ones who didn't wear the caps. No more than the hankies, the small pocket comb, better known as the rack, was also part of their toiletry and to accompany this they'd carry in their inside pockets a small bottle of hair oil known as Brilliantine which could be bought for twopence at the time. So a drop of this on the hand was rubbed into the hair, it was combed back and they were right again for the floor and another whirl. The jacket having been removed, the tie might be taken off with the collar of the shirt. These would be folded very nicely and put into the jacket pocket. Shirt sleeves freshly rolled up displayed their hairy hands and neck, giving a great display of strength.

The women would also be very active between the dances in the cloakroom. Powdering and painting the rouge, as they called it, were very much the order of the night. Cosmetics were in very short supply and a great man in those times was the red tea-bag. After the tea was emptied the red-coloured packet was kept by the servant girl and accompanied her to the dances. Indeed it was often passed around the other girls who might not have one. When the bag was damped and rubbed to the face it left part of its red colour on the cheekbones. A good daub of this on the dial would give them a grand blushing look like the sun going down and with a good dousing of powder they'd look like a mouse coming out of a flourbag. This made them very attractive to the boys. Eyebrows were also done in the most sophisticated way. A bit of a stick reddened in the fire and left cold was their ideal eyebrow pencil. This gave a great blackening to the eyebrows, giving the appearance of a full moon. This piece of stick was always taken by the girls to the dances rolled up in a piece of paper, kept in an empty matchbox in case it would get damaged and placed in the compact bag with powder and lipstick. The same bag was not let out of the hand all night. A lot of this tiffin' up was done before they left the house. But since the girls had to cycle long distances in all kinds of weather some of this make-up would have vanished. When they'd arrive at the dancehall they'd have to replenish the dial again. After some lively dances, too, with perspiration running down their faces it would look like snow melting or a rainbow with the different colours mixing.

The boys in those times were like tick-tack men at races with one, two or three fingers up while dancing, booking future dances, and this confusion would go on all night. Indeed there were many high tempers when a girl didn't keep her promise. Many's the disappointed customer would approach the girl in question and say, 'You promised me this dance!' I can assure you there were a lot of fist fights but that was as far as they went. God love them, they'd square out to one another with the coats off and the caps pushed back. They were like young fighting cocks. The proprietor or floorman would rush in quickly to try and cool their tempers and then they'd say to each other, 'Come on outside!' which they did. A big crowd would follow and the two would beat the shit out of each other; then it was all over and that was that. Of course there was many a black eye and bleeding nose. They'd return to the dancehall but these lads were like prize bulls and they'd be watching each other all night. And maybe they'd have a go at each other outside on the road when the dance was over. There was always some interfering lad who'd urge them on. This was great fun and always a big audience gathering whether it was day or night.

While at these dances the servant boys usually kept with the servant girls. There would also be a good gathering of farmers' sons and daughters and a few workers from industries. They were there from all walks of life, though some of the farming people would not mix with the servants, which indeed was a great ridiculous class distinction. The majority of these working class were every bit a good as the ones that shunned them. As far as I and some of my pals were concerned we never turned our back on these poor people as they were the same in our eyes as any other boy or girl.

Indeed many a good farmer's son married a servant girl though it had to be a runaway marriage as they were blacklisted by the boy's family. When a thing like that happened it was a crime and they'd be whispering and talking about it for weeks. Some of these marriages turned out very well and lucky and they made great partners and great parents and did very well for themselves. They brought up great families who I have no doubt did very well for themselves and commanded very good positions. Marriages of that kind met all kinds of obstacles; the clergy were not in favour and it made things kind of hard for a boy and girl. The class distinction was stinking and the clergy were all for the big man though there might be the odd man of the robe who was fair and kinds. But, thanks be to God, all that nonsense is done away with and gone we hope for ever.

Some of these halls were very primitive. I remember one which had neither a ladies' nor a gent's toilets. It was just a glorified barn with hanging lamps; so if you wanted to go to the toilet it was the case of going out around the corner and relieving yourself in the dark. With no light to direct him many's the man went out to relieve himself was just about to do that when he'd hear a scream. A few women would be already there before him and on their haunches doing the same and already maybe after getting a fair sprinkling from some other lads. But all these things were taken in good spirits with no bad feelings. Such were the thrills of enjoyment in those days.

I remember one such dancehall out in the middle of nowhere. This contraption was owned by two brothers and it consisted of a large good shed with a partition at one end for a gents' and ladies' cloakroom. The toilets were on the side of the hall, crude homemade yokes. Outside there was a running stream which never dried, summer or winter, and the toilets were built over this. There were four big poles stuck down on the ground for each toilet with an opening out from the dancehall. Around the poles were nailed a few sheets of galvanised iron to give a bit of privacy. Now in each toilet was a piece of wood about eighteen inches from the ground with a big round hole cut in it where the boy or girl could relieve themselves. The girls would naturally sit on these and there was a drop of about four feet between that and the running water. So it was ideal for the job, a natural flush.

Now from outside you could make your way into the dancehall through the toilet holes which many's the lad did as there was no fence or sheet iron on the bottom of the outside. A very large crowd from miles around would come to this dancehall whenever it was open. 'Twas a great attraction. Many prime boys used to congregate outside in the summertime and they were up to all sorts of devilment. One evening some of these lads thought up a plan. One of them got a bunch of nettles and when the girl came to the toilet the buck was ready outside with a full view of what was happening. The minute she sat on the toilet up with the bunch of nettles and oh my God the screams! I can assure you it was a sore thing. The lads from inside used to say it was a mighty howl to see the girl running into the dancehall with fright and her knickers around her ankles. The lads outside made their getaway as fast as they could. After those happenings the proprietors made sure they had the outside protected by boarding up the bottoms of the toilets on the outside. A notice was placed on the ladies' toilet saying: 'All bottoms are not protected.'

Liam O'Donnell, The Sunday Dance, a chapter of The Days of the Servant Boy, 1997


Dying to step out on the concrete

In Tipperary and in Kerry there are dancing platforms at the cross-roads. Many of them are made of concrete and must be very hard on the feet of the dancers.

There is one just outside Killarney, over the bridge towards Muckross. I went there one Sunday night, which is the great dance night, in the hope of seeing a few jigs. I found about twelve hulking youths sitting on the stone wall near the platform, but not one girl. The segregation of the sexes is a remarkable feature of the Irish countryside. The girls go about together and the boys loiter in glum groups at street corners or the end of lanes; and both seem a bit sad about it.

One of the boys had a fiddle and another had a concertina. When I spoke to them they became as shy as colts. The girls, they said, were a bit late for the dance, and if they did not turn up soon they would have to give up the idea of dancing.

They kept looking up the road in search of the reluctant maidens. The fiddler sat on the wall and played a marvellous jig. He said the name was 'Job of Journey Work'. Still the itchy music charmed no partners to the dance. I felt sorry for the youths who were dying to step out on the concrete.

They noticed, with a brightening of eye and a smoothing of tousled hair, a number of girls coming toward them down the lane. Here were the partners! But the girls walked right past, and the boys just nodded and smiled at them in a sheepish way. No one suggested that they should join the dance. Then a priest cycled past and they all took off their caps. I wondered whether the priest's presence had stopped the dance; but that was not likely, because I have been told that most priests approve of cross-road dancing.

The boys cast a miserable glance in the direction of the departing girls, the fiddler put away his instrument, the other musician closed his concertina, and sadly the group melted away.

There was nothing to do but lean over the bridge and watch the trout rising.

H V Morton, In Search of Ireland, 1930


Connie Ryan's film career

In the film adaptation of John B Keane's play, The Field, produced by Noel Pearson and directed by Jim Sheridan, there is a scene involving dancing at an American wake. The actors, including Richard Harris, Tom Berenger, Seán Bean, Brenda Fricker, Frances Tomelty and about 60 local dancers had to be taught the basic steps of the sets, and Connie was the one chosen to perform this onerous task and to choreograph the dancing, assisted by Betty McCoy; both names appear in the credits. In the middle of filming he had to fly out to Cape May in New Jersey to fulfil his annual workshop engagement there. The film sequences were shot on location in Leenane, Connemara, in 1990.

Connie was the choreographer for the dancing scenes in Scarlet, an eight hour television mini-series, recording the 19th century turbulent romance of Scarlett O'Hara, played by JoAnne Whalley-Kilmer, and Rhett Butler played by Timothy Dalton. The series was based on the sequel to Margaret Mitchel's Gone With the Wind by Alexander Ripley. Connie supplied a group of dancers, and the dancing scenes were shot in the Ardmore Studios in Bray during June 1994. I went as a dancer but ended up playing the whistle! In the credits Jane Gibson and Connie Ryan are named as the choreographers.

The three part series for Sky Movies, September, featuring Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Edward Fox, Mariel Hemingway and Virginia McKenna involved a party dancing scene which was filmed on location in Dublin. There were sixteen dancers required and these were selected by Connie, and were required to do some Irish and Scottish dances. Unfortunately the filming took place while he was in hospital having his first operation in September 1994 and Betty acted as choreographer on his behalf.

Michael Tubridy, Connie Ryan, the Mighty Set Dancing Master, 1999


An entirely new phase of life

The taste for music and dance which was hereditary, especially from my mother's side of the family, began to haunt me when I was 15 years old. I heard my mother's brother playing on a flute and it awoke in me the desire to try to play. He was a recent winner at an Oireachtas in Killarney in 1914. There was not very much appreciation of music around where I lived and no chance of taking music lessons in any formal manner. Yet, I bought a tin whistle and tried myself. One day a bachelor neighbor and cousin of my father's, having heard the feeble attempts, asked me for the whistle. He started to play and I was surprised to learn that he was a fair player, doing so entirely by ear. This didn't dampen my ardour and he taught me several tunes during the winter. I found out that he also played for dances in a house where young people gathered at night. I asked to go along one night and he gave his consent, provided that I didn't tell my parents that he made the decision.

This opened up an entirely new phase of life that seemed to go along with the music. The farmers' kitchens were large and permitted some card playing and dancing to be carried on simultaneously. After going to this house a few times and watching the young men and girls enjoying themselves, I wished I was more grown up so I could participate in the fun. My contribution was limited for some months, however, to playing along with my tutor who never danced and preferred to play cards. But one night there were only a few dancers and they needed a fellow to fill out the dancing set. Somebody suggested that I try it, reminding me that I would have to learn some day, and the sooner the better. I was flabbergasted but there seemed to be no alternative to complying and I had the wish to try anyway. Set dances in Ireland were done without the benefit of a caller and the dancers were expected to know most of the movements before giving an exhibition of their clumsy attempts in public. They were practised at home or at small house parties and this seemed like the right time and place. The leader of the square dance, or set as it was called, knew all the parts and kept prompting the others if they seemed inexperienced.

The leader of this set was an avid dancer. His name was Malachy Moynihan and his ability to lead was well recognised in the neighbourhood. His decision to perform something long and strange on this occasion terrified me. But he assured me there was no difference between making a mistake in one set or another. He was right and I made enough in that one, 'Set of Erin', to discourage most fellows from trying again. There were many different sets danced in the locality, among them the 'Jenny Lind', 'The Polka Set', 'Victoria', 'Set of Erin', 'The Mazurka' and the 'High Caul Cap' being the most popular. Many of my pals around there learned to dance the same winter. A few others learned to play the tin whistle also, as there was talk of starting a fife and drum band in the village and we wanted to be counted in on it. During a local wedding the following spring, only one of the gang, Jerry Daly, had the nerve to dance on that occasion. The music was strange and inspiring but the girls looked 'too strange and too pretty' as one fellow described them. I guess he was a bit too shy.

Jeremiah Murphy, from War, Rebellion and New Horizons, chapter 3 of When Youth Was Mine, A Memoir of Kerry 1902-1925


Very strict about the Sets

The next hall that came into use in Lahinch was simply known as Jack Garrahy's Hall. This hall strangely was also on the north side of Lahinch, in an area behind Lally's Lodge and back of the present Celtic T Shop area from the lane out to the prom. We were told that the ground floor had living accommodation and at one time, a butcher's shop. A concrete stairs took you upstairs to a hall and small dressing room. The hall would hold about 120 people. Again, oil lamps were in use here also for many years.

This hall had greater use than the others with card games, dances, concerts, meetings, etc. The gambles in winter were a major event - a full house starting at 9 pm and often going on to daybreak. Irish dances and ceili and old time waltzes were also held here and it was said that the owner was very strict about the Sets. No pounding on the floor, no 'trebleing' or battering of any kind. If you were caught, Jack Garrahy just lifted you off the floor and dropped you out on the prom. Drama was popular in those days and there were many travelling groups. McMaster, Taylor, Bailey, Sonny Coll, to recall but a few. The local drama also put on plays here and we were reminded that the Lahinch Junior Dramatic Society was established here. This hall closed down shortly after the death of Jack Garrahy around 1940.

Tomsie O'Sullivan from The Dance Halls of Lahinch in the Past 100 Years published in the 1999 Ennistymon Parish Magazine, December 1998


Hell, fire and damnation

"Dancing," thundered one parish priest in 1670, "is a thing that leads to bad thoughts and evil actions. It is dancing that excites the desires of the body. In the dance are seen frenzy and woe, and with dancing thousands go to the black hell." This indefensible attitude to what was nothing more than a harmless pastime enjoyed against the bleak economic backdrop of pre and post-Famine Ireland was maintained by the clergy right up to the 1930s and '40s. In his excellent essays The Church and Dancing in Ireland, the late historian and folklorist, Breandán Breathnach, catalogues what must be considered as nothing short of an unrelenting campaign of terror waged by the clergy against not only dancers and dancing but also any musician who played for such "depraved and sinful" gatherings. Tales of priests breaking up house-dances and open-air dances and condemning the participants to eternal damnation from the altars were legion, the ultimate penalty invoked being excommunication. They went even further; to physically attack musicians and break their instruments, in many cases forcing the player, who depended on music for his livelihood, into the poorhouse or to take the emigration boat. Stephen Ruane, the nineteenth-century Galway piper, was one such victim, being forced to abandon his living as a professional musician and take to the Galway workhouse, where he ended his days. A Clare fiddler went so far as to argue the point with his local parish priest. The action of the fiddle-bow being drawn across the fiddle-strings, he offered as a defence for playing "the Devil's Music," symbolised the Sign of the Cross and therefore could not be an "instrument of evil." Junior Crehan, the celebrated fiddler and storyteller from west Clare, recalls a priest in his parish in the Thirties who was so vehemently opposed to music and dancing in any form that he regularly prowled the country lanes at night in his efforts to stamp out these "occasions of sin and debauchery." On one occasion, on discovering a dance in full spate in a country house, the over-zealous cleric stormed the house, practically foaming at the mouth, scattering the dancers with his blackthorn stick and snatching a concertina from the hands of a musician, ripping it apart, throwing it on the fire and placing his boot on the instrument while promising Hell, fire and damnation to all who had attended. Such was the genuine fear locally of these threats that the house-dances and crossroad dances died away and many of the musicians emigrated to England or America. "I hung up my fiddle after that," recalls Junior Crehan. "There was no more music to be heard anywhere."

P J Curtis, Notes from the Heart, 1994


It does not make degenerates

The habit of dancing too fast and accelerating the speed, so prevalent of late years, should be checked and discouraged; it tends to spoil the effect of both dance and tune and is at variance with the traditional style in which the pace was moderate and steady. This undesirable practice is particularly noticeable in the Single Reel, which is usually danced nowadays ar nós an sidhe gaoithe.

Children's deportment should be attended to during the course of their training so that they may not dance with their toes turned in, or with shoulders stooped or contracted.

Irish Dancing is cultural, graceful and diversified, it is also manly and athletic, and, as stated on high authority, "it does not make degenerates." The difficulty of step dancing has often been made to serve as an excuse for the apathy and indifference of many towards Irish Dancing altogether, but we have a number of interesting figure and other dances, some so simple that all may take part in them.

Pernicious and degrading foreign influences must be combated and suppressed if our dancing and music are to be restored to their rightful place in the social life of our people.

Frank Roche, from the Note on Irish Dancing, Volume 3, The Roche Collection of Irish Traditional Music, 1927


A favourite national amusement

In Ireland, the people of which country possess, or at any rate possessed formerly, a reputation for gaiety and humour, one naturally expects to find that dancing flourishes and is a favourite national amusement. And this is so to a great extent, though they have not, perhaps, such a variety of popular measures as other countries. It has been said that if the girls of Dublin did not indulge in dancing - which, however, they are not slow to do - they would become cripples, for it is not the fashion to walk in Dublin, probably owing to the badly-paved streets, which make walking unpleasant. Few meetings for any purpose take place in Ireland without a dance being called for; at the fair you are sure to come across some youths dancing a 'break down,' with many accompanying 'whoops,' and much brandishing of blackthorn or 'shillelagh.'

Lilly Grove, from the section on Ireland in Dancing, 1895


Never played better in all his life

Jimmy Fallon, a blind travelling piper, was playing for dancers at the ball alley in Curraghboy, Roscommon, one afternoon, and the wind being in the right or wrong direction, the parish priest heard the music and being very much against dancing even in daylight, got his blackthorn stick and set out on foot, guided by the piper and his music. The priest was spotted in time. A young girl, realising the plight of the blind piper rushed across to him and picked him up, pipes and all, and carried him on her shoulder across a nearby lake, through water, mud and rushes to the other side, followed by the rest of the crowd, a distance of 500 yards. The piper was set up on a green hill beside the lake and never played better in all his life and everyone danced for the whole day all in wet clothes. The priest stood on the other side shouting if he could get over what he would do and the dancers waved their caps and shawls in return.

Breandán Breathnach, from Dancing in Ireland, 1983


Good posture

Good posture is not a luxury. It is a necessity.
  1. Stand erect.
  2. Keep your body firm, yet flexible.
  3. Relax.
  4. Look straight ahead and distribute your weight evenly on the ball of each foot and not the toes or heels.
  5. Slightly tilt your lower pelvis forward and upward.
  6. Do not bend your knees.
  7. As you shift into position your buttocks should tuck in and the back-lumber curve-flatten into a slight arc. Flattening the lumber curve is the name of the game.
  8. Don't arch your back and tuck in your stomach. This only develops the tense posture of a soldier.
Correct posture can help us both physically and emotionally and improve both our well being and self image.

Peggy Carty, from My Irish Dance, 1987


It travels in the blood

John Moriarty remembers, "There was dancing in the old house until 1935 and the dancing continued in the new house until thirty years ago. We were learned here by my father and then by my uncle down below. We had to learn them. My father would sit in the corner and have a stick and he'd hit the back of your legs if you made a mistake. I tell you, you'd watch mistakes! They'd beat it into you. You had to have a girl who was able to dance and she'd help you around. We learned the young lads coming up. 'Tis like anything else. It travels in the blood.

"When we were young there'd be twenty young fellows in the house learning to dance. My God! That was the times we used to enjoy. Around here was an awful place for it, it was. They were mad for music, my father and grandfather.

"There was dancing at Tadgh Moriarty's house, Muingaphuca, Carragh Lake, every night all winter. We might have a ball night or Biddy's Day. We'd go out that time and collect four pound ten shillings. That'd be sixteen gallons porter in the barrel. We'd buy two of them, bread and jam in a shop in Killorglin. That would feed one hundred people for two or three pounds, tea and wine for the women. And dance away. We'd use to have raffles, a shilling for the night and eat enough and dance enough. The Wren dance - we'd be two nights travelling around the country and walk it, too. If you got sixpence in a house, you'd be a millionaire."

Quoted by Larry Lynch in Set Dances of Ireland, 1989


Only on special occasions and in certain company

I myself first became aware that there was a revival taking place, in December 1984, when, after a session of music at the Churchtown branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Dublin, I saw a notice pinned to the back of the door, which said there were set dancing classes being held at the De La Salle School hall in Churchtown on Tuesday nights. I wondered what it could be, would it be anything like the dancing and sets I had known many years before that, so I decided to go along and investigate. Little did I expect to find the teacher putting his class through their paces with the Plain Set - I was amazed, I had never seen so many people dancing the Plain Set before, and this was right in the heart of Dublin. To me, when I was growing up, the Plain Set was something special, not everybody in my neighborhood danced it, just because it was thought to be more complicated than the Caledonian, and it was only on special occasions and in certain company it would be danced at all. That night in the De La Salle hall was my first encounter with Connie Ryan, who was the dancing teacher, and over the following few years I was to learn from him such sets as The Lancers, The Orange and Green, and The Mazurka Set, all associated with Clare, and which I could vaguely remember my father speaking about, but had never seen danced before.

Going back a little, to Dublin in the early 1960s, a group of Clare people, and I was very fortunate to be one of them, (the youngest member at the time), got together and decided to form a club where we could continue our music and dancing, which we missed very much since coming to live in the city. The club was called after Mrs. Crotty, a concertina player from Kilrush, in Co. Clare, and we met every Thursday night in a hall in Bridge Street, just up the hill from Ned O'Shea's Merchant public house, which is a very well known venue for music and set dancing at the present day. The sets we danced at the club were The Caledonian and Plain Sets - we didn't know any others, and we were quite happy with those two. We had some very memorable nights, and on one of those we had four Céilí bands to play for us, the Tulla, the Kilfenora, the Liverpool, and the Castle Céilí Bands, all of which were in Dublin for Oireachtas na Gaeilge music competitions. Connie Ryan tells me that he also visited us once or twice, and that he learned The Plain Set from some of the members of our club. The club lasted four or five years, before the building was demolished to make room for a wider road, and we failed to find a suitable alternative venue. Our MC, or teacher, in those years, was Josie Murphy from Ennistymon, Co. Clare, and she was responsible for teaching the sets to many a young Dubliner at the time. Sadly, Josie was called to her eternal reward in July 1993, and was buried in her native Ennistymon.

Michael Tubridy, from The Set Dancing Revival in Ceol na hÉireann No 2, 1994


Renewed strength, vitality and energy

Dancing is the only rational amusement wherein the man of business can wholly forget the manifold cares of an active business life. The social repast, when combined with delightful music, is a panacea for the innumerable ills resulting from a continuous strain on the heated and overtaxed brain.

Those who are constantly in the whirl of business excitement - it might be said the treadmill of fortune - when overburdened with cares, soul and body, take this prescription.

DANCE ONE OR TWO EVENINGS A WEEK, and the whole dancing profession will stake their reputation on the assertion that renewed strength, vitality and energy will be thereby generated in the whole system.

Professor A C Wirth, from the preface to Complete Quadrille Call Book and Dancing Master, 1902


Etiquette for Ball and Drawing Room

Avoid slang phrases.

Do not contradict.

Give your opinions, but do not argue them.

It is the duty of a gentleman having a place in a quadrille, to have his lady with him; otherwise he forfeits his place.

Never take part in a quadrille without knowing something of the figures.

Dancing is subject to much abuse by the thoughtless acquirements of bad habits.

While dancing, endeavor to wear a pleasant face.

Always finish your toilet before entering the ball room.

Always recognize the lady or gentlemen, director or master of ceremonies, with becoming politeness, a bow or a salute is sufficient.

Do not speak in a loud tone, indulge in boisterous laughter or actions, nor tell long stories.

Never seem to be conscious of an affront, unless it be of a very gross nature.

In company, one is not required to defend friends, unless personally addressed.

All should be at ease in the ball room, or private party, just as if at home. No person can be pleased in the consciousness of being awkward.

Never become involved in a dispute if it be possible to avoid it.

Nothing charms more than candor, when united with good breeding.

Never repeat in one company any scandal or personal history you have heard in another.

In ascending a staircase with ladies, go at their side or before them. It is the gentleman's duty to lead the lady and hers to follow.

Contending for a position in quadrilles indicates an irritable and quarrelsome dispostion.

Do not form an engagement during a dance, or while a lady is engaged in any manner.

Any provocation to anger should never be resented in the presence of ladies.

The most obvious mark of good breeding and good taste is a regard for the feeling of our companions.

A lady should never promenade the ball room alone, nor enter it unaccompanied.

Be careful not to speak too freely on subjects of which you are ill informed. Allow those who are better informed to lead the conversation.

Never seem to understand improper expressions; much less use them.

If you have in any manner given offense do not hesitate to apologize.

Never forget that ladies are to be first cared for, and are entitled in all cases to your courteous protection.

When passing through a quadrille, let your arm hang easily and avoid any display of agility or knowledge of steps.

Sets should be formed with as little confusion as possible. Running to obtain a position should be carefully avoided.

While conversing with one person in a crowded room, let it be in an undertone, avoiding all affectation, frowning, quizzing, or the slightest indication of ill temper.

Loud conversation, profanity, stamping the feet, writing on the wall, using tobacco, spitting or throwing anything on the floor, are glaring vulgarities.

The ladies' dressing room is a sacred precinct, into which no gentlemen should presume to look. To enter it would be an outrage not to be forgiven.

If a gentleman wishes to dance with a lady with whom he is not acquainted, politely ask the master of ceremonies for an introduction.

It is very impolite and insulting to galop around or inside of other sets while dancing quadrilles.

It is very indecorous to be laughing, sneering, or commenting at those present. It shows a lack of refinement.

The habit of leaving one set to enter another cannot be too severely censured, and never under any circumstances should it be done without an apology to those remaining in the set.

A gentleman escorting a lady to a party or ball, should invariably dance the first number with her or offer to do so, and see that she is provided with a partner whenever she wishes to dance.

A gentleman may, with propriety, ask another gentleman, whether known to him or not, if he wishes a partner, then introduce him to his lady acquaintances.

The master of ceremonies is privileged to ask any lady or gentleman whether they wish to dance, make himself known and procure partners for them if they so desire.

At the supper hour, the lady is conducted to the dining room by her escort, who remains with her and sees that all her wants are attended to. Gloves should always be removed at the supper table.

True politeness costs nothing, but yields the largest interest and profit to the possessor of any known securities.

Professor A C Wirth, Complete Quadrille Call Book and Dancing Master, 1902


Etiquette of the Ballroom

Here are ten Golden Rules - one might almost say "Ten Ballroom Commandments", culled from old books on ballroom dancing, which are not without their value today. Part of the charm of Old Time dancing lies in its courtesy and application of good manners. The strict observance of the rules of correct behaviour is not only helpful at great pageants or big balls, but is equally effective in providing the right "atmosphere" in even the smallest club.
  1. Pay respectful attention of elderly persons.
  2. Be cordial when serving refreshments, but not importunate.
  3. If there are more dancers than the floor will comfortably accommodate, do not join in every dance.
  4. The host and hostess should look after their guests, and not confine their attentions. They should, in fact, assist those chiefly who are the least known in the room.
  5. It is not correct to rush for places when the sets are being arranged.
  6. It is not correct to change from one set to another.
  7. It is not correct to romp in dancing.
  8. It is not correct to wait until the music is half over before selecting a partner.
  9. It is not correct to dance with the same partner all evening.
  10. It is not correct to exhibit any symptoms of dissatisfaction in the ballroom.
From The Old Time Dancers' Handbook by F J Mainey, published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd, London, 1953.

Read more writing about set dancing in the Set Dancing Anthology, New Articles, Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 and Volume 4.

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