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Set Dancing Anthology - Volume 2

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

Kitchen Dances

On the night of St. Patrick's Day there was always a Kitchen Dance on the Northside and it lasted until the dawn of the next day. Kitchen Dances, also called 'balls' or 'kitchen parties', were big townland dances that were held on special days of the year in the colder seasons: St. Patrick's Day, November Dark (at the end of the seining season) and soon after the Wren Ball on St. Stephen's day. In the warm summer months, dances outside in the fresh air were called 'Patterns' and they were held on Holy Days or on Sundays. There was never any dancing in Lent except for St. Patrick's Day.

The Kitchen Dances cost two shillings and six pence, but the Wren Ball would cost more. The Patterns cost one shilling. Women always went free of charge to dances but every able man had to pay. A tierce of porter (16 gallons) was provided for the event. When James McCarthy (Jim Will of Dunkelly Middle) was a boy in the nineteen-tens, he and Agnes O'Donavan (of Dunkelly West) were taught to play the squeeze box (melodeon) by Sergeant McGuire, of Goleen. He was then the only person to own and play a squeeze box. In the times before the squeeze box the dances were played on a fiddle or hummed out vocally. Sergeant McGuire performed for all the Kitchen Dances, playing;

The Kilmoe Set, The Step O'Cipeen, Highland Fling, Polly Glide, The Stack of Barley, The Hornpipes, The Siege of Ennis, The Gay Gordons, and other, jigs, reels and set dances.

With the opening of the Goleen Village Hall, in 1926, the Kitchen Dance was banned, but they carried on with them on the Northside regardless. Michael O'Donovan (Mike Danny), Patrick Hodnett, Denis McCarthy (Dinny Wilum of the Poundland, Dunkelly West) also learnt to play the squeeze box; they would each give a spell at it. Bat Downey, who played the fiddle, would come over from the South Side. There were some grand balls on the South Side as well. The favourite locations on the Northside were Pad Danny's (Patrick O'Donavan of Dunkelly North) and at the Wills (McCarthy's of Dunkelly Middle). All who came to the ball shared the cost of porter and whiskey, and a tierce of porter was provided for the night. Women wore fine, white linen blouses which became black when they danced, from the men's hands, dirtied by pipe baccy!

Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes, Northside of the Mizen, 1999

Round the house and mind the dresser

Special social occasions were few and far between when I was growing up and because of their scarcity they were more thoroughly enjoyed. They were talked about in shivering anticipation for a week beforehand, and they were nattered about with happy memories for two weeks afterwards.

The house hooley or the céilí was what most caught our fancy. These dances were held in the home - some families needed no excuse and just held them at "the drop of a hat". If it happened that a member of the family played a musical instrument, so much the better. The stone kitchen floor was swept clean. The stools, forms and few kitchen chairs were pushed back tightly against the white-washed walls. One good solid chair - one that wasn't 'bacach' or didn't have bacadaigh legs - was set up in the middle of the table for the musician. This was done so he wouldn't be shoved or pushed or elbowed by the dancers when the half sets began.

My cousin, Mattie Quinn in Geeha, was a marvellous melodeon player. His home was the ideal place for a hooley. The huge kitchen had a solid stone floor. There was a resident musician and many young family members - all the ingredients for a lively céilí. There were never any invitations. Nobody was ever invited and nobody was ever turned away. The house was always full. Being cousins, we girls always heard about the hooley well in advance, and had plenty of time to get ready.

Not that it made any difference because getting ready only took a minute or two. There was no make-up to be put on. You relied on nature. Looking back, it seems to me that what we wore didn't matter; rather the personality, gaiety and friendliness of the person did. Speaking for myself, I remember I had only two good dresses and I must have washed and worn them to death. Nevertheless at a ceili I never left the floor, and I was never short of a partner.

In retrospect, it seems that I, third in the family, was brought along to ceilis at a very young age. My father had his own reason for doing this. If he wished, he could go home early and plead my extreme youth as an excuse. Sometimes, when it was time to go to the ceili, my father often "baulked" and said he was too tired, or that it looked like rain or . . . So we begged, pleaded and cajoled and usually won.

Off we set, walking maybe two miles. Sometimes you might be offered a lift on the bar of a bicycle - this was most uncomfortable and a hazard because a dress could easily get caught in the spokes and be ruined, so very often walking was the better choice. Not even the rain deterred us once we got it into our heads; we were "rarin" to go. Our excitement grew as we marched up the road, over the boreen, out on the Cloosh road, gathering other céilí goers on our way.

To this day, I can remember standing at the gate of Quinns, the ceili house, listening to the music as it was carried through the open kitchen door. Light streamed out from a large oil lamp which would cost a fortune nowadays. Shadows came and went on the shaded windows as the dancers kicked up their heels to the "Connacht Man's Rambles", or "A Trip to the Cottage". We crowded into the already crowded kitchen and, as we were good dancers, were immediately claimed by other good dancers. Oh! What rhythm! What bliss! What sheer animal delight as we pounded the floor in the half set, the Stack of Barley or the waltz. When a barn dance was called, off we went, "Toe, heel 1-2-3, Round the house and mind the dresser", the dance ending in a double swing and much laughter. There was a lady called Nora Sullivan who could dance the barn dance as nobody else could, so we all gradually moved back and let her take the floor. And, my goodness, but she could dance and hop and hit the floor in spots, just like a top.

A good dancer could be busy all night, asked for the next dance and the next one and the one after that. The rule was that, if a man asked you to dance, you usually accepted. If a man danced well, that was an added bonus and you could afford to ignore the bald head, or the whiskey nose, or even the beer belly, in the delight of matching steps and enjoying the rhythm.

However, there were certain types to be avoided and sidestepped. Word would filter through the crowd that "so and so" had travelling hands. They travelled up and down, back and forth across the back - and elsewhere, if allowed.

Having been warned, it was then up to each girl to make sure she didn't dance with him. You tried not to make eye contact with him at all costs, so he could not "beckon" to you. When he approached, you disappeared. When he reappeared, you ducked and sat in the hob until the coast was clear once more. If, however, he happened to "nab" you, you'd just have to dance and "suffer on".

Another type who could put a damper on the night was "the snorer". This fellow usually asked you out for the waltz - "The Rose of Mooncoin" or "When it's Moonlight in Mayo" - "nothing wrong with that", sez you. Once on the floor, he promptly fell asleep on your shoulder and snored. He waltzed around the kitchen as if by instinct, snoring or breathing quite loudly. You did you best to talk to him, but he was oblivious. Soon, however, all the young dancers rallied round and bumped and nudged your man awake. You escaped as soon as possible, and had a good laugh.

But you could very easily go from the frying pan into the fire and fall into the clutches of the "whistler". This man shuffled up to the end of the kitchen, turned at the headland, and shuffled down again, all the time whistling his own music and what's more, dancing to it. He stepped it out to his own tune, while you stepped it out to the tune from the melodeon. If both could step and hop at the same time, the result would not be too bad. But it happened that ye went bumpety-bump, ouch! sore ankles, and sorer toes and a vow on your part - never again! However, these types didn't put a damper on the enjoyment of the night. Rather, they added a challenge.

During a hooley, the floor could be swept two or three times, and very often a dash of water was sprayed on "to keep the dust down". This caused a lull in the dancing and singers were recruited and called on to "give a verse or two" or "cough up a stave of a song". Some very good singers would entertain the crowd with the lovely old songs like "On the shores of Americay", which was normally sung by Mary Quinn-Marshall. And while she was singing, you could hear a pin drop. "Noreen Bawn" was another general favourite and so was "The Crúiscín Lán", sung always by Mary Hynes Duane. I've never heard anybody sing it as well as she did. Sarah Linnane Hynes used to sing "I'll forgive but I'll never forget" so feelingly that we'd have tears in our eyes. When the men sang, they did so loudly, kept their eyes shut and rocked back and forth to lend emphasis to the words. My father, who wasn't a bad singer at all, would sing "Nora Daly" or "Peigin Leitir Mhor" - ar an sean nós. He might also dance a jig and create his own steps as he went on, and clap for himself when he'd finish.

At about this time, windows would be opened for air, and some young "daft" lads would go outside, push a stick through the open window and "fish" a cap or a hat off some unsuspecting heads. Such innocent fun! Once I saw my father's hat being lifted off his head, and ever so slowly being pulled out the window, but the stick broke, the hat fell and my father reclaimed it amid great laughter and shaking of fists.

Suddenly, it would be time for tea. Brewed in two or three large enamel teapots and left sitting in the ashes for a few seconds, it tasted absolutely great. It was accompanied by currant or raisin bread cut in "canndaí", thick slices of apple cake, and sometimes homemade buns. Very often, if the crowd was unusually large and hungry, the sweet cakes were quickly devoured and then "the grinder" was cut into slices and plastered with butter. Yarns were told, and funny incidents recalled and embroidered. Soon, the music restarted and dancing recommenced - even livelier and with more gusto than before, as all the batteries had been recharged by the tea-break.

Often, to our horror, my father's eagle eye would spot the grandfather clock and he would "round us up" for departure. In vain, we begged him to stay another while and his answer was always the same, "Sure it would suit ye fine to stay up all night and in bed all day". With that, we knew he would not change his mind and so we called thanks to the bean an tí, and to the musician, winked laughingly at the young man who had been whispering sweet nothings all night, and headed for home. We lingered in the doorway for a last eyeful of the crowded, once again dusty kitchen, the nodding fear an tí on the hob, and the by-now dying kitchen fire. We always really hated to leave. The walk home was never a walk, but a brisk trot. Looking up at the stars, my father would say "All decent people should be in bed by now", but we youngsters were very happy to be among the indecent ones who were still up.

On my last visit to America in March 1990, I spent hours talking to a "gamelty" of Irish, living in Norwood, Hartfort and Connecticut at whose homes those ceilis were held so long ago. We recalled those happy nights and relived many of the céilis, and the general consensus was "How simple and thoroughly enjoyable it all was, and how we danced with glee to the tune of "Round the house and mind the dresser", so many moons ago". Simple treats for simple folk.

Bridie Quinn-Conroy, Not a Word of a Lie, 1993

The Performance of the Season

On Hallow Eve, young unmarried men slipped up black lanes and rushed along hedges dressed as "strawboys." They wore regular hats, weirdly trimmed with ribbons and feathers. Their faces were blackened or hidden by homemade masks, and over their clothes rustled "mantles" of straw that hung plaited from a ring around their necks. Like the mummers, the strawboys were led by a Captain whose whispers controlled their movements. Protestant men did not roam out in strawboy guise, nor did strawboys go to the houses of Protestants. "They always kept on their own side," so that their behavior could not be misconstrued as political in intent.

As they traveled, the strawboys vented pent energies in pranks like removing cart wheels and lifting off gates and hiding them. Their objectives were the homes of unmarried girls. Into the kitchen they crashed: one man blew a flute or mouth organ, some danced with the girls of the house, the rest cavorted outside the norms of etiquette, demolishing the family's peace and stealing all the food in sight. These strawboys who traveled in large groups were tolerated. Barely tolerated. Similar restraint characterized the welcome extended to strawboys who appeared at weddings where their Captain would demand a dance with the bride. This was the last request the community of bachelors would make of the woman who was being taken from them.

Smaller groups of strawboys would also cross the hills in silence on Hallow Eve. These were led by a Captain who burned with a personal "spite" against someone. He would gather a few men around him to convince them of the justice in his anger. They would dress and strike quickly. They might tie the front door shut and stuff the chimney, filling the house with smoke and deep-staining soot, or they might "sod and stone" the doors and windows, likely smashing the latter. Usually such spite was held against people who kept their eligible daughters out of circulation.

Strawboys have appeared in the past few years. The tradition has not passed, although it has been hampered by the improvement of the roads over which police cars can speed into the back country. When the police could not get through the countryside with ease, though, the strawboys chose Hallow Eve to wander abroad like the spirits, to frolic with a house's young women, to attack those who held women from them, to batter violently at the conventions that frustrated sexual interchange.

Henry Glassie, All Silver & no Brass, an Irish Christmas Mumming, 1975

”It's the night of my own wake”

A girl whom I knew came into the shop I frequented. Her greeting was constrained and she stood silent and apart, with a shawl across her head. She had taken me to many festivities during the months I was in that place. I came over and spoke to her in Irish:

"When will there be a dance in your village?" I asked. "There's a dance to-night," she said, "if you would care to come." "Is it at the Stones?" "No, it's at our house. It's the night of my own wake."

She did not use the word in its generally accepted sense. In some of the Irish-speaking districts the word "wake" has come to signify the last gathering around the boy or girl who is leaving the village for Boston or New York. Grania was in the shop, to buy provisions for her American wake. I had seen another part of peasant Ireland denuded of its vitality by emigration, and I thought of Grania as typical of the robust and high-spirited youth who go away and are lost to the country, or return to Ireland for a while, changed and dissatisfied. She bade good-bye to those in the shop and gave me the word to come with her. Our path was between walls of loose stones that went across a country strewn with boulders. On account of these bare surfaces of rock the landscape was toned with greyness. There was no luminary in the early night; the full moon was gone and the new moon had not made its appearance. It is customary in this part of the country to use the English word "village" as the equivalent of their area of community. But the picture brought up by the word has no relation to their scattered hamlet. The houses were scattered through miles of uneven territory, and no roof was visible from the door of another house.

We met Grania's mother before we came to the house. She was one of those women who smile as though they did not understand what was happening or what was being said. She was silent and smiled as though speech had been frightened from her. The father greeted me at the door and brought me to the circle that was round the fire. He was a stolid and silent man. Another old man at the fire spoke eloquently and passionately in Irish. "Every man has his rearing, except the poor Irishman. This is the way with him. When his children grow up, they scatter from him like the little birds." Grania had taken off her shawl and was busy in the household duties. There was some intensity in her manner, but she made her self pleasant and capable. While I waited a remarkable person engaged me in polite conversation. She was a woman between fifty and sixty, with a wide-shaped mouth and tolerant worldly eyes. She had the manners of an aristocrat and the faculty of being amused by her fellow-creatures. Her manners were designed to show an overwhelming interest in the person whom she addressed, but it was hard to say whether she laughed with you or laughed at you. There was salt in her conversation, and she was witty in two languages.

Tea was served in the upper room, and I went there as the young people were beginning to arrive. This sleeping room was expressive of the influences that are changing Irish rural life. There was an open American trunk, and dresses sent from New York or Boston were lying on the bed. On the wall was a fine mirror that would have been in its place in the dressing-room of an actress. Visitors had been coming, singly and in couples, and on going back to the kitchen I encountered something like a mob. People were standing three-deep from the walls. I heard a discord of music and song, the clash of grave speaking with loud-tongued humour, of gossip and boisterous flirtation, of American nasals and full-sounding Gaelic vowels. The children crowded together in the recess of the wide chimney, and the old people kept going into and coming out of the inner room. People were speaking of a dance, but a stranger would wonder whether there was room for a dance between the dresser and the fire on the hearth, between the table and the meal bins. Grania drew out the partners for the girls, arranged the dance, and induced a quiet man to play on the flute. The figures in the dance were complicated, but even the swinging of the partners was accomplished with safety.

After some rounds of dancing, songs were given. English words were most in the fashion. Some of the songs were in the Irish tradition, some had been brought home by the workers in Scotland or England, and some had come from America. I pressed for one of their own traditional songs. I could not make an advance in kind, but I recited a poem of my own, and after that the company were inclined to my request. A young man whom I had noticed for his satirical powers stood up for the song. It was of the locality, and it satirised a person whose character had comic associations for the company. The narrative begins in the house of Shaun, the person satirised. It is in the middle of the night, and Shaun and his dependants are in their beds. Some one gives the alarm - the cow has gone astray. Shaun rises and in the dark gropes for his garments. And Shaun and his adherents are off on the quest. Alone he finds the cow. He waits till dawn, and then takes the homeward trail. Now he is in need of rest and refreshment. He comes to a lonely house and is admitted. A single woman entertains him, and a district, awakened by the commotion of the search, sees Shaun, the guileless man, leave the house at an ambiguous hour. To save the good name of the district he and the woman marry. In this way Shaun gets his wife. The song set forth a comedy of manners and it was received with applause. When it was over I discovered that the singer was the maker, and that he was noted through the countryside for his stinging ranns. A young and handsome boy sang another ballad in Irish. It was the lament of a man who had been put in prison, "Not for killing, not for stealing, but for making the brew that pays no duty." "My hair was cropped round my ears, and ugly clothes were put upon me. For nine months I was there, without company, without music." The last phrase was a flash of the Celtic spirit. It brought to my mind a romance of the Heroic Age, in which one of the Fianna complains, "For three days we were in the pit without food, without drink, without music."

The night wore on with dance and song, with challenge and repartee. Grania left us and stayed in the upper room for a while. When she returned she was in wild spirits and set about forming another dance. The orchestra was changed for this. She brought down a fiddle and a young man undertook to play. Only the wildest spirits were in this last dance that was on the skirts of the creeping day. Before the dance ended Grania's brother went from us, and we saw him take the harness down from the wall. It was an action as significant as anything in drama. The dance went on, but we heard the stamp of the awakened horse and the rattle of the harness as the conveyance was made ready for the journey. The dance fluttered out. Through the little window the trees became visible, then we saw colour, the green of the grass and the green of the leaves. Grania left the revellers and went into the room where her mother was busy. All of us who were in the kitchen went outside, so that those who were parting would have the place to themselves. In the morning world the corncrakes were crying through the meadows. They were quiet in the house now, and the chill of dawn made me wish for the overcoat I had left within. I went inside. After the vivid life I felt the emptiness of the kitchen; the fire had burnt to ashes and the broad light through the window was on the flame of the lamp. As I was going out Grania came down, dressed for the journey. The poor girl was changed. She was dazed with grief.

She sat on the cart that went down the stony road, and the remnant of the company followed. Farther on they would meet more carts with other emigrants, boys and girls. The cart jogged itself on to the main road; as yet there was only a single figure on the way, a man driving a cow to some far-off fair. We bade good-bye to Grania and separated. On my way back I passed her house; it was soundless and closed in as if the house had not yet wakened into life.

Padraic Colum, The Road Round Ireland, 1926

Newspaper clippings from the 1950s

Origin Of The Caledonian Set Dance

Were They Introduced By Cromwell's Dragoons?

At the meeting in Ennis last Sunday of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the desirability of sets being accepted as being in the true tradition of pure Irish dancing evoked a certain amount of controversy and some of the delegates seemed to regard them as the first step towards the complete anglicising of the native dance. As there are many non-dancers of either the foreign or native pastime ignorant of the issues involved, a Clare Champion reported sought some enlightenment from an ex-member of the Irish Dancing Commission who is a native resident of Co. Clare. Here briefly are his views:

"Caledonian sets as we know them here in Clare were first introduced by the Cromwellian Dragoons. This type of dancing, as also modern ballroom dancing, was unknown amongst the celtic nations particularly as it affects the Irish and Scotch. The Irish tradition of dancing was more individualistic in character, that is tended more towards the exhibitionist style.

"With the founding of the Gaelic League, it was deemed desirable to provide an alternative to foreign dances and the various dances had been in operation under the old ceili system, a reconstructed form, so to speak, of these old dances to meet the needs of the Irish public. With this reconstruction of dances, dancing teachers here and there added little bits of their own for competitive purposes and hence have arisen the various dances which are now collectively known as Ceili dancing.
"As against that there are other dances which have remained almost unchanged with the passage of time, some of them practically handed down from the Gallow glasses, particularly the Bridge of Athlone. These dances were originally executed entirely by me and they probably relate to the time of Sarsfield and Ginkle. Time and circumstances have changed all that and the Quadrille, the Caledonian set, the Paris set or the Kerry set are variations of the set dancing introduced here by Cromwellian soldiers. Therefore it is well to realise that when dancing a set, it is in the strict sense, just as foreign as the Waltz and the variations of the set that have evolved through time are not anything more to be wondered at than the variations of the Waltz, such has likewise produced such dances as the modern Samba, Rhumba, Tanga or the Mamba, the latest South American product.
"There is no such thing as English dancing as such. The Waltz is Viennese, the Foxtrot and slow Waltz are American. Of course the Foxtrot could also be English or it might be German, but it developed into its full maturity in America. The Conga is South American. It goes as follows: one girl leads away, she is followed by a partner, and they are followed by the next girl and her partner and so on. Modern dancing tends more and more to cater for the instincts of the African native symbolism.
"Figure dancing, whether the Morris or sixteen-hand reel, contains a certain amount of individual steps. That is the fundamental basis of these reels. Each dancer in the morris reel has to cover a certain amount of ground on his own, side steps, jig steps or reel steps. He is left on his own occasionally for a few seconds to do a few steps and unless he does this the dance is not complete, whereas in the ordinary Siege of Ennis or Walls of Limerick the dancers go through a regular pattern which is repeated over and over again. In the Morris reel they have to take various figures and individual steps what will not recur. The average time for the completion of the Walls of Limerick is about five minutes, whereas the average time for the completion of the sixteen-hand reel is about 35 minutes.
"Scotch and Irish dance music and folk dancing are much alike. The Scotch use their hands in step dancing; the Irish actually dont. The Scotch use their hands as illustrations and we use them as an aid. A particular instance of that is what we call the Gabhairin Buidhe and its Scotch equivalent, the Sword dance. We dance the Irish Fling with our hands by our sides while the Scotch dance the Highland Fling, raising alternatively, their left and right hands above their heads."

Clare Champion, 8 October 1955

Dancing to Cease at Midnight


The following Pastoral Letter from His Lordship the Most Rev. Dr. Browne was read at all Masses in the dioceses of Galway, Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora on Sunday:-

My Dear Brethren,-

In our diocesan synod of 1947 we prescribed that public dance-halls should observe three conditions: intoxicating drink should not be distributed; proper supervision of the hall and its precincts should be exercised and dancing to late hours should be avoided. The parochial halls under the control of the clergy have loyally observed these conditions.

I now request all halls in the diocese to observe them and in particular to adopt the hour of 12 midnight-one o'clock in summer-as the normal closing time for dances.

There has been general concern recently at the tendency in this country to prolong the hours of dancing. One hall after another petitions the courts for longer and longer hours; the competition for later dances has become keen and young people go long distances in motor-cars to those hall where the hours are longest and the supervision most lax. Parents and all who have the moral and physical well-being of the nation at heart are dismayed by the results of this competition.

In the case of dancing, the spiritual and moral welfare of our people, their health and ability to work are considerations which should outweigh the private profit of individuals. There is a strong and widespread conviction among out Catholic people that the time has come for the adoption of wiser, healthier and more moderate standards in regard to the hours of dancing.

In the dioceses of Achonry, Elphin and Killala in this province the Bishops have asked their people to adopt the rule of midnight as the normal closing hour for dance-halls. His Grace the Archbishop of Tuam has now prescribed the same rule. It is important that in this matter there should be uniformity of practice and that our diocese should observe the same rule as in other parts of the province.

As your Bishop I have before God the responsibility to prescribe what is necessary for the moral and spiritual welfare of my Catholic people. I therefore propose the following rule to be adopted and observed by all Catholics.

All halls in the diocese should close at midnight, that is 12 o'clock official time in winter and 1 o'clock official time in summer. If dances begin early from 7 to 12 in winter and from 8 to 1 in summer, there will be adequate time for legitimate recreation. During the three days after Christmas, on Easter and Whit Sunday and the two days following each and on St Patrick's Day, dances may continue to 2 a.m., and in the city of Galway the same hours may be allowed during Race Week.

I ask all my people to adopt this rule and to support it loyally. I ask all societies and clubs to observe it even in regard to their occasional fixtures. I request the co-operation of all Catholic proprietors and lessees of halls. They have in this diocese faithfully observed the diocesan rule against dances on Saturdays, eves of holidays and in Lent. As Catholics, they have a high sense of their responsibilities and I feel sure they will respond to the appeal made to them by their Bishop for the good of souls, even though it may mean some temporary monetary loss.

In order to allow time for the necessary arrangements, this rule will come into effect in this diocese on October 1st of this year.

Wishing you every blessing, yours devotedly in Jesus Christ.

Bishop of Galway and Kilmacduagh, Apostolic Administrator of Kilfenora.
Mount St. Mary's, Galway.
3rd September, 1953.

Clare Champion, 12 September 1953


Three Halls Involved


A PASTORAL LETTER from the Lord Bishop of Galway, the Most Rev. Dr. Browne, read at all Masses in the diocese on Sunday, was produced at Gort Court on Saturday and extracts read from it during the hearing of applications for the renewal of dancing licences for three halls in the town. (The Pastoral is on page nine [see above] of this issue).

Justice Cahill fixed the hours from 7 to 12 during winter time and from 8 to 1 in summer time, and extended the hours to 2 a.m. for dances during the three days after Christmas, St. Patrick's Day, and the two days following Easter Sunday and Whit Sunday in accordance with the request of the Lord Bishop.

In one hall, Mr. Foley, solicitor, was granted a licence to hold eighty dances. The Justice remarked that if all dances in the three halls were to be supported the people of Gort and district would have to go into training at once.

Mr. J. C. Murphy, solr., applied for a licence to hold a long dance in the Agricultural Hall on Easter Sunday night in aid of the funds of the show committee, and asked the Justice not to grant any other application for that date.

Mr. Foley said that he was in practice for twenty years and he never heard of a meaner performance. The show committee, in addition to applying for a licence, had the impudence to ask the Court to restrict the licence of a person who was willing to comply in every detail with the regulations in the Bishop's Pastoral. If the show committee was in debt, that was not the fault of Mr. Mullins, the owner of another hall, and the committee should not expect the whole town to go in mourning.

Mr. Martin Brennan, Gort, made the application for licences to hold dances in the agricultural hall in aid of the show committee funds.

Mr. J. C. Murphy, solicitor, who appeared for the committee, said that since he served notice of the application new regulations had been made by the Bishop. As the Bishop's regulations did not come into force until October 1st, he asked the Justice to grant dance licences up to 3 o'clock on Sunday, 13th Sept., and on Thursday, 17th September, the date of the annual show, and not to grant licences to any of the other halls for these nights. The show committee did not run dances on a commercial basis. They ran them solely to benefit the show, and without these dances the show committee could not exist. The Justice had on more than one occasion expressed himself in favour of non-commercial halls instead of commercial ones. In connection with the application for a dance licence on Easter Sunday, he was instructed by the show committee to ask the Justice not to grant any other licence for that night. The proprietor of the cinema hall was prepared to step down and not seek a licence for a long dance on the occasion. The cinema hall was not looking for any long dances in September and was not opposing his application for a licence for show night.

Mr. Foley, solicitor for Mr. Mullins, said that in dealing with the application, he wanted to make it perfectly clear that Mr. Murphy was acting on instructions, the same as he himself was doing. He made the application for Mr. Mullins long before the Bishop's Pastoral was published, and now Mr. Mullins had decided to comply in every way with the new regulations and to run his hall in the manner laid down by the Bishop. The Bishop's regulations did not come into force until 1st October, so that Mr. Mullins was entitled to hold eight dances during the old hours in the month of September and he was now applying for licences for these. The hours he applied for during September were from 9 to 3, the same as Mr. Mullins had all along since he opened his hall. Three of these dances would be for the use of outside clubs. Mr. Mullins did not build a £4,000 hall for fun; he built it to run dances on a commercial basis. A good many people did that and there was nothing wrong with it.

If the show committee was in debt, Mr. Mullins was not to blame because he did not owe them anything. If that was their conception of fair play it was a very poor one. There were business people on the show committee and he wondered how one of them would like it if, say, a hardware merchant approached him and asked him to close his shop for a day as he was having a sale. It was hard to speak with restraint on a performance of that kind. Did the show committee expect the town of Gort to go in mourning because they were in debt? Mr. Mullins was complying with the regulations of the Bishop and was absolutely entitled free, open and fair competition with the other halls, and that was all he was looking for.

Mr. Murphy said that on behalf of the show committee he had to take very strong objection to Mr. Foley's remarks. The show committee was in existence for the past six years and ran some excellent shows for the benefit of the town of Gort and not for themselves. It was well known that a show could not exist without funds, and the only hope the committee had of raising money to pay for the big hall they put up was by running dances. The hall was in existence before Mr. Mullins commenced building his, and, consequently, the application before the court was fair and proper. The Justice had time and again expressed himself in favour of such halls. The cinema hall cost a lot too to build, and yet the proprietor was prepared to stand down in favour of the show committee.

Supt. Dunning said that he would like an agreement between the parties themselves. If such an agreement was not reached he foresaw trouble.

Mr. Foley said that Easter Sunday night was the best night in the year for dances.

The Justice said that he could not lose sight of the offer made by the cinema hall people, who were prepared to stand down on that night in favour of another hall. It was impossible for him to please them all, and there seemed to be no hope of an agreement between them. There were three halls in Gort and he wondered if the Superintendent would be able to look after the three of them on the same night.

Supt. Dunning said that it would not be an easy matter; he was afraid it could not be done and that was his reason for suggesting an agreement.

The Justice said it was very hard for him to decide, but the public will do that eventually. The public will decide a lot of these issues if he gave them an opportunity. He wanted to be fair to all parties. If the show committee wanted to be fair and wanted a monopoly for April 18th, they ought to be prepared in return to surrender another very important date, the first dance after Christmas.

Mr. Murphy said that if the show committee got April 18th, they did not want any of the other dances to themselves.

Mr. Foley said it was very hard for a man like Mr. Mullins to adopt an impartial attitude because his treatment seemed grossly unfair. All he asked was a fair chance of open competition between the three halls.

Justice - And you will get it.

Mr. Murphy said that Easter Sunday night was the best night in the year for dancing, seeing that it immediately followed Lent, and if the committee lost that night it was losing the best night in the year. He would ask the Justice not to issue licences to the other halls for that night.

The Justice said it would want to be a very big hall to accommodate all the people who wanted to go to a dance at Easter.

The Superintendent said that the hall would easily hold a thousand people.

The Justice said that Easter Sunday night was a big night, coming as it did after Lent, but it was a rather difficult thing to ask a person in his position, whose duty it was to be fair and impartial to everyone, to allow that night solely to one dance hall in the town. He approved of the show and of the work the show committee was doing. They were not getting any money out of the dances for themselves, but when another man came along to the Court and said "I have a hall, too, and I am looking for a licence to hold a dance that night," it was very hard to turn him down. The charge could then be levelled at him that he was prejudiced against one hall and favourably disposed towards another but that did not trouble him. In the absence of any agreement the logical thing for him to do was to let the people decide. He was not going to force the public to go to any particular hall so he was not going to make a prohibition order against any hall. In the long run it would have been better for these people to agree between themselves. If Mr. Mullins agreed with the show committee he would have no opposition on St Patrick's night. He would now have the committee in opposition and the public will be the referees as to who was right or wrong, and he was giving them that opportunity.

When Mr. Murphy renewed his application for a dance in aid of the show on show night and asked the Justice not to issue a licence in respect of any other hall, Mr. Foley again objected.

The Justice said that he thought the application was reasonable, because Mr. Mullins had an application for eight dances and he would give him seven from 9 to 3.

Clare Champion, 12 September 1953


May Be Licensed In The Future


At Miltown Malbay Court on Wednesday, William Moloney, Doolough, Quilty, was summoned for holding a dance in his house without a dance licence; his wife and twenty-nine other people who attended the dance were summoned for abetting.

Moloney was fined 5/- and the rest of the defendants were given the benefit of the Probation Act.

Mr. M. F. Nolan, solr., appeared for all the defendants and admitted the offences.

Supt. Comer said that he was withdrawing a summons against James Crowley, of Corncree, Connolly, because he was not at the dance. Another man had given Crowley's name and he would be before the Court at a later date. Sergt. Farrell and Guard McHale heard music and the sound of dancing, and on entering the house found Mrs. Moloney, who told him that it was an invited dance and not a public dance. She brought them into a room where people were having supper, which apparently was provided by Mrs. Moloney. There was an abundance of bread, butter and tea in the room. Having been asked to name those who were invited, Mrs. Moloney gave a number of names, which she said was a full list of those invited. She omitted a number of people who were present, which showed that people were there who were not invited. Mrs. Moloney asked the Sergeant not to do anything further about it and that it would never happen again.

Justice - Did it happen before?

Supt. Comer - We have certain information that things do happen from time to time. He said that the Garda's information was that those who attended the dance were charged a price on admission, a profit being made by the owner of the house.

Mr. Nolan said that the Supt. was fair in his description of the case. The defendant was on the dole. Doolough was a remote district and the proceedings that night were typically Irish. It was a social in the traditional sense, where Caledonians and Irish sets were danced. These dances could not be ordinarily available in a public dance hall. He asked the Justice to be lenient, adding that the prosecution would serve its purpose.

Justice - Are you instructed what the charge was?

Mr. Nolan said that the people were charged 2/6 for which they were also supplied with a meal and allowed to take part in a raffle for a home-made garment.

The Justice asked if Mrs. Moloney would get a dance licence if she applied for it.

Mr. Nolan said that he was sure she would because there were two exits, and he thought that the Justice would be willing to grant a licence if the number of dancers was limited and the dances to be represented as Irish nights.

The Justice said that he often thought it a hardship on country people not to be able to hold country house dances.

Mr. Nolan said that Mrs. Moloney admitted that she should not have held the dance, but there was no evasion of the Revenue Commissioners, because there was no entertainment tax. He emphasised that it was only an Irish social.

The Justice said that it might be interesting if, when the next dance was contemplated, an application was made as a test case for a dance licence and they would see how the Supt. would look upon it. He was in the dark about what difficulties might lie in the way, but he would like to be able to grant a licence.

Mr. Nolan said that it was a type of social function that should be encouraged.

Supt. Comer said that the Guards would have untold work, and the question of sanitary and cloakroom accommodation would arise as well as the size of the house. Most houses were too small and the kitchen would not accommodate more than seven or eight couples.

The Justice said that he was not blind to all those difficulties, but they could be dealt with if an application was made.

Those summoned for aiding and abetting:- Martin Hehir, Patk. J. Lynch and Patk. Donnellan, of Tiermanagh, Quilty; Patrick and Mary Dooley, Veronica and Catherine Baker, Terese, Bridie and Thomas Guiney, Joseph McGuire, Ml. Moloney, Peter McMahon, A. Dooley, Doolough; Edmond Pender, Cahermurphy, Kilmihil; Jas. and Joseph O'Halloran, Michl. Hehir, Clonlaheen, Miltown Malbay; John Keane, Kathleen Howard, Corncree, Connolly; Ml. and Terrence Haren, Margt. Keane, John Tuttle, Daniel and Patrick Haren, Tullaghboy, Connolly; Michael O'Neill, Connolly.

Clare Champion, 14 March 1953

Plenty of Dancing In Ennis


DANCING has not been a neglected pastime in Ennis and districts nearby, the number held each year being about 1,000. That was the estimate given by Supt. Flynn at Ennis Court on Friday last, when objection was raised to the granting of a licence for a dance marquee to be run in aid of Kilnamona Hurling Club at Loughville.

The applicant was Francis McTigue, Maurice's Mills, who stated that he had run similar dances at Spancilhill and other places. He has a public lighting system known as the "American lighting horse" which lighted about twelve bulbs. The idea was to collect funds for the Club.

In reply to Supt. Flynn, applicant said the marquee would be on the lands of James Brooks, who was agreeable to allow cars to be parked there. The road would not be used for parking. Sanitary arrangements would also be provided.

Supt. Flynn - What demand is there for a marquee at this place?

Applicant said that the people about wanted it.

Supt. Flynn - This is only two miles from the town of Ennis where hundreds of dances are held?

Applicant - They are all looking forward to the marquee.

Supt. - This is a very sparsely populated part of the country; the surrounding area is mostly craggy land? There's hundreds of dances held in the town of Ennis and where do you propose to get your patrons from?

Applicant replied they would come from the nearby areas; they would scarcely have twelve from the town of Ennis.

Supt. Flynn - What control will you have over these people?

Applicant said there were twelve active members on the Committee and they would supervise both inside and outside the marquee.

Supt. Flynn - What control would you have to prevent them roving at large and going into hay sheds or causing fires?

Applicant - There are no hay sheds within two miles of it. When we were selecting the spot we made sure it would be away from danger like that.

Supt. Flynn - I hold there is no public necessity for this as it is within two miles of the town of Ennis where there are three licenced dance halls and one in Clarecastle, and the number of dances held must be in the vicinity of 1,000 per annum. I think it is highly undesirable that any burden should be placed on the Guards to try to supervise dances held in a wilderness and no matter what the ability of these twelve men is they would not be able to control it. There would be no supervision of these people going to or coming from these dances, and it is quite evident that the main purpose of it is to collect funds. It is undesirable to have people trudging the roads around 3 o'clock in the morning and on general grounds I oppose the application. For the information of the Court I must say that farmers have complained and although they did not come to court they have given good reasons for their complaints.
Mr. John Casey, Solr., who represented applicant, said that the Club gave an undertaking to carry out the dances properly and to have adequate supervision. It was a different type of people attended the dances in the hotel. The young people who wanted the marquee looked for Ceilidhe dances.

The Justice said that the application, being brought by the Kilnamona Hurling Club of the G.A.A., was entitled to respect but he had previously refused to grant applications of a similar kind. He had already stated that he was against marquee dancing, except under the most exceptional circumstances and he refused the application.

An application for the renewal of a dance licence was brought by P. J. McMahon, Clarecastle. Supt. Flynn said the engineer of the County Council, Mr. Sugrue, had reported that five fire extinguishers were necessary and there were but two in the hall; there was also another exit wanted.

The applicant said he was willing to comply with the additional requirements.

The Justice said the licence would be issued when the hall would be equipped in accordance with the engineer's report.

Clare Champion, 1 October 1949

Cashing in on the Sunday dances

Sunday night dances in a neighbour's house were common. Each area had its own musicians, usually a concertina player or a tin whistle thrown in. Word went out at Sunday Mass as to where - in the words of Sean O'Farrell - "the gathering was to be" and the young people came together and enjoyed themselves for a few hours of dancing and singing. Many a love affair started at these dances and ended up in a happy marriage. One lady I knew well got the bright idea of cashing in on the Sunday night dances. She let it be known that her premises would be available for dancing every Sunday night, admission was sixpence but for the sixpence she would supply the music and each dancer would get one slice of bread with jam and one cup of tea.

Three friends of mine decided to pay a visit to her premises but they had a problem, one of them had a shilling - twelve pence - the other two had nothing. They arrived at the door and explained their position. Well, a shilling was a shilling, so she allowed them in. They at once took the floor and danced a lively Caledonian Set and then felt the need for refreshment so they approached the door of the "dining room". The good lady followed them and putting her head in the door she called to her daughter who was in charge of the food: "Mary, don't give any jam to them fourpenny hoors." That was her way of making sure that she had her profit out of the shilling or 12p [or five pence in modern coins].

Kieran Lillis, Kieran Lillis Remembers, 1991

Returning from the Dance

A dance was held over in Dunquin and there was a great gathering. Two currachs had also gone out full from the Blasket. Maitiú from the Island was the fiddler they had. There was singing and dancing until nine o’clock the next morning. Each lad paid three shillings for the entertainment and each girl paid two. The fiddler received a guinea. ‘A gay night and a sorry milking time’ they had, as the saying goes.

Next day, Sunday, there was rain and high wind. Anyone roaming beyond the bound of his own parish got more than he bargained for. The rain water lashed down and the sea water lashed up on the Islanders returning home. There were eight girls in the two currachs, with the waves breaking over them. Every stitch covering their bones was as drenched as if they had fallen into the sea. Many people were waiting for them above the landing place, each with his own comment:

‘’Tis my opinion, my sweet man,’ said Séamus, ‘that there are some people who are short of sense; and I think the same applies to those who did not stay at home for themselves.’

‘I suppose,’ retorted Séamaisín, ‘they must strike you as odd, since you never ventured into such a place yourself. You had too much sense for that, to your way of thinking. But what have you gained by all your sense today? You are an old wasted ‘lone bird’, without wife or child. Isn’t it often a person brought a good life’s partner away from such a house, a partner he or she would never have met, if they followed your example and stayed at home.’

They all burst out laughing.

November 1921

Tomás O’Crohan, Island Cross-Talk, 1944

Learning to dance

The stalks were withered in the potato gardens and the farmers were busy digging them out while the brown and yellow leaves were falling. I had given up going to school, being now sixteen years old, and feeling fit for work, I was helping my father on the land, although I had but little interest in it. There was frost on the ground and the air was lively. I could easily have a worse job than digging spuds so I made the best of things as far as I could.

Each of us had a spade with a long handle and a wooden step for driving it into the ground. We began at nine o'clock, dug on at our ease until eleven when we sat down and rested, my father smoking his pipe while I enjoyed the scenery.

Bridget and Eileen came with two buckets to pick the potatoes, sorting the sound ones and leaving the "crichawns" or little ones behind with the decayed or broken ones to be picked up later. When the buckets were full they emptied them into a sack and when the sack was full they continued filling others until they had picked up all we had dug. These sacks are usually left in the field for a week or so and then drawn home and emptied on the kitchen loft. When that will hold no more potatoes the rest are stored in pits in the field, covered first with dry grass, then with earth, and left there until they are needed.

"Brian," said Bridget, as I held open the mouth of a sack while she emptied the bucket into it, "there's going to be a dance at O'Grady's to-night. All the lads are coming."

"How do you know?" I asked, in wild excitement at the thought of a dance, there being little else in my mind at the time but merriment and music.

"Nellie O'Grady told me this morning. She was up the hill pulling heather for a new broom to sweep the house and have everything nice and tidy for the night. She called across the buigaheen to me when I went west for a bucket of spring water, asking me to be ready and to bring you and Eileen as well."

"That will be great out," said I, being full of pleasant anticipation, for we were all learning to dance at the time.

You may be sure that I hardly felt the rest of the day passing, for it was a light heart I had at work, although I could never hope to be as good a hand at the spade as my father if I lived for a thousand years, nor as sweet a labourer as Father Daniel either! I was always awkward with every farm implement in spite of the fact that I was very willing to use them and never wanted to be idle if I could avoid it.

The sun was going down when Bridget and Eileen had picked up the last potatoes for the day, so when my father and I had secured the mouths of the sacks and placed a sod on the top of each to protect the contents from the crows, we left the field well content with our day's work, my father talking about the crops in general, more to himself than to me, for all my thoughts were on the coming dance.

Darkness came down slowly and at last the time came to go into O'Grady's where we found just a few neighbours gathered together in their old flannel wrappers and working clothes, torn and patched here and there. Everyone wore their rough unpolished hob-nailed boots that sounded like a saddle-horse across the kitchen-floor of great uneven flags. There were several boys there but only three girls - Nellie O'Grady and my two sisters.

At first we lingered aimlessly about the house, some sitting on the settle, some on the table and others on chairs beside the fire talking to old Denis O'Grady who, strangely enough, was every bit as enthusiastic as any of us about the dance although he was well over seventy years of age.

It was when our cousin Dan O'Mahoney came in that we decided on starting the dance because he had a good knowledge of the sets and could lead them off as well as being able to play fine "puss music" at the same time, for we had no musical instrument nor anyone able to play one either.

Four boys stepped out on the rough flags between which there were several holes, big and little. Each of three boys asked a girl to dance with him and as I was the fourth I had to be content with the new broom as a substitute for a female partner. We all laughed when old Denis warned me not to step on the toes of "Miss Heather!"

"Are ye ready now?" asked Dan O'Mahoney, clearing his throat and putting his right arm around Eileen's waist as he clasped her right hand with his left in a dancing attitude.

"Yes, Dan," we said, while I held the broom firmly in my hands in readiness for any action the might be expected from Miss Heather and me.

"Dum dum, dum dum, dum dauram dum,
Dum dumil um dum, dum dauree oh;
Dilly dum, dum dum, dum dauram dum,
Dilly dumil um dum, thilum dauree oh."
began Dan with a fine strong melodious voice as he and Eileen went through the first figure of a jig set called "The Victoria." He was lilting a tune called "The Peeler and the Goat" which was very popular in Coomlaegill. Away he went about the house for what seemed a countless number of times, but the real number being regulated by Dan according to the traditional rules laid down for the set. Each couple followed in turn with the same movements and there was more joy in our hearts that if we were dancing in the palace of a king.

Old Denis cheered us when we had finished. Then we sat down to rest and discuss the different moves of the set, the mistakes we had made and so on, as if our very lives depended on the performance.

You may be sure that it was not long until we were on the floor again, hopping over the holes between the flags as if they were not there at all. Oh, how I loved these dances! The world of amusement looked so pleasant then and promised so much to come.

The dancing was followed by a few songs from Dan O'Mahony, Nellie O'Grady, Maurice and a few others who had good voices. The three O'Shannisseys, being non-singers, wisely followed the rule of silence. But I went on the floor for a bout of sham step-dancing which was cheered as much as if it had been the real thing because I looked so silly in they eyes of those who wanted a good laugh at my expense. I did not know that at the time, of course, until Maurice told it to me in a friendly whisper afterwards. But for the time being we all went home in ecstasies and full of gay hopes for better nights to come.

. . .

At this time the O'Grady's were beginning to come on in the world. The family were all grown up and were very good workers. Some of them had gone to America and were sending money home to help the others. Those who were left made new fields and built strong fences all over the land. Then they began to improve things around the farmyard, removing the manure-heap from the front to the back of the dwelling-house and planning flowers and rose-bushes where it had been an ugly sight for so long. It was a big event, indeed, when they built a hen-house! It was a sure sign of prosperity, we thought, because most people up to then had to keep their hens in the kitchens.

Besides being a useful covering for the hens, the new house had another interest for the young O'Gradys and ourselves. It had a very nice smooth clay floor and before the fowl took it over we used it on Sunday evenings to practise dancing. A crude place indeed for such a purpose, but I enjoyed the fun there just the same, dancing away to my heart's content with Nellie O'Grady whom I did not fear so much now as when I was going to school, while my sisters acted as partners for Maurice and any other neighbouring boy who might care to join us. We were very happy then, the Lord be praised for all His goodness, because we were living in spirit as well as in body in the lovely Land of Youth, but, mu vrone, we did not notice that time was slipping while we were dancing.

John O'Donoghue, In a Quiet Land, 1957

The events of the feis went on sturdily and steadily

Eight more died on that same day from excess of dancing and scarcity of food. The Dublin gentlemen said that no Gaelic dance was as Gaelic as the Long Dance, that it was Gaelic according to its length and truly Gaelic whenever it was truly long. Whatever length of time needed for the longest Long Dance, it is certain that it was trivial in comparison with the task we had in Corkadoragha on that day. The dance continued until the dancers drove their lives out through the soles of their feet and eight died during the course of the feis. Due to both the fatigue caused by the revels and the truly Gaelic famine that was ours always, they could not be succoured when they fell on the rocky dancing floor and, upon my soul, short was their tarrying on this particular area because they wended their way to eternity without more ado.

Even though death snatched many fine people from us, the events of the feis went on sturdily and steadily, we were ashamed to be considered not strongly in favour of Gaelic while the President's eye was upon us. As far east and west as the eye might rove, there were men and women, young and old, dancing, hopping and twisting distressingly in a manner which recalled to one a windy afternoon at sea.

A peculiar little incident took place at the coming of twilight when the people had spent the whole day dancing and no one had a scrap of skin under his feet. The President graciously permitted a five-minute break and all dropped down gratefully on the damp ground. After the break, the Eight-Hand Reel was announced and I noticed the gentleman entitled Eight Men swallowing fiercely from a bottle which he had in his pocket. When the Eight-Hand Reel was announced, he threw away the bottle and went on alone to the dancing place. Others followed him to step it out in his company but he threatened them angrily, shouted that the house was full and made a violent foray with his boot on anyone who came near him. Before long he was really frenzied and not quietened until a terrible blow was struck on the back of his head by a large stone. I never yet saw anyone so bold, uppish and unmanageable as he was before he was struck or so peaceable and quiet after the casting of the stone by the Old-Grey-Fellow. Doubtless, a few words often lead a man astray.

Flann O'Brien, The Poor Mouth, 1941

The Dance

On the white wall flickered the sputtering lamp
And lit the shadowy kitchen, the sanded floor,
The girls by the painted dresser, the dripping men
Late from the sea and huddled,
These on the settle, those by the table; the turf
Sent up faint smoke, and faint in the chimney a light
From the frost-fed stars trembled and died,
Trembled and died and trembled again in the smoke.
'Rise up now, Shane', said a voice, and another:
'Kate, stand out on the floor'; the girls to the men
Cried challenge on challenge; a lilt in the corner rose
And climbed and wavered and fell, and springing again
Called to the heavy feet of the men; the girls wild-eyed,
Their bare feet beating the measure, their loose hair flying,
Danced to the shuttle of lilted music weaving
Into a measure the light and the heavy foot.

Robin Flower, The Western Island or the Great Blasket, 1944

The privilege of teaching their art

Early Irish literature is almost completely silent on the question of whether the Irish people, down through the ages, danced at all. The two words in the Irish language for dancing, rince and damhsa, are both borrowed and are not native. We have plenty of evidence, however, that dancing-masters were very numerous in this country during recent centuries. I have been told by an old man that he was at a fair in Sneem, Co. Kerry, in his young days where he saw two dancing-masters perform alternately on top of a soaped barrel, vying for the privilege of teaching their art to the youth of the parish during the following year. These itinerant teachers were very popular, and from them the people learned how to dance. My friend, Fionán Mac Coluim, has told me that he heard how a dancing-master died in Liscarroll in Co. Limerick. He was waked there for a few nights to the accompaniment of much fun and music, and when it was over, the people of a neighbouring parish took the body to be waked in a similar way for two further nights in their own district. Such was the estimation in which that dancing-master, for one, was held!

It is even said that the corpse was sometimes taken out to dance! The usual dances performed at wakes were single or double reels, jigs and hornpipes, as well as sets. In the rare cases where neither a piper nor a fiddler was available, a mouth-organ or lilting sufficed.

Seán Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements, 1961

I never saw less grace or seemingly less enjoyment

Behind this camp were the carts of the poor people, which were not allowed to penetrate into the quarter where the quality cars stood. And a little way from the huts, again, you might see (for you could scarcely hear) certain pipers executing their melodies and inviting people to dance.

Anything more lugubrious than the drone of the pipe or the jig danced to it, or the countenances of the dancers and musicians, I never saw. Round each set of dancers the people formed a ring, in which the figurantes and coryphées went through their operations. The toes went in and the toes went out; then there came certain mystic figures of hands across, and so forth. I never saw less grace or seemingly less enjoyment - no, not even in a quadrille. The people, however, took a great interest, and it was "Well done, Tim!" "Step out, Miss Brady!" and so forth during the dance.

William Makepeace Thackeray, The Irish Sketch Book, 1843

The Biddy Boys

There was another custom at the time called going out in the Biddy! We young people used to go in parties from house to house on St Bridget's Eve collecting money, and in return we'd sing and dance in the kitchens. With the proceeds we used to buy shop bread and jam, and if we could rise to it a half tierce of porter for an all night dance which would be held before Lent began.

All the fun was in the dressing up for the Biddy and we went to great extremes to conceal our identity. Women used to dress up as men, and many is the sedate old farmer, sitting in a neighbour's kitchen, spotted his Sunday suit dancing around in a set. His daughter, Mary that'd have it on! She'd hear about it after. A very forward young lady might get into her father's long johns, and if there were a few family heirlooms like a cut-away coat and a caroline hat to go with it she would look something going around in the hornpipe figure of the set dance.

A lot of straw was used in the disguise. You'd see Biddy boys in straw capes and straw puttees, and back around Beaufort they had specially made mitre-shaped straw hats to wear over the capes and puttees. When they'd burst into a house on Bridget's Eve you'd swear they came up out of Lois an Phúca!

We used to wear high fiddles - hallowe'en masks which were coming into the shops at the time - or we'd cover our faces with the screen off the window. You could see out and breath in through this lacey fabric, and the alteration it made to the physiognomy was truly remarkable.

Every party had a brídeog. There is some doubt as to who this effigy was supposed to represent. We thought it was St Bridget and the priest thought it was St Bridget, but then again you'll hear another person say that the custom of lugging the brídeog around was in the world long before St Bridget saw the light of day.

To make a brídeog you'd put straw around the handle of a brush bulging it out below and above. Doll it up with a skirt and a blouse, and with a carved turnip for the face set in a head shawl and fixed to the top of the handle. What would give a damn nice effect would be to scoop out the inside of the turnip and put the butt of a lighting candle into it. Every party going along would have a musical instrument, or maybe two, but if they couldn't rise to that they'd dyddle or they'd play on the comb.

When we came to a house, and if we were admitted, we'd take over the kitchen. The person with the biddy - the brídeog - would stand by the fireplace, the musicians by the dresses and the rest would crowd on to the floor. As the music struck up we'd take a partner saying:

'Come on, shake a leg!'

Mhuire Mháthair, the pounding the flagged floor'd get, and if any pots or saucepans came in the way they went flying under the settle. When the set was over, order would be called for a step dance or a song. Then the biddy boy would collect whatever money the household was inclined to give. Not a great lot, but by setting out at nightfall and covering a fair bit of ground we'd get a good few bob together for the ball night.

Local people who became a bit enlightened, or should I say anglified, were always ashamed of those customs, and the clergy considered the brídeog a mockery, an insult to St Bridget. They discouraged the practice and put an end to the porter nights. And the young people only had themselves to blame for that, for those biddy balls, as they were known, were often held in houses without proper supervision. As a man said to me, 'With all the drink and everything, Ned, the thing could develop into an orgy.'

And he was right, partly right anyway, for you had fellows there half-plastered and couples mouzing up along the stairs, in the room and in the linny! Then you'd have a modicum of men who can't get women, they'd be up to some other devilment. They might go outside and tie the door from the outside, put a coarse bag over the chimney, and as the house filled with smoke shove red pepper under the door. Pandemonium would follow, sneezing, coughing, cursing, swearing and as the music came to a halt the stairs would come alive, and the room and the linny, for as we all know there is no vexation in the world to equal that of men interrupted in lovemaking. They would swear vengeance on those responsible and by shoving a small fellow out through the window to untie the door, they'd rush out and it would be open war with the crowd outside. And I remember one night one section took cover behind the rick of turf and the opposing party behind a pit of turnips. Sods and swedes came flying through the air. It was like Dunkirk, which gave Archdeacon Godfrey any God's amound of ammunition for the following Sunday's sermon. As if the man hadn't enough to contend with already!

Éamon Kelly, According to Custom, 1986

Irish society has changed much in the meantime

The dance halls eventually put an end to country house dances. Before they could open for public dancing, a license fee had to be paid. There were no conditions regarding the maximum numbers to be admitted; no fire regulations for inspections by fire officers and no limit to admission charges. From the authorities point of view, the more patrons and the higher the charge the better, because there was an entertainment tax payable which was about twenty-five percent of the entrance fee. The tax was collected by sticking stamps on the back of the tickets, which by law had to be handed individually to patrons as the entrance charges at the box office were paid. On entering the hall proper, the ticket was taken by a steward who tore it in half. He kept one half, and returned the other who was legally bound to hold on to it until the dance was over because it enabled Inspectors from the Revenue Commissioners to carry out checks. Inspectors made random visits to various halls where they made a head count of those present, and if the proprietor or dance organiser did not have a corresponding number of half tickets with torn stamps, he was in trouble because of obvious cheating. It cannot be denied that much cheating was done, especially when dances were run by local communities for fund raising. Patrons gladly paid the admission fee, got no tickets and if questioned were prepared to say that no money was paid because of some service they had given to the committee.

Most dance hall proprietors were generous with people who carried a number of passengers in their cars and they usually admitted the drivers free of charge. Of course when dance halls first appeared there were very few motor cars and it was not unusual for patrons to cycle up to twelve miles to dances. My own first introduction to a dance hall happened by chance one Summer Sunday evening when I was about sixteen years old. While cycling leisurely along by Spaddagh, a neighbouring chap named Jimmy Dunleavy, who was about three years my senior, arrived from the opposite direction. His suggestion that we would go to Bange's Hall in Larganboy seemed a good idea, and on the spur of the moment we set off. On the way I became a bit concerned about what my parents would say next day, but Jimmy was very reassuring. Anyway, as it happened, they only laughed at the whole escapade. Larganboy was about nine miles away, and night had fallen long before we reached it. We had no lights on our bicycles but that did not worry us. Few people could afford bicycle lamps at the time, and the only concern cyclists had in that regard was the possibility of meeting a garda which would ensure a summons to the next District Court. A large percentage of District Court business in those years were charges for cycling without lights and/or having unlicensed dogs. Irish society has changed much in the meantime. Bicycles were left as near as possible to the hall, lying against a wall or a fence alongside a couple of hundred others. If one did happen to have a lamp it was left on the bicycle together with a pump, and, if the weather was dry, a coat on the carrier. Locking a bicycle was unheard of, and yet on return it was sure to be there, exactly as left a few hours earlier.

Willie Costello, A Connacht Man's Rambles, 1997

We danced many a High Caul Cap

. . . I possessed a small portable wireless set, and, quite early after my arrival in Graneen, the hint was conveyed to me that Wee Manus was very fond of music, and that he often listened to my set from afar. The hint was also conveyed that he would not be altogether displeased if he might listen to it from somewhat closer. It was some time, for one reason or another, before I found myself able to invite him in when a musical programme was in progress. . . .

He listened for a time to the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven, but it rapidly became clear to me that he was befogged by the complexity both of so large an orchestra and so highly developed a form of music. Once or twice the toe of his hobnailed boot rose and fell in a regular loud tapping on the flags, as it wistfully sought for, and eagerly seized upon, and such mechanical regularity in the beat as he was used to in his ceili music. But the regularity was fleeting, the rhythm altered, and the boot hesitated, paused despondent, and was still. I found another station from which dance music was being relayed by one of London's smartest dance bands. At once the boot revived, and the tapping recommenced. For a time this continued, and I had just begun to conjure up a pleasant vision of myself as a modern djinn, providing, for this simple denizen of a primitive and lonely mountain valley, some of the delights of civilisation, when my self-esteem was abruptly broken.

"How d'you like it, Manus?" I asked graciously.

He hesitated a moment, and then said politely, "That's a jolly kind of a tune."

"And the band?"

He hesitated again, and said, "Ah, it's all right."

He spoke with the conscious authority of one who himself played such music, for in addition to his fiddle-playing at the ceilidhes held at fairly frequent intervals in the little dance hall at Meenadore, he also played the drums in a dance band down at one of the coast towns, where foxtrots were danced as well as the traditional Irish dances. These coast town dances were held on the Saturday of each week, and went on till four in the morning. A car was sent up to Graneen about eight in the evening to transport Manus and his drums, and again in the early hours to return him and them. His payment was twelve shillings. For his fiddling at the ceilidhes in Meenadore he was paid nothing, but to him it was a labour of love. When requested, he would fiddle at any hour of the day, and would continue as long as he was required. He never intruded his violin when it was not wanted, nor outstayed his welcome. Though prevented by his physical deformity - he had been struck down by infantile paralysis in his childhood - from taking part in the dance, he was a part of it, in spiritual communion with the dancers; his skill upon his instrument bound him to the company of his more active fellows and insured him against the solitude of isolation.

. . .

It was not until my second summer in Graneen, that is, until I had been in residence one year, that it occurred to me that I ought to invite my neighbours to a dance, by way of a most belated house-warming. A general invitation was issued through Brigid, who passed it on to whomever she thought fit.

When the night came, I sat along awaiting my guests. A huge fire filled the open stone hearth. My two wicker chairs and four long wooden benches were ranged about the whitewashed walls, leaving the centre of the stone floor clear for dancing. Upon the kitchen table, covered with my brightly hued rug of Donegal weave, was the largest of my lamps, in which I was using the last of a little oil I had hoarded; a portable wireless set relaying dance music from a British station; a mountain of this bread and butter on a plate; and cups and saucers in which cocoa would later be served.

Half an hour after the time at which my guests had been invited, there were many footsteps in the darkness outside the open door. No one spoke. I discerned a ring of shy faces hovering near the doorway. A moment later Brigid's earth-coloured old visage appeared in the full lamp-light.

"Shall we come in, sirr?"

"Why, of course, Brigid. I'm glad to see you all."

She was arrayed in her Sunday best, that his, her bulky body was covered from neck to ankle in the self-made and self-designed black sateen garment that was a cross between a dress, a toga and a shroud, and her hobnailed boots, which she wore working in the fields, had given way to the black rubber-soled gym shoes. She had her usual plaid handkerchief over her hair as a protection from the wind and rain. Immediately behind her came her son and daughter, then Joe, and finally eight or ten others, with most of whom I was in one degree or another acquainted. The men all turned their cloth caps round on their heads as they entered, for they had been wearing them reversed in order that the peaks should prevent the rain from running down the back of their necks. Both men and women fought shy of the two wicker chair, although they were nearest the fire, and made for the comfort of the hard wooden benches, to which they were used. Eventually, seeing that the chairs would be deserted, and finding it impossible to wheedle any of my guests into them, I sat down in one myself, and Brigid, partly to help me out and partly to show off before the others the intimate standing she had with me, lowered herself gingerly into the other.

For a time I allowed my radio to continue playing, assuming that it would have the interest of a novelty. There are many wireless sets in the Donegal highlands, but not in the valley of Graneen where the people are too poor to afford them, and whenever I passed any of them, working in a field or on a turf stack, I would be asked for the latest news about the war. I was greatly surprised therefore when, after a short time, the general curiosity was satisfied and attention began to wander. As a ballon d'essai, I suggested to Wee Manus should play for us on his violin. Brigid, who was quietly proud of his musical accomplishments, at once supported this suggestion, as did the rest of the company. After a great deal of pressure, Wee Manus was prevailed upon to rest his crutch against the wall and to produce a cheap violin, lacking one string, from its case.

"Why, there's a string gone!" exclaimed his mother in well simulated surprise.

I knew that the string had been missing for the past three weeks, and that Wee Manus was unable to afford a replacement. I had meant to get him a new one, and had always forgotten when I had the opportunity.

His wide-peaked cap pulled down rakishly on his dark shock of hair, his dark eyes alight, his pale cheeks cadaverous, he rested his chin on the instrument, and presently a flow of catchy jigs and reels, played with a crude and simple art, filled the kitchen. The sophisticated music of the dance band was forgotten, the toes of the hobnailed boots rose and fell as they tapped on the flagstones, and soon after began to stamp in real earnest as I rose and led out Brigid in the first figure dance, and others, needing no further encouragement, followed.

Brigid, for all her seventy years and great weight, danced with an astonishing springiness. Her springiness was not that of a young girl, like Agnes, whose quick feet, when dancing a jig, scarcely seemed to touch the flags. Rather it was the larger slower rhythm of a well sprung ottoman, a massive elasticity, the dignified rise and fall of a heavy coach upon slender springs. Thus did Brigid's brown face and black sateen body bounce up and down before me as we danced a pas de deux. Later I danced with Agnes, whose hand, perspiring from much dancing, trembled a little at first in mine, and who always, between dances, sat with her feet together, her skirt drawn well over her knees, and her eyes modestly downcast, after the manner proper to a Graneen maiden. We danced many a High Caul Cap, the four of us, two men, two girls, circling first in one direction, then reversing and circling in the other, clasping and unclasping hands, man and girl linking arms and whirling like dervishes, the men stamping and shuffling on the flags with their boots to mark the rhythm, the pattern of dance simple enough to be soothing, while intricate enough not to be monotonous, repeated over and over again tirelessly, the dancers no more tireless than Wee Manus and his fiddle.

At length a pause for rest became necessary. I did not offer the refreshments I had prepared, the time not yet being ripe, for a dance in Graneen that ends before four or five in the morning is unthinkable, and we were still at the beginning of things. Songs and stories filled the gap. Brigid set the ball rolling. She sang, in a deep unmusical voice that wavered uncertainly between one key and another, a long badly rhyming ballad, containing lines often entirely meaningless and put in merely for the sake of the rhyme, relating the fortunes of a man who found himself married to a termagant. Do what this unfortunate fellow might, perform what menial tasks he could for her, there was no pleasing this frightful woman, and - thus ended each verse in a triumphant roar - there was "bound to be a row".

I put on her clothes each morning
And tie her stays right tight,
I oil and comb her hair
And fix her bun right nice.
She eat the meat, gives me the bones,
It doesn't look somehow
And if I dare to grumble,
Brigid threw back her wood-coloured face, her enormous sateen bosom rose and fell, and the rest of the company laughed with her, although they had heard the song a hundred times before, it being the only one she knew.
I wash my sheets and blankets
And shirts and socks I trow,
And if I don't was her as well
The company rocked, and would have been in immediate danger of falling off the narrow wooden benches, had they not had the walls to their backs.
She often goes to balls at night
And often stays till morning
While I must sit and nurse the kid
And wait till her returning.
She rings the bell, I let her in,
To that I must avow,
And if I ask her where she's been
. . .

"Come on, Joe," said Brigid briskly, "give us a dance."

Old Joe shook his head slowly. "I'm too stiff." He pronounced it "stuff".

"Ah, come on out of that. You know rightly you can dance a good jig."

Joe shook his head slowly. "I'm too stuff, d'you see."

. . .

After some further urging, and some further protestations that he was too stuff, Joe rose. The protestations had been only a matter of form. No such evening within living memory has been allowed to pass without a jig from Joe. Depositing her gnarled stick, without which, at any other time, he was never to be seen, beside Wee Manus, he took up a stance facing shyly towards one corner so that his back was turned on as much of the company as possible. Soon he was stamping away on the flags, his hands, no less gnarled than his stick, hanging by his sides; his boots making a confused shuffling rather than a well-marked tapping, for rheumatism has indeed made him stuff and reduced his agility; his quaint back, with its narrow drooping shoulders and long coat that hung half-way down the backs of his thighs, bobbing up and down; his baggy trousers to all appearances in immediate likelihood of collapsing around his ankles. From time to time, Brigid's deep voice interjected an encouraging "Good, Joe! Good, Joe!" and other voices did likewise.

Presently he stopped, exhausted. Never raising his eyes from the floor, he returned hastily to his seat, amidst general congratulations. Though bashful, he had no intention of dismissing the compliments absolutely. "Aye, I was a good dancer at one time. But I'm too stuff, d'ye see."

"You're a great dancer yet, then," said Brigid.

"He is indeed," I said, handing him a cigarette.

Joe, who ordinarily smoked nothing but his pipe, and who probably had not smoked more than half a dozen cigarettes in his life, took it gingerly. I held a match to it and he began at once to draw violently, as though it was a pipe he was lighting up. He continued to smoke it at a tremendous rate, keeping it in his mouth and drawing violently, so that in no time an enormous length of grey ash formed, and presently began to fall till his clothes were liberally besprinkled.

"Did ye ever see the clap dance?" said Brigid to me. "Pat will show you. Go on, Pat."

Pat needed no further invitation. He drew his son, a youth of sixteen with a perfectly flat nose and a hedge of hair that stood straight up from his forehead, with him into the centre of the floor. The dance consisted in the main of clapping the hands together and against those of the other dancer. Pat, an enormous fellow, six foot three in height and with vast shoulders, dressed in a blue serge suit and a peaked cloth cap, hurled, rather than threw, himself into the dance. He struck out at the palms of his son's hands with fury, till I almost imagined he intended him physical injury, notwithstanding the grin set on his face. This grin in itself was an intimidating affair, for there were many gaps in his large strong teeth, and, together with the rakish set of his cap on his dark shock of hair, it served only to heighten his wild appearance. I happened to have moved to a bench, and after the dance he came and sat beside me. He told me that he had worked in a Scottish mine; plainly he had come over to exchange experiences, as between one man who had seen foreign parts and another. He walked with the same gusto as he danced, and when he gesticulated I involuntarily shrank back. His terrific size, terrific voice, and the terrific energy with which he did everything, gave him the air of a good-natured cyclone. . . .

He began now to entertain the company with a song. He sang it in a powerful foghorn of a voice. Though I often subsequently heard him render it, I was never able to make out more than the first line, which was, "She was only an admiral's daughter." There was something dismally nautical in the very way he sang it, suggestive of a fog at sea and the muffled wailing of sirens. He would start on a soft low note, and rise towards the end of the line in a dismal crescendo, or howl, "She was only an admiral's daugh-ter." I was intensely curious to know what had happened ultimately to the lady, and could only surmise that she had a dreary end, probably by drowning. When he had finished singing, he produced a crumpled newspaper from his pocket and began to read it in the same powerful yet muffled voice, possibly brought about by the loss of so many teeth. The company, however, was not in the mood for politics, and no one listened to him, only pausing politely when he made some observation on the news, to say "Aye", and resuming the conversation immediately. This disturbed him not at all, nor he them.

At two o'clock in the morning, I handed round refreshments. There was enough and to spare, but no one could be prevailed upon to accept a second slice of bread. In Graneen, it is not polite to press food upon your guests with the utmost energy, and equally it is not polite not to refuse a second helping with as much. It is the courtesy between a poor guest and a poor host. At five o'clock, they took their leave. At ten o'clock the same morning I found a sack of very much overgrown turnips, from Joe's field, on my doorstep. In Graneen, they do not, as a measure of economy, dig up their vegetables until they have attained the utmost size that nature will permit. Not for them are considerations of gastronomic quality, nor vitamins and other factors of food value. They concern themselves with quantity, and know nothing of quality.

The turnips were Joe's way of saying thank you.

Sean Dorman, Valley of Graneen, Sketches of Donegal, 1944

The Set Dancing Anthology continues in Volume 1.

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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